Wednesday, September 30, 2015

I got this: duration, persistence, expertise

It's my twelfth September as a faculty member at Waterloo. A lot of those Septembers were spent agonizing with imposter syndrome, or struggling to craft a syllabus like an expert, or building new courses from scratch, or trying to teach someone else's ideas, and failing to manage my email. Teaching is always front and centre in the fall for me--after the summer research term, I find I'm out of my teaching rhythm and prey to all the same insecurities as ever.

So I was surprised to gather my first grad class of the fall, and to teach them something, easily, on the first day of class. And then last week, they really took to the material and asked all kinds of hard questions about it and I was amazed to hear supportive answers fall out of my mouth: "ah, read this person who works on that very question!" or "oh, I know where you went astray there, let's look at this page" or "we're taking that up next week!" or "that would be a good research paper, and I have a ton of stuff for you if you want to come to my office."

My syllabus came together really easily. I wasn't trying to shove All The Readings in there to mask my lack of expertise. I wasn't afraid that there wouldn't be enough material, either. I just somehow started to really understand the constraints of a 12 week semester and how much we can take on and how much we just have to leave for another time. I'm assigning canonical texts--but now I know their authors. Sometimes the canonical text is by me.

I'm not scared. I'm not nervous. I'm not worried about being unmasked as a fraud. I'm confident about the assessments I've devised. I've got guest speakers. I seem to have the pacing under control.

What the hell happened? I don't wish to come across as braggy--I'm listing the above simply to note that this feeling of ease and peace did not used to be my teaching reality. And now it is. And I like it.

There's something to be said for growing into a role. A dear colleague of mine once counselled a much younger me that it takes three offerings of a course to get it right. And maybe it takes 12 years to become comfortable professing. I am tempted here to undermine myself by saying "I'm not too comfortable, don't worry, there's lots that's hard or challenging" and while that's true, I think that's a pretty common idea. Rarer is this feeling of having the time and liberty to grow into a kind of grounding expertise and to have the freedom that comes from not being terrified or overwhelmed.

I feel like I have space to breathe. Room to move. Like, now that the voices in my head are not so insistently shouting my own incompetence at me, I can really listen to my students, really be in the moment. It's a great feeling.

From duration, and persistence, and expertise, I have become both a better and a happier teacher. For those of you starting out in your teaching journeys, I will say: it gets better. For those of you running staffing and hiring at universities, I will say: this is why we need long term teachers, because this is a career, not piecework.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Guest Post: My #postac Life: From #tenuretrack to #essayjack

5 years ago I wrote a guest post for Hook and Eye about my difficulties with what we in the academy glibly refer to as “the two body problem,” or what to do when academics dare to have personal lives that might include spouses with academic jobs. 

What I grappled with back then was a desire for bureaucracies and universities to be able to provide solutions; I focused on spousal hiring as one potential solution, but there could be many others, not limited to but including increased salaries, housing allowances, or travel costs, all common in industries that acknowledge travel as an adverse condition of work.

Since then, my journey has been an interesting and winding one, and I have a hard time remembering that woman who wrote with such pain the following words: “if I were a betting woman, I’d bet that my days in academia are numbered. And that makes me very sad. In fact, it breaks my heart just a little bit.”

I guess the good news is that my broken heart is so fully mended that I forgot it even broke. The professional academy is now like an ex who I look back on with fondness and affection, but I can’t really evoke or fully recall those feelings of love anymore.

A few months after I wrote those broken hearted words I submitted my resignation to the University of Waterloo and jumped off the tenure track. I didn’t know exactly what things would look like, but I had a research grant to get me through that first exit, which allowed me to continue on with some of my academic work (including hosting a symposium in the spring of 2011 and co-editing a book that is coming out with the University of Toronto Press in 2016).

That freedom to jump into the unknown and start figuring out what my #postac life might look like allowed me to do many interesting projects between 2011 and 2014. For instance:

More important than what I actually did during those few years was how those years allowed me to see the world differently. I reclaimed both my courage and my confidence, and I began to see life’s possibilities rather than its limitations.

It was liberating, freeing, and exhilarating.

Why didn’t I know that? Why didn’t anyone tell me that leaving the tenure track could feel so good? Why did I believe that I was making a sacrifice? Why did I think anything other than being an English professor was somehow a failure on my part?

I have a number of potential answers to these questions (and the many other related ones), but I think one response can be summed up with the following oft-repeated bit of advice that I was told as I grappled with my own decision-making process, and that advice is some version of: “it could be worse.”

“Most academics never get a full time job; be happy; it could be worse.”  “You and your spouse both landed jobs; it could be worse.” “You are both in the same country/time zone/province; it could be worse.” “You landed at a good university; it could be worse.” “Your job is in Canada; it could be worse.” Etc. etc.

And, well, yes, things most certainly “could be worse.” But by that same logic, things most certainly “could be better” too. And that was a truth I discovered and allowed to be my lodestone, guiding me forward on my own journey into the #postac unknown, seeking something “better.”

So back to my story…after three years as an independent consultant (where I literally gave my business card to everyone I knew; went to every single “wine & cheese” event I could, and shamelessly slogged my services as a “brain for hire” to anyone and everyone), I made enough money for the seed capital to start my own business. As of July 2014 I became the full-time co-founder and CEO of EssayJack. 

EssayJack is a web app that prestructures student essays and allows for educator customization and feedback. We did pilot testing at the University of Toronto, and our first paid institutional license for this coming semester is the University of Toronto Schools.
Basically, students struggle with the form and structure of academic essay writing, and I wanted to use technology to help. EssayJack is the result of those efforts.

Students can sign on as of this September for monthly and/or annual subscriptions, and educators can get in touch to unlock the educator functionality that allows for customization of the essay template as well as an integrated feedback system to speed up the essay-marking process. 

The 2015-2016 academic year is our beta year as we make sure the technology is sound, that we can meet (or exceed!) our targets, and that we respond to what educators and students want out of essay-structuring help of the sort that we are able to provide.

I never could have possibly guessed when I left the tenure track that I’d find myself as the CEO of an educational tech start up. Never. Not in a million years. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

I find that things I’ve long cared about from my past professional life as an academic do, in fact, transition into my #postac life, and while I have no pat and easy answers for anyone else considering a transition out, I simply ask you to ask yourself: can it be any better? If the answer is “yes,” then go for it; you deserve it!

Dr. Lindy Ledohowski, OCT
(B.A. hons., B.Ed., M.A., Ph.D.)
Co-Founder & CEO, EssayJack Inc.

Monday, September 28, 2015

An Open Letter to Rex Murphy and the National Post

Dear Mr. Murphy:

I am an assistant professor at Dalhousie University where I teach in the Department of English. Some of my colleagues are trained as Shakespeareans or Victorianists. Others are trained in Modernist literatures, or American literatures, or post-colonial literatures. I myself am a Canadianist, which means I study, research, and teach literatures of Canada. I also teach my students about Canada's colonial legacy, about the violences of Canada's historic and contemporary relationships with First Peoples. For example, I strive to teach my students about what an ongoing national failure to meaningfully acknowledge and address the ongoing crisis of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women has to do with early narrative representations of First Nations peoples in settler-colonial literature. Oh yes, and I teach my students from a feminist and anti-racist perspective.

I wanted to tell you some of the places from which I teach so that you can be very clear about my deep concern with your article "Institutes of Lower Education." 

Here's the thing: it is easy to the point of being banal and boring to take uncritical potshots at university curriculums and especially at the arts and humanities. Moreover, given that this country is in the midst of an election campaign, taking cheap shots at the humanities is a thinly veiled partisan trick at best. And you can bet that students who have been taught to close read and think critically will have seen this. It irks me that another national newspaper is willing to thoughtlessly toss humanities education out the window, but that isn't what has enraged me enough to take time away from preparing my lectures to write to you here.

No. What enrages me, Mr. Murphy, is your seemingly blithe attitude towards gender inequity, rape culture, violence against women, and, frankly, real rape. Add to that your willingness to dismiss outright creative modes of consciousness-raising, analysis, and collaborative learning and you have me not only angry, you have me deeply concerned. If you haven't noticed, Canada is in crisis. There are many facets of this crisis, but the one I want to draw your attention to is our national crisis of violence against women. Let me explain how your article undermines the severity of this crisis.

You begin your article asking "Who can be considered a highly educated person in today’s world?" After making reference to a few touchstone pop culture icons you quickly move from sounding like an angry old man shaking his fist at the clouds* to simply being hateful. You poke fun at crucial interventions into heteronormative language as a means of undermining university education. Just in case we're not clear, what you've done is denigrate linguistic attempts to make space for trans identities and denigrates the spaces and classrooms where some of those discussions take place. All in the name of suggesting that university education isn't what it used to be back in the day with Mr. Darcy.
Are you kidding me, Mr. Murphy? 

And then, despite your attempts to hinge your hateful tirade on a public figure's woeful historic ignorance, you slut shame a young woman who was allegedly raped. In fact, you more than slut shame her. You put Emma Sulkowizc's rape in quotation marks. You make her experience of physical violation ironic and mockable. And then you take her thesis project which, by the way, operates in a genre called endurance performance, and you mock her. You mock this young woman, her bravery, and her attempt to translate her experience of violence into both art and activism. You mock her in a national newspaper. Shame on you. 

Let me tell you a bit about Ms. Sulkowicz's project, because it isn't clear to me that you did your research. 

In the fall of 2014 an art student at Columbia University by the name of Emma Sulkowicz began carrying her mattress with her to class. This act of endurance performance entitled “Carry That Weight” was her senior thesis project for her Fine Arts Degree. It was also a public acknowledgement of her experience of sexual assault on campus. Sulkowicz was sexually assaulted in her dorm room at the beginning of her second year of university. She began carrying her fifty-pound mattress with her around campus—to class, to lunch, to study—as a visual and physical statement both of her assault and of the fact that her rapist was still a student at Columbia. He was unpunished despite several complaints of assault from Sulkowicz and other women. She, meanwhile, was carrying the weight of her assault as she moved through the same space as her assailant.

Here’s the thing, Mr. Murphy: we—by which I mean culture at large—don’t know how to talk about rape. We don’t know how to differentiate between different experiences of rape which, by the way, can require a shifting use of pronouns. We don’t know how to address the perniciousness of rape in history as a calculated tool for violence and subordination any more than we know how to discuss rape as a sometimes-facet of consensual sexual relationships. And we certainly do not know how, as a culture, to talk about rape culture on campuses. 

You wrote this article nearly a year to the day that the Jian Ghomeshi scandal broke. You published this article nearly a year after the Dalhousie Dentistry Scandal Broke. And let's not forget that nearly a year ago the hashtag #BeenRapedNeverReported trended to such a degree that it became the opening page of the Huffington Post. You published this article less than a week after three women were murdered in Ontario by a man they all knew. And you pretended that this article was about the failure of humanities classrooms specifically and university curriculums more generally. That is not just reprehensible journalism, it is faulty rhetoric.

There will be some readers, I'm sure, who will tell me I shouldn't have read your opinion, that I should have known what I was in for. But here's the thing: when a national newspaper chooses to publish openly misogynistic opinions it tells us something about our cultural climate. As my students and I discuss in our classes the historical and cultural context out of which a text is produced can tell us as much about a cultural moment as the text itself. We have incredible discussions about how language reveals systemic injustice and inequity. You're welcome to join us if you'd like to do some research for your next article on what actually happens in humanities classrooms.


Dr. Erin Wunker
Dalhousie University

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Guest Post: Let’s talk about women and public discourse

I’m thrilled to be involved with the Speaking Her Mind conference, running October 20-22, 2016 at the University of Calgary, and that’s because of the experience I had at the conference’s precursor last fall.

When my supervisor, Aritha van Herk, asked me to help out with the Discourse & Dynamics conference last year, I figured it would be an interesting experience on an intellectual level. The conference, after all, was about women as public intellectuals. But I found myself drawn into discussions that resonated with me in deeply personal and practical ways – discussions about issues I think about every day, issues I’ve struggled with ever since I entered the work force and became a mother.

I should have recognized the signs that this would be no ordinary conference. After a warm greeting from co-organizer Christl Verduyn of Mount Allison U, I found myself drinking Scotch with Margaret Atwood and her lovely husband. At that point I should have known that it would be a weekend of unexpected – and often profound – moments. I was trying to find the right moment to corner Atwood, who had just traveled to Sackville from Europe via New York, to go over the complicated logistics of her schedule, when she sat me down, handed me a glass and told me it was time to get the housekeeping business out of the way.

Problem solved.

I didn’t make it to all of the research panels, not because I’d had too much Scotch, but because I was busy chauffeuring, gofering or wrangling the amazing keynote women of D&D. Meanwhile, scholars gathered across the Mount A campus and dug into the gendering of public discourse, unpacking issues related to technology, feminist poetics, globalization and academics, to name just a few.

I did attend all of the discussion sessions, which featured women like Margaret Atwood, aerospace engineer Natalie Panek, activist Judy Rebick, writer Nicole Brossard and historian Charlotte Gray. The discussion sessions ranged organically through myriad topics, from how academics should speak to the public, to why professional women cook more often than their male partners.

Political scientist Janet Stein, who is one of the most articulate and accessible speakers I’ve ever heard, described a paradox about academic discourse, saying that “we have in our department some of the most brilliant theorists who are concerned with democratic theory, but they write for 500 others. And the public is excluded from the conversation even though it’s about how do we make our democracy more vibrant.” Later, I found myself nodding when I heard journalist Shari Graydon say, “the trouble is that women much more often decline opportunities to speak publicly than their male counterparts … [who are] willing to pontificate almost regardless of the topic.”

Backstage at Convocation Hall, I found myself thinking about conversations I’ve had with female friends and colleagues about the struggle to balance work, learning, family and friendships. I revisited fundamental questions like: 

Why is it important for women to work? Will women ever stop running their households? Why does our political system discourage women from participating? How can we change that?

These are big questions, too big for a single conference. And that’s why I’m excited about Speaking Her Mind. Like this wonderful Hook & Eye blog, Speaking Her Mind will keep us talking about the challenges that shape our lives as academics, feminists, mothers, partners, writers, students and workers. We’re often impossibly busy just getting from day to day, and we need opportunities to step back and look at life through a wider lens.

So I encourage you to attend Speaking Her Mind next fall, and I hope you’ll propose a paper for the conference. If you’re looking for inspiring ideas, check out the Discourse& Dynamics YouTube channel, where you can view the discussion sessions I’ve mentioned above. Hope to see you in Calgary next fall!

Jane Chamberlin is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at the University of Calgary. She is vastly over-qualified to write about the confusion between public and private life, having worked for two large corporations, raised two sons, freelanced from home and returned to school.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

#tacitphd: On Letting it Go (when it's not perfect)

Last week, Aimée wrote an important post about graduate education and the tacit knowledge that is required to achieve success in the PhD. She wrote: 

"Graduate education is a complex social universe with a lot of moving parts, and the heavy and numerous explicit obligations disguise the substantial amount of tacit knowledge and cultural competence required to succeed at it. We know the what of grad school: coursework, TAs and independent teaching, area exams, dissertation proposal, dissertation, and some professional activities like publishing and conference-going. Applying for grants. Applying for jobs. But the how and sometimes even the why is mystifying."

Aimée's post asked readers to join the conversation and make the implicit explicit using the #tacitphd hashtag, and several people took to Twitter to comment, in addition to commenting on her post. Both the tweets and comments are great, ranging from simple protocol, to deeper discussions on how to think about your thesis proposal, exams, and work/life balance. You can see the Storify here:

As several people pointed out, the how of the dissertation-writing process is one of the more difficult things to understand. Part of this is a normal not-knowing, in the sense that you can't really understand how to do something like write your own original work until you start to do it. But part of this knowledge is, for whatever reason, little taught and infrequently discussed. I had furtive conversations about writing the dissertation with newly-minted PhDs, and occasionally my colleagues, and then, happily, I took a grad course from the Writing Studies department, which helped me think and write about the writing process, and pointed me to some great resources (How to Write A Lot is one of those essential books.) 

This summer, coincidentally, I've spent nearly all my time (aside from a few conferences/courses) writing writing writing writing the dissertation. And, as is normal, the Writing has been Hard. It is hard to piece together hundreds of different historical, literary and theoretical sources, and build an argument based on the evidence you discover. It is hard to shift your argument when it doesn't seem to match what you thought when you first read the source two years previously. It is hard to revisit an author you read in your first graduate degree, and rethink what you thought then. It is difficult to make sure all the ideas you have cohere, and that they flow logically over hundreds of pages. It is hard to know where a section of writing should go: this chapter, the next, the introduction? It is also very hard to pass on that writing for someone else to read, especially when you feel it still has some major problems to be worked out.

There are, of course, the easy writing weeks, where the words seemed to fly out of your head and onto the page, where every morning you get a thrill opening up the computer, because you know exactly what you want to say next. These weeks are amazing, and exciting, and will make you remember why you started this PhD in the first place.

But the easy parts of dissertation-writing are not necessarily the parts that need the implicit made explicit. So, with that in mind, I'm offering one bit of advice with regards to dissertation writing, probably what I've found to be the most difficult: letting it go (when it's not perfect).

One of the things we tend to think about the dissertation is that is has to be perfect. And, it seems, the longer we take working on something, the better it must be. Contrary to what you may think, however, the Dissertation is not the final product, the book ready-to-be-published. The dissertation-as-publishable-book-model is not a particularly useful one. Instead, it's better to think of the dissertation as a first draft, something to return to later, a hoop to jump through to finish the degree. And get in the practice of being okay with your draft-y work being seen by many before it is as "perfect" as you think it needs to be. 

So, how do you get in the practice of letting go of your writing?

1. Join a writing group: meet up with a couple of colleagues/friends to exchange draft-y writing. If you don't have a writing group, ask someone in your PhD cohort if she would be interested in exchanging her work with yours and commenting on it. One of the best experiences I've had in the PhD was exchanging writing with a friend while we worked together to write papers for a workshop. It helped keep me on track for the workshop, months in advance.

2. Send your stuff to your supervisor before you think it is "perfect": If you're anything like me, you would rather be stuck for weeks trying to fix a problem section of writing rather than sending it to your supervisor for comments when it is a mess. Don't be like me. You will waste days, or perhaps even weeks, of your life. If your supervisor is willing to look at draft-y work (and most are, or should be), send it away. Don't tinker for ages trying to make something perfect when what it really needs is another set of eyes, and some sage advice.

3. Trust your supervisor when she says it is ready to go to your committee: If your supervisor says it is ready to go, it is ready to go. Don't wait for days to press send on that chapter. Your committee will thank you for giving them the extra time to read it, and your time to completion will be reduced.

How have you learned to let go of your writing? Do you have other dissertation-writing advice? Leave a comment, or add to the Twitter hashtag #tacitphd.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Thinking Through the Body

As I got closer and closer to our baby’s due date this spring friends and colleagues offered gentle advice: take a break, they suggested. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Decide to take a break from the blogging, from CWILA. Don’t expect yourself to write or do much of anything else. Just be. Just learn how to be a family. And so, we did. My partner and I spent the summer months hanging out with baby E. Some days were hard, some days were not. Those first weeks were surreal—the longest days and the shortest weeks. And I spent a lot of time sitting learning how to feed our girl. I read a lot of novels. I watched Netflix. I stared into space.

I did not spend any time thinking critically.

Perhaps that’s not a surprise to you, but it was to me. I didn’t expect the kind of hormonal hum that genuinely affected how my brain worked. And you know what? For the most part, that wasn’t a big deal. I missed the critical thinking, but not that much. Not at first. But eventually, as we started to find our familial rhythm, as my body healed and our girl became more aware, more infant than newborn, as the fall crept closer I began to wonder what would move me back into active and deliberate critical thought. Anything? Nothing? 

As it turned out a last-minute emergency sessional hire moved me back into that space more quickly than we’d expected. And now, after the first week of classes, after our household finished our collective first week of teaching + juggling bébé care, I am in an airplane on the way back from two and a half days of thinking critically at a conference.

We’d planned for this, my partner and I. When I submitted my paper proposal I was pregnant. We knew that if I was accepted we’d have to reassess what travelling would mean for us both as a new family with an infant and as precariously employed workers. But ultimately we decided it was worth the added challenges. After all, this would be the new normal.

And so, on Thursday I hopped on a plane and flew west. I said goodbye to my partner and our baby, and I got on the plane. I packed my breast pump, theory books, and laptop in my carry on.

I arrived in Winnipeg at one in the morning, fell into a cab, got to where I was staying, and slept fitfully. A few hours later I got myself to the conference at nine am ready to hear Lauren Berlant give her keynote address.

Oh yeah, did I mention that this was a conference on affect?

As I sat in the audience listening to Berlant theorize a poetics of dissociativeness I felt it in my body. Dissociativeness, she posited, is something we do every day. According to Berlant teaching is an experience of dissociative behaviour: we lecture while thinking about our next move and watching the student who is texting and the student who looks like she may be about to speak in the same moment that we feel our hearts race and wonder if our deodorant is holding up. 

In that moment I really got it. I mean I understood what she was saying in a visceral way. I realized, as I sat in the washroom expressing milk so that I could continue to feed my girl when I got home, that my ‘break’ from critical thinking was actually a shift that has brought me to new relationship with critical thinking. What it means, now, for me to move through critical thinking in my gendered post-partum body is a genuinely different set of negotiations and affects than it was before. Never mind that my time has become even more confetti-like than ever. No, what I mean is that as a person whose work is on affect and poetics—structures and feelings and structures of feelings—my gendered body is even more unavoidable. It is, I daresay, necessary.

Sara Ahmed has written of feminist attachments that vulnerability and fragility are places from which feminist work happens:

In so many research projects: you end up enacting what you are accounting for. A fragile thread woven our of fragility. Easily broken.

Fragility: the quality of being easily breakable.

As I sat in the washroom trying to quietly pump and dump milk between panels and think about the papers I had just heard I began to realize that the division I try to keep between my “personal” and "professional"--a false dichotomy if ever the was one--that these new experiences of fragility offer crucial moments where critical thinking is happening. 

Fragility is a place where crucial feminist work happens. 

My body knew that before I left myself realize it. So here's to thinking from whatever place of vulnerability and fragility we find ourselves in. And here's to legitimizing our own site from which that thinking happens. 

Friday, September 18, 2015

Guest Post: Being What You Are

September is my favorite time of year, which is a sure sign that I’ve spent almost my whole life going back to school as the season changes. I love the fresh, chilly air, the eagerness in my new students, and the return to routine after the casual chaos of summertime. Like New Year’s Day, the first weeks of classes come with resolutions, good intentions, and enthusiastic motivation, but I know that these will soon wither as the stresses of teaching and writing bear down on me. This year, though, I’m really hoping to make at least one of those resolutions stick.

As a PhD student, I really love the work that I’m privileged to do, but I have to admit that I don’t always feel like the real deal. I know everyone struggles with feeling like an imposter sometimes, but the courage and confidence to think of myself as an academic are so often in short supply, especially after the starry-eyed hopes of September have faded. Unfortunately, motivating oneself to read, or write, or be otherwise academically productive is particularly difficult when it all feels pointless, because that too-busy-for-its-own-good brain is so sure that nothing it ever achieves will be good enough. This year, though, I’m determined to change my perspective.

I received some very simple advice a couple of years ago, when I decided to take up running. I was very reluctant to call myself “a runner,” and I had it in my head that, in order to define myself as a runner, I had to be an Olympian. I needed to be running marathons, to have the fancy shoes and the hardcore 6-days-a-week schedule like the people on the covers of fitness magazines. But one day, when struggling to articulate my love for running without actually calling myself (gasp!) a runner, someone asked me a simple question:

“Do you run?”

I said, hesitantly, “. . . yes?”

“Then you’re a runner. That’s all there is to it.”

This was a breakthrough for me. The next time I tied up my running shoes and hit the pavement, I thought to myself “I’m a runner!” It turns out that I’m not any different from the people you see out the car window, sprinting along the sidewalk in the rain. I’m badass too, just like them! And when I ran my first half-marathon last fall, I really felt badass. I obviously didn’t finish anywhere near the top; I wasn’t the fastest one out there, but I finished, and I was so incredibly proud of my time. Now, I really do feel like a runner, but I’m convinced that starting to think of myself that way even before I had run my first race really did help me get there in the first place.

What I’m hoping for this year, then, is that I can apply that same principle elsewhere in my idea of myself. I have a feeling that tricking Keely-the-PhD-student into understanding herself as a scholar, a writer, a teacher - all the things I long to be but can’t quite convince myself that I am - will be a lot more complicated than lacing up a pair of running shoes. I realize that changing the way I see myself is going to take some work, some serious, intense, painful growth. But I think - or at least I hope - that changing the way I think about myself will help me do that.

Because it turns out that, even in the midst of all my self-doubt, I was “a runner” all along! It also turns out that I’m already doing the things that make me a writer, an academic, and a teacher. Of course, if I’m going to meet the goals I’ve set for myself, academic or otherwise, I’ll still need to work my butt off, to push myself, to be disciplined. But thanks to my newfound confidence as “a runner,” I know now that if I’m ever going to become who I want to be, it will take a shift in the vision I have of myself - and I’m determined to sustain this vision right on through the 2015-2016 school year . . . or at least until Christmas.

Keely Cronin
University of Waterloo

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Experiments in Walking While Feminist

Earlier this year, I read about Beth Breslaw's experiments with walking in public and male entitlement. Breslaw decided that she would stop moving out of the way when a) she was walking down the appropriate side of the sidewalk, and b) someone was not walking down the appropriate side of the sidewalk and directly in her way. I decided to take her up on the challenge of doing the same on my twice-daily walks to and from the office, and during my weekend errand runs around the Annex and down to Kensington Market (which is packed with pedestrians). 

Here's what will come as not even a little bit of a surprise. Entitlement is alive and well on the sidewalk. When I don't move--and I can't do this every day, because it's exhausting--I get slammed. Repeatedly. When another walker and I are on a collision course, I apparently become invisible and my personal space completely disappears. And it doesn't matter how much or little of my side of the sidewalk I'm taking up. I can be essentially on the curb and I still get body checked. Women also fail to yield, but men are much (much) more likely not to move over. A number of snarky articles took offense at New York Magazine's decision to call this "manslamming," and called into question the legitimacy of Breslaw's experiment. Hers (nor mine) stand up to any kind of rigorous examination as scientific experiments, but they don't need to--at least one of the many walking studies in the 1970s demonstrated exactly what we both experienced: "when two pedestrians passed closely to another, the majority of women turned away from the other walker, while the majority of men turned toward the opposing pedestrian."

What gives? Breslaw makes the connection between failing to yield and manspreading, or what we might think of more generally as the male entitlement to fully bodily inhabit public space, and I think she's right. One of the reasons that I was so desperate to give up my subway commute was the back pain it was causing me--men felt entitled to sit fully back in their narrow seats, shoulders spread, and I was getting chronic back pain from squeezing between them and having my shoulders pushed forward the entire hour-long ride. When I did attempt to take up my full allotted amount of space on public transit, I experienced the same pushback, subtle and unsubtle, that women continually report in every story about manspreading ever written. The same pushback I get on the sidewalk. 

What I really wonder is how I failed to notice for more than thirty years of my life that my seemingly straight-lined walks were actually continual feints, dodges, and weaves. When I'm not refusing to move, I spend an inordinate amount of time and energy moving, repeatedly, multiple times a minute, for people who have decided that my half of the sidewalk is their rightful space. The distance between my starting point and destination on a map does not equate with how far I actually walk, because all of my weaving adds up to a significant addition. Interestingly, the same is not true for when I'm out running. Perhaps its simply because I choose not to run during rush hour, or on streets that I know will be crowded, but my GPS tracker normally lines up with the distance on the map at the end of a run--I haven't feinted my way to an extra half kilometre. I wonder, though, if it's because "athlete" registers differently in public than just "woman." 

Despite how frustrating, and sometimes painful, keeping up this experiment sometimes gets, I still refuse to move on at least a few of my walks a week. I really doubt that the men who bash into me are learning anything from the experience, although I hope they might. But mostly I do it for the same reason that I do power poses before an interview--to remind myself that my body is entitled to its share of space in the world, and that to step aside or hunch my shoulders or compress myself into a smaller space does make me smaller, does disempower me, does change how I experience being me in the world. And I'm not down with that. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Tacit knowledge and graduate education

I suspect one of the reasons I became an English major is that I'm so terrible at reading social cues.

Oh, the gaffes I have gaffed in my life! I was a very awkward child, considered weird by others, and I never managed to fit it. I was pedantic when lightness was required. I mistook flirtations for competition and fought too hard. I approached interactions from my own raw needs rather than consideration for others or the social contract. I lurched from one failed interaction to another, from misread cue to inappropriate behaviour to puzzled ostracism, for years and years.

Books helped me figure out the tacit rules of social life. Books showed me patterns. Books offered models of behavior. Now, a lot of this was implied or inferred, but at least a reader was not directly acting within those social worlds, but could observe and assess. Determine patterns. Slow down the scene. Reread. Figure it out. Literature was the textbook through which I was taught all those social cues and processes I had no natural knack for.

Eventually, I learned how to act like a high-functioning social being (even if I sometimes have to ask myself directly, in the middle of some interaction or another, "What would a human do at this point?") and I've learned a couple of other things as well.

First. How things happen is sometimes more important than what happens. Many social situations are governed not explicitly by the content addressed, but by tone and turn-taking, and carefully deployed deference, or smiles. In Canada we spend a lot of time talking to friends and family and strangers and acquaintances about the weather, and it's not reallllllly about the weather, is it? It's more a ritual of attention, or a sort of "I see you," or "I would like to say something pleasant to engage you while we stand in this hallway waiting for the maintenance worker to find the extra key for the door.

Second. Good intentions do not always equal good outcomes. I spent many years in pretty grim social isolation, never sure when I would alienate my one remaining friend, and feeling lonely and nervous pretty much all the time. I wanted to fit in more than anything, but I just couldn't. It was pretty awful, the mismatch between effort and outcome, but working harder when you don't know what you're doing wrong is never going to yield different results.

Now, this is an academic blog, not therapy, and I'm going somewhere. Where I'm going is this: graduate education is a complex social universe with a lot of moving parts, and the heavy and numerous explicit obligations disguise the substantial amount of tacit knowledge and cultural competence required to succeed at it. We know the what of grad school: coursework, TAs and independent teaching, area exams, dissertation proposal, dissertation, and some professional activities like publishing and conference-going. Applying for grants. Applying for jobs. But the how and sometimes even the why is mystifying: can I just email a professor about being my supervisor? If this work is about my solitary writing labour, why do I have to go to all these department events? Am I supposed to be a good teacher, or is that a bad thing? Am I allowed to talk to my professors if I see them at the grocery store? Isn't it a better idea to ditch that first year teaching gig for a better class at the local college?

This stuff can tank people. The hidden curriculum--networking, professional communication, how to spend each day, which tasks and relationships to prioritize, and how--supports the overt one. Tacit knowledge greases the wheels, and in its absence, the wheels grind and spark and fail. Good intentions aren't the problem.

I would say this is my main work as Associate Chair for Graduate Studies in my department. I make explicit the tacit. This can be jarring--in polite society we prefer some things to remain unsaid. Things like: when you email me a question you could look up in 10 seconds, I get angry because you don't value my time and I think less of you. Things like: it is not better to burn all your bridges in the department for nominally "better" teaching gig somewhere else. Things like: you need to take the lead in gently reminding your dissertation supervisor you exist, because you need her a lot more than she needs you.

For me, this is an equity seeking gesture. Those of us not to the library born are at a significant disadvantage, navigating new social worlds and trying to figure them out at the same time as the explicit curriculum bears down so hard on us.

I think I'm breaking some rules by being so forthright about some of these things. Maybe I haven't totally outgrown my awkwardness and maybe I still don't fit all the way in. But it is very rewarding to see a lightbulb go off for a student when I can reveal the inner workings of some mysterious process so that he understand it.

And now I ask you: can you share a piece of tacit knowledge, hard won, so someone else can win it a little more easily? Please leave a comment, or share on Twitter with the hashtag #tacitPhD

Monday, September 14, 2015


The semester began with the shadow of a threat. Under the username “Kill Feminists,” comments were made on a blogTO comments thread (now deleted), and captured by a reddit forum.

The University of Toronto notified the university community of the threat via email on September 10, 2015. This response has been criticized for its lack of specificity. On September 11, 2015, the Toronto Police announced that the threats were not credible. The investigation is ongoing.

Do my feminist friends and colleagues at the U of T feel better about going to work now? Does a discredited threat neutralize the bad affects of the threat itself?

I’ve been thinking about these questions and about the shadows that fell on my first September as a professor way back in 2004. It was my first real job and I felt enormously lucky and privileged to have it. I still do. One of my courses was a large lecture course. There were about 150 students enrolled in it. To be honest, the whole thing was terrifying. I had all the usual fears about screwing up. As everyone who has ever been in front of a classroom will recognize, teaching, in the best of circumstances, is its own exercise in vulnerability.  It was, after all, just me up there. But then the terror ramped up to a whole new level.

I started receiving emails sent from an anonymous hotmail account. The writer identified himself as a student in my class. He told me that he knew where I lived, where I bought groceries, the route I took to get to campus. He said other things but I don’t remember them anymore. I think I tried to forget them. I only remember being scared.
Suddenly, things that seemed awesome were actually awful: I lived alone; I rode my bike to work; I was starting a new job in a new city where I didn’t know really anyone; I had my phone hooked up (remember when we all had land lines?) and was fine with having my phone number (and thus my home address) published in the phone book; I had just moved into the cutest little house and had the security system dismantled because I didn’t want to feel like a prisoner in my own house; I went to the grocery store all the time.

I took these emails to the chair of my department who told me to take them to campus security. We never talked about this issue again. I wonder now if I really seemed that brave to him? I must have because he certainly never followed up. And I didn’t want to be the new girl making trouble and not getting along in her new courses.

I went to campus security. They told me that the only way to do anything about these emails was to report them to the police and to open an investigation. I don’t remember precisely how this conversation went, but I remember feeling as though it would be such a huge drag to go to the police. That it probably wouldn’t be worth my time. Or that tracking this guy down was such a huge, insurmountable problem. I don’t believe that this is what campus security necessarily meant for me to think, but the result of that conversation really was that 

I left knowing that they could not help me.

I called the phone company and told them that I no longer wanted my number to be public. I was mad that I would have to pay $4.95 a month for that privilege.

I considered doing other things, but they felt futile and silly. And that was a big problem. I felt dumb for even feeling scared. The whole thing felt weirdly embarrassing. I’m pretty sure that, aside from the department chair and campus security, I didn’t talk about these emails with anyone else.

The worst part was walking into that lecture hall twice a week, looking out at the sea of faces, and knowing that someone out there was going to leave class and send me another abhorrent email.

It was just me up there.

I would like to say that there was some kind of lightening clear resolution. But there wasn’t. I kept showing up. I kept trying not to be scared. One day, the emails stopped.
But it took me a long time to stop feeling vulnerable. I still do sometimes. A lot of the time. Over the years, things like this still happen once in a while. I used to keep it all in a file somewhere and then I stopped because it felt like weight that I no longer wanted to carry.

It was just me up there.

And I’m sure I am not alone in this.

The problem with threats is that they remain threatening long after other people tell us that we don’t have to be scared. They cast a long shadow. They leave us feeling vulnerable long after they have been declared to be nothing more than shadows.
So, what do we do with these vulnerabilities? 

We keep showing up. We find solidarities. 

We remember that it is okay to not be okay.

Or, as Sara Ahmed tells us about feminist hurt, “We are not over it; it is not over.”
Meditating on where we can go when the hurt is not over, Ahmed reminds us that the response to repugnant acts is not to stifle the suffering. “We might need to attend to bad feelings not in order to overcome them, but to learn by how we are affected by what comes near, which means achieving a different relationship to all our wanted and unwanted feelings as a political as well as life resource.”

I don't want to feel vulnerable. But, as Wendy Chun reminds us, “we’re most vulnerable because we think we’re safe.” Chun refers to how the internet can become a series of gated communities where portals enclose us in seemingly private spaces. As Chun noted in her ACCUTE keynote address this past May, we shouldn’t conflate privacy with security. I have no desire to live in a home where the window screens are outfitted with trip wires, and where the house keys are attached to a “panic button” that I am encouraged to keep next to the bed. That is also not how I want to live on-line, and not how I want to feel on campus.

I don’t want to feel vulnerable, but I also don’t want to be locked down against students, against the possibilities that feminist hurt allows. I’m not kidding myself. This is not a good place. Wouldn’t it be nice if it were not the case that the histories that bring us to feminism are often histories that leave us fragile? But it is the place where we are and we are going to make something good out of these vulnerabilities. It is okay and not okay.