teaching · Uncategorized

An ode to the white board

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saying “yes” and sparking joy

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

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

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You can use boxes to store and organize smaller items

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

But.

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

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

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

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

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

I’m going somewhere with this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blank space: post-sabbatical re-entry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“I’ve got a blank space, baaaaaaby”
sabbatical · self care · Uncategorized

Guest Post: Sabbatical Report Card

Today’s guest post is Part II of Colleen Derkatch’s sabbatical life lessons. If you missed Part I, catch up here.

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I passed!

No, I’m not talking about how I did on my sabbatical. I’m talking about how I did on my first figure skating test in almost 3 decades, an ice dance that I passed this week with the totally fine grade of “satisfactory.”

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This is what they call “squeaking by.”

Let me rewind. When I went on sabbatical, I made a deal with myself to invest some of my newfound time and emotional energy into making myself feel more human again after a devastating and exhausting few years sprinting along the tenure track. I was determined that my sabbatical year would be different. Well, reader, it was! I had space and time to think new thoughts, to get my body and my mind back into shape, and to reclaim my evenings and weekends. It was glorious.

And now it’s over.

I came back to regular faculty life in September and, as I near the end of my first semester back in the classroom, it’s time to give myself a final grade for my sabbatical and to see how I’ve translated what I learned to my post-sabbatical work. First, the Report Card.

Where I excelled:

I lowered my expectations. Initially, I had unreasonable goals for my sabbatical. I thought I would write a whole book from scratch in the oodles of time freed up by not teaching or doing university service. But some wise senior colleagues advised me to spend the first couple months catching my breath and decompressing, which I dutifully did. I caught a taste of what it was like to not have a headache all the time, to not have chronic acid reflux or insomnia. I felt brand-new.

By fall, however, as my friends and colleagues returned to class, my Type-A personality came screaming back, reminding me that I owed it to everyone—my university, my colleagues, my family, contingent faculty who don’t have the same sabbatical privilege—to crank out research. And so I forgot my plan to become human again and had a too-busy fall. Headaches and everything else came back with a fury. I had to do something different.

I tried a new way of working. After ending up right back where I’d been pre-sabbatical, I took a leap of faith partway through the year and started working with a coach-slash-project-manager. As I outlined in Part 1 of this post, I put myself in her hands and let her restructure my working life from the bottom up. It went against all my instincts. Gone were wide-open calendar days of “research.” Gone were long hours at my desk, reading or writing (or, more often, stressing about not doing either while refreshing Twitter every 5 seconds).

I started working in short, scheduled bursts of 15-20 minutes on highly specific tasks, marking each burst on a calendar on my desk. My coach/project manager and I chatted weekly to set a full schedule for that week so I would know each day what I needed to do and how long to do it. We re-jigged the schedule as necessary and I always knew what was on the immediate and distant horizons. My workdays often totalled no more than an hour or two, and sometimes even less. It felt wrong, like I was cheating, but I eventually trained myself to work that way, slowly upping the time until I hit the sweet spot where I was getting tons of stuff done without feeling like I was really trying. I’ve never been more productive and yet I somehow had more free time, too. Evenings and weekends were mine again.

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Full sheets go up on The Wall of Triumph

I made time to live. I prioritized non-work activities, like studying French and taking up figure skating again. I cooked, I read, I worked out. I traveled and I spent lots of time with my kid. I also dove deep into my workplace extended health benefits, loading up on therapy, physio, massage, and osteopathy to undo the knots in my brain and body.

Short of spending the year abroad, I made maximal use of my time “off.” But you can probably see where this is going: I went kind of overboard. If I was Type A about my work life before my sabbatical, I became Type A about my non-work life during it.

Where I “needed improvement”:

I tried to do all the things. When I wrote my previous post, I hadn’t yet registered how much I had taken on in my sabbatical “life” project. It’s true I was getting a ton of academic work done with little sweat but, between skating and French and the many types of therapy I was doing, I wound up exhausted nonetheless.

My coach says this is normal: stress and anxiety don’t just disappear when you start working in less stress- and anxiety-provoking ways, they just get funneled in different directions. So all the nervous energy about work that once whirled around me like dust around Pig Pen became a cloud of nervous energy about whether I was relaxed enough. Funny how that works. But, in the end, I think that’s exactly what I needed to do, to swing the pendulum way too far in the opposite direction so that, with practice, it would end up somewhere in the middle.

Final grade: A+

Why an A+? Because I got a lot of stuff done. Because I took good care of myself. Because I tried to do all the things. Because academics are just too damn hard on themselves. Because, ultimately, my sabbatical changed my life.

My sabbatical helped me make some significant changes that I’ve been able to translate into my post-sabbatical life, and they appear to be lasting. The idea I had that I need to suffer to produce good academic work was deeply etched into my DNA but I’ve been slowly de-coding it. Breaking my work into manageable bite-sized bits helped me develop a new relationship to my job because it’s much less daunting to tackle a 20-minute bit of highly specific work than a hulking, amorphous task that could take all day or all week. Add up these small bits and the hulking, amorphous tasks almost complete themselves. I’m not the first to try this approach but the hulking, amorphous task of shifting academia’s culture of overwork can only be done bit by bit, and this post is mine.

But what’s the catch?

Maintaining my commitment to keep myself in one piece has not come without costs. I’m not as good a teacher as I was: I do the best I can but I don’t give every last bit of me to teaching, as I once did. I’m not as good a colleague as I was, either: there are too many committees, too many new initiatives, and I can only do so much if I want to do it well and stay in one piece.

I’ve figured out that if I want to give academia the best version of me—the most productive, the most energetic, the most fair, incisive, and useful version of me—it can’t have all of me. The part I keep back for myself is what allows me to do the rest. And so I’m fiercely protective of my time. I’ve reserved two precious, immovable research days a week. The other days are for teaching and service. I book everything into a weekly schedule, with lots of flexibility built in, and I unapologetically stick to that schedule. I don’t work on evenings or weekends, and I generally pass on work-related evening events, too.

Of course, I have all the comfort and security of tenure. But I think much of what I’ve described here can be parlayed for those who are pre-tenure or off the tenure-track. Being mercilessly protective of my time has allowed me to do well the things I need to do, often well ahead of schedule. And because I take concrete blocks of time off, I’m more rested and ready when I’m “on.”

So where did my cloud of nervous energy go? Some of it simply dissipated. And the rest, I now funnel not into work but into skating. It is physically and intellectually demanding, requiring full concentration and exacting precision, and it takes up a lot of time, skating 3-4 days a week. But making time for it somehow helps me make time for everything else. And it burns off that nervous energy better than any amount of reading or writing or teaching ever could. Plus, I’m getting seriously strong, which makes it much easier to sit down to work when I need to.

I may have only gotten “satisfactory” on my recent skating test but I’ve learned to be satisfied with that.

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3 of these pairs are mine…
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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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.