classrooms · clothes · copper-bottomed bitch · sexist fail

This month in sexism: September

Welcome to the first edition of “This Month in Sexism,” an anonymous compendium of gobsmacking true experiences.

Unless we’re sorely mistaken, feminists don’t really have time to take on the re-education of everybody who says something dumb, intentional or not. At the same time, we are tired of pretending it just doesn’t matter. Our solution? Send us your FAIL stories (see the link here for how) and we’ll compile them into a post that will make you groan, laugh – and move on.

Here are this month’s jaw-droppers:

  • I pause during my lecture to ask if anyone has any questions. A hand from the back shoots up. “Yes,” I acknowledge a male student who rarely speaks. “Where do you get your clothes?,” he asks.
  • In a public meeting, my VP referred to 4 senior academic administrators as “ladies” – as in, “Thanks, ladies. Good work!” (This happened twice.)
  • A senior colleague in my field patted me on the head.
  • My new dean looked me up and down and said, “You didn’t have to dress up, you know.”
  • My first professional advice? “Women can’t direct Shakespeare.”
  • Sitting beside a (female) colleague from another institution during dinner: “Wow, you sure can pack it in, young lady! Better watch your figure.”
  • As I walked up the aisle of the classroom distributing notes, a male student complimented me on my skirt, which I guess is okay . . . sort of. Then he complimented me on on my legs. I told him that I grew them especially for his pedagogical benefit. I suspect it was this student who described me as “a sarcastic and cynical feminist” on my teaching evaluations that term.
  • For a slightly longer rant, see Mama non Grata’s blog entry for today!

What’s that? You can top these? Email us at sexism (at) hookandeye (dot) ca and show us!

broken heart · grad school · job market

When should you break their hearts?

It’s convocation week, and the young woman in front of me is 22, well awarded, radiant with success and flanked by three proud parents. “Yeah, I’m pretty excited,” she says. “I got into my top choice MA program! I don’t know where I’ll go for my PhD, though – everybody says it’s a good school, but who knows – maybe I can go to England, or the States? I just, you know, I really want to be a professor.” Charming blush.

And here I am again. Do I say, “Oh, that’s wonderful news: congratulations! You must be so proud.” Or do I say, “Sweetheart, I’m begging you, do not make that tragic life decision. Graduate school will steal your soul and eviscerate your self-esteem, and at the end of six excruciating years – if you’re fast – you’ll realize that the only job you’re trained for doesn’t exist. From then on, your life will be an interminable grind of underemployed misery punctuated by periods of paralyzing anxiety, all in the service of a vocational delusion.”

She smiles; I smile, lie. Not the right moment to break her heart.

Maybe the right moment is lunch with our promising MA student and her co-supervisor. The student’s had a wonderful year: earned a perfect GPA on her coursework, taught for the first time, to rave reviews, won a major national scholarship, landed a visiting appointment at a university in New Zealand as well as the travel grant to support it. “And what are you thinking of doing after the MA?,” I ask, carefully. “Oh, a PhD,” she says, surprised by the question. “Can I ask – I don’t want you to take this the wrong way – but can I ask why you want to do a PhD?” “I want to be a professor,” she says, “like you.”

I can hardly pretend to be surprised. Everything I do for her, all the guidance and the letters and the feedback on her written work, my mentoring and my modeling, the suggestion of things to read, all of this is designed to help her achieve her goals, which include Becoming a Professor. She would be a conscientious instructor; she has the capacity to influence a discipline. I want people like her – hardworking, imaginative, smart, and kind – to be my colleagues. I want her to be a professor; I want that job – professor – to exist for her.

But that job doesn’t exist plentifully, and if commentators on the academic job market are right to describe the dearth of academic jobs as structural rather than temporary, it’s not likely to return anytime soon.

It’s easy to say that you should disclose this dreary situation to students – but when, exactly, and how?

Undergraduate convocation clearly isn’t the right time, and the whole concept of graduate education is pretty abstract in the first few years of university. Early in the PhD? Too late: they’re already committed. At the end of the PhD? Way too late: the last thing a dissertating student needs to hear is, “Your thesis needs more work – even though it won’t get you a job.” How about during the Master’s? Maybe, but MAs are short – doctoral apps are due at the end of the first semester – so you might want to practice greeting enthusiastic new students with a hearty, “Welcome to graduate school! But don’t get too comfortable.” (Of course, that might also entail conceiving the Master’s as something other than a pre-doctoral degree – but I digress.)

Maybe there’s never a good time to share bad news. But even if we can bring ourselves to break students’ hearts, I’m not convinced they can hear what we’re saying. “Yeah, I know it’s a tough job market,” said one would-be professor earlier this year, “but somebody has to get those jobs!” “I’m sure things will get better,” another one shrugged. “I’m going to be really strategic about my research,” said a third optimist. How do you respond to such blitheness?: “What’s the weather like on your planet?”?

Underneath my reluctance to break students’ hearts is a virtual hibernaculum of unresolved feelings: anxiety that I might be wrong; remorse that I haven’t managed to strengthen the humanities and turn the tide of public opinion (or, more to the point, the tide of public funding); pedagogical self-doubt; survivor’s guilt; concern for the future of my students; and my own professional and intellectual heartbreak at a future without these people in it.

notes from the non-tenured-stream · positive thoughts as I fill out grant applications

Being frank feels risky: Notes from the non-tenured stream

It is mid-afternoon on the last Sunday in September and I have been sitting in front of my computer for about five hours already. This has been my schedule for the last two weeks. Not because I haven’t got my lectures ready, amazingly I have (ok, mostly). Nope, this ennui is all about grant-writing season. Tomorrow is the internal deadline at a university where I will be submitting a postdoctoral application, and Friday was my institution’s internal deadline for faculty research grants. I’m throwing my hat in both rings because a) I want to think about new research projects amidst all the teaching I am doing and b) I am feeling the (constant) pressure of covering my bases for next year. Of course there is no guarantee I’ll receive any funding, or any jobs or renewal for that matter, but that’s the way this game goes. As I sit here trying to conjure something witty-yet-insightful-and-provocative to post (or at least witty and insightful) while I stare at the labyrinthine system for inputting my life onto the Canadian Common CV I find myself reminded of Aimée’s post on Friday: the personal is professional.

So here’s the truth: I’m exhausted.

I find I don’t often want to admit that to my colleagues, much less to an unknown number of readers on the interwebs. After all: I’m a contract worker. But behold how I can time manage! Behold my powers of teaching 3/3 and ability to research as well! Stand amazed at my stamina for filling out grant applications while hosting a visiting speaker! In other words, I don’t want to admit I’m tired because I don’t want to appear incapable of handling it all. I don’t want you to think you shouldn’t hire me, in other words.

I don’t like typing any of this, because frankly I’m concerned about navel-gazing. But the fact is that I am a contract worker who is—like so many—staring down the barrel of another year of applying for everything while maintaining a research profile and writing competent and exciting lectures (& welcoming my students in to my rather chaotic office). But the fact is that I don’t have anything funny or witty or particularly optimistic to say today. All I’ve got is honesty. Oh yeah, and about five more lectures to write.

best laid plans · kid stuff · openness · saving my sanity

The Personal is the Professional

The student who had an appointment was waiting outside my open office door as I came back from the mailroom.

“I would have gone in,” she said, “but …” She gestured towards the minefield of unsteady book towers blocking off the door from the chairs, one sideways glance away from toppling. And toward the chairs, one spilling over with rogue transparencies, the other covered in dirty tupperware, my wallet, a child’s leotard, and other personal effects I had dumped out of my purse while looking for a (lost) flash drive. A laundry basket by the window overflowed with computer cables of all kinds, and yellowing newspapers.

“I’m so sorry,” I apologized, shepherding her through the maze and clearing her a seat. “My daughter is just starting junior kindergarten and we’ve had no daytime child care for three weeks. So my husband and I have been taking care of her while still working full time, and this is the kind of office you get when that happens. Now! Let’s talk about your plans for grad school … I’ve read the documents you sent me and here’s some feedback I have for you …”

And so on. Looking back later on the interaction, I was appalled that I had talked about my personal life in that professional context. Am I making excuses for poor performance? Am I oversharing? Am I having boundary issues? Am I being, in short, unprofessional?

I have always imagined that being a professional means being competent and impersonal, manifesting that kind of demeanor, focus, and restraint called to mind by the phrase “she is a real professional” or “she acted very professionally.” But who exactly was it that decided that being a professional means omitting all traces of the rest of life from the workday?

To return to the theme of mentoring, I think that drawing down an iron curtain between what happens At The Office and At Home can be artificial, misleading, demoralizing, and crazy-making for both professors and students. First, if I remove all traces of my outside life (I’m married! I have a kid! My pipes are frozen and I have to wait for the plumber! I went to school thousands of kilometers away from my family!) from my interactions within the university I risk setting myself up as some kind of model of superhuman perfection and accomplishment: a featureless fembrainbot with obviously very nice hair asserting frictionless agency on the world. Ooooh. Not true. Second, sometimes a car accident, or lactation, or a move, or a spouse’s job change, or a death in the family, or a yoga injury can materially impact anyone’s capacity to do her (or his) job: why not be up-front about it, seek a reasonable and temporary accommodation, and model for everyone the practice of muddling through a tough bit only to shine all the brighter once the crisis passes? Life isn’t always a bowl of cherries; what’s the harm in acknowledging the pits?

If I admit that trying to be a stay-at-home mom (with equal help from dad) for three weeks means I haven’t been able to do my job optimally, am I  setting the sisterhood back? I don’t think so. It’s not like I’m canceling classes or ducking out of reference letters or student meetings or peer review. I’m just having a harder time answering emails quickly, or cleaning my office, or getting November’s readings up on the website. I’ll get there, I want you to know, but I’m having a bit of a struggle now.

What might happen if I bring a little bit of my personal life into my work, asserting my competence and my challenges all at once? Maybe incorporating the personal into the professional in this way might be a feminist act: I am a fully-fleshed-out human being, just like anyone, and a pretty good professor, at the same time. Shit happens, even to female professors, and so long as the challenge isn’t fatal, I have the will and the capacity to get on with the shoveling. Maybe to get ahead a woman, I might no longer have to pretend I’m not a real person. Hm.

One of my colleagues, popping her head through my door earlier this week, said sympathetically, “This is not the office of the Aimée I know.” And it’s not. Next week, it will be neat as a pin again. This week, I’m asking for a little indulgence as I burrow into the piles, trying to find that extra handout for you, okay?

copper-bottomed bitch · making friends

Why I don’t want to be friends: a word from Dr Chary

I’ve been thinking about Erin’s Monday post about friendship and mentoring – and everybody’s smart, smart comments. I agree with a lot of what she says. I agree that inter-generational conversations are a joy. I really like my students; I am amazed by their energy and their wit and their ingenuity. I have feelings of warmth, respect, and concern toward them. I am thrilled by their successes and I will always make myself available to talk about their institutional, personal, or intellectual difficulties. In addition, and less personally, I think our highly cerebral institutions should be friendlier. I believe that it’s important for women who have ‘made it’ to hold out an open hand to those who want to. So I facebook current graduate students and former undergrads, if they want, though I don’t take it personally if they don’t.

I’d bank on the fact that many of my students and mentees (as the lingo has it) are reading this, which makes what I am about to say kind of awkward:

I do not necessarily want to be friends with them.

It actually has nothing to do with them; I don’t really want to be friends with anybody. I am not looking for new friends. My friend drawer is full. I barely have time to stay connected to the friends I do have. I have made approximately three new friends in the last five years – okay, maybe four – okay, maybe one a year. (Okay, yes, you’re right, maybe a few more than that.) Each one is a surprise. We are thrown together by circumstance (leadership training, the academic plan, a queer festival, to cite some not-so-random examples, or the job market drops someone in) and gradually what’s between us becomes more than that. I cannot identify the moment when it happens – I find that growing sense of commitment and interest, those tendrils of inchoate affection magical and mysterious, and I like it that way – but I can mark the moment when I realize we are friends. It is kind of like the moment I admit that the seemingly disconnected sensations of sore throat, itchy eyes, and muscle aches are not just random, but evidence that I am actually coming down with a cold. A cold! The common cold! Same sense of disbelief, similar sense of outrage.

Outrage? Yes. Because friendship demands a lot. My friends have always been the most important source of succor to me, and there is nothing I would not do for them. Deliver your babies in Portland? Check. Fly to Seattle to help you through a rough patch? Wouldn’t think twice. What, you need to move in with me for a while? No problem.

Maybe I have a ridiculous understanding of friendship; maybe those thousands of dollars in therapy would have been better spent on shoes, since evidently I have no boundaries where my friendships are concerned. Or maybe I should be less uptight and allow the facebook standard (“I know you, therefore we are friends”) to characterize the mutual caring, understanding and trust that passes as friendship today. But let me get to my point.

The problem I have with befriending students is that women are already disproportionately called on to do unpaid emotional labor in this profession. We do this work because we believe it is important. Reread Erin’s post: everything she says is true, and her gratitude is heartfelt. We believe we have benefited from such care; we believe we can help others by extending an open hand and a listening ear. I believe all those things. I also believe – though we admit this far less readily – that we get something (re/assurance? a sense of worth? an optimistic glimpse of a profession after the old boys’ game?) from the sense of being needed by someone junior. But this is not exactly friendship, with its ragged and unpredictable demands and its besotted joys, or at least it shouldn’t be.

And I’m not convinced that the concept of “mentoring” solves the problem, either. In fact, I worry that mentoring – particularly now that it is shaping up to be another institutional command (enhance your teaching! engage your students! mentor your colleagues!) – is just one more way of masking women’s unpaid emotional work. While I like Julie R’s articulate response in Monday’s comments – that mentoring is a relationship initiated within and largely determined by institutional conditions that we forget at our peril – her proposal presumes that what students need from us is a relationship, and if a relationship is done right, it can’t be predicted or easily parceled out into chunks of time and attention. Students will drop issues into the middle of a crowded inbox and their crises are blind to whatever is going on in your life (even if students themselves are considerate, which mine most certainly are). If you ask me, our feelings are no less genuine for being institutionally mediated – and no less complex. But mentoring talks about boundaries and modeling as though human interactivity is a technology, as though any situation has a pat answer that will protect everybody’s individuality and model appropriate behavior, when in reality we live most days like battlefield surgeons: you live! you die! you wait! you’re next!

I’m willing to bet that what guides most of us through this chaotic minefield is emotional intelligence: a well honed sense of what others need, what we can provide, and what’s sustainable. It’s so well honed it feels intuitive. So we drop everything (or not), we take our junior colleagues out for coffee, we make the time and find the energy to stay connected.

But do you think men do? Do you think our male colleagues steer through chaotic days according to a goal of cultivating the whole person? Do you think they feel the same sense that the university’s very livability rests in finding the right email tone, making a prompt and compassionate response, offering understanding as well as solutions? Doubtful. (Cue the standard caveat: not all women, not no men.) And will the institution ever sufficiently reward women for the actual work we do in the name of mentoring? Just think of it: teaching seen as more than classroom practice! graduate supervision recognized for its quality! tenure and promotion: more than a research sweepstakes!

Until that happy day, we will keep mentoring and even befriending our students and junior colleagues because we genuinely care, because it’s the right thing to do, because we believe in paying it forward, because we need each other, and because we crazily, optimistically, recklessly hope that these human interactions might help build not just a better institution, but also a more equitable future.

(PS: M, I’d still like to come over for dinner on Saturday – if you’ll have me.)

making friends · openness · positive thoughts as I fill out grant applications

Mentorship as Responsible Engagement, or, why I do make friend with (some of) my students

This post comes to you by way of a bit of a syllogism:

In a recent post at the fabulous University of Venus, Denise Horn wrote about becoming Facebook friends with one’s students. She suggests, and I agree, that part of the professorial job is mentorship, and that often that mentorship starts first through friendship.

I am currently in a (not so) unusual position of applying for both postdoctoral fellowships and—why not?—faculty research grants. This has me contacting former supervisors and committee members, as well as colleagues for letters of advice and support. I am lucky to say that all of these people who were initially my mentors and professors are now also my friends.

Which leads me to the following conclusion: mentorship is a form of friendship, and like it or not, we’ve all signed up for this. Working in the Academy means encountering undergraduate and graduate students in all phases of their lives, as well as their work, and while the life aspect of these encounters can indeed have the potential to cause complications, this is the emotional geography in which we work.

I will never forget the first time a professor and I got together for coffee and discussion. I had a good sense of how taxed her time was, and I was incredibly appreciative of her willingness to talk with me about my work. As it turns out, we got along incredibly well. Her willingness to be friends with me—which amounted to getting together for coffee every couple of weeks, both on campus and off, as well as exchanging informal emails and periodically getting together for a meal—had an insurmountable impact on me. She made me feel like being an academic didn’t have to mean hiding my personality and, even more so, she made me feel like my perspectives mattered outside the classroom as well as inside it.

When I transitioned to the other side of the podium as a teacher I found myself strangely reticent to become friends with my students. I worried that my age was (for, well, approximately five minutes) too close to theirs, that I would be misinterpreted somehow. But without quite realizing it—until, that is, I read Denise’s post in the same week I was contacting reference writers—I have discovered that reticence has changed. No, I do not make friend requests willy-nilly to my class lists, nor to I accept friend requests with abandon. But I do try to take time to talk to the students who want to chat, and I do suggest going for coffee sometimes. After all, in addition to the promises of fame and fortune I got into this profession because I love talking with others. The privilege of inter-generational discursive engagement is just that: a privilege.

And so, in this harried month of class list changes, grant writing, and general insanity I’d like to say thank you to the professors and colleagues who have mentored me. And to my students, thank you for reminding me that mentorship is a kind of friendship, and that both require responsible engagement.

Let’s have it: do you make friends with your students/professors? Or have I just been quite lucky?

righteous feminist anger · style matters

My feminist haircut

For me, the Digital Humanities Summer Institute is a sleepaway camp for dorks, and I’m so excited every year to bunk in a cute little house (cabin?) with some of my favorite dork women friends. We knit, we discuss the merits of various operating systems, we set up a local wifi network, we talk about our hair.

Well, I talk about my hair, because Julia complimented my academic bob. “It’s so sleek,” she said, “so stylish!”

“Thank you!” I answer. Then, in a rush, “It’s my feminist haircut, actually!”

Debate ensued. My idea is this: since my dear daughter was born four years ago, I’ve stuck to low-maintenance, no-product, self-drying shags. If I didn’t manage to wash it, it went in a ponytail. It was, if I may be frank, an expensively coloured mom cut. I chose the style because the time I could save by doing nothing with it—by not even washing it, usually—was time I could use to: wrestle my daughter into pants; make a bed; find a favored and misplaced toy; empty the dishwasher. Increasingly, that all felt like time I was taking away from myself and giving away to others. No, that’s not quite it: it felt like time I was taking away from myself and heaving into the abyss of never-ceasing minutiae. I had fallen in classic mommy martyr behaviour, for no real discernible increase in anyone’s quality of life.

Enough! I decided. The martyr got a nice haircut and now washes it every morning, and blowdries it for 7-10 minutes, to boot. I look nice. I feel better. I’ve carved out time where I can say, “Mommy is busy right now. Please wait a minute and I can help you.”

Julia is unconvinced. She asks, “Do you think the goal of feminism is to allow you to spend 10 minutes blowdrying your hair every day?”

Hm. When you put it like that …

I answer: “I think the goal of feminism is to give me the choice about how I want to spend those ten minutes, and the agency to make it happen.”

Julia has more to say, about the beauty myth and standards of female appearance and the life of the mind. She’s very persuasive. And yet? I like my new hair much better than the old. What do you think? Can a high-maintenance hair style be a feminist act?

Ambient humidity 100%: I can haz anti-frizz serum?
banting · equity · skeptical feminist

Here we go again: Equity and the Banting postdoc

So, to match the super-doctoral award (Bombardier CGS), the super-recruitment award (Vanier) and the super-CRC (CERC), the federal government has announced the Banting super-postdoc.

In order to avoid another embarrassing episode of sexism laid bare, as happened when the CERC results were announced (19 awards and no women? – but we’re not sexist!), universities are required to demonstrate their commitment to equity:

In order to ensure that gender equity issues are considered in an institution’s decision to support a given applicant, proposed host institutions will be required to confirm their commitment to gender equity and involve institutional equity officers (or equivalent) in the endorsement of applicants for these awards. [Banting website]

At the UofA, an equity officer will be part of the final institution-level review. After being scanned at the Faculty level and vetted by a SSHRC subcommittee, applications are subject to university-wide endorsement. That stage involves an equity officer in some as-yet-opaque capacity.

Will this process give us the equity we seek? More specifically:

  1. What are the equity goals for the Banting competition? Given the ubiquity of quantitative measures for all aspects of postsecondary life – think university rankings, ratios, research impacts, institutional report cards, etc. – I am struck by the absence of hard targets according to which universities/Ottawa will measure their equity success.
  2. Which women is the Banting for: the postdocs themselves or the women researchers they will work with? The competition is being described as a boon to superstar researchers rather than as a help to promising (post)grad students caught in a vicious market. The explanation for the deplorable CERC results was the familiar demographic excuse that there are simply not enough senior women professors in Canada. If this is the case, measuring equity by the applicant‘s gender will simply perpetuate the demographic pyramid – especially in a challenging job market, which will do its part to ensure many of these postdocs will never become professors of any kind, let alone senior ones.
  3. Here’s a big and obvious question. As we know, equity is not just about gender. How will this competition speak to the other protected grounds: Aboriginality, disability, race/visible difference?
  4. Is the penultimate stage of a four-part review process really the place to take up equity? Cast your mind forward to that moment. The university president is in the room. The review committee is examining applications that cost, conservatively, 110 person hours to craft. All remaining competitors are deserving. But …. The equity officer clears her throat. There is a pause. What happens then? What happens then is that a discourse takes shape. Even if the committee puts aside some applications in favor of others, perhaps others they rejected earlier, the rhetorical ground for pitting equity against excellence has taken shape. In other words, even if we win the Banting, we lose the war.
  5. The Banting postdoc, like the Vanier and the Trudeau awards, emphasizes “leadership” (more on that in future posts). However, unlike the Vanier and Trudeau, the Banting measures leadership in narrow terms, as “demonstrated capacity for leadership in the research domain defined by the sphere of influence achieved to date by the applicant.” So my final question: won’t the Banting’s limited emphasis on research structurally disadvantage women, Aboriginal and racialized applicants, given that we know these groups are disproportionately called on to serve academic and community groups?

I actually posed a version of these questions to SSHRC, through our university’s postdoc office. Their answer [sic]:

The goal of the program as it relates to equity is to ensure that each institution has considered equity when endorsing their applicants. In terms of success rates of the program we realize that we aren’t able to ensure an equal representation of men and women since the peer review committee does not consider equity as part of their reviews. However, our expectation is that the institutions keep it in mind in the hopes that we receive as equal a balance of total men and women applicants as possible. There is no strict rule about % of men vs. women per institution however, and the idea is that the institutions would indicate to us that equity has been taken into consideration when they are deciding which applicants to endorse. We don’t need any more detail than that in the endorsement letter. Other protected grounds are not explicit in our requirements and therefore are left at the institutions own discretion to determine how they are considered in the endorsement process.

Over to you, readers.

faculty evaluation · reform · turgid institution

Guest Post: Annual Faculty Evaluation

In addition to being the time of new school-year resolutions, September is also the time for preparing the materials relevant to our evaluation by our department and faculty. I work at a University where faculty members are evaluated on a yearly basis; the result of the evaluation process is the award of a merit increment, which translates to some monetary increment to one’s salary.

During my tenure at my University, I have had a range of feelings for this process. Sometimes it was dread, resulting from uncertainty about whether I have been “good enough” to deserve the merit increment award that would place me, at least, in the “you are doing OK” category. Yet other times, it was hope and excitement, when after a particularly good (in my opinion) year, I was confident that I deserved to be recognized as “above OK” or even, in days of particular optimism, “excellent”. And sometimes, especially after tenure and promotion, it was just bored with the process, when the toil of remembering every “contribution bit” seemed disproportionate to the meaning of the anticipated merit award and much more so to the corresponding monetary award it would imply.

So I have tried to think about how this process might be rehabilitated to be constructive and productive as opposed to a waste of time for the faculty members, who feel like they have to pad their reports with every possible “good deed” that might place them above the bar to the next increment, and for the evaluation committee, who have to pore over these materials in an effort to fairly recognize their colleagues’ contributions, as they divide the pie and doll out the necessarily meager increments.

It seems to me that this process has potentially the opportunity to do two things.

The first is to give faculty members the impetus to reflect on their agenda and to consolidate the past year’s work in an overall coherent vision. Personally, I have found this process to be “cathartic” every time I had to go through it, namely at tenure and promotion and when I had to write a substantial proposal. After each of these times, I felt a new sense of purpose in my research activities as they all were more weighty, building on a longer past work and laying the foundation for a longer term contribution, which, goes without saying, should have a higher impact potential. I think, as faculty members, we all need to believe that our work matters in that it actually contributes to our collective knowledge and it is hard to hold on to that belief if we cannot see a long line of contribution from our past, through the present, towards a future. Academy is a long-term process, not so much slow, but rather “for the long haul,” an endurance race with some sprints intertwined.

The other objective of the faculty-evaluation process should be to give the University administration the opportunity to communicate to the faculty the values for which the University stands. This is the time to recognize the contributions that the University has identified as desirable in its vision and mission statements. I do not think that there is any University that stands for “the most number of publications” and “the best teaching-evaluation scores.” Instead, most Universities profess a vision of high-impact research, high-quality productive teaching and learning, involvement with the scientific community at large, and civic engagement.

The evaluation process and its products, including any associated awards of merit increments, should be intelligent, broad and flexible enough to somehow believably reflect these values. When the process degenerates to a zero-sum game, where a money pile has to be divided in a way that corresponds to each individual faculty contributions, it becomes easier to simply come up with a quantitative formula translating the numerical entries in the individual’s submitted report (papers, grants, money, students, course evaluations) into a merit increment. But there is no vision worth envisioning simply involving the maximization of these numbers. And this oversimplification of the process leaves faculty (especially more senior ones who have invested themselves in the institution and have bought into this vision) feeling cheated when during the year they attempt to make the vision happen and, at evaluation time, what matters boils down to a few numbers.

I wish I had some practical proposal on how the process should work. I don’t. However, it seems to me that part of any reform should consider stripping the process from most (all?) numbers (that lead into oversimplification temptation), infusing it with more memory (looking at a longer time span than a year) and leaving room for more reflection (looking at the faculty members’ perceptions of their contributions).

(The writer of this post wishes to remain anonymous.)

after the LTA · DIY · good attitudes about crappy possibilities · stockpiling letterhead

DIY Academia?

I ran into an acquaintance of mine outside the library today. I met her last year at the new faculty orientation (aside: DO NOT SKIP THIS. It is one of those rare chances to meet people outside your department and it is also really heartening to meet a bunch of other folks who are new to the city/school/teaching/research gig. Seriously, you should go to this.)

Anyhow, she is on a limited term appointment much like mine, meaning that as of May 2011 we’re both out of work. Unless, of course we get jobs which is, yes, what we both would like.

As we chatted in the sun, relishing the last few days of on-campus quiet, conversation inevitably turned to what-ifs. What if you don’t get a job? We asked each other. What if you don’t get a postdoctoral fellowship or some other similar research-based position?

I was surprised to hear the answers that came out of both our mouths.


My friend intends to return to the Southern United States where her partner is situated. She’ll take some time to write articles and flesh out the publications section of her CV. My answer was similar: I’ll stay where I am. My partner has a great career going, we both like the city, and there’s no reason to uproot us both if we’re not moving for a great job. So yes, I’ll also work to cobble together some sessional teaching while I write and try to publish.


It struck me then that both my friend and I are planning for life as DIY academics. Given time, but not money, institutions, but no institutional support, we’ll each work away at getting in to this profession we love. Not the best case scenario, obviously, but one that needs to be thought out and planned and discussed more openly. What happens when—if—you move from being an Assistant Professor on an LTA to an unaffiliated DIY academic?