Monday, March 27, 2017

On Being Published and Having No Idea

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 A few weeks ago, I couldn’t sleep. So I lay in the dark and started vanity googling myself. Now you know that I do this. I find looking at the search results for “lily cho” to be sort of vaguely interesting (how the internet sees me is not how I see me) and, mostly, stultifyingly boring. Usually, after a minutes, my eyelids are drooping (or I realize that I should just get up and make some toast).

But this latest search, in all its algorithmic idiosyncracy, turned up something I hadn’t seen before: an essay of mine published (re-published actually) in a book I did not know about. In Postcolonial Studies: An Anthology (Wiley-Blackwell, 2015), you will find my essay, “Asian Canadian Futures: Diasporic Passages and the Routes of Indenture.” This essay was first published in Canadian Literature 199 (2008), a special issue on Asian Canadian Studies.

I blinked and thought, at first, wow, how unbelievably cool to be anthologized with so many of my postcolonial theory heroes. There I am, listed in the same table of contents as Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak (indulge me for a moment and let me be thrilled to the gills)! And then I thought, how did I miss this? I am very bad at keeping track of my own publications but this seemed like kind of a big thing to miss. But I do tend to read publishing agreements a little too quickly. I decided that I would look up the publishing agreement in the morning. It was late. I had probably just forgotten ever having any kind of conversation about this book.

I went through my inbox the next day and looked and couldn’t find anything. Of course, my inbox is messy and it was possible that there was something buried in there but I couldn’t find it even though I really tried. But I was already beginning to suspect that something kinda funny was going on. I wrote to the tirelessly awesome editor of Canadian Literature and asked if, when she had a moment, she could please poke around the journal’s files to see if anything was there. I also wrote to the editor of the anthology. I wanted to tell him how thrilled I was to be a part of the anthology and to ask if, ummm, he and I had talked about it and I had just forgotten?

The editor of the anthology wrote back right away to tell me that he agreed to edit the anthology on the condition that the publisher handle all the copyright and permissions. Fair enough. He is super lovely and we are now chatting about our projects and I am delighted to have had this chance to talk to him.

In the meantime, I told this story in a funny-ha-ha way to a friend, another postcolonialist, who wrote me right back and told me that this very thing, with this very publisher, had happened to him in 2004.

So what happened? A major international publisher invites an authority in the field to edit an anthology. This editor is brilliant (not least because he chose to include my essay!) and, rightfully, wants to focus his energies on editing and not managing the permissions process. The publisher was supposed to take care of this work. And yet, somehow, somewhere along the line, no one asked me for permission to use my essay. The anthology will be sold mainly in order to profit the publisher. And I get the genuine thrill of being in such serious company, but also a lingering sense of puzzlement about how this can happen and whether it really matters.

I also know that the process is not supposed to engender this kind of puzzlement. It’s not the first time that an essay of mine was republished. I am so proud and so completely ecstatic to be included in Roland Colama and Gordon Pon’s Asian Canadian Studies Reader (UTP, 2017). Another essay will be in the The Routledge Diaspora Studies Reader. In each of these cases, I have a clear file of correspondence where permissions were negotiated. In the case of the Routledge book, I didn’t even own the copyright but was looped into the conversation anyway.

It might be that permissions had been obtained and I have somehow missed it. Maybe all this happened between the Wiley-Blackwell and Canadian Literature. But I have a sinking feeling about that hope.

I’m so pleased and humbled to see that my work is circulating, that it is in such amazing company, and that it might help future readers sort through complex fields of study. But this experience of puzzlement leaves me with a lot of questions too. Of course, I benefit from being a part of these anthology projects. Of course, I also hope that these books will help future readers. When I was studying for my comps, anthologies like these were so useful for helping me to map the field, and for getting a sense of general trends and trajectories. But I also can’t help wondering  about a publication process where copyright and permissions are seemingly not relevant even though the finished product is not open access, not cheap, and, financially, benefits only the publisher. This experience of being unwittingly anthologized seems to be another potential part of our on-going conversations on the increasing enclosure of the intellectual commons by a handful of powerful international publishers. Or am I missing something here?

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Why I Want to Publish My Dissertation (Even Though I’ll Never Be a Professor)

When I decided in 2012 that I’d never go on the faculty job market, progress on my dissertation stalled for, oh, three years. Sure, I took a demanding job in research administration not long after, which made dissertation writing harder in practical terms. But my real issue with dissertation writing was psychological. Without a good reason to finish this proto-book I was pretty sure no one was ever going to read, I couldn’t find the motivation to make progress on it. Sitting down to write was mental torture.

After I’d been in research administration for a couple of years, I came to the conclusion that while I didn’t care all that much about finishing my dissertation for its own sake, having the PhD as a credential was going to be necessary for the career path I was envisioning for myself. I moved into a similar but less overwhelming job with a walking commute (which helped a ton), and over the course of the next year I finished writing the last two thirds of my dissertation. All told, it took me almost exactly eight years to get my PhD: I started the program the day after Labour Day in 2008 and I defended four days after Labour Day in 2016.

It’s been six months since I defended, and after a long period of waffling, I’m actively pursuing the publication of my dissertation. One press is awaiting my proposal with interest, and I’ve got conversations in progress with another. The proposal will go out by the end of the month (I’m writing both it and this post on a little DIY writing retreat I put together in mid-March), and we’ll see what happens from there. I’m a little surprised that this is a path I’m going down, because like finishing my dissertation, I was resistant to the idea of publishing it for a long time.

It’s not the idea of holding a book I’ve written in my hands that I don’t like. In fact, I like the idea quite a lot--I got to do it recently with this beauty, and it feels awfully nice. It’s the idea of reentering the dysfunctional and exploitative academic systems that I purposefully removed myself from when I decided not to become a professor. I will perform a frankly offensive amount of unpaid labour to get this book out, labour that won't even be compensated by academic capital that I can use on the job market. (I'll have it, but I have no need or place to use it.) The press and editors I work with will be underpaid for all of their work. The book, if it does really well, might sell 500 copies. It will be too expensive for most people to buy, and the university librarians I so respect and love will have to balance purchasing it against their shrinking budgets and the demand to buy ever more expensive science journals. It might come out in paperback eventually, which will help make it more accessible, but people will likely have forgotten all about it by the time it does.

So why am I doing it, given all of these good reasons not to?

It turns out that I care enough about this research--this person, really, as I write about one woman, poet, publisher, and professor Jay Macpherson--to make all of that not matter. Macpherson came to Canada as a refugee in 1940. She was part of what we now know as the ‘war guest’ program, the one that placed British children who were in danger of being killed or injured by German bombs in Canadian foster homes. Separated from her family, not well treated by her foster family, terribly lonely, and terrified about the fate of a world that seemed on the verge of apocalypse (is this sounding familiar?), she started to write. And her poems helped her--and can help us--think through how we deal with living under the threat of annihilation, our culpability as members of a society that ignores and abuses children, what happens when we don’t see ourselves in the books we read, what its like to navigate one's own queer desire in a heteronormative and patriarchal society. Perhaps most importantly, Macpherson wrote her way to a place where her poems became a gateway to a better imagined world, one where finding the common roots of our stories, myths, languages, and loves could break down the barriers that lead to violence, war, alienation, death.

Macpherson’s poems weren’t always so hopeful. After the loss of a great love (which I think was a combination of a total loss of poetic inspiration and the end of her relationship with Northrop Frye), she went silent for nearly twenty years. Her second (and last) major collection, Welcoming Disaster, calls upon her old myths and some new ones to think through how to rebuild one’s world after a personal sort of apocalypse. And yet, despite everything she suffered--being abandoned, abused, marginalized as a woman scholar and poet, cut off from her gifts--she never became wholly disillusioned. If anything, Macpherson turned her energies even more strongly toward using her verse to make the world better, to helping those with less love or power or hope than she had. She spent the latter part of her career mostly writing political poetry and protest songs aim at righting the wrongs she saw in the world.

It was the fifth anniversary of Macpherson’s death yesterday, and it’s time for more people to know these stories than me, to absorb them into their own personal mythologies and use them, as Macpherson did, to remake the world in new and better forms. That might not be very many people, given the reach of an academic monograph, but I want it to be more people than just my committee and me.

And that’s why, despite the fact that I’ll never be a tenure-track professor and there are all sorts of reasons not to, I want to publish my dissertation.

(Thanks to Lisa Munro, who is also doing the same kinds of thinking, for inspiring this post.)

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Campus suicide: we need to talk

My campus has suffered two suicides this term alone, in the very same student residence. This is a tragedy, twice over, and beyond measure.

I'm working on this post watching over my 38 first year students as they quietly read and edit one another's research papers. It could have been any one of them.  Indeed this student was a colleague to many of my own. I cannot bear that.

We can none of us bear this. Something has got to change. All of us can do something, and it feels really urgent to me that we start right now.

First this: first year university is incredibly hard. It's lonely, it can be very isolating, our egos take substantial hits from the massive change in pedagogy and expectation and cohort. Early adulthood is massively challenging as we figure out who we are. New romantic and sexual relationships. Breakups. Difficulties functioning in the much less structured university environment. Imposter syndrome. Regrets. A discovery of our own intellectual limits. There's nothing easy about any of this, and it is abundantly clear that students aren't getting what they need as they transition to adulthood, to independence, to university study, to changing ideas of who they are and what they want and what their capacities are. My school is known for the incredibly competitive nature of some of its most famous programs of study, and that only increases the pressure on those lucky enough to get in.

Mental health, mental illness, and suicidality are serious ongoing structural risks to university study. We need something more than 'campus wellness days' and a 1-in-5 that only has happy people in the video. We need more than working groups and statements of support. We need concrete counseling supports diffused across campus, and in the residences. We need training for staff in spotting and supporting students in crisis. We need faculty training in how to design curriculum and pedagogy that is less structurally likely to push people over the edge. We need programs that work to ensure that all students are supported toward graduation, rather than celebrating toughness by measuring drop out rates. We need universities that don't, structurally, haze students with sink-or-swim social, institutional, or academic models.

The brother of the student who committed suicide this week posted a heartfelt plea to Reddit this week, full of despair and sadness and anger. The thread extends for pages, an honest and brutal conversation that we are just not seeing anywhere else on campus. Have I received official notification of this? I have not. I teach first year students in the same program. I found out from reddit. Unacceptable. That's several days of Daily Bulletins with nothing. No memos. Nothing. For shame. The student newspaper has something, which I found after a colleague posted the Reddit thread on Facebook.

Silence is violence.

The Reddit post shows a grieving teenager adrift, but reaching out. We need to reach back. We need to extend our collective arms to support all our students. So many more of them are struggling than we are willing to acknowledge. We need to acknowledge the loss. To work towards mitigating the conditions that led us here. To do better.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Guest post - Have they thought about what they're asking?: the inequity of job applications

By Alana Cattapan
Dalhousie University

The highly saturated, incredibly challenging world of the academic job market is made easier, just a little bit, by the standardization of the documents requested by search committees. For the most part there are a few documents—the cover letter, the CV, the teaching dossier, the research statement, the writing sample (and increasingly, the diversity statement)—which are then tailored according to the job ad. It is not that this is a simple task. Writing each document in the first place is challenging and job applications are a genre of writing all their own. But once they are written, it is largely a matter of refining the documents for each application.

Some hiring departments, however, are going in the direction of less standardization, not more. I saw a job ad today that asked for two sample syllabi—not merely syllabi for courses previously taught—but rather syllabi for specific courses in the hiring department, and I was outraged. Asking applicants to write full syllabi for courses not only requires an incredible amount of time for applicants who don’t make the cut. It also perpetuates a cycle of privilege in which only candidates with enough time to carefully put together syllabi (again, above and beyond the norms of regular job applications) are considered for the position. (And this is not even considering cases where there have been accusations on the part of job applicants that their sample syllabi have been used, without permission or pay, to develop actual course content.)

Let's consider the labour. I'm not sure how much time other people spend on a syllabus, but I spend at least a week. I think carefully about the pedagogical goals for the class, and how they might be achieved through an examination of certain concepts and themes. I think about how each selection of course material intersects with others. I reread texts for ideas about connections that might emerge when we read them in a specific order. I think about how the flow of the class might be interrupted by holidays, and how to time assignments so that students will have adequate feedback to improve. In short, there are many considerations and it takes a while to put a good syllabus together. If fifty applicants each put together one syllabus (and the train from Chicago was going sixty-five miles per hour), then for one specific syllabus request, the hiring committee will have wasted nearly a year of unpaid academic labour.

And beyond the work involved, I think about who it is that has the capacity to fulfil these kinds of requests. If contingent faculty members are applying for this job (a group that includes a disproportionate number of women and people of colour), they will write these syllabi after long days of driving between campuses. They will do so while sacrificing time that they could spend publishing their research, painstakingly crafting a syllabus they may not ever get the chance to teach. Disabled applicants, parents, and those tasked with eldercare are also placed at a disadvantage, for they might have sufficient resources to tailor a job application but not enough to develop two new syllabi. Or they might sacrifice self care, or everyday tasks, to get the application in. And sacrifice they will, because applicants have come to think that if we are to obtain the elusive tenure-track position, it will all be worth it in the end. If we don’t make the time in our lives to write the syllabi, another rare opportunity for a job will pass us by.

These requests are now not just part of tenure-track job ads, but applications for visiting assistant professorships, postdoctoral fellowships, and (gasp) sessional positions. When search committees ask for more documents—for more time-consuming, carefully constructed, well-proofread expressions of one’s commitment to the academy—they are asking for more unpaid, unseen academic labour that yet again falls more heavily on those already bearing the burden of disability, responsibility, and precarity.

Alana Cattapan is a CIHR postdoctoral fellow in the Faculty of Medicine at Dalhousie University and an incoming Assistant Professor at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan. Her research examines women’s participation in policy making, identifying links between the state, the commercialization of the body, biotechnologies, and reproductive labour.

Image: unsplash

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

What can I ask for? A modest proposal

Academic women are often confounded when presented with the opportunity, obligation, or occasion to ask someone for something: money, teaching release, academic accommodation, etc. This confounding almost invariably results in women structurally under-asking and under-receiving, relative to male peers. And I know how to fix it.

What am I talking about?

Let's say you are applying for a grant that requires matching funds. (Matching funds: some combination of you, your institution, partners or sponsor kicks in some money, and the granting agency matches it.) Let's say you are asking your research office or some other funds-holding body on campus for these funds. My dearest spouse has been the receiver of such requests, for a variety of programs, for the last ten years, from hundreds of researchers. Here are the two far ends of the spectrum of requests, composites and only slightly exaggerated.


Professor A: "I need the research office to give me $50,000 in matching funds for this big important grant because I am big and important and if I get this grant the university will look bigger and more important."

My spouse: "Well, no. We don't even have $50,000 in that entire fund, and we must serve multiple researcher requests."

Professor A, ten seconds later: "How much is in the fund?"

My spouse: "$10,000."

Professor A, five seconds later: "That's not very much! I need that $10,000 and who can I write to to ask for more? Is it the VP Research? What's his email address?"


Professor B: "I'm so sorry, but I think I have to ask you for some matching funds for my grant? It's a funder requirement. Otherwise I wouldn't ask."

My spouse: "Of course! How much do you want?"

Professor B, after delay of three days: "I don't know, is maybe $1000 too much?"

My spouse: "Don't you need more than that? How much do you need?"

Professor B, after a further delay of three days: "I don't want to be a bother! I'm so sorry I'm doing this wrong! What can I ask for? Maybe I shouldn't submit this grant, I obviously don't know what I'm doing."


Guess who gets the most money here? These are composite cases, but the gist of it is incredibly common. Professor A asks for the moon, and when shut down proceeds in a completely unembarrassed way to find out what the maximum is, and then to ask for that. Professor B is cringingly embarrassed to have to ask for anything, tries to ask for the absolute minimum, and upon receiving a followup suggesting the ask be altered, assumes they themselves are incompetent and withdraws from competition.

I leave you to guess the gender distribution into A and B categories.

I leave you to guess who wins the most grants, get the most matching funds, gets better funding, thus puts themselves in line for accolades and further prestige. Guess.

Me, there are a bunch of opportunities I don't pursue because I would have to ask for resources. My first year as grad chair, I missed out on some recruitment funds because I wasn't sure if I was entitled to ask, if my asks were reasonable, who I was being compared against, what the priorities were, and how much money I could ask for and for what. There was a "cookie jar" of unallocated funds. All the grad chairs could ask for funds from it, as needed. Well, shit, I don't perform well under those conditions. No rules, no criteria, no guidelines on what and how much and how often and when. I'm getting nervous just thinking about it. I also hate it when people ask me my fee for talks: shit, I don't know. How much are you paying the other speakers? What's your budget? What would be reasonable? Just the other week I was on the verge of a clinical breakdown and my plan was to complain on the internet instead of asking for help that would cost someone money--like a good girl I waited for it to be offered to me. I know people, by contrast, who legit fight to get their teaching all arranged on ONE day of the week so they never have to be on campus.

People who aggressively ask, get more stuff. Aptitude for such aggression is often gendered. Institutional acceptance of aggression is often also gendered: you know, "God, she's so pushy and demanding, who does she think she is?" versus "He really has no tact, but what a genius!"


A modest proposal 

In the spirit of He for She, I'm going to ask the mostly dudes who are in charge around here to do something pretty simple to make the soft-money and informal-arrangements a little fairer to the shy people as well as the bold. The team players as well as the out-for-themselfers.

Lay. Out. Some. Fucking. Parameters. Make them clear, specific, visible, and enforced.

For matching funds, why not have a page describing the process, something like this:

For X Award, researchers must secure matching funds from private and public sector partners, and from their institutions. Normally, the Office of Research can offer between $2500 and $7500 in matching funds in support of applications to this program. We are happy to work with you to determine your needs and to help you fulfill them. In some cases, extra funds may be deemed necessary, and such requests will be considered by the Important People Committee. 

Me, if I knew the parameters of the possible, I would feel WAY more comfortable making an ask. If I knew that the whole thing is negotiable and contingent, I would feel WAY more comfortable with a fuzzy rather than perfect ask.

I think the Powers that Be also need to note that many women are going to be more Professor B than Professor A. And even with clear parameters, are probably going to ask for less. I know it is tempting to let the shy and accommodating people just take less money, so you can get the aggressive and self-aggrandizing Professor B some more money so that he will leave you alone. But maybe that's not, actually, fair. Maybe that's not, actually, about whose proposal or whose research is actually better or more worthy, but about who is the squeaky wheel, and who is not. It's resource allocation based on noise, not quality, frankly.

We can figure out new ways to be transparent about teaching allocation, and informal accommodations, and all the other "soft" requests that we always resist formalizing because of a desire to maintain "wiggle room." I suggest to you, though, that some people are wiggling a lot harder than others, and tend to jostle the rest of us right off the bench and onto the floor. Wiggle room is often an excuse for the arbitrary distribution of resources, even if we like to frame it as room for empathetic discretion.

A modest suggestion

Many Hook and Eye readers, I am sure, identify way more with Professor B than Professor A. And that's fine. So do I. But it's worth learning a little bit about how the other side lives. I have learned, for example, that it's not necessary to be embarrassed by asking for too much or not enough. Someone will tell you "no," but it's not "NO BECAUSE YOU ARE A FLAMING IDIOT OMIGOD I CAN'T BELIEVE WE HIRED YOU." It's more, "no, can't do it -- reframe the request and I'll consider it again." Or sometimes it's just, "no, sorry, ran out of money, oh well." Seriously. I just learned that, like, this year.

It's admirable to want to be a good team player. But not to the point of total effacement of your own needs and desires. I deal with enough Professor A types to never want to be that person. But I have been Professor B enough times to know that I'm never going to reach my potential that way either.

So if you are a B type, see if you can push yourself a tiny little bit out of your comfort zone. Maybe you have book deadline in a teaching term -- maybe ask if you can do some repeat courses instead of new preps in that one term. Maybe you have taken on a big admin role -- maybe you can ask to have your courses compressed into fewer days to buy yourself some breathing space. Maybe your one course consistently overenrolls way higher than other similar courses -- maybe you can ask for TA or grader support. Just ask; maybe it will be no, and that's ok. But maybe it will be yes.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Outside Smoke

Swimming is my thing. Sure, I’ll go for a run sometimes. But that’s only because I couldn’t get to the pool.

If I won the lottery, I would build a fifty-metre lap pool in my backyard and swim endless laps every day, many times a day, any time I didn’t have to be doing anything else. If it could be a magically (and, yes, terribly wasteful) heated outdoor pool where I could swim with the rain and the snow falling on my lips and ear every time I turned for a breath, even better. If you’ve never swum laps in an outdoor pool during a rainstorm, I’m not sure you’ve lived.

When I was in high school, I accidentally joined the swim team. I remember it being an accident. I think some friends suggested that we go to try outs. It was a lark. I could barely swim the length of the pool. I figured there was no way I would get on the team. I didn’t know that my high school swim team was the MOST democratic athletics team ever. They took everyone. My team won the city championships one year. Maybe two years in a row. I don’t really remember. I remember knowing that I didn’t do much to contribute to our victories and learning that, if the team is big enough, you can have a gold medal hanging around your neck and still not have won your heats (ahem, that was often me). You could lose individually, but your team will still pull through for a win.

That was one of the many, many things I learned, and am still learning, from swimming.

Like, how you only ever win a race by staying focused on what’s happening in your own lane. It was always so tempting to sneak a peak at the swimmers beside me, to see how I was doing compared to them, to see if they were pulling ahead. But that was always a mistake. It was completely wasted movement in a race where every millisecond counts.

For me, there is a lot about academic work that is like that. I can look over to see how someone else is doing (did I publish more than him this year? Are my teaching scores going to beat out the department average?) but I am only ever wasting energy that I really should devote to my own race, my own swim.

But it’s the whole idea of outside smoke that really gets me. In Swimming Studies, Leanne Shapton tells us that outside smoke describes an unlikely winner in a race:

The woman with the fastest time after preliminary heats occupies lane four. Second-fastest is in lane five, third in lane three. The rest, in descending order, are in lanes six, two, seven, one, and finally, eight. This placement accounts for the inverted-V formation that typically occurs during a race. A swimmer who leads from lane one, two, seven, or eight is often called “outside smoke."

Swimmers who are understood to be less competitive are placed in the outside lanes of the big races. When you are in the outside lanes, you are at a disadvantage. The water is choppier on the outside. You have to deal with more drag. Being put in lane one or eight means that you are literally racing against expectations and that you will start from a position of disadvantage because of those expectations.

There is something about being outside smoke that seems especially relevant to thinking about difference in the academy. If you are a woman, if you grew up poor, if you're not white, if English is your second language, if you are not able-bodied, if the circuits of your desires didn’t always line up with what dominant culture told you to want, you are swimming a race where you’ve already been put into the position of someone who is not expected to win. You are in lane one or eight. You might have a sense of structural disadvantages but you won’t always be able to name it the way a swimmer who is ready to leap off the block in lane eight will know, before the start gun ever sounds, that she has got to swim faster and against clear structural disadvantages if she wants to win.

Outside of the pool, you don’t even always know that you have been put in a crappy lane. At least in a real race, you can clearly see that you have been given a bad lane to start with. But part of the problem is that everyone tells you that the race to tenure is the same for everyone, when it really isn’t. Or you think you can go to a meeting and say something smart and be heard when what actually happens is that the (inevitably male) chair of the meeting doesn’t hear you and then, when a male colleague says the exact same thing a few minutes later, the chair of the meeting pauses thoughtfully and says, Great point! And then you want to gag or punch the table or both. Sometimes, there is SO much drag to get through before you hit the finish line.

But here’s the thing: you can still win. Remember: swimming has a sexy name for that kind of magic trick. Outside smoke. Here’s the other thing, I look around and I see all kinds of outside smoke all around. It’s amazing. There are so many of you out there, swimming these impossible races, coming up first even though you were given the worst lane to start with, and you are totally doing it. 

It's March and a winter storm is about to descend even though I don't think I can bear one more day in my winter boots. These last few weeks of term always seem so long. Already, twice this month, I've been so sick that I couldn't get out of bed. I am staring down a lot of marking. And deadlines. And everything else. I know you are too. So, I just wanted to remind you, you are amazing. You keep hitting that finish line and beating all the expectations and you have to remember that even though every race you swim is your own, you're on a big team and you're not alone.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

From Dissertation to Book: Doing Your Research

I defended in early September, and after awhile spent ignoring my dissertation completely, I'm about ready to turn my attention to it again. Six months isn't a terribly long time to put it aside--I know lots of people who have taken a couple of years before moving to the monograph stage--but I'm always looking for a new project. And happily, the next stage in this one is one that PhDs are already really good at: research.

Let's assume that you're at the same stage as me in the process of transforming your dissertation into a book. Your pre-proposal online sleuthing needs to get you the information you need about two key things: the presses that you're interested in submitting your proposal to and the acquisitions editors at those presses to whom you're going to direct your pitch (we'll get to that in a minute) and then your proposal.

The first question you need to answer is the question of which academic (or non-academic but scholarly--think Routledge) presses have a mandate and a catalogue that most closely match to your manuscript. This might seem counter intuitive--don't you want to pitch to a press that isn't already publishing competing titles? Ideally, no. You want to find a press that has proven strengths in your field, and that's going to see your book as fitting neatly with their strengths and priorities. Plus, you're going to do such a good job in your proposal of explaining the distinctive value proposition and contribution of your book that it will be clear to the presses you're sending your proposal to that your book will occupy a unique but complementary place on their list.

So your research is going to be aimed at helping you do some monograph matchmaking. The best ways to figure out which presses you want to date are to:

  • Scan your dissertation bibliography and remind yourself about the books that were the most important, and closely related, to your research. Which publishers did they come out with? Were there a number clustered with one press? Put that press on your list to explore further. 
  • Talk to mentors and colleagues in your field. Who have they published with recently? Which presses are doing (and publishing) interesting and innovative work in your field or subfield? Which ones come highly recommended? Which acquisitions editors do they know and trust? 
  • Review the online catalogues of the presses you identified in steps one and two, including recent and forthcoming titles. In which catalogues do you find your book's textual kin (a term I love coined by academic consultant Cathy Hannabach)? (Make sure you take notes on comparable titles that you find during this stage of research, as they're going to form a key part of your proposal). 
Once you've done your research and narrowed down the presses to which you'd be interested in submitting a proposal, it's time to begin researching those elusive and deadly creatures--the acquisitions editors (AEs). These are the people to whom you'll submit your proposal, and their job is to acquire, as the title suggests, new titles (books) for the lists (subject areas) they represent and specialize in. (You find lots of PhDs in AE roles, because they come with built in expertise and academic networks that help them source and evaluate new book proposals and titles to publish). AEs are the gatekeepers, and in pitching or proposing to an AE, you'll need to convince him/her that: 
  • your book fits the press's mandate and 
  • your research and approach is excellent and
  • your book has a strong market and 
  • you're more worth talking to and considering than the next guy
Here's where your online research and academic network comes in. Who do you know who knows the AE responsible for your subject at the presses in which you're interested? What is his/her approach? What feedback have others gotten on their proposals? What kinds of things is the AE just not interested in at all? What books are in the press's pipeline that haven't show up in the catalogue yet but are relevant to your looking into comparable titles and fit? Use that information to customize how you frame your book in the next stage. 

What that next stage is varies. You may choose to do the convincing above via your proposal and cover letter, which I'll talk about in the next post in this series. Or, you might start with a less formal email or conference pitch, which is the route I've gone. The logic is this: you're a busy person, as are the AEs to whom you're sending your non-insubstantial (somewhere in the realm of 10 pages, and always customized to each press's requirements) proposal. (You might be wondering why I'm talking in plural here. Unlike journal articles, it's totally okay at this preliminary stage--right up to when a press asks for a full monograph--to be in discussion with, and to send your proposal to, more than one press.) Why do that work without knowing that the press is even interested? And why not send your proposal to an AE who is already interested in and awaiting (eagerly, one hopes) its arrival? 

Many people pitch their books to editors during meetings that they've set up at the big academic conference in their field, and lots of people have great success doing it that way. Karen Kelsky (aka The Professor Is In) has a handy post on how to approach the conference pitch, and a fantastic script for exactly how to talk about your book to an AE. For those of you like me who aren't always at our annual meetings because of non-academic work commitments, for whom the timeline of the conference doesn't match up with our plans, or who would just rather write to someone than pitch in person, email is the way to go. Many editors also prefer email pitches to in-person ones, either because of personal preference or because their conference schedules are packed--your research into the AEs for your subject should help you figure out which is the case and allow you to plan accordingly. 

The script for an email pitch is very similar to the in-person one Karen gives above, with the addition of the fact that you should always try to leverage useful connections when reaching out to editors. Has your supervisor published with this press, worked this AE, and recommended that you pitch to him/her? Mention that in your email. Did you work with the AE for your field during the gap year you both took between your Master's and PhDs? (True story!) Then make reference to that prior connection when you reach out. As with hiring managers, AEs are likely to pay closer attention to people who are already in, or come recommended by someone in, their network.  

The best-case (although unlikely outcome) of your research and pitch is an invitation to submit a full manuscript. More likely, you'll be asked to submit a proposal, but with the advantage of it being a solicited proposal to which the AE is already kindly disposed. And because the research you've done at this stage is laying a solid foundation, your proposal--which I'll talk about next time--is going to be stellar. So get pitching! 

Monday, March 6, 2017

Guest post: It's Personal

by Marie Carrière

I am on a half-sabbatical leave from my university. And lo and behold, I am working on a book! In a nutshell, my reflection focuses on our present, or late, feminist moment that I call metafeminism. Here is how I am defining metafeminism: I find the idea ensconced in the prefix meta central to understanding this moment; it delineates the reflections and deflections of the several recognizable faces of feminism with which Western culture has grown familiar. Such vacillation of feminism’s tropes, waves, and manifestations is at the heart of my understanding of metafeminism.

But I want to slow down, and I want to write differently.

In Feminism is for Everybody, bell hooks argues that revolutionary feminist theory – meant to inform masses of people and transform the societies we live in – is not, ironically enough, readily available or accessible to a non academic public. It “remains a privileged discourse,” hooks writes, “available to those among us who are highly literate, well-educated, and usually materially privileged.” This is more than a fair point. But unlike hooks’ work here, my essay cannot claim to address anybody other than those already with an interest in feminist thought and writing. I cannot claim nor do I want to pretend that the book I’m writing is not an academically driven project. It stems from my long-standing research into contemporary feminism, especially of the late twentieth century and new millennium. But I am looking to break with the monographic tradition that continues to render so much academic writing, including my own, relevant only to… academic reading and yet more academic writing… I look to also speak to skilled readers and certainly to students curious about feminism’s trajectories through thought and literature.

Of course I am not writing in a generic vacuum with no history. The French essai is a literary genre of writing that comes close to what I have in mind for my book. I’m not sure that “essay” is the most accurate English equivalent. But for now, I’ll take it, with a few qualifications. The online Larousse defines the French term essai as follows:

ouvrage regroupant des réflexions diverses ou traitant un sujet qu’il ne prétend pas épuiser; genre littéraire constitué par ce type d’ouvrages […] action entreprise en vue de réaliser, d’obtenir quelque chose, sans être sûr du résultat ; tentative.

This definition appeals to me. Not only does it help me understand how I might distance my work from the comprehensiveness of the standard academic monograph. It helps me imagine how a personalized (but not, in my case, intimate or confessional) academic essay might take shape and give rise to a different form of scholarly writing.

Simply put, how might I say I in my academic writing?

So “simply put,” that when I read out this last sentence to S., my 13-year old daughter, she replied, “It’s not hard, Maman. We learn that in first grade.”

What I haven’t yet explained to S. is that figuring out how to say I, as a woman, within the academy, even from a tenured, white, cis gender privileged position like my own, is not that simple. Although writing in the first person as a woman will not, of course, automatically produce more accessible scholarship, I still hope that in this essay it might give rise to a different form of scholarly writing. How might I say I in an academic book project and write from a place of intellectual feeling, of literary sensation, and of feminist care? How might I tap into what Audre Lorde describes as a “disciplined attention to the true meaning of ‘it feels right to me’?”

Ann Cvetkovich’s remarkable 2012 book, Depression: A Public Feeling is, unlike my own, partly written in the form of the academic memoir, laying out her personal struggle with depression. Of note is what I would call the metafeminist “rapprochement with legacies of 1970s feminism such as consciousness-raising, personal narrative, and craft” that Cvetkovich recognizes in her blending of memoir and criticism. As in metafeminism, there are in fact multiple sites of influence in Cvetkovich’s work. She also acknowledges the legacy of a generation of feminists including bell hooks, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Jane Gallop who have continued the trend of personal academic writing. And she harks back to the influence of a more marginal feminist confessional zine culture of the early 1990s.

And so, perhaps that’s the big deal (with affection, ma fille): I too would like my own personalized essay to be a kind of rapprochement to these different expressions of feminist thought. To recall a context closer to home, the fiction theories (or fictions théoriques) practiced by feminist and queer Québécois writers in the 1970s (Bersianik, Brossard, Théoret) and their Anglo-Canadian counterparts in the 1980s (Brandt, Marlatt, Tostevin) also serve as my models.

(A girl can dream, especially during a thought experiment.)

I discovered these texts during my undergraduate studies in my early twenties, delving deeper into them in graduate school. Bringing together anglophone and francophone influences has allowed this bilingual feminist room to dream across borders and boundaries. In a sense, these texts have been my feminist super-egos, my propédeutique to literary understanding, my entry into feminist ethics. With their blend of female subjectivity, feeling, creative reflection, and aesthetic experimentation, these authors started to write at an exceptional time in Québécois and Canadian literature, which I examined in my first book (a monograph!). Since then, some, though not numerous, Canadian works of more recent personal criticism by women (Lee Maracle, Catherine Mavrikakis, Andrea Oberhuber, or Erin Wunker) have followed in this vein. Finally, just as Cvetkovich’s turn to the confessional in her critical work on affect fittingly sets out to raise public consciousness through the expression of personal experience and emotion, my own personalized essay, like metafeminism, hopes to fittingly oscillate between various manifestations, or waves, of feminist theory and practice.

Further to the resistance of academic exhaustiveness in my adoption of the personalized essay is perhaps the issue of exhaustion itself. Attributing the appeal of personal memoir in criticism to humanities scholarship’s affective turn (Clough; Gregg and Seigworth), Cvetkovich entertains the idea of personalized academic writing “as a sign of either the exhaustion of theory or its renewed life.” I find the idea very provocative. But I’m also a bit loathe to pigeonhole theory in those terms. I refuse to believe that theory is exhausting, exhausted, or even exhaustive.

Theory, I try to reassure my students (to a variable degree of success), is just theory: a thought experiment, a set of principles, a string of ideas; it’s always historical with a material context, and to an attentive reader willing to take a few risks and work a little harder, it should be no more daunting than any other narrative. But I do think there is room for deeper thinking about why more open forms of theoretical writing, that draw from intimate experience and personal understanding, might be apt at this time in feminist, indeed metafeminist, work. I’m thinking especially of theory that draws from intimate experience and personal understanding, and adopts a jargon-free, intelligible, fathomable language. In what is still a profoundly scholarly meditation on the socio-cultural aspects of depression, Cvetkovich’s book, particularly its “depression journals” segment, is as personal and readable as it is intellectually engaging.

This work also falls in line with other recent turns to academic memoir, such as Maggie Nelson’s brilliant feminist “autotheory” in The Argonauts, at the heart of which she traces her relationship with her fluidly gendered partner, her experience of queer pregnancy, and her realization that pregnancy is queer. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s personal essay We Should All be Feminists, adapted from her TEDx talks of the same title, is in turn an attempt to free feminism from stereotypical notions that Adichie grew up with in Nigeria and still encounters in American culture. (And this is before that orange fuckface entered politics.) Wunker in turn writes, in her own words, at the “interstices of critical and literary theory, pop culture, and feminist thinking” in Notes from a Feminist Killjoy. She posits her use of the pronoun I as a personal and intellectual gesture of positioning herself, textually and socially, as a white privileged woman writing about feminism in Canada today. Most recent is Sara Ahmed’s highly anticipated, Living a Feminist Life, an academic memoir that Ahmed began to construct through her ongoing blog,

To my mind, these works are not exhibiting theoretical exhaustion. They are brazen, filled with admirable feminist boldness, as they pursue the more open forms of writing that may, from a neoliberal standpoint, be slowing them down, and that the neoliberal university may not be ready to fully acknowledge. But these are forms that feminism today – whether intersectional, queer, or oriented around affect studies – fully warrants. Given the accumulation of its multiple variables and directions, metafeminism, to hark back to hooks’ argument, “needs to be written in a range of styles and formats.” I would love to continue to see feminist writing that loosens, as do the works mentioned above, age-old boundaries separating the academic and the personal, or the scholarly and the accessible. I believe such efforts can address the need for stylistic diversity and enrich both a common reading experience and a more specialized scholarly one.

It’s difficult not to notice as well the early second-wave mantra of “the personal is political” being powerfully re-invoked by works like Nelson’s or Cvetkovich’s. Hence my argument that my book, my personalized essay is an attempt, my attempt, at a metafeminist form of academic writing. This project is also an attempt to figure out how my scholarly learning, which is always in process, can breathe life, or let life breathe, into forms of expression that fall outside of strict or standard academic norms of writing. Finally, and maybe this is (too) brazen on my own part, but could these personalized moments in my writing be a form of queering such norms? Through Nelson’s own take, I recall Sedgwick’s controversial notion of queer as encompassing various kinds of disruptions and subversions. “Queer is a continuing moment, movement, motive – recurrent, eddying, troublant […] relational, and strange,” writes Sedgwick, to which Nelson adds:

She wanted the term to be a perpetual excitement, a kind of placeholder – a nominative, like Argo, willing to designate molten or shifting parts, a means of asserting while also giving the slip. That is what reclaimed terms do – they retain, they insist on retaining, a sense of the fugitive.

Meanwhile, Sedgwick also acknowledged the danger of dematerializing the term through this removal of “same-sex sexual expression” from queer’s “definitional center.” As Nelson again adds: “In other words, she wanted it both ways. There is much to be learned from wanting something both ways.” (29).

That’s what metafeminism, by the way, is all about: reflecting and deflecting; having it both ways.

Writing about feminism today, at least for me, craves a suppler form than the monograph allows. One that’s less exhaustive and less exhaustible, one that’s fugitive perhaps, and maybe even queer. One that wants it both ways. To write, then, an academic personalized essay. To take the unfinished wave of a scholarly attempt, and to chase the tides of feminism’s first, second, third, and even fourth movements in the texts of Canadian women writers today. Maybe a personalized essay is the only form possible for an academic study of metafeminism. Vast and extensive in historicity as well as content, metafeminism encompasses what has been referred to for some time as feminisms in the plural; it denotes those shifting parts of sexual, racial, gender, and trans identities articulated beyond the normative categories of a very old and very persistent patriarchal tradition. Perhaps metafeminism’s breadth, multidirectional texture, and ambivalences, indeed its queerness, already resist the monograph – the highly detailed, authoritative, legitimized account of a single thing.

Perhaps only the essai personnalisé, with its open process and its desire to give academic discipline the slip, will do.

Marie Carrière directs the Canadian Literature Centre at the University of Alberta where she also teaches literature in English and in French. Her most recent publication is a critical anthology co-edited with Curtis Gillespie and Jason Purcell, Ten Canadian Writers in Context.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Going old school: the return of pen and paper

It's not so long ago that I finished the revisions to my dissertation and submitted the final version--not even six months. And I developed a very structured and consistent writing practice during the years I was finishing it, one that relied entirely on technology. Because I wrote in short bursts in multiple locations--at home before work, on my lunch at work, in transit--I relied heavily on the ability of my Macbook, iPad, and iPhone to sync seamlessly so that I could write on anything, from anywhere, and (because I keep all of my research backed up to Google Drive) access my research at the same time.

But after I submitted my dissertation and tried to apply the writing practice I'd developed to other projects, and even to old ones--I'm writing fiction, working on the book proposal for my dissertation monograph, publishing articles with Chronicle Vitae and Inside Higher Ed, putting together three separate book chapters, and of course writing here--I failed. I'd sit down at the computer and come up empty. The white vastness of a blank Word document was paralyzing. My old strategy--sit at computer, write things--no longer worked.

But I had a thought. About halfway through 2016, I decided to abandon my 100% digital task- and time-management system (Todoist + Google/Outlook calendars) and go back using a physical planner/journal. I'd been pseudo bullet journalling for a long time before I decided to move digital, and so I went back to it in a slightly different form, using the awesome Hobonichi Techo Cousin planner, plus a Rhodia notebook for longer notes, lists, and my cooking and reading journals. (Yes, I'm a planner geek. But if you're into "bujo," as the kids call it these days, or into fountain pens and good paper, you know that Hobonichis and Rhodias are awesome.) I'd also been gifted a couple of gorgeous entry-level fountain pens (a lime green Twsbi Diamond 780 and a gold Pilot Metropolitan, for those of you who like pens) as graduation presents. And I found that I really loved the tactility of planning and recording my days on paper. The feeling of a super smooth fountain pen nib on Rhodia paper is really nice, and writing on paper is physically and visually pleasurable in a way that makes me want to find something to write just for the fun of seeing the bold black lines of my handwriting against the white sheet. Too, I loved the way that handwriting slowed and controlled my thoughts, narrowed my focus only to the words I was thinking and placing on the page before me.

My planner + case combo. 
So I picked up a big Rhodia notebook and began working out my ideas for those bigger writing projects on paper. Articles for IHE and Chronicle Vitae that I'd been stuck on streamed out. I didn't even need to write out the whole piece for the move to paper to be effective--handwriting got me over the hurdle of getting started and drafting the first few tricky paragraphs, and I could then outline the rest and type it up fast. Same goes for my book proposal--I was stuck until I put pen to paper--and all of my recent Hook & Eye posts, which I've entirely handwritten. I'm working toward drafting longer book chapters on paper, and to making this writing practice as sustainable as the old one was for me--I had to take a bit of a break after finishing my dissertation, but I'm ready to get back to the levels of writing productivity and consistency I had then, and indeed I'm nearly there.

Handwriting this post. 
If you know me, you know I'm all for new technology where it makes my life better or easier. I love my Chromecast and my iPhone and my wifi-enabled lightbulbs. But in this case, old technologies--the smooth glide of ink, the delicious curves of cursive, the stark contrast of soot-black ink on snowy white paper--serve me better and give me more pleasure. I'm on the lookout for other places in my life where that might also be the case: I still do a fair bit of digital reading, but I'm trying to spend more time with actual books. I'm all for a newfangled loaf of Jim Lahey's no knead bread, but I'm also baking sourdough with my own starter.

Just don't make me give up my Instant Pot.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

I get by with a little help from my friends ... and structural privilege

So here is a thing that happened: last Wednesday at lunchtime, about 16 hours after I put up my post about academic overwhelm, anxiety, and insomnia, my chair emailed me to offer a department-funded grader for 50 hours.

I'm going to wait while you process that for a moment.

How do you feel about it? Tenured prof teaching two classes gets 50 hours of grader help. Prominent blogger complains to the internet, gets rescued by soft money. Struggling and ill professor gets needed accommodation, informally. People behaved like humans to help another human. All of these humans are very privileged. People have way more urgent problems than this prof.

Me? I have many feelings. I feel tremendous relief. I feel tremendous guilt. I have something that feels a bit like shame swirling around. I am embarrassed. I feel grateful.

Those 50 hours are going to cover most of the rest of the grading for my first year class, with 40 students handing in 1 page assignments for the next three weeks with five-day turnarounds, and then handing in 5-7 page papers after that, and then an exam. It's going to free up about 6-8 hours per week for the rest of the term, hours that I desperately need to do admin work, the grading for my other course, and my prep. I feel I can breathe again, like the level of busyness this 50 hours buys me will be keep me on the intense side of the line, but not on the impossible end of the spectrum where it was before. I have stopped panicking. I only worked for 2 hours instead of 10 this weekend. I needed this.

And yet.

Many colleagues teach more courses and more students than me, labour under the same or worse health constraints as I face, have less security, don't have offices with chairs to push together for a nap, can't commute on foot to get some needed fresh air. It was intimated to me that the help is justified under the cover of my (actually pretty damn heavy) administrative role. I am the exception. But there's nothing really special about me, no way I deserve any more than any one else. In many ways I feel I deserve it less.

Here is another thing that happened: when this incredible gift was offered to me, I almost turned it down, because I didn't want to be a bother. Also, weirdly, I wanted somehow, deep inside, to tough it out and be a hero, even though the point of my post was to deflate precisely that kind of thinking, that hazing model of academic excellence and bravura. But there it was, in my own head. And then: once I accepted, I felt so much better able to cope with what was left on my plate that I doubted whether I was actually unwell enough to deserve the help in the first place.

I'm narrating all this for you because it is evidence of the structural problems of the academy and my own deeply fucked-up reactions to a needed offer of help. I could show you my FitBit sleep logs and you would see how little rest I have been getting. I've been subtweeting my own anxiety for months, under panic of light jokes, like this little one from early in the term:

That tweet? It's top of mind because yesterday all of a sudden it was all over my mentions again: my tweet was embedded on the main page of Twitter in one of its 'Moments' feature. Heading? "Ha Ha Ha" with a gif of a kitten falling asleep standing up and falling over. It was a collection of ha-ha-funny tweets all containing the word 'micro sleep.' But it's not funny. I did fall asleep sitting up grading. I did have a semi-lucid dream. Ha ha ha. Now I've got 270 likes and a bunch of retweets labelled 'teacher problems, lol.' These should not be teacher problems.

I'm not asking for you to absolve me, dear colleagues. I just need you to know (since so many of you were so kindly solicitous of my situation) that things are considerably better now. And I wish such happy outcomes were equally available to all of us academic workers. And that even though I seem to be pretty open about how awful I felt and how poorly I was doing, I still don't want to accept help and don't feel like I deserve it. I went back to class today considerably springier in my step, staring down a full but not overwhelming work week, with a smile and plan. That felt good. But it feels terrible to know that others don't feel near so well.