affect · sabbatical · self care · selfcare · Uncategorized

Guest Post: Sabbatical Life Lessons, Part I

Today’s guest post is from Colleen Derkatch, an associate professor of English at Ryerson University. Part I was written while Colleen was on sabbatical. Part II, in which Colleen reflects back on the lessons she learned on sabbatical and how she’s applying them now that she’s back on campus, will be up next week–stay tuned!

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Last fall, inspired by Melissa Dalgleish’s post, “Why Can’t We Be Our Whole Selves as Academics?” , I reflected very publicly in a Twitter thread about my own experience as a recently tenured Associate Professor:

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Focussing on the pervasive culture of overwork in academia, I described being flattened by exhaustion by the time I got tenure, my body wrecked in all the ways chronic stress can wreck a body. Naturally, my ability to feel guilty and anxious remained undiminished, having been fine-tuned over my years of grad school, adjuncting, and pre-tenure work, so I was not only exhausted but also hardwired to feel guilty and anxious about it. Perfect.

I’m pretty sure my own disposition and work habits contributed to my wrecked post-tenure state but the very structure of academe seems designed to fail those who study, work, and try to live within it. These structural problems are stuff for another post but, if academia almost wrecked me—a person with quite a bit of privilege as a cis het white woman on the tenure-track, working at a relatively humane institution, with generous extended health benefits, and living in a dual-income household—then what does it to do my less privileged colleagues? Universities seem pretty uninterested in finding out.

And I was left to pick up my own pieces.

So I made a promise to myself (and the Internet) about how I would use my sabbatical:

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I’ve just passed the halfway point in my yearlong leave so let’s see how I’ve done so far, shall we?

What I looked forward to most about sabbatical was the opportunity just to be curious again. Our day-to-day engagements with scholarship are often instrumental, with little time for deep reflection: many of us have to zoom through course prep and marking (because there’s so much of both) and read the literature in our fields selectively and strategically (because there’s so much of it, and because our jobs valorize writing, not reading). And so, in the spirit of intellectual renewal, I gathered a stack of books I’d been wanting to read and headed to the tropics to spend 2 weeks gloriously alone, reading.

Except I wasn’t alone: for the first time since my comps (in 2004!), I was able to luxuriate in the voices and ideas of others, following wherever they took me without any thought about how I would use them in my own work. Freed of my everyday obligations, there was nothing else I “should” be doing, not even writing, because that wasn’t the purpose of the retreat. As the days went by, I felt myself unfurl and de-clench, little by little—forehead, jaw, neck, shoulders. Lingering in others’ thinking pushed mine in new and exciting ways. And because reading involves input, not output, my retreat fed my tired soul.

By the middle of week 2, however, the anxiety and guilt crept back. As my departure neared, I wondered: Had I been productive enough? Was the trip a good use of time? Did it justify abdicating my Mom duties?

Lesson 1: De-clenching takes time and requires ongoing practice.

Lesson 2: Reading retreats rule.

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Overall, I’m happy with my academic progress since the fall: I produced an article from scratch (now accepted and in press), I submitted a grant application (I got it!), and now I’m deep in research for my next book. More importantly, however, I found my curiosity again and have incubated it in the warm pocket of space and time that sabbaticals give. But how will I maintain that precious curiosity when I return to the everyday demands of my job? And what about my progress as a person, putting myself back together? I didn’t realize until this year how intertwined those two things are, that for me to be a functioning academic I need to be a functioning person.

I see now that I got burnt out partly because my identity was so deeply bound up in my work, even though I’d thought I wasn’t one of those academics. But if you spend enough time in grad school, on the job market, and on the tenure track, you really do start to see yourself as measurable only by your productivity. Our academic lives are defined by metrics: teaching evaluation scores, CV lines, impact factors, citations, granting agency scores. I had to learn new ways to measure my life.

Lesson 3: You are not your CV (obvs, yet often hard to remember).

And that’s how I found myself this January, at 41, back in figure skating lessons. And taking French classes. And working with an academic coach. Things finally began to click: the person in me started to wake up.

I took my last skating test in 1990, before I got too cool as a teenager to skate. I always wanted to go back and finish my tests but felt I was too busy as an academic and a parent. What’s more, this may be Canadian sacrilege but I find figure skating aesthetically ridiculous so I was reluctant to admit to myself that nothing beats the way it feels to skate well on the ice. But I promised myself I would spend more time this year doing things that feel good so now I hit the ice every Sunday with a crew of other adult skaters and I practice for my first test in 28 years. I’m no Tessa Virtue but I’m trying to embrace my awkwardness. And I love it.

Lesson 4: Do what feels good, even if it means looking goofy or falling on your ass. Especially if it means that.

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The French class, I’m taking because my kid is going to full-French school next year and I should probably be able to understand some of what’s going on, and also because speaking French is just a good life skill to have. Being on the other side of the classroom again is a total trip. I got so sweaty with nerves during my placement interview, conducted in my rusty French, that I thought I would cry. Now I have piles of homework to do and my daughter is thrilled to help me with it. The role reversal is oddly comforting.

Lesson 5: It’s good to sweat it out in the student’s seat.

Finally, I’ve tried more consciously to round out my life, which means cooking more, getting more sleep, taking evenings and weekends off, saying no to social things I don’t want to do, and perhaps most importantly, hiring a coach for my academic work (thanks for the recommendation, Aimée!). My wonderful coach Rebecca works like a project manager, helping me plot my short- and long-term goals into realistic schedules that keep me on-target and unfrazzled. I’ve never felt more calm and focussed in my work and I don’t feel like I’ve been working very hard but my word count tells me otherwise. Now, you might think of the coach as benefitting me academically but, more importantly, I would call this one a win for me as a person: if I can get though my days without crushing guilt and anxiety, the whole-self me wins.

Lesson 6: You don’t have to do it all by yourself all the time.

So that’s where I’m at seven months into my sabbatical. I’ve made progress as both an academic and a person, and I’ll keep at it over the next five months before I dive back into the fire come September. Hopefully I’ll be ready for it.

Alright, I’ve got French homework to go do.

heartbreak

Lying Low, Feeling Chilled

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You guys, it’s happening again. A silence. Scarier than the thinning of the divide between the world of the living and the dead from which comes this season of otherwise delightful spookiness, there is this silencing of feminists whose voices I want to hear.

There’s a lawsuit (actually more than one — but a recent one hits closer to home since it is sort of in my field) out there naming a lot of women and accusing them of talking too much. I don’t know them. I can’t claim to know anything about the claims being made. But I know that, when this suit dropped, my social media fell silent. I got notes from friends telling me that they have been advised to lay low for a while, to choose to be quiet, to not draw attention to themselves. They haven’t been named. But they might be.

I am heartbroken about this. I don’t have anything smart to say. I just wanted to register that this is happening. That there is a silencing effect at work and it ripples out far beyond those who are specifically targeted.

Last spring, I was asked to speak on a panel about social media and my profession. I found myself going back to those remarks because I feel all over again some of what I felt then.

Some time last year, someone I admire was badly trolled and she shut down her social media and stopped writing publicly about a lot of things like feminism and the academy. She asked her friends and allies to stand down and disengage and that really did seem like the best course of action. Trolls don’t deserve our time and they thrive on our attention.

At the time, I thought that losing this voice was a huge loss but I didn’t think it was about me at all.

I was wrong. I stopped blogging.

It wasn’t direct. I didn’t think to myself, a friend has been targeted and I don’t want that so I won’t write anything.

Instead, whenever it was my turn to post, and when the posting deadline came and went, I told myself that I just didn’t have anything to say that week. Or that there were already so many other important things about feminism, and especially about #metoo, being written on other blogs that I just wanted to pause and listen and really hear the things that other women were saying. Or that I was tired. Or that I had to focus on my real work and just couldn’t spare the time to blog just at that moment.

All of this was true.

But I also never said to myself, and could not admit until many months later, that losing that voice, also meant losing something of my own.

It is one of those many situations where we “won” but winning that battle meant a very specific kind of silencing that bled into larger silences.

Not saying publicly, Hey! Back off. That is my friend and warrior and co-conspirator and you suck and all the other things I wanted to say, not saying those things, affected my ability to say anything.

These blog posts demand a kind of honesty and it felt increasingly disingenuous and dishonest to write about anything without also writing about why losing one voice made my own feel more and more fake.

What happened chilled me. It wasn’t immediate but I can see now that it did.

I feel it happening again.

The weather is turning. I am cold again.

I will buck up and find a sweater. Of course, there’s a lot for us to talk about that has nothing to do with lawsuits and the weather. For now, I just want to say, I am feeling a little quiet but I am here, full of raging solidarity for all the good feminist fights.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

emotional labour · heartbreak · peer review · risk · workload

Academic Roadkill

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We are so lucky to have a guest post from the inimitable Linda Morra. Here she is, thinking hard about how the “grievance studies” hoax hurts:

I’ve thought quite a lot about roadkill recently, probably because of the long stretch of drive, from Montreal (where I live) to Sherbrooke (where I teach). Today, it was a deer; a couple of days ago, it was a raccoon and a cat. I consistently think about how these animals were simply foraging for food, innocent of their imminent violent end—one that was just veering around the corner and bearing down on them, as the result of a vehicle on an entirely different trajectory. I feel for these animals – I sometimes even foolishly weep for them.

And today, this week in particular, I identified with them.

I am not actual roadkill, very obviously. But, when I read about the latest version of the Sokal hoax, which produced and found publication for sham essays that spouted left-wing ideology, I felt like I was thrown to a curb. They were out to prove that the social sciences and humanities are not undergirded by proper research, but rather by left-wing ideology. Apparently, seven of twenty of the latest Sokal hoaxes were accepted. Seven. That’s one third. It saddens me to think that either the editors or peer reviewers weren’t doing their job, and that it has, as a result, cast suspicion on the entire field.

On some levels, I think the hoax serves as an important reminder of how some of us failed in our responsibility by allowing such articles to find publication. How different are we from, say, some very right-wing American news station, if we simply allow left-wing ideology to stand, rather than allowing real and meaningful scholarship to undergird the ideology? Than well-articulated, defensible points of view? Aren’t we just producing fake news too?

Perhaps some of us are. But here is why I felt like roadkill: many, if not most of us, aren’t.

As Lily Cho pointed out, we invest substantial voluntary time—and often unrecognized, at that—in peer-reviewing. We are the ones who invest countless hours in reading and vetting papers for scholarly journals and manuscripts; we also train students, both graduate and undergraduate about what real scholarship means and what it looks like; we try to build meaningful connections and address injustices, locally and globally. I and others often do this work with very little recognition or reward—neither public, nor institutional. We do not take up time in a spotlight as a means of advancing ourselves or our careers, and, for many of us, there is no other reason to make such an investment. (For a moment, at least, I’d like us to reflect upon how, conversely, these three academics used their time, as a point of contrast. Seriously—didn’t they have better things to do?)

There is no reward, particularly, for vetting a manuscript or an essay for a journal—not at my institution, anyway. But I still do it, at regular intervals, and try to provide feedback with care—looking up sources to make sure what has been presented is accurate and to check claims that are being made. Some of the claims are not properly historically grounded—the writer might try to apply recent theoretical or ideological trends anachronistically. I check that tendency. Others simply pretend that no other academic has done the research before—and “disappear” other critics in the process in order to elevate their own scholarly ego (more of that in another blog post). Usually, I and other peer reviewers do our best to catch these kinds of errors, because we know we have a standard to maintain. We may not always succeed—but we try.

Why do we do this? Because peer-reviewers are, in fact, gate-keepers. There’s no point in claiming we are not, because we ultimately determine what passes muster and what does not.

And this is not an issue of control, as some of my own colleagues have suggested—because that would render us no different than any major news outlet that lays claim to ideology as news rather than factually-based research. We do it out of a sense of personal and communal responsibility. And responsibility means accountability. And accountability works on multiple levels: from the individuals who write the articles, to those who serve as peer reviewers, to the editors themselves.

That’s why I feel like roadkill: I and others have been inadvertently injured too. The recent Sokal hoax may have shown us where the weakest links in our chain are. The perpetrators themselves engaged in an unethical intellectual exercise to prove that ideological politics have supplanted scholarship, or at least that very little scholarship undergirds the ideological politics being championed—in the very realm where it shouldn’t do that.

But, in the process, they harmed the credibility of many good academics, who are committed to their work and to maintaining scholarly standards—which may now seem like no standard at all.

 

Linda Morra is a Professor of English at Bishop’s University. She has tried to research and publish meticulously about archives, especially those related to women writers in Canada, including Sheila Watson, Jane Rule, and M. NourbeSe Philip (in Unarrested Archives, UTP 2014). She is extremely grateful to her peer reviewers and editors, who have invested time in providing critical feedback that has helped to shape and improve her scholarly work.

academic publishing · emotional labour · feminist communities · peer review

Sokal Spare Me: Hoaxes and Anti-feminism

So here we are again. Somebody (three of them this time) thinks that they are so smart and clever. They are going to show the academy, and especially the feminist, queer, and racialized academy, that it doesn’t know anything.

All it shows me is that these three people — and I am purposely working on forgetting their names because I am a professional and I hope to give their real work a fair shake if I ever came across it, which is more than they deserve, but I am nothing if not an actual professional even though I feel a lot of rage at this particular moment — have shown a profound disdain for the gendered labour of academic journal editing and peer reviewing.

When I say that peer review and journal editing is gendered work, I mean that it is largely (if not wholly) invisible, underpaid or not paid at all, and almost entirely thankless.

As I wrote in my Love Letter to Peer Reviewers Everywhere, peer reviewers rock my world. I see their work everywhere: “in that book that changed the course of my dissertation, in that first article of mine that saw the light of printed day, in that other article that I taught in my grad seminar that re-oriented the entire discussion for the better, in all these journals that I read when I get a chance, marveling at all this marvelous work out there.”

They make all that happen. They make my world smarter, brighter, and just plain better.

I peer review anywhere between five and ten articles a year. It takes weeks of time that I never have. No one will know that I did it except the editor of the journal who can’t reveal my identity anyways. I do it because someone else did it for me and because I know that this completely invisible and thankless labour is a crucial part of sustaining our work as scholars.

Like most scholars at my age and stage, I serve on the editorial boards for three or four major journals both in Canada and internationally. This also takes a lot of time that I never have.

I was the co-editor of an academic journal for three years. It just about killed me. I just agreed to step back into that role because the current editor asked and I respect him so much and he is overwhelmed by the work and I know exactly how overwhelmig it is. It is the main cultural studies journal in Canada. If we don’t do this, there wouldn’t be a publication venue for a lot of amazing cultural studies work. As editors, we do not get paid for this work. I don’t get course release or a stipend. There may be the tiniest crumb of prestige but it is frankly outweighed by the reality of the work — hundreds of hours fielding angry or nudging emails while shepherding manuscripts through the peer review process while the authors are anxious and mad at me for not getting their work turned around more quickly.

Others have pointed out that academic journal publishing is a good faith system. This hoax takes advantage of the deep generosity of a community of scholars in order to score a stupidly cheap point. It does not show that the journals, fields, and disciplines that it targets are fraudulent. It shows that these three people had so much time on their hands, and so little regard for their peers, that they are happy to waste the time of people who are trying to make space and give a platform for new scholarship.

This hoax comes across as anti-feminist not because of the content of the articles but because its very form is premised on scorn and derision for deeply gendered labour. It misunderstands power. It mistakes peer reviewing for gate keeping. It mistakes the journal editor as a disciplinary figurehead. I don’t know of anyone who agrees to peer review something because they want to keep someone or some thinking out of the field. And journal editing is, honestly, an extravagant convergence of caretaking and traffic control.

So, spare me. Spare me this thinly disguised contempt for gendered labour. Spare me this willingness to waste time we never had.

 

advice

How to Write an Academic Cover Letter

 

 

Here’s a guest post 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…

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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

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Uncategorized

Workshops: A Necessary Togetherness

I am in the midst of one of the most amazing intellectual experiences of my life. It has got me thinking about the isolated and competitive, scarcity-based, defensive kinds of work we normally do as scholars and how, actually, we don’t have to work that way. That we could, instead, be generous, and generative, and collaborative, and that working this way produces more and better scholarship, of course, but also builds and tends interpersonal and research networks that can make this work a joy rather than a terror.

The catch is that it’s kind of expensive. And that it runs counter to  how we imagine that excellence is produced.

What I want to tell you about is a workshop I attended this summer, in the context of a special issue of the journal Biography, dedicated to the concept of “biographic mediation” developed by Ebony Coletu.

I am going to break to post into two parts. Today’s post will be about the magic of bringing people together in real time and real geography, and feeding and watering them, and putting them to work on a shared goal. About how this magic is expensive and undervalued and available in diminishing quantities but is worth fighting for. Next week, I’ll write about what it means to be a generous reader, a “believing reader” in my friend Frankie Condon’s phrase, and how such generous readings can produce much better scholarship than we can create in the standard peer review setup.

Today, then, let’s consider the materialities of workshopping for a moment. This really matters, much more than we (or our funders) tend to give us credit for.

  • The sponsoring journal paid for everyone’s travel, lodging, and food. (I have to mention, this was travel, lodging, and food in Hawaii, where the journal is based.)
  • Again: they paid for everything.
  • Lunches and breakfasts were catered with local Hawaiian food, and the cultural and geographic context of place were foregrounded and shared. Place and culture were made meaningful (perhaps more so because we were there during the Hurricane Lane crisis and were surrounded by sandbags and advised to stockpile food and water.) Dinners were undertaken as a group; everyone’s dietary needs were supported.
  • The schedule was produced with ample (catered) breaks factored in, and each of us had a packet of information about special features of the campus and neighbourhood.
  • Local hosts were incredibly generous and kind: picking us up from the airport, driving us to hotels and events, taking notes so the group could just talk, doing everything they could to make us feel safe and comfortable during the hurricane emergency. Craig Howes, one of the journal’s editors, knows that I run–he took me out on daily 5am runs around the campus and neighbourhood, a fount of local knowledge (“I used to see Haruki Murakami running along this road”), and, during the major rain storm, to his secret five-storey parking garage run route (not as weird as you think!).

If you are a faculty member, and particularly if you apply for grants, you will know that it’s nearly impossible to even justify attending a regular conference. It is well nigh impossible to imagine putting in a grant request to fly 8-10 people to a campus, pay all their expenses, and do group editing. I mean, we have Skype, and Google docs, and, hell, even email and track changes, right?

Right?

No. There is something magical and intense about being together, in a room, for three days. There is something about looking people in the eye as 15 of us work on the same problem at the same time, everyone scribbling. You can see some people nodding, others frowning, others pull out their phones to look something up. People finish each others sentences, cross-talk, laugh, roll their eyes, look delighted. It is an intensely embodied process, communication across textual, gestural, oral, and digital channels simultaneously, in ways that no other technology than In Person Meeting can really handle. It was an incredibly rich communication environment, multi-channel. I cannot believe how much we got done, how far everyone’s ideas developed.

All of this felt incredibly, well, human to me, attending to the whole person, intellectual, corporeal, social, emotional, in ways I have given up expecting to be recognized at work. I could have cried from simple gratitude at the attention and thoughtfullness with which we were fed and housed and just generally cared for during our time together.

When we come together, we make human connections. In the evenings, little groups gathered over wine or tequila or tea, and talked about TV shows, our jobs, our families, our hobbies, and, inevitably, our scholarship. By the end of it there was a lot of hugging: I met some absolutely incredible people I am honoured to now call colleagues and friends. Not unrelated to this, I have never ingested so many new ideas in three days in my life. Never felt so supported and cared for in an academic setting.

We like to think we can cheat time and expense. We like to think an email can take the place of a meeting, or a webinar can take the place of a conference. A lot of our digital tools are a lot better, though, at pushing reams and streams of information into our heads. They’re really no good for collaboration, in a lot of ways. We like to think we can devote ourselves fully to a conference call even as we try to tidy the kitchen. We like to think we’re going to find a five hour block of time to read all those papers and send careful feedback, without taking anything else off the schedule. But multitasking is bullshit: getting together in one place to do a shared task is often the most efficient and best way to get that task done. Yes, we have to not do all the other things, but we already do way too many things, and the more we do at once, the worse we do it. Workshops resist speed-up. There are structural reasons we multitask and cut corners the way we do, and this is often framed as an advantage–but it isn’t. Doing one thing, making the time, saying no to other things, is really valuable. It is, also, a privilege most of us can’t access, to everyone’s detriment, I think.

Our institutions and our funders, of course, would like us to not leave campus for five days, would like to not pay for us to go to conferences when we can read journals instead, not go to workshops when we could Google docs instead, not have catered meals for the day long meetings, not pay for overnight stays. Of course. But it’s penny-wise and pound foolish, if I can judge from what this workshop got done for me and everyone else.

It is not enough to put on the SSHRC application that you need conference funding to go to a conference. You have to say what is of value at that conference that you can’t get with just publishing and reading. And now of course no one can be funded to attend a conference without presenting at that conference, which has led inevitably to incredibly bloated conference programs where everything is so frantic no one learns anything–and where, often, all the coffee breaks are cancelled to make room for more sessions so more academics can justify the cost to come together and rush past each other in massive hotel hallways always trying to do three things at once.

So here’s to getting together, in small groups, in nice settings. Here’s to the mix of structured and unstructured time, to formal and informal interactions, to attending to and appreciating the specificity of the place you are and the people you are with. Here’s to making time, and making space, to produce and nurture a collective that is greater than the simple sum of its far-flung parts.

And a parting idea–the journal Biography gets the money together to do this every year, from its JSTOR revenues. It is a very high quality journal and draws a lot of page views and citations. One of the editors, in fact, tells me that their most popular and most cited issues are these self-same (two time award winning) annual special issues that come out of this intense and expensive workshop process. It’s something to think about.

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Why did the campus chicken cross the road? To make it to the morning session on time.
emotional labour · ideas for change · voice

Push some buttons

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push some buttons

It’s been a rough week for feminism. Maybe you found yourself in tears on the bus or the train on the way to work. Maybe you thought about how much it cost for one woman to stand up and say something true and how that courage was mowed over by by belligerence and cowardice. Maybe you are mad all over again and again and again. Maybe things keep happening that push too many buttons.

It’s been that way for me.

Time to take back some control of this whole button-pushing business.

Time to go back to Cathy Deng’s brilliantly simple question: is a dude talking?

Go here and starting tallying: are men talking too much?

I’ve been in a lot of meetings lately. Probably you have too. And have you noticed who’s been doing a lot of the talking? You guessed it. In every kind of meeting — one-on-one in my office, small committee, large committee, massive faculty council and senate meetings — I couldn’t help noticing that one kind of voice kept dominating the floor. The two exceptions, for me, were the meetings I chaired.

Maybe it’s too simple to break things down along a binary of whether or not a dude is talking. What, after all, about race, class, sexual orientation, and ability? Good question. In the spirit of evidence-based inquiry, bear with me (and Deng), let’s just try to measure the dude vs. not dude thing. Just for a few weeks. Or even just one week. Tell me what you find.

Really, do tell me. In the comments below or, if you prefer, via email at lilycho [at] yorku [dot] ca. I’ll tally and report back.

And do submit your results to the on-going Gender Avenger tally.

Let’s push some buttons.

 

advice · disability · enter the confessional · teaching · Uncategorized

Work hack: adrenaline management

I prep almost all of my classes in the 90 minutes before they take place. I usually teach two classes per day, two days per week, so my two teaching days are actually prep-two-classes-teach-two-classes-do-office-hours days. It’s pretty intense. Ok, it’s really intense. I sleep really well after those days. I do my runs really fast and hard on those days. I talk a lot at supper on those days.

So much of our academic work is that goddamn cliched iceberg: you can only see the 10% that sticks up above the waterline, while the looming and awesome bulk, the main structure holding everything together, sinks deep down under the water and away from the light. I’m starting a series of posts where I am going to describe my 90%, and I invite you to pitch us some guest post work hacks of your own.

I had this idea for a long time that being a good and organized professor would be to map out a syllabus three months in advance, and then in the three months before term I should create detailed lesson plans and formal lectures and slide shows and extravagant LMS pages and the whole shebang could be in a three-hole punch splendor-binder of preparedness before day 1.

I have learned I’m never going to be that person.

First, after my first year on the tenure track, I have NEVER prepared a “lecture” per se. It takes me hooooouuuuuuuurrrrrrs and it’s boring to do and I hate it. Second, I have noticed that if I try to schedule a semester worth of lesson planning into sensible one hour blocks of effort over long period of time before the semester in question I simply procrastinate and then hate myself, which is not a good use of my time. After all that procrastinating and self-hating I was always doing it all at the last minute anyway and hating myself for that too.

After some years of this, and from sheer exhaustion, I gave up trying to do it “right.” I decided to try to manage my own inclinations into a functional work plan, one with less “procrastinating” and less “should” and less “hating myself” and more kind of finding my own talent and supporting it.

I now sometimes create ornate slideshows of images with headers and the headers are tied to topics that I will jot a 3 bullet set of notes for myself to speak from. You know how long it takes me to make a 30 slide presentation on internet history? 30 minutes. I am a MONSTER at Google image search and if Keynote were a symphony I would be first violin. Most days, though, usually I walk into class with one sheet of typed notes, with an agenda/outline for class at the top, and the briefest of notes to lead me through it. And I will have prepared that in the period just before class. I schedule this purposefully now. My teaching days are teaching-and-prep days and I schedule the time that I need to get the prep done before I teach and I’ve accepted that that’s how I do things. I have been teaching long enough that I’m pretty confident in setting aside the right amount of time. I know myself well enough to know that I’m more likely to hate myself for procrastinating if I try to start too soon than I am to succumb to panic because I’m not prepared enough.

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Good enough. Let’s go to class.

Caveat: I need a good syllabus for this, the kind I make in a one-day blast, where I have to pick out every single reading and set all the deadlines and lay out the entire schedule in excruciating detail. Normally before the semester starts, then, I have read all the materials I have assigned, at least once, even if I don’t have great (i.e., any) notes, so I’m not learning new content every day. As long as the frame of the semester–schedule, topics, reading, assignments, due dates–is laid out clearly in advance, I just need a short window of time before class to get my class plan ready.

So much of many of our troubles in this job come from not being taught the processes for producing the end products, and then, after that, from not knowing that there are many different ways to get to that end product and that some ways will work better for different scholars, depending on their natures, inclinations, life circumstances, and more. Me, I have an incredibly difficult time getting motivated to do things that I’m not 100% interested in doing right now–like many people with ADHD, rewards and consequences and importance I understand on a cognitive level but they just don’t make me stop procrastinating; I need interest, novelty, challenge, or urgency. I used to think I was lazy and irresponsible; I’m actually usually mostly just nearly dying of boredom. Prepping an 80 minute class in the 60 minutes directly before that class takes place is interesing, and urgent, and kind of a challenge. Highly motivating. Not boring.

It turns out that what I’ve been doing all these years is self-medicating my ADHD by producing an urgent situation that releases adrenaline into my system and allows me to focus intently. I get in the flow, and I really enjoy prepping my classes this way, and it all feels very fresh and fun when I walk into class with a brand new lesson plan still hot from the printer and I get to surf my way across the ideas and energy of the room and see if it’s all going to come together or not. I find the whole process very energizing, exciting, and rewarding. Mostly, it comes together and my students describe my classes as really active and engaged and fun. Me, I have a great time, too. It works for all of us because I’m playing to my own strengths instead of fighting them to do it “the right way” that’s never going to work for me.

I won a teaching award this year.

The flip side of this, of course, is having to learn that my way is not the only way. When I discovered this prep and teaching strategy I told all the teachers I knew, and urged them to try it. “It’s amazing!” I told them, “Everyone should do this! It’s so fun and efficient and functional!” Friends and colleagues demurred. I just could not understand these people, my friends!, who went to class with prepared lectures and handouts and worksheets, and novels with sticky notes in them, materials they laboured over in the summer or on their non-teaching days. It took me a long time to learn to really hear it when they would tell me that speaking in front of people was scary and they liked to be prepared in order to feel less anxious, or that they were more comfortable with a more encyclopedic command of the material in the case of any eventuality, or that they really liked the process of taking a few months in advance of a course to settle and refine their ideas. When I started, I thought my way was the Wrong Way and worked hard to be the Right Way; when I finally figured out that my own way was the Right Way, I wanted everyone else to do it that way too. Finally, I’m coming to a more mature understanding that maybe there are a lot of different right ways to prep for class, run that class, make a syllabus. If you feel good and competent, and your students feel adequately supported, and it’s not harming your health or burdening the support staff, then that’s the right way, too.

I’m still learning new tricks, going to workshops, reading about new kinds of class activities online in the blogs and the literature, talking to my colleagues. I’m refining My Way, trying to make space for other people to have Their Way, and learning from it all.

I would love to learn from you, too: do you have a class prep hack that really works for you? Pitch a post, or leave a comment, or suggest another iceberg-bottom-bit you’d like to see explored further.

 

#alt-ac · parenting

Dispatches from Maternity Leave: It Should Be Easier, But Not for Me

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I made this ear from scratch!

It is 2:20 am, and I’m sitting writing this (on my phone, one-handed) in my favourite armchair with a babe at my breast. We’ve been doing this thing together— being a mother, being a babe out in the world—for a month now, and we’ve gotten good at it. We eat and sleep and play. We go to our doctor’s appointments and the movies and protests. We cuddle and walk and sing.

I love it.

But the conditions under which I’m able to love it are a function of privileges that aren’t extended to everyone, equally. And that sits wrong with me.

I’m on a paid, year-long maternity leave. My employer tops up my salary to nearly its full value for most of my leave. If I wanted to, I could extend this paid leave to a year and a half. This would not be the case if I was working multiple part-time jobs, or freelancing, or was underemployed, or was a graduate student whose funding was considered educational support by the government thus disqualifying me from receiving EI.

My partner is also a full-time caregiver to our newborn, and will be for the baby’s whole first year. The 2:1 ratio of parents to newborns is one that makes these early days of parenting positively enjoyable, not just endurable. We’re all sleeping enough (not a lot, but enough), and we both have time to do non-parenting things that are important to us, like art and writing.

We can do this—have two parents home full-time for a year—because we don’t have a mortgage or rent since we inherited our home from my partner’s mother, and so can afford to be a single-income family. We are keenly aware that this kind of inherited wealth tends to pass down amongst white, highly educated people, thus consolidating wealth in the hands of an already privileged few. It sucks, and yet I’m so grateful to benefit from it.

I don’t have to worry about my job going away, or even substantially changing, while I’m on leave. My job (or a substantially similar one) is guaranteed to be there for me when I come back from leave, and I crafted a plan for the year with my team that will see things stay steady state while I’m gone. Basically, I got to hit pause on my career, and I’ll get to pick up—and go back to charging ahead on new projects—right where I left off next August. I’m also still teaching my usual career development classes while I’m on leave, which is a nice way to stay connected to work while I’m off.

I was able to properly prepare and train the person who is covering my job. Because I work at a highly family friendly organization (it helps that we only do paediatric medicine!), I was comfortable telling my team that I was pregnant the day I found out. (They found out about five minutes after my partner did.) I was confident that I wouldn’t experience pregnancy-related discrimination, or that I’d be penalized if I had to take medical leave if I miscarried. That means I had a full eight months (you’re generally already two weeks pregnant by the time you find out, and I went on leave two weeks before my due date) to train my replacement. This lets me not worry about work while I’m on leave, and know that I’m coming back to order rather than chaos.

Many women aren’t comfortable sharing their pregnancies at work until late in the game because they fear or know they’ll face discrimination, which means they may shoulder the additional burden of scrambling to find and train their replacement in a short time frame while dealing with a discriminatory workplace.

And just because I didn’t face overt pregnancy discrimination doesn’t mean that I didn’t experience other kinds of pregnancy-related impacts on my job and career momentum even before I went on leave, some of which were my doing and some of which weren’t. I’ll have lots more to say about that.

Many women head into motherhood without these conditions in place, and their job is far harder because of it. So my ability to enjoy my mat leave, even those chaotic, sleepless early weeks, is in large part due to privileges and circumstances that don’t exist for people in less stable employment and financial situations than my partner and I are in. And that’s not cool with me.

I’m not confident that there’s any traction to be had on the issues of fair pay, better parental leave, and stronger employee protection practices at the provincial level, even once the crisis that is Bill 5/Bill 31 gets resolved one way or the other.

But my partner and I are both working at the municipal and federal level—through advocacy, and volunteering, and donations—to try to level the playing field for all new parents. Because I can imagine what having a newborn with no income, or a highly limited one, or one dependent on going back to work after three weeks, is like. I can imagine what it’s like to be doing this on my own for eight or twelve or eighteen hours a day. I can imagine what it’s like to be worried about not getting tenure, or not having a job to go back to, or having a job that’s a hollow shell of what I’d built it into to go back to, while on leave.

None of that is good for parents, or for children. My experience should be the rule, not the exception. Maternity leave should be easier: just not for me.

Uncategorized

Composting

image via Getty

I’m teaching a new class this semester. It’s called The Personal Essay, and it is new to the department, the students, and me. It is a cross-listed creative writing and English course, and so I find myself in the delightful and slightly intimidating position of developing new in-class exercises, assignments, and ways of thinking about reading and writing.

As with most of my teaching, writing, and research prep, when I am at a loss for where to begin—too many ideas, too few, too amorphous—I turn to texts that have been recommended to me at some point. There are many! Last week, as I thought about how to get sixty-five students excited as well as informed about essay writing I picked up Writing Down The Bonesby Natalie Goldberg. If you’re not familiar with it, this is a pretty popular writing book. My copy is the thirtieth anniversary edition, if that give you any sense of its staying power. There are some things in the language of the text that show their age, but on the whole I find it a direct, clear, and surprisingly effective book of suggestions for getting yourself writing.

The section I brought to class last week is called “Composting.” In it Goldberg states,

It takes a while for our experiences to sift through out consciousness.

This is one of those observations that feels so obvious and yet also profound. From neuroscience to psychoanalysis to theory to practice there are myriad explanations of how humans take timeto process experiences fully.

Time. Huh.

This time business can be infuriating if you are impatient and if, like me, you are a human living in the twenty-first century when the speed and circulation of information, not to mention the ingestion and metabolism of information, is faster than ever before. I mean, this is not news, but still…

So composting: Natalie Goldberg uses it as a metaphor to remind writers that we need time and the distance it gives to distill our experiences. She puts it this way (note the evocative use of ‘garbage heap’ – I kind of love it, because here the garbage heap of the self is cast as a fertile bricolage of sense and experience):

Our bodies are garbage heaps: we collect experience, and from the decomposition of thrown-out eggshells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds, and old steak bones of our minds come nitrogen, heat, and very fertile soil. But this does not come all at once. It takes time. Continue to turn over and over the organic details of your life until some of them fall through the garbage of discursive thoughts to the solid ground of black soil.

 The solid ground of black soil. I love that. And I love that in preparing to teach a new class about writing the self I am starting to find ways to think through what it means to write publicly while feminist. It will take time. It has taken time. It will take more time.

But here I am, ready to sift.