Monday, March 30, 2015

Faster Feminism Spotlight: Talking to GUTS Canadian Feminist Magazine Co-Founder Cynthia Spring

Have you had the pleasure of discovering what, in my humble opinion, is currently Canada's best feminist magazine? Yes, friends, I am talking about GUTS: A Canadian Feminist Magazine, which lives online and was started by two women in Edmonton, Alberta. (Yes, Edmonton, recently voted the worst city to live in if you are a woman. It is also a city in which women fight back using creative and effective tactics.) 

I first discovered GUTS when Cynthia posted the first issue on social media. I was thrilled. What was this new, sharp, sassy, and unapologetic periodical? How did the founders and writers--many of whom I had the pleasure of knowing when they were students in Halifax--find the time, energy, and creative and financial resources to get the thing going? How do they keep publishing cutting edge conversations, issue after issue? 

I decided that rather than speculate alone (whilst feeling pleasantly envious that I hadn't come up with the idea myself, to be honest) I would contact co-founder Cynthia Spring and see if she'd be willing to talk with me. Lucky for us, she was. Here is how our conversation has started to unfold:

Erin: Tell our readers a bit about yourselfwhat is your field of study? When did you first encounter feminism? When did you first self-identify as a feminist?

Cynthia: I studied literature during my MA, and while feminist theory and practice wasnt a major focus in my research, many of the seminars I took touched on gender and queer theory, sexual politics, and feminist histories. In my own academic writing, I was drawn to literature that focused on girls and womens and mothers interior and domestic lives, not just those stories that were so accessible and familiar, but the ones that could capture the mutability of the self, the instability of gender, the gap between how women are supposed to be (i.e., caring, beautiful, good, generous, happy, etc.) and how they sometimes really feel (underappreciated, overworked, unhappy, ugly, etc.).

It wasnt until I participated in a Marxist feminist reading group in the summer of 2012, however, that I really started to think about how this ideal of womanhood and motherhoodmanifested in our contemporary society as the woman who has it all in terms of her career, her family, her economic independence, and her social lifewas so important to our economy, to neoliberal capitalism. When we aspire to the myth of the good woman, we actually help to conceal all the intersecting forms of injustices and oppression that women, trans, and queer people continue to face every day, and whos exploitation underlies the foundations of other peoples success both in the workforce and at home. This changed a lot for me. Although Ive identified as a feminist since my older sister first taught me to play Ani Difrancos Both Hands on the guitar, my understanding of this identity became so much more complicated when we started talking about how expansive and messy feminism really is.  

Erin: How did you get involved with GUTS?

Cynthia: My co-founder, Nadine Adelaar and I were talking about starting a magazine pretty much as soon as we finished our MAs in Edmonton. We wanted to keep thinking about some of the feminist ideas and writing we had encountered in school and elsewhere, but we wanted to do so in a more accessible, creative, and effective way. For us, feminism is about pointing out the everyday injustices folks experience and talking about ways to change those oppressive and alienating social relations we are so accustomed to. The work that we were producing in the academy didnt always leave room for ideas that are informed by personal experiences, and we were inspired by feminists who were talking about theory in the context of real political struggles. All that said, weve never wanted to do away with the theory and ideas that come out of the academy. We want to hold theory and practice together, and I guess thats part of our ongoing project.

Erin: How did GUTS move from idea to actuality?

Cynthia: During the winter after we finished our MAs, Nadine and I were both looking for full time work and had some time on our hands. So we decided to go for it. We started learning how to build a website, which took a number of months for us to do without any web development experience (Nadine took to this much more quickly and creatively than I did, and is now actually a web master!). We spoke with writers who were trying to get their work published. We had Jonathan Dyck, our art guy, make a logo. We had a pre-launch party with Edmonton art collective Lart. And then we did a call for submissions. The first issue featured writers and academics we already knew, people who wanted to share their experience or their ideas and were willing to do so without compensation. We decided to keep the content online and free for everyone to access, we worked on it during our spare time once we got jobs, and we were able to start producing a magazine without any financial support.

Erin: What are some of the challenges the editors of GUTS face?

Cynthia: I think our biggest,  most persistent challenge is that while we want to invest the time and energy that is necessary to broaden our publishing program, expand our audience, and improve our community engagement, we are quite limited because we have to divide our time between GUTS and our real paying jobs.

Erin: How do you balance academic work and the work of running an online feminist publication?

Cynthia: The short answer: I quit the academy! But I do still work full time in production at a small academic publisher, so there is a lot of work to balance. Involving more people who want to help with editing and promoting the magazine has made it possible for us to share our workloads while increasing the amount of content we can publish on the site. Having more people editing and acquiring content also means that we have more ideas circulating and more opportunities to work with new writers and artists, and thats really motivating.

Erin: We speak a lot on this blog of the tensions between vocation and remunerationdoing the work because you believe in it, and trying to keep afloat. How does GUTS function? How do you manage innovation and avoid burnout?

Cynthia: I think this conversation is so incredibly important! None of the editors at GUTS are paid for what we are doing. We are all driven to work this hard for free because its what we love and we believe it is important. And yet, so much of the feminist research and theory and activism we talk about in the magazine is very critical of this type of work. Were aware that its a bit of a contradiction to be a feminist project that survives on the unwaged labour of a group of precariously employed women who can afford to take this risk because of certain privileges. And while paying our editors and contributors fairly for their work might not be possible right now, its definitely a dream we are always looking towards. We recently started to pay writers and artists contributing to the magazine a small amount of money for their work with the funds we raised at parties.  Its not much, but we feel its an important step towards paying people for their work and attracting new contributors and collaborators. We have other plans to generate more funds, but its a learning process for us. Id love to talk more about this with you (and the H&E community!) 

Erin: What are, for you, some of the most pressing issues for feminists in Canada?

Cynthia: We have so many issues we need to deal with! Our conservative government has really done some damage in recent years. Some of the issues I find most frustrating and urgent right now include: accessible and affordable childcare models, adequate social supports and services (shelters, healthcare, affordable housing, counselling) available to women and trans people who need them, legislation that ensures sex workers rights, raising awareness about and preventing violence and sexual assault against women and trans people, inquiries into missing and murdered Indigenous women, raising the minimum wage, reproductive justice, support for independent feminist research, the list goes on.

Cynthia Spring edits and writes for GUTS magazine and is the acting production assistant at Canadian Scholars' Press and Women's Press. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Embodied / Teaching

Before class, I changed my shirt--I was just reviewing my lesson plan and I could see that what I was wearing was going to work against my teaching.

In class, I got a student to come to the front of the room. We linked arms and sat waaaaay back. People partnered up and swayed together.

"Watch me," I said: "Can you see the curve in my low back?" And then: "Put your hand on your lower back--can you feel a curve there?" And then, turning around, "Now look--watch my shoulder blades come together when I move my arms like this." (This was why I switched to racer-back tank top from the Internet t-shirt I had on originally.)

Obviously, this was an "Introduction to Yoga" class, not a "Digital Photography--Writing the #Selfie Online" class. These are the two courses I'm teaching this term, one to 11 graduate students in the English department, and one to 16 beginning yogis at Queen Street Yoga. My two classrooms are about a block and a half away from each others--in fact, I can see the yoga studio from the design classroom, and vice-versa--but they are worlds apart in how I experience them as a teacher.

I've written a lot about self-presentation as a teacher before: looking "professional", from head to toe, and mostly about manifesting a particular kind of ethos and authority, where I want my embodiment to be, let's face it, functionally invisible. I don't want people to look at my body or my face the way we are all conditioned to look at women: as potential sexual conquests or rivals, as things to be looked at and assessed. When I'm teaching English, I want to look "nice" and "stylish" so far as matches some sort of sense I have of myself (blazers, but with sleeves rolled, and maybe a t-shirt from the internet) without really drawing attention to that as a performance of attention-seeking. I want to fall somewhere being effortlessly professionally cool and recognizably just myself. I often have an acute sense of myself as open to bodily scrutiny even as I try to focus on putting my ideas and teachings forward--this is particularly true in undergraduate classrooms where I stand at the front of the room in front of rows of seated students, where I frequently turn around and write things on the board and can't see what they're doing. This is uncomfortable and it often feels like I'm looking for a magic solution to make my self-presentation--my embodiment in the classroom--both acceptable and invisible. It's a kind of awkward and self-conscious self-denial.

I note this particularly since I've begun teaching yoga. I teach beginners, and I teach intermediate and advanced students. I teach people older than me, sometimes by a lot, and people younger than me, sometimes by a lot. I teach people whose bodies do not much resemble mine, and some whose do. I teach students who are stronger and more flexible than me, and students who are weaker and tighter than me. Through it all, we bring our bodies to the forefront. I choose my clothes so that students can see my body move and align in particular ways when I demo poses, or mirror them in a flow. Sometimes we try things together: let's all do this with our left arm, and I'll do it with you.

I'm totally unselfconscious about this. My body feels right, even in its forties, even lumpy and full of moles. My body and my ideas and my teaching work together. I feel whole. "Look at the angle of my pelvis," I ask them from downward dog, "see how I point my tailbone up to the ceiling here? And what happens to my low back when I don't?" Or, in Firelog pose, "You'll see that my leg doesn't go very far here: I have very tight hips, but yours might be more open and your knee will get closer to the floor." My body becomes a functional thing, a purposeful thing, a beautiful machine that is fully me, for the moment unlamented.

I've never felt so unified, and I've never felt so complete and so capable, even in my idiosyncratic frailties and my imperfect embodiment. I feel like I'm using my whole self, not squashing a big part of myself away from view, a potential liability to me and my goals. It feels good; it feels weird to feel good in this way. I begin, more and more, to wonder what I lose the rest of the time, when I'm so self-conscious, fighting myself, trying to hide away everything but my Brain.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

How Should We Talk About Our Students Online?

A few weeks ago, in my digital world at least, there was a flurry of activity around the issue of online 'student-shaming,' specifically in response to the new Dear Student column on Vitae. The Dear Student column presents hypothetical situations involving students making unreasonable requests of professors, with a slate of profs providing satirical email responses to the situations, such as missing textbooks, late enrollment, or family emergencies the day before the final exam. Jesse Stommel, an assistant prof at U of Wisconsin-Madison, objected to this column, and in a much-shared broadside, withdrew from his new post as columnist for Vitae. The internet responded, and various scholars chimed in: Dorothy Kim, responding to comments on Stommel's post, scrawled an epic twitter manifesto in support of Stommel about treating our students as humans and giving them the benefit of the doubt. Kelly Baker (of Vitae) storifyed a number of her twitter conversations and concludes, ultimately, that there are strong material reasons for ranting against students, but we should be pairing these rants with success stories: "instead of shaming students, we should publicly celebrate those who have inspired us," @joshua_r_eyler writes on Twitter. Others have argued that we should rant up, not down. One rebuttal points out that Dear Student is largely satirical and gives voice to a diverse ensemble of writers and respondents, including many women of color.

I like the Vitae. They've reposted one of my H&E blogs, they are geared toward young scholars like me, and they seem engaged with #alt-ac and #CAF issues. Not many involved in this debate have recognized that Stacey Patton, the Vitae reporter who began the series, is herself a woman of color with a PhD in History; she does not currently hold a tenure-track job. ((She runs a website, Spare the Kids, whose stated mission is "to provide Black parents, families, and communities with a full range of alternatives to corporal punishment." So we could say that she The attack has been leveled, strangely, at Vitae rather than engaging with Patton herself.

Of course, I echo others; we shouldn't student-shame. But let's take a moment and think about why many of us do it, even though we shouldn't. I'd wager that many of the worst culprits are actually those who are just starting out in the profession, who are having a hard time starting out in the profession, whose working conditions are precarious, who are underpaid, who are underrecognized, who worry about their own ability to manage a classroom and occasionally project that worry onto students. Sometimes I do it because I'm constantly plagued with imposter syndrome, because I search for validation through the distinction between my students and myself, because I am comforted with the thought that I am, in fact, smarter than them, and have the authority to stand in front of the classroom. I love my students, and am known as a very caring, devoted professor. But sometimes I, too, fall prey to the temptation to scoff at a sweeping "Since the beginning of time" opening to an essay, or carp about students who feel comfortable enough to accost me about a mediocre grade the moment I hand back the papers, without even pausing to read, let alone digest, my comments. It is worth noting, though this comment may be for another post, that the hierarchy is not always clear in large, corporatized universities; when students come from rich, privileged families and educators are  not granted basic working rights and benefits--is complaining about students always "ranting down"?

So, with all this in mind, how should we talk about students online? I recommend the following guidelines.
  1. Let's not shame students for succumbing to the immense pressure put upon them to succeed, to work hard to get better grades, to go into debt in the name of education, to fit in to a society that is still largely dominated by rich, white, cisgender men. Let's stop calling our students "kids." It's infantalizing, in the most literal sense, and perhaps reflects a larger attitude of superiority and inattention to our students' complexity, adulthood, diversity.
  2. Instead, let's think of our students as allies. I blogged a couple weeks ago about undergraduate student support for the graduate strikes as one of the most inspiring things to come out of the collective bargaining movements, in both New York and Toronto. Undergraduate students--those we sometimes refer to as 'kids'--fight for us. They fought for the unioners at NYU, and the unioners won; undergraduates have thus had a direct impact on the material conditions of grad students at NYU, present and future. It's worth taking a few moments and contemplating this fact. 
  3.  Let's not screenshot or copy sections of our students' papers online, even the good ones. It's condescending, and disrespectful of our students' rights to privacy. How would you, as a scholar, feel if you discovered that some of your unpublished work was posted somewhere without your consent? Joke about it with friends, perhaps--and marvel at the great papers too.
  4. Relatedly, while celebrating rather than shaming students is a great idea, be careful--let's not [humble-]brag about how great our students are online. At least not too much. You're often not reeeeally praising the student; you're praising yourself (especially when done within the privacy of facebook, when the student must remain unnamed and ignorant to your praise). In general, feel comfortable and confident celebrating your successes on social media (see: H&E's Boast Post column!), but be aware of others, and practice moderation.
  5. Instead, let's share teaching strategies online, the things we do with students. Talking about what activities you're trying, what material you're using, how your pedagogy is shifting, and soliciting advice: these are all appropriate uses of social media.
  6. Let's ask our students for their permission if we want to celebrate their achievements online. My class website has a page for "Excellent Student Writing" where I post A papers with the authors' consent, using the papers both reward and model for others. 
  7. Let's treat students as humans. 
  8. But let's be honest with ourselves, too, about the realities of our working conditions, about the hardships of higher education, for educators as well as students. Let's recognize our need for outlets and validation, and perhaps for productive anger, for brainstorming possible solutions to the problems of higher education.
Other suggestions? How should we be talking about our students online?

Monday, March 23, 2015

Anger: We Need It

There is a place for anger in feminism.

This statement seems incontrovertible. But what about this one?

There is a place for anger in academia.

It seems like this should be an incontrovertible statement, doesn't it? But is it? What about feminist anger in academia? 

This is a blog that works to bring together, explore, and work in the intersections of feminism, gender, and academia. With that in mind, here is what has been keeping me up at night, not just this week, but certainly more so this week.

This week I have been watching three events unfold in the news: the ongoing strikes by precarious workers at York and U of Toronto; the discussions that are unfolding after conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith read Michael Brown's autopsy as a poem at Brown University, and the jury handed down the shameful not-guilty verdict for the man who murdered Cindy Gladue.

They are not directly connected to feminism and academia, at least not at first glance, but I am trained as a literary and cultural critic. I can't help but read these events through the theoretical lenses I've developed over the years. I am also a woman who (sometimes) works in academia, who lives in Canada, and who writes about women, poetry and poetics, and the Canadian nation. And each of these events make me ask: where is the collective anger?

Don't get me wrong, there is anger out there over each of these events. Take, for example, the #ImNotNext hashtag that Indigenous women have been using to raise awareness about and gather collective momentum for a call for a national inquiry. Or the series of articles written by precarious workers on the line. Or the work of the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo. Oh yes, there is righteous and active anger out there. 

What I am wondering is this: where are the places where anger crosses lines and forms coalitions between academics and people outside the academy? Between people with more and less privilege? Between people who are "seen" by institutions and those who are not seen? 

Remember when I wrote about Sara Ahmed on the necessity of anger for not just the individual, but also the feminist movement to advance? She does this iThe Cultural Politics of Emotion. Anger, for Ahmed, is vital. It is vital for the feminist movement to stave off apathy, exhaustion,and isolation. Further, she surges readers to consider the ways in which anger is a necessity for a future-oriented hope:

If anger is a form of 'against-ness,' then it is precisely about the impossibility of moving beyond the history of injuries to a pure or innocent position. Anger does not necessarily require an investment in revenge, which is one form of reaction to what one is against. Being against something is dependent on how one reads what one is against....The question becomes: What form of action is possible given that reading? (175)

Ahmed draws on Black feminist writing and Audre Lorde specifically to think through the ways in which anger is crucial for the necessary energy to react against injustice. Lorde writes

My fear of anger taught me nothing.... Anger expressed and translated into action in the service of our vision and our future is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification....Anger is loaded with information and energy. (Sister/Outsider 124, 127)

Anger, as Ahmed puts it, is framed here as a "response to injustice; as a vision and version of the future; as a translation of pain into knowledge; and as being loaded with information and energy" (175). Anger, she writes, is not simply a response to the past, it is an opening up into the future. It is a means of moving forward out of what is without forgetting what was. "If anger energizes feminist subjects, it also requires those subject to 'read' and 'move' from anger into a different bodily world" (175).

Too often women are told that their anger is a waste of time. Of course, this devaluation and depoliticization of women's emotions only increases if you are a woman of colour; especially, as Blair M. Kelly writes, if you are a Black womanAhmed and Lorde are not the only writers who extol the vitality of anger for a feminist, anti-racist, social justice movement, but they are two I find myself coming back to again and again, because they articulate so clearly for me why anger is necessary and empowering. 

I want to return to them today for the specific reasons I mentioned at the start: 

The material conditions of precarious academic workers.

Questions about racist, white male privilege, art, and (in)appropriation.

Canada's ongoing and disgusting disregard for the human rights and dignity of Indigenous women.

Bear with me, I know these reasons are not coequal. They do intersect. They are, I think, legible together when read through my main argument: we need anger right now. As feminists, we need it. As academics, we need it. As humans living in this world and caring for other humans, we need it. 

These three connected but discrete examples remind me of the importance of anger for feminists as individuals and for the feminist movement in all its iterations. 

In short, these reasons make me wonder: where is the anger in academia? Where is the anger and outrage in Canada?

I mean really, where is the anger? Where is the out-in-the-street supporting-each-other-across-disciplines-and-employment-statuses? Where is the collecting-national-demand-for-an-inquiry-into-Missing-and-Murdered-Women? Where is the broad-scale, national-level use-your-tenure-to-speak-up-risk-taking? Where is the collective action in service of the academic mission as well as the publics on behalf of whom we work. 

Let's not forget, after all, that in Canada at least most of us are working at public institutions. What is our responsibility? How can we activated those responsibilities in collective and sustainable ways that attend to immediate issues as well as long-term structures of inequality that cross the bounds of gender, race, and class? How can we use anger to fuel our work? And can we salvage hope in the process?  

Friday, March 20, 2015

Crossing the Lines

I'm taking a break from the #Alt-Ac 101 series this week to talk about the York University and University of Toronto strikes, a topic near and dear to my heart. Despite those strikes being weeks old by this point, I haven't felt able to address them until now, in large part because I work for York University. More specifically, I work in the Faculty of Graduate Studies, for a Dean who is a key member of the employer-side bargaining team. It has felt distinctly unsafe, in and out of the office, to take any but the party line on the current "labour disruption," as the university likes to call it. Indeed, any language I use about the strike in the office is prescribed by the university. But I will be a York University employee no longer after today--I'm moving over to the Hospital for Sick Children, where I'll be running award and professional development programming for the students and postdocs in the hospital's research division--and so I can now speak as I like.

I had been a PhD student for all of three months when we went on strike in 2008. York University's CUPE 3903 represents graduate students and contract academic faculty, and it was largely for the benefit of the latter that we went out that year. We knew precarity when we saw it, we knew that the system could do better, and we knew that we were the ones who had to force it to. We struck for months, in the bitter cold, and while we did the university shut down almost entirely. The only cars coming onto campus were those of staff members, or delightful friends bearing sandwiches, thermoses of coffee, and scrap wood for burning. We continued bargaining, although when no agreement could be reached we were legislated back to work and into a new collective agreement. We did at least win some gains in the conversion program, which saw contract academic faculty positions converted to tenure lines. I ended the strike feeling exhausted and disoriented, although far savvier about what lay ahead of me if I ended up becoming CAF myself, and far closer to my program colleagues than I had been before the strike started. I had to trash my parka, because it was so deeply impregnated with smoke from the fire barrel that I couldn't get the smell out. After months of eating them cold and soggy out of a mittened hand, I could never face the Grad Cafe's channa masala wrap again. 

This time around, I'm crossing the picket lines daily, because I'm forced to. If I don't, I lose my job. Students have been given the right to refuse to cross, and faculty can stay away as long as classes continue to be suspended (and are making a case that being forced to resume teaching without TAs compromises academic integrity, and so refusing to is a matter of academic freedom), but I have no choice. I walk quickly, with my hood up, my headphones in, and my hands in my pockets. I want to join my graduate colleagues, to wave and shout encouragement, but from my side of the sidewalk I worry it would look like mockery or a threat. At the office, I'm required to refer to the strike as a "labour disruption," to point students to statements like "Regrettably, two units of CUPE 3903 representing Teaching Assistants and Graduate Assistants (Units 1 and 3), rejected the University’s offers and remain on strike," when the only thing I think is regrettable is the lack of solidarity among units. I sit in my office and watch my colleagues be threatened with gun violence on the lines via YouTube, and follow along on Twitter as Senate, amidst strenuous opposition, decides to resume classes while the strike is ongoing. I watch the lines of cars get longer and longer as more people try to enter campus. I watch tempers flare. I watch administration decide that resuming classes is more important than resuming bargaining. I watch the employer-side bargaining team withhold, withhold, withhold until the night before the strike deadline, when miraculously something resembling a decent offer shows up on the table. I watch administration invite Unit 1 and 3 members to return to work despite the fact that they are on strike.

What neither university seems to understand is that this strike is not really about wages. Nor is it about seniority, or benefits, or childcare, not really. It is about the fact that graduate students and contract academic faculty, in Canada and elsewhere (see Boyda for a New York perspective) recognize that the academic employment (and teaching, and research) system is broken. It is about the fact that they feel as though they are the only ones who are going to attempt to change it. It won't be tenured faculty. It won't be undergraduate students. It will be graduate students and CAF, or no one, and their chance is now. This is their chance to say "you want to pretend that I only work 10 hours a week and prohibit me from taking any outside employment? Fine--pay me enough to live on." This is their chance to insist that at least a few of their ranks--a minuscule number, considering that York employed nearly 1800 CAF last year (as compared to not quite 1400 t-t faculty)--have the chance to enjoy at least some measure of job security. This is their moment to seize what is a miraculous surge in positive public opinion and require our universities to be accountable, to step up, to do better. 

Our universities, the people they are made up of, can do better. 

But not by forcing their graduate students to choose between their education and their jobs. Not by using rhetoric that suggests that the only students who matter are the undergraduates, when graduate students are students too. Not by putting them in danger on the picket lines by inviting thousands of people to cross them daily. But by recognizing that once, they as administrators were the graduate students they're vilifying, the CAF they exploit while hiring ever-increasing numbers of questionably necessary administrators (me included). They can do better by recognizing their own privilege, and their responsibility as those with power to enact change. They can do better by attempting to understand, rather than dismissing. They can do better by getting back to the bargaining table and bargaining in good faith. 

I'm not going to miss crossing the picket lines. But at least now I can speak about it, instead of just watching. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Bring your kid to work day, March Break edition

I brought my kid to work today. She's got an iPad to read pony comics on, my second laptop to watch some Netflix while the iPad is charging, headphones to keep the noise down, some stuffies, some crayons and paper, and a work-appropriate hairdo ("I don't want to look like a hobo at the office, Mom"). She picked a special outfit, and some accessories to look more professional. She's happy as a clam.


Snacks plus Netflix = Bender salute

It's March Break, and normally we would have enrolled her in camps all week, because of course her father and I both work full time and I can't take vacation time in the middle of term and neither can he. But we didn't do all camps this year, because she's burnt out. When the topic of March Break was gleefully announced by her about a month ago, she had visions of lounging in her pyjamas all day, on the couch, snuggling the dog and watching Monster High movies with me and her dad. Reminded about our jobs and her camps, she visibly deflated. Camps are fun, but they're not relaxing, and she needed to relax, she said. I see her point. Camps mean getting up early, and packing a lunch, and lugging around a day's worth of supplies, and interacting with grownups and kids you don't know, and being in structured time all day.

And, frankly, I want to lounge around in my pyjamas all day, on the couch, snuggling the dog and my kid, and reading an entire book from front to back. I'm burnt out, too. I get it.

I admire my daughter's capacity to sense her own limits. To know when enough has been enough. To recognize that being a full time student is actually a lot of hard work, not least keeping to a strict schedule and letting others be in charge of your time and your activities. I admire her stubbornness and her self-knowledge: she said that coming to the office with me would be better than camp, and she said she would behave and she's been as good as her word. She knows herself enough to know that just being alone with me and a bunch of toys in a really quiet room is what she needs to recharge, not a room full of kids and loud noises and routines and chaos.

She doing three days of camp this week, and spending two on downtime. That's our compromise because, really, I can't teach an 8:30-11:30 graduate class with her in the room, and there are things that I need some peace and space to get done too, considering it's not a break week for me.

But there's a lesson here for me, and for all of us, maybe. The eight year olds are stressed and pressured and overworked, which is terrible. It's awesome, though, that the eight year olds can express that and just say no, to the limits of their agency. It's worth remembering to listen to ourselves in this way, too.

All this is to say, I guess, that I'm overworked and stressed out. And you probably are, too. And if you have kids you're probably trying to manage their March Break and your work at the same time, and feeling various further kinds of overwhelm and guilt. Tonight, when we all get home from work, it's going to be straight into pyjamas and straight onto the couch. No chores, no cooking, no piano practice, no racing out to one thing or another. Just a little bit of peace and togetherness. A March Break.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

When you just don't want to write

It's mid-March. The days are longer, warmed by sun, but frost lingers in the morning, and piles of snow creep into the shadows, refusing to melt. The semester is furiously racing to its end, our energy reserves are depleting, and while we can see the close of the term, we're all wondering if we're going to end before it does.

I've been working on a substantially revising a long section of my dissertation, but on some days my brain is foggy, or I feel a lack of confidence, afraid I don't know what I'm doing. As the term winds to a close and writing deadlines approach, I've found a few tried and true methods for getting the work of writing done, even if it feels near impossible.

1. The Pomodoro Method: We've talked about this a lot on Hook and Eye before, but the Pomodoro technique really does help to give focus to a writing task. If I'm stuck in the endless chasm of research and can't seem to get my way out of it, I turn off the internet, set the timer for 25 minutes, and then dedicate my full attention to the task of writing. It's really helpful when I'm not feeling motivated because 25 minutes is such a manageable length of time: anyone can do it. After the timer rings, if I'm really vigilant, I'll only take a 5 minute break, which I also use the timer to structure. After four cycles, I give myself a 15 minute break.

2. Take Real Breaks: Boyda talked a couple weeks ago about slowing down and unplugging, and I highly recommend it. Even if you can only take a 3-5 minute break, don't spend it surfing the internet, or checking your phone, or staring at some kind of a screen. If you can, stand up, move around, stretch, or just close your computer and stare out a window or into space. It's enormously beneficial to do something different so the break feels like a real break and not just the same old.

3. Get Moving: If you have a bit more time, go for a walk with a friend. Get outside for the fresh air and vitamin D, or just go get coffee. Even if you don't drink coffee, just go for the walk. If you can't spare the time, spend five minutes doing jumping jacks or running in place, or have a personal dance party. If you only have a few seconds, my three-year-old would probably recommend the Crazy Shake.

4. Make Lists: At the beginning of each day, make yourself a to-do list of what you need to accomplish, and decide what to prioritize for that day. On Mondays, it can be really beneficial to write down your goals for the week, and then break it down into daily chunks. It can also be useful to work back from any impending deadlines in order to help structure your time on a month-or-semester-long basis. Sometimes these goals aren't met in the way we think we will meet them, but having them in the first place means they can be revisited or that we can make new priorities when the unexpected occurs.

5. Meet up with Friends: One of the most important things for me personally is having people around me to keep me accountable to my writing goals. Whether I meet up with them in person, like for my weekly writing club where we do community pomodoros (if you're at the U of A, join us!), or to an online googledocs spreadsheet to write out my weekly and daily goals, when someone else knows what I commit to, it becomes much easier to do it. The extra accountability means I'm far more likely to get stuff done. Also, it's harder to putz around on the internet when someone is hovering over your shoulder.

6. Just do it: Even if your brain doesn't want to cooperate, just force yourself to focus. Turn off the internet, gather every spec of willpower, and focus on the writing task at hand. Sometimes just writing the first couple of words on the blank page can be the key to gaining momentum.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Reflections On Talking #CAF Crisis to Mainstream Media

In the last few weeks there has been a shift in the attention paid to Contract Academic Faculty. It hasn't been a sea change per se, but with #NAWD and the on going strikes at the University of Toronto and York University the mainstream media has been paying some attention to what we who work in the academy have known for some time: things need to change.

But as a teacher who is trained in literature and language I rankle at my own use of the nebulous term "things." What, exactly, are those "things" that need changing? As I tell my students over and again defining your terms is crucial because it allows you to situate yourself. You know not only precisely what you're talking about, you also know the history and context of the term you're using. So what are we talking about when we say "things" need to change?

This isn't just a navel gazing question. When I was interviewed by Simona Chiose of the Globe & Mail two weeks I found myself faced with this very question. The article was mostly about the strikes happening in Toronto. Chiose was working to situate the immediacy of the strikes, which, let's not forget, are happening at two very different institutions, in the larger question of what needs fixing in post-secondary education in Canada? A tough task indeed, especially when writing for that necessary readership of people who care, but, as most work outside academia, need to be told exactly why they must care and why their care needs to be actioned. Put differently, this was one of the first Canadian mass media pieces on the crisis in higher education that attempted to spell out some of the material issues facing workers and students.

When  Chiose called me to ask if I would participate in an interview I was happy to do so. I was prepared to talk about my past and on going experience as a CAF and, because I have also had experience sitting on a Faculty-wide Council of Chairs, working with academic development committees, and have been a member of the Faculty of Graduate Studies, I felt that I was uniquely positioned to speak to CAF work and, to an extent, about how administrative processes work (or don't) at the faculty and university level.

The questions Chiose posed in our thirty-five minute phone interview were insightful and demonstrated her research and knowledge of higher education in Canada. She knew acronyms like ACCUTE and CAUT, she was more than familiar with the shifting structures of SSHRC, and she was even familiar with some people (CAUT executives who I cited as allies for CAFs) I mentioned. I felt comfortable, I felt heard, and though I knew our interview would be edited down to the best sound bite that popped out of my mouth, I felt unusually prepared.

Then she asked me a question I couldn't answer.

After discussing my own personal career trajectory on the job market--graduated in 2008 (auspicious...), sessionaled for a year in Calgary, moved to Nova Scotia to hold a 10-month limited term contract as Assistant Professor, had that contract renewed for three more sequential years, and, after the budgets had been cut drastically in the faculty where I worked and my department chair had to raise my class size enormously in order to manage to keep my position, I landed a 12-month contract at a smaller school. I was encouraged to take it, and I did. You likely know this story. That 12-month contract did not get renewed, and I am still not ready or able to tell that story in full in print. I'm still on the job market. I still feel like being frank can be risky--anyhow. After all of this, after noting that I was indeed SSHRC-funded, that I did my PhD in just under four years, that I have kept up a record of publication, Chiose said, "It sounds like you did everything right. So what do you think happened? Is there no longer a formula?"


I remember when I was finishing my degree that there were two trajectories I was encouraged to explore: the post doctoral fellowship or the limited term contract. I think, if I had finished a year or two prior, I would only have been really encouraged to pursue a postdoc, but again let me remind you: 2008. I also recall that when I finished my PhD having an article or two and a few book reviews under your belt was really quite good. Many of my peers were encouraged not to publish, to save their energies until they finished their degrees, and to hold back that material for The Book. I went to a lot of conferences, many of my peers didn't due not only to funding issues, but to suggestions that they focus their energies elsewhere. I've talked to colleagues who finished around the same time as I did at different institutions and they describe similar experiences.

But as we know, much has changed. And yet, looking at my friends and colleagues who have landed tenure track positions, I can't say with confidence that there is a formula any more, if there ever really was one in the first place. Having The Book, having teaching experience, having grants, having scads of publications, no discernible combination of these things leads to stability and employment.

As austerity in higher education tightens its grip the one common denominator I have observed in my job-seeking peers is paranoia and exhaustion. Nothing is good enough, so you have to do everything. Or maybe not, because sometimes the candidate who appears to have the least experience is the most financially attractive to the hiring administration. So what do you do? Most of the time, you hedge your bets and work yourself and your emotions into the ground. Oh yeah, and you're scared. Scared to speak up, scared to say no, scared to talk publicly about the material realities of your working conditions because hey, you might not get rehired. Believe me, you really might not.

Did I say all this to the journalist? Yes, I did, or at least I tried. What I have found myself thinking about in the weeks since that interview, as several things I have written have--miraculously!--reached a wider audience than usual, is this: we contract academic faculty need to be better at clearly articulating our own experiences. And yet, there is risk. And so you, tenured faculty, need to be more attentive in your listening, in your solidarity, in your ability via tenure to navigate the incredibly labyrinthine and shifting space of the institution. I don't know if grassroots organizing will change "things" for contract academic faculty, but I do know we cannot do it in isolation. We need to articulate our terms and those terms differ from one department and faculty and institution to another.

So I'll leave you with a question, readers, and it is the same one that the journalist asked me: is there a formula anymore? Was there ever? And should there be--can there be?--again?

Friday, March 13, 2015

Guest Post: The Limit of the Limits

After having just had to cancel out on one more responsibility in a long list of things not accomplished this week, I am stuck contemplating limitations. This has been a frequent theme in the last couple of months for me. A serious-not-too-serious freak (and likely somewhat comical) workplace accident at the end of November left me with a concussion (let’s just say I’ve unfriended high heels and walls). And so began my conversation with limitations. As colleagues covered my exams and pardoned my absences from meetings and told me to ‘take it easy,’ I stewed in countless decisions each day regarding what I could and couldn’t do, or more exactly, what I should and shouldn’t do. Having to decide upon one’s capabilities and limitations is exhausting and frequently guilt-inducing, particularly when the boundary between well and unwell, able and unable can be so fluid and fickle.

I’ve had an especially hard time figuring out that what one can do isn’t necessarily the same as what one should do, so I’ve had numerous set-backs along the way, which brings me to this week and my renewed interest in limitations and why they’re so tricky to figure out. What is the deciding factor between cancelling a class, a meeting, etcetera and not doing so? What is the pivot point between pushing through and surrendering?

A bit of background: I grew up as a figure skater; I am still a figure skater, although one whose skills are in sharp decline. In so many ways, it can be a silly sport, a shallow sport where beauty and sparkling sequins matter, an elitist sport where snobbery can run rampant. But despite all this, figure skating has, more often than not, provided me with my life’s lessons, even my philosophies of life. It is a sport where one’s balance is always precarious; lean too far one way or another, you lose an edge or find a toe pick. It is also a sport where you fling yourself into the air, rotate however many times, and have to trust that you can control each fine movement of your body well enough so that you land upright, balanced on an eighth of an inch blade.

And although clichéd to say, it is perhaps the sport of falling down and getting back up again, both literally and metaphorically. If you get through a session without snow on your butt, that likely means you didn’t work hard enough, didn’t take enough risks. If you get through a season without having faced and surmounted harsh criticism, then you’ve been luckier than pretty much everyone.

Given these lessons in the fine art of falling, when all of my fellow grad students were having their egos and hearts prodded and sliced by any little bit of critical feedback, I was already mostly immune to such wounds. When nerves abounded as we were prepping for conference presentations, dissertation defences, and eventually job talks, I felt little effect. I always figured that if I could skate a program, fall down more than I stood up, while everyone watched . . . . all while wearing spandex, I could take pretty much anything.

However, what I’ve recently realized is that taking my life’s lessons from my experience in sport has one huge fallibility. In figure skating, as I imagine in most high-performance athletic endeavours, we don’t comprehend limitations. We persevere. We work through the pain. Stress fracture in your foot? Tape it up and get on with it. That toughness is vaunted and validated.

In academia, toughness isn’t just valued; it’s most often a necessity. We’re in a situation where we are subject to constant evaluation, by our students, by our peers, by our supervisors and administrators. And the stakes are so much higher in the work world than they are in an arena. Our livelihoods depend keenly on our ability to endure, to push through to the end of a dissertation, to push towards employment, to, in general, propel ourselves towards our goals. For those increasingly few who find themselves with tenure track appointments, the responsibility and weight of that achievement brings even more so a desire to surpass limitations. Why should I assume the right to give myself a break when there are so many who do not have that right, so many who would love to have the opportunity that I do and who could do my job as well as, if not better than I do?

And that brings me back to the conundrum of knowing one’s limitations. What does one do when to set limits is to be limited in one’s possibilities, but to not set limits is to be unhealthy, whether or not one is dealing with injuries and/or illnesses? If one does not try to surpass perceived limitations, then how does one know what’s possible? Aren’t we as academics programmed to go beyond the possible? It is so difficult to recognize the tipping point between having done enough and having done too much. It is likewise so difficult to assert the agency to tame one’s over-ambitious self-delusions. Where do we draw our lines? And more importantly, how do we draw our lines given all the reasons not to or at least not to want to? I don’t have answers to these questions. All I know is that one of these days, I’d really like to stop catching my toe picks.

Veronica Austen
St. Jerome's University

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The #Alt-Ac Job Search 101: Identifying and Describing Transferable Skills

While you're starting to get a sense of what you might want to be doing as a job, whether it's through self-assessment or informational interviews, you're also going to want to start getting a sense of the places where your skills match up well with the ones required by positions or fields that you're interested in. Doing that seems like an easy task--just compare the skills you developed in all the various aspects of your PhD to the ones listed in the job description.

Except that it's not easy, at least not at first.

We don't tend to talk about skills in the PhD, unless you're an administrator like me, and then sometimes that's all we seem to talk about. The course outcomes for graduate courses tend to be knowledge based, not skill based--learn a new field or subfield, not a new set of skills. And unless we have really extraordinary course directors, or a supportive teaching centre offering training, the vast majority of us aren't being taught how to identify the skills we develop in the classroom either. This reluctance to teach PhDs to identify the skills they're developing while they develop them is compounded by the often myopic perspective on what the skills developed in graduate school are for--often, they're only imagined as being good for use on the tenure-track. So even if we are able to identify some of the skills we're developing, we often have trouble seeing the places where those skills could be put to use in other careers.

The good news is that these problems are very solvable, and quickly, too. All it tends to take, for a lot of people, is having someone translate the things they do regularly as a graduate student into the language of skills and competencies. This is an exercise I do often with PhDs in the context of professional development workshops or career transition coaching: I have them list the things they do all the time to me, and then I repeat back those same things, but in the language of skills, the language that shows up on job postings and in resumes. I'll give some examples below, using the job description for my current role as an example of the language in which skills might be translated.

Things I did in the PhD
Job Skills
Teaching tutorials and giving conference papers
superior oral … communication skills,” “tact and diplomacy,” “public speaking skills”
Founding and managing a peer-reviewed online journal; co-coordinating my department’s annual colloquium; taking a lead role on my program’s steering and social committees
excellent organizational, planning and coordination skills,” “demonstrated ability to exercise initiative,” “strong leadership and team building skills”
Writing articles and papers
superior … written communication skills”
Leading tutorials and sitting on department tenure and promotion committees
effective interpersonal and public relations skills,” “tact and diplomacy,” “discretion and [ability to] maintain confidentiality”
Researching and writing a dissertation
strong research and analytical skills,” “articulating and assimilating complex information,” “computer proficiency”
Writing scholarship applications and project reports
excellent report and proposal preparation skills”

All of the language in the right-hand column is taken directly from the position posting for my current job. And I didn't skip any--the skills the posting asked for were all skills that I'd developed during my graduate training. I just needed to learn how to think about what I did in the PhD in terms of skills and expertise. Admittedly, my job is in academic administration, which might make you think that the skill set needed is skewed more closely toward what we develop in the PhD. That is true, a little, but I've recently done this same exercise with people looking for jobs in wholly different fields from academia, and it still works. Employers might not looking for people who are experts in 19th century French literature. But they are looking for people with communication skills, with the ability to process and communicate to others high volumes of complex information, with the ability to create project plans and see them through, with the ability to work with and for a wide variety of people. PhDs learn how to do all of those things, and often much more.

If you're having a hard time figuring out or describing your transferable skills, here's what I suggest: if you've already done a couple of informational interviews, go back to your notes and see what kinds of skills your interviewees identified as most important. Write them out, then look to your experiences in the PhD and see in what part of your graduate training you developed those skills. If you don't have a sense yet of what skills might be important to a field you're interested in, or you're still exploring fields and positions to see what might be a good fit, you can do this in reverse: identify the skills you developed during your graduate training, and then look at lists like this one find positions or fields that are looking for those skills.

Finally, I'd like to say one thing to anyone reading this who is starting to think about non-professorial careers but still believes, deep down, that being a professor is all that they're cut out to do: it's not true, not even a little, despite the fact that the culture of academia leads you to believe it is. For some people, that belief--along with a genuine love of the job--is what keeps them in precarious employment situations like those that have precipitated the ongoing strikes at York, University of Toronto, and UNBC. But being a flexible academic is far less about acquiring new skills than it is about identifying the ones you already have. So get to it!