Thursday, March 31, 2016

Professionalization when "the profession" isn't (only) what we're aiming for

Like many, my graduate program has long had a mandatory professionalization workshop series--PWPs, as we call them--that all PhD candidates must complete before we're allowed to graduate. Rachel Cayley wrote a useful blog post last week that distinguishes nicely between professionalization and professional development, and PWPs are very much about professionalization as Cayley defines it: they happen at the department level, are targeted at preparing grad students to work within, and eventually become tenured members of, our discipline, and are run by faculty. (My job at SickKids, in contrast, is about professional development as Cayley defines it, which happens at the institutional level, is generally aimed at less discipline-specific or narrowly academic professional skills, is often explicitly about non-academic career preparation, and is run by people like me). As professionalization, my department's PWP series covers the usual stuff that one needs to succeed as a graduate student who is aiming to become a faculty member: conference papers and journal articles, job applications and interviews, teaching, writing the dissertation proposal, applying for scholarships, etc.

I somehow managed to miss out on one of our PWPs--"Professional Resources and Strategies," run by our own Lily Cho, who also happens to be my supervisor--and squeaked it in on Tuesday, just in time to defend. Because I've been at York since 2008, I've been able to watch with interest the shifts in how it understands and addresses what it sees as the fundamental purpose of graduate education. I started out as a new PhD student in a graduate department that spoke of "the profession" as though there were actually just the one, in 2012 became a graduate assistant in the Faculty of Graduate Studies whose job it was to research professional and career development programs on campus and across the country, then in 2013 took a full-time job in administration and launched the Faculty's university-wide graduate professional skills program. Back in 2008, the PWPs I attended didn't acknowledge, never mind confront, the idea that we were training to become anything but tenured professors at R1 institutions. In her PWP, however, Lily spent quite a bit of time acknowledging that a workshop on strategies for professionalizing within academia occupied a fraught position given the awareness that only about 20% of us would ever enter that profession. It made for a useful and realistic but strange sort of workshop, and it made me wonder:

What does professionalization look like when "the profession" isn't, or isn't only, what we're aiming for? And how do we balance the need to prepare all of the graduate students who are interested in that route for the academic job market and a future academic job in case they do end up in one, while recognizing that we're professionalizing 80% of them for a profession they'll never enter?

The other grad students who were in Lily's PWP with me wondered this too, and they seemed to find her very considered attempt to do both things--acknowledge the realities of the job market while preparing people for that market--disorienting. A couple of them suggested dispensing with a discussion of those realities altogether, which certainly would simplify things. That's essentially what we do at SickKids, in some very specific contexts. We do a lot of transferable-skills type professional development, but I also coordinate a thing called PI Prep School, which is a very comprehensive career development program designed to get people jobs as academic scientists (or principal investigators, i.e. PIs). It covers everything from preparing job documents to establishing your first lab, and includes a full day mock campus interview (awkward lunch with the hiring committee included). At the PI Prep School intro session, we talk very little about the job market for academic scientists, which is just about as bad as any other. Mostly, we just proceed as though everyone in the room who wants an academic job may very well get one, and work from that premise. It's straightforward, and while it might be unrealistic, it does away with the uneasiness that the mismatch between purpose and reality seemed to create for some of the people who attended Lily's PWP.

But PI Prep School is aimed at preparing people only for the very last part of being professionalized--the point at which you move into being a professional--and only those people who are interested in and committed to going that route participate. The people interested in learning how to do a good job talk either know what the job market is like and have decided that they don't care, or don't know and don't care to know. A discussion of the realities of the job market they're professionalizing toward could, and largely has been, dispensed with. But what about a mandatory workshop on publishing journal articles, or giving conference presentations, or teaching? To a certain extent, those workshops could be considered useful to all grad students because those activities are arguably a part of the graduate degree, although you could absolutely--if you had no intention of becoming an academic--never publish a journal article or give a conference presentation as a PhD candidate. But how do we--or do we need to--address the fact that these professional competencies, when framed in specifically academic terms, are attending to the professional futures of so few?

Some of the other participants in Tuesday's PWP seemed to think that we don't, but I'm not sure I agree. I was, like many people who began their PhDs alongside me, woefully unaware of the academic job market when I started, and only became aware as the market in my field--Canadian literature, never a very robust one to begin with--tanked very loudly after the economic downturn. My program made no effort (at least that I was aware of) to make its students aware of its academic placement rates, or of the other kinds of jobs its graduates were taking up after their degrees. PWPs talked about "the profession" without the scare quotes, as if there were only one, and contextualized the professionalization we were doing only as preparing us for that singular career path. I found the culture that approach promoted very damaging when it came time to figure out my own non-academic career path, and I'm certainly not alone in that. The old approach served very few, and my graduate program seems to have realized it. Lily's workshop is evidence of that, and so too is the new #altac workshop the department is bringing me in to run as part of the PWP series starting in the fall.

I'd suggest that there's a third way to approach this--not to professionalize as though entering academia is inevitable and the only option, or to get caught up in the seeming strangeness of professionalizing 100% of graduate students for a job 20% of them will have, but making professionalization a little more like professional development. One of the things that professional development for graduate students works to do is to make clear to PhDs the transferability of their skills to a fields and jobs in and out of the university environment. And while professionalization as Cayley defines it is about preparing people to be professors and academic scientists, what we teach in professionalization workshops and courses isn't applicable to just that profession. Yes, the PWP on writing articles and giving conference presentations is aimed at helping us build our C.V.s, but it is also--and could, perhaps should, be explicitly framed as--preparing us to be effective writers and public speakers wherever we end up. Writing grants is a key part of being a faculty member in most fields, and a major topic in professionalization programs, but guess what? A major proportion of the non-professor PhDs I know work in research funding administration, writing, developing and administering grants (me included). Let's talk about that in our PWPs. The same goes for Lily's professional resources and strategies workshop: the same strategies that she suggested as useful for becoming an academic professional (making connections with people in your field, reading blogs by people who write about higher ed, keeping up on major trends, figuring out the dress code, going to the most useful conferences) are the very same ones that help you become a professional in whatever field you choose.

It isn't a major change, and it doesn't require much of professors--not much more than figuring out where else academic skills could be useful and then talking about it--but it might solve the problem of professionalization when "the profession" isn't (only) what we're aiming for.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Speaking While Female

Did you hear me on the radio this past weekend? My blog post about the Srigley Manoeuvre sort of took off, which is how I wound up taping with CBC Radio 1's The 180 the very day I wrote it.

As soon as the episode aired, I received this email:

I'm only a little bit offended.

Let's unpack this.

I have been speaking in public for a long time. Here I am (yeah that's me in the green shirt with the heavily gelled bangs and the taupe lipstick) having just won a public speaking competition in grade 11:

Why did we wear these clothes?

I used to win these thing a lot. So did my esteemed runner up, on my immediate left, who you might recognize as former Halifax NDP MP Megan Leslie. She turned out to be a pretty good public speaker too, who also gets friendly advice on self-presentation from random people in her email. This despite the fact that we've literally been honing our skills at this since at least 1990, at the Kirkland Lake branch (87!) of the Royal Canadian Legion, as you can clearly see here!

I do a lot of radio and TV, actually, and I've spent some time working on my radio voice. I am speaking this way on purpose. Generally, the vibe I aim for is smart-chat-at-a-miraculously-quiet-Starbucks. Here is the technique:

  1. sit up tall with free belly movement so I can take deep breaths and my vocal cords aren't pinched and my voice has room to resonate in my body.
  2. keep my face pretty damn close to the microphone: it sounds like I'm talking about a café table distance apart from a listener, so I can speak at a conversational volume.
  3. drop the pitch of my voice to sound warmer, and to give me more room to shift my pitch up without squeaking; this always entails vocal fry.
  4. occasionally and deliberately smile while talking, particularly when saying hello to the host and then again when saying goodbye.
  5. selectively uptalk because I am trying to pull people along with me, and uptalk asks them to pay attention. It also softens the lecture quality of some of my paragraphs of speech.
  6. insert, yes, little markers like "right" and "you know" because I am trying to sound like I am interested in securing the assent of the listener.
My daughter and I were in the car when this particular segment aired and she said "Moooooommmmm, your voice sounds so preetttttttyyyy." Because I don't sound like that in real life; I'm more nasal, flat, and sarcastic, generally. Radio voice is performance. 

Uptalk, vocal fry, AND duckface! A bridge too far!

Less on purpose are the "um" and "like" noises that creep in, and I know exactly why they happen: it's because I'm conscious I'm being taped and when you stop talking you seem like you are freezing up so the little micro-um buys me time to figure out how to finish what I'm saying. The "um" feels like massive and precious thought-completing time when I'm saying it, and it just slides right by when you are listening. Radio hosts never say "um" in this way because they are actually mostly reading from scripts; their skill is to sound like they're not, but I've sat in a booth with Anna Maria Tremonti for The Current and she is reading from a (heavily marked up and personalized) script.

Still. Me, I say "right" too much. My voice is annoying and I should try to fix it so that people will listen to me. I am not the first woman to hear that. Listen to NPR talk about it! Listen to This American Life talk about it! Read all these articles about what is wrong with how women talk and why they should stop ... basically ... talking at all. At least until they rid their speech and writing of all its female problems using an app that automates the tone policing!

I think we're still just not ready to accept women as experts and as authorities and as entitled to occupy some portion of the national attention on some version of the national stage.

Know why I think this kind of critique generally is not really about the intrinsically annoying quality of the female voice in question? Because I did a content analysis on my own segment. It turns out "right" is among my least pronounced vocal tics. Here's what I found:
  • "um": 25 times
  • uptalk: 21 times
  • "well", "like", "you know": combined 13 times
  • "right?": 13 times
  • repeated a word or phrase to fix the utterance: 6 times
Remember the moral panic about uptalk? I'm not hearing anything about my pronounced uptalk. Because I do it melded into the rest of my speech and so many people now do it that it just sounds natural now. Remember the plague of "like" and "you know" and "well"? Well, like, I guess that's not a thing anymore, you know? I guess "Right?" is most wrong because it's a youth pattern of speech, and a regional pattern of speech, and maybe not many Professors of Expertise in the field of Seriousness use it in their interviews.

Well. Guess what? I went into that interview in particular with a goal to speak smart but informal. To girl it up (uptalk) and be more current ("right?" and vocal fry) because I wanted to sound like the Anti-Srigley. Because Srigley, recall, looks like a clip-art, central casting professor, and he writes in the voice of a portentous old fart.

And I want no part of that. I'm no clip-art, central casting professor, and I'm going to write like someone who has a PhD and who watches TV and interacts with a wide variety of people and reads blogs and generally participates in the culture of my time and my place. I want to change that stereotype of professor: professors are ladies, and humans, and fun.

Aside from the occasional "helpful advice" on how to be less annoying, I think it's working.


Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Library Book Renewal; or: When you Should Purchase Books

Three times a year, my Facebook and Twitter feeds fill up with signs of despair from graduate students at the University of Alberta. Hand-wringing, Facebook ranting, and collective sighing. Not over what you might expect--paper deadlines, proposal submission due dates, or reading list anxieties--no, this deadline is much more difficult to manage. It takes up reams of our time, and tends to plague upper-year MA and PhD students more than first-years.

What am I talking about?

Library Book Renewal.

Here at the University of Alberta, we have a system that is probably similar to libraries at many other universities: graduate students have the luxury of longer-than-average borrowing privileges. This means that we can usually keep books for a semester at a time, if there aren't any special restrictions. And for up to three times, we can renew said books easily, using the online system.

It can lead to a blissful ignorance of the fact that said books are not, in fact, the sole property of the student who is temporarily holding possession of them. Usually graduate students live blissfully ignorant for months--even a year!--of the fact that we even have a renewal limit.

But one of two things inevitably happens: 1) after the three-time renewal, our book renewal limits are reached; or, 2) someone has--god forbid--placed a hold on your book (it has been recalled), and it must be returned within the week.

If the former--and we've been hoarding, which I see oft practiced by graduate students--we have to lug bags of books into the library to renew every last one by hand. If the latter, you have about a week to return the book, regardless of how long you've had it (and you might have just finally cracked it open that day).

Either way, the punishment for non-compliance is stringent. No matter if you just moved apartments, and you happened to have packed up a stack of library books in who-knows-what-box. No matter if you are out of town for a conference, or research trip, and can't return home to physically return the books. No matter if your house flooded last week, and the flood-restoration company happened to accidentally pack up one of your library books into boxes that are now kept, miles away, in a storage facility. No matter if on hold-return-deadline-day you happened to have forgotten at home the library book that had a hold placed on it, and decided to pay the $5 fine instead of going back home to retrieve it (a 1-hour round trip), and then stupidly forgot that said fine would freeze your account, which would make it impossible to renew all your books on the day-later renewal deadline. (Okay, at least two of these things may have happened to me because of a combination of bad luck and my own stupidity.) No matter**: If you do not return or renew said books, you will have to pay the $2 per day fine for each book. If the book happens to have been recalled, the fines are even worse: $5 per day per recalled book. If you happen to have checked out say, 10 books, this results in minimum fines of $20 per day. If you happen to be a graduate-student-hoarder of library books (say, of 50 books), one day's missed returns could mean at least $100 in fines. I wish I could say that I know of one really impeccably-on-top-of-her/his-shit graduate student who has never paid a single fine because they just keep on top of things, but the fact is, I think every graduate student I know has paid at least one fine. It's really hard to avoid.

So, you may be wondering: what can I do? Can I minimize, if not eliminate, said fines? Can I prevent myself from paying hundreds of dollars in accumulated library fines over the course of my graduate degree(s)?

As it happens, I think you can, and I have a few suggestions!

1) Check out ebooks whenever possible. If you can handle reading on-screen, check out ebooks, which simply expire or timeout rather than cause you to pay fines. If you can't read on-screen, save a pdf copy of whatever portion of the book you need to read immediately (copyright regulations usually allow you to download at least 10 pages of the book), and send it to your e-reader or print. If you can read onscreen, either take notes immediately or save those pages you reference the most in a pdf copy. For some, the ebook readers available on library websites are not ideal, and it can be difficult to read books within these systems. Other systems allow for downloads to external readers (Kindle or Kobo), from which you can highlight or take clippings and notes on said text. Either way, figure out what system your library has, and make it work for you as best you can. You'll pay less fines in the long run if you take out ebooks rather than physical copies.

2) Be on-the-ball. Find out about your library system (browse the library website or ask a friendly librarian!) Figure out your library system and inform yourself of your borrowing privileges, renewal limits, and the cost of fines (and perhaps even how fine appeals work). Set up reminders for yourself on your phone to return books, and pay attention to the reminders your library probably already sends to your email account. If you're going to a conference or research trip or are out of the country for any reason, be sure to return any library books and/or make sure you're not going to run into any deadlines (including recalled books).

3) Don't hoard or accumulate books: When you're reading a book, take external notes and/or make photocopies of the portions of the book (subject to copyright restrictions) that you found most pertinent, and then return it. Pre-empt the deadline and return it as soon as you've finished with it. Try not to accumulate more than, say 30 books out at one time (this may prove difficult for final-paper-writing-first-years, in which case, be sure to follow the first part of my instructions here and return the books as soon as you are done with them).

4) Shift the way you think about library books, and don't forgot they're not your own: try to remember that you are borrowing the book and that it really isn't yours. Don't take it home unless you really need to. Don't leave it on your bookshelf at home for weeks at a time just so you can admire it on your shelf. Don't line the shelves of your office with library books just because you can. I mean, you can, but you may pay the cost in fines if you treat your books this way.

and finally, and most importantly:

5) Buy the books you are most frequently checking out. I think this is a really important, especially if you are a PhD student. I used to check out books for months at a time because they were so important to my dissertation. I resisted buying them because I didn't think I could afford it. In some cases I was right, and I couldn't afford that particular book. There are books that are super expensive, only available in hardback, and genuinely out of my price range. These books I still get out from the library, but the key here is to keep your checkouts of these books at a minimum, and refer to my suggestions number 3 and 4 (read the book, take external notes, and/or photocopy what you can and don't treat them like they're yours), instead of keeping these books out for months at a time. But with the books that are affordable and you use them frequently and/or they are really important to the way you think/read, do buy them. I think it's worth it if you will use them again and again plus it will save you the cost of possible fines. Set aside a portion of your graduate student stipend to purchase books (particularly in the years when you're writing your dissertation), and buy those books that are proving crucial.

I'm interested to hear your suggestions on how to minimize fines or navigate your library renewal systems. Do you have additional suggestions that I've missed here? I'd love to hear them! Tweet me at @janasmithelford or add to the hashtag #tacitphd

**We are occasionally exempted by the good will of our dear human librarians, who occasionally by-pass the system to renew our books when we can't do so, or forgive our fines when we make an official appeal. May we forever be in their good and compassionate graces. 

Monday, March 28, 2016

Sweaty Concepts & Solidarity

All last week I walked around in a clammy, sweaty fog. I was getting over a cold, yes, but there was more to it than that. My jaw ached from clenching. My stomach jumped. I was distracted and tired and short-tempered. And I was that terrible kind of hot/cold all the time.

As I sat at my kitchen table on Thursday morning, trying to hit my word count before the baby woke up from her nap, before I had to get ready to go to campus and teach, before all of that, I could feel beads of sweat rolling down my back. Drip drip drip. I sat there, tense and typing. My jaw ached. That muscle between my thumb and forefinger was tight and sore. My hips hurt from tapping my feet while I worked. My eyes were having trouble focussing.

As I sat there, writing and sweating, I listened to the radio. CBC Radio 2, to be precise. I had been up since about seven that morning, so I had heard three rounds of the hourly news by this point. My ears pricked up each time the bom-bom-bom! sounded on the hour. I noticed right away, at seven, that instead of  the usual male voice saying "it is seven o'clock, and this is CBC News," that today it was a woman making the announcements. Interesting, I thought. Savvy choice, I thought.

It was a woman, who, at eight o'clock, announce that "some women's groups were upset by the Jian Ghomeshi trial proceedings." Some women's groups? Fuck you, CBC, I thought. Do better, I thought.

It was a woman's voice who, at ten o'clock, announced that the judge would be reading the proceedings beginning at eleven.

And then, at noon, while I sat at my kitchen table, it was a man announcing the news. A man telling me that the verdict was "not guilty on all counts." It was a man. Someone, somewhere at CBC thought to make that shift--women preparing listeners for a verdict, a man to give it. Huh, I thought. Sinister choice, I thought. No small thing, these micro-aggressions.

After I listened to those five words--not guilty on all counts--my ears started ringing. I tried to split my attention between my daughter, who was awake and clamouring for a bottle, and the sound bytes from the judge who decided it was a good idea, a fine plan, to verbally attack the three women who came forward as witnesses in this trial. This judge, this man, took it upon himself to try and tear down all the work these women had done. It was them, their bodies, their words that he disrespected.

As I stood in the kitchen feeling like the floor was getting further and further away my phone started to buzz. Friends and acquaintances were reaching out to each other, trying to make sense of the vertigo and nausea we were all feeling.

It was me, you, my daughter who got called into question with the judge's monologue. That's what I was thinking as I stood in my kitchen, shaking. Don't talk to me about the law right now, I thought, I get it. I am another reasonably intelligent woman. Talk to me instead about how you hold up someone's story and say no, this doesn't count. Your experience is wrong, questionable, doesn't matter. And then talk to me about metonymy, because this judge wasn't just talking about the three women in that courtroom. No. He was saying "don't trust any survivor."

Listening to him filled me with an electric and incandescent rage. I had to sit down. I was so angry and shocked I could hardly see. Another example of words being weaponized. That's what this judge gave us.

These women, oh, how I have thought of them in the past year and the past month. Their bodies had to carry their words and their stories into that courtroom. What would that feel like? When I am nervous and have to speak in front of people my voice shakes. I get tunnel vision. I break into a cold sweat. This happens a lot, because I am a lecturer. But the difference between my physical reactions to public speaking is that I, ostensibly, am the one in power in the classroom. Not these women. No, despite their bravery, and despite all we know about how we don't fully know what trauma does to memory, despite all of this they were not the ones given power and agency in that room.

Sarah Ahmed’s notion of “sweaty concepts” is my guide here, as I try to think about embodiment and survival. As I try to think about embodiment and survival and solidarity. For Ahmed, the phrase “sweaty concepts” is a way of demonstrating how the work of description and exploration is labour. 

Here she is:

A concept is worldly but it is also a reorientation to a world, a way of turning things around, a different slant on the same thing. More specifically a “sweaty concept” is one that comes out of a description of a body that is not at home in the world. By this I mean description as angle or point of view: a description of how it feels not to be at home in the world, or a description of the world from the point of view of not being at home in it…. 

When I use the concept of “sweaty concepts” I am also trying to say we can generate new understandings by describing the difficulty of inhabiting a body that is not at home in a world. 

Sweat is bodily; we might sweat more during more strenuous activity. A “sweaty concept” might be one that comes out of a bodily experience that is difficult, one that is “trying,” and where the aim is to keep exploring and exposing this difficulty, which means also aiming not to eliminate the effort or labour from the writing...[1]

Trying to write about living in rape culture is exhausting. It makes me sweat and shake. Trying to write as a way of witnessing is, as Ahmed articulates, difficult. For every brilliant piece of writing about rape culture I read, I wonder what it cost the person who wrote it. How much sweat? How much shaking. 

And yet, they keep coming. The stories keep coming. The narratives are intersecting, and points of connection--between sexual assault, rape culture, transphobia, racism, and the failures of the carceral system--are becoming more and more clear. 

The cost of writing, and of speaking, seems to be far smaller than the cost of holding it in. Not everyone can talk about their experiences, I know that. I believe survivors who don't report (I didn't), who can't speak up (I couldn't). What I mean is this: things are shifting. Survivors, supporters, and allies are doing the hard, sweaty labour of thinking and writing their stories in public. We are writing through the sweatiness and shaking

It is difficult, this trying, but we are doing it. 

Need some inspiration and fuel for your resolve? Give yourself the gift of reading all the links in the GUTS Sunday round-up for this week

And know you're not alone. 





[1] Ahmed, “Sweaty Concepts.” http://feministkilljoys.com/2014/02/22/sweaty-concepts/



Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The unbearable privilege of cynicism

Ron Srigley is doing it again. Last fall, he was in the LA Review of Books bemoaning the unrelenting vapidity of today's university students, the soul-crushing inanity of teaching, the hollow commercialism of pedagogy, riven with "fads" like student-centred learning and the flipped classroom. And now again in the Walrus. Students are stupid and lazy. Teaching is meaningless. The university is hollow. "Pedagogy" is a farce. It's a race to the bottom.

Only Srigley knows better, has standards, cares.

Much of the press has lapped it up. He is a truth teller, bravely thumbing his nose at power! He is leaping over the wall of the ivory tower to share its dirty secrets with parents! He says difficult things that need saying! Even if we don't want to hear them! (Except everyone seems to want to hear them and say them, at least people who are not actually university professors, or university students, or pedagogy scholars). He's the Donald Drumpf of higher ed.

Many reasonable people have produced thoughtful responses to the substance of what he's written, some from a collegial perspective, others simply on formal logical grounds.

That's not what I'm thinking about today. I'm thinking about how ready the world is to hear such things from Srigley, and why. Of course, conservative publications love him: he confirms their dim view of the university as a kooky liberal bastion of anything-goes hedonism. But why Srigley? I suspect it's because he looks like many people expect a professor to: male, fluffy white hair, dark thick-rimmed glasses, a serious look. You go Google image search him. Then click on this: if you dare.

"Everybody is stupid, except me!"


What I'm saying, first is this: Srigley walks into the discussion with view that people are primed to want to hear. And he walks into the discussion with this tremendous amount of identity privilege. He is a living, breathing confirmation bias for everyone who only knows about university from watching movies.

How powerful is this privilege? Powerful. I'm going to say this advisedly and carefully: you will see Srigley described over and over as "professor of philosophy." He is a career adjunct, touring North Bay and Sudbury, Ontario, and on annual contract at the University of Prince Edward Island. Powerful and conferring high status this career is not. His CV proudly lists a book published with the Edwin Mellen Press--you know, the one most famous for suing Dale Askey, for naming them as a vanity press of the first order. But no one links Srigley to adjunct employment conditions (dire) or the question of status among institutions (barbaric) or the notion of maintaining a research profile in an itinerant and no doubt heavy teaching career (an impossible bind). Nope. He's just Professor. Expert. Authority. Because he says things that confirm people's authoritarian biases and distaste for youth, and because he looks the way he does: white, male, cranky.

I am going to guess that hell would have to freeze over before Srigley self-identified as "adjunct" or even "teaching-track". I'm going to guess he knows, implicitly and calculatingly, that he would lose status through this identification. And status is something he can fabricate out of thin air. Or out of privilege.

So Srigley becomes famous, basically, for complaining. And he's a hero. For complaining. For calling his students and his colleagues stupid and shallow. For this he's called brave.

Contemplate for a moment how far up the ladder of prestige and esteem such a strategy would get you, dear Hook & Eye readers, you marvellous and hard-working women teaching your hearts out as graduate students, as tenure-track faculty, as teaching track faculty, as Associates, as sessionals. Is the world ready to boost your voice when you decry classroom overcrowding? When you lament you have no office? When you suggest you are not sufficiently trained to do the main part of your job, and you want help? When structural constraints push you into Scantron multiple-choice exams when you would prefer essays? When you note that students don't want Friday classes because they're working at jobs for 20 hours a week to pay for tuition? And perhaps that's why they're not so perky in class? Probably not.

In fact, a key status-building activity for Srigley and his ilk lies precisely in the sort of move he makes in his op-eds: call everyone else stupid, and disavow, especially, teaching--the dirty work of the academy, the care work, the feminized labour.

The Srigley Manoeuvre(tm) is, thus, really only available to conservative white dudes, and the glory of it is you get plaudits for not doing a damn thing at all. (See also: I'm a liberal professor and my liberal students terrify me). Me (and you, I imagine), I hold a tiny bit of my soul in my hands every class I walk in to. If today's group work didn't work, then I'm going to redo next-day's lesson plan to try it a different way. If the writing on the final paper is poor one year, I'm going to rejig the whole course so it's writing-focused from day 1. If my students don't know something I think they should know I try to teach it to them. And I sit in committees on curriculum. And I attend teaching workshops. And I engage my students every day as if they were human beings who mattered, who have stories.

Could this sound any more like care work? Could I feminize this description any more, make it sound less like what many expect to be "the life of the mind" and any more like exactly the sort of "handholding" Srigley stakes his whole career against? Probably not. It's exhausting but it's my job and I'm actually doing it and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't but it is my duty and my vocation to teach my discipline to the students who enrol in my courses and by God, I'm going to try.

So are you. Srigley is not: he's climbed on his high horse and mistaken throwing insults for revolution, hot air for hard work, his rejection of 2016 for a principled stance for classical values.

And that he gets so much attention for it should remind us all how far you can go on pure privilege, and bashing those less powerful than you, how far you can go by slipping into the easy stream of gendering and deprecating care work and marking as manly and principled the act of saying "no" to anyone who needs your help.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Women, Academia, Sport: Finding My Light Switch in the Dark


When the first post of this series popped up on my Facebook feed, I thought: “now THIS is something I can get behind.” Full disclosure: I spend a fair bit of my non-work time moving—biking, running, or walking to and from work; playing recreational hockey (emphasis on the recreational, but for a fabulous team named the Booby Orrs—or the boobs for short); honing my basement soccer, wrestling, and pull-up skills with two very special 9 and 6 year-old friends; skiing when there is enough snow to do so, which there hasn’t been of late; coaching rugby for a fierce and talented group of young twenty-somethings; walking with my 8-lb sporty-diva dog who is a better hiker than I am; and of course, lots and lots of stretching (apparently I am pretty stiff—go figure). 
Note sporty-diva dog in backpack!


Most days I choose movement over social activity, not because I don’t adore my friends, or crave human connection, but because most socializing involves sitting still. When planning a trip, I often consider what opportunities for movement there will be, even before checking into local options for food or coffee. When traveling to a new city, I routinely opt for a bike rental over a car. And so on and so forth. I am somewhat maniacal when it comes to moving and movement, and until my early 30s I hadn’t really stopped to consider why (probably because I hadn’t really ever stopped).

Part of me never questioned my need for movement because I was a sporty kid. When I was first on skates, I sprinted (toe picks in ice and off I went). My summer camps were always sports camps. Gym and recess were my favourite ‘subjects’ in school (yes, I was that kid). And by about the age of 10, I was barred from playing driveway basketball with my older (less kinesthetically-minded) brother because I made him look bad. As a then tomboy and now butch identified person, my sportiness has been one of the ways I make sense (to myself and to others) in the world. I understand now that statements like “she’s sporty” stood in for “I know she’s not a normal little girl” (whatever that might be). I also recognize that my “rambunctiousness” and “excessive energy” served simultaneously to excuse and negate as well as to honour and acknowledge my masculinity—and in some contexts it still does.

I began my university path in sport studies because I assumed that’s where maniacal movement people like me went (and to a large degree they do). As an undergraduate student in sport studies, I learned that our kinesthetic sense is that which enables us to find the light switch in the dark. From the Greek word kin, meaning to move or set in motion, our kinesthetic awareness is the sensation of moving in space. In a physical and philosophical sense, it is the way in which our bodies come to know. While I eventually migrated from sport to health studies, I took the lessons of movement (and the analogy of the light switch in the dark) with me.

The summer after my first year in undergrad, my father died. It was also the same summer I took up outdoor running. Until this point, my running had only involved chasing a ball, avoiding a defender, circling a track, or, as previously explained, on skates. At 20, I had neither the emotional wherewithal or environment to talk through the impact of that tragedy, but running helped me come to terms with his loss in my own way. I ran carrying confusion, anger, guilt and sadness, and in learning to jog, I also learned to take these emotions in and let them go, one winded breath at a time.

Fast forward about a decade and I find myself struggling (as many do) in the often exceedingly slow, generally physically still moments of dissertation writing. In an opposite way of what Hannah writes—that some parts of academia gave her body back to her—I’m convinced that my body in movement gave me academia. Not only did I enter the academy through movement studies (the thing I knew and loved most), but my compulsion to move provided me the advice I needed to get through—and sit through—the stillest parts of my PhD. In 2007 I tried my first Bikram yoga class. Warranted critiques of Bikram yoga aside, for the next two and a half years as a chipped away at my dissertation I was reminded to sit through discomfort, without trying to relieve it. This lesson has continuing resonance in my intellectual labours.

With the finish line of my defense in sight, I received the news that my supervisor’s cancer had metastasized. I received this news away from home in Prince Edward County, with a rented bike in hand, a small (sporty-diva) dog in tow, and a local trail map. Unsure of what to do, I pushed, peddled, and rode in 25 degree heat. 50 kilometers later, reconnected with my beating heart, the news had sunk in.

As I approach 40, I still find movement one of the most reliable forms of care I have available to me. It has been one of the most stable and consistent presences in my life. I move because, quite literally, it keeps me together. And while I feel things deeply, I don’t always need to (or want to) talk them through—it’s just not how my body has learned to be in space. Instead, I move through space, and continue to fumble (as many do) for my light switch in moments of darkness. 

That, and I continue to stretch.

Alissa Overend is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta. Her research and teaching are in the sociology of health and illness; food studies; contemporary social theory; intersectional feminism; media and discourse analysis. She and her sporty-diva dog are often out on adventures. 

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Questioning that #altac label: a quit letter update

My role here at Hook & Eye has changed some over the years I've been writing, especially when I moved to the part-time PhD track nearly three years ago to take up the first of my full-time academic administrative positions. I started with H&E as a graduate student writer, as Boyda and Jana are now, and my posts were written primarily as and for members of the graduate student community. But then I became our de-facto representative of the #altac track. At the time, my move onto that track seemed like a huge one, one that signalled a major break with academia, or at least with the tenure-pursuing part of it. A few months into my first admin role, I wrote my own contribution to quit lit, a post that remains one of the most read in Hook & Eye's history. As I wrote in that post,
And so, I quit. Not as completely as some--I'm still enrolled in the PhD part time, I'm finishing my dissertation because it's a story I'm committed to telling, and I work at the same university as the one I've been doing my doctorate at--but I'll never go on the tenure-track. I'll eventually have a PhD, but I'll never be an academic. At one time, if you had told me that, it would have broken my heart. Now, it's just my reality. It took me a long time to believe this, but being an academic is just a job--and I have one of those, one that I love. 
Some of that is still very true: being an academic is just a job, and I have one of those, and I love it. I will eventually have a PhD; indeed, I should have one sometime within the next few months if all goes to plan. But I was wrong in declaring that I'll never be an academic. No, I'll never go on the tenure track. But an academic? I never stopped being one of those, and I probably never will.

And not only on my own time, for my administrative job is eminently academic in all sorts of ways. Yesterday was a pretty representative day in the life, and here are a few of the things I did:
  • Submitted a grant application I've spent the last few weeks writing in collaboration with my team at work
  • Worked through the edits suggested by the copyeditor at the University of Toronto Press who is finalizing a forthcoming edited collection in which I have an essay
  • Circulated a new piece in Partisan magazine to which I contributed about the passing of Canadian poet and critic D.G. Jones
  • Collected and skimmed some new resources for a course I co-teach in the summer at the University of Victoria
  • Made progress on revising the introduction of the book-length research project I'm finishing up
  • Spent time advising, encouraging, and sharing information with students and postdocs
  • Started reading a collection of essays I'm reviewing
Looks not unlike a day at work for my professor friends, doesn't it, minus perhaps some classroom and grading time? And yet my job--my life--gets a whole other kind of label, and a very different response from the more conservative elements of the academic community. Because people like me are not professors or academic scientists, we're altac--separate, and to some, lesser. I've quite happily adopted this label myself--I co-edit a series for #Alt-Academy, tweet regularly using the #altac hashtag, have a large group of friends and colleagues who likewise consider themselves on the #altac track. And yet, the label still sometimes rubs--when an audience member at the MLA this January asked about the problems with the #altac jobs label and alternatives, I answered with audible snark that I'd love if we could just call them--and tenured ones--jobs, full stop. 

I have a job. 
I am an academic. 

So what, exactly, was I quitting in my contribution to quit lit? What am I pushing back against as I question, more and more strongly, the necessity of #altac as a category? Looking back on it now, what I was really quitting was the part of academia that narrowly defines academic as professorial. I was leaving behind a community and an ideology that believed one could only be a proper academic if one had tenure, or was still seeking a chance at it. I was, although I didn't know it then, moving into a very different community, one made up of academics of all stripes, people who contribute an immense amount to the project of academia in a whole host of ways, as researchers and advisors and administrators and program developers and every other role you can think of that we need to keep the academic enterprise afloat, our students taught and supported and readied to make their own moves into the world.

In a very real sense, I did not quit, for I am still working in the heart of that academic enterprise.
And there's nothing #alt about it. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

How to Grade Faster

Last week I covered how to get a lot of grading done in any given day, by managing the macro and meta elements: minimize distractions, take real breaks, fool yourself into working in chunks, etc.

But what about where the pen hits the paper, and the grade goes in the grade book? Many of us find this part hard as well. I have more tips. So this is a post about how to grade faster, which essentially means grading with more confidence, as it seems to me that we take sooooooo long sometimes because we're not sure we're doing it right. Alternately, we sometimes mistake grading harder for grading better. TL;DR: grade for some things but not everything, and trick yourself into thinking you know what you're doing.

Basically, there are two parts to grading. First, marking the document, leaving comments, writing marginalia, crafting meaningful feedback. Second, assigning a grade. Let's do both of these things faster.

Marking the document faster


My tip, basically, is this:

  • Know what you're grading for.

Oh sure, easy to say, but what does it mean? Some people find rubrics really helpful: if you create a grid that lists the things that are being assessed, and use checkmarks in the grid to give feedback, you can be really focused. Rubrics are great for that. Rubrics also help students parse your feedback (and their grade) and that is also great. Rubrics can help everyone be more efficient: you look for the things in the assignment that match the rubric, and you assess. Me, personally, I hate using formal rubrics like that, because I find the format overwhelming and for me it makes me feel like it's more work rather than less. But I can still get the same effect using other means.

I was lucky to attend a university Teaching Excellence Academy a bunch of years ago, where I was introduced to the idea of intended learning outcomes: for a given course, I identify several things I want the students to know, or be able to do, by the end of the semester. And then, miracle, I design the assessments around those outcomes. So for me, a key component of grading faster is to undertake more thoughtful assessment design.

For example, when I was starting out, I used to always assign big research papers in all my courses, because that's what you do in English, right? So for a media history and methods course, I would get these 12 page final papers that I would helplessly pour over, looking for content mastery, and sophisticated and appropriate use of media theory or methodology, and good writing, and good research skills. It took ages. It was also, usually, just disappointing on all fronts, except for those 2 students who should just skip past the rest of the BA and MA and PhD and just get tenure right now. And half the time the students never even picked up their papers.

Now, sometimes I use exams to test content knowledge. I use group work to test interpretive creativity and flexibility.  I have small assignments where students apply a theory or method to a given text. I have assignments where they do research on a topic and make a bibliography. No one assessment is meant to be truly comprehensive; each assignment has one main point I'm trying to test and one main skill I'm trying to teach, so when I grade I'm just looking for a very small number of things. Annotated Bibliography? Are the citations in MLA format, did you find sources of different types, are the sources appropriate to your paper? I can grade that in five minutes--the first two points are purely mechanical, and so the last bit is where I spend four of the five minutes. 

My assignment sheets lay out, in bullet point, what I want, and I go over that very carefully with students ahead of time (which is a learning opportunity!), and then I have the assignment sheet in front of me when I grade, which functions like a rubric, sort of, but allows me to just give two or three sentences of holistic feedback.

Basically, to mark faster, you need to mark deliberately, and this comes from careful assessment design. Basically, I try to design assessments that give the maximum learning opportunity to students for the minimum amount of marking and grading. On my final exam, for instance, there's a terms-and-definitions section. In advance of the exam, we take class time to brainstorm a giant possible list of terms from the whole semester, and work on crafting definitions. We'll get something like 40 or 50. I tell them 15 will be on the exam, and they have to define 10. The learning is already happening in class in this exercise (and it's no prep at all for me). And do you know how long it takes to grade 10 term definitions on an exam? It takes less than two minutes: you got it right, or you didn't. On a topic and thesis statement assignment, I'm asking two questions: is the topic appropriate/to scale? and is your thesis arguable/to scale? 2 minutes to assess, 3 or 4 minutes to give feedback to aid in revisions.

So faster marking is a function of better assessment design, and really staying focused on one or two things that you're really looking for.

And stop copyediting your students' papers. It's overwhelming for everyone, and it doesn't help.

How to Assign a Grade Faster.


You can, again, use a rubric. They're still awesome for all the reasons above. But I still find it really hard to use them. So I don't. I have other tricks.

Teach a course several times, with the same assessments. Many of us have no choice at all in which courses we teach, but it is often the case that many courses we are assigned are repeats. Sheer familiarity with the assignments and experience of a range of possible student responses to those assignments will make it easier to assign a number to the very first paper you grab. You get used to it.

Ask colleagues or chairs what the average in the course tends to be. Sometimes you can pretty easily assess the merits of one paper relative to another (this one is better / worse than that one, and both of them are better / worse than this third one) but aren't sure what number to assign. If you find out from your chair or ask colleagues who teach the same course what the average tends to be in that course, you have a kind of benchmark. You can also ask about the range of grades students tend to get. Maybe first year courses at your school tend to have an overall average final grade of 77. Or maybe it's 87. Maybe student grades tend to run the breadth of 60-100. Or maybe they tend to clump between 76-90. Absolute grades are usually harder for newer teachers especially to determine, even if we know the relative rank of each paper against every other. Ask.

Do relative ranking in piles on the floor. As a first pass, if you're having a really hard time assigning numbers, drop each paper on the floor after you have marked it up and written your feedback (that is, all that's missing the number). First one goes in the middle. Next one is better (to the right), worse (to the left), or the same-ish (on top)--you're making a right-left axis here. I tend to make piles in what I imagine are five percentage point increments, because otherwise the pile becomes a fan, and each paper gets harder and harder to place. I stagger papers on the pile, so a pile with six papers in it stretches further up, like a bar graph, than a pile with 2 papers in it (that is, this is the up-down axis). Once you're done with all the papers, there will be a natural distribution visible. You can shuffle the piles to reassess outliers, but now you can say the big middle clump is going to be from 80-85, and then have a look at those six papers and slap a number on each, relative to the others in the pile. And then continue along the left-right axis until they're all graded.

That's it. Those are my tips. I'm brutally efficient at grading, and I almost never get any grade complaints: these mostly tend to be when I've entered the grade wrong in the spreadsheet, or lost someone's assignment. It's going to be okay: it's important work, but no one is going to die if you give someone an 81 when they really should have got (perhaps) an 83. It is possible to grade a lot faster than you probably do, and if you do it right, student outcomes and student learning will be improved, not diminished.

As always, I'm happy to hear any of your tips in the comments!