dissertation · grad school · PhD · reflection · research

Research (i.e. Exploring the Unknown)

Over the last week I’ve been rewriting my proposal, which was approved a little less than a year ago. I’m updating it for a fellowship application, and I find that the more I work on it, the more there is to do. It’s almost guaranteed that I won’t receive this very prestigious fellowship, so on the one hand,  this is a massive time-suck that is dragging me away from my second chapter; but on the other, it’s been a hugely valuable exercise in regaining perspective of the whole, strengthening my overall argument, and recognizing how much my project has changed for the better.

The work we do, the papers we write, the talks we give, are living things; or at least they should be. As such we should allow them to shift and evolve over time, speaking to us as we speak to them, engaging us in conversation. I was always told my actual dissertation would not match my proposal, but I was skeptical; my proposal took me about six months to write because my mentor wanted very detailed chapter summaries. Once all that was done, I thought, perhaps, things were set <!– /* Font Definitions */ @font-face {font-family:Cambria; panose-1:2 4 5 3 5 4 6 3 2 4; mso-font-charset:0; mso-generic-font-family:auto; mso-font-pitch:variable; mso-font-signature:3 0 0 0 1 0;} @font-face {font-family:"MS ??"; panose-1:0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0; mso-font-alt:"MS Mincho"; mso-font-charset:128; mso-generic-font-family:auto; mso-font-format:other; mso-font-pitch:variable; mso-font-signature:1 134676480 16 0 131072 0;} /* Style Definitions */ p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal {mso-style-unhide:no; mso-style-qformat:yes; mso-style-parent:""; margin:0in; margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:12.0pt; font-family:Cambria; mso-fareast-font-family:"MS ??"; mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";} .MsoChpDefault {mso-style-type:export-only; mso-default-props:yes; font-size:10.0pt; mso-ansi-font-size:10.0pt; mso-bidi-font-size:10.0pt; mso-fareast-font-family:"MS ??";} @page WordSection1 {size:8.5in 11.0in; margin:1.0in 1.25in 1.0in 1.25in; mso-header-margin:.5in; mso-footer-margin:.5in; mso-paper-source:0;} div.WordSection1 {page:WordSection1;} —more time spent on the proposal means less time on the dissertation, right? Maybe not. In the months following the proposal, as I came to realize how understudied these strange medieval dream interpretation texts are, a small subsection of what was meant to be my Introduction sprouted out into my first chapter. And then, a few months later, one subsection of that chapter suddenly emerged and asserted itself as chapter two. So my first and second chapters originally comprised only one small section of my Introduction. Chapter three was originally going to be chapter one, chapter four was chapter two, chapter five was chapter three, and I had a fourth chapter that no longer exists. Also, if you look at the word chapter for long enough, it becomes really weird.

None of these changes, all of which have strengthened and enriched my project, would have happened if I hadn’t given myself room to explore the unknown, if I hadn’t been patient with myself and approached my material with humility and curiosity even after I had conducted so much research for the proposal. I don’t think I will ever be confident in my understanding of the Middle Ages. But in one paradoxically empowering sense, I don’t think I should be, or I may lose the ability to allow the texts to speak to me, to reach forward and touch me in sometimes startling ways from the vast unknown that is the past. My friend Zach Hines has written a wonderful post * about the slow scholarship movement in academia (which takes its cue from the slow food movement): slow scholarship, he writes, is “about being aware of the ways in which the layers of meaning associated with objects and texts change as we re-curate and re-translate the past for new and different audiences.” It is about observing and listening to what the objects we study say to us at different points in our lives before we form our own opinions, and it is, as one scholar Zach cites puts it, about “unlearn[ing] things thought of as certainties.” It’s about letting our projects grow and evolve as they speak back to us, as they engage us in conversation.

In fact, in my work I argue that this kind of humble, receptive attitude is exactly what the literary dream visions I’m studying demand of me: in Geoffrey Chaucer’s House of Fame, for example, the dreamer (Geffrey), whose narration guides the reader along, travels through the bizarre, kaleidoscopic landscape of his dream with an attitude of wonder and questioning causing some scholars to view him as dense or dull, but I think this attitude overlooks his crucial role as a model for the reader’s own engagement with the text. There’s a reason the first part of my (new, of course) dissertation title is “Immersive Reading.”

This humble and receptive treatment of the past is also how I approach my classroom: I don’t work out a full semester reading syllabus for my Composition course at the beginning, because I believe in feeling out the class and listening for the students’ particular needs, strengths, and weaknesses (but of course I am sure to distribute the reading schedule for each unit well ahead of time).** Near the beginning of the semester, I employ Kenneth Burke’s well-known “parlor” metaphor for life as a touchstone for how we approach texts and in-class discussions. If you are unfamiliar with this metaphor, here’s a selection:

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about….You listen for awhile, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar.

(The Philosophy of Literary Form

While I must say that the other people engaged in conversation do seem a tad rude, and if you continue reading, the metaphor takes a turn for the bleak (“the discussion is interminable”), in my class this metaphor becomes a model for how we engage with the world and the texts around us. For example, when we do peer review workshops of paper drafts, I have the students write out a full summary of the paper they’re reviewing, immersing themselves in the ideas presented to them, before they activate their own critical thinking machinery and ‘put in their oars.’

So I will continue to assume Geffrey’s bewildered but fascinated attitude as I reach toward the past and engage with the present, and I will continue to allow myself and my ideas and projects to evolve organically (I didn’t even really know what I wanted to say when I started writing this! How’s that for meta.). Within a reasonable amount of time, of course, and recognizing that there are certain finite limitations on how drastically one’s work can change. Like, at some point I just need to get this chapter draft sent off.


*I wrote this before Part II came out, which you can find here.
**I’m aware this is a luxury afforded to Comp classes in particular; I doubt I could/should exercise such flexibility with a literature course.

backlash · empowerment · writing

Writing Alone Together

Last week, Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA) launched our third annual Count. I say “we” because though I have had the privilege of working with the organization for two and a half years, this is the first time I have participated in the Count launch as the Chair of the Board. In the month leading up to the Count launch things were very busy. Last week, they were very intense. Emails were flying back and forth, my phone was a-buzz with text messages from Board members and people on the editorial teams. I was working to finish my essay on the risk of writing about and as a woman in a public forum. I zipped around Halifax on my bicycle rushing from task to task–teaching, grading, freelance work, regular life things–feeling a state of exhilaration.

I also felt really alone.

One of the things that I have realized about my own work–and here I mean that work that is in addition to academic work and the work that (doesn’t really) pay the bills–is that it is contradictory. Almost everything I do, from writing with the fine folks at Hook & Eye to chairing the board of a national non-profit with more than four hundred members, is collaborative. It is also incredibly solitary. Take, for instance, the fact that Aimée and I wrote together for this blog for two years before we met in person. Similarly, I have never met a few CWILA Board members in person, though we do meet via Skype on a monthly basis. But this isn’t a post about the ways in which social media and technology isolate us. There are plenty of those around. Technology can be phenomenal, of course. CWILA couldn’t function without access to software that allows the Board to meet despite the fact we are located in Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto, Halifax, and Innsbruck. No, what I was thinking about as we launched the CWILA Count and I looked around for people to celebrate with in person, feels a bit more complicated than simple isolation.

As I watched CWILA’s Count circulate (but not go viral… flagging inequity in a generative way isn’t trendy enough to trend, I guess) I was also watching the Internet unleash wrath against women again. Tanya Tagaq. Emma Watson. Emily Gould. These are all very different women who have experienced disproportionate and public backlash for their taking their own public stances. And that was just in the last few days. What I found myself thinking is this: how does one strike a balance between the hyper-useful publicness of web-based writing and collaboration and the ways in which, when it comes down to it, one is still alone. I don’t mean in the knock-Virginia-Woolf’s-room-and-a-salary alone, I mean something much more pernicious.

Let me try and get at it this way: when Hook & Eye first launched in 2009 we had a monthly column entitled “This Month in Sexism.” It is still one of our most-viewedpages, despite the fact that we had to pull it after only a month. Why? Not for lack of submissions, I can assure you. No, rather we received scads of submissions that began with the caveat “do not publish.” The submissions were coming, but the people sending them in didn’t want them published because they feared being recognized. It seemed to me that what we were providing was a safe space in which to articulate “this happened to me,” but that there wasn’t a safe space to publicly say “this happened. These things are happening.” And that’s one of the thorny problems with microaggressions, isn’t it? It is usually easier to absorb, ignore (is that really possible?), and get on with the work than it is to call out the issue.

Chairing the Board of CWILA and writing with Hook & Eye affords me the forums in which to think about how to usefully address microaggressions against women and other others.  But that thinking can only get activated together.

generational mentorship · guest post · women

Guest Post: Why Dorothy Livesay Matters

To read of other women’s lives, especially in their own voices, is to be given a fuller understanding of ourselves. It is to participate in a community of women writers and readers that generates a different kind of confidence than is permitted to women’s voices in patriarchal culture.

-Joan Coldwell[i]

I am browsing in a bookstore with some friends. One of them pulls a book of poetry from the shelf and tells us about it: “This poet is amazing, but no one talks about her. Dorothy Livesay called her the strongest poet of her generation.” His tone is one of admiration and regret. A man I have just met hears this and scoffs: “Dorothy Livesay.”

I turn sharply. “Did you just scoff at the name Dorothy Livesay?” There is a definite edge to my voice.

He responds with something like: “Dorothy Livesay recommending a poet is like John Travolta naming the year’s best movie.” I have no idea what he means by this, but it is clear he doesn’t consider John Travolta a brilliant cinematic critic. I don’t back down, glaring at him until he expresses surprise that someone would get offended over Dorothy Livesay.

I exit the conversation.

For those not familiar with her, Dorothy Livesay is one of the big names in Canadian poetry. Her writing career spanned seven decades, but she was also a critic, social worker, activist, journalist, teacher, wife, daughter, and mother. I came to her work through Right Hand Left Hand, her documentary/memoir of the 1930s.

The bookstore exchange comes at a time when Livesay and I are at a crossroads. I worked closely on Right Hand Left Hand for a year, and though I deeply admired Livesay, I began to conflate her with all the frustrations and self-doubt of that time. Now, after an eight-month break, I have the chance to continue my work on Livesay–and I am afraid this work will recall my personal stresses. But I am realizing, in this bookstore, how much I care about her. If young male academics can scoff at her name, then obviously its time for a reminder of how much she accomplished

On a more personal level, this confrontation is revealing something about myself. I don’t do confrontation. I don’t challenge strange men in bookstores to explain themselves. But I should; in my daydream revisions of past experiences, I say biting, intelligent things and force the offending person to reconsider. If Livesay inspires me to be that kind of person, then I need her more than she needs me.

Months have past, and I am diving deeper into my work on Right Hand Left Hand. I check out a copy of Livesay’s second book of poetry, Signpost, and when I open it, I gasp. There, on the first page, is a signed note from Livesay to her future husband:

                                                  Duncan Macnair–

                                                  For an outrider–

                                                  this signpost

                                                           Dorothy Livesay October, 1936

Signpost is a book of Livesay’s more lyrical poetry, but by 1936 she was doubting this kind of work. The political and economic realities of the Great Depression demanded, in Livesay’s eyes, a more relevant kind of poetry, exemplified in her 1936 poem “Day and Night.” Livesay had recently moved to Vancouver, where she worked as a social worker and as regional editor of the leftist magazine New Frontier. She was writing poetry about the escalating Spanish Civil War, and articles covering strikes in rural BC and Alberta. The next year, Livesay married Macnair and lost her career in social work–forced out by regulations that prohibited married women from holding jobs.

I have read pages of Livesay’s adolescent diary, seen a picture of her topless, and examined her archives from top to bottom, but this dedication feels different. It feels so intimate, and yet so situated in all these political and cultural contexts. It is a still moment in the life of a woman who was always consciously growing and changing, but it is marked with her past and future endeavours, as if her identity was never stable, even for a few words.

Joan Coldwell’s words strike me to the core. I am beginning to recognize my work on Livesay as work on myself. I am striving to be that kind of dynamic person who cannot be contained–not in a quick note to a new lover, and definitely not in a scoff.

Kaarina Mikalson
University of Alberta

[i] Coldwell, Joan. “Walking the Tightrope With Anne Wilkinson.” Editing Women. Ed. Ann M. Hutchison. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.

#alt-ac · #post-ac · academic work · day in the life · translation · writing

Seeing the Links: Transferring Skills between Work and Research

I do a lot of different things at work, mostly because despite all of the moaning about the explosion of administrators, there really aren’t enough people in our office to go around. It’s also a little because I’m not your average Research Officer. Many of you have probably worked with someone in my role at your university, especially if you’re a faculty member putting in a grant application. The other Research Officers at my university focus mostly on that–helping faculty prepare grant applications and then administering the grants post-award. Because I work with graduate students and not faculty (and there are far more students than there are faculty), I end up being a bit of a jill of all trades. I manage our graduate scholarship competitions, oversee research requiring ethics approval or an intellectual property agreement, coordinate our graduate professional skills program, run research-based competitions (like the Three Minute Thesis), and develop applications for grants and fellowships like the Banting postdoc. My job is often a bit harrying, but it’s endlessly interesting, and it’s always rewarding to feel like I’m useful and valued.

I genuinely enjoy almost all of the parts of my job (some of them in smaller doses than others, like wrangling schedules to get a dozen faculty members in a room to adjudicate scholarships), and I’m good at all of them. But I’ve discovered over the last year that I especially love, and am especially good at, developing fellowship and grant applications. What “development” means changes depending on the application, but it can mean anything from copyediting to substantive editing to writing whole sections of the application (like all of the institutional documents for the Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship). Because I’ve read hundreds upon hundreds of scholarship and grant applications (I have to review every SSHRC, NSERC, and CIHR application that comes through our university, and that’s quite a lot of them with 6, 000 graduate students), I’ve become–almost by osmosis–really good at knowing what a winning application looks like. I’ve become even more fluent in the genre of grant writing than I was as a grad student. I’ve also become good at helping people get past their own lack of fluency in the genre of grant writing, and their inability to translate what they’re doing in their research into words on a page. I love that part of it, because it means that I get to work closely with brilliant people who just need a little help to figure out how to write about their research and its importance in ways that are clear and compelling to other people. And I love it because it means I get to write, and feel confident while I’m doing it. I know what I’m doing, I’m good at it, and I get heaps o’ praise for doing it well.

It’s quite the sea change from my life as an academic writer.

I’ve been writing essays and articles for going on twenty years now. It seems like writing about my own research should feel effortless by this point, given how much practice I’ve had doing it and how well I know the subjects about which I write. Instead, it’s sometimes the complete opposite. Writing about my own research can feel like pulling teeth, while writing about other people’s research just feels fun. It’s much more difficult to get into the flow state while I’m doing writing for myself, and it’s even rarer that I get praised for what I’ve written. Or rather, I should say, it was. I don’t have a lot of time for writing these days, other than snatched moments at 5:30 am, but it tends to go well when I do. It wasn’t until recently that this mental disconnect, between my work writing and my research writing, and the changes that my work writing were inspiring in my research writing, became obvious to me.

It’s clear to me that I’m good at the writing I do at work because of my long experience with academic writing. We don’t talk about it as much as we could, but graduate students are becoming ever more aware of the ways that the skills they develop during their degrees can be transferred into future jobs, in whatever field, just the way mine have done. But why shouldn’t it, and couldn’t it, work the other way around? Despite the fact that my job is, from the perspective of many, a distraction from the academic work that I should be doing, it has worked that way. The non-academic, high-volume, to-deadline, highly communicative writing I do every day at work takes skill, and that skill is transferring into my academic writing. I write faster. I write more clearly. I don’t agonize over word placement and the perfect turn of phrase, because I’ve gotten out of the habit in a work environment where I just don’t have time to. And I’m sure that the confidence in my writing ability I’ve developed at work, bolstered by the positive feedback I get from those I write to and for, has done wonders for my confidence as an academic writer.

The idea of the shadow C.V., of taking on outside work before or during the PhD to gain some breadth of work experience in anticipation of looking for non-academic employment, has been around for awhile. But the major criticism of doing this other work is that it takes students away from their degrees, forces them to do multiple things instead of the one thing that they should be doing. It also insinuates, as does most rhetoric about hobbies and non-academic work in academe, that doing anything other than pure academic work will make you a bad academic. I don’t disagree that time is certainly an issue there, as it is for me in trying to finish a dissertation with a full time job. But just as I’m increasingly wary about the artificial divide between academic, alt-ac and post-ac jobs (isn’t a job just a job?), I’m also increasingly wary about the idea of non-academic work only being useful in non-academic contexts, and I’m calling foul on the idea of non-academic work making people lesser scholars. Just as the skills and expertise I developed in grad school got me my job and made me good at it, the skills and expertise I’m developing as a Research Officer are making me better at my research. Which is as it should be, no? So can we stop disparaging academics who have interests or do work outside of academe, stop denigrating non-academic work as a distraction from (or to the detriment of) “pure” academic work? Skills are skills, inside or outside of the academy, and honing them one place only sharpens them for use in the other. I’m only surprised that it took me so long to figure out that the river runs both ways.
ideas for change · pedagogy · slow academy · yoga

What the doctorate can learn from yoga teacher training

This weekend, I did so many down dogs for so long that today I can hardly lift my arms parallel to the floor and draw them to touch in front of my body. It was a yoga teacher training (YTT) weekend. It strikes me that YTT is both very much like, and very much unlike, the doctorate.

Many people join yoga teacher training programs for the same reason they start doctorates: they are skilled and enthusiastic students of the discipline in question, and want to “go deeper” or “take the next step.” They may admire their primary teachers and start to imagine what life at the front of the room might be like.

But the academy and the kula diverge at the point of advanced study. In my doctorate, I received a lot of training in how to be an even better student of my discipline: how to do advanced research, how to gain field coverage, what books to read and buy. And this is true of my YTT as well: my physical asana study has gained a new intensity and depth. However, in my YTT, I’m receiving explicit and sustained instruction in how to be a yoga teacher, and a yoga professional. I didn’t get either of those things, or in nearly such depth, in my doctorate.

For example, in my YTT, we learn what kind of language is most effective for helping beginners move their bodies into the shapes we want. How to modulate our voices to create a rhythm in class, how to use enthusiasm to create energy. How to create a safe and effective sequence and lesson plan. What it means to ask students to look at our bodies, about sexualization and transference and asking someone you trust to tell you if your pants are see through. How studios operate, how to market ourselves and get work as teachers, what the going rates are. What techniques can help students with injured bodies, with round bodies, with aged or otherwise non-normative bodies.

Here in the academy, we talk a lot, currently, about ‘professionalization’ of the PhD–by this we seem to mean, “teaching students skills they can use in jobs that are not professor jobs.” This implies that the doctorate is already teaching students the skills of being a professor, and professionalization means everything-but-professor training. But we’re not training people to be professors now, nor have we ever, really. Because as far as I can tell, the doctorate is just an advanced-practice workshop of studentship. Are we incorporating pedagogy training into the core of the degree? Training students how to craft a successful article submission, conference presentation, or job letter? Offering strategies for teaching non-majors, or non-native language speakers, or non-traditional students, or service courses? Outlining the political skills of grantsmanship, or curricular overhaul, or program review?

Mostly, no.

My YTT has advanced practice and pedagogy and ethics and business and see-through-pants-ness woven through it to tightly that there’s no real boundary between something purely “professional” and something purely, well, “pure.” Professionalization is still a dirty word, though, in the academy, and the boundary between the pure pursuits of studentship and the more prosaic or workaday labour or skills or economic aspects is rigidly, emphatically, sometimes even self-righteously enforced. We might ask ourselves why.

academic work · advice · grad school · PhD

On Finding a PhD Supervisor

I picked my PhD supervisor when I was eight weeks pregnant, so ill and nauseated that I had to schedule all my meetings in the late afternoon (the time my so-called “morning sickness” had abated just enough that I could make it out of the house without guaranteeing that I’d vomit in public). I was sick, I was exhausted from the anti-nausea pills, I was completing coursework, and at the same time trying to figure out the next step in my PhD program.

You might think this was a bad place to be in terms of choosing a supervisor, but for me, the very reverse was the case. Being ill and inflexible had the glorious effect of making me focus only on the most important things while settling on a supervisor. Was s/he a good match for what would be my complicated schedule, particularly as I prepared for my candidacy? Would I be supported as I moved through the program, juggling my various professional and personal responsibilities? Did the way we both work match up?

Much of the literature on finding a PhD supervisor centres on other questions: questions of research interest and subject areas, and expertise in your field of choice. The advice often references those “star” researchers with international reputations who are constantly publishing and have an excellent reputation in their field. While these types of supervisors can indeed be excellent advisors, professors with strong research profiles do not by default make good advisors. In fact, the most important criteria for choosing your supervisor should not be the “star” criteria, but instead should focus on issues of compatibility. With that in mind, here are some tips for choosing a supervisor in your graduate degree:

1) Ensure your supervisor is interested in / has a strong investment in your work. Having a supervisor in your field is certainly a good idea, but sometimes you may find that for whatever reason–the interdisciplinarity of your work, your preferences in terms of work, their inflexible schedule, etc.–you need to choose someone slightly outside of your field. This can work swimmingly. Choose someone directly in your field to be your second or third reader on your committee, and your external examiner. Simply be sure that your supervisor thinks the work you are doing is valuable, insightful, and important, and can comment on it in critical and creative ways.

2) Know your work pattern, and try to match it with your supervisor’s. I knew that I wanted a relatively hands-on supervisor who would read and comment on my draft work, could meet regularly, and would allow me to talk through some of my ideas while they were in process. One of my good friends, in contrast, wanted a hands-off supervisor who would allow her to submit completed chapters only, with little contact (pressure! she said) in between. These are two extremes, but they illustrate my point: figure out how you work, what you’d like or need in terms of a supervisor, and choose one who will complement and enhance your own work patterns. This can make a huge difference in terms of how you progress through the program.

3) Do your homework. Set up a meeting to talk to your potential supervisor about how they work, your own project, and if they would be interested in pursuing a supervisorial relationship. Did the meeting go well? Great! Do more follow-up. Ask around. Talk to other students that professor has had: Will s/he read and comment on your work in a reasonably, timely fashion? Does the student feel energized/encouraged by working with him/her? Does the supervisor have a good record of showing students through to completion? Of students who have found good jobs (in or outside academia, whatever your preference might be)? Take the time to ask former students and current ones about their supervisorial relationships, and then take more time to think about it. No need to rush the process, just do it thoroughly.

4) Try to find an advocate. The very best supervisors are those who are not only committed to your work and project but who also will have your back as you navigate the complicated and onerous bureaucracy of the university. I’ve been lucky to have a supervisor who has at least on two occasion written letters or attended meetings in order to represent my interests. You might not think this is important, but when you run up against what can be a dehumanizing and rigid system, you will be inestimably grateful that your supervisor can help you pierce through it.

emotional labour · empowerment · fast feminism · writing

Shifting Gears: Tips on Writing in Public

Wasn’t it Farley Mowat who said “if someone tells you writing is easy, they are either lying or I hate them”?* 

Well, it is certainly true in my experience. Writing is always hard for me, no matter the genre. Indeed, when Hook & Eye started back in 2009 I had never written a blog post before in my life. The most public writing I had done was in the genre of the book review. Sure, I had many conference presentations under my belt, but there is something very different about an oral and embodied presentation of a paper. When there’s no body there one must rely on the words on the page to get the point across, for better or for worse. 

What I did not realize initially is that writing a blog required shifting gears from the academic writing that, while terrifically challenging, was the genre in which I was most comfortable. That isn’t to say that my academic writing was stellar! You should see my first drafts. I am not one of those people who is able to draft an outline and follow it. I think as I am writing and that means that the first draft results are messy, scattered, and disorganized. No, writing academic essays and articles is always a challenge, but it is a process I have become familiar with. After several years of practice I am becoming more comfortable with the blog as form. Sometimes, my blog posts break a few of the loose rules around the genre: they are too long, too introspective, and periodically they forget their audience. Every now and then they get me into trouble. But, for the most part, I have become familiar with this form, and I don’t find it as terrifically intimidating as I once did. 

The differences between writing blogs and writing academic texts–books, articles, even reviews–aren’t that great. Save for the turnaround time of publishing a blog post you still have to think about who you’re writing for, and why you’re writing. You need to know your field and have something insightful and unique to say. 

So why, when I started drafting my essay introducing the launch of the 2013 Count data collected by Canadian Women In the Literary Arts, did I stare at my computer screen in horror? After all, as an essay that will be published on the Internet it is basically a blog post, right? And I’m familiar with that genre, right? Wrong. Partly, my horror came from the challenge of again shifting gears into new genre. Partly, it came from the realization that I was writing in public for an organization, not solely in my own voice for myself.

If you’ve not heard of the organization before, CWILA (say kwhy-la) is a national non-profit organization that strives to promote and foster equity and equality of representation in the Canadian literary community by tracking statistics on gender representation in reviewing, bringing relevant issues of gender, race, and sexuality into our national literary conversation, and creating a network that supports the active careers of female writers, critics, and their literary communities. CWILA is an organization that constellates primarily on the Internet through our website. The launch, which begins on Thursday September 25, will be my first as Chair of the Board. As I’ve said, I’m plenty used to writing posts that exist solely on the Internet, so it surprised me that I was having so much trouble with this essay. Writing is hard. Writing for an immediate audience can be anxiety inducing (it can also be thrilling and fulfilling). Learning to shift tones is crucial.

Here’s an example of what I mean. This was my first-draft paragraph:

In her 1977 publication L’Amér Nicole Brossard wrote “écrire: je suis un femme est plein de consequences.” This has been translated by Barbara Godard in the English edition as “To write: I am a woman is full of consequence” (45). Writing, women, consequences. These three things seem to be at the core of CWILA’s mandate. Let me think here with you about what I mean. The “W” at the heart of the organization is always a contested space. In other words, to write “woman” is to take a risk, because in a hegemonic and patriarchal culture the term—never mind the subject position—is always already outside. Look at Brossard’s sentence. While it is tempting to read it without the colon (to write I am a woman is full of consequences) the punctuation is a gatekeeper. Granted, the colon keeps the gate grammatically ajar, inviting the reader forward into fact. With a simple act of punctuation Brossard has shifted the category of “woman” into direct relation with the work of writing. Writing is full of consequences, gendered categories are full of consequences, and writing about marginalized genders is full of consequence. And yet, the gate is ajar.


If this was an academic essay, or, maybe, a short meditative post for Hook & Eye, this would be a decent starting point. But it isn’t for the CWILA essay. This essay is meant to introduce CWILA’s 2013 data to a diverse reading audience. I’ve missed the mark here by half a mile, because I have fallen into the familiar academic terminology. “Hegemony,” “patriarchal culture,” the length (12 lines and no mention of the new data!), my assumption that the readers know and are familiar with CWILA and its projects, all of these tell me I’ve forgotten my audience. And forgetting your audience means losing readers. 

Writing in public requires translation. Just as writing a good conference paper requires translating complex syntactical maneuvering into something that your audience can listen to and follow, writing for public requires shifting your style. Here are some tips for translating your academic writing into writing in public:

1) Find your voice. This is the hardest part, for me. Maybe it is a throwback from the graduate student/dissertation days of demonstrating that I know the conversations in the field. I’m not sure. In any case, finding your voice immediately is crucial for writing in general and writing in public in particular. 

2) Ask a friend for help. This is at least as important as #1. Indeed, I only recognized that my intro paragraph (above) wasn’t working when I mustered up my courage and asked a friend to read my very rough draft. Thanks LM!! She put in several hours editing and commenting, and now the essay is not only better for her work, it is also the product of real feminist mentorship and collaboration. Moral of the story? Sharing your work at an early stage can make it stronger sooner. 

3) Give it time. Learning a new language is extraordinarily time consuming. While shifting your writing genres may not be exactly like learning a new language, there are some striking similarities. It is hard. It takes more time that you think it should. You can actually track your progress. 

4) Develop your audience. Writing in public is more conversational that writing for an academic readership. Do you agree or disagree? That comment box is just below this post.

5) Share what you know. I remember having discussions in grad school that focused on intellectual property (aka ‘stealing ideas’). Concern around intellectual property–especially as a student or early career or contract academic faculty member can range from the paranoid to the absolutely and completely valid. It makes sense, right? Interviews, grant applications, landing the job; all that stuff is often predicated on your solitary brilliance. Sure, that notion is shifting thanks in part to feminist theorizations and practices of collaboration, as well as the path breaking work done in some digital humanities projects. But it can still be scary to go public with half-formed ideas. I say, do it. Share what you know in public. Ask the questions about your ideas in public. Crowd-source. Build allies and communities of thinking. Learn to revise on the fly. Learn to defend or restate your ideas…in public. Try it, it can be pretty fantastic.

6) Sometimes it sucks. Like, really sucks. Even though you’re unlikely (I hope) to have experienced the unmerited and violent backlash that Zoe Quinn experienced, writing in public is always risky. You risk no one reading what you write, you risk everyone reading it and hating it, and you risk the wrath (or mean-spirited violence) of the comment box. Working on steps 1-4 help with this, but it doesn’t make it hurt less. That’s when you turn to your audience, to your knowledge, to your friends and colleagues. And, after you’ve processed what happens, you open up an new post and write again.  

*Actually, Farley Mowat says “he is either lying, or i hate him,” but, you know, feminist blog.

Stop selling it!

This spring, I took a professional development course to become a Certified Program Planner. The course was geared towards people organizing and running continuing education programs, but it resonated with me on many octaves, from cringing when the instructor would call participants “clients” to explaining how to retain a rolodex of available instructors, ready to teach a course at the ring of phone or the chink of an incoming email, even as late as two days before the course was slated to start. There is one thing that stayed with me, and which I’m trying to be mindful of: in adult education, motivation for learning comes from the student.

OK, you can roll your eyes now, if you so wish. Laugh at me for being ignorant or naive or gullible. It might be a great illustration of what Erin was saying on Monday about how “No part of my formal training as a literary scholar taught me how to write lectures, or to teach for that matter.” In fact, I did have a 1-week training, which was quite effective at equipping me with the basics of teaching first-year English classes, but no one-week, no matter how well thought-out or hands-on can go into the intricacies and philosophies and context and theories of adult education. So that little nugget about motivation has been haunting me for a few reasons.

One, because “performing the service function” as teaching first-year English was known at my university, means the 3 or 6 credits of the 100-level English courses are compulsory for all the students. And, man, do they ever let us know how forced they feel. How obligated, their very life drained out by the act of stepping into the English classroom. How blasé this first-year sentence undeservedly placed upon their otherwise august heads. So what did I do? Worked hard at showing student just how awesome English can be, just how cool it is to critically think through all the stuff you encounter in life, from that newest despicably sexist/racist/homophobic song on all the charts and on everyone’s lips to the more sedate “measure out my life in coffee spoons.” I sold English like my life depended on it. 

Two, because, let’s face it, first-year–more specifically first-semester–postsecondary students are not quite “adult learners,” yet. In fact, a huge amount of time and energy is spent in my class showing what that is, and how it entails taking responsibility for your own learning, while also periodically pointing them to all the support services that are there to ensure they can thrive at this higher education game. There’s a big shift from fall courses to winter courses, with an accompanying decrease in that emotional labour, too.

This new academic year, I’m trying to live more by the edict that even first-semester students are and should act more like adult learners. I’m selling less, if at all. I cannot help my enthusiasm at teaching critical thinking, reading, literature, etc.–indeed, enthusiasm is what still keeps me going in the classroom–but I’ve stopped selling, because participants in my classes are not my clients. Motivation comes from the adult learner. That’s my new mantra

generational mentorship · guest post · learning

Guest post: On not being the expert;

or what I learn from my teenage son;
or where I never expected to find myself over the past few summers

I have been giving a lot of thought lately about the idea of being an expert, partly due to my stage of professional life.  I just recently completed the tenure and promotion process successfully (an experience that is likely worth another blog post).  While it took about 6 months from when I submitted my dossier until the final decision point, the whole process was more than a decade in the making.  This time was spent building and demonstrating expertise and having it recognized by others.  And at the same time, I did not necessarily explore and learn new things; after all, that would take me away from becoming an expert and getting tenure and promotion.

But what happens when you open yourself to a new knowledge area, even in your personal life?  What might it mean for teaching, research and other professional activities?  How can you handle some of the anxiety that comes from not knowing while embracing the potential that comes with that very situation?  Good questions all around.

And thus began a journey into heavy metal music, perhaps the not most obvious starting point to exploring these questions. 

First, as bit of background, as a family, we have always worked to be supportive of each other’s interests, including musical ones.  For our son, that interest is heavy metal with all its different styles.  (Did you know that there are about 24 different genres of heavy metal, each very distinct? Who knew? See here for more info.)  Given the variety, much of it having changed since I was a teen, I quickly realized that more learning was needed to understand, if not appreciate, the music and the associated culture.

And so, I turned to reference material (I am an academic after all.)  I read books, such as Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal by Ian Christie.  I watched documentaries, such as Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey by University of Victoria alumni Sam Dunn.  And I even took a course on metal through continuing education.  (I did say I was an academic.)  These were useful for the “theory” of the music but did not really help me understand or fully engage with it.  What was left was full immersion and so off to several metal festivals we went.  (It was easy to spot me in the crowd – the middle age Canadian mom with no tattoos.)

For the past two years, we have gone to the holy land of metal: Wacken Open Air  for the full immersion experience with music, camping, beer, dust and much more.   
(We also added Graspop Metal Meeting, this year.) 

These were much more enjoyable than I thought they would be.  Some of the music has even “grown” on me and now occupies space on my playlist.  Proudly, I can now identify the artist/band correctly about 10% of the time, up from 0 at the outset.

So what have I learned through this?  First, while it is humbling and often embarrassing not to be an expert, it is also quite exhilarating, freeing and perhaps even a bit of fun.  You are able to ask (lots) questions without feeling like you have to already know the answer.  Second, by reversing the roles of teacher-learner, just about anyone becomes your teacher, especially those who we often spend the most time teaching, our children.  It also opens the possibility of new conversations as my son and I now discuss which metal band has the best stage presence, something I never thought I would have with anyone.  (My vote is split between Alice Cooper, Rammstein, and Alestorm.)   

Alice Cooper





Third, it has been very useful to remember what our students face each term and the ways that I as instructor can respond to their questions and anxiety while fostering their desire to learn more.  (And here is the big thanks to my son who is always patient in answering my often ill-informed and repetitive questions as I struggle to identify music, bands, etc.)  Fourth, there is nothing like the “field school”/immersion to fully explore a topic.  Books, movies and other resources can only take you so far until you have to experience something to appreciate it.  And finally, it is okay to never become an expert in a field.  It is possible to learn just enough to appreciate a topic and enjoy the ride.  And with my trusty camera in hand, we are off Wacken for a third time next year.

If you are interested in more photos from Wacken, Graspop and other music festivals, see my blog.  I also got a photo credit from the Globe and Mail for one of my pictures from Wacken.  See the banner picture here.

Lynne Siemens 
University of Victoria
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change · enter the confessional · first-name managerialism

Listening, or something I’m learning to do

I’m an extravert: I gain energy from being around people, and normally that means talking. I love writing blog posts because it has a real audience, real “someones” that my words will reach. When I get stuck in a bog of conflicting research sources, I collar someone and explain my problem to them, as a way out. Or I write a pretend email to a Good Listener. When my ideas are at a tipping point, but not quite tipped, I cancel my evening 30 Rock episode on the couch with my husband and make him listen to me explain how I’m almost almost there and sometimes that will tip me over. I think out loud at meetings–that is, by talking–as though the process of putting things into sentences turns nothingness into plans.

I’m a talker. It’s how I learn. It’s how I generate ideas. It’s how I formulate and consolidate plans.

You know what, historically, I’m not super good at? Listening. I’m working on it.

I like to tell myself that I’m an “active listener”–I’m interrupting you to show how interested I am! I’m restating what you said so you’ll know I hear you! I’m grabbing the kernel of what you just said and moving it forward to the next idea, or the solution, or the resolution. I like to tell myself all those things, but really, it’s all just rationalization for my talking habit.

In my new grad chair role, my listening deficits must be addressed. I’m meeting with a lot of graduate students, to discuss the particularities of their projects and degree progress. I’m meeting with professors to talk about any and all issues related to our grad programs, and other things. I’m meeting with our departmental staff to learn how things work; I’m meeting with other grad chairs to find out what they do. This has required a tremendous amount not just of shutting up (which, honestly, I’m really not good at, I know) but also listening, really listening.

Shutting up is staying silent and letting other people have the floor. Brute force lip clamping can achieve this. But listening is something different, harder, more profound. Listening, I find, means being radically open to the possibility that what someone else is saying might just shift everything. These conversations are not a scene from a play, where once I hear my cue I know what I’m going to say next. These conversations should be radically interactive: that is to say, they ought to be engaged with as though they will produce unknown outcomes. Listening entails a tacit acknowledgment of a pretty fundamental kind of “I don’t know.”

Really listening, that is, is an act of humility and vulnerability, when in my heart of hearts I prefer to be invincible and always right–a benevolent dictator who has all the right ideas, already. When I’m really listening, it’s ontologically as well as practically terrifying: who will I be if I learn something new in the next 30 second? Who knows what might happen next? I might have to change what I think, change what I do. Admit that I didn’t know something and just learned it right now.

I had a meeting this week where I made a conscious effort to listen. It was hard, but it was incredibly rewarding. I let the other person talk until she went silent on her own. I thought about what she said. And then I had to reframe what I thought I knew, and change my mind about something I was pretty confident about. And then it kept happening, with each conversational turn! Wow.

It’s easier to already know all the right answers, even if they’re just the “right answers,” for me at least. Easier to craft diatribes and pronouncements with pauses to allow for murmurs of approval and applause. Much harder to not know, to make mistakes, to ask for actual advice–and then to take it–rather than a rubber stamp on a course of action already decided on.

Listening. I’m going to keep practicing. It’s humbling and it’s difficult, but I’m really learning things. I think this might be good.