#alt-ac · #post-ac · academic work · after the LTA · good attitudes about crappy possibilities · ideas for change · job market · teaching

New Letters of Reference for New Kinds of Academic Careers

University employment is changing. We all know that tenured faculty teach an ever-declining proportion of undergraduate courses. We know that there is a boom in piecework sessional teaching. There is also the possibly cheering / possibly more depressing development in the hiring of short-term and continuing lecturer positions, a kind of teaching-track full-time job, often focusing on writing instruction, that makes sessional work much more highly remunerative and stable.* This is a big change. By the start of the fall term, 4 of our faculty members in English will be Definite Term Lecturers, and 25 will be tenure-stream.

The kinds of “academic jobs” available are changing. And our application, interviewing, hiring, renewing, and assessment practices haven’t really caught up yet. Today, let’s talk about reference letters. Next week I’ll talk about application letters and CVs from candidates.

In my department, we’ve launched three searches for definite term lecturers this year (8 courses per year, 10% research component on writing pedagogy, 3 year position with possibility of renewal and move to continuing status) and two tenure track searches (standard 2:2 load, 40-40-20 split, research position). One of our associated colleges, St. Jerome’s, is also doing a search right now, for two more DTLs on roughly the same terms as our own.

I’ve read a lot of reference letters, if you put these six searches into one big pool. Many of these letters are lousy, in the sense of inappropriate to the position, bordering on the disrespectful to the candidate’s chances, and of the time of the committee.

First, the pool. Most of the candidates applying fall into two camps: first, rhet/comp and writing studies scholars, and second, literature PhDs. The first group is doing more than fine, and doesn’t need my help: there is such a boom in positions for these (mostly American and American-trained) candidates, that the odds are usually quite good they’ve got a choice of tenure-trac positions closer to where they want to live. I will not tell you how many of these candidates have rejected job offers from us over the last several years. But they are numerous.

Much more problematic are the repurposed literature PhDs. I truly, truly sympathize with the desire to get an academic job, any academic job, and closer to the GTA rather than farther, and more stable rather than less. And many of these candidates are award-winning scholars with exciting dissertations and upper level teaching in their area. But their referees are sinking their candidacies before they even really get going.

The highlights are something like this (made-up examples, that get the gist):

  • “I have not had an opportunity to see X teaching, but her interactions with me have always been pleasant and professional.”
  • “I have not discussed teaching with X, but he is an excellent researcher, whose innovative dissertation suggests he will be a creative classroom teacher.”
  • “X was lucky enough to secure funding that removed her from the classroom, and as a result, her dissertation is already at a state to be submitted to an academic publisher.”
  • “The nuance that X brings to guest lectures in upper level courses in his research area demonstrate his readiness to devise innovative courses in your department.”

Stop this. The job ad says we need people to teach 8 introductory writing courses to students from across the university. The ad may indicate that the position may turn into long-term continuing: that is, it can be a career-job. It says there’s no research component, or a small research component based in continuing training in pedagogy. It stresses writing studies and writing pedagogy, or communications studies, or cognate research or training. The letters describe literary scholars with tenure-track dreams and training. They also, in blithely ignoring the terms of the ad, seem to indicate the writer’s and candidate’s belief that no special skills are required to teach writing across the curriculum. This is, if I’m going to be perfectly honest, insulting to the field, the job, and the search committee.

I imagine most of this is inadvertent. These are new kinds of jobs, with new kinds of ads, in new sorts of fields, particularly for Canadians.

I suggest:

  • Graduate supervisors? You need to go watch your students teach. You need to talk to them about teaching.
  • You also need to really encourage your literary students to take advantage of any and all teaching credentialling opportunities at your institution.
  • You need to devise new templates for letters. The research letter is a standard form, that is well-pitched to research jobs, but it’s not suited to all jobs, not even all jobs inside of academic departments

I’m thinking particularly of the literary scholars who are reframing their job focus from TT in their area, to other kinds of stable employment as teachers in departments. The writing studies and rhet/comp people are doing more than okay on this front. And I think our literary grads can become strong, credible, hireable candidates for the lecturer positions that are becoming more numerous. But it’s not obvious from the application materials. Yet.

What reference letters for teaching lectureships, focused on introductory writing or writing across the curriculum might look like:

  • Indicate the candidate is serious, at least for now, about taking up a lectureship like this one
  • Speak specifically about the candidate’s skills as a teacher
  • Of junior students
  • Skills like works well in a team, has good time management, deals well with student conflicts are prized as well

Look, I don’t have any such letters written for my students. I’ll be perfectly honest and tell you I never thought about it before I read something like 200 of them written by other people. I don’t know if I like the stratification of departments into tenured scholar/teachers of upper-level and grad courses, and writing-teacher lecturers with such high teaching loads and mostly junior / non-departmental students. But there are a lot more of one these kinds of jobs than the other. And some candidates really do seem quite happy to reframe toward writing and communication, and to relish the teaching, and to really want these positions. So I’d like all applicants (and there are LOTS of applicants) to produce better application materials for the jobs we’re actually hiring for.

It’s a work in progress for me. I’d love any advice or feedback you might have.

community · grad school · mental health · reform · research · solitude · travel

Reflections on Solitary Scholardom

Last week, Melissa shared with us an excellent summary of the things she wishes she’d been told during her PhD–a post that has become one of the most read in the history of Hook & Eye. Then, on Friday, Magrit asked us to consider our virtuosity as female academics, and challenged us to make a list of our own skills, something I think we grad students should be doing on a more frequent basis as we, as per Melissa’s advice, expand the scope of our own professional identity and adjust to the notion that we may not be safely ensconced in the folds of academia forever.

I’ve been traveling for over four weeks now, and I’ve had a lot of time to think–about myself, about my mission or goals as a young academic in my late-twenties, about my place within an English department that, with its incomparable network of like-minded people, can also be a little bit stifling and inevitably competitive, as we constantly look over each other’s shoulders (at Fordham, where teaching fellows have shared office space in open cubicles, this is often literally the case). I don’t think I realized before I left the States just how much this tight-knit academic community was affecting my mental well-being–I was constantly comparing my progress with those around me, fearing I was falling behind, and feeling inadequate. During this blessed research trip, I’ve been reading and transcribing and searching and thinking and memorizing and seeing and absorbing. I’ve been doing all these academic things while remaining both geographically and mentally remote from the quotidian demands of academia. I haven’t been keeping up with the current academic debates on Twitter, I’ve fallen behind on email, I haven’t been teaching or grading, I’ve had very few interactions with anyone on my committee, and I’ve spent many long days in the library alone. Facebook and email keep me peripherally aware of the kinds of issues that are facing my department, but overall I’ve enjoyed somewhat of a solitary existence over here–a culture-filled, charmed scholarly existence (even despite my multitude of fears that I haven’t accomplished nearly enough). It has been good to distance myself from departmental gossip, reevaluate what I love about the study of the Middle Ages, and contemplate my own strengths as a scholar, thinker, and person. I’ve encountered a number of people working in professions outside academia, thought more about what I might like to do if I weren’t an academic. Hell, I even started drawing again–something I loved to do for years, and out of which I at one point thought I would make a career.  I’d like to think that overall, this trip has helped me listen to the advice that Melissa wishes she had heard a little sooner.

Yet I do miss community. In fact, while I’ve been very well trained as a paleographer and researcher, something my advisers never prepared me for as a single female traveler is the paralyzing loneliness and alienation that can sometimes descend when arriving in new places, alienation that has caused me considerable despair and many panicked Skype-calls to my partner. In reaction against this alienation, I become deeply attached to the places I frequent, people I meet, even food I eat while I’m over here–sort of carving out my own mobile sense of home, I guess–but those attachments make leaving these places even harder, and then I have to repeat the cycle of mourning, alienation, and attachment every time I move around. Research trips are hard, yo! I miss sympathetic interactions with colleagues in the department, I miss regular Monday lunches with a dear friend, I miss workshopping syllabi and works-in-progress over wine and cheese, I miss bitchingdiscussing the pros and cons of academia in pubs after hours. I miss students, I miss my cat, I miss my apartment, I miss being fully fluent in reading and understanding the place I’m in.

When I return to New York, then, I want to preserve and treasure my solitary hours in the library, getting up and out of the apartment early and regulating my access to social media and social ties a bit more, but also embracing the unique opportunity of working in a university department and trying to maintain balanced, supportive, generative relationships. I also want to remember that everyone works in different ways, and refuse the temptation to compare my work habits with those of my peers. I want to hold close the people who build me up, and distance myself from the people who cause me undue anxiety or ignite paralyzing feelings of competitiveness.

As the recent debates over trigger warnings on syllabi have reminded us*, academia may not and should not be a safe space but it must be an accountable one, though we shouldn’t let that accountability mutate into a culture of competitiveness or the student-customer model that the trigger-warned syllabus seems to uphold. We need to embrace our own virtues and sensitivities while welcoming those of others, acknowledging that we are all in various states of becoming and unrest. Ideally I will be ready after this trip to face these kind of challenges in the classroom, invigorated and recharged by my solitary experiences but eager to maintain productive relationships and accountable spaces in the academic circles I’ve already built up. Here’s hopin,’ anyway.

*a serious and sensitive issue that I hope we can broach again in the future; for now I’d recommend this round-up post on The Nation, and would welcome any initial thoughts.


Virtue vs. Virtuosity

Can you keep up with the barrage of news about women’s social standing these days? Whether it’s a ranking of how badly we fare in different Canadian cities–spoiler: Quebec cities love women the right way, whereas Alberta cities, not so much–or how we should just help ourselves because it’s in our power etc., it’s no news to the H&E community, really. It’s important to keep the conversation going on these topics, because silence, disinterest, and erasure continue to be the norm, one which fits into old ideas about female virtue, like the importance of modesty and humility, and of being seen, rather than heard.

What happens, when, on top of these cultural burdens, powerfully entrenched, although rarely acquiesced, women have to function in an environment of consistent peer-judgement? How can women in academia combat the persistent insecurity bred socially and professionally and acknowledge their expertise as virtuosity?

Maria Callas

Let me go back to music for a second: a life dedicated to becoming a professional musician, especially in the classical tradition, leads to the recognition of virtuosity. All the work, the hours, the sacrifice, the figurative and literal sweat, the carpal tunnel and the posture deficiencies: there is always the potential prize at the end, in the form of recognition. Historically, women musicians, especially celebrated sopranos, have been punished for daring to display their self-confidence with the label of “diva,” which has acquired strong connotations of histrionics if not outright hysterics.

Where do women academics stand? How is our labour to the profession, dedication, and years of honing critical skills rewarded? What constitutes virtuosity in academia? At what, if anything, do you consider yourself masterful? There are a couple of back-stories to my question. The first is personal: I’ve been lucky enough to have parents who have instilled a strong sense of confidence in me, so I’ve always trusted my skills, and, circuitously, this trust has led me to tackling new learning situations and new skill acquisition in turn. I love learning new things, and my bucket list is almost exclusively made up of learning experiences I want to take part in.

The second back-story comes back to the beginning of today’s post. Have you heard of this new book of the “Lean In” genre, which claims all women should do is be more confident and the world would become their oyster? As Jessica Valenti points out, it’s the newest of in this series of neoliberal quasi-feminist resuscitation of the old Horatio Alger genre. This new book masks the structural barriers that women face every step of the way, such as the ones exemplified by the study of how women fare in the largest 20 Canadian cities. Not to mention the vicious ways in which confident women have been and continue to be depicted in popular culture, from Medusa to Claire Underwood.

So, let me come back to my question, which also ties in with Melissa’s very productive prompts: what are you an expert in? what are you really good at? what’s your area of virtuosity? C’mon, make a list, check it twice regularly, amend it, supplement it, and share it. If you’ve spent so much time thinking, learning, practicing, writing, discussing, you have attained mastery! Ditch virtue, and flaunt your virtuosity*!

*yes, why not here in the comments?

#alt-ac · #post-ac · good attitudes about crappy possibilities · grad school · job market · mentoring · openness · PhD · reform · student engagement · students · transition

Things I wish someone had told me during my PhD

I was invited, about a month back, to give a talk at Queen’s University to a mixed group of grad students, adjuncts, faculty and staff on hacking your graduate degree for maximum post-PhD flexibility. I hosted a similar session for some students at my university today. The point of the talk is that graduate students can make strategic choices about the opportunities they pursue during their degrees,  and that these opportunities can help them develop a variety of skills, a strong professional network, and a compelling body of work which can make it easier for them to pursue a variety of career paths inside and outside of the academy. What I wanted to do was have an honest conversation about the things I wish I had known during grad school, things that would have made my time there even more enjoyable and productive, and that would have made my eventual transition onto the #alt-ac track (both mentally, and literally) more seamless and painless. And how does one hack one’s graduate degree, you might ask? Here’s my advice. (Do note that it places the onus on graduate students, who were my original audience. The conversation about what faculty and administrators should be doing, and about why some of this shouldn’t be the responsibility of our PhDs, is for another day.)

1. Be Realistic, and Open, About What Comes After Grad School

In the recent America-wide survey by Duke University graduate student Gregory Brennen, the data showed that 83% of graduate students started their PhD expecting to become a tenure-track professor. This is in stark contrast with the current data on how many PhDs actually end up in tenure track jobs—most estimates suggest that fewer than 50% of PhDs end up in any kind of academic job (that includes contract teaching) and that only between 15% and 25% ever secure tenure track jobs. Given this reality, graduate students need to prepare for, and embrace, the multitude of possibilities open to them after they complete their degrees. And they need to remember that being an academic is just a job, and that the are tons of interesting, fulfilling jobs doing other things. Mine is a good example.

2. Make Strategic Decisions About What You Do During Your Degree

As a friend kindly reminded me after I kept claiming that I got lucky in ending up in my job, we make our own luck. What seems random is actually, when you look back, a series of strategic decisions that lead to a whole host of post-degree opportunities. In my case, that strategic decision was to take a research assistantship in lieu of teaching during the fourth year of my PhD. While many PhD students fund their studies by teaching, and that’s a wonderful opportunity for people who are looking for careers in education, that may not be the best choice for people who are looking to do other things and need a different set of skills. These other opportunities are also extremely useful academically. Research or graduate assistantships are a big one to consider, as is doing an industry-partnered internship with Mitacs. So might be going on an international exchange, or selecting a graduate co-op program (which UBC now has in English, and Aimee tells me Waterloo is going to develop.) In my case, the research assistantship, researching graduate student professional development programs, let me develop the skills, knowledge, and experience that got me my job as a Research Officer.

3. Take Advantage of the Resources Available on Campus

As grad students, it’s easy to believe that most of the student support services available on campus are there for undergraduates, but that is emphatically not the case. There are a myriad of resources available on most campuses to help graduate students make the most of their degrees, to help them navigate the academic job market, or to help them transition out of academia or into an #alt-ac or #post-ac career. The Career Centre is a great place to start, and they can provide assistance with academic and non-academic job searches; Advancement can often connect grads with alumni in the fields they’re interested in; most Canadian universities now have graduate student professional development programs that offer a whole host of workshops and seminars; Mitacs offers a full suite of free transferable skills workshops; and many faculty members can, sometimes surprisingly, provide guidance and support in the search for jobs in and outside of the academy. It can be scary talking to faculty about plans to abandon the tenure track–believe me, I know–but the culture of silence around #alt-ac and #post-ac transition isn’t going to disappear until we all start talking about it.

4. Consider Creating A Shadow C.V.

One of the most important things graduate students can do to demonstrate to people outside of the academy that they have the needed skills is to have evidence that you’re capable of working outside of the academy. Especially for PhDs, the assumption that we’re overeducated and lacking in practical skills can be hard to overcome without demonstrated outside experience, and having at least one example of non-academic work experience to put in a resume can go a long way toward helping graduate students mentally connect the skills they’ve honed as a graduate students with those that crop up on job postings, and to help overcome the feeling that there’s nothing they’re qualified to do but be a professor. People have started calling experience developed alongside academic work, but not included in academic documents, a “shadow C.V.” In my case, I took a year off between my Master’s and my PhD to work in publishing and continued tutoring and editing throughout my degree. Other people I know have done summer placements, taken part-time jobs, done industry-partnered internships, or created web-based consulting and writing firms that allow them to work on their own time.

6. Learn How to Talk About Your Skills and Research to People Outside of Academia

Academese and English can sometimes seem like two different languages, and this is a major barrier to people with graduate degrees trying to make their qualifications and research make sense in contexts outside of the academy. It’s only natural. Communicating highly specialized research to non-academics isn’t a skill that most academics at any level practice all that much, other than the inevitable attempts to explain your work to your mother, or to someone you meet at a party. This is certainly changing, though. But opportunities to practice do exist, and graduate students should take advantage of them: compete in the Three Minute Thesis; take workshops on clear language writing; practice translating research into non-specialist language. Doing this can seem very non-intuitive for grad students, especially for those who have been academe for a long time, but once they learn how to do it, the relationship between what they do as academics and what shows up in job postings often becomes painfully obvious, as does the potential impact of their work outside the academy. This is, as a side benefit, and increasingly strong focus for many granting agencies, a number of which also now require clear-language or lay research summaries.

7. Think About What You Really Want to Do

Many PhD students are committed to being professors without actually knowing what the life, and the job, of a professor is really like. Our archives here at Hook & Eye can be pretty illuminating. Parts of it match up closely with the starry-eyed dream, but others definitely don’t. Meetings are endless and often frustrating. Grading is a slog. The pressure to publish and get stellar teaching evaluations can be debilitating. Students are disengaged. Service takes up far more time that people realize, and there’s never enough time for research and reflection. Graduate students should be figuring out what it is they really love about academia, and thinking about other jobs that might let them do those things more. The book So What Are You Going to Do with That? includes some fantastic exercises, ones that helped me realize that the things I love to do and am good at doing–coordinating, facilitating other people’s work and success, communications, writing, mentorship–are key components of all sorts of #alt-ac and #post-ac jobs, including my current one.

8. Think About What You Really Don’t Want to Do

As PhDs, we’re indoctrinated to believe that we should be willing to give up everything for a tenure track job. At some point, I shrugged that indoctrination off and made a list of the things that were more important to me than tenure: I didn’t want to move, wait until I was 40 to have kids, spend most of my life grading papers, spend multiple years as a contract professor, or write things that no one would ever read. For me, those were pretty convincing reasons to give up on the idea of becoming a professor, which requires total mobility, limits reproductive choices, requires far more teaching than research for most people, and mostly values journal and book publications that most people won’t read. The most important thing I had to convince myself of–and that we must tell graduate students, over and over–is that choosing where to live, desiring to have a child without worrying about compromising doctoral work or chances at tenure, refusing precarious employment, are totally legitimate life choices that are okay to voice aloud, despite the tendency of academia to suggest that if you aren’t willing to sacrifice your whole life, even your whole identity, to being an academic, you’re a second-class citizen. It broke my heart, in a good way, to have a whole gaggle of female Queen’s students come up to me after my talk and thank me for saying out loud that my desire to have kids before I was 35 was a factor in my decision making. It is for many people, and that’s something that should be discussed openly.

The other important part of this equation is to get graduate students talking to people they know in academia and outside, and find out from them what their jobs are really like. So long as we perpetuate the belief that academia is the only worthy place of employment, and that a professorship is the only truly fulfulling and engaging job, graduate students will ignore a whole host of career possibilities that might be a much better personal and professional fit.

9. Don’t Conflate Who You Are With What You Do

This is an obvious one, and a hard one to avoid–but if graduate students can avoid the trap of believing that they are academics, and that if they don’t get to continue to be academics they’ll be nothing, they’ll save themselves a horrible and painful identity crisis if the time comes that the professoriate becomes an unobtainable dream. A professorship is just a job. It is not a vocation, or an identity, and graduate students are so much more than the single career option the academy tells them is worthy. 

10. Enjoy the Ride

Getting paid to read for comps. Taking classes totally outside of your area because you can. Auditing things purely for interest. Debating theory over far too much wine. Style-stalking your favourite professor. Choosing conferences based purely on location. These are some of the best parts of grad school, and they should be relished, and they often aren’t because PhDs are too busy conferencing and publishing and professionalizing and shadow-CVing and comparing themselves to all of the other PhDs they know. Yes, those things need to get done (minus the last one) but statistically speaking, the chances of getting to stay in academia on a permanent basis are slim. Enjoy the ride while it lasts.


So, dear readers, what do you think? What advice would you give to current graduate students facing the reality of a terrible academic job market? What advice do you wish you had gotten during your PhD?

running · teaching · writing

Teaching as Coaching

I just finished Week 3 of my running app. I have the settings arranged such that while my music plays in the background, the soothing British electronic lady not only indicates when to shift from running to walking and back again, but also encourages me and gives me tips. So she’s like: “Start your one-and-a-half-minute run now.” But she says more: “You have 45 seconds left! Keep running!” And, crucially, “If you find this run hard, slow your pace a little–remember this run is three times longer than what you were running last week!”

Luxuriating in my five minute cool-down walk heading for home (“Remember to keep your pace brisk! I’ll let you know when it’s time to slow down and stretch your muscles!”) I got to thinking about how easy it is to move from Couch to 5K.

And I got really mad. I got to thinking about how I spent most of my life thinking I had a hidden heart defect or lungs the size of mandarin orange segments that made me incapable running from my house to the corner, let alone in increments longer than televisions commercials. Never mind movie-length runs. Because years and years of elementary and middle and high school pays ed had painfully demonstrated that some people can run and others can’t.  This is how we were taught running in high school gym: here’s a map of the route, and we’ll meet back here in 45 minutes. And then the teacher trotted away, leading the two students who could keep pace with her. Basically, the teacher set a goal, and gave us absolutely no indication of how to meet it.

Don’t we often teach writing a lot like this?

Let’s read a lot of books and discuss them in class. Now go away and come back with an essay. Oh, we’ll teach you some rules, about academic integrity, and topic sentences, and proper citation. But the way that most of us were taught writing there was no: process, strategy, training tips.

Teaching phys ed is probably a lot like teaching English. Most of my phys ed teachers were strong and tan and wiry and fast. They looked like they were born with whistles around their necks. They were naturally really good at tennis or running or basketball. They made it look effortless. It was, for me, completely alienating and mostly served to reinforce the message that I could never do any of those things and it was useless to try.

I teach English. I write every day, and I read constantly. Give me 200 words of text and 30 seconds and I can craft you 400 words of analysis in the critical school of your choice. I speak and write in two languages and as I get older my command of allusions only grows. I make it look effortless. And I can see that, if my teaching style, like my phys ed teachers, is to simply model excellence, it’s quite likely that a lot of my students are demoralized and alienated.

I spent decades on the couch, thoroughly convinced that it was impossible for me to be fit and enjoy it. That I was a loser who would never be able to do it. That’s what phys ed taught me: that I would never be strong. Are there ways that I teach English that convince my own students that they will never be writers? That English is something they’ll never be able to “do”?

If so, it’s a terrible waste. Experts who become teachers risk working in a blind spot big enough for their students to disappear into: we are so good at this, so easily compared to most, that we don’t even know how to coach novices into the practice.

It took me a free app with a recorded British lady doing nothing more than setting 9 weeks of goals and explicit instructions of when to trot and when to walk to get me running, happily. What simple steps can I take to draw my students into writing with as much joy and curiosity as I do?

classrooms · experiential education · grading · reflection · teaching

Reflections After a Semester of Teaching (for the first time)

Yesterday, I finally pushed the big writing project of my semester off my plate. Admittedly, I did it with little aplomb or flourish (in fact, I may be legitimately concerned that it might have landed with something like a splat), I’ve still got 30 final exams to grade, ongoing work with the digital humanities project I work on, and a spring research trip looming. But it feels, at last, that this very busy and taxing semester actually might wrap up. My classes have ended, my final essays (and revisions) are graded, the graduate student event I’ve been coordinating all semester is poised to take flight on Wednesday, and this week I finally have some time in my schedule to do things which I’ve been putting off since the mid-term break.

As I near the point where I can legitimately say I’m not a first-time instructor anymore, I’ve been reflecting, like Erin about the end of this semester, my first semester of teaching. This winter, as I walked into my first-ever classroom as sole instructor of an intro English course, there were several things that I expected and had prepared for, but others that presented unique and unfamiliar challenges. As a result, there are some things that I’m pleased to say went very well, but others that I think I’m going to change going forward.

First, I should say that I am really privileged to have walked into my first-ever classroom with a lot of support behind me. In the first year of my PhD, I took a writing studies course on how to teach writing which helped me feel confident and knowledgeable about how to approach first-year composition. My department also put on a valuable proseminar on how to teach English literature. Finally, and most importantly, I was given a really excellent teaching mentor who was willing to answer basically any question I had, gave me copies of sample assignments, and helped me to assess my assignments and imput my grades. I really don’t think it would have been possible to be a sole-instructor for the first time without this kind of support system, and I think anything I did right was because I had the benefit of these helps.

Anyway, without further ado, here are some of the decisions I made that I’m really happy about:

1) Assigning an obscure text: I put a book on my syllabus that I was not sure would go over well with my students, a late-nineteenth-century feminist utopia, Margaret Dunmore, or a Socialist Home, which is totally not mainstream, but I thought might be an interesting pairing with Dracula. My students found it fascinating, and took it up productively in ways I didn’t expect. In the future, I hope I’ll be less anxious about making decisions to feature texts on my syllabus that are obscure if I find them interesting and/or provoking, even if they are a little off the beaten path.

2) Sequencing Assignments: For every essay, I made my students do a short three or four sentence “Question and Answer” prospectus, which consisted of a question, revised from the essay prompts I provided, and an answer that would form the thesis of their papers. (Taken from John Bean’s really excellent book Engaging Ideas). When I got them back, my first instinct was that it was a terrible mistake, because they were kind of awful. But I was then able to give detailed feedback, explaining to my class again collectively and to each student personally how to write a thesis statement. It made my papers infinitely better than they would have otherwise been. I did this with both of my papers, and for the last final research essay, I also assigned an annotated bibliography which helped make sure they properly assessed the sources for their final essays and understood them in advance of the final assignment.

3) Requiring Drafts, Allowing Revisions: I had a peer review class for each essay assignment in advance of the due date, and required at minimum a detailed outline and intro that my students had to bring to class and read to each other. This meant that students were forced to get thinking early about their assignments, and able to collectively bounce ideas off each other in the classroom space. I also allowed revisions for their papers, but only up to a week after their papers were handed back. Only six students over the course of the semester took up the opportunity to revise their papers, but reading them as though they were drafts, and seeing the potential for improvement, made a big difference in how much I enjoyed marking their assignments. It was also a great pleasure to see how much improvement the students who did take up my offer to revise their assignment were able to make in their writing. I had several students bump up their marks from high C’s/low B’s into the A-range, and it’s great to see how much they learned to clarify/revise their thinking and writing.

Of course, there were also things I did that I did that I’m not terribly pleased with–hopefully these are rookie mistakes that I won’t make again:

1) Overpreparing: I often prepared wayyyy too much material for an hour and twenty minute class: too much groupwork, too long of a lecture, too much knowledge crammed into my head/refreshed the night before. This often caused me to rush through my lectures and not take enough time for class discussion if I had too much to say. This was a big issue in the first half of the semester. Serendipitously, my daughter’s/my frequent illnesses in the last half of the semester meant that I simply couldn’t prepare nearly as much as I had been in the first half, and I cut down my prep from probably 6+ hours for each class to just 2, and was pretty shocked to see how much of an improvement preparing the right amount of material had on my actual classes. I also got a whole lot better at being okay with letting things go if I didn’t get to them. Hopefully this is something I can carry forward to my next teaching experience.

2) Poor Organization of Classroom Time: This one is related to the above, but more specifically related to how much time I took in the space of the class to a) lecture, b) do group work, and c) undertake class discussion. I was not taking enough time for lecturing/class discussion, and giving too much time for group discussion. Fortunately, I did a stop-start-continue (an anonymous assessment from my students suggesting what we should stop, what we should start, and what should continue doing in the classroom space) with my students just a few weeks in, which let me know that I was giving too much time for group work. In response, I cut down group work drastically to between 3-6 minutes, depending on how many questions I was having them discuss.

3) Overassigning: In addition to the two essay assignments and annotated bibliography (and the sequenced assignments therein), I required my students to do 7 weekly reading responses over the course of the semester, which they were required to post on a private course blog. This one is tough because I really really liked the outcomes of this assignment: my students were always very well prepared for class, they had ideas that they were comfortable discussing in groups and as a whole class, and I’m pretty sure this largely followed from the assignment. I also used these blogs to prepare my lecture: I tailored my talks to the themes they picked up on, and was able to correct misreadings and redirect discussion to the things I thought they should note. But the fact is that there were just too many things to mark, even though it was low-stakes writing. I think in the future I’m going to have to cut this down to a maximum of 5, but of course I’m concerned that if I do this, the students themselves will be less prepared.

What are the things you do in the space of your classroom that you’ve found work well? What have you learned as you’ve become more experienced in the classroom space? Do you have any advice for for new instructors that you wished you’d learned before you stepped into the classroom space?

emotional labour · notes from the non-tenured-stream · solidarity

13 – 5

Semesters are short here in Canada. Usually, the winter term clocks in around thirteen weeks if you count reading week. When you think about it that is not a lot of classroom time. This semester I was teaching the lightest load I have ever had: two classes with a total of about fifty students. I also had an independent study course with one honours student which met once a week for two hours. Still, compared to the times I have taught four classes and had a few hundred students this workload was a breeze… Sort of.

The 13-5 that makes up the title reflects the actual time I had with my students this semester. Thirteen weeks minus three weeks on strike, minus another week for a long-scheduled trip, minus a fifth for reading week, which was not cancelled at Mount Allison. Now I’m no math genius, but 13-5= not a whole lot of time. Eight weeks, to be exact. Eight weeks to teach one second year class their required literary periods course (Romantic, Victorian, Modernism, Post-Modernism), and the same eight weeks to teach a third year course on literature by women in English in the 20th and 21st centuries. Throw into the mix some unavoidable mid-semester travel (read: interviews) and that makes for one truncated term.

It’s an unofficial tradition here at Hook & Eye to reflect on the end of the semester, and especially the end of the teaching year. Look back through the archives and you’ll find posts on the post-semester tristesse that engulfs many of us, you’ll see best laid plans for summer research and renewal, and you’ll find that many of us are getting ready for the spate of conferences that come at the end of May. This year I find myself in a reflective mood, and one that is markedly different than previous years. For one thing, I’ve been on strike before. Without going into the particularities of negotiations which are ongoing I can say this: it was much harder than I expected. It was hard because the tensions did rise. It was hard because Sackville is a wee town, and there is no where to escape from something that consumes those affiliated with the university. It was hard because the students were stressed and I care about them. It was hard because my colleagues and I were stressed and standing up for something we felt was vital and necessary (hint: our was not a strike about pay raises, it was a strike over the core values of the academic mission). It was also hard because at the end of the job action–we are still in interest arbitration and will be for months–we all went back into the classrooms and tried to deliver the strongest classes possible.

It was a challenge to regain the momentum, but it wasn’t impossible. In both my classes the students and I made a pact be be kind to one another. This meant I revoked the syllabus to drop some assignments, give them the chance to weigh in on the evaluation process, and everyone got more time to do the work that remained. Translation: I’m usually draconian about deadlines (unless there is a legitimate issue, obviously) and that went out the window. It wasn’t useful for me or the classes to have strict deadlines when the students were cramming ten weeks of class into five. We made a deal to communicate about when things would come in on an individual basis, and we stuck to it. I will be grading until the last days of the month, and that’s fine. The smallness of my classes allowed me to keep tabs on every student’s process, and they, in turn, we’re kind to me when I kept getting confused about deadlines as well. We laughed, and we are getting through it.

My reflections on the semester are these: things happen that are out of your control. Communication and being human with my students really worked for me as a means of managing my stress and expectations as well as theirs. For instance, for the first time I told students I was missing class (and they were having a guest lecture) because I had to go to a campus interview. I needed them to know why I was absent after the huge gap from the strike and reading week. They were understanding, and in turn forthright about their own challenges and constraints. We were able, too, to use the strike and the material conditions of my contract to talk about university governance and structures of labour in the academy. And yes, we did some amazing with with literature as well.

It feels strange to be at the end of another school year. I am as tired, but in different ways. I am as unclear about future work, but again, in different ways. The constant thing is this: I am as grateful for the privilege of being in the front of the classroom as ever. In the midst of grading, or the inevitable student apathy I am reminded of the incredible responsibility and privilege to stand in a room of people and teach and think together. We may have lost five weeks, but I know we got real and important work accomplished.

saving my sanity

I forgot to be nice to myself for a long time, and here’s what happened

Things have been, shall we say, stressful. As someone who scores pretty damn high on the privilege scale, I feel like a jerk for enumerating those stresses because they are totally the problems of the privileged. I have a very busy (full time, salaried, benefits paying, secure) job that costs me plenty of missed downtime and sleep, a major renovation looming (on a home we own in a city we love), a dissertation that demands lots of time and energy (which is part of a PhD I’ll be completing debt free), a couple of side research projects that are ramping up, and a history of sliding into states of (luckily mostly mild) depression, the triggers for which tend to be major stress and the failure to exercise self-care. And as a confirmed perfectionist, I’m very bad at cutting myself slack.

But–first world problems are still problems, especially when they start to become debilitating. And when Saturday came around–a beautiful sunny day that I’d normally give anything to be outside in–and all I wanted to do was curl up on the couch, mainline Friday Night Lights on Netflix, have a little sniffle and feel sorry for myself, I knew something was wrong. After weeks of pushing myself to my limits, my limits pushed back. That this was about to happen shouldn’t have come as a surprise, since Saturday was presaged by a whole bunch of warning signs that I had been ignoring, most of which involved my total failure to practice self-care. Carrots replaced with chocolate? Major lack of exercise? Mindless surfing taking the place of reading? More takeout than cooking? Work upon work upon work? Meditation practice off the rails? Waking up in the middle of the night to obsess about all the things I was doing and all the things that I wasn’t getting done? Incredible difficulty getting out of bed in the morning? Failure to take my vitamins? Checkity check check check. It amazes me how thoroughly I can put my mental and physical health on the back-burner when work and stress come ‘a calling. 
Just as a studies have started to show that frowning may cause depression as much as depression causes frowning, my failure to take care of myself exacerbates stress and depression just as much as stress and depression make me fail to take care of myself. It doesn’t help that we work in a culture that tells us that work should come before everything else. Or that that same culture subtly reinforces the idea that our bodies are just vehicles for our brilliant brains and deserve only as much care as we need to give them to keep functioning. But after Saturday’s meltdown, I realized that I needed to do better. Waiting to treat things once they become problems doesn’t make much sense, and practicing some self-care is the best way for me to prevent something mostly manageable from become major.

So, little by little, I’m trying to regain the practice of self-care that my body and mind forcibly reminded me I need. It’s hard to do when all you want to do, and feel capable of doing, is a whole bunch of nothing. But the more you do, the more you do. I’ve gone for a couple of runs since then, and spent some time in the garden. I’ve cooked dinner almost every night, and started in again on my giant “to read” pile. I’m taking a four day weekend, starting tomorrow, and I’m not going to think about my office job one bit.  And I’m finally celebrating the birthday that largely got lost amidst all the craziness.It helps, too, to know that it’s not just me. Even with all my privilege, I really can’t have it all (can anyone?), although that doesn’t stop me from trying. But I need reminders, like Boyda’s, and Jana’s, and Aimee’s, and Erin’s, and Margrit’s, that there’s more than work and responsibility, and that slacking and self-care are not synonyms.

How about you, dear readers? Have you had a facepalm total self-care failure recently? How’d you turn things around? 

administration · first-name managerialism · grad school · job notes

New Associate Chair Grad Studies: Me

Did I tell you guys I’m going to be the new Associate Chair for Graduate Studies in my department, as of July 1?

It’s a pretty big administrative role for me, and I’m excited, and nervous. I asked to be appointed–and apparently, I’m the first one to ever do so, which I actually found a little surprising. Grad studies questions are near and dear to my heart, as you know, since I’ve written extensively here (as have Heather, and Erin, and Melissa, and Margrit, and Janna, and Boyda) about grad student issues (just look at our keywords in the sidebar, and you’ll see a compendium of writing on the subject–32 posts tagged “grad school”).

I’m pretty proud of the intervention that Hook and Eye has made in the practice of grad studies in Canada. Just this week, I saw our blog name-checked and linked in the excellent and ambitious White Paper on the Future of the PhD in the Humanities, put together by a group of academics under the umbrella of the SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis project on the Future of Graduate Training in the Humanities. The blog was noted for its participation in 21st century practices of open sharing and graduate professionalization. The report is pretty impressive: go get the pdf, right now. I’m hoping that as I take on this new role in grad studies in my department, I can put my money where my mouth has been on this front, in more programmatic ways. It’s exciting, and it’s daunting.

But since this is also a blog about being a professor as much as about being grad students, I thought I’d share some of this position with you, as I figure out how to do it. Like Heather before me, I’m wary about what it means to be an administrator of whatever level and still keep a public blogging platform active. But I think I can do it.

My excellent colleague currently in the position is starting to pass some duties on to me, like some of the planning around graduate orientation in the fall. I think I did about two hours of work on that yesterday, which really got me to thinking: boy, things are really going to change for me at work pretty soon. I’ve been asking for advice far and wide. Some of what I’ve been told is:

  • be careful how much you drink
  • listen, listen, listen
  • don’t try to change everything
  • there are more meetings than you can imagine
  • be kind to administrative staff
  • don’t miss deadlines
  • block of time in your calendar for writing, or you will never write
  • use fewer words
  • put limits on evening and weekend work
  • book vacation time in advance and tell everyone you’ll be gone

I fear the meetings and emails and busywork will spiral out of control. I fear that my plans for making more evident and programmatic the excellence of our programs are going to be too much to get done, but I fear not getting enough done. I’m worried I’ll never write. I’m worried that I’ll make mistakes in discipline cases, or admissions, or conflict situations. I’m worried my insomnia will come back. I’m worried I won’t be good at this. I’m a little more worried that I will be good at this.

That’s the squishy stuff, so far.

Here are some of the pragmatics, if you don’t know them, or, if is likely, it’s different at your institution. It’s a three year term. I’ll get a stipend every year for doing it, in addition to a two course reduction in my teaching load (so I’ll be 1:1). I can change my assessment ratio for my merit review to weight more heavily towards service, so instead of 40 teaching, 40 research, 20 service, I can pitch a proportion of 40 service, 30 teaching, and 30 research, or maybe 40 service, 40 research, and 20 teaching, or even 40 service, 40 teaching, and 20 research. That’s a good option to have, and it reflects how the kind of things I’ll be able to get done will shift during this time.

That chunk of my day yesterday thinking about orientation, and then getting led down a paperwork / policy rabbit hole for a couple of hours has made the impending new position that much more real for me. So it felt like a good time to share it with you.

I’m still collecting advice: have you held this kind of position, or been subject to it? Any words of wisdom or warning for me? I’m listen, listen, listen-ing 🙂


Writing all the time, including on the plane

I’ve been telling my grad students that the number one rule of successful conferencing is: don’t write the paper on the plane. Like writing a term paper in the 12 hours before it’s due, when you write the paper on the plane (or some similar frantic timeframe / inappropriate writing location) all you find when you hit the magic right number of words is when you get that sinking feeling in your stomach that you’ve just hit the point where the paper ought to have started?

Yeah. I hate that.

And yet, in the midst of the overbooked semester from hell, I’ve slated myself to deliver two talks on two different coasts of the US two weekends in a row. On two totally different topics. And both times I’ve started the paper two days in advance of flying away, and both times been interrupted by one kind of work crisis or personal crisis (ask me about the bed bug scare of 2014!) and boarded the airplane with the paper uncompleted.

But both papers turned out awesome. It’s not because I’m any better at magicking up 10 pages of new material. It’s because I don’t have to start from zero.

My paper last week was on humour and the representation of trauma in web comics. When I sat down to start writing it, pretty much after I’d already got my suitcase out of the attic, I already had 4700 words of free-writing and textual analysis notes already available to me. So I cut and pasted in a lot of that, then cut out the stuff that wasn’t relevant to the conference theme, and then rewrote it to sound coherent as a paper, and to give the transitions. Then I made the slides at the hotel. I was really, really happy with what I wound up with.

My paper this week is on selfies. I need about 1700 words, and when I left Waterloo this morning, I had a paper that was 400 words long. It had two paragraphs of text and some headings. But I had, again, three different documents full of notes and close readings: on snapchat, on Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, on Dear Photograph, on Selfies at Funerals. So I’m on a patio in LA, copying and pasting, and just moving into cutting and reframing. I’ll do the slides in the morning once the text is finalized. I’ve been collecting images for months, it’s just a matter of picking which ones and putting them in order.

Ideally, I’d like to arrive with printouts, and not read from my computer. But this has been a hell of a term, and the last couple of weeks haven’t been any better. The whole term, though, craziness be damned, I’ve been reading. And I’ve been writing. Every day. Free writing. Jotting down ideas. Tuesday, my husband and I went out to lunch and we were talking about this upcoming paper, and I stopped and sent myself an email about an idea. I have got in the habit of doing that all the time. It’s paying off.

I’m finding that writing “the real thing” is a lot easier when I have a lot of low stakes or no stakes writing just lying around in my Dropbox. And it’s not just the word count, the cutting and pasting of finished prose. It’s more that I’ve obviously been thinking in a daily and active way about the relevant ideas, so that when I put together the formal presentation, I’m really already quite close to done. I’ve had the ideas I need to have, and figured out how they all relate to one another and to the research, which is the hard part.

The last minute happens to all of us. I’m trying my best to get the formal writing done earlier rather than later, even if I’m not really succeeding this month. In any case, though, my daily low-stakes free writing habit makes all of this so much more rewarding, and my work is much better for it, with way less angst on my part. Even when I have to write the paper on the plane.

I mean, I’ve even got time to write a blog post …