Friday, February 27, 2015

Things that keep me warm

Today is the 15th consecutive day that this city I moved to in order to escape from the frozen tundra has been under an "extreme cold weather alert." This month has been the coldest on record. Well, the joke may be on me, but at least I'm well equipped by my long residence in the northernmost North-American city with over 1 million inhabitants to deal with cold, and keep myself healthy and sane. So here's a list of things that I do (or aim to, or think of doing, or flatter myself I'll be doing when more time will be on hand):

- browse food blogs for cold-weather recipes
- yoga (this is the most aspirational part of the list, really)
- use my SAD lamp regularly
- surf style websites and blogs to vicariously enjoy living in cities where street style is actually possible
- read or listen to multiple books concurrently, according to mood
- read reviews of CanLit books, or of great books generally, so I can make lists like this one for the future
- watch Downton Abbey
- plan my spring wardrobe
- go for runs every Sunday (and promise myself religiously I will find at least another day in the week for a run)
- make lunch dates with friends
- knit (I'm almost done the sweater I started in September)

Knitting as procrastination

All the while, I also alternate at despairing of and completely ignoring the pile of marking that seems to spawn newly every hour. Whenever that happens, I just go and pick the easiest element on the list and have at it until guilt overcomes me. At that point, I decide to be responsible, and pick another line from the list for variation. I am a master procrastinator.

And you? What are your (extreme) cold-weather recipes for survival? Please share your food-/style-/cartoon-/[insert favourite procrastination method here] blogs or sources, so we can all refresh our bookmarks.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Hack the field: Anthologies and Textbooks

This is a post about how to use anthologies and textbooks to jump into a new field, or make better sense of one you're in.

I had my bi-weekly meeting with one of my PhD supervisees, Phil, yesterday. He had a question about reading for his area exams, to wit: read the anthologies first or last? and how?

My answer: textbooks and anthologies are incredibly useful orientation materials, that can get you from zero to expert awfully fast, and you should read them first. These materials are very useful when you are a grad student moving from taking courses to settling into field. They are also very useful when you are an instructor being assigned courses that are not in that one field you're an expert in (which is to say, every instructor, ever). They are also very useful to more seasoned researchers, who are bracing out into new fields.

Here's the analogy I worked on yesterday. My house is currently being renovated and we're living in the house of sabbaticant friends. So it's a moving metaphor.

Your scholarly understanding of a given field (say, in this case, new media studies) is a new house that you're moving into. But you're moving in sight unseen: you're standing in the front hall, and while you can see some stairs, and maybe a closet, you kind of don't know much else. The materials of the field--the prior research, the theories, the methods--are packed boxes sitting outside in a big truck whose size is obscured: it's backed up right to the door and all you can see is the ramp to drag the boxes out from.

This is where you start from: a lot of unknowns, and a lot of mess. This is pretty overwhelming, but you chose to move here, so you're at least motivated.

It gets worse. You start dragging boxes out of the car / van / truck and into the entryway. They're not labelled, so you start opening them randomly: kitchen stuff, more kitchen stuff, yet more kitchen stuff, a box of underwear, and one box that has Christmas decorations and tax receipts from 1995. And a garbage back of ripped pants. You have to start guessing: are all the boxes going to have this same type / ratio of stuff? Where should I put it all? The kitchen stuff should go in the kitchen, but whose underwear is this, and where should it go? Are the Christmas decorations and tax receipts meant to stay together, or was this the Box of Leftover Stuff? Are those pants actually garbage? Or are they moving clothes?

This is where we all get when we start reading in a new field / prepping a course in a new area: we collect a bunch of resources but have trouble making sense of how they fit together and how they're meant to be used. The boxes are monographs and scholarly articles: so many complete statements that we imagine somehow relate to each other but we're not sure how. We just keep on reading in a straight line and hope we figure it out before entryway fills up with torn open boxes. This is completely overwhelming, and where many of us get stuck and open the case of beer (moving) or the case of red wine (studying / prepping). You just keep opening boxes with no sense of scale or purpose and you have nowhere to put them once they're open.

Here's the thing: anthologies and textbooks are like the blueprints to the house, or the packing list for the moving truck--they are maps and systems of organization that allow you to get a sense of the whole before you even really know much about the individual parts.

When you don't know how to get where you're going, you get a map. When you want to know if the queen-sized bed will fit in your new bedroom, you look at the real estate spec sheet. When you want to know about how science fiction studies works, get an anthology, or a textbook.

I've just pulled the Companion to Science Fiction (Steed, ed.) off my shelf. It's from a big academic publisher (Blackwell) that puts out very well regarded field-spanning anthologies. So it's trustworthy. It's got five parts: one a survey of the field, one on topics and debates, one on genres and movements, one on international (non-US, it looks like) science fiction, one on key writers, one with interpretive essays dealing with key science fiction texts. Just browsing the table of contents, I can get a pretty good idea of how the field organizes itself. Better, the essays are written by a huge number of prominent scholars, so I'll know who to look for in my further research. The eight page introduction chapter summarizes the book and the field at a breathtaking pace and at a high altitude.

The idea is that by browsing these summary or collection texts at the start of your research projects, you can begin the process of integration of new material a lot more smoothly: once I open three more kitchen boxes, I can expect that eventually I'll find some boxes of clothes, and some books, and bathroom things--it's probably not going to be all Christmas decorations and tax receipts. I might even learn that tax receipts can be thrown out after seven years and just discard those out of hand. I'll know there's three bedrooms in the house, and to be thus on the lookout for three mattresses as I unpack.

I'm really pushing all my students to glean what they can from the pretext, from my first years to my senior grad students: what can you learn from the TOC, from the author's affiliations, from the issuing press, etc. All this information helps make the real content more graspable and more easily categorized and made useful.

So now I'm sharing that with you. This needs some refining, but I wanted to share it while it was still fresh.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Slowing Down

It's mid-semester. We're all a little tired, cold, and overworked. Today, as I race against yet another dissertation deadline and feverishly inscribe as many mid-semester tasks as possible into my dayplanner, I want to take a moment and remind us all to......:

Here's some Rothko for ya. Click on the image. It'll help.

I used to be such a daydreamer, and those moments of thinking and reflecting and just sitting on the couch, staring into space, or going for long walks in the neighborhood, allowed my mind to wander and explore in a way that is becoming increasingly unavailable now that I'm constantly scrolling through my iPhone, oh that accursed piece of wondrous technology.

The Bored and Brilliant project begun by New Tech City has been asking listeners to think hard about our relationship to our devices, now that 58% of American adults own a smartphone. Our smartphones make us connected and entertained, NTC observes, but also dependent and addicted. (I write this as someone who has, on multiple occasions, worried that probably this person is really very angry with me--or, worse, annoyed or indifferent--because he/she has not responded to my text from three hours ago. AND I SAW THE BUBBLES.) At the risk of sounding like a crotchety luddite, I'd suggest that in this digital world, we are losing the capability of being idle; and "idle minds lead to reflective, creative thoughts," according to this project and the research behind it. How often, during a spare moment, do you fill your mental space by grabbing your phone and scrolling through Facebook or Twitter? When was the last time you let your mind wander? When was the last time you got lost in a work of art, or just freewrote for a few minutes--about anything? Or just sat with your eyes closed, headphones in? (Spotify has some great mood playlists; I'm partial to "Deep Focus").

I want to emphasize that I'm not advocating for slowing down primarily because it will, ultimately, increase your productivity when you speed up again. Such mentality feeds into a neoliberal need to produce, and to serve the all-consuming academic system to which we are hopelessly bound. You should slow down for you, because you are awesome and have cool, creative, independent thoughts that don't always need to overlap with academia or the primary work you do. Because "academic" is not the sum-total of your identity. Because this is not about productivity, this is about self-care.

Related to the power of boredom is the "power of patience" (article of the same title here), and decelerating can constitute part of our classroom practices as well. Harvard art historian Jennifer L. Roberts believes that educators should "take a more active role in shaping the temporal experiences" of students, learning to guide practices of "deceleration, patience, and immersive attention."* Exercises that require students to slow down, to meditate on the material at-hand and allow it to open up to them in its singularity, counter that which in the eyes of some critics has become a modern impulse toward distraction, shallow reflection, and superficial thinking. Roberts in particular requires her students to position themselves in a museum and gaze at a work of art for a veeery long period of time (though I have to say that three hours seems a little excessive...), reflecting on their experience afterwards. Colleagues of mine have had success with this exercise, and I look forward to trying it with my students in March. Do you have any other thoughts on how to guide the temporal experiences of our students, and encourage them to practice creative idleness?

So, feminist friends, let this be a reminder to you to slow down today, even just for 10 minutes. And the night-owl in me is going to practice what I'm preaching right this moment and head to bed.

*For this article, as well as the "slow looking" exercise that accompanies it, I am thoroughly indebted to Julie Orlemanski; thanks, Julie, for a particularly generative--and generous--Facebook post!

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The #Alt-Ac Job Search 101: Figuring Out What Else to Do

In the spirit of Aimee's academic how-to series, I'm consolidating past posts and generating new ones that will form a complementary how-to series on the #alt-ac job search and career. It should be noted that I'm not a career services professional, and you should seek those out at your institution, but my advice is informed both by my own experience and by the work I do with people in career services and coaching for graduate students.

Today, we're starting from the beginning: once you decide not to go on the tenure-track (or not to finish the PhD, or to look for both academic and non-academic jobs), how do you figure out what the heck to do next?

The data on academics in non-academic careers is very clear: we don't have a hard time getting into them. Despite the very limited amount of non-academic career support currently built into graduate studies, PhDs do very well at finding jobs outside of academia. With only 18.6% of us in full-time academic teaching jobs (and that includes contract work), the other 81.4% of us are finding our way into something else. And we're doing it well--PhD holders have the lowest unemployment rate of any group of Canadians. But if you've been told, over and over, that you're developing the skills to do precisely one thing--become a professor--and you stop thinking about other careers, it can be difficult, even intimidating, to start figuring out what other things you can and would like to do. Where do you start?

Whenever someone asks me this question, I refer them to So What Are You Going to Do With That?: Finding Careers Outside Academia, which is now in its third edition. (My university carries So What as an e-book, and many career centres also have copies to borrow.) Written by Susan Balsalla and Maggie Debelius, PhDs themselves who now work inside and outside academia, So What covers a host of the topics to which new PhD job seekers might need an introduction: translating skills gained in academia into terms that employers can understand and value, career counselling, interview etiquette, etc. All of So What is highly useful, but of particular value are the self-assessment exercises that ask you to figure out what it is you really like about academia--the skills you like exercising, the activities you like doing--and then help you see other industries and positions that would allow you to do the things you like doing more. In my case, I figured out that what I really liked was non-academic/theoretical writing, mentorship, research that had use-value, and work that was aimed at helping others rather than myself. Perhaps my favourite thing about So What is the way it helps PhDs realize that there are a number of careers that might suit their strengths and interests better than being a professor, and the way it helps them identify what those careers are. For me, it helped me see that I might like to be a grant writer, or a counsellor, or what I am now, which is a graduate professional skills coordinator and research administrator--which suits me and my strengths better than being a tenured professor likely would have.

Another resource I recommend for people doing the fundamental work of figuring out what they could do next is Strengthsfinder 2.0. (My university library also has this one as an ebook, and yours might too.) Although not aimed at an academic audience, Strengthsfinder offers a more robust sf diagnostic and analytic tools than So What that are aimed at helping you figure out what you're good at doing and what jobs would let you do those things. The book is complemented by online testing that generates reports about talents and strengths you might want to explore in more depth, testing I found both accurate and helpful. One of the many challenging (and awesome) things about moving into an #altac career is the flexibility and openness of the non-tenure career path; the challenging part is keeping an eye on where you are and where you're headed, and assessing if those two things still match up with what you want from a career. Occasionally redoing the tests from Strengthsfinder (and So What) is a useful way to see how my skill set has changed as I've learned and developed on the job, and to assess where I'm at in my career development.

The last thing I'd suggest for people trying to figure out what to do after they're done is finding the unit at your university that keeps track of what PhDs are doing after they graduate. Some graduate programs--more and more of them--are tracking the post-degree placement of everyone who graduates from their program with a PhD, whether they're going into a tenure-track job or not. Alumni or advancement offices also often keep track of what PhD alumni are doing, and can often provide you with that information, or put you in touch with people in your field. Many universities, through graduate programs, the Career Centre, or the Faculty of Graduate Studies, put on regular career panels featuring PhD alumni in non-academic jobs. However you find the information, see if you can figure out what people with your degree, in your field, are doing now. PhD transition stories, like those that Jennifer Polk collects in her blog From PhD to Life, are also a good resource. It can be difficult to find out what PhDs in non-academic jobs are doing, simply because universities have tended to track only t-t placement rates, although universities are realizing the necessity of collecting this kind of data and large-scale post-PhD tracking projects are getting underway. But it's a lot easier to figure out what you might want to do, what you could do with your degree, if you know what others who were once in the same boat are doing.

Next up, we'll talk about what to do once you've figured out a job or industry (or a few) that you might be interested in and that might suit you: the informational interview, also known as research.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015


So here's something you may not know about me: I suffer periodically from insomnia--and by that I mean that I suffer pretty dramatically, sometimes for days, sometimes for weeks, sometimes for months. This is an affliction linked, in my case, to anxiety, and it's pretty common among academics.

The miserable thing about being insomniac is that you are in fact bone tired--but you can't sleep. You wake up at 3am and can't get back to sleep, so you turn on the light, and try to read, but you're so exhausted your eyes cross and you're not retaining any information. So you turn off the light and curl up: but you can't stop your mind from racing. So you turn on the light and try to read ...

I took up yoga to deal with this. And meditation. I cut out caffeine after 1pm. I make before bed to-do lists to rid my mind of its calendaring demons. I restrict my academic writing and research to daylight hours so I don't get too excited before bed. I dim the lights, I drink herbal tea, I take prescribed sleeping meds and off-label pharmaceuticals on an as-needed basis. Sometimes I self-medicate with Forty Creek Copper Barrel Reserve, 1 oz. Or a dry martini, right before bed.

But sleep often eludes me, still.

Insomnia is an invisible disability. I find it impossible to do creative or scholarly work when I'm sleep-deprived. I can grade (slowly, inefficiently) and I can go to meetings (groggily) and write emails (proofreading twice). Then I feel terrible about not working, which leads to more insomnia, and even more not working.

Insomnia is incredibly humbling. Neither brute force, nor will power, nor good intentions, nor even some pretty good drugs can make sleep happen--the links between mind and body are powerful and intense and won't be denied. This is a good lesson to remember.

I suspect many of you suffer from insomnia as well. What do you do to manage? Right now I'm trying to be kind to my insomnia, to ask it what it is trying to tell me, what part of my life is not fitting well right now, and how I might be kinder to myself to resolve it. I'm trying to eat better and not drink too much, to get enough exercise, and ask my family to let me nap when I need it.

But it's important to note that one of the reasons I have insomnia is because of this job, this life of the mind: sometimes my ideas scare me so much that I can't let them go, for fear of losing them. Sometimes, the deadlines pile up and I worry I won't meet them. Sometimes before talks I worry for weeks not about not being ready but about not being good enough. Since I've taken up my administrative role in my department I worry about the drip drip drip of forms to sign, things to check up on, meetings to remember to attend, deliverables I've forgotten I've promised, hard cases, tough decisions, all the emails. The work is not bounded by location or time; it is never done, and it could always be done better, or more or faster. My insomniac periods peaked when I was on the job market, the year I came up for tenure, and the year I began my administrative job. The academy always wants more, and we A+ students will always try to give more, even if we don't have it, and feel like we're failing.

And so it goes. Until I figure it out again, for now, how to fall asleep and stay asleep, if I pass you in the halls or on the internet and don't say hi, it's because I'm concentrating so hard on staying upright I probably just can't see you.

Sweet dreams.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Mid-winter, mid-semester

Today is one of those days. You know them, I'm sure. One of those days in which all the things that used to work clamour in your head to be tried out, "me! me! me!", insisting on their past efficacy. One of those days in which you read your friends' brilliant posts on standing strong, and rejoicing in winter attire, and the wafts of healthy comfort food, and think to yourself: that! But that requires action, and somehow the will has dissipated, failing to be revived even by the shining sun. One of those days in which theory, lists, possibilities, all remain abstract, even idealistic. Because life. Because mid-winter. Because mid-semester.

And you also know that these days have to be, needling at you, nagging ceaselessly to parade your failure to walk the talk. But you only feel frozen, incapable to act on the what you know with your brain, and your heart, and your muscles. Days like today require no advice, no lists, no self-improvement attempts. They want acknowledgement, acquiescence. These days have to be, because they're part of being, of winter, of life. They need not be banished, but experienced. You breathe through them, you let them wash over you. You be.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Do What You Love, Part Deux

Y'all know that I'm totally not into the "do what you love" thing. Not when it means that people, as Erin so eloquently articulated on Monday (and in Rabble!), do what they love at the expense of their present and future wellbeing. At least in part, DWYL is what keeps people trapped in jobs they love in systems that exploit and wear them down. It breaks my heart to see people I love trapped in this cycle, knowing that the solution is either to give up the job that they're so very very good at, or find a way to fix a system that is very very broken. It's February, and I have the SADs, and Erin says it better than I ever can, so I'm going leave that all alone and talk about the other kind of "do what you love." And that's doing things that you love, hang the academy (and our workaholic culture generally) that says we should only think and work and do.

Screw that, frankly.

Y'know what I'm doing right now? I'm sitting on the couch with my love under an HBC blanket watching Chef. We ate dinner together at the dining room table, no work allowed. I had wine, on a Wednesday. On my way to and from work today (and at lunch for awhile too) I read M.F.K. Fisher's With Bold Knife and Fork, book thirteen on the food writing comprehensive list I've set for myself this year. I should have done a PhD in food writing, but I'm making up for it now. On Friday night, I had belated bachelorette party that reminded me how much fun it is to just dance. On Sunday, I spent most of the day in the kitchen, alternating between the stove and some articles I was editing. I made Marcella Hazan's tomato-butter sauce (the best recipe ever, no exaggeration), poached pears with cardamom and orange, a giant pear bundt cake for my co-workers, beluga lentils with garlic and bay, an orange root vegetable soup spiked with vermouth and zata'ar, coffee ice cream, and Food52's genius oven fries (which really are genius). We're eating really well this week--pears with greek yogurt and muesli for breakfast, soup with lentils for lunch, and veggie meatball sandwiches with tomato sauce and provolone for dinner--without having to think about it, because I did all that thinking on Sunday. I get up early and start work an hour late so that I can write before I head to the office, but I also spend 20 of those minutes meditating and 10 minutes drinking coffee and hanging out with Moose for his daily "chair time."

Moose + his people + the living room carpet he thinks we bought just for him = happy cat. 

It's telling, though, that I still feel the need to write what comes next, to justify doing the things that light me up: I write, every single day. I work hard at the office, and we get a lot done. My side research and publishing projects are all well in hand. I'm presenting at a conference every weekend but one in May. I love that stuff. But it's important to note that I love it in ways that I didn't, or couldn't, when I was labouring under the delusion that to do anything other than meet the demands of the academy was a waste of time. I wanted an #altac job at least in part because I wanted more of this--more of the revelling in a fridge full of things I'd made myself, more of delicious prose about meals eaten sixty years ago, more time with my guys, more control over my life. Almost without realizing, I got it. 

I treasure the people, the very many of my friends, who are so committed to their teaching, to their students, that they're willing to do whatever it takes--teaching at three schools, going without an office or medical benefits, being on EI over the summer, living apart from their partners--to do what they love. But I also marvel at the power of the academy, the draw of that culture and its privileging of a single kind of love and worth, that makes me feel like the outlier in making the choices I have about work and life. I don't know where that gets us, but it's something I think about a lot. 

What about you, dear readers? How do you make room for doing what you love? What choices, easy or hard, have you made to get to keep doing what you love, at work or out? 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Facing the wind

It's mid-semester and the accumulated unfinished business of weeks 1 through 6 have piled up as the same time that the end-crush of anticipated grading for semester's end looms. As graduate officer, right now is possibly the worst time of year, work-wise: I've got more than a hundred applications to review, as well as four or five separate funding competitions to adjudicate with the committee. I just went away to Michigan to give a talk and attend an incredibly exiting one day seminar squarely lined up with exactly what I'm working on. Then I took my daughter to Florida (for three days) to see my parents. I have another talk, in Pennsylvania, in less than three weeks. There's a dissertation on my desk from a committee I'm on, and two of my students have proposals in front of me.

The weather is cold, and dark, and damp and, along with all the piles of work, cues "hibernation."

This is the time of year I tend to panic, freak out, and go into denial. But I'm going to try something different this year. Check out this Royal Tern, which I snapped in Everglades National Park last week:

I have an awesome hairdo.
The guide on the tour told us that Royal Terns always face into the wind. And as we looked around we could see them all on posts, pointing their beaks right into the headwind.

Look, this storm I'm in now is just kind of situation normal in this job. Panicking, hiding, and hibernating are not going to solve my piles-of-work problem. I'm going to try pointing my beak into the wind and just braving it.

For me, that looks like writing down a to-do item every time I have a panicked thought, or a deadline I forgot bubbles up to the surface. I carry my notebook with me EVERYWHERE and jotting stuff down as I think of it both concretizes and organizes the work I have to do. Everywhere:

To-do list and Margarita scale distorted for comic effect

I'm making lists of things I need to grade. Lists of assessment criteria for admissions. Lists of committee meeting dates and times. Lists of travel arrangements that need making. Facing into the headwind of a rapidly advancing semester.

How do you keep from collapsing at mid-semester? Is some kind of hibernation strategy useful to you? (I put my pyjamas on the minute I get home from work: that helps.) Or do you face the wind straight on?

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

My Uniform

My wardrobe has shifted significantly over the last few years to align with changes in my work and personal life. 

The birth of my daughter, reduced flexibility in the time I spend at home and at work, increasing time in the classroom, and of course the never-ending to-do lists of conferencing, dissertation-writing, and researching--all these increasing responsibilities have meant I have much less time and flexibility in my mornings, less energy to spend purchasing new clothes, and more in need of flexible and streamlined routines. 

With less time to make decisions about what items to pair, and even less to purchase new wardrobe items, I've found myself wearing tried and true combinations of clothing, my own set way of dressing that is a safe go-to every day. Instead of gravitating towards new, unfamiliar or untested items, I found myself wearing and purchasing the same-old, same-old: my uniform.

By necessity, I've drastically simplified what I wear. 

By chance, I've found that I love it.

There's something remarkably freeing about wearing and purchasing the same type of clothing. Instead of the time-suck of trial-and-error combinations, there's the ease of the comfortable and familiar. Rather than money wasted on items bought and never worn, there are multiple similar items that I know I'll love.

In teaching months, I often wear a black dress or black skirt, usually paired with a beige or black cardigan or blue collared shirt, with black tights (usually fleece-lined for our cold Edmonton winters) and cognac-brown or black boots. Sometimes I swap out the basic black dress for black and white stripes, or dark blue, or the skirt for black pants. A long gold necklace is my main accessory. If it's warmer, I'll exchange the boots for beige flats; if it's colder, I'll wear fur-lined sorels and a scarf. It's the most comfortable, neutral, and flattering outfit I've personally come up with, and it works in a variety of situations. In the classroom, I look like an instructor. At a conference, I'm a presenter or attendee. At the coffee shop, I look like I'm a person who drinks coffee.

With wearing what I know has worked, I've also found I project more authority. Perhaps it's the confidence of simply knowing that I'm wearing something that works well; perhaps it's the fact that the items I dress in tend to be neutral basics, which evoke simple sophistication.

Primarily, though, duplicating my favourite closet staples and wearing a uniform has meant eliminating stress and anxiety. With less time spent on getting ready in the morning, I find I have more time and mind space to focus on other, more important things: my work; my family.

Have you streamlined any elements of your daily routines? In what ways has it made your life more simple and easy to manage?

Monday, February 9, 2015

Dear Contract Academic Faculty,

I see you.

No no, don't worry, I'm precariously employed too, so my seeing you won't change your employment.   I can't do anything for you, though I would if I could. You don't need to look like you're working any harder than you already are just because I am looking in your direction. But know this: I see you. And you matter.

I see you, prepping for your classes every night until midnight (or later). I know you're teaching more than regular faculty, because that's how contracts work at your institution. I know you have six or more classes per year and that not a one of them is a repeat. And I know you're working to make the lectures good, the material innovative and inspiring, and the discussions life-altering even though you're struggling to get the reading done and the assignments graded.

I see you, teaching a class at this campus, and getting in your car or on public transit or in a carpool to make it across town/ across the city/ into the valley/ into another city/ to the next campus in time to teach the next group of students. And I see you try and smile when you do it.

I see you, trying to jam research into the corners of your life that aren't filled with prep for class.

I see you, not producing research, because there's no time, or no money, or the very real understanding that maybe, just maybe, there's no point.

I see you, taking on the book reviews, the peer reviews, the jury duties. And yes, I get it. I do it too, because it feels good to be asked. Because it feels good to participate in the profession. Because it can go on the CV. Because it means someone else sees you too. And yes, I know that you likely kick yourself for saying yes at least some of the time, because isn't that feeding the imbalanced system? But I see you, because you care about the material. Because community. Because CV.

I see you, carrying your students's assignments in your bag because you have no office/ share an office/ would rather meet in the library than try to schedule time at your shared desk.

I see your students call you "Miss" or by your first name even though you've asked to be called by your professional title.

I see those teaching evaluations--the quiet devastation they can bring--either by being better than the department average, or worse.

I see you, writing reference letters for students applying to for study abroad programs, to be residence dons, to get into graduate programs, for colleagues going up for tenure and promotion, and I know: it might be hard to figure out where to print the letters, because I know you don't have access to photocopiers, scanners, printers, or, heck, hard copy letter head. Not all the time. Likely not after hours when you can do this work.

I see you, meeting with students on your own time or in office hours to talk about their plans for graduate school. I see you waffle, because you still care, because you believe in the work you do even though you're being shut out, made provisional, living precariously. I see you do it anyway, and do it well.

I see you say no. I know what it costs you, that small action of agency, that protection of your time. I know that "no" is meant to be a proactive word for you, and I know the second-third-and-fourth guessing that accompanies every decision to use it.

I see you, applying for your own position. And I see you not get it, sometimes.

I see you, applying for postdoctoral fellowships, for grants, and asking for adjunct status if that grant is successful. I see you working extra, because the grant means you can do the work you love, and because the grant would mean that maybe, just maybe, you've got some leverage (but not a living wage). I see you wobble, because a successful grant may not end up meaning shit.

I see you, competing against your peers, your friends, your acquaintances for the one or two jobs in your area. I see you, writing those letters of application cringing at the lack of research, or, conversely, wondering if this time your well-rounded application will make it to the top. Or, if it matters, because maybe there is another contract academic faculty member who is the inside candidate, and it doesn't matter. I see your frustration, and I want to say: it's ok. We all want to be the inside candidate, even though we know that doesn't always work out either.

I see the unfairness in the labyrinthine system in which we labour--or try to labour.

I see that you're tired. I see that you're trying. I see you, working so hard to be able to work.

You have more agency than you think, though its hard to think when you're so busy or heartsick.

I see that these thoughts break your heart, and I see you wonder if it shows, if other people notice that you do still carry that little spark of hope that things will change.

Things will change, though they may not look they way you thought they would. We need to leave. And we need to stay, but under different working conditions. We need to organize ourselves, despite the extra work that requires. We can do it. We're resourceful. We care. We can draw on the will and support of tenured colleagues and on organizations such as ACCUTE and CAUT and we can do something, though it won't happen quickly. And, we can choose not to, we can choose to leave. And that is not a failure either.

But for now, dear CAF, know this: I see you. I care about you. I can't fix anything for you by myself, but know that you're not alone.



Ps. Thanks to Lily for the love letter inspiration.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

I Am Dayanara: Skill Building Through Role-Playing Games

On Sundays at 5:00 pm, I stop being Melissa and I become Dayanara. I’m a regular ol’ alt-academic from freezing Toronto who loves running and reading with a cat in her lap. Dayanara is the eldest daughter of an oasis-tribe chieftain in the deserts of Drujenna, her main job is international diplomacy and avoiding being kidnapped by bandits, and she wields a mean oaken staff. We don’t have much in common but our shared affection for caffeine and nice shoes, and that’s a big part of the reason why I love being her for a few hours every week.

Dayanara runs around with a pretty motley crew. There’s Owen, the burly enforcer with a usefully enhanced tolerance for pain (who is, amusingly, my gentle husband by day); Clodhopper, the inept keeper of the caravan’s inventories with a fondness for silly shoes; Lysander, the explorer and swordsman; Quisentus, his trusty sidekick of many hidden talents; Liesl, the not-terribly-perceptive tracker; and a host of other minor characters who appear and disappear as needed. And, of course, there’s the gamesmaster, who has ultimate say over the shape of our story and how our characters deploy their skills, talents, and possessions within the bounds of the story. At present, Dayanara has just worked with Lysander and the others to defeat a marauding group of banditti and is working, across a difficult language barrier, to communicate to these caravan-bound weirds what exactly she’s doing out in the desert.

When the six of us sit around my dining room table on Sunday night, if an outside observer were to ignore the dice and GURPS books everywhere, the scene might look not unlike any meeting that happens in or out of academia. There’s a lot of talk about what our goals and aims are, and what we can do to best achieve them. There’s a lot of compromise, either mandated by the role of the dice when you don’t have enough points to accomplish what you want to, or required by the gamesmaster, who places limits on what we can or cannot do in order to move the story in the right direction. There’s a “yes and” spirit not unlike in improv, where we all have to pay attention to what everyone else is doing and then try to move things forward by using their actions as a launching pad. And there’s a ton of collaboration, because most of the time all of our characters are doing something together, whether it’s talking, fighting, or strategizing, and we naturally understand that we’re more effective when we work in tandem.

It's going to seem like I'm going off on a tangent here, but I assure you that I'm not. The American Historical Association and the Scholarly Communications Initiative have both done work in the last few years to identify the essential skills that PhDs should possess in order to succeed careers in and out of academia. The results of AHA focus group studies with with potential employers, university faculty and administration, and PhDs beyond the academy was a list of four key skills:
  • Communication, the ability to communicate to a variety of audiences and in a variety of media
  • Collaboration, the ability to work collaboratively toward a common goal, especially with those who hold different opinions or values
  • Quantitative literacy, the ability to understand and engage with information in numeric form
  • Intellectual self-confidence, the ability to quickly master information and form intelligent opinions beyond one’s expertise and to pivot among many tasks
In surveys conducted with the employers of people with PhDs, the SCI aimed to identify what skills and experience PhDs were missing when they made the transition into a non-academic workplace. The overlaps with the AHA findings were significant:

But perhaps even more interesting were the skills that PhDs believed they gained in grad school, and the places where there was a serious mismatch between the training needed, and the skills acquired:

Doing a PhD, it seems, isn’t very good at teaching us how to collaborate--although it does seem to do a better job than PhDs think it does, based on the fact that only 54% of employers believed that their PhD-holding employees needed collaboration training, while 91% of PhD graduates believed they were lacking it. But do you know what is good at teaching collaboration and interpersonal skills? You guessed it--role-playing games.

This is not to say that RPGs could or should become part of the PhD curriculum anytime soon, but just as there can be value in creating a shadow resume of work that doesn’t make it onto the C.V. but help develop employment experiences and skills, there can be value in creating a section of the shadow resume devoted to extracurricular activities that likewise help to develop those skills. I’ve been in my altac job for long enough that I’ve got other collaborative experiences that I can point to in an interview, and plenty of practice in working collaboratively under my belt. But back when I was fresh from the PhD, and looking for a job without a whole lot of experience? Being Dayanara, and being able to point (if only to myself) to my ability to collaborate with others to get things done, would have gone a long way toward making me feel like I had the skills I needed to succeed in a non-professorial job. And, as a nice bonus, the work I do wrangling faculty and getting multi-partnered initiatives off the ground makes me better at RPGing. I don’t have any plans to stop turning into Dayanara when the clock strikes five, and it's nice to know that she and I are good for each other.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Guest Post: TA Reflections: Cat Photos are Relevant, Aren’t They?

At a September teaching assistant workshop organized by Dalhousie’s Centre for Learning and Teaching, one of the facilitators remarked that teaching shouldn’t be a performance.  While the person partially meant that teaching shouldn’t be about entertaining students or being seen as “cool” (if “coolness” is still an appropriate gauge, that is), their comment stuck with me as a general way of reflecting on teaching style.  At the end of the term and the beginning of a new one, I find myself re-evaluating my own style of delivery and wondering why I do what I do.

As a painfully shy introvert, I’ve been more than a little surprised to discover the energy I bring to the classroom.  Teaching 30 students in a tutorial?  No problem.  For someone who has been always terrified of speaking to an audience – even for my own coursework – teaching has been an uplifting experience.  It has shown me that I do have meaningful things to say and that I am more than capable of expressing them on the spot with lots of faces staring at me.  There are still lots of anxieties about whether I’m teaching effectively or feebly gesturing in the dark, and I still get jitters before a class.  But for the most part I really enjoy the challenge of interacting with my students and finding ways to communicate material so that they can find value in it.

Of course, being the over-thinker that I am, in my end of term inventory I’ve now been re-considering my classroom energy – is it more performance-based, stemming from a desire to entertain?  Or does it indicate a deeper level of participation in the classroom environment?  Am I too focused on getting a smile?  Or am I not really as interesting as I think I am?  I struggle with these questions about how I teach and how I am perceived by my students.  However, I tend to think that my surprising amount of classroom energy is less an issue of performance and more one of collaboration, and not solely because I’m terrible at acting.  If there isn’t some energy going on, things are going to be dead, and that’s not productive for anyone.  I can’t expect the students to have any real engagement with their learning if I don’t show my commitment to what they’re expected to study.  In short, energy demonstrates my interest in the material I’m teaching and my love for ideas, literature, and conversation; I take my tutorial duties seriously, and I also love interacting with students and their perspectives on the texts we read and the concepts that we cover.

One small way I try to communicate this energy and interest is through posting lots of pictures in my slides.  Photos of my darling cats in boxes? Lots.  Lolcats on grammar?  Check.  Shamelessly adorable photos of my parents’ golden retriever puppy?  Definitely. 

It’s not a coincidence that these photos are visual aids that break up the monotony of word-centred slides.  There are only so many text-based grammar examples that students can reasonably be expected to follow, otherwise the examples blur together and cease having relevant meaning.  I’m thus a huge believer in bringing in images, be they personal photos of my animal co-habitants or contemporary memes (one does not simply forget about pop culture references).  Of course, this could just be my attempt to amuse myself while teaching without any real benefit for my students.  But when I asked for mid-year feedback from my students, one of the things they consistently noted was how enjoyable the use of animal photos and other images were.  They really do find them useful – or at least memorable – and it’s comforting that amusing or striking examples can help boost learning retention.  And while I know there’s substantial debate about the effectiveness and utility of evaluations, as a new teacher I’m still figuring out to navigate student responses and gather input from them on how I teach.

In an ideal learning environment, I’d want my students to find the classroom enjoyable and critically stimulating; personal energy and images are a way to convey my engagement with what I’m teaching.  I take the material seriously enough to have fun with it, and I hope my students do, too.  This isn’t to say that the questions about how I teach will ever stop, but I trust that these questions indicate a desire to continually re-consider and improve my pedagogy rather than becoming trapped in stasis.

Brandi Estey-Burtt is a PhD student in the Department of English at Dalhousie University. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Rate My Gender: On Student Course Evaluations

Wanna know one of the things that worries me right now, as I draw ever closer to the end of my PhD? This.

You probably saw the article circulating a couple months ago, oh feminists. Slate recaps a recent study of an online course in a large public university in North Carolina that found that women are evaluated more harshly than men in student evaluations. 43 students were divided into four online discussion groups led by two professors, a male and a female--but the woman led one of her two groups to believe she was male, and the man led one of his two groups to believe he was female. The students never saw the face of their instructors, so had no reason not to believe them, and the instructors endeavoured to keep all variables as consistent as possible, submitting feedback concurrently and providing similar biographical information.

And guess whose ratings, ultimately, were the highest? Why, the perceived male, of course, irrespective of the instructor's actual gender. Even in such non-personality-related issues as promptness of feedback. Their official report, "What's in a Name: Exposing Gender Bias in Student Ratings of Teaching" (Innovative Higher Education (Dec. 2014)), details how, for example, the perceived male received 4.35 out of 5 for promptness, but "when the same two instructors posted grades at the same time as a female, it was considered to be a 3.55 out of 5 level of promptness. In each case the same instructor, grading under two different identities, was given lower ratings half the time with the only difference being the perceived gender of the instructor" (10). Same went for the category of fairness, even though both instructors used the same grading rubrics and there was no major difference in grades across the groups. Overall "[t]hese findings support the argument that male instructors are often afforded an automatic credibility in terms of their professionalism, expertise, and effectiveness as instructors" (10).

Sigh. Okay. Cool. Other (older) research has shown that women sometimes receive higher ratings than men when they fulfill feminine stereotypes of being nurturing, accessible, available, warm,, welcoming, personable; while, at the same time, exhibiting 'masculine' characteristics, like being distant, unavailable, and authoritative, can cause ratings to drop (and students are more forgiving if the same characteristics are displayed by men. Y'know, because men are more serious and shit). And if you're still not convinced, see also this study, which shows that female instructors face bias in larger courses, exacerbating the gender gap in academia as larger lectures send to result in more opportunities for promotion, hiring, and awards (I have no doubt that some of my fellow bloggers and readers have some stories in this regard). 

Of course, I have personal reasons for feeling embittered by this problem in this moment. You ready? Fall 2014 semester course evals!! (insert string of confetti and horn emojis) Yeah, those happened in the last couple weeks. Okay...can I just say that for my age and level of experience, I am a good professor? I know I am. I am very, perhaps overly, devoted. It is possible that my exceeding availability to students in terms of office hours, email response, and individual attention fulfills the feminine nurturing stereotype, but I also know that this approach suits my personality: I love people, I love getting to know people, I love interacting with students and feeling I can build into their lives on a personal level (and I also have the luxury of personal interaction due to small class sizes). But I am also very awaaaaare that I am a thin, young well-dressed, myhusbandthinksImpretty female from Canada who gives off a "cool" and nice vibe, so I tend to combat the possible perception that I'm a softy by maintaining strict standards of grading, especially at the beginning of the semester, when I want to push students to take my class seriously and strive for improvement. Consequently, I receive some backlash, both immediate and longer term. As an example of immediate backlash, I present to you this bogus Rate My Professor rating, mostly because it is JUST. SO. FUNNY. (posted mid-sem; and yeah, I'm pretty sure I know who this was):

 Although I am ultimately perfectly happy to distribute As where As are deserved (and so grade for improvement throughout the course), and although I ran two great Composition I classes last semester, with bright and engaged students who demonstrated measurable improvement in their writing and with whom I had some fun, important, memorable, rigorous discussions about relevant topics like racism and feminism and social media and the TV series Scandal...the official evaluations are not that great. I mean, they're fine. But 50% of the students did not respond (aaaarrrghhhh), which of course, based on the Golden Rule of Yelp, means that the more disgruntled ones were more likely to respond in the first place, let alone provide detailed feedback. My courses were not perfect, obviously, and my pedagogical strategies have ample room for growth as I progress as a professor (fingers crossed), but there is a world of a disconnect between these mechanical numbers and scant comments, and the actual lived experience of being in the classroom.

Admittedly, a large factor at play may just be the response rate, as I received quite a bit of positive informal feedback (a number of students asked if I was teaching Comp II this semester so they could take me again, and I received a healthy smattering of lovely thank-you emails post-course, bless them). If I've learned one thing from this experience, it's that at the end of this semester, as I teach my first lit course, I am hella gonna sit those students in the classroom and make them fill out the evals in front of me, because it is clear they do not quite understand their import and can't be trusted to fill them out on their own.

But I have some reason to believe that some of my struggles with authority and with managing this masculinized "touch tough grader" perception relate to a gender bias in the academy. And hey, I'm going on the job market next year, so this isn't just about hurt feelings.


Do you have any stories about gendered student feedback that you'd be comfortable sharing in the comments? Or, what can be done about all this? Is there some way we can share such findings with our students without coming across as pandering? Or are the structural problems just rooted too deep?

Monday, February 2, 2015

A Love Letter to Peer Reviewers Everywhere

Dearest, loveliest, most gorgeous,

Are you surprised that I am beginning with terms of endearment even though we hardly know each other? But you and I know that you really are gorgeous. Oh yes, you. Don’t blush. This is not the time for bashfulness. It is true that I hardly know you. Indeed, chances are, if I walked past you in the street, I would not even know to say hi. But you should know that I am tipping my hat to you, even if I don’t really know you. Indeed, the crazy thing about our relationship is that it is almost completely dependent upon not really knowing you. Our relationship is at its best when I admire you from something of a distance – or at least from arm’s length. Anyways, enough was enough and it is high time I tell you how I feel.

I need you. Sorry to sound a bit clingy. But I really need you. I’m not even sure that ours is one of those healthy co-dependent relationships. Where would I be without you? Where would any of us (the tenured prof whose book is out with a university press, the precariat worker whose article is now happily out with that sweet little journal you never say on to, the graduate student with that first pub under her belt, the mid-career academic whose grant just bought her a little space and time to get that project together, the mildly totally desperate academic journal editor who is trying to usher through that one last piece so that the next issue can come out) be without you?

Did you come back from the winter break to an inbox full of “gentle reminders” for things that you had promised in a haze of exhaustion and a rush of nobility? Did you scramble to get all those grant apps assessed, those articles reviewed, that book manuscript evaluated? All while teaching your courses, writing reference letters, maybe pulling together a job app, or (in a slightly different version of peer review) reading lots of job apps files and so on, and so on, and so on. You did it, didn’t you? I know, you were pretty late with some of those. I know you felt bad. But the point is, you got that report in. You totally came through.

I know, sometimes it hurts.

Like when your words are referred to as fecal matter and perhaps taken out of context.

Or when you are depicted as a vicious sharp-toothed sea monster.

I get it. Our relationship would be nowhere without your brutal and unflinching honesty. Indeed, along with that arm’s length business, this brutal honesty is foundational to our relationship.

And I know, sometimes you just don’t feel seen, as though you are totally being taken for granted.

Like, when no one, not even the editor (you’ve given up expecting anything from the actual author because you realize, having been there, that it does feel a bit weird to acknowledge “the anonymous reviewers whose comments were so helpful yaddy, yaddy, ya”) who asked you for this thing in the first place, remembers to thank you.

Or when you write a ten-page, single-spaced review of a manuscript with detailed notes for revision, and then you see the thing come out in print and the author seems to have ignored everything you said.

Or when you told the editors that the ms was truly awful and should not be published only to see it out, with nary a comma moved, months later.

At times like these, you wonder why you bother with this relationship. It’s not for the money (hullo, unpaid and invisible labour? Sign you up!). You wonder if it makes you happy. You wonder why you can’t say no more. You wonder why the relationship feels so one-sided. You put out all this brilliance, and, at best, you get a pre-scripted thank you spit out from some OJS robot. You wonder how it is possible to feel so under-appreciated and so unloved. It’s not like anyone asks you how many pages of peer review reports you wrote this year as part of how they assess your “performance.” Certainly, your dean doesn’t pat you on the back and say, Those peer reviews you did were really great! Good job!

So maybe you wonder if you should say yes the next time. You wonder if they could at least treat you to a milk shake for once.

And then you remember that arm’s length thing. I couldn’t hug you even if I wanted to.

And okay, I know that we are not “exclusive.” Yes, I admit, there are a lot of you in my life. And, even weirder, sometimes I am you. (Woah, mind twister!) You know that this relationship wouldn’t work at all if you were the only one. Think of the pressure!

And you remember that other people have sometimes done this for you. Or they might. You never know. And mostly, you remember that the profession would be nowhere, really and truly nowhere, without you.

If you walked out on me tomorrow, the world as I know it would pretty much collapse. I’m not exaggerating. There would be no publications, no grants, no academic books.

But there’s more. I want you to know that I think about you all the time. Sorry if that sounds a bit stalkerish. Don’t worry. Remember that part about not knowing you if I passed you on the street? But I do think about you. I think about how great you are. I think about how you always come through even though you must brace yourself for potential ingratitude and disregard every time. Not to mention the nagging (hello, “gentle reminders”).  I think about how you are the one who says yes after that poor, desperate journal editor (sometimes me) has been fully rejected by a string of others. You can’t imagine how grateful I am when you say yes. When you say yes, I do a little happy dance. I know you can’t see it. But it’s pretty cute. Trust me.

So, dear anonymous peer reviewer, I just wanted you to know that I would bring you flowers and buy you chocolates if I could.

You are marvelous. You step up. You come through. You shine quietly, brilliantly, in that space of anonymity that is the condition of our relationship. Some people might think that I should simply be writing a letter of gratitude. A love letter can be a bit weird given the nature of our relationship (yes, yes, arm’s length!). But I’m not just thankful and grateful. I am, but there’s more.

I sit at my desk and look around and I see you everywhere – in that book that changed the course of my dissertation, in that first article of mine that saw the light of printed day, in that other article that I taught in my grad seminar that re-oriented the entire discussion for the better, in all these journals that I read when I get a chance, marveling at all this marvelous work out there. You make all that happen.

You make my world smarter, brighter, and just plain better.
You rock.