good things · grading · women

Canadian Women and Mountaineering

It is that time of year. This week I finished marking a pile of essays and have to give a final exam on Friday. And I’m in the midst of a very fun and interesting interdisciplinary conference, Thinking Mountains, all about international mountain studies. 
I’m enjoying it because it has a great mix of things in my field (environmental history) and things entirely outside of my field, but which are united by a focus on particular kinds of places (mountains) and consideration of our (human) interactions with them.   
So in lieu of a proper post I wanted to plug tonight’s plenary — a roundtable conversation on Canadian women and mountaineering, which features four of the most accomplished Canadian women mountaineers and climbers, who work and play in a hyper-masculine environment. If you’re in Edmonton you should come out to it, it’s open to the public. If not, they’ll be recording the roundtable so you can check it out online in the future via the U of A’s mountains studies website.

animals · learning · media · popular culture · random · teaching

Unexpected Lessons (Ikea Monkey)

I’ll be honest: I’m on a short break right now between end of classes and exams and all I want to do is relax. Fast Feminism. Slow Academe? Try, Fast Nothing. Slow Liz.
So, when I sat down to write this post, the only thing that I felt like sharing was Ikea Monkey.
Ikea Monkey has been bringing a smile to my face. And I’m not the only one. Ikea Monkey has gone viral, at least in Toronto. I’ve talked about IM with multiple people and overheard others in restaurants discussing IM, which has become an Internet meme.
Anyway, (and here comes my somewhat tenuous connection to Hook and Eye content), it’s got me thinking about what kinds of stories and ideas get picked up and circulated—the stories that spark something, that make people want to talk about them and share with others.
When I’ve taught a class and I can hear my students still talking about a particular topic as they’re leaving, I feel that I’ve done a good job as an instructor. I want to have Ikea Monkey moments in my classes.
Most of the teaching advice I’ve been given, when it comes to lecturing, centers around this basic principle: if you just try to get one or two key ideas across in a class, it’s much more likely that those one or two key ideas will stick with students.
So, I ask you, readers, now that we’re reaching the end of a semester: what are the most important things you want to achieve by the end of a course (either as an instructor or as a student)? Does it relate to course content, a style of thinking, or a set of theoretical concepts? Looking back on courses that you have taught or taken, what has stuck with you? Have you ever taught or taken courses with unexpected learning outcomes? Can we “meme” our students?

collaboration · community · equity · faster feminism · women

What does it mean to be a woman and a public intellectual?

I have been noticing a trend here at Hook & Eye.  Whether we are writing about the challenges and cruelties of the turgid job market, acknowledging the difficulties as well as possibilities in service work, or reflecting on making life changing decisions the general theme this fall has centred around striking a balance between life inside and outside the academy. This has me thinking about the role we take on — wittingly or un- — when writing for a feminist academic blog. On my most positive days I imagine this space as one that is both generative and space-making. I think of it as a place for advice, for honesty, and for performing vulnerabilities in a public fashion in an attempt to acknowledge that there are in fact humans in the Humanities, Social Sciences, Sciences, and heck, the whole darned endeavour that is the Academy. On my worst days, I fear that the space I take here is merely navel-gazingLess navel-gazingly, thinking about the role of writing for a feminist academic blog has me thinking about public intellectualism and the possibilities that generating conversation both inside and outside one’s sphere might allow.  

So, what is a public intellectual? Alan Lightman describes the public intellectual as someone who has been trained in a particular discipline (he names linguistics, biology, history, economics, and literary criticism as examples) and who has decided to “write and speak  to a larger audience than their professional colleagues.” For Lightman, the move from closed to open discourse — from specialized audience to general audience — is what moves an individual into the realm of a public intellectual (you can read the rest of Lightman’s essay here). Lightman draws particular attention to Edward Said’s understanding of the intellectual’s role in society. He writes

According to Said, an intellectual’s mission in life is to advance human freedom and knowledge. This mission often means standing outside of society and its institutions and actively disturbing the status quo. At the same time, Said’s intellectual is a part of society and should address his concerns to as wide a public as possible. Thus Said’s intellectual is constantly balancing the private and the public. His or her private, personal commitment to an ideal provides necessary force. Yet, the ideal must have relevance for society.

I love this notion that the role of the public intellectual is to instigate and facilitate discourse amongst a wide public. But who gets to be a public intellectual? How are individuals selected? And, really, how egalitarian is that process? For, in addition to thinking about the definition and function of a public intellectual, I have been wondering for a while now what it means to be a woman and a public intellectual. It should come as no surprise that gender, race, ethnicity, and class affect who — and how — public intellectuals are received. While Foreign Policy‘s 2012 Top 100 Global Thinkers has far more women that even five years ago, the fact remains that the position of public intellectualism is still resoundingly male and white. The only way to diversify the voices we hear from is to demand those changes, and to make them ourselves.

Here’s a recent example of a group of extremely busy-yet-dedicated people doing just that. Remember CWILA? Well, yesterday, CWILA announced our first critic-in-residence. Montreal-based writer and scholar Sue Sinclair is taking up this important inaugural position, which means that in addition to her own creative and scholarly practice she will also be occupying a far more public role. Part of the job of the critic-in-residence is to “foster vital criticism that promotes public awareness of women’s literary and critical presence in Canadian letters” to quote the original call for applications. How exciting is this? Yet, Sue can’t, shouldn’t, and indeed is not doing this all on her own. Spaces like Lemon Hound foster a variety of emergent and established voices. Public intellectuals like the indefatigable El Jones here in Halifax continue to lead by example and never shies away from telling it like it is. So tell me, readers: who are some women public intellectuals in your sphere who we should know? How can we support them?


Who takes care of students’ mental health

Unbelievably, I’ve finished everything that was on my to-do list for the week last night. Don’t ask me how. It’s happened. Somehow it always happens. I’ve decided to take today almost off, and reward myself for the sustained ultra-marathon that the last bit of the term has been. Actually, to be completely honest, today has been a planned day off for a while; it’s been the perspective that’s enabled me to slog through the myriad tasks this week, which unexpectedly included a potential academic dishonesty case, which takes quite a bit of extra work. However, the carrot has worked better than the stick, and I’m getting ready to enjoy it.

As I was thinking of my own work going into somewhat of a lull, I realized the high-anxiety exam season is only just starting for students. This term I’ve been struck more than ever by just how high this anxiety is. And now it seems everyone is talking about it. The first red flag for me was the beginning of term, when, on a get-to-know-you questionnaire, which a friend generously shared, most students answered the potentially creative and funny question “when your mind drifts off in class, what will you be thinking of?’ with “what else I have to do today/this week.” It struck me that that’s not a great answer to give for people who should find themselves in a time of discovery, excitement, and other desirable adventures that the romanticization of first-year university would have us presuppose.

In light of this overwhelmingly predominant answer, I realized just how common student anxiety is. And it just went on from there. Luckily, our university had distributed a mental health pamphlet to instructors a while ago, which not only asked, but empowered us to look for and recognize signs of mental health issues in students and address them by directing the students to the mental health centre. But there should be something more we could do than the troublingly neoliberal “just go take care of yourself” move, which is enhanced by universities/departments whose policy it is to not interfere, and who justify this reluctance by the ostensible lack of training of their instructors. I wonder if this argument is not actually couched in the stigma of mental health problems, in the sense of not wanting any liability connected with making assumptions about something so “delicate.” Training or not, would they have their instructors intervene or call 911 if a student was having a heart attack, I wonder?

What’s been your own experience on this topic? Do you notice a marked change, or is it gradual? Should we, non-mental-health professionals take the initiative of directing students to the proper clinics and facilities to get help in stress- and anxiety-management?


National Day of Remembrance

On December 6, 1989, 14 women were murdered at L’École polytechnique de Montréal.

Remember: Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, Barbara Daigneault, Anne-Marie Edward, Maud Haviernick, Maryse Laganière, Maryse Leclair, Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier, Michèle Richard, Annie St-Arneault, Annie Turcotte, Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz

Memorial and Action in Toronto – Rabble

National Day of Remembrance – Federal

balance · body · day in the life · health

No pain, no gain

Academic work can be painful. I’m not being figurative here. I actually mean physically painful. After I wrote my comprehensive exams, my neck and mid-back were completely destroyed. I couldn’t stand-up straight. I needed a full chiropractic overhaul. I was prepared for comps as a mental exercise, but I hadn’t fully considered the extent to which that kind of intensive, one-week writing stint would be so physically demanding. Today, having finished my PhD, I find myself in a similar situation. I’m probably in the worst shape of my life. I just couldn’t stay on top of taking care of myself. Grading, articles, research work – they all add up to no time to work out and no time to buy groceries.

I should note, that I’m actually, generally, a pretty healthy person. I took ballet until my early 20s, I was on a rowing team during my MA, and I ran two half-marathons during my PhD. My PhD supervisor always started out meetings with the question, “are you still running?” She emphasized the importance of remaining physically healthy throughout the process. Graduate school can be long, stressful, alcohol-fueled, and surprisingly hard on our bodies; it is important that we make every possible effort to remain healthy.

Now, being generally healthy and not having any kids (or any pets for that matter), I would think it would be somehow easier for me to make sure that I have time to get some kind of physical exercise. I have no major obstacles to fitness, and no one dependent upon me that might get in the way of taking time for fitness. As multiple blog postings on this website regularly make clear, however, making time for ourselves somehow always ends up at the bottom of the priority list, no matter who we are or what we have going on. When we do finally find time to be good to ourselves, we still feel guilty as hell about it.

So here I am, on a Thursday morning, in pain. My back is seriously out of whack. I need to finish writing an article this week, and I’m not sure I can sit at the computer long enough to do it. Basically, I think it is resolution time. These are the commitments that I can make to myself, to avoid the physical toll of academic work on my body. I’m making them public, so you can hold me to them:

1) No more writing on my laptop – ever: I wrote my comps and my dissertation on a laptop, and every physio, chiro and RMT that I encounter scolds me for it. Laptops cause a little thing that I call “laptop neck,” that sloping bad posture that you get at the base of your neck from leaning into the screen. It’s time to go back to the desktop computer.

2) Get outside everyday: This one is a bit of a no brainer. We mandate that children run around outside everyday, and moral panics ensue when some piece of technology is deemed to interfere with this activity. Like most of you, I am guilty of always working, even when I’m not working. My little brain is constantly churning around ideas and sentences, so getting out for a long walk is actually a really important aspect of my writing process, one which I have tended to neglect lately.

3) No eating in front of the computer: Time to stop working, relocate to another room, and sit at an actual table while eating food like a normal person. I’m not ashamed that my dissertation laptop has food splatter all over the keyboard…but I am ready to make a different lifestyle choice.

4) Write everyday, not all day: The people I know who write for a couple of hours everyday are really prolific. The panicked, day-long write-a-thon seems like it should work, but I think we all know that it isn’t a great method. The stuff I write at the end of an 8-hour shift is never that great, and my neck generally looks like a J-hook by the time I’m done.

5) Keep a schedule: This is the thing that academic’s with kids are really great at, and it seems like a crazy indulgence for me to even list it as a “problem” that I have. When someone is dependent upon you making them food, taking them to ballet, helping with their homework, etc., you have no choice but to walk away from the computer. Scheduling is the only way that I have found to alleviate the academic guilt that comes with nights off. We can’t work all the time, and we need time away from the computer, so we might as well enjoy it when we have it (rather than feeling guilty about it).

These are changes that I am trying to make. I guess, by putting them up here, I am committing publicly to them. Maybe this will help. Maybe it’s just self-indulgent. In any case, I’d like you to hold me to them.

Oh, also, I’m going to eat salad. Salad is lame and I pretty much hate it, but I’ve heard that it is good for you or something…

emotional labour · grad school · teaching · writing

40 / 40 / 20 is the new black …

Here’s my working hypothesis: mentoring or supervising students through long independent projects–like a Master’s research paper, or a PhD dissertation, or an undergraduate honour project–is the kind of labour that breaks down into three categories of work, weighted 40 / 40 / 20. You know, how like the tenure-line assessment system encourages a division of one’s time and efforts into 40% research, 40% teaching, and 20% service? Only–goes my thinking–working effectively with students who are writing long pieces means spending 40% of my attention and effort on the intellectual questions, 40% on the process of writing and/or scholarship, and 20% on professionalization issues.

Interestingly, while each kind of work has discrete tasks associated with it, at the edges, each begins to bleed into the others.

The intellectual mentorship is generally what we think of (students and professors alike) when we think of “supervision.” Intellectual mentorship means holding a marked up draft in one’s supervisory grasp, and saying things like: “I think Ian Hutchby’s work on the relationality of affordances might be useful to you here”; or, “I think you’re going to have to be a little more precise about what ‘material’ means to you in this work”; or, “There’s a lot of prior scholarship on this question and you should look it up.” Some of that work is mentoring, such as when I help a student find useful material they didn’t know about, or think through an idea all the way to the end. And some of it is, frankly, gatekeeping: this piece of work is or is not up to snuff; this reference list is or is not thorough enough; this dissertation passes or does not pass the defence. It’s my subject area expertise, and my institutional standing, that are called on here.

But if all I did was that stuff with my students, most of them would take twice as long to finish, and with twice as much stress, for not much reward.

I really began to focus on the writing part of the question from my work in digital media classrooms: when I started teaching classes on digital design, it struck me that students who had technical skills on the way in did much better in the course than those who were coming to the subject new, even in an introductory course. I decided then that I was never going to assess anyone on skills that I wasn’t actually taking the time to teach them. So now in my design classes, we start from the beginning with each piece of software–I can’t grad you on Photoshop unless I teach you the basics of how to use it. This has translated to all my other teaching as well: I don’t assign research essays unless I teach students how to write in that genre and how to do the requisite research, for example.

In supervision work, it struck me, students are asked to write longer pieces than they have ever done before, with greater original thought expressed, and with deeper research. Where the hell are they being taught how to tackle the logistics, the psychology, the slog, the rhythm of writing a 100 page treatise on a thesis of their own devising? I guess that’s my job. It’s very rarely the case that students aren’t smart enough to write long projects. It is very often the case that the process ties them in such knots that they never get it done, or done as well as they might have.

So my students and I spend a lot of time on what we might as well call writing instruction: creating a daily writing habit, setting small goals, reverse outlining, free writing, low stakes drafts, frequent workshopping. We also talk about research work: using online bibliographic databases, citation software, email alerts from journals, Google alerts from research topics. “Lower your standards!” I say to them, “Write a shitty first draft!” Or, “Why don’t you use Zotero to keep all your references together, then you won’t have to retype everything all the time?” And of course, we engage deeply and systematically with the drafts they produce: I help them recognize their writing tics (mine are the overuse of semi-colons and beginning sentences with coordinating conjunctions); we talk about sentence variety, and the use of transitions, and the graduate student habit of putting all the secondary sources at the start of the paragraph and then only timidly adding their own idea in the last sentence. One former student, who went round after red-penned round with me over a tendency to jargonize, told me at the end of the process–his Master’s degree–that no one had ever actually taught him how to write before, and that he had really learned a lot by writing his thesis with me. That was one of my proudest teaching moments.

As far as I’m concerned, long-format writing projects in which a student writer works with a faculty supervisor are as much about writing as they are about research. So my job is as much about teaching time management, research strategy, writing process, and the writing itself as it is to ensure that the research quality is up to par.

(And the 20% professional stuff? Let’s talk about that another day.)

Does your work manifest the 40/40/20 split?


The Frantic Search For Daily Organization

All week I have been plagued with the thought that I am forgetting something.

And forget things, I have. 
See, despite having my smart phone on my person at almost all times and being on a computer for hours every day, I still hold fiercely to the archaic written planner. Picking a new one every year is an event because it needs to be resilient enough to handle constant use, classic enough to be used every where and have large enough margins and tabs for my personal preferences.  I currently have a black, dog-eared day planner with colourful sticky notes and multicoloured highlighter strokes on every page surrounded by frenzied lists and abandoned notes. 
I move it daily from my purse, brief case and gym bag, knowing it would be less of a hassle to use my digital calendar but stubbornly clinging to my planner. I am an ardent list maker as I find an unusual amount of satisfaction in stroking accomplished tasks off and boldly tackling the next one. 
This past weekend, or sometime on Friday (to be exact), my planner went missing and my life has been complete guesswork from that moment on. For instance, I realized today in a moment of cold terror that this post was to be up this morning. I think it may be a sign to start putting my daily activities and future plans in a more safe, digital place but until then, I am frantically searching for that well worn, deeply loved planner. 
How do you keep your daily lives organized? Digital calendar? iCal? Or do you, like me, cling fiercely to the written planner? 
work · writing · you're awesome

A few good things for a Monday

It is Monday. Moreover, it is the first Monday in December. Sure, there’s an onslaught of marking coming my way (& yours, I suspect). Sure, there’s the to-do list of things I have been putting off since October that is now teetering and threatening to fall on my head. Yes, it has been an unusually difficult and emotional term, for me, at any rate. But guess what? I’m not writing a post about any of that today. Nope. Today I am writing a list of accomplishments and a list of neat discoveries. Today, I’m offering you a little bit of perk to zip you through your Monday and towards the celebratory rush that is the end-of-term and all of the various celebrations it brings your way.

First, accomplishments:

1. I set a goal in September, and I stuck to it! I have written one or two pages of my manuscript EVERY DAY THIS TERM. I could not have done this without my writing partner in crime. Thanks, K.

2. I co-organized a conference, it went well, and now we have landed a book contract for an edited collection of articles! About poetry! Poetry!

3. Last year in December my partner and I adopted a wild, damaged, lovely dog. We thought having a second dog would be Super Easy. After all, Felix the Wunder Hund is, well, easy. Calm, serious, thoughtful… Were we ever wrong. Little Mar has been anything but easy. He was abandoned, abused, and has serious anxiety issues. He has been a really, really challenging dog. He was way more effort than we wanted, and, frankly, he needed more time than we actually have. But you know what? Working with him has taught us an immense amount about patience and kindness. And it is paying off, for all of us.

                                           Felix is camera-shy. They hold paws. Cute, eh?

Now, neat discoveries:

1. Do you know this website? Brain Pickings is curated by Maria Popova, and it is described as a “human-powered discovery engine for interestingness.” How amazing is that? Maria explains that creativity is, in her view, a combinational force. Wow! Yes! What could we come up with here at Hook & Eye that worked even more with the power of our combinational forces? I’m inspired…!

2. Not so much a neat discovery as a hey-looky-don’t-miss-this! Lemon Hound, which began as a solo-authored blog by Sina Queyras, is now a monthly literary journal. I think it is curating some of the most exciting sets of voices on the interwebs. Oh yeah, and I get to write for it from time to time.

3. CWILA‘s critic-in-residence is going to be announced in the coming months! Women are in the news! There’s going to be more blogging, tweeting, and general discussion about women in the literary arts because we are making it happen. Email me if you’re interested in writing a blog post about a woman — contemporary or historical — who excited you and inspires your imagination.

Hang in y’all. Respite is coming. In the meantime, what neat discoveries have you made? What have you done — large, small, or in-between — that you want to brag about?