academic work · emotional labour

Invisibility and its contents

The other day, a colleague stepped into an elevator at the same time that I did. We established that we were headed to same floor and the same meeting. We exchanged some  pleasantries about the new year, the new term, the usual. As the elevator door was about to open, she turned, looked at me very carefully, and asked, “Who are you?

ghost

Image via

I’ve been quietly dining out on this encounter. Even now, I’m savouring it contentedly. And I’ve been trying to figure out why. It’s a joke that makes me laugh even though I’m part of the punchline.

I’ve been a tenured professor at my university for over a decade now. In that time, I have served as the Undergraduate Programme Director for my department, then Chair, and now Associate Dean. This colleague has been a colleague in the graduate programme for my department. We’ve exchanged emails where I’ve asked her to serve on a thesis committee for one of my grad students. I’ve served on committees where I’ve read her syllabi.

I guess I thought I’ve prettyummm, present. 

I am so glad that she didn’t try to fake it. She could just as easily have pretended that she knew exactly who I was and she would have gotten through the whole meeting with no trouble. Indeed, it was one of those meetings where we went around the room and introduced ourselves right at the beginning.

There was something wonderful about being a little invisible.

Even though I am part of scholarly communities that have demanded more visibility for writers of colour, and more presence for thinkers who theorize and engage with differences, I am surprised to realize that my own invisibility at work can have its own contentedness.

It’s counter-intuitive in so many ways, but it made me feel weirdly delighted to have been unseen. It made me realize that I am at a point in my work where I am happy to be unknown in person and known by the work only when it matters. And this contentment, I know, only comes because I feel valued and seen and heard when it counts. I didn’t always feel this way — I’m pretty sure there was another time when an encounter like this would have hurt my feelings — and feeling so ok now makes me realize that this is its own career milestone. I didn’t realize that career advancement would come in the form of not being recognized or seen by a senior colleague. But I’ll take the wins when they come and I’m not looking back.

I am just another person running around campus, forgetting her lunch, going to meetings, and making small talk in an elevator.

So, back to work. Nothing to see here.

 

 

best laid plans · new year new plan · slow academy · Uncategorized

Reflections on Slowness

I find myself thinking about slowness a great deal these days. It might be the shift to a new semester–I do love to reflect and reset each term–and it might be that zero on the calendar moving us into a new decade. I suspect, though, that my reflections on slowness might have more to do with the way we imagined the term back in 2010 when we gave it to the blog.

Fast feminism? That feels intuitive to me: fast feminism signals the need for attention and action. But slow academe? Well, I’ll admit that even in 2010 it didn’t feel intuitive so much as it felt illusory.

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Slow academe, as the originators (me included!) of this blog imagined it, took up slowness as the slow food movement describes it: good, clean, fair. Good, here, is not virtue signalling so much as it means quality; clean, according to the slow food movement FAQ page, means sustainable production that is good for the environment. Fair, meanwhile, means accessible in terms of price for consumers and in terms of way for workers.

Ten years later these feel like pretty solid touchstones for me in this project of public-facing academic feminist scholarship. And yet, as I look back (hastily, because I am posting late after a weekend that, while pleasant, was also filled with trying to fit in skating lessons, socializing, cleaning the house, admin work that spilled into the weekend, and, oof, our kiddo being quite sick), I see I have always struggled to put my finger on what slow academe meant to me. I have no idea if it ever were possible to engage in the slowness that the (semi-controversial) advocated by The Slow Professor. It certainly hasn’t been for me, at least up to this point. I wonder, genuinely, if a slow academe is possible in smaller, more micro ways.

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I spent the first seven years of my association with the blog as a member of the precariate. I wrote about it so much that I worried I had lost who I was in my own research. Whether or not that was true, it makes sense to me why “slow academe” was illusory as both concept and material reality. I didn’t know how to slow down, and the conditions in which I worked rewarded me (sometimes) for doing as much as I could. When I shifted into my tenure track position (& by shifted I mean something I can’t quite articulate even still) I didn’t do much to slow down. Not at first. And when a blip caused me to pull back from social media as a means of networking, connecting, and (frankly, for me), frittering my time away I didn’t so much slow down as I did spiral. Who was I if I wasn’t plugged into what was happening in my field? In my discipline? I didn’t have a good answer. I felt lost.

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This summer, while I was out jogging–the one activity I can truly say I always do slowly–I was listening to one of my favourite podcasts. It is called Keep Calm and Cook On, and let me tell you, Julia Turshen’s interview style (not to mention her voice) feels like free therapy. In this particular episode she was talking with Jia Tolentino.  The conversation was about how Tolentino came to be interested in cooking. I learned that she took it up as a life-sustaining hobby while doing her training for and work in the Peace Corps. Cooking was a kind of slow pause in the affective intensity of her work. On this slow jog down the same road I jogged on all summer, I also listened to Tolentino talk about optimization. Sure, I knew the term already (how could I not? After all, I was striving to be an HQP!) but listening to these two people be smart, serious, and funny sent me to the closest bookstore to get Tolentino’s book.

Trick Mirror has had a great deal of press, and in my mind that’s warranted, but I won’t rehearse it here. Suffice to say, I’ve been thinking about her essay “Always Be Optimizing” for going on six months now. In this essay Tolentino outlines the ways in which people have been streamlined into little self-regulatory optimization machines. Sure, its not a new theory (hello, Foucault!), but Tolentino makes our current moment sharp and hilarious (I dare you to read the section on the rise of barre class without weeping with laughter) and searing. I see myself in these examples, even as I chafe (while pliéing? Kidding.).

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In the first class I taught this term, I invited the students to keep me on task. The task, for me, is to consider slowness and intentionality integral to my pedagogical praxis. Intentionality is always something I am working towards, trying to hold myself to, striving for. Slowness? Not so much, as it turns out. Now, this might be a difficult term to take this on–never have I been on more committees than I am now, never have I over-committed myself to writing projects in quite the way I have this term. But as we spent the first ten minutes of that first class thinking about where and how we read, something kind of magic happened, for me at least. I started to become aware of how even with reading I tend to race. How many pages? How quickly? The pleasure of the text gets lost (hi, Barthes…!) in the reach for optimization.

So, as I work always and forever towards balance this semester I will try to keep thinking about slowness and the ways in which it might, gently, interrupt the optimization imperative.

If you need a place to go for some inspiration, might I suggest colleague, pal, and friend to the blog Dr. Hannah McGregor‘s Secret Feminist Agenda? The January episode on cozy reflections vs. resolutions was, for me, inspiring.

administration · change management

Confessions of a feminist associate dean

I’ve been an associate dean for about six months — just about enough time for me to ‘fess up about a few things.

istockphoto-693210524-612x612Image via

  1. I didn’t really know what an associate dean is when I agreed to be one.

It is an understatement to say that I was completely unprepared when the dean  called me about six months ago and asked me to serve as an associate dean. I was still figuring how to be a department chair.

My first instinct was to try to learn how to do the job by reading the entire back catalogue of posts from the ass_deans twitter account in order to figure what NOT to do.

In case you’re wondering, you should not try to figure out how to do your new job through a satirical social media account that mocks the job.

Before I said to the dean, yes, sure, sign me up, happy to serve, I wish I had the read Sheila Cote-Meek’s super-smart, “Four Questions to Ask Yourself When Considering a Move Into Senior Administration.” And also, Patricia Ann Mabrouk’s terrific “The Indispensable Associate Dean.

Instead, I said, yes, sure, sign me up, happy to serve, and then, months later, I read these excellent pieces.

2. It’s weird to be “The Man”/ “The Administration”

Even when I was chair of my department, I was still part of my faculty union. Now, I’m definitely on the other side. I am ascribed power that I don’t usually think I have. My tendency has been to throw that power back (collegial governance means that I serve my colleagues not that I boss anyone around!). And I don’t actually have much power. But a big part of learning how to do the job has been for me to actually own up to the power that I have, and to use it in ways that line up with my values (hullo, fast feminism! hullo, equity, equity, equity!). More on this in the coming months.

3. I like the gig

I know, crazy right? What kool-aid have I been drinking? But I really, genuinely, actually like the work! I am surprised as you might be. It’s intense. I have to learn a lot and learn fast. It can be scary sometimes. And lonely (I keep track of how many meetings I am in where I am the only woman or the only person of colour; it happens more than I would have thought and I’ll be blogging about this too).

Still, it’s super-interesting to see how things happen at this level, to be at the table, and to be loudly and unrelentingly advocating for faster feminism and equity, equity, equity. I get to do a lot of different things (more support for international students, working with students who are refugee claimants, etc) and I can see the difference these things are making and that is really amazing.

4. I dream about the job every night that I’ve been doing it

This is embarrassing, kinda pathetic, and true. I’ve dreamt an associate dean dream every single night since July 1, 2019. So far, they are not anxiety dreams. They are more like sorting dreams. Does this go here? What about that? I am finding places for things. And, somehow, these dreams tell me that I am also finding a place for the things that I want —  my real dreams for the academic worlds that we are in.

That’s pretty awesome.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

enter the confessional · new year new plan · Uncategorized

Baggage

It is common in the new year, of course, to take stock of what we have accumulated or built up or held onto in the year just past, peering into the drawers and crevices of our lives to examine what lurks there–this regret, that past-due jar of Oktoberfest mustard crusted shut, oh look an overdue library book–as we embark on our annual crafting of resolutions, deciding what we want to carry into the future with us.

Me, I’ve literally got some baggage to deal with.

In late November, unexpectedly, I found myself on a late-notice work trip to Montréal, the kind where you spend more time in vomitous, lurching, snarled-traffic taxis that have that cloying and taxi-specific stale-cigarette-and-aggressive-air-freshener-chemical-strawberry smell than you do in flight, the kind where the meeting you attend is complicated and important and brain-bending, the kind where you find yourself dragging your wheelie bag up the slush-and-salt encrusted roadway from the Métro to the Trudeau Foundation offices on Sherbrooke.

And then the wheels fell off. Literally.

Over the course of several blocks, and then across the full breadth of an airport terminal, one of the wheels on my bag just … disintegrated. Layers of rubberized plastic cracking, then catching, then peeling and flapping. I bump-bumped it along behind me, noisily askew and unpredictable, skiddering and halting and sliding and catching.

Same same, bag. Same same.

This 21″ Samsonite soft-sided bag is one of the enduring relationships in my professional life. I bought it in 1999, at Staples in Edmonton, because I needed a real suitcase, that I could bring on an airplane: I was starting to go to conferences. I was making an effort to grow up, and a rollaboard bag is grown up. I considered it an investment piece, because it cost me in the region of $150. “I will use this for a very long time,” I thought, as I shakily handed over the bulk of that month’s discretionary money. And I have.

Luggage means you are going places. This bag and I have gone places. And I find myself asking now: where am I going next?

I got my very first piece of luggage when I was four or five, a Christmas present to my sister and me from our paternal grandparents. Well, it was three pieces of luggage–a ‘carry on’ shoulder bag, small old-style suitcase with a carry handle, and larger suitcase, all tucked inside one another like nesting dolls. Orangey-tan faux leather for me, leisure-suit blue faux leather for my sister. We would be travelling as a family to visit my grandparents for the holiday, so the bags were immediately put to use. I felt so sophisticated. These suitcases travelled everywhere from Florida to summer camp to university with me, from 1977 until about 1997, actually.

Young teenager dressed for camping, standing outdoors, smiling and holding luggage
Me, going places in 1986.

In 1997, at the very end of my BA at York, I won a scholarship simply to travel to Europe (yes! isn’t it amazing?) in a classic backpackish style. But I had no backpack. I bought my own luggage for the first time: a black canvas MEC waterproof backpack–the kind where you can zip away the backpack part and hook on a shoulder strap to pretend like it’s a suitcase, but it isn’t. This trip was my first time on an airplane, my first major solo trip. I spent weeks practice-packing and practice carrying to get three weeks of clothes and necessities into this bag in such a way I could carry it around from train to train, hostel to hostel. I used this bag to travel to Edmonton later that summer, on a training trip for the Orlando Project, on which I had been offered a research assistantship to fund my MA at Guelph. My life changed a lot that summer. When I moved to Edmonton the following summer that was the bag that came on the plane, and that brought me home for holidays.

That Samsonite roller bag was the start of a new set of journeys for me, a bag for fast trips, a bag for rolling on smooth concourses rather than heaving into trunks or carrying over cobblestones, a bag that took up very little space and that I could live out of in a small corner in a shared hotel room or next to someone’s couch, a bag I could roll into a job interview and look appropriate. And those were the things I did, two or three times a year, for twenty years. I delighted in the ever-diminishing amortized cost of that bag, held tight to my sense of myself as that scrappy but forward-thinking grad student that was smart enough to buy it.

My life is changing again. That bag fell apart in the heaviest travel year I’ve ever had, at the end of a year in which I have been challenged to become the next version of the person I’m going to be. This past year, everything hit simultaneously: I came out of sabbatical to my first full teaching load in about five years, two new preps. I won a $100K SSHRC grant. I got a positive review on a book manuscript submission (that used to be my dissertation) that needs revision. I won a Trudeau Fellowship. I started a podcast, was nominated for two teaching awards, published my first piece in disability studies (and outed myself as autistic and ADHD in the very first sentence of it). I co-taught a grad course in a new area, went to a conference in a new field, and did a ton of media interviews (and appeared in a movie called Assholes: A Theory). In July, I hit my 15 year anniversary at the University of Waterloo. Fifteen years!

Mid-career hit with a mostly-positive thump. People invite me places. They assign my stuff to their grad classes. I find myself mentoring my own junior colleagues. I have a kind of clarity and sense of my own competence, which was unexpected and amazing. I have a travel and research budget that exceeds my capacity to quite comprehend. I am meeting diplomats and prominent academics who are somehow now my peers. Opportunities are multiplying.

But it’s still a thump. It feels kind of like Ms Pac Man, where I’ve munched a power disk, and while that makes it possible for me to rack up all the points and win, everything just got way louder and faster and I’m panicking about grabbing everything I can but still trying to methodically clear the level. It’s frenetic. It’s a mixed blessing. The wheels fell off my bag.

Things are changing.

Here’s where I went last year: Pittsburgh, twice, 4 days each, two different conferences; Vancouver, five days, Congress; Montreal, **three times**, each for two days related to Trudeau Foundation work; Mount Orford, Québec, for five days for Trudeau retreat; Yellowknife, for seven days, for the inaugural Trudeau Foundation Institute for Engaged Leadership.

Tomorrow, I’m flying to Washington for three days for Trudeau planning meeting. Six days after that back to Montréal overnight for an event. Washington again for a week in March, then Moncton for five days in May, Montréal for a week in October. Maybe more planning trips. This is without any conference travel, so who knows?

I bought a new bag for this new life. Even on Boxing Day it set me back more than $300, a 21″ rollaboard Travel Pro Platinum Elite Spinner, recommended for power travellers by Wirecutter. It’s this magical kind of suitcase with ten million weirdly useful pockets, including one for an external battery pack for my poor overworked devices, that somehow compresses time and space to make everything I pack 80% smaller than it seems to be before I put it in. It’s a kind of cranberry colour, sedate but a little distinct. I also: bought a tiny travel size hair straightener, tiny travel versions of my favorite toiletries, and I’ve dedicated a drawer in the guest room to Things That Travel With Me Every Time, like my little bag of first aid things, and extra chargers, and a case for my glasses. I’m ready to go at a moment’s notice, with less fuss. I feel 100% less stressed out about packing for all these trips now. Do I own two hair straighteners now? Yes. But I’m never going to be freaking out the morning of a trip waiting for my giant straightener to cool down before I try to shove it into a bag I wanted to have had ready at the front door 30 minutes earlier. This is who I am now.

I used to travel light, and cheap, and infrequently, and with a bit of panic and fuss at the outset. I’m not that person now. I still travel light, but I insist on the good parking and the good bag, and it makes sense to have doubles of things (and doubles of the things I like to use, the good stuff) because I spend so much time living out of my suitcase. It was hard for me to write out where I’ve gone this year and where I’m going because those paragraphs describe someone who is different from how I see myself, from how I want other to see me. I’m not sure how I feel about this new person yet: I have baggage, if you will, that I’m dragging bumpily behind me, wheels askew, not quite working but tinged with moral rectitude and thrift.

What am I going to wheel with you into 2020? Whatever it is, I hope the baggage rolls smoothly in the direction you set for yourself, whoever you may be or be becoming.

best laid plans · Uncategorized · work · writing

Book Projects Are Hard…and fun

I’m working on a new project and it is both exciting and terrifying!

While I have complete other writing projects before, including one creative non-fiction monograph, when I finish writing anything I tend to feel as though I will, surely, never write again. Something similar happens when I get page proofs back for articles. I read, sometimes I nod in agreement or surprise. Sometimes I am impressed with myself. Always–and I mean always–I wonder whether I wrote the thing in a fugue state. Who was that person who made this sentence? Who found that salient bit of research to support a close reading? Who was she and where has she gone?

Who was it that wrote “anyone who says they enjoy the writing process is a liar”? It isn’t that I dislike the writing process. Once I am writing I love it. It feels euphoric at best, or at the very least, it feels rhythmic, like the way I was taught to breathe while doing front crawl: stroke, stroke, stroke, breath. Repeat for an hour or so and emerge tired and accomplished. Stretch, shower, carry on with your day. I am a dilettante who is a little in love with routine and a little enamoured with a good challenge, so yes, I suppose liking writing makes sense. It is the project planning that has me in knots.

I remember preparing to writing my dissertation proposal. It was a bit of a nightmare. I had all these wonderful ideas–I practically could dream the whole project–but when I sat down to put pen to paper and plan it out? Nothing. Nada. Zilch save for the slow trickle of dread that starts at the back of my neck and creeps up into my mind and then yells you can’t do this!

It turns out that I could do it, of course. I wrote the dissertation, and sometimes had fun doing it. But gosh, I sure wish I had learned how to project plan a bit. There is, I think, a happy medium place between launching yourself into the writerly unknown and crafting a research project that needs to be a scholarly monograph when it is finished.

So, this new project I am working on is a chance to shift my writerly and research habits. I’m going to try and share with you what I learn, what I bump up against, and what is (I hope) also delightful. Here goes:

It turns out that while I have edited a few collections and written that creative non-fiction monograph I mentioned, writing a scholarly monograph feels a lot like writing a dissertation so far. I need to survey the field, figure out what I can add to it, and learn through writing and revising how to be generative in a field that has so much richness in it already.

However, unlike a dissertation, this book project has already had its first encounter with peer review. When I was approached to write the book proposal I learned that I would submit the proposal to peer review. What? Wow! Wonderful and intimidating (though intimidating only insofar as it is nerve-racking to have peers assess your work). I am so grateful for the anonymous commentary I received on the proposal. Three different people took the time to read it, comment on it, and make generous and useful suggestions. When I get stuck and worry about whether I should be writing this, I return to the peer review commentary and remind myself that no book is ever the last word. What I am aiming for, always, is contributing to on going discussion. The peer reviewers remind me of that, too.

I quite like what Donald Barthelme has to say: “the writer is that person who, embarking upon her task, does not know what to do.” Whereas in the past I would have read this and taken it as permission to flail around in a bit of a froth until I churned out several thousand words, I find myself approaching Barthelme’s observation a bit differently. Instead, I am working towards an end-goal inside a project plan with the knowledge that the project will shift as it needs to shift. Happily, the heart-pounding unknowing of writing is there, too.

Wish me luck! And please, feel free to share your long-project tactics and tips!

Uncategorized

Ten Years of Feminist Academic Blogging

Readers, we’re still here.

We’re still here, even though blogs are maybe a bit archaic. We’re still here even though we have only been managing about a post a month for the last year (or so…). We’re still here because every time we think eh, we should wrap this up, it has been a good run we realize we aren’t ready. Not yet.

Since we began in 2010 our writers have finished degrees, moved institutions, left academia, published books, made families, lost loved ones, made communities, shifted, changed, raged, reflected, been anxious, joyous, sad, confused, curious, and inspired.

Turns out 2020 might be here, but the academy still needs feminist thinking and intentionality. We still need feminism and intentionality. And we need you.

In our first post back in September of 2010 Heather Zwicker wrote:

Hook and Eye is both an intervention and an invitation. We write about the realities of being women working in the Canadian university system. We muse (and rave, and query, and wonder, and share, and occasionally rant) about everything from gender inequities and how tenure works to finding unfrumpy winter boots and managing life’s minutiae

A decade has passed and these concerns and curiosities remain. They have subdivided and diversified. There are new concerns, and there are endemic concerns that persist. And for this, our tenth year, we want to stay with the trouble, commit curiosity, and share and develop our knowledges.

We’ll be working in the coming year to revivify our posting schedule. We’d love to hear from those of you who who have done guest posts in the past, written regularly with us in different years, or have never written and are interested in pitching us something.

Ten years of thinking, sharing, questioning, refusing, and creating together matters. Let’s keep doing it.

 

 

Uncategorized

Remembering the Montreal Massacre: 30 Years After

This is a guest post written by Heidi Tiedemann Darroch. 

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For Sharon Rosenberg (1964-2010), whose thinking about how to remember is so missed

1989

The first rumours swirl at dinner in our baronial dining hall, a nod to the University of Toronto’s Oxbridgean aspirations. Stern portraits of college heads—all men, all white—gaze down. In the main college building, a famed gryphon adorns the bottom of a staircase railing, rubbed shiny by decades of student hands seeking good luck before exams. Today I rubbed it, extra hard. It is the most beautiful place I have ever lived, and I feel safer than I have ever felt. The door to my room locks. Only I have the key.      

Students have been shot, I hear in the cafeteria line. It makes no sense.        

And then, Women have been shot. 

We were eighteen, nineteen, twenty. We called ourselves girls, usually, not women, and we were so much like those who had just been murdered: ambitious, hardworking, eager to embark on adult life and professions. Montreal was  familiar, the big city two hours from home. I knew two of the women. One died. One survived her injuries.

Fourteen women died: thirteen students and a staff member.

We’ve heard this before, but it bears repeating: in a classroom, the man separated the men and women, ordered the male students and professor to leave. He shot women after telling them that they were a bunch of feminists. One tried to protest, saying they were not feminists, just women seeking an education. To him—angry, thwarted—every woman seeking an education in the Engineering faculty was his enemy, his rival for entitlements: to education, to safety, to belonging in the world.

We need to remember that he said “feminist.” That he named accomplished women he believed to be feminists in a hit list the police were reluctant to release.        

The fourteen women who died were Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, Barbara Daigneault, Anne-Marie Edwards, Maud Haviernick, Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz, Maryse Laganière, Maryse Leclair, Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier, Michèle Richard, Annie St-Arneault and Annie Turcotte.

December 6, 1989 was the last day that I ever felt completely safe at school.

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1979

At eight, my reading obsession is boarding school novels—St. Clare’s, Mallory Towers, and the Chalet School, where the intrusion of Nazis and spy plot lines jostles uneasily against midnight feasts and sending a classmate to Coventry for tattling.

In one of these books I struggle with a puzzling phrase: “safe as houses.” My mother explains it means that the girl feels as safe as if she were at home.

My mother is wrong.

To be at home is not safe. My mother has never been safe at home, and she cannot keep us safe. She grew up with alcoholism, violence, sexual abuse, a sister stabbed with a kitchen knife by their own mother and then pushed down a flight of stairs. She left home at sixteen, married at nineteen, ended up in hospital from that marriage. She tells me her mother-in-law visited, and gave her money to get out.

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2019

I seize up, writing this reflection, for a week. This is not a story I am supposed to tell. This is not a story I am allowed to tell. It is, and it is not, my story to tell. Here is what you need to know: As a child, I felt safer at school. 

And I learn, belatedly, that “safe as houses” means something entirely different—a Victoria phrase, referring to purchasing houses as a safe financial investment. It was never about homes.

As a child,I am safer at school. I arrive early to help the teacher, stay late to clean chalkboards and then bang the erasers together, releasing clouds of glorious white dust. My teachers notice, protect me. My fifth grade teacher calls us all “petit trésor,” little treasure. 

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 1990 

It is January and time to return to classes. We have already stopped talking about the women who died.

My first new class is in a windowless auditorium. It’s a women’s studies course, but the exits are all the way at the back of the hall. It would be so easy for someone to come in the back, block us from fleeing, kill dozens of us at once.

I drop the course.

I choose new ones but stop attending. I drift through a winter, falling in love three times, not thinking about the women who died, too scared to go to class and too scared to tell anyone that my scholarship is in jeopardy. I get engaged and am on track to be married at nineteen, just like my mother. I end up in hospital, like—but not at all like—my mother. The assailant I am afraid of is myself. I don’t want to live in this world where going to school is not safe. Home is not safe. Walking down the street, going to a party, waiting in line at a movie, working after dark alone in a store–any next moment could be the one where a man decides I am a rival or enemy. He might be a stranger. He’s more likely to be a lover, a spouse, a father. 

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Sara N. Ahmed writes about fear’s stickiness, such that “objects of fear become substituted for each other over time” (“The Politics of Fear in the Making of Worlds” 389). These relationships of substitution are confusing, confused. Who is a friend, and who is a threat? I work the most frantically at placating the people I fear. Reading Ahmed’s “Resignation Is a Feminist Issue” shakes me. I leave a job where I am unsafe and then, isolated, email her, because collective disbelief and denial is hard to survive. Over the next year and half, I work through official complaints and processes, lawyers and allegations that I was too competent for my own good. Ahmed includes my experience in her work, quotes my words in a public context. I feel safer, because this is solidarity, because she believes me, which helps me believe myself.

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1999

I have learned to theorize my way through trauma. It works, most of the time. I write a paper for a conference and sit, calmly, reading it out loud because it is less scary than making eye contact with the handful of strangers in the room. I write about trauma, historical fiction, and false memory allegations. I do this for years, because the longer I stay in school the more therapy I can access for free. This is one way to end up with a PhD. 

And then I am too embarrassed to include the counselor who enabled my work in my acknowledgements, U of T’s first sexual assault counselor and educator. Thank you, Patti McGillicuddy.

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2019

For twenty years I have been teaching in colleges and universities. I feel safe. To be the teacher, my favourite make believe as a child, is to be the safest person in the room, the one with the most power and privilege. I love teaching.      

After I have been teaching for several years, there is a campus shooting—one of many in the U.S., so frequent they become wearying. This one is at a university and there are stories about a brave professor who died protecting her students.

I am not that brave. I burn with shame. I will plead and bargain with the shooter, I imagine, and my words will be inadequate. The image of how I will fail my students is so vivid that I have to remind myself, over and over, of how unlikely it is that my students will be endangered.

My students are in danger. In their residences, the weekend partying is a euphemism for rape culture. A student, eyes swollen, sat in my office on a Monday afternoon, explaining why her paper is  not finished. She went to a party, woke up 18 hours later, hurting and with no memories. I offer to walk her to the campus clinic. She just wants to go home. She drops the course and I don’t see her again. She doesn’t answer my email. I failed her. 

It is time for my eighteen-year-old to start university, and I am terrified. I spend a summer obsessing about danger and planning for disaster. Their dad buys them earthquake supplies, even though the city where they are moving is not in a seismically active area—we are. My child is moving to greater safety, and I should be grateful, but I am so scared.

Yes, I know it’s PTSD. But living in the world and feeling this unsafe is exhausting. Fortunately, there’s baking. And my child is less scared than I am, and this is progress.

 *

Fourteen benches sit in a circle outside the Vancouver bus station, in a neglected park. The Canada geese have taken over, and it’s a mess. Every time I visit, I take a picture, charting decay, then send angry email messages to the parks board asking for the memorial to be maintained.

Christine Bold, Ric Knowles, and Belinda Leach consider in their 2002 article how a memorial site might help sustain memory and resist the “active forgetting” of “hegemonic memorializing” (“Feminist Memorializing and Cultural Countermemory: The Case of Marianne’s Park” 130). They point out that race, ethnicity, and social status inform how much public support there is for commemoration. These 14 benches are only blocks from the Downtown Eastside where dozens of women vanished over several decades. Not disappearing: being disappeared. I think of Rebecca Belmore’s powerful, haunting “Vigil,” the way she stood in a parking lot shredding rose petals from their stems with her teeth. Raging, mourning.

On December 6 I will teach my last day of classes, saying goodbye to students and the communities we’ve built together this term. I will gather with colleagues to celebrate each other’s care and support. And I will look forward to helping create a world with more light and hope in the coming year, so that all of us–all of our children–can step into classrooms, and out into the world. Unafraid. 

*

Heidi Tiedemann Darroch teaches English and Access courses at Camosun College as a term faculty member. She is the co-editor of this month’s special section of the Canadian Journal of Studies in Discourse and Writing on pedagogy and academic labour and she has recently published in several collections of Canadian literary criticism, including Ethics and Affects in the Fiction of Alice Munro (edited by Amelia DeFalco and Lorraine York) and the forthcoming Canadian Culinary Imaginations (edited by Shelley Boyd and Dorothy Barenscott. She also works on women’s cultural production, higher education activism, and writing studies.

 

 

 

 

 

        

 

 

academic reorganization · feminism · feminist digital humanities · Uncategorized

Guest Post: Open Access Is a Feminist Issue

Today’s post is from Dr. Hannah McGregor

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In “#transform(ing)DH Writing and Research: An Autoethnography of Digital Humanities and Feminist Ethics,” Moya Bailey invites feminist scholars to ask how we enact our feminist ethics throughout our research processes. At the end of the article, she outlines questions we can ask ourselves as we are embarking on new research projects. Included in those questions are “What tools and or methods encourage multidirectional collaboration?” and “What mechanism of accountability can you create?”. Accountable feminist research, research that centres responsibility to the communities our research engages with or speaks to, is attentive to how its tools and methods open out or close down the possibilities for collaboration beyond the university. As a feminist scholar, I have become increasingly convinced that one of the most accountable things we can do in our work is prioritize open access. 

 

A quick explanation: open access (OA) is a set of publishing principles and practices that are specific to scholarly communication. The goal of OA is to break down institutional barriers to accessing research, either through publishing in OA journals or depositing pre-prints of articles in institutional repositories. There are obvious challenges to OA — particularly financial ones, as we’ll have to envision new business models to ensure that scholarly publishing is both open and sustainable. With major institutions like the University of California beginning to end their relationships with publishers like Elsevier, however, a steady movement toward widespread OA seems inevitable. And, while challenging, this change is a good thing. 

 

When I started working in the Publishing program at Simon Fraser University in 2016, I joined a community of scholars who are not just invested in open access as an ideal, but who are actively building the infrastructure to make OA possible. SFU is home to the Public Knowledge Project, and the PKP’s Associate Director of Research, Juan Pablo Alperin, is my departmental colleague. The Publishing program has voluntarily signed onto SFU’s Open Access Policy and incorporated it into our tenure and promotion criteria. In the context of an institutional setting where OA is treated as a shared value, I have had the space to experiment with open, accessible, and publicly-engaged scholarship, particularly through my work on podcasting as scholarly communication in collaboration with Wilfrid Laurier University. 

 

All this to say, I’ve been embedded in a community invested in the ethos of open access for long enough, now, that it was a genuine shock to me when, in Spring 2019, I attended multiple conferences where colleagues in Humanities disciplines spoke of open access as neoliberalism, the scientization of research, and a devaluation of our intellectual labour. As one friend texted me in the midst of one such conferences: since when is open access neoliberal but paywalling research so that people have to pay for it isn’t? 

 

I would never be so naive as to claim that OA lacks barriers and challenges. In the Canadian context, the most significant one is the top-down way that the Tri-Council has attempted to implement it: not through incentive-based funding or collaboration with stakeholders, but through sudden and absolute ultimatums that threaten to strip journals–and now, university presses–of their funding if they don’t comply with new regulations. These unilateral funding changes may also be linked to OA’s association with the STEM fields, which have often driven the conversation. In fact, people working in the field of scholarly communication have a tendency to use “science” and “research” as synonyms (I keep trying to make them stop doing this, but it isn’t sticking yet). Many Humanities scholars, journal editors, and publishers feel like we have been left out of the conversation about how we want our research to circulate, and are being left to play catch-up in a publishing and funding environment that is already stacked against us. 

 

But here’s the thing: Responding to the OA movement by clinging to closed-off and paywalled forms of scholarly communication is inimical to the public mission of the university–and the public mission of the university is a feminist issue. As Bailey reminds us, a feminist research ethics means making our research accessible and accountable. Feminist scholars shouldn’t be responding to open access by dragging our feet and reluctantly complying to new requirements. We should be leading the conversation about what it means to do open, accessible, accountable research. 

 

It is also true that many of the barriers to embracing open access are also feminist issues. The scholarly publishing world is dominated by women (as is the trade publishing world); journal editing tends to be undervalued and high labour work that is at once vital to academia and also, like most forms of service, barely counted in tenure and promotion processes. The precaritization of the university has massively inflated expectations around early-career publishing, which in turn has inflated the number of journals in many disciplines. The systematic defunding of public universities has cut the entire business model of university presses off at the knees. We also haven’t solved the problem of business models for sustainable OA publishing; in the sciences, the most viable model is adding article-processing fees into grants, but grants in the humanities and social sciences are generally too small for such additions. We cannot talk about open access without talking about all of these structural problems. 

 

But if we could collectively agree to the fundamental premise that open access is a feminist issue, then our conversations about labour and value and prestige would, by necessity, shift. As Kathleen Fizpatrick so succinctly puts it in Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University, embracing open access as a values-based approach to scholarly communication “does not just serve the goal of undoing [scholarship’s] commercialization or removing it from a market-driven, competition-based economy, but rather is a first step in facilitating public engagement with the knowledge that universities produce” (148). Can feminist scholars agree that part of the mission of publicly-funded universities should be facilitating public engagement with our work? Can we agree that pay-walling and institutionalizing research created on stolen Indigenous land perpetuates settler-colonial understandings of knowledge-as-commodity? Can we agree that the scarcity-driven models of publishing in the most “elite” and “competitive” journals or of valuing the monograph over journal articles (or journal articles over podcast episodes!) is based in a fundamentally patriarchal hierarchy of what knowledge “counts”? 

 

There are challenges ahead of us as we face the transformation of scholarly communication, but there are also exciting opportunities to break down the institutional barriers of the university, to tell the stories of our work in different ways, to rethink where and how and why we publish. As we face those challenges within our disciplinary and institutional communities, we’ll start finding good solutions when we commit to the values at the heart of making knowledge open and free.

McGregor headshot_Christopher M Turbulence

Hannah McGregor is an Assistant Professor of Publishing at Simon Fraser University and the host of Secret Feminist Agenda, a podcast about the mundane and radical ways we enact our feminism in our daily lives. She lives in Vancouver on the territory of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations.

 

Uncategorized

From the Archives: Surthrival

Here’s a post from several years ago that, surprise surprise, still feels relevant! Here is to surthrival.

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Late last week I was chatting with a friend of mine and we asked one another, “how are you?” And then we both giggled. Okay, actually we sent one another ellipses and exclamation points, because we were chatting on Facebook. The hilarity and lack of verbal articulation came from the fact that my friend, who is a single parent, is teaching four classes this term, and I, a co-parent to a six month old, am teaching two classes while my partner teaches three. We have no child care. My friend was up grading papers after teaching three classes, running tutorials, and making sure her own kids were well and fed and getting what they needed. I was awake working on a job application after having driven with my partner two-thirds of the way to New England for a conference at which he was to give a paper the next day. My partner was working on a paper after having taught a class and driving for six hours. Our kiddo, generous being that she is, was asleep in her portable crib in the middle of the hotel room.

How are you?

…!!!???!!!…

Our wordless pause came from this, then: we are both in it up to our eyeballs, my friend and I. We are running from the moment we wake to the moment we drop into bed. We are, neither of us, in stable work, so there’s the usual scramble to keep it all afloat. And yet. And yet as my friend and I agreed, the things that keep us grounded–the mornings, when my girl wakes us up singing in her tiny infant voice, the afternoons when my friend steals a moment to write–these things are good. There are roots in our lives, we agreed.

But let’s not deny it is hard. Let us not deny the feeling of being eaten alive by bureaucracy, Brazil-like. Let’s not ignore the data that suggests that nearly half the people working in higher education exhibit symptoms of psychological distress.

I want a word that means more than “surviving” without losing that hard-scrabble fact of what is really going on. I want a word that defies the isolation that comes with working in the academy, because my work–the job I go and do–can and does bring me joy, even if the conditions of that work cannot. I want a word that acknowledges the emotional labour, the sheer physical labour (you should see how quick I am on my bicycle, zipping to campus and class as soon as my partner gets home from his class to take bébé).

“I hope survival turns to thrival,” I wrote to my friend, in an attempt to name our own daily work of making our lives good despite, or in spite, or just in the midst of the long, hard work.

“Here’s to surTHRIVEal!” she wrote back, proving once again (let us acknowledge it here) that poets are indeed the legislators of the world.

So here’s to surthriving. To the precariate, doing your jobs and keeping your head and your spirits above water: surthrive. Find what lifts you. To the graduate students, filled with fear and anxiety about what is next and what is now: surthrive. You are smart. To the assistant professors, finishing their first terms and finding that the dream is still a f*ckload of work: surthrive. You deserve your job, we need you there. To the associate professors, keeping it all going despite the oft-unacknowledged workload: surthrive. You are in positions of power, don’t forget that. To the full professors, wondering, perhaps, what happened to the university you came to at the beginning of your career: surthrive. We need you. To the undergraduate students, facing student debt, facing final exams, trying to keep a social life and likely a job, too: surthrive. Find what lifts you up and hold onto that shining thing and let it light your way. To the administrative staff, keeping us all organized, and keepers of our quiet and not-so-quiet sorrows: surthrive. You keep this whole boat level and moving forward with the band playing.

Here is to surthrival. Here is to refusing to lose the light while acknowledging that the darkness is coming earlier these days. Here is to remembering that there are good moments in each day if we look for them. And here is to refuelling our resolve to make more of the day good, generative, and generous.

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…

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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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