Uncategorized

How to Write an Academic Cover Letter

 

 

RE-POST: It’s the academic job application season again. That means many of you are either writing cover letters, or reading drafts of cover letters from your students. Either way, we can all learn from the very smart Lai-Tze Fan! It’s academic job season. Her advice on writing a cover letter is SO GOOD. Without further ado…

Image via

Recently, I’ve offered to look over the cover letters of a few people applying to professor positions. The academic cover letter is a unique genre, and getting it right is as hard as the first time you wrote a grant proposal. It is your brief chance to show a search committee what you have to offer–including your existing/future research, your teaching methods, and that you’d be a great colleague. The cover letter is less finicky than the grant proposal (hurray, no citations!), but needs to be both cleaner and even more persuasive.

We all know the precarious futures of young academics, as well as the struggles faced by those who have been on the job market for six months or six years. I don’t judge anyone for going into alt-ac or leaving academia all together; some of the smartest people in my PhD cohort chose not to finish the degree, preferring other paths that I’m sure make them happy, and I am happy for them.

For those who want to stay, I’d like to offer suggestions based on my own experiences, noting that different disciplines may have fine-tuned requirements that I haven’t acknowledged here or even differing advice. As I will state at the end, I welcome additional tips that others in the community have to add. Please post them below!

Some background information: I’ve been lucky and am extremely grateful to have had interviews every season and back-to-back tenure-track jobs. I am not guaranteeing anything– these are just observations I’ve made in applying to nearly thirty jobs (some research-focused and some teaching-focused), serving on search committees, and editing dozens of cover letters for others.

I realize the length of the list is daunting. Think of it this way: after the job season, you’ll have written maybe half a dozen varieties of research- and teaching-focused letters. Let’s say you are an artist: maybe one letter highlights creative practice, one highlights curriculum building, one is suited for a fine arts department, one for social science, and one for the humanities. You now have templates that can be recycled and tweaked for most future job applications, but the first time is usually the hardest.

A lot of these suggestions you may already know. I hope the list may be useful, but whether or not it is, please offer your own advice to other scholars giving the job market a shot. I myself focus on helping young scholars, including women and non-binary people, and especially those of colour like me.

These suggestions aren’t necessarily in order, but I’ve also organized them in a way that, if you prefer, can be followed step-by-step.

Note on terminology: I was trained in Canada, so some of my terminology will reflect this. Other countries and systems have their preferred terms for “tenure” (such as “substantiation”), graduate students (“postgrads”), and various levels of teaching positions (“lecturer” in Canada vs. the UK). Please keep these variations in mind for your own job-seeking needs.

Throughout this document, the word “department” is used, but may also refer to specialized programs, research labs, centres, etc. to which you may be applying.

BEFORE YOU START

The #1 rule

Do not waste the search committee’s time. Don’t give them extra work or extra pages, don’t submit something that is incomplete, and don’t mislead them with confusing information.

Optional: Crack down on social media

The world of academia is small. Scholars that are associated or in close contact with any departments to which you apply shouldn’t be able to see questionable photos on your Instagram or read unprofessional posts on Facebook. Please don’t think that I am suggesting that friends who are academics do not care about who you are; nor would I ever advocate for faculty members to share others’ private information (we have witnessed these breaches of privacy and everyone gets upset). What I refer to is a scholar’s conflict of interest that might put them in a professional bind; maybe they’d even like to help you out, but they may excluded from important conversations because they are a bit too close to a job candidate.

Again, this is up to you! But if you are interested in limiting social media, then you could, for instance, place select people on private/acquaintance lists, have separate personal accounts, or even temporarily deactivate. If you haven’t done this yet, that’s ok: start now and limit visibility on previous posts that are questionable. What counts as sharing too much information you can decide for yourself, but as a rule of thumb, do not publicly criticize your current department and students, nor the department to which you’re applying or its faculty members. You are entitled to your own opinions, but you are also entitled to protect them.

ONTO THE LETTER

2.5 pages max

The cover letter should be 2.5 pages max, even with a signature at the bottom and your school logo/letterhead at the top (if you are currently affiliated with a school, then do use their logo and make it small). The signature adds a personalized touch.

Do your homework

Following the rule of not wasting the search committee’s time, take the time to learn what this department is about. Go online and explore their website, perhaps for 30 minutes per university. Familiarize yourself with their and the university’s research/mission statements. Do they offer their students/graduate students professionalized degrees–which means they want practical and culturally engaged work? Do they offer a more conservative or more experimental approach to their course offerings and/or graduate programs?–or is it a mix? Which faculty members do similar research to yours and in what ways do you offer something different (just figure this out, but never state in the cover letter why you are different from Professor X or Y)? What does their curriculum look like?

Other questions to consider, but which you may not want to address in your cover letter: Are they interested in collectively answering a problem–such as lowering the carbon footprint or greater representation for Indigenous students, cultures, and histories? Are they Hispanic serving? Is there a high number of international students? Is their student body composed of many “first-generation students” (this means something specific in the USA compared to Canada)?

The gist is: find out what they care about and what they’re dedicated to demonstrating to their current/prospective students, and make sure you explicitly state how your research, teaching, and/or service may share some of the same concerns. From what others have said, this method has never failed in making me stand out as a serious candidate in cover letters, Skype interviews, and campus interviews: learn about their goals and respect who they are; write them a letter that is unique to them; do not waste anyone’s time, including your own.

Optional: Write it as a story

While very few scholars have focused all of their work around a central interest, your task is to find a central interest or concern that can encompass many (not necessarily all; do not force it) of your work. The effect of the storytelling cover letter is that it can make you look focused and consistent, and the bonus is that central interests are often expressed in very simple and recognizable academic language: “I work on the representation of LGBTQ+ communities”; “I work on people’s relationship with food”; “I work on youths’ relationship with social media.”

Examples would be helpful, so I’ll plug them in when I can. My own cover letters have noted my interest in many media forms, including photography, print texts, and computational media. My method of tying these together is to state that “I work on storytelling in and across media,” which allows me to include traditional and experimental modes of storytelling. Not only does this narrative justify why some of my publications are on literature and some are on smart phone apps, it also makes it easier for committees to trace my career trajectory from being a literary scholar to a media scholar.

This overarching narrative allows the committee to follow an explicit argument, which many cover letters do not have. Cohesion is key here, so that everything seems to have its place. That does not mean the narrative is even accurate, but it’s the effect you’re going for.

Organize for easy/fast reading

It helps to organize sections so that they’re easy to skim. If you like, you can use headers such as “Background”/”Education,” “Research,” “Teaching,” and “Service” (call them whatever). What I cannot stress enough, however, is to start every section with one overarching sentence that summarizes the rest of the section. The sentence should take a structure like this (let’s say it’s the Research section): “My research focuses on [central concern] through a, b, and c,” where a, b, and c are your main qualities/interests in each area. The rest of the paragraph is up to you, as long as it covers a, b, and c–preferably in order.

The rule of thumb is to imagine that your reader will only read each header and the overarching sentence. What do they need to know? When you’re editing the cover letter, see if a stranger can figure out what you work on and teach just by skimming the letter.

Note: I’ve seen many cover letters that discuss educational background with research or that don’t have a service section at all. My advice here is to appeal to the department to which you’re applying: for example, if they clearly pride themselves on service or community engagement, then do not leave out a Service section!

THE CONTENT

Read the job call

Unless a general description has been used, a lot of what the committee wants you to speak to in detail–especially in your cover letter–is already in the job call, thus revealing exactly what you should focus on. The call will often state what position the job is trying to fill: sexuality studies? Critical race studies? If the job call includes a long list of desired expertise, the first two or three are the main foci, and the rest are perks that you can choose to mention as desired.

Based on these listed expertise, mention in every section you offer (research, teaching, etc.) how you approach these area(s) with specific examples–and here, it is again beneficial to take a look at the existing curriculum. What concentrations do the department or their programs offer?

What’s the difference among cover letters for research jobs, teaching jobs, and contract jobs?

This is possibly the most common question. Unfortunately, research positions, teaching positions, and short-term/contract positions each require unique content. I will try to be specific, but do have a look at the job call and use your judgement to figure out what kind of requirements are asked of you; tailor the cover letter to suit.

First, know the difference. A quick Google search may be enough to tell you if a university is research or teaching intensive; on Wikipedia, my institution is listed as “a public research university.” Then have a look at the website of the department/program/centre to which you’re applying and read for what their undergraduate and graduate programs offer potential students: are they intent on professionalization and internships? Do they stress being trained in critical theory? Very quickly you will figure out what kind of department you’re dealing with. That said, the job call may reflect this or may deviate slightly. For additional information, also see the item “include a summary of your teaching philosophy” below.

Note: if you’re applying to an American university, you can check out their research/teaching classification according to the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education (where, for instance, PhDs are only granted by “R” or “Research”-level universities).

If you are applying to a research-heavy position, the Research section of your letter should take precedence. Make sure you present a comprehensive research pipeline (academic speak for “your next books/projects”) that shows, regardless of whether you are finishing your dissertation or you’ve been on the market for five years, that you can hold your own as a serious researcher. You’re publishing in refereed journals; you’re collaborating as befits your discipline (and maybe it doesn’t); you are applying or at least planning to apply for research grants. Make yourself look like you’re full of research ideas, full of energy, full of action. For more on this, see the item below entitled “present yourself as a multi-faceted scholar, not a one-trick pony.”

Note: If your dissertation or another book-length (research or creative) project is being edited or submitted for publication, say so, and also state which presses you will or intend to submit it to.

If you are applying to a teaching-heavy position with some research (such as some 1- and 3-year positions, including limited-term appointments and visiting assistant professorships), the teaching section of your cover letter should use the same amount of space as the research section. It is vital that you do not present yourself as foremost a researcher, but as equally researcher and teacher, or perhaps as a research-minded teacher. Ideally, you will present yourself as someone whose research interests have shaped your exciting pedagogical methods. Here, the “write it as a story” method of cover letter writing is effective, especially in communicating an earnest account of how your research and teaching are intertwined. Make sure that your Teaching Dossier, if requested, offers concrete examples of your experiences. I know many disapprove of sharing free sample syllabi in job applications; how many you choose to share is ultimately up to you, but if you want to do it, then include syllabi for classes you’ve previously taught (if applicable) and mock syllabi that suit the needs of the department to which you’re applying.

If you are applying to a teaching-only position (including full-time, part-time, and contract lectureships and limited-term appointments), your research statement may be no more than a paragraph to explain your background and maybe to offer context to your teaching interests. Simply put, unless a teaching-heavy job call notes that there are some research expectations, this position involves little to no research. Therefore, it is extremely crucial that you do not present yourself as a researcher or even as a teacher who is interested in making the jump to a more research heavy position in the future. Focus on sharing your teaching experiences, especially if you’ve ever worked as a writing instructor, a tutor, a mentor, a course designer, a translator, or if you’ve instructed in other languages, education systems, or countries. Mention any relevant pedagogical training you’ve had that may be an asset. The advice above about including sample syllabi holds; in fact, in many cases, job calls may ask for it

Jobs asking for curriculum and program development

If the job call notes that the successful applicant will develop a new program (graduate, undergraduate, certificate), then speak to your experiences especially in teaching and service in designing courses/capstone projects in this field, developing curriculum changes, and/or participating in meetings and committees where such changes have been made. Following the section above, it may be beneficial to include sample syllabi to show the depth or breadth of your design and development capabilities.

The interdisciplarian

The presentation of oneself as interdisciplinary without seeming “watered down” is a common concern for young scholars who did or are doing PhDs that are interdisciplinary, non-specific, and non-traditional. I would spend no more than two lines making an argument for this, though, as everyone is ultimately interdisciplinary: a full-time faculty member cannot be a one-trick pony who produces one major project. If successful in acquiring a tenure-track position, you would be expected to juggle research, courses, service, and student projects/theses/dissertations from a variety of fields, so interdisciplinarity means flexibility. In your cover letter (and also in potential interviews), do not apologize for your diverse background. Do try to highlight which one (or two) areas in your interdisciplinary work most strongly match the job call, proposing it as an asset that you have all this under your belt–and more! The key is to avoid looking unfocused. Instead, foreground your high aptitude in select areas.

There are a few ways to present interdisciplinary research. You could briefly speak to how your expertise in X, Y, and Z areas allows you to–or, how it is even necessary to–address the current state of [your central interest/concern]. Or, structure this sentence backwards: the current state of [your central interest/concern] requires that your dissertation bring together X, Y, and Z areas.

If you’d like to explicitly state the value of connecting multiple disciplines for your research, have a look at the argument you made in your dissertation literature review that brings together these various fields. The literature review might argue what the connection is, as well as how your approach is unique in bringing these together; however, the cover letter is not the place to persuade the search committee of this novelty. Instead, the cover letter should get to the gist of the results/payoff: summarize, in plain language, what the disciplinary connections bring to your research or how they advance the project.

I’m certain that others have more advice about how to present oneself as an interdisciplinary scholar; please do share your thoughts if you’re comfortable.

Avoid too many details

What a search committee wants to glean from the cover letter is who you are as a general package, not about the contributions of every article you’ve published/submitted and the details of every class you’ve taught. If they want details, they will go to your CV, so only mention major milestones/accomplishments that contribute to an overall argument/story/focus in your cover letter. Lists are your friend. Use plain language and curriculum-esque categories that anyone on the committee, regardless of their expertise, would understand. For example, if you work on fashion in Jane Austen novels, you could say that you draw from literary studies, gender studies, and consumer culture–three areas that are general enough for you to riff off of, discussing how you’ve extended one or more of these to related or future research projects.

If the application calls for a separate Research Statement, Teaching Dossier, or otherwise, then leave these sections (Research, Teaching) short and sweet in the cover letter (again, lists are your friend!), followed by “For more information, please see the attached [STATEMENT].” This means that these sections of your cover letter need to be impactful enough for the search committee to get an idea of what you do and to be eager to look at the separate attachment. If you’re working on a new book or project, give a one-liner on what it’s about or what it’s called, then let the separate statement say the rest.

Note: Unless stated otherwise, Teaching Dossiers should be 20 pages, give or take a few pages. Be strategic in what you choose to include, shaping the Dossier around the job and therefore not including every teaching evaluation or sample syllabus you possess. Pick syllabi that most strongly reflect the department’s current curriculum as well as the general areas they are seeking to fill in their job call. For teaching evaluations, all you need is an average of the scores or the average score of each question. You can always say that originals (evaluations, letters of recommendation, etc., are available upon request).

You’re a multi-faceted scholar, not a one-trick pony

You are no longer or soon will no longer be a graduate student. Do not present your dissertation as the only research project in your cover letter; do not treat it as your magnum opus. Instead, extend the dissertation and any other side projects/publications you’ve worked on by explaining how they have led to your current and next research questions or projects. One of the biggest mistakes I see in cover letters for research-based jobs is when an applicant doesn’t list their three- and five-year research plans, which is one thing a research-based institution will ask about if you get a first-stage and campus interview. So let them know early: what is the next book or project going to be? Also mention any grants or projects you’re excited to get up and running.

If you’ve picked the “write it as a story” approach, you could present your research plans as the next step in the story after the dissertation, mentioning in 1-2 sentences the way your next book/project answers questions or extends issues raised by your original interests. Everything comes tied together this way.

Taking this one from Prof. Jennifer Harris at U Waterloo (thanks, Jennifer!): If you’re a scholar who focuses on a single author, “you need to work harder to prove your interests extend beyond that author. Don’t spend all your time [explaining] how innovative your approach to that author–show that this inflects your understanding more broadly.”

Be clear when listing publications and accomplishments

Use numbers to save room and create quick effect. You currently have: X refereed journal articles, X forthcoming, X submitted for consideration; X book chapters, X forthcoming, X submitted; and so forth. Unless it’s a book, you’ve won an award, or there’s a very important co-author, there’s no need to name most or any of the publications; that’s what your CV is for. If you’re comfortable, you can also mention that you have X institutional, association, national, and/or international grants/scholarships won, for a total of $X.

Do not try to “trick” the committee with fancy numbers or misleading organization. A common way this is occurs is when scholars state in their cover letters or CVs that they have “7 publications” when they actually have 2 refereed journal articles, 3 non-refereed journal articles, and 2 book chapters. If you’ve done this by mistake, change it, as unclear organization or formatting makes it difficult for the committee to break down your contributions. And yes, it does matter: for every 1 kind committee member who takes time to look up these individual publications, 9 may toss out the application.

Name dropping may be a waste of space

Don’t make the letter about other scholars you’ve worked with, because the committee is potentially interested in you. Talk about you. There’s a small exception to this: if you’ve worked with a person who is very important to the field that the job call is seeking, it may be worth to quickly mention the collaboration. What I’m critiquing is name dropping to excess or mentioning names that won’t mean much to some members of a (likely interdisciplinary) committee. Don’t waste space with this.

On the subject of name dropping, do not mention members of the faculty that you’d like to work with or who you are inspired by (this is more likely something to do during a campus interview if you and a faculty member are getting along, but even then, avoid being overly presumptuous). It is possible for you to engage with or collaborate with some of these people if you get the job, but until you are successful, you cannot know about internal politics in the department. I don’t mean to be unkind, but naming current faculty who interest you is actually a tip for graduate school applications; doing so in an academic cover letter might suggest that you still think of yourself as a student instead of as a potential colleague.

Include a summary of your teaching philosophy

Unless the job call is completely administrative, the cover letter should have a teaching section. The length of the section will vary depending on what the position is looking for, but even if a separate teaching dossier is requested, your cover letter should still state what kind of teacher you are.

In plain language, include a brief summary of your teaching philosophy that is founded on your interests and experiences. For instance, following the “write it as a story” technique, I say that my research on digital devices has led me to think about the ubiquity of popular media for today’s undergraduate student; therefore, I train students to think about digital cultures and technologies both in the classroom and in their lives, aiming to extend their critical thinking to everyday situations.

Back to stating what kind of teacher you are. Ideally, you are the kind of teacher who fits easily into a department’s existing curriculum (and if requested in the job call, also their future plans). It is not helpful nor your place to propose reinventing their wheel; instead, state your teaching areas/interests so that they complement the department’s offerings and concentrations. If you are applying to a department that is slightly different from or more specific than your training, shift the language into their court. For example, if you did your PhD in media studies in a social science department and are applying for a media studies position in a humanities department, words such as “communication,” “policy,” and “technology” can be replaced with “rhetoric,” “system,” and “media.”

Finally, ask others to read it over

It doesn’t hurt to exchange letters and get the insight of others. (:

 

There is a comment section below. Please add your own tips and suggestions, including anything you think I’ve missed!

Lai-Tze Fan is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Waterloo, conducting research in the Critical Media Lab. She is also an Associate Editor and Director of Communications of electronic book review. For more information, visit https://laitzefan.com

image001

Uncategorized

Sisyphus & Seaweed: Reflections on Repetition

Last weekend, as I was in the middle of dumping a wheelbarrow full of seaweed back into the ocean, I had a flashback to my first-year literature course. Specifically, I thought about Sisyphus.

Sisyphus, as you may well recall, was a royal fellow who was punished by the gods for being too self-aggrandizing. His punishment was to roll a massive boulder up a hill and, when he had nearly completed his task, the boulder would roll down to the bottom of the hill and he would have to begin all over again. Labour to roll that heavy thing up a hill, watch that heavy thing succumb to gravity and the whim of things more powerful that you. That was Sisyphus’s lot.

I learned about Sisyphus in my introduction to literature course, and it was not the classical version, but Camus’s rendition, “The Myth of Sisyphus.” Camus’s spin on the story figures Sisyphus as an absurdist hero of sorts. There goes Sisyphus! Doing it! Even though it is going to need doing again!

I remember being fascinating with both the story and the fact that a writer could come along and make a familiar story their own. Surely, I had encountered some version of this before–through memory, or family history, or any other oral story telling–but for whatever reason Sisyphus stuck in my mind.

And there was the story again last week, with me as I raked and gathered wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow full of seaweed, rocks, and sticks that had been washed up from the ocean during the most recent hurricane. Rake, gather, lift, wheel, dump, repeat.

There is something strange about raking seaweed off a lawn and dumping it back into the ocean. Perhaps it is the uncanny knowledge that almost certainly you’ll be doing it again soon. Maybe it is the total respect for things stronger than yourself–ocean, wind, storms. Rake, gather, lift, wheel, dump, repeat.

My work went on for several hours. As my arms grew tired and then eventually started to shake, as my heart rate elevated and I sweat and sweat and sweat some more, as I had to take more breaks for water and to fix the blisters on my hands, a strange thing happened. I leaned into the work. I enjoyed it, even. While I know that it is work that will just be done again, there was a sense of accomplishment as hauled more and more seaweed back to the ocean. With this sense of accomplishment, and with my memories of Sisyphus on the edge of my mind, I thought about how I tend to launch into each new semester with the energy of a person being chased–and how that energy is unsustainable.

The structure of academia–its possibilities, its tacit knowledges, its restrictions and limitations–means that there are times (many times) that the work feels repetitive and endless. But, as I raked, gathered, lifted, and dumped over and over again, I remembered that there are more narratives of repetition and perseverance than Sisyphus alone. Many more. Most, at least in my memory archive, are feminist stories of perseverance.

Feminist work is perseverance work. It, like other kinds of justice work, requires certain kinds of repetition. It is, I think, endless labour.

And when I stopped to think about feminist work in the space of the academy–the place where I will perhaps labour for the entirety of my adult life–I remembered a key difference between Sisyphus and the seaweed I was hauling. That seaweed feeds the garden. It is nutritive and organize. What I rake up next time won’t be the same. The labour might feel the same, but it won’t be identical. And the work? Its necessary and nutritive too. I just need to remember to stop more often, to rest, to drink water, and to reflect.

If you need that too, here is a wonderful reminder from poet Kaitlyn Boulding called “Questions to Ask Yourself Before Giving Up.”

advice · change management · community · equity · ideas for change · saving my sanity

Woman, interrupted: a guide for men

giphy

image via

It’s a new school year and, if you work in a college or university, that means another year of meetings. Woohoo! I’m in a lot of meetings and I think a lot about how to have a better meeting. One of the things that makes some meetings really dispiriting are unwanted interruptions from male, and male-identified, colleagues who stop women from speaking.

We already know that men often interrupt women in a meeting. It is a “universal phenomenon.” And we have a lot of good thoughts and suggestions for what women should do when men interrupt them. It’s got a hashtag, #manterruption, and there’s even an app to track it. The current global interruption rate is 1.4 times a minute.

But there is surprisingly little help for men who interrupt women. We know what women should do when they get interrupted. But men shouldn’t be left out. There should be a guide for them too.

Never fear! Hook & Eye is here to help! Here’s a friendly letter for your male colleagues and mine:

Dear Male Colleague in a Meeting,

It’s really great to see you here! Collegial process is so important and I am so grateful that you have taken the time to come to this meeting. Having your depth of experience and expertise at this table, or in this room, makes all of our work better. I know you know a LOT. It might sometimes (often?) happen that you have the urge to share your knowledge urgently even though someone else is already talking. Maybe the other person who is already talking is a woman? Especially if the other person is talking is a woman, please, I beg you, pause for a moment and consider withdrawing your desire to interrupt and ask the following questions:

  1. Do you really need to do this? Can this point wait until the speaker has finished talking?
  2. Is this an unwanted interruption? That is, does anyone else want you to interrupt?

You might ask, how can I tell if this is an unwanted interruption?

Good question! I’m so glad you asked.

Consider: will this interruption help the speaker clarify or further her point? will this interruption upset and destabilize the speaker so that she loses her train of thought and has trouble continuing to make her point? would other people at the meeting want me to interrupt?

Not sure? That’s good. I work in the liberal arts where embracing uncertainty is one of the cornerstones of intellectual inquiry.

Here’s a quick and easy way to get some answers: ask someone, preferably a woman. Pass them a note. Whisper in their ear. Send them a text or DM. If you’re really organized, before the meeting, arrange for sign that you can make to a colleague, preferably a woman, who will be in the room and she can tell you if your interruption will be welcome.

Ok, you’ve checked and this interruption really would be welcome. Great! But you still shouldn’t be the person interrupting. You still have to withdraw.

Ask a colleague, definitely preferably a woman, to do it for you. This is a terrific way to triple check that the interruption really is wanted. And to make sure that you’re not another dude preventing a woman from speaking.

I know, all this takes time. The meeting is moving fast and you want to interrupt because this point is urgent. You’ve got to trust me on this. It’s not so urgent that it can’t wait a few moments so that you can be really sure that this is a good move.

Thank you. Welcome back. Let’s have a great year of meetings and let’s try for no more meetings where men interrupt women.

academic work · change management · new year new plan · Uncategorized

September is for looking forward

Twenty-two years ago my mom drove me from my summer job at the family business in Ontario to begin my first year of university in North Carolina.

Seventeen years ago I moved from the interior of British Columbia to Quebec to start my Masters at McGill.

Fifteen years ago I moved from Montreal to Calgary to start a PhD.

Ten years ago I moved across the country to start a ten-month contract as Dalhousie.

Nine years ago we began Hook & Eye: Fast Feminism, Slow Academe.

Six years ago I started a twelve-month contract at Mount Allison University.

Five years ago I was teaching sessionally and my partner was teaching on contract. We had a five month old infant and no regular child care.

Four years ago I was on an with-month contract at Acadia University.

Three years ago I started a tenure-track position.

So much of my life has been organized around the ebb and flow of an academic timeline.  At times this has felt thrilling. At others, it has been oppressive and scary. Often, it has been something in between, and much of that has been tied to the more-or-less precarious state I’ve been living.

As we enter this new school year I find myself reflecting not only on my own trajectory–warts, roses, and all the rest of it–I find myself thinking about the ways in which communities are made and re-made in the spaces around and in academia. Hook & Eye was imagined as one such possible space.

This year, as we revivify the work we do here, and as we look toward a full decade of feminist academic blogging, I find myself grateful for what has come before, and excited for what is to come.

Welcome. Welcome back. Let’s get to work, and let’s balance that work with the rest of our fulsome lives.

 

 

conferences · self care · selfcare · Uncategorized

(Re)Balance

When I’m feeling scattered and panicked, like I’m all fizzy brain and frazzle plan, reactive instead of active, there’s a little yoga exercise I do. I’m doing it a lot, because it’s conference season and I spun really fast from my very first Trudeau Foundation Summer Retreat / Institute for Engaged Leadership in rural Québec right back out to Congress in Vancouver. A lot of people I know are in similar situations, bouncing from one thing to the next, high speed, scattering powerpoints and nametags and boarding passes as they go.

This might be you, too. You might like my yoga trick, then.

I call it the re-balance. I roll myself heavily from standing down into a loose forward fold, legs a little wider, knees more than a little bent, back snake-y, arms hung long from unstructured shoulders. I literally hang out. I feel the blood shift through my neck, my face, making my head feel heavier and warmer. I contemplate my toes. My arms get heavy. My thighbones push back deeply into my hip sockets. My outer hips stretch long, an unexpected sensation. The big glute muscles in my butt and the hamstring muscles in the backs of my legs wake up, producing more unexpected sensations. I just haaaaaaaang ooooooouuuuut for a bit, notice the shift in perspective, in my body, and then in my head. Good. We could stop here. Forward folds are yoga’s chill pill. This might be enough. Catch your breath. Take a pause.

But there’s more. With as little movement as I can, I shift my weight forward in my feet, and feel how my body compensates to keep from falling over. One toe or two push a little harder, one little muscle on the side of my shin fired up. When I find this new micro-balance, I shift again, back or to the right or to the left, unsettling and then finding anew my balance. If I’m a bit tippier than usual, I might spider-out my fingertips onto the floor to help me feel where the balance comes from. And more: now I close my eyes, and do it all over again: the balance and the proprioception is different without the visual cues. I’ll shift my upper body. Or straighten my knees maybe, or deepen their bend.

The longer I do this, the more I feel my soul coming back into my body, the more my breathing will slow, my heart rate even out, my panic subside. The more I feel … what? Not so much control, but a sense of purpose or at least agency. Groundedness. I am aware of the little muscles in my feet, the little movements made possible by the little spaces between my vertebra, uncompressed and flipped. By just stopping, and attending to my feelings of overwhelm by addressing them through stillness and and little movements and gentleness and attention, I remember that, actually, I can stop.

I can stop.

I remember, too, that my big clever fancy brain is just one part of who I am, that this brain is for feelings as much as it is for Big Ideas. That this brain is not just attached to but a fundamental part of my body, that my body has needs, needs for movement, for stillness, for variety, for food, for the sensation of sunshine on my belly and smoothed out beach rocks under my back. That I’m not just eyes for reading, but eyes to look up from where I’m standing, to get a little dizzy at the bigness and the farness of the mountains that surround us here. Ears not just for taking in words but for birdsong, for the multi-dimensionality of space and scale and distance evoked by the tips of very tall trees in the wind, a muffled highway, the dampening effect of leaf litter on footfall, the hither-and-yon rustling of ferns and scrub in the undergrowth right next to me, or fifty feet away.

So much of academic work seems to press against, to dissolve our boundaries, to disrespect them in some fundamental way. Thou shalt have no other god than reading, and that for 12 hours a day. The emails must be answered right now. You are only as good as the next thing on the horizon, the next brass ring. Faster. Better. Don’t show weakness. Academic work is always more more more in ways that leave us less and less and less sure of who we are, what we want, and even what we need.

Stop.

Take a minute. Come back to yourself. You can do my little exercise in a chair. You can do it without folding over, even. Maybe you can do it in child’s pose, or by spreading your arms far up above you or gently out to the sides, or by rolling your neck every so softly and with care. Maybe you just close your eyes wherever you are and feel your own breath disappearing down into your body and then appearing again on its exit. Maybe you breathe and send a little wyd? do all the distant and tiny bits of your body you’ve been not paying much attention to because so many reason.

Come back to yourself. Feel where the edges of your body mark a boundary of care: this is you, from that roughened callus on your writing finger, to the twinge in your knee from your characteristic sitting posture, to the softness of your heels after your did that peeling foot mask last week, that feels so nice when you shimmy your foot into your sandal with your hands in the morning. All of this is you, and you deserve to take care of you. Once you find your edges, let your own little inner voice squeak its tentative message from your core. Let the little voice be amplifed in the hollows of your quieted bones. Listen.

My voice was saying: stop.

Stop.

I have been to exactly one panel at Congress: the one I was presenting on. I brought my everything to that, stayed to answer questions, to ask questions, to listen to people’s stories and ideas.

I had a lovely dinner with a friend from grad school who is studying for her PhD now and living her life. I joined up with a girl gang I only ever get to hang out with on Teh Intertubes, and had a gossipy, affirming supper. I walked 7km to get there because my body wanted to. I had a long unplanned wide ranging sit down coffee chat with a colleague from years and years ago. I met a new friend and we learned about each others’ research and celebrated our recent triumphs. By chance I ran across a new friend and Trudeau Scholar on the lawn outside my residence and we sat on the grass and chatted for just a few minutes. I’m having naps to try to work through a violent chest cold I kept telling myself I didn’t have time for.

I have another post about conferences and the politics of going to panels or avoiding them. There’s some structural questions to think about there but right now the most important thing was: stop.

I’m taking the time to write this post. I wanted to share my little yoga exercise with you, if it would feel good in your body. And I wanted to share my own little vulnerability, to overwhelm and status anxiety and FOMO and always-more academic culture, to tell you that my little voice said stop and I listened and it’s been so valuable and I’m getting so much out of the conference because of it, rather than despite it.

I know you would take care with those you love. Yes. Keep doing that. But today, if you can, or if you need to, and if you can make it happen somehow take care. Of you.

Your little voice has something to say, and it’s pretty wise.

being undone · emotional labour

Crying at Work is Work

tumblr_nfrtobpepn1s5ix0po1_500

image via

I cried in a meeting. I wish I hadn’t. Now I am thinking about about that.

Over the years, I have sometimes had a quiet little cry in my office or in the bathroom or, once when I was a visiting speaker and couldn’t find a bathroom quickly enough, in the back of a building behind a dumpster. I did not feel badly about those occasions. I needed a few moments to have a lot of feelings and those quiet, private moments of crying were the most efficient way for me to center myself again and go back into the room with those feelings nicely channeled towards whatever work I had to do in that room.

But this time was different. It was in a meeting with others. And I regretted it. It was uncomfortable for me and, I’m pretty sure, for the people in the room with me.

Has this happened to you?

Even the most cursory search will show that there is no shortage of internet wisdom about gender and crying at work. Make no mistake, it is gendered. Olga Khazan summarizes research by Stephanie Shields and Leah Warner, “The Perception of Crying in Women and Men: Angry Tears, Sad Tears, and the “Right Way” to Cry“:

Men who teared up were viewed more positively than any of the other groups—either gender of full-on criers or women who teared up. (It made little difference whether the women cried or teared up)… The subjects also thought the women’s tears were less genuine.

Popular discussions (such as this one, but there are lots of others) of gender and crying in the workplace often circle back to Mika Brzezinski who wept when she was fired as co-host of a morning show on MSNBC. She is very clear about regretting having cried and adheres to the classic formula of equating emotional control with power:

When you are in control of your emotions, you are communicating that you are in control. Being in control of your emotions gives you much more power at work … much more control over any situation … and much more dignity. I suggest never, ever, ever crying at work.

This advice is the exact opposite of what Hook & Eye has advocated in the past. Margaux Feldman’s brilliant 2015 post, “There’s No Crying in Academia,” is a manifesto for making public the labour of feeling in the work that we do:

Emotional labour doesn’t need to be painful but if we refuse to talk about it, if we continue to tell graduate students that we don’t want to hear about their feelings, if we continue to promote the idea that the only relationship one should have to their emotions is one of resistance, of stoicism – then we end up valorizing exhaustion, pain, and suffering.

In a follow-up post, Tanis MacDonald writes movingly about working while in grief and the importance of showing our students “that grief forges its own pedagogical model.”

Here’s the thing. I agree with Margaux and Tanis (yes, all the feels and all the feels in a way that embraces how the work of feeling is central to the work of thinking), but I secretly want to agree with Mika. I would much rather not ever, ever cry in a meeting or a similar kind of setting where there are others in the room who are not crying.

It’s not because I believe that I have ceded power or that the people in the room will think less of me. After going over that meeting in my head a few times, I wish I hadn’t cried because crying took so much out of me that I couldn’t get back. There was so much feeling in that moment, and I’m not ashamed of that, but I also wish I could have felt a little less. Feeling so much took me away from me.

I’m reminded of one of my favourite moments (I’ve written about it before in my academic work) in Rei Terada’s  Feeling in Theory, where she talks about the zombies in George Romero’s films as being “notably undivided about their desires.” As a “well-known counterillustration,” she offers the case of the replicants in Philip K. Dick’s Bladerunner:

In the film … the explicitly sentimental moment for the replicant played by Sean Young—the one time she cries—is the moment when she discovers that she’s a replicant, whose memories are not her own. We assume she had feelings before, but reserving the sight of her tears for this occasion dramatizes the fact that destroying the illusion of subjectivity does not destroy emotion, that on the contrary, emotion is the sign of the absence of that illusion. (Terada 2001: 157)

“Unlike replicants,” Terada argues, “zombies don’t experience themselves as though they were someone else” (Terada 2001: 157). There is something noble about the zombie’s undivided desires, the clarity of it, that I would like to replicate but I know that I can’t maintain it. I can’t feel without division. The best I can do is to recognize that the expression of intense emotion — let’s call it crying in a meeting for now — is a deeply alienating moment where I am experiencing myself as though I were someone else. It is not fun to feel this way but it is a discomfort that I have to hang on to because I want to be alive to the difficulties and the deeply divided desires at the heart of all the good fights that I want to keep fighting.

 

 

appreciation · research

On Being Published and Having No Idea, Again

1dd9087d6e59053028c07574aff757d0-shock-surprised-emoji-emoticon-by-vexels

Image via

Almost two years ago here, I wrote about being published and having no idea. A lot of you wrote to me after that post and told me about your stories of this happening to you too.

I don’t know about you, but IT’S HAPPENING  TO ME AGAIN. AND AGAIN.

tl;dr –> Giant humble-brag. My essays are getting reprinted in supercool anthologies! And I am so happy and honoured to be in these books alongside my idols! But! Ummm! It’s weird not to know about until a friend happens to see it somewhere and tells me. Ends with serious discussion of Publishing Agreements. Also, why you should probably try to publish in journals owned by a university press.

A couple months ago, a super-smart grad student who is also a friend was working at the library and DM’ed me with a pic she took on her phone of an essay of mine in the newly published Diaspora Studies Reader. As my post from two years ago notes, I knew that one of my essays would be reprinted in this reader and I was excited about it. I knew about it because the editors had contacted me because Wilfrid Laurier UP owned the copyright to that essay (it first came out in this awesome volume) and WLUP wanted more money than Routledge wanted to pay and so the editors wrote to ask me to help with the negotiations. I was really happy to do so. As a scholar and a critic, I am just so happy to be read.

But I didn’t know that this other essay would also be in the Diaspora Studies Reader. And I didn’t know that the essays would be edited down for length. So much so that the grad student who sent me the pic, and who also teaches that very essay in her courses, did not recognize it. She was so surprised to learn that the anthologization of this essay came as a surprise to me. She said,  I didn’t know that’s how this worked.

I didn’t either.

And then, a couple days ago, a friend wrote to congratulate me on being included in the new Photography Cultures Reader. I didn’t know about this one either. Even before I searched my inbox for a note from Taylor and Francis (they own Routledge who is, coincidentally, also the publisher of this volume and the Diaspora Studies Reader — not saying that there is a pattern here or anything… ) I knew that there wouldn’t be one.

Here’s the thing. I am thrilled to be in these anthologies. Completely tingly-all-over thrilled to have had my work read by the amazing editors of these anthologies and be chosen for inclusion. These are people whose work shapes the field and, by choosing my essays for their anthologies, they are saying that I have a real part in shaping the field too. And, honestly, there is no way to get over the thrill of seeing one’s name in a Table of Contents that includes the work of people you’ve idolized since grad school. When I was in budding scholar, I would never have dreamed that my writing would be in a volume alongside the work of the people who had so profoundly shaped my thinking.

I have written to some of the editors of the anthologies that I mention in the 2017 post, and these more recent ones. Understandably, they thought the press was handling all the permissions. And, to be fair, the press did handle them.

I looked up my Taylor and Francis agreements. I have a few from over the years and they all say the same thing: I gave T&F the right to republish my articles in any form in any time in the future in any part of the world. Here’s the relevant section from a recent agreement that I signed with T&F last spring:

t&f2018

I don’t know about you, but by the time I get to this stage of publication, I am happy to sign anything. I’ve survived at least one (and sometimes two) rounds of peer review, the soul-searching revisions process, copy editing, finding five keywords which is always way harder than it should be, writing the abstract which is also way harder than it should be, and writing my 100-word bio which is also often weirdly hard to do. So, yep, I’ll sign. What would you do? Has anyone ever gotten to this stage of an academic publication and decided not to sign? If so, I would LOVE to know.

So, every time I published an essay (each one of which, as you know, involves a huge amount of research and sweat and tears and time) in a journal or edited volume owned by T&F, I gave the publisher the right to republish it, in any shape or form, anywhere, anytime. I know this sounds very naive, but I never thought about this when I signed those agreements. It honestly never occurred to me that my work would get anthologized. Or that the publisher would do it, several times now, without sending me a note (I’ve stopped dreaming of a desk copy). How silly of me.

Just out of curiosity, I looked up two other agreements that I’ve signed over the last few years. They are totally different than the T&F one!

The Johns Hopkins UP agreement that I just signed for a piece in Postmodern Culture clearly says that I make the decision to republish: “In any re-publication of the Article that you might authorize you will credit the Journal as the original place of publication.”

My agreement with ESC: English Studies in Canada, also published by Johns Hopkins also puts the permissions for future use in my hands (as long as I acknowledge that the article came out in the journal first): “… the author may use all or part of the article for educational or research purposes, in a work under his/her authorship, or editorship subject only to full acknowledgment of its original publication in ESC.”

I also looked at TOPIA since I am co-editing it. The TOPIA agreement also gives the author the authorization to republish but the journal, published by University of Toronto Press, asks for $75: “The journal retains joint rights for the Author’s republication in any other publication venues. The Author will arrange for reprint payments of $75.00 to be paid to the journal for reprint of an article previously published in ​TOPIA, a​nd will ensure that the previous publication by ​TOPIA is properly credited.”

We are more aware than ever before that we need to have a robust conversation about academic publication and the circulation of that work. I suspect that I am like many other academics in that I don’t care that much about the ownership of my writing. I don’t really need to own it. Or I am very happy to exchange ownership for seeing my work circulate. I want my research to be out in the world and am so grateful when I get to share it by being published in a serious journal edited by people I admire and am even more grateful when that essay is given a new life in a smart and beautiful anthology about the field that is also edited by people I admire so much. The question is really about how work circulates rather than ownership. They are not the same thing but often amount to the same thing. And in terms of ownership, that conversation is going to involve not just the author and the publisher, but also the peer reviewers and editors whose often invisible labour makes all of this publishing possible.

So we need to talk a lot more about this. UCLA’s negotiations with Elsevier, which I am following with keen interest as someone who peer reviews her fair share of papers, are just the latest variation of this conversation. My experience with being anthologized is another small piece of this much larger conversation. In the meantime, look at your publishing agreements and maybe, maybe, maybe consider sending that awesome new article of yours to a journal published by a university press.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

teaching · Uncategorized

An ode to the white board

This is an ode to the white board, the glossy surface sometimes made of glass, sometimes constructed from paint, sometimes a weird plastic thingy that’s oddly pitted. Squawk squeak! goes marker number one, emitting vaguely fruity smells quite vigorously but ink not nearly so much so. Skronk chirp squeak! goes marker number two, less smelly and also less shy about making a mark. I have a small collection of markers I hoard, and sometimes even a rag I bring to class with me to erase the board.

Photo on 1-16-19 at 10.35 AM.jpg
Only one of these markers works. All of them smell like “headache.”

I’m always running around class, writing on the board. Sometimes the boards run across two sides of the room and I fill them all, jumping over tables (yes) to access them in our too-tight spaces. Or sometimes, they’re layered at the front, where you can fill all the front ones and then shoot them up towards the ceiling, revealing a whole second set of boards! I jot little lightbulb ideas down low on the corner so I will remember them. I write down student brainstorms. I make big headings in all caps across several boards and then spend class getting everyone to work together to fill them in with notes. I put up the class agenda, with checkboxes, and check them off as we complete each item.

It’s a pretty amazing real-time, interactive, multimodal communication system. It doesn’t need log in credentials. It doesn’t need the projector to warm up. It doesn’t time out. It doesn’t need me to dim the lights. It always works, which is an advantage over classroom electronics.

But the whiteboard is a pretty good pedagogical tool, on its own merits. I have some strong opinions on this matter, and it’s going to involve trash talking slide presentations, which I realize are very very common and which I myself sometimes use in very specific and pointed ways so yes #NotAllPowerPoints but anyways.

First, pacing. A student came up to me after one of my undergrad classes last week. She wanted to compliment me on my use of the white board, instead of PowerPoint. That’s the contrast she made. “So refreshing!” she said. “Like it made it easier for me to follow.” Well, yes. It would. The white board is a lot slower than PowerPoint (so I guess the time you save fighting with the projection and podium system, you make up for in having to hand write in real time). That is a feature, not a bug. I know that many of us put hunks of text and notes and definitions on slides to project, because we have so much content, and it saves time to flash it up instead of write it out. But. How can your students write it down? We use PowerPoints, often, because we are trying to speed things up. We move at the speed of light (literally) and not at the speed of comprehension or contemplation. If I have enough time to write it down, my students have enough time to write it down. If that means I have to radically reduce how much content I can “share” in a given class, well, that’s probably for the best, if what I want is for students to understand what we’re doing rather than impress them with how much I know.

So, whiteboards make me teach more slowly. That’s good. I am a FAST FAST RIGHT NOW UGH I’M BORED GO GO GO kind of academic, and that’s not a good teaching stance. Better to slow my roll to the speed of reflection. To take the care to manage my handwriting. Give people a chance to take it in, to write it down. I honestly don’t think people can take in new ideas in novel fields any faster than they can write it by hand. So I don’t want to teach faster than that.

Second, whiteboards are way more dynamic, interactive, and responsive than projection. Yeah. I said what I said: PowerPoints suck the life and interaction out of any room they’re used in, 9 times out of 10. Slides are static: you can’t change them as you present. The content is already fixed. You come to class, you show it. Nothing that happens in the room can alter the lesson because it’s already 30 ordered slides from A to B, and if C and D come up there is no room for them. Oh this is a really interesting discussion we’re having but I’ve got 48 more slides to get through! If you have a habit of putting your slides online before or after class ask yourself: why is anyone coming to class? What are they getting out of sitting in a room watching you talk to and about a screen? What are they doing, other than listening? Sometimes, after class, I take photos of my whiteboards because class took such a turn that I did not expect that we made new knowledge that I didn’t have before and want to document for myself. Often, during class, what gets written on the whiteboards is what students say: Why is Big Data a paradigm shift? I ask them. It’s not in the textbook. They have to come up with the answers. I write them down. We refine them. Something new happened, something that they built, that wouldn’t happen if they weren’t here.

Basically, I want students to have stakes in class. The “lecture” and “content” of class is partly me giving them new information they don’t have other access to, part of it is them thinking through the ideas they’ve read in the book, and part of it is them working together with each other and with me, to decide what’s real and important and interesting and so we make our class notes together, on the whiteboard.

Third, my work at the whiteboard models distillation and synthesis for my students. I don’t write everything down. Obviously. What I write down is brief, but important. We can write down ideas that are finished, and we can write down stubs of things and refine them. We can brainstorm lists, then pick and choose what we want to keep and then think about some more. We can literally draw connections between things. We capture the gist, the crux, the kernel: learning to do that is incredibly important, and we’re all practicing together.

So that’s my ode to the whiteboard. It makes class more dynamic. It makes me more realistic about “content” coverage. It demonstrates how to find the main point, how to synthesize, how to write-to-learn.

What do you use your whiteboards for? Or do you have a spirited defense of PowerPoint to share?

advice · new year new plan · teaching · tidying up · Uncategorized

Saying “yes” and sparking joy

I’m kind of a Kondo-ite. The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up rivals Pride and Prejudice on my list of sick-in-bed comfort reads. When stressed, I throw things out. It’s never been the wrong thing to do.

It’s my first week back to teaching, after my year-long sabbatical and I’m a little frazzled just from the change in pace, routine, number of people, details to manage, the excitement of a new semester. At night, my daughter and I crawl into bed together with the cat and the dog and fire up an episode of Tidying Up on the Netflix-machine and enjoy the transition from the overwhelm and frazzle of my messy day–oh, wait, I mean someone else’s messy home–to the beatific smiles that arise when you know that when you open that specific kitchen drawer, there’s an open spot to put the can opener back into. Ahhhhhh.

img_3221
You can use boxes to store and organize smaller items

It’s easy to focus on the before, on the piles and piles and piles of DVDs, the overflowing laundry baskets, counters encrusted with random bric-a-brac, the entire rumpus room of Christmas decorations in April. It’s easy to goggle at the enormous piles of garbage bags. It’s easy to spin cynical narratives of late capitalist over-accumulation and the soothing of every feeling of discomfort with “retail therapy,” easy to tut-tut at a particularly American drive to always have more, damn the torpedoes, the credit-rating, the square-footage of the dwelling, common sense. It’s easy to think: these people need to learn to say no, to get rid of, to limit, to control. A tightening of purse strings. Self-discipline. No. Consider some of the recent journalism on this. Very judgemental.

But.

The Mersier family (the episode I watched last night) made a special point of noting that Kondo doesn’t judge anyone’s possessions, anyone’s choice about what sparks joy and what doesn’t. And that’s true. Kondo is not so much about getting rid of clutter but of recalibrating your joy sensor. People don’t accumulate 200 pairs of socks because they’re trying to be slobs. They don’t stack every participation medal they’ve earned since 1983 into a shoe box and put it on the dining room table because they want to make sure everyone eats on the couch. People buy stuff, hold onto stuff, produce teetering piles in the corners of their rooms because at some point those objects felt like the solution to some sort of problem: mismatched and not enough socks, a way to show their care for their childrens’ childhoods, a way to keep cherished hobbies close to hand but not in the way. The impulses are always positive, the gratifications perhaps immediate, but the long-term effects unexpectedly, drip by drip, exhausting and overwhelming. People buy, and keep, and store things to create joy.  But they lose the way at some point without realising it and don’t know how to climb over the mountain of discount nutcrackers that are blocking their view of the future.

Kondo helps people find their joy again. It looks like throwing things away, it looks like saying no, forcefully, over and over: no, you don’t need to keep 40 years of baseball cards you collected with your kids who haven’t lived here for 20 years. No you don’t need an insulated coat you bought for Michigan now that you live in California. No you don’t need 80 cotton t-shirts. No your kids shouldn’t have so many possessions that they need secondary storage areas in the common rooms of your home. Violence, self-negation, rejection, deprivation.

But what if Kondo is asking us not to say no, but to say yes?

Why does everyone look more … free at the end of each episode than at the beginning? Their faces softer and more open, their gestures more expansive, their laughs full-throated? They have said yes to joy. They have found what they’re looking for: a ‘path to winning’ for the Mersiers, and the feeling that a downsized apartment has become a home. A path into the future, a wide-open retirement for the couple with enough Christmas decorations to do up all of Macy’s, enough baseball cards to open a store. An end to the petty arguments and helplessness of the couple with two young children and no counter space at all.

Kondo begins her magic by saying yes to the home. She sits on the floor. She closes her eyes and becomes still. She smiles a little, touches her fingertips to the floor and traces a little arc from her knees around to her hips. It is awkward and time-consuming and non-narrative … and unexpectedly moving. At least one woman cries on witnessing it. Others become awkwardly still, humbled, as if by someone praying. They bow their heads, they smile nervously. Kondo says yes to the home. Yes to the idea that home is a space of care, that we respect ourselves and our families and our great privilege by attending to this space.

I’m going somewhere with this.

I want to ask you: what are you saying yes to in your home, or, in your work? I’ve written a few times in the past year about my own sometimes frenzied sometimes deliberate sometimes emotional sometimes planned “tidying up” of my working spaces. I am hundreds and hundreds of pounds lighter in the most material of ways. I am lighter in other ways too: getting rid of something between 50 and 100 books gave me the freedom to read many more things, greet new ideas, cherish older ones, release my guilt and obligation. I’m not going to read Sadie Plant again, I never liked that book in the first place, I can let that book go. I can read something else.

But I have said yes in other acts of “tidying up” as well. More is not always better. A little bravery and thoughtfulness might find joy in less. What looks like no can be a yes.

You can tidy up your habits, ideas of what work is, what you “should” be or do, what is essential and what is not. This tidying up, too, is magic.

When I started teaching, I had textbooks and a coursepacks and exams and oral presentations and a research paper. I wrote lectures. I had quizzes. For every course. I had accumulated all these teaching strategies from various places and figured I had to use all of them all the time. It was, if you will, cluttered and ill thought out. I did all those things to assuage my anxiety about my own competence. I did them to fit in with what I thought my colleagues were doing. I did it because I thought it was what students expected. It didn’t bring me joy. I was exhausted and overwhelmed. I tried to keep adding things. Do you see where this is going? When I tidied up my pedagogy and assessments, I got rid of a lot: don’t need an exam in a writing course; don’t need a research paper in a methods course; don’t need oral presentations from students in … most courses, don’t need readings for every single class. No to the piles and to the more and to the eveyrthing, yes to leaner, cleaner, focused work. One of my colleagues expressed great shock that I did away with the 10 page research paper in second year course on literary critical methods. But research what? Scansion? Methods are about applying techniques, about learning specialized language, about recognizing instances of a given thing–there are way better ways than ten-sources-at-least-one-academic-monograph-and-two-peer-reviewed-articles-and-not-more-than-one-internet-site research papers in MLA format following the hourglass structure. That’s just clutter. It does not spark joy. It weighs me down.

My dear colleague Frankie and I are teaching a project based graduate course together, one that blends her expertise in social movements, pedagogies of care, racial justice, and critical theory with mine in social and digital media, in design, in communities of online practice, in virality, in platform. We said no to trying to master one another’s fields; we said yes to learning from each other in class and modelling humility and curiosity in that way. We said no to all assigned reading, no to course packs, no to bookstore orders, no to PDFs on the course website, no to performing our own competence by generating overwhelming reference lists. We said yes to really committing to the project-based pedagogy, and so we said yes to supporting students’ research efforts more generously as they build their own reading lists. Students are anxious about what we’re asking them to do for group projects: but we have said yes to devoting the bulk of instructional and contact time to helping them work through it, as their main focus. I expect a lot of emails: I said no to assigned readings so I can say yes to that extra meeting, yes to reviewing that draft, yes to let’s have a look at that reference list. Just writing this out right now sparks joy.

I have said no to on-campus time on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Friday mornings. Saying “no” to campus on those days is actually saying yes to: rebuilding my spoon stock by being quiet, wearing clothes that don’t chafe, taking yoga breaks, watching the birds out my window as I think and write and process. It is saying yes to a Thursday run during daylight hours instead of with a head lamp after supper. Yes to devoting my energy to the big tasks that need me to really manage my attention for a few hours, uninterrupted. Yes to putting some food into the slow cooker at lunchtime and having a hot meal, relaxed, with my family. These slow quiet focused gentle reflective days spark joy in me, make my work joyful. Yes.

On the flip side, I am saying yes to being on campus for 9.5 hours on Monday, with 4.5 of those actually in classroom teaching. I am on campus for 8 hours on Wednesdays, with grad meetings, and 2 hours of office hours, and 1.5 hours of teaching. I am saying yes, Mondays and Wednesdays, to being open and available and dressed professionally and with a packed lunch and collegiality. And I can find joy in this, too, because I do love teaching, spontaneous hallway chats, chance encounters, solving people’s problems, making handouts with jokes in them, and seeing students laugh. Yes to that shift in energy in a classroom when everyone suddenly gets it. Yes to the student who comes to my office to tell me something that is scaring them. Yes to that poster announcing that talk that I never would have thought I wanted to hear but becomes weirdly salient. Yes to enjoying my collection of 90s inspired mock turtlenecks and roomy pants that taper at the ankle, to patent lace-ups. Yes to the walk to and from campus through the park, feeling the wind, crunching the snow.

We all seek joy. We wish to be at peace, in comfort, in control, easeful. Our whole economic system is predicated on making us feel insufficient, not enough, and to find abundance by the accumulation of things. The academy, too, is based on muchness: higher grades, more reading, more publications, longer CVs, bigger grants, more more more. But it’s a trap. Like the contributors on Tidying Up, we have been trying to fulfil our very real needs for emotional and intellectual and practical safety, comfort, and joy by overstuffing our closets and our calendars, enacting positivity by saying yes to more sweaters, more assignments, more emails, more committees in ways that are counterproductive to these needs. Full of shame and fear, tired beyond belief, immured by all our own things and obligations and habits, we feel pushed to say no and it’s hard, like we’re being punished or like we are failing.

But maybe it’s not about the garbage bags, not about the awful spectacle of how you let it get to this point. Maybe it’s about the way you can exhale more deeply, about the room freed up in your head when everywhere you set your eyes does not reproach you with some obligation unmet for some problem not yet solved. Maybe it really is about the joy, about the yes, not the no.

What can you say yes to, this semester, by tidying up–saying yes, even though it looks like a no–some small part of your habits and work? Could you, maybe, find a little space for a tiny act of joy?

disability · enter the confessional · new year new plan · sabbatical · Uncategorized

Blank space: post-sabbatical re-entry

My sabbatical ended on December 31–the university officially opened today, January 2, so here I am, being, what? Not-on-sabbatical? That’s pretty much what I’m getting done today: being not-on-sabbatical.

Transitions are not my strong suit, and major life changes are always very emotionally gruelling for me. It was hard for me to go on sabbatical, and now it’s hard for me to end. Before sabbatical, I did a lot of clearing the decks in the months leading up to January, and it did me a world of good to take stock of my office, my books, my career, all the stuff that accumulates, unnoticed, and crufts up one’s soul. And I have done similar before coming back, taking time over the last two months to really think about who I want to be as a teacher, researcher, and colleague upon my return. There may have been free writing and visualization exercises. I know that in the past year I have really gained a lot of confidence as a researcher and writer: freed from both excuses and obligations (and with a coach and, crucially, medication treatment for my ADHD) I discovered with joy that I love my research, that I am a good writer, that others also find value in what I can do with ideas. I haven’t felt that kind of joy and freedom and alive-ness about research since, probably, grad school. I know I want to hold onto that. I’m not just a pretty-good-teacher, service workhorse, and verbally dextrous smartass who wrote an inventive dissertation but probably peaked at the moment of hiring. I’m a very good teacher, actually, and a verbally dextrous smartass who has lots of writing emerging and published. I was maybe a service martyr, and I should not be.

I set some boundaries around my teaching, related to asking for course assignments and schedules that reflect that I have historically taught 30%-100% more students each term than some of my colleagues nominally on the same “teaching load” as me, while also supervising more PhD students than average. So maybe teaching won’t be a black hole of grading and resentment this time around.

I’m coming back with zero administrative assignments. Surely, I’ll be asked to serve on some committees, but I’m now a lot more mindful of what saying yes means (tl;dr: it means saying no to something else). I’m going to do my share, and do it well, and that’s enough.

I’ve been making plans and making lists. My daughter and I walked to campus yesterday bearing indoor shoes and snacks and textbooks and essential oil room spray (“Awake”–lots of mint). I took the time to make lists of what needs doing before classes start on Monday. I cleared the desk, and she made plans to make me new art for the corkboards to replaces some of the … 8 year old drawings fading in the sun.

I came in this morning imagining myself misting the air in invigorating mint, sitting down, setting the timer, and banging out syllabuses and permission forms and emails, and ticking the items off my carefully planned lists. But I’m not.

I’ve spent the morning haunted by all the ghosts in this room, dust-covered noise-maker I got from a Sandy Stone performance in 2001. A photo from a family celebration in 2004. Sarcastic postcards I pinned to my board  at least ten years ago. Books that have faded in the sun against the sharp lines of the books filed next to them. Piles of printouts of research for articles I’ve already published. Assigned readings for grad courses I hardly remember teaching. Coffee cups I feel emotionally exhausted just looking at.

It’s hard to make a fresh start in a room you’ve occupied for almost 15 years. My sabbatical was all about personal and professional renewal, about healing and moving forward, about new beginnings, about letting go of what’s not working.

But when I sat down this morning, it felt like nothing had changed. My soul got re-crufted. And so I have been throwing even more things out, putting more books on the giveaway shelf, dusting, spraying room spray like holy water, exorcising all the stuckness and ruts and bad feelings and self-hatred and exhaustion.

I tend to characterize myself as one who hates change. I guess that’s how I wound up with one postcard slightly askew for more than 10 years on the same spot on my corkboard, having left a slightly askew sun-fade behind. And yes, transitions are hard and I hate them. Still, I find myself thinking that there are more changes coming, that for all the changes I’ve made all year, I’m not done yet.

I’m not done yet. I don’t know where this is going, this post or my return to work or my identity as a professor, or why I suddenly need to buy mock turtlenecks and paper-bag waist pants. I am not yet fully become the person that sabbatical allowed me to discover.

I guess that’s what I do now, back at work, back to teaching, back among my colleagues.

Maybe this afternoon, I’ll get that syllabus draft fully fleshed out. Or maybe I’ll sit here and have a good cry. Or maybe I’ll buy new pens. It turns out, returning to campus after a year’s sabbatical is not really coming back. Maybe it’s coming forward, not quite sure where I’m going to land.

Photo on 2019-01-02 at 12.34 PM
“I’ve got a blank space, baaaaaaby”