#alt-ac · academic work · balance · writing

Holiday Resolutions: Winter Edition

It seems like every time we come up on a significant chunk of non-teaching time–the summer, Reading Week, the winter break–I or one of the other Hook & Eye writers publishes a post about managing holiday expectations and setting out reasonable plans for what we might accomplish in the time we’ve got–without feeling like a failure or going bananas. Why stop now, especially as I’ve got a whole new set of challenges to face in getting everything done?

Something Aimée said at CSDH at Congress a few years ago has stuck with me–graduate students training as digital humanists end up doing double the work, since they end up doing a full complement of digital work and a full complement of humanist work beside it. I’m starting to realize that much the same goes for my version of the #alt-ac–I’m doing a full complement of alternate work, and a full complement of the academic alongside it. It’s not a situation that’s unique to me–anyone who holds a non-professorial academic job and also pursues research and/or teaches, or anyone who has done grad school and worked at the same time, has been in the same bind. It took me a fair bit of time to get to the point that I still had enough mental capacity left at the end of the day to come home and do my academic work–it was only once work didn’t feel quite so new, and quite so overwhelming, that I didn’t feel like I had a cranium full of Jello come 6:00. And even now that I’m capable of being productive in the evenings, the fundamental fact remains that after commuting 2 hours a day, working 8, and spending all of the assorted bits and bobs of time required to keep me, the house,the cat, and my partner (who fortunately does his fair share) fed, watered, and clean, there are very few hours left in the day to get academic work done. And Homeland doesn’t just watch itself.

As Margrit said at the beginning of this year, “big breaks are not good for ya! They come with huge expectations and pressures we put on ourselves. (I’ll have time for yoga! running! knitting! reading for pleasure! [insert your favourite pastime here]!) And all they do is destroy the routine we academics fight so hard to construct in order to be able to juggle the interminable projects, the teaching, the life (what life? the one you’d been postponing until the big Christmas break).” I feel ya–the twelve days I have off between this coming Friday and New Year’s Day are already seeming overwhelmingly freighted with all of those things that I don’t have time to do in a normal week. I’d love to write a significant amount of my dissertation, finish preparing for the MLA, do a bunch of research and editorial work for a colleague’s critical edition, and prepare teaching applications for fall courses (a contingency in case my sole Grade 5 student stops being enough teaching for me). I also have to fit in three family dinners, a performance of the Nutcracker, a long overdue trip to Ikea (a daunting prospect for the urban car-less), and at least a few items on the endless to-do list that comes along with owning a house built the same year Laurier became Prime Minister. I’m nearly vibrating with anxiety already.

Oh–and did I mention that I’m prohibited from taking any time off between mid-August and March, which means that aside from the MLA (not the most relaxing prospect), my next stab at a break won’t come for at least three months?

So, then. Here’s the plan for a break that might actually feel like a break:

  • I’m going to return to my pre-job writing routine: breakfast, coffee, computer. I’ll try a Pomodoro of dissertation writing to start, and then, if the writing is going well, another. Especially if I’m using Write or Die in combination with my Pomodoro timer, I can get a whole lot down in 25 minutes, and then the biggest thing on my to-do list is done.
  • I’m not going to stress about the MLA. I’m not interviewing, I’m on a panel with people I know and like, and I’ve realized that standards aren’t all that high when half the people are finishing their paper on the plane. 
  • On Christmas and Boxing Day, the world beyond my family will not exist, and I will not be Melissa the Research Officer or Melissa the PhD Candidate. I will just be Melissa the partner and daughter and sister and cousin, and be fully present with all of those people with whom I’m so lucky to get the spend the holiday. 
  • I’m going to make research hyggeligt–there’s no reason that I can’t do it in front of the fire, under a wooly blanket, with a mug of hot cider. 
  • And I’m going to keep up what is one of my favourite things about my new job, which is two hours a day (my commute time) of pleasure reading. All of those books I bought while I was dissertating full-time but never gave myself permission to read are gradually getting pulled down off the “to-read” shelf, and oh, it’s satisfying. 

Big breaks might not be good for us, but I’m going to try to make this one good for me. Wish me luck! And wishing you a very happy, relaxing, and productive holiday. Do you have a plan for how you might make it all three?

fast feminism · slow academy

Reflections On Risk and “Running with the Pack”

There is a certain exhaustion that comes with teaching within a field. As a scholar trained in the field of Canadian literature I periodically find myself tired of the eternal return to the question “what makes it Canadian?” But that exhaustion is soon replaced with a redoubled sense of urgency and resolve. If students are coming into university classrooms asking these same questions year after year then this becomes an opportunity to unpack assumptions, address stereotypes, and support new critically engaged writers. That same exhaustion that comes from consistently returning to the same question ceases to be as edifying and refreshing when it happens outside the classroom and instead occurs amongst peers.
This fall has proved once again that the questions “why does gender matter?” and “why does feminist epistemology matter?” have to be answered yet again. Indeed, it would seem that those questions, which are so often rooted in the ways that narrative and discourse have been harnessed to produce particular and partial representations of the nation, have to be addressed yet again within the field of Canadian literary production.
Events in the last few months would suggest that a persistent issue with literary critical culture in Canada is at best a serious myopia and at worst misogyny. I am of course referring to David Gilmour’s statement that he “doesn’t love women writers enough to teach them,” and that he “only teaches serious heterosexual guys.” I am also referring to Tim Bowling’s recent interview with poet and critic Carmine Starnino in CV2 in which Starnino refers to the work undertaken by CWILA (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts) as not the “real work” that literary culture needs, but rather merely an “annual ‘count’” that produces “panicky responses.” Each of these statements betrays fundamentally gendered and dismissive language, yes. And gender discrimination—not to mention discrimination at the level of race and class—are systematic and entrenched inequities in Canada, not just Canadian literary production. Both Starnino’s and Gilmour’s claims reveal how very much work there is yet to do. My fundamental concern here is neither Starnino nor Gilmour per se, but they provide useful and recent examples of what does concern me. In what follows I focus first on Gilmour’s statements, then Starnino’s in order to unpack and address the larger structural inequities and misogyny their statements represent.
I’ll start with Gilmour, because his statements went viral to a degree that I suspect Starnino’s will not. The fact that Gilmour’s statements went viral matters because the comments sparked a revitalized debate about misogyny in Canadian literary culture. It also matters that Starnino’s statements were made after the Gilmour debacle. Gilmour’s remarks were offensive on a number of levels. First, I find it deeply concerning that a professor—with all the rights and privileges that come with that position—sees no misogyny, racism, or homophobia in his statements. Gilmour’s remarks about not teaching literature by women, people of colour, or queer people (which he suggests slantwise when he says he prefers to teach “serious heterosexual guys”) reveal his own fundamental discrimination. It would be one thing if he only revealed his own biases and prejudices, but when you are granted the privilege and opportunity to teach students at a public institution you have a responsibility to act in an ethical, critically engaged manner. Imagine what it must feel like to be a woman, person of colour, or queer person in one of Gilmour’s classes. What is specifically upsetting and perniciously damaging about Gilmour’s blithe remarks is that they reveal the ongoing presence of misogyny, racism, and homophobia in our culture right now.
I am a board member for Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA). It is a non-profit organization that seeks to promote and help enact equity in Canadian literary culture. CWILA has proved two years in a row now that gender discrimination exists in at least one key arena of Canadian literary culture. What we have learned through the process of enacting The Count (a census of thousands of literary reviews in Canada, that census which Starnino suggests is “not the real work”) is that it is extremely difficult to quantify “sexism” “racism” and “homophobia” in how people choose to review literature and whose texts they choose to review. Gilmour’s comments deriding the work of women writers, writers of colour, queer writers, and indeed any writer who is Canadian doesn’t undermine CWILA’s work, it validates it! One of the reasons we at CWILA feel that Gilmour’s remarks have gone viral is that they make explicitly concrete the sexism, racism, and homophobia that exists in otherwise nuanced and abstract ways.
Indeed, I for one am glad that Gilmour made his remarks in such a public forum, because while they are hardly isolated in their myopia they served to remind us what kind of vigilant action is required. Action is being taken in response to Gilmour’s remarks. I see action in response to Gilmour’s statements happening in two interconnected ways: First, his comments have incited a positive internet backlash that is generating crucial conversations around critical pedagogy, sexism, racism, and homophobia in the classroom. People are talking about what kind of damages are wrought when critical practice is not brought to bear on the creation of a syllabus.
The second way action is being taken is a bit more complicated and might tell us more about the culture of inequity in which we live: Gilmour has received primetime space on television and in all kinds of news media—not to mention blogs and Twitter. Indeed, that platforms like Sun Media are now interested in hearing from CWILA is a by-product of the complicated ways in which privilege works. Sun Media contacted us because of what a privileged, white, male ‘professor’ at the University of Toronto said to a reporter he denigrates as being “a young woman looking to make a name for herself.”[i]So the media’s reaction to Gilmour—especially those media sites that have gone to Gilmour to give him more space to speak—are functionally validating his position that the only voices worth listening to are “serious heterosexual guys.” Ultimately, I am not interested in whether or not Gilmour shifts his rhetoric. I am interested in what the larger Canadian culture decides to learn from another example of misogyny.
Gilmour’s statements around only teaching what he loves are offered as an explanation for the narrowness of his syllabus. His comments that suggest professors should not be made to teach outside their areas of expertise to satisfy “political correctness” make me deeply uncomfortable. Of course, I am a woman who teaches Canadian literature, writing by queer writers, and writing by people of colour. But what genuinely concerns me about Gilmour’s statement here is that it suggests that professors should only teach what they know, and what they recognize. We are literature professors who operate in the Humanities, he and I. And the Humanities are an unfinished project. This is what I mean: in their classical iteration the Humanities were conceived as enriching human existence. Similarly, in its most basic iteration the Enlightenment cast Humanity in the realm of the possible: if only humans worked hard enough to broaden their minds, strengthen their bodies, and exercise their imaginations, then the possible was infinite. The concomitant problem with this aspiration was definitional but real: who or what is human? Who makes the decisions regarding access to knowledge production? Who decides what kinds of knowledges areknowledges as such? Find the answer to those questions and you’ve come to the answer of why Gilmour’s statements are so problematic.
The definition of who and what counts has never been as open within the Humanities as it could be, and thus those of us who fall on the outside of the definition in practice, if not in theory, come from long and varied histories of working outside the dominate sphere of legibility. To my mind then, Gilmour’s comments underscore a particular type of myopia: an inability to see beyond one’s own privilege.
How does Gilmour’s rather blatant misogyny help us think through the more pernicious gendered iterations of Canadian literary culture? How can the statements of an individual serve as a means of addressing pernicious and systematic discrimination in the field of Canadian literature?
Specifically, how might the “Gilmour affair” help us read Carmine Starnino’s recent comments on Canadian poetics as indicative of larger structural inequities and not simply as a smug diagnosis of gendered representation in the Canadian literary scene? What can we learn from Carmine Starnino’s positioning of himself as a writer, reviewer, and public intellectual? In his interview with Tim Bowling in CV2 Starnino recounts his difficulty in finding female reviewers. “I cajoled, wooed, flattered,” he writes. While some “didn’t see themselves as qualified” others “the majority… believed they were too opinionated to survive the experience.” Furthermore, he closes by suggesting that websites such as Sina Queyras’s Lemon Hound have been successful because “female contributors feel like they’re part of a pack, like they have cover.” Starnino’s point is two-pronged. On the surface he posits that women need strength in numbers and that sites like Lemon Hound facilitate that numerousness. But look closely: when does one need cover? When you’re already under fire. There is an implicit acknowledgement that women who take up public space in the Canadian literary scene are always-already at war. Further, by utilizing “pack,” especially in reference to a site with “hound” in its name, Starnino elides women with animals rather than with a literary school or coterie. Women are under siege and they’re just a pack of bitches.
A few things are happening here, and they all hinge around damaging myopias in Canadian literary culture. Let’s table for a moment his own privilege as a white male critic in Canada and focus instead on the poet-critic’s use of language. Indeed, let’s start with that term poet-critic. Typically, the term refers to a poet who is also a critic rather than, say, the relationship between a poet and a critic. In other words, a poet-critic is someone whose authority as a commentator is rooted in a very particular subjectivity. The poet-critic works from a position of both privilege and risk as someone who both creates and critiques. The privilege here is much different than Gilmour’s; here, privilege comes from the implicit suggestion that writing poetry makes one an authoritative critic. I am not particularly interested in considering the potential issues of this assumption. Rather, I want simply to point these additional issues out. What interests me is the risk of this subject position: the poet-critic risks myopia when he or she rejects a broad readerly audience and speaks only to a narrow coterie. I am not a poet-critic. I am a critic and teacher who works in a university setting and who writes literary criticism that is typically about gender, poetry, and poetics in Canada. When I write literary criticism it is true that I often write for a specific audience. That audience is generally a literary one, but it is also, always, with a pedagogical purpose in mind. My work is grounded in the fundamental belief in the necessity of critical pedagogy for the creation of a sustainable future audience. Thus, when I write, my critique, my explication, my contextualization is aimed at building discourse, or at least providing the information for future discourse. As an educator my responsibility is to a current and future public. I work with students, yes, and I write towards an academic and non-academic public. I am not a part of a group, a school, a circle, or a movement of writers. Or at least not in the same way a poet-critic may be. What Starnino’s rhetoric first underscores is not only a divide between critical practices in Canada, it also points to a question of naming: when is a group of like-minded or similarly-politicked, or aesthetically-conversant people a “school,” “circle,” or a “movement,” and when is it just “a pack”? In short, there are structural differences in Canadian literary culture—especially at the level of where criticism happens—that might begin to explain limiting blind spots that curtail the development of a flourishing critical literary discourse. Indeed, we cannot assume that there are not deeply ideological underpinnings inherent in the very forums in which we want to practice our criticism.
However, these structural differences do not go far enough here to explain the degree of gendered violence inherent in some of the language used by both Starnino and Gilmour. How should we read Starnino’s dismissal of a national organization (which is only in its second full year) as the “they” to his “we” in the following exchange?
                       TB: What do you feel about CWILA [Canadian Women in the Literary Arts?]
CS: They’ve done a lot of good – and the numbers (both for books reviewed by women, and reviews of books by women) appear to be on the rise this year. They should feel proud to have played a role in that. But, for me, the real work is much larger than an annual “count” and the panicky responses around it. We need to embolden young women.
Here, Starnino implies another gendered division between serious critics, not-yet-serious critics who are still too “young” to be serious critics, and people involved with CWILA. It takes neither a literary critic nor a language-attentive poet to identify “us” versus “them.” Echoing his earlier use of gendered language in his description of “cajol[ing], woo[ing], and flatter[ing]” would-be female reviewers (are they the “young women” he suggests need emboldening? Is that how he imagines emboldening? Is this the same “young woman” Gilmore suggests was just “looking to make a name for herself”), Starnino makes clear his derision for CWILA’s work and the feminized responses it apparently produces. Moreover, the implication of Gilmour’s and Starnino’s emphases on youth suggests that young women are the only women who are worthy of “emboldening.” Feminism 101 teaches us that misogyny, like homophobia, racism, and other forms of inequity, is structuralin its form and function. It affects everyone—young, old, in-between—albeit in differing ways. What is more, the statement that CWILA “should feel” rather than be  “proud” underscores the paternalism of these remarks.  Given that poetry is at its most basic an attentiveness to language and given that Starnino is an advocate for precise language, it seems impossible that he is unaware of the tenor of his diction. While these statements are troubling on their own, when taken alongside some of his other writing directed at CWILA – and especially the writer Jan Zwicky – another troubling trend emerges, albeit banal in its eternal return.
In a 2012 post entitled “Cue the Violins, Folks” Starnino writes that “Michael Lista speaks truth to stupidity.” He’s referring here to a very public exchange that emerged between Zwicky and Lista shortly after CWILA republished Zwicky’s essay “The Ethics of the Negative Review.” Briefly, Zwicky argues that the ethical role of the critic is to engage with the work itself rather than engage in evaluative criticism. Lista’s lengthy response can be found online, as can Zwicky’s rebuttal and a host of revealing commentary. What troubles me is not the charged discussion that emerged but rather the ways in which that discussion was so deeply and perniciously gendered. Under an excerpt of Lista’s response Starnino writes, “I’m not sure what good Lista’s riposte will do. Zach Wells tried to knock some sense into Zwicky’s essay when it first appeared. And I did my damnedest in my introduction to A Lover’s Quarrel.” Knock some sense? Really? And what, then, do we make of Zach Wells’s attempt to “knock some sense” into Zwicky’s article if we then turn to his 2009 post “CITRIC BITCH’S THINKING IS SHIT”? In this post Wells clearly references writer, critic, and teacher Sina Queyras’s Lemon Hound, a site that was Queyras’s own literary blog in 2009, but has now evolved into a multi-authored literary quarterly, aka the pack. Here’s an excerpt:
                     Citric bitch thinks: “Litcrit is sick—I’ll fix it!’
                     Sic ‘im, citric bitch, sic’im!
                     Citric bitch is yipping.
                     Citric bitch is griping.
                     Drink piss, dimwit citric bitch,
                     Kiss this critic’s nightstick!
Unlike, for example, F.R. Scott’s “All Spikes But the Last” which clearly calls out E.J. Pratt in an attempt to correct his racial myopia in “Towards the Last Spike,” this is hardly poetic innovation in the service of critiquing myopic literary production (especially given the odd inhabitation—mocking? Or flattering?—of the identical poetic constraints used by Christian Bok in Eunoia). Indeed, I am hardly the first to address this poem. For example, Jon Paul Fiorentino’s “Sexism and Silence in the Literary Community,” or Brand Cran’s open letter reference Wells’ poem to address the larger structural issues I am pointing at. Instead, Wells’ piece is an excellent reminder of the ways in which gender violence operates in language. Let’s not forget: language makes things happen. Language is what we use to identify personhood. Allusion, metaphor, synecdoche, all of these literary devices create and sustain inequitable and violent relationships. “Knocking sense” into an essay hardly masks the violence of the implied synecdoche. “Kiss this critic’s nightstick” doesn’t even bother with figurative language or the absent referent, it is a threat couched in poor verse. When this “poem” is read in conjunction with Starnino’s commentary and diction, Gilmour’s dismissals, and, yes, CWILA’s growing statistical research it seems clear that there is much work to be done. Again, I am far less interested in whether or not individual poet-critics recognize or shift their violently gendered discourse. This is not about the individual poet-critic. This conversation is about recognizing, articulating, and unpacking malignant myopias in Canadian literary and cultural production. Yet again.
Canadian literary criticism will thrive with more engaged and rigorous discourse, of course. If we want a sustainable and future-oriented Canadian literary culture, it will require an ever-evolving attentiveness to the work of production and the work of criticism. But if the events of this fall have done anything they have served as a clear reminder that the existence and expansion of organizations like CWILA are vital to the ethics of that work.
Works Cited
Bowling, Tim. “An Interview with Carmine Starnino.” Contemporary Verse 2: The
Cran, Brad. “Lazy Jerkism: An Open Letter to Carmine Starnino.” Brad Cran.http://bradcran.com/vancouver_verse/an-open-letter-to-carmine-starnino/
Fiorentino, Jon Paul. “Sexism and Silence in the Literary Community.” The Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/jon-paul-fiorentino/sexism-literary-community_b_3188385.html
Starnino, Carmine. “Cue the Violins, Folks.” The vehicule press blog.
Wells, Zachariah. “CITRIC BITCH’S THINKING IS SHIT.” Career Limiting Moves. Zachariahwells.blogspot.ca/2009/02/citric-bitchs-thinking-is-shit.html

[i] It is worth noting that the University of Toronto Department of English Acting Chair Paul Stevens publically circulated the following message:
A message from the Acting Chair of the English Department, Professor Paul Stevens.
Dear Colleagues:
Like all those of you who have seen David Gilmour’s comments in the Hazlitt magazine on teaching literature at U of T, I was appalled and deeply upset. They constitute a travesty of all we stand for. I will be pursuing the matter further today. There seem to me two points that immediately need to be emphasized. First, David Gilmour is not a member of the Department of English at the University of Toronto, and second, his ill-informed and offensive views could not be less representative of the passionately held values and actual practices of the Department. Please feel free to circulate this message as you think appropriate.
Many of you have already been trying to set the record straight — many thanks to Nick Mount, Heather Murray, Alex Gillespie, Michael Cobb, Holger Syme, and Katie Larson.
Best, Paul
Paul Stevens Professor and Acting Chair Department of English University of Toronto

#alt-ac · #post-ac · administration · balance · commute · day in the life · transition

The Non-Academic Day-to-Day Debunked

From what people tell me, life as a tenure-track professor isn’t all that different from life as a PhD student, especially with the increasing expectations that grad students will be presenting at conferences, publishing, and doing service activities. Sure, you teach more. The pressures to publish increase. You add supervision and more service to the mix. But the job is fundamentally still flexible (in terms of focus, hours, and location), self-directed, and performed in the same environment with the same types of people. Transitioning from the day-to-day of a PhD student to the day-to-day of a faculty member sounds pretty easy.

One of the consequences of the way that grad students are indoctrinated into the conventions and customs of academe is that the day-to-day realities of working life outside of the academy seem a bit strange, a bit scary, even a bit unsavory. I know lots of us have had these thoughts: Working in an office from 9-5 sounds like a prison sentence. Non-academic work and co-workers can’t possibly be intellectually stimulating enough. No boss is going to tell me what to do. I’m nearly three month into my new administrative position, the amount of time conventional wisdom suggests it takes to settle into a new job, and I’ve been reflecting on what life is like in the #alt-ac compared to my initial fears and expectations. So, what’s it like, you ask, and what did I think it would be like?

Belief: There’s no way I can spend two hours a day commuting.
Reality: Yes, commuting kinda’ sucks. I spent twenty very cold minutes in an extraordinarily long line for the bus this afternoon. But most of the time, it’s actually very pleasant. Sometimes I write, or crochet. Mostly I read. The commute is so automatic now that I’m mostly unaware that I’m doing it at all, and I’ve read more books in the last month than I probably did all of last year.

Belief: I like sleeping in and starting my day when I choose.
Reality: Most mornings, I get up a 5:15 and go to the gym before work. I leave the house at precisely the same time every day, and I have no choice about when I start my day–everyone in my office works the same hours. I don’t mind in the least. It’s actually easier for me to get up at 5:15 than it is to get up later, probably because I’m in a lighter part of the sleep cycle.

Belief: I’ve spent five years working from home, mostly alone, and I’m a total introvert. There’s no way I can be productive and sane working in an office full of people every day.
Reality: I love working around people. I love my cat, but spending my days only with him were making me a little crazy. When I need to focus, I put on my headphones and/or shut my office door. I love office gossip, and that when something isn’t going well (or when it is), there’s always someone to vent to or celebrate with. And you can’t beat co-workers who buy pizza for everyone when their back-pay from a contract negotiation comes in.

Belief: I’m too independent and self-directed to report to someone on a regular basis.
Reality: Probably because my job is pseudo-managerial (I’m staff, but my position used to be management level and mostly still resembles a management role), I have oodles of autonomy. But I like reporting to someone. The PhD is a whole lot of delayed gratification and feedback, whereas office life provides tons of both. It also helps that my boss is straightforward, reasonable, and practical, as well as someone I actually like talking to. 

Belief: I treasure my flexible schedule too much to work a 9-5 with only two weeks of vacation a year.
Reality: Yes, I miss weekday lunches with friends and Friday afternoon movies. But it turns out that a flexible schedule and I are a major mismatch. Anxiety about how to structure my time and about the sense that all the time was work time was the bane of my academic life. Now, 4:30 comes and work is over. I work some evenings, but I work on things I want to–these blog posts, my dissertation, on a friend’s book, with my grade 5 student–and they each have their time in my week. I feel no guilt about taking time for myself, my friends, my partner, my family. My brain positively adores the structure. Yes, I’d love to take off for thee weeks this summer, but I’ll get there eventually.

Belief: No one is as smart and interesting as academics, and any non-academic workplace is going to be soul-crushing and mind-numbing. (Yes, I’m exaggerating, but you know people feel like this, at least a little.)
Reality: My co-workers are awesome. Most of them are not academics. We all love to cook and eat, to trade office gossip, to bemoan whatever drama is going on with the students and faculty we work with, and to talk about our pets and families. No, we don’t debate about theory or David Gilmour. But is my working life lacking in intellectual stimulation? Not remotely, especially not the week that I had to read upward of 50 scholarship proposals in science and math. I can pretty convincingly explain massive gravity now, which is not bad for an English major.

Belief: I work in my yoga pants every day. I’d hate having to get dressed for work every morning.
Reality: Putting together a fun outfit + accessories is just that–fun. It’s nice to feel put together every day, instead of like someone who forewent a shower to squeeze in a few more paragraphs and only remembers at dinner time that she forgot to brush her teeth that morning.

Belief: All I do all day is read and write. What if I never get to write in a non-academic job? Or read?
Reality: I got lucky with my job, sure, but I spend most of my days reading, writing, and editing–nomination letters, instruction manuals, briefing notes, government reports, emails (so many emails), student research profiles, workshop descriptions, presentations, and on and on. With my headphones on and my favourite wordprocessor open, I sometimes forget that I’m not at home dissertating–except that my office chair is way better.

If my transition posts have a central theme, it’s this: the contemplation of transition, of not being an academic any longer, can be terrifying, but the reality is not remotely as terrifying, or as different, as our imaginings. Many of us are so conditioned to think of an academic life as the best kind of life that no other seems like it can possibly compare. Imagine my shock when I realized that the structure, the community, the wardrobe of the non-professorial life would, in combination, make me far happier, less anxious, and more productive than I’ve probably been since I started my PhD. Turns out the day-to-day of life in the alt-academy isn’t all that different, and is just different enough, from the academic day-to-day I once aimed for. Colour me suprised–and pleased.

feminist win · popular culture · reflection

Year-end reckoning

This year, I made a point to read more widely. I promised myself there would be things that I would not teach, research, or use in any other way than to reclaim my love of reading that spurred my many degrees in reading closely in the first place. Although the beginning of December does not count or feel like the end of the year necessarily–and definitely not when piles of marking haunt you from the edges of your desk–I would like to issue an invitation to think back on the texts–literary and otherwise–that moved us in some ways this year. It’s not a top 3 (or 10 or 100) for me, because I am not a big fan of rankings and hierarchies, but it can be for you. What’s more, an eclectic bunch of things have ignited my imagination, dread, or hope this year, of the apple, orange, and kumquat varieties, so comparisons would not work for me, but they might for you. I’ll go first, if you promise to add one or two things in the comments.

Ruth Ozeki‘s A Tale for the Time Being has devastated me, making it difficult, at times, to come back to it, while also compelling me to go on by inferring that life cannot possibly be so bleak, and then reaching even more dismal abysses. Like many contemporary texts, Ozeki’s muses on how neoliberalism dismantles humans’ responsibility towards one another and towards other life forms, including the environment more generally. (You see, you can take the literary scholar out of the classroom, but you can’t… oh, you know how it goes.) Ozeki’s style, and the novel’s nested structure does not allow the reader to give up, however, and I kept returning to the trauma scene, only to be confronted afresh with more unrelenting realities. The novel’s ending, although attempting some sort of reprieve, manages to undercut itself by narrating a hopeful dénouement, only to throw the optimism into doubt. The same kind of device appears in Lionel Shriver’s Big Brother, but I’ve only just finished this novel, and I need some more time to mull a deeper comparison over.

This one I will definitely not teach, as it’s nowhere near my area, but it has become an aspirational model for me: Paula Byrne’s The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things. First, it’s the traditional feminist methodology. Byrne unearths documents, events, and actual things that recuperate a picture of Jane Austen as an assured, knowledgeable, and intentionally astute commentator of her time. Byrne talks back to the official biography released by her family after Austen’s death, which paints a period- and gender-appropriate picture of the writer as a humble and modest recluse, who merely stumbled upon writing as a pastime. Being an Austen amateur, and nowhere near scholar, I cannot assess Byrne’s suggestion that, for a long period of time, Austen scholarship took that family-released biography for granted. However, my amateurism lands me at my second reason for loving this book: its success in making literary scholarship accessible, nay, enjoyable to the general public. Arguably, biographies have always been the most marketable type of literary scholarship, but this book does so much more work in illustrating the connections between historical events, Austen’s life, the politics of her time, and her novels by openly doing close readings for example, that I would put it up there as a great model of public feminist cultural studies.

Finally, my life circumstances have made it logistically difficult to go out much, but this past weekend I went to see and listen to one of my favourite singers, Basia Bulat. Live! In person! (both me and her!). If I’m not much of an Austenite, than I’m even less of a music critic, so I will spare you my inane squeals of joy, and offer you one of her songs in closing.

What’s your year-end reckoning?

#alt-ac · #post-ac · experiential education · transition

Making Transferable Skills Visible

My Facebook feed is a wondrous place, and it’s most recent treasure was the news that UBC is piloting a co-op program in its English PhD program. Say what? Experiential education in the humanities, particularly of the co-op sort, is not as common as it could be. And from my experience–correct me if I’m wrong–it’s almost unheard of in Canadian humanities graduate programs. I’m thrilled that UBC is giving its students opportunities to, in their words, “widen their range of professional skills through paid work experience in fields such as academic administration, communications, project management, and archival, government, and NGO research” and “build valuable skills and experience that will extend and enrich their career options in both academic and alternative workplaces.” Yes, there are conversations to be had about the infiltration of the corporate world into the university, about resisting the demand to shape programs to meet the job market, about the implications of co-op programs for PhD completion times, about why an employer would want a PhD over a cheaper MA, and about whether co-op will just add to the already-strenuous requirements for a PhD or if it represents a new kind of #post-ac focused doctorate. And those are conversations I’d love to have, and I hope we have in the comments.

But for now, I’m focusing on the positive. One, it’s refreshing that UBC is doing what everyone should be doing, which is openly acknowledging that many of its graduates will be going the #alt-ac and #post-ac route. This is an ever-so-necessary step toward doing away with the stigma of quitting academe, and yet it is ever-so-rare a practice–I regularly interact with hundreds of graduate faculty in my job, and I can count on two hands the number of them who do the same. Two, if PhD students are going all sorts of places other than academia after they graduate–and they are, in hordes–then graduate programs should be providing them with opportunities to get the skills and experience they’ll need in those jobs, and that they’ll need to get those jobs. Not only am I pleased that UBC has recognized this, and acted on it, I’m pleased that they’re engaging in an open conversation about the skills their English PhDs have, and touting those skills both to the organizations they’re partnering with and to the general public. Perhaps my favourite part of their co-op website was this:

It’s that easy to articulate what PhDs do well, what we do every day, in terms that help grad students make sense of their skills and the world make sense of grad students. No PhD should feel like the only thing they’re good for is the professoriate, and one of the best ways to squash that feeling is telling them, from the moment that they start their degree, that there’s a whole world of things they can excel at. Let’s do this more. 

Adventures in Online Networking

I was just reading this article on “Misadventures in Networking” at the Chronicle Vitae site–MA student Laura Smith does a little research to come to the conclusion that as much as she gets nervous at the idea of approaching established people in her field to network with them, they are probably just as wary of being approached … the wrong way.

This is true online as well.

I often receive questions from my own extended network that run something like this: “Hey, I know you do the Internet and stuff, so can you tell me how Twitter works because I want to advertise my conference.”

My answer is: “You needed to be on Twitter a year ago to lay the groundwork for this.”

That is, in social networking online as in person, you’ll have a lot more success is you put some goodwill and effort into the system, before you start asking for goodwill and effort to be expended on you. As with any good networking, you start to build your contacts and relationship for their intrinsic interest first–later, they might be useful in a more practical way.

So if you don’t know why you might go on Twitter or Facebook or whatever, that means it’s probably the right time to start: once you have a book to promote, or you’re looking for a job, or you’re trying to crowdsource a reference list, you’re going to wish you had that network already in place. So start it now.

Here’s how: Research. Join. Follow. Lurk. Add value. Connect.

Research: where does the online networking take place in your field? Is everyone on Academia.edu, or on LinkedIn? Or are they hanging out more informally on Facebook or Twitter? Maybe your field has a number of important blogs and bloggers where more formal but still networking conversations take place. Figure out where the people you want to hang out with are. That’s step one. There’s no sense trying to optimize your work profile on Pinterest if there are no other academics there. You don’t look for a book contract at Chuck E. Cheese: figure out where the action it, and go there.

Join: create a profile for yourself on the relevant network. If there’re multiple networks, create consistent profiles at each of them–I’m ‘digiwonk’ on Twitter, and I’m also ‘digiwonk’ here on the blog, for example. Put some thought into user names, avatars, and profile text: when you’re just starting out, people will scan these to try to figure out who you are, if you matter, and how. When I get notices of new follows in Twitter, I look at the picture and the brief text: a picture of a cartoon mouse and a sentence about the deserts of New Mexico? Ignore. A picture of a head and a sentence about graduate study in rhetoric and internet feminism? Followback! Sometimes, if I can’t figure it out, I’ll look at someone’s list of followers, or at the content they’re sharing. But you’ve just joined: all you’ve got is your user name, your avatar, and your profile text. Choose carefully in such a way to engender interest in your target group.

Follow: On Twitter, follows aren’t necessarily mutual: look up the people you want to know, and follow them. They’re probably not going to follow you back yet. That’s fine. But the list of people you follow is another clue to your potential network about who you are and what you value. Facebook ‘friending’ has to be mutual, so start with people you already know in real life, and that way you can “bump into” their networks, in a kind of six-degrees-of-Lauren-Berlant sort of way that makes future friending easier. Figure out if your desired network requires mutual follows, and if it doesn’t, follow away! If it does, do the next two steps now and come back to this one after.

Lurk: Figure out how this network works by listening in on the conversations: what blend of original content, resource sharing, back-and-forth conversations, self-promotion, advocacy, and cat memes do the members of your aspirational network engage in. What kinds of material do they share, and what kinds of posts or links or conversations seem to draw the most engagement or interest? Hang out in the background for now, getting a feel for the social and interactional norms of the space. Learn the implicit rules.

Add value: This is important. You have to put stuff into the network before you pull stuff out of it: that’s just fair. What constitutes “value” will differ network to network, and discipline by discipline. I work in contemporary topics in new media, so in my network, it’s valuable to share news articles and blog posts about the latest news. In other fields different material will get shared: maybe syllabi, maybe accession numbers for archival materials. Usually, adding value is different from self-promoting: use your tweets or your posts to offer content that other people already are looking for. Answer a question; send a link.

Connect: You’ve joined the right social media site. You’ve crafted a clear profile. You’ve figured out the prevailing social norms. You’ve started to add value into the system by sharing relevant content. Through all this, you’re building your own profile, your ethos: now connect. On Twitter, you can start @replying to scholars you want to connect with. Start following more people now, and it’s likely they’ll follow you back. On Facebook, you can start sending friend requests to people who comment in similar ways to you on content you both see. Send invites on LinkedIn. Chances are some people will now know who you are and be more disposed to follow you back, or to friend you, or link you. Getting the first 20 contacts is really hard. Getting to 50 is a little easier. Getting to 100 after that is easier still. The network builds faster as you grow it, and you grow it by being valuable to others.

I’ve not said anything about getting your conference promoted, or getting the name of a book editor, or a suggestion for a good anthology for a Canadian poetry course. You build the network first, get established, connect. Then when you need help, it’s a lot easier to ask for it–and a lot more likely it will be offered.

Do you have any questions or advice to offer on digital networking? Leave ’em in the comments!

emotional labour

Four Novembers In: Notes from LTA Land

Historically speaking, it would seem that November is a time of reflection and rumination for me. For the past three Novembers I have written posts about what it is like to be on a limited term contract. In 2010 I wrote a post about having a Plan B. In 2011 I wrote two posts in November, one about the hinterland of contractual work, and one thinking about when I would actually make the shift into Plan B. Last year I went for a slightly humorous approach and embraced eating pie for breakfast and just getting through another day of teaching three classes and directing a program.

This is my fourth November writing for Hook and Eye. It seems fitting that I should check in, stick with the cycle, consider the effects of contractual work from my own position. But you know what? I don’t want to. I’m tired of it. I am tired of walking a careful line between healthy cynicism (‘Oh next year? I don’t know! If I don’t get work maybe I’ll become a llama farmer!’) and tenacious optimism (‘You work so hard! Of course you’ll get a job! Hang in, when I was a contract worker I thought it would never end too!’) In short, I am tired of the rhetorical self-fashioning that I have crafted in order to maintain a level of sanity and, frankly, of approachability over the last several years.

Yes, I could quit. I am confident that I could make the transition from academic to non-academic work, though it would take time and planning. But I am currently getting paid well. I have managed to get a well-paying academic job* for the past four years, and it has kept me busy enough to not have time or inclination to move into the labour of planning a transition.

This November I find that things are different. I feel differently.

On the one hand, I’m happier than I have been in memory, for real. This has little to do with my job — and I want to be very clear that I am differentiating job from work here. More on that in a moment. Yes, I still love teaching. In some ways I love it more than I did a year ago, even though I desperately miss the students I had developed years-long connections with while I was at Dalhousie. I love teaching because it turns out it is a portable skill. You can move, meet radically different student populations, have to shift your own habits to fit with a new environment…and it still works. There is still a sense of rawness and direction: learning happens. But honestly my happiness is coming less from my job than it ever has. In part this is because I am still so new — and very very — contingent and temporary where I am. In large part it is because I have made decisions that are based on a happiness and fulfillment that are located in an identity that isn’t tied to my identity as an academic.

On the other hand, there is a certain detachment that is setting in, that has set in, and that I see sedimenting into my peers who are in positions similar to mine. For one thing, I find that I spend 95% of my day (if not more) doing the job, not doing my work. After all, I am on a contract. My job is to teach, to grade, to plan lectures, to be a participating member of the department in whatever capacity I am invited, and to do that within the temporal limits of my contract. I am having immense trouble finding time and, honestly, energy to do the work of the profession. My research? That is work. Critical pedagogy? Work. Committee involvement? Work. Networking/conferencing/writing/thinking/pedagogical development/writing? Work. Work. Work.

The differentiation for me between job and work is that I get paid to do a job. Work I take on because I believe in it, because it matters, because it is the stuff that makes my heart race, my idealism take flight, and my fighting spirit put on its boxing gloves. And you know what? After five years on the job market — five years that I know have been easier and more financially compensatory for me than for so many others — I am tired. I am tired of watching myself grind away in front of the computer to try and steal time to conjure enough creative energy to start a new project or to keep projects that are mid-way through aloft. I am afraid that I wont have enough energy to develop the pedagogical strategies and philosophies that make me a good teacher. And I am oh so tired of watching my peers take on more and more unpaid work — be it gruelling grant applications that, if won, will afford them the ability to live only if they move into a hotel and pay themselves a per diem, or more volunteer work in the hopes that it will get them something. I know, I know. If this post was in the Globe and Mail or some other venue the comments section would be a maelstrom of snide and ill-informed statements about professoriate privilege. And I am tired of that too — that failure that we as a profession have somehow been complicit in: the failure of making it clear that work in the Humanities is the vital and urgent work of the human.

This isn’t my I Quit letter, not by a long shot (though Melissa has written one of the best and most emotionally and pragmatically astute ones I have ever read). No, what I am thinking about this November is what gets lost in this latest iteration of the atrophying of fair and equitable and sustainable employment in academia. It seems to me what gets lost, at least for a while, is the creative energy to fight, to invent, and to be generatively insurgent. What gets lost is the spontaneous discussion of work rather than jobs. What gets lost, at least for a while, is the spark.

But then, it is November in Canada. It is cold. Time to relight those fires, right? Onward.
*The big ahem! here is that my work has been as a limited term appointment at the Assistant Prof level, which has been a salaried position (though prorated when I am on 10-month contracts). That means I get paid more reasonably that my friends and colleagues who are sessional workers getting paid between $1,600-$6,000 per course. Yep, you read those number right. The difference in per-course payment varies radically from institution to institution, and it varies that much. And so just in this little footnote you can begin to see the great inequities and all their incredible complications spool out.

fast feminism

Stop dissing women’s use of technology!

I found it particularly ironic that on the same day Aimée tweeted her meta-selfie from the CBC studio where she was giving a feature interview for Spark, the hashtag #feministselfie erupted on Twitter. Go read Aimée’s post to be inspired to share your research with the media, and present yourself to the world as the expert you have become in your field. Because otherwise, in the absence of smart and nuanced commentary, we are left with opinion pieces which always (want to) see the worst in how women do anything, and especially in their use of technology. This trend needs to stop.

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js We need to stop the inter-generational browbeating, as the one in the Jezebel opinion piece that sparked the #feministselfie hashtag; or the one in which Sinéad O’Connor was trying to teach Miley Cyrus what was wrong with her video, for some of the reasons Amanda Palmer mentions in her own open letter. We need to understand that, for better or for worse, feminism is not monolithic, and my definition might not equal yours, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t respect each other’s different stances, and examine, discuss, even debate the many intersections that traverse it.

And do you know why? Because there are enough people who do not identify as feminists or allies, who are more than ready to put us in our place for how women–yea, so much for non-monolithic understandings, I know–use technology and/or social media. Remember the Pinterest debacle and the attendant hierarchy that belittled women for using it? That needs to stop.

Whatever way one uses or does not use technology or social media has to stop being a marker of cultural capital. If you opt out of social media, that’s your choice, and it is legitimate. If you think Facebook works better for you than Twitter would, because it gives you a meaningful connection to far-away friends and family, that’s awesome. However, we also have to admit that other people’s technological choices and uses are just as valid. How about we start rejoicing in difference, and the potentials of a variety of different platforms–understanding what they’re for, how people use them (in significantly different ways), and who owns them, and how they are monetized–instead of expecting to reconcile everything in identity.

After all, nobody wants to be the one pulling the classic Bourdieuvian “I was into Arcade Fire before they became mainstream.”

#alt-ac · #post-ac · guest post

Life After the PhD

In lieu of my own words today, I give you From PhD to Life‘s Jennifer Polk’s recent article in The Globe and Mail on crafting a career after the PhD, and the disservice the one-track conversation about jobs for PhDs does to students:  

This mentality [that the tenure-track is everything] does not serve PhD students. It limits and distorts career options, and perpetuates negative, unhelpful stereotypes of work beyond the Ivory Tower. I believe that this ignorance and unwitting snobbery keeps many intelligent, creative, motivated individuals in contingent teaching jobs that ultimately don’t serve them or the interests of Canadian society writ large.

And I’m not going to tell you “don’t read the comments.” Read them. And then write them!