grading

How to grade better

Hello, week 4 of term! Have you adjusted yet? Well then, just in time for the deluge of marking, no? You might  remember I was teaching five courses last term, and while this term I’m only teaching 3, they’re all new to me, so between the prep and the marking, I strive to be as efficient as possible. So, I thought I’d make a list of things that help me streamline this arguably least enjoyed activity in the teaching panoply. So today I’m outlining *my* recipe for setting up assignments and grading them effectively without either the grader or the students feeling like pulling their hair off. This list comes as a crowd-sourced result of my blog posts and conversations on- and off-line through the years (go and read Heather’s comments here for example). The truth of why I personally am not fond of grading is that I don’t actually believe putting a number or a letter on an assignment is good pedagogy, or that it serves any learning outcome properly. However, since we have to do it this way–and as contract faculty, I have little traction in changing my post-secondary institution’s demand for the numbers and letters– there are ways to make the process more transparent for the students, less anxiety-inducing for students, and thus more effective in achieving our pedagogical aims. Here goes:

Source

Setting up appropriate assignments:

1. Look up models, but adapt them to your class syllabus:
One of the things I find most pressure-laden is coming up with essay questions that are smart, generous in the possibilities, but not outlandish. What do I mean by those modifiers? “Smart” means providing compelling avenues for investigation, that students will actually appreciate and possibly even enjoy. With “generous,” I aim that students be able to take them up in various ways. For example, if we’re talking about a literature course, that the questions be potentially tackled theoretically, historically, thematically, etc. Finally, “not outlandish” means putting some limits on the generosity, and also that we would have touched on this or a similar issue in class discussions, that it not be completely and utterly new to students.

2. Think of your pedagogical aims, and don’t be afraid to share them with the students:

Source

Many post-secondary institutions or departments now mandate or provide suggestions for which learning outcomes/objectives (LOs) each assignment should address. Make sure these LOs are aligned with your pedagogy, or that you have given thought to your own. What is this this particular assignment wants to achieve primarily? Is this essay meant to familiarize students with proper paragraph structure, or is incorporating research your primary goal? Spell out a few of these aims, write them down in the assignment outline, and explain them to your students. That way, you will be able to adjust your focus (trying to do too much all at once?), and make it clear to students.

Grading better:

3. Have a detailed rubric:
This point follows the previous point; if you have a very clear idea of the 2-3 LOs this assignment means to accomplish, then you can break them down into their components, and assign points to every (sub-)category to reflect your pedagogical aims, and reward effort accordingly and proportionately. This breakdown might seem onerous in the beginning, but it serves to both cut down on grading time considerably, make it more objective, and more transparent to students who tend to think grading in English is totally wishy-washy.
Most departments will have developed a rubric for various assignments, especially for the Intro courses, so take it, adapt, and make it work for you.

4. Set a time limit on grading each paper:
This one falls in the “easier said than done” category for me, but I did find that using a rubric helps a lot, and so does:

5. Grade electronically:
The only reason I survived teaching 5 writing-intensive (think 7 assignments each times 150 students) courses is because I used the institution’s electronic LMS (learning management system) for all assignment submissions and grading. In the past, when teaching literature courses, I used to ask students submit them by email, and it still worked so much better than paper. With paper, I’m just too used to edit, so I would just proofread the papers, compulsively marking every comma, misspelling, or disagreement. Using the electronic format, here’s what happened:

6. Restrain your comments:
When it comes to intro courses, new post-secondary students (first-semester especially) are not that well versed in parsing our well-honed academese. Therefore, the rich prose comments, which we pore over for 10 minutes to ensure we’re using the perfect word to express the problem, while also not discouraging the student, might be impenetrable to them. Having a clear rubric (tabulated or bullet-pointed) might communicate your message better.

7. Be selective:
Yes, there are very good reasons why an assignment has received only 60%, but putting them *all* down at the end of the paper might not be the best way to go. Try to focus your final recommendations on two or three that the student might actually look up more in-depth and improve on.

That’s all I got in my bag of tricks for today, but please do add your own in the comments. Here’s an incentive: imagine your Facebook timeline with all the grade-bitching that usually populates it mid-term.

guest post

Guest Post: Interdisciplined

I’m in my 4th year of my PhD (time flies, they say…yes, it does) and although I’ve managed to successfully finish all the steps needed to get to the actual writing of the thesis (the first step being an imposed propedeutic because I committed an academic faux-pas, in conventional circles, and decided to switch from international political theory to sociolinguistics…oh and that also meant moving from Paris to Moncton. Yes, I know…what the hell was I thinking? Well, even Paris gets boring when one isn’t working on something that is passionate to them.
So, I changed cities, countries and disciplines.
The crossing of disciplinary boundaries wasn’t that new to me. I had always been a very interdisciplinary scholar, but slowly it became clear that I wasn’t in the same academic world anymore. In my program, there were less men and more women. Some women wore dresses, put makeup and did their hair. That was refreshing to me. I had been struggling with my performance of femininity for years in my political science circles in Europe and in Canada. I wore a lot of blazers and spoke with a frown. Yes, a frown. To seem more serious because when one speaks about international ethics and conflicts, bubbly personalities aren’t celebrated. I worked on ‘serious’ thinkers such as Giorgio Agamben and I didn’t want to hear about a feminist framework just because I was a woman.
I wanted to be a ‘serious scholar’ and working on feminist issues seemed too obvious, so I trailed away from it. And working on acadian identity also seemed too obvious, so I resisted it.
But here I was, in Moncton, as a woman and an acadian. I didn’t speak about political theory as much, which meant I also frowned less. I started wearing more dresses and less blazers. And all of a sudden, I found myself working on gender and language. And loving it. But it took some time and a lot of adjusting. And even if my crossing disciplines worked out for me, intellectually, I am still in an identity crisis, only this time it’s an academic identity crisis.
Where do I fit in? It has taken a lot of different academic experiences for me to come to terms with my own gender and intellectual ideologies. All I know now is that I want to discuss ideas around gender ideology, performing identity through language and the power dynamics involved.
That means I’m not considered a ‘conventional’ sociolinguist, nor a ‘conventional’ political theorist. And does anyone know what either one of those even looks like? I don’t feel like
I fit perfectly into any one of those fields, yet I also feel like I could contribute to both.
So, I am writing a thesis and I am taking it one step at a time. There is so much pressure to conform and produce knowledge in an already established disciplinary framework, at least at my university there is, and I don’t think that’s how ideas should be analyzed. I think intellectual curiosity is important. I mean, isn’t that how we get creative? By challenging ourselves and confronting ourselves to ‘otherness’ even when it comes in the ways of interdisciplinary research? I am an interdisciplinary scholar and I find it bizarre that I was ever expected to marry into a discipline like it was to be my one and only forever. I never married a discipline so why should I then be expected to divorce from one?  I refuse to settle for an already existing way of being when I prefer to create my own academic process, which is ever evolving (isn’t that what research is about? Innovating and contributing originality?).
 Many don’t see the coherence between my academic past and my academic present, but I do. Or rather, I find the lack of apparent coherence an invitation to go beyond existing structures. I find my background in political theory really enriches my analysis of gender and language and I find my work in sociolinguistics gives me an interesting perspective into political theory. So…here I am. I went from a closeted political theory feminist to an engaged sociolinguistic one and by crossing disciplines I didn’t abandon one for the other, rather I got creative with my work through my existing knowledge.
I wish there were more discussions in my academic setting around what interdisciplinary means to different people. I also wish we would discuss the importance of process. As Beauvoir brilliantly pointed out, I wasn’t as much born a woman, as I ‘became’ one. Beauvoir put the emphasis on the ‘process’, the ‘construction’ and thus problematized any sense of essentialization one could try to make out of the term ‘woman’.  I wasn’t born an academic, and my becoming one is a process that cannot be defined or essentialized into pre-existing categories about what that should mean.
But as most of us already know, just because identities are constructions and processes with no real ‘aboutissement’, that doesn’t mean we aren’t confronted to normative discourses that threaten our sense of legitimacy in any “authentic” field. The more I travel, the more I expand my knowledge, the more convinced I am that the only way to go forward in an academic setting is to break free from existing moulds. The world is ever changing and the circulation of people and ideas also means we need to be more flexible in how we construct knowledge. In my perspective, universities should be spaces that encourage social change and creativity, not reproduction of norms. Idealist as it may sound, I think universities should produce independent thinkers, the kind who challenge existing structures. And scholars should see the notion of ‘interdisciplinary’ not as a collaborative efforts to exchange with colleagues, but more as a theoretical position that seeks to deconstruct the very fiction that boundaries exist. 


Isabelle LeBlanc is a PhD Candidate in the Department of French Studies, Université de Moncton and Elected Graduate Representative – Association for Feminist Anthropology. Her dissertation examines ideological dynamics between gender and language in the Acadian community.

academic work · best laid plans · empowerment · ideas for change · modest proposal · organization · saving my sanity

Drop in, tune out

Here’s an experiment I’m undertaking this term: I hold four hours of in-person office hours every week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 2-4, and I encourage any student that needs anything from me to come by during those hours. If they’re out of town, they can call. At the same time, I’m also telling them: please think twice before emailing me. I’m overwhelmed with tiny tasks ping-ping-ping and I think you can solve most of them on your own, if you just spend five minutes looking it up instead of 30 seconds emailing me so that I can look it up for you. If you want me to solve your tiny problems, I say, come to my office hours and I will totally solve whatever you bring to me. But you might have to wait in line.

Some people keep emailing. I redirect them to my office hours. People are now coming to my office hours.

My office hours are the biggest party in my hallway all week. Students are sometimes lined up four or five deep. Some of them, I can hear calculating: could I fix my own problem faster than standing in line? Or, Wow, Professor Morrison sure has to help a lot of people. Or once they come see me: OH! I feel so much better now / I understand what’s happening / I know what book to read / Thanks for your help.

So far, I’m calling the experiment a success. I’m getting less email now, AND, I’m solving more problems for students, more quickly. I’m trying to really devote some Grad Chair time to direct student concerns, but without having it take over my entire life, which it was threatening to do before. Now that time is intense, but it is limited. I’m also, I discover, not super awesome with email. I have trouble triaging what comes in and I forget about stuff that slips below the fold, as it were. When I did my year end review with my chair, and had to identify my own strengths and weaknesses, I brought up the email thing before he did: I often drop the ball and while I keep working on my game, I’m not really getting that much better at it.

In my defense, I often receive malformed or misdirected queries: students ask me ambiguously worded questions without indicating some key salient piece of information, like that they’re part time students, or that they are paying international fees of something. These details are fast and easy to sort out in person. And there’s nothing wrong in students learning that there are 135 of them that I’m helping and maybe it might not be instant: the open door and the lineups make visible the advising labour in ways that help keep everyone’s expectations in check.

I might still fiddle the parameters. I might have a few more drop in hours, but I like limiting them to a couple of days of the week, to give me some flexibility to schedule the other work that I need to do, and not be on campus 35 hours a week like last term: that was too much, and productivity suffered. I’ll probably survey the students at the end of the term to see how they liked it. But my sense is that everyone is getting what they need, and faster, and with smiles, and I love to see them and they’re even having fun together out in the hallways. It’s convivial.

And it helps hold back the ever growing email tide, at the same time as it models a sensible approach to overload. For me, at least.

A couple of my colleagues have expressed skepticism. They use email to track their work and their to-do. I know I used to be like this, too: “Send me an email to remind me!” I’d say. But then, honestly, I’d let the email slide off the first screen and forget anyway. This is how you get to inbox 2000.

For me, a good solution to a good chunk of my email overwhelm was to enforce a system whereby I still do the work the email required of me, but I don’t do it over email anymore. Because I have some tiny modicum of authority (this is why so many students need my help) I can shift the culture and the expectations by fiat. I hope it works out for all of us. Like I said, it’s an experiment.

In fact, I feel so freed by this loosening of the email noose that I’ve finally found the wherewithal to start up that drop in writing workshop for dissertating students. Sixteen of them showed up to our first  meeting, and we all wrote for an hour. And none of it was email.

grad school · learning · mental health · reflection · saving my sanity

Unsustainable Practice

There’s something about the semester system that really gets me. It’s only really four months, I think.

Four months of teaching. Four months of writing, four months of researching. Just four months.
Four months to pound out a chapter, throw myself heart and soul into teaching, send out proposals, revise and submit papers, submit job applications…four months.

Four months is a reasonable time to do all the things, right?

I usually start out in September like this:

And then end-of-December rolls around and I’m all:

*

This past December was particularly bad. In my last week of work before Christmas, I was fighting off an epic cold. Then, two days into a lovely mountain holiday with my family, I was struck with an awful stomach bug. It proceeded to infect my whole family. It was not pretty.

This isn’t to say I didn’t accomplish a lot of things over the Fall semester. In fact, I did. I taught my second-ever class (writing-intensive, forty students), half of it new material. I continued working with the great research project I’ve been privileged to be a part of, helping to develop a visualization tool. I submitted my first-ever job application, and had my first-ever interview. I wrote, revised, and submitted two articles. I applied and was accepted to present a paper at two different conferences. I did some service work. I helped organize a conference, which included vetting proposals and contributing some pieces to a SSHRC connections grant. With a colleague, I was invited to submit a chapter to a forthcoming book. And I continued to write my dissertation.

It’s all exciting stuff.

But I totally wiped myself out.

Fortunately, this winter semester comes with a much-needed break. This January, I have the privilege of a year-long fellowship that relieves me from teaching and research duties, allowing me to focus on finishing up my dissertation. So, last week, with space to do so, I actually took some time to relax. I read some books for pleasure, for the first time in months (turns out I like graphic novels). I watched some TV. I stayed at home for a couple days and napped.

And then I resolved to develop a sustainable habit of work, one not overly-based on the semester system. If I stop thinking in terms of “just four months, then…” I might just be able to develop a sustainable work practice, one not premised on overcommitting.

My resolutions thus far are simple:

1) Say no (more often). Mostly this means saying no to myself. So far I’ve done a good job crossing items off my list that aren’t important. Last week I decided not to apply to a conference that I didn’t need to go to. Two are enough for this summer.

2) Prioritize. This is related to number one. My main and primary work priority right now is my dissertation. In the last week, I re-conceptualized how my chapters were working and decided to add a new one before my existing two chapters. My current focus is on researching and writing this chapter, and it’s the top of my list. I’m determined not to let anything displace it.

3) Go for Walks. This is one of the main ways that I think and work through problems. And it’s also a great de-stressor. Edmonton in January usually prevents long walks (without frostbite, anyway), but right now we’re having an usually warm spell. I’m determined to take advantage of it to walk and think.

Do you find that the semester-system tends to encourage overcommitment? How have you managed to develop sustainable habits over longer periods of time?

*art credit: Allie Brosh, Hyperbole and a Half

backlash · change · emotional labour

Feminism and Emotional Labour Redux

On Friday Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA) published a new project called Love, Anonymous. The project is collaborative insofar as a CWILA member approached me with the idea of crowd-sourcing anonymous narratives of gender-based discrimination and violence in the Canadian literary community. The aim of the project–of the anonymity of the narratives–was to stand alongside those people who have experienced such violences and not been able to speak up for various reasons. After all, fall 2014 was a season rife with examples of gender-based micro- and macro-aggressions, and with these aggressions came the usual questions: why didn’t you come forward? What took them so long? Indeed, so many people got so fed up with these questions around access to the agency needed to name and claim one’s own experience that #BeenRapedNeverReported went viral and captured the attention of mainstream media (remember the cover of the Huffington Post?)

I am the Chair of the Board of CWILA, and when I was approached with this project it became my responsibility to bring it to the Board for their input and, ultimately, approval. The next phase of the project involved crafting a call for submissions, which we decided to circulate only amongst CWILA members. We limited the exposure of this call because we felt that membership to CWILA entails being a stakeholder in this new organization’s projects and mandates. We wanted to gauge member interest, and to do so while avoiding as much trolling and backlash as possible. Finally, in crafting the call for submissions we decided that it was imperative to build in the possibility for trust which, let me say, I now know is really difficult to earn in an online setting. To build trust we decided there should be a privacy officer–one named person who did all the receiving, correspondence, and redaction of personal details of all submissions. That person was me. This made sense to me, and to the Board, and to the member with whom I was collaborating on the conception of the project, because in my capacity as Chair I correspond regularly with our membership. I already have a responsibility and fidelity to the well-being of the organization.

Between October and November I received submissions, fielded questions and concerns about the project, and logged about thirty hours of correspondence with participants and CWILA members about the project itself. It took me another month to manage to format the project–not because it was technically challenging, but because I hadn’t accounted for the emotional labour required. Silly, isn’t it? I was ready for the emotional labour we were asking people to volunteer–to put into text–yet I didn’t think about the challenge of reading, responding, and holding stories in trust for other people. True to my word, I didn’t speak to anyone about the details of the project beyond the technical details I am relaying now. I never will. I expected that my training as a textual scholar of narrative, of intersectional feminist theory, would translated here. In some ways I expect that it did, but I realize now that I went into my role in the project with a decidedly academic mindset and forgot to leave room for one of the things we talk about most here on the blog: emotional labour.

On Hook & Eye you’ll find posts about the emotional labour involved in teaching, navigating the job market, applying for grants, and dealing with workplace fuckery challenges. Heck, most of my posts are about emotional labour of one kind or another. As I was working on Love, Anonymous with contributors and concerned members it occurred to me that I tend to write about emotional labour from a position of reporting: Here is how thing X has made me feel. I maintain that this kind of public truth telling is really important, especially for women and other marginalized people working in the academy. Narrative makes things meaningful for other people. (If you don’t believe me, believe Thomas King!) Stories help us navigate our own experiences and relate to, or at least encounter the experiences of others. And, if we work hard and pay close attention, stories can help us see a better way forward.

Here, then, are some observations I have returned to, learned, or been reminded of in the past few months while working on this project:

1) We have taught women not to trust their own experiences. The project has reinforced for me the extraordinary challenge of saying: this happened to me. I was there. This was real.

2) On the whole, we are missing opportunities for sustained intergenerational conversation around Big Issues. I had many people write to me with genuine concern about the project, which you can read about in a bit more detail here. Everyone who wrote to me did so in a spirit of care and generosity and genuineness. They wrote from their own vulnerability and I tried my best to meet them with mine. And almost everyone who took the time to write with concerns identified themselves as being in a generation (or two or three) above mine. Their concerns, generally speaking, had to do with anonymity reifying silence. As I wrote with people of many, many different generations I was struck once again with how generational differences can experience the same public event so dissimilarly. We–and I am speaking very generally about the Hook & Eye readership of people working in the academy when I say “we” here–need to find a way to speak with each other across generations more regularly.

3) The backchannel is alive and well, and until we manage to genuinely address and eradicate inequity it is the most trustworthy way to convey information about safety. This last one gives me such pause for so many reasons. I don’t want to need the backchannel. Talking about it in a public forum makes me worry that I’ll be misunderstood to mean ‘vicious gossip’ rather than ‘careful information sharing.’ And I might be misunderstood, but it needs to be said again: until we deal with systemic inequity the backchannel is a feminist tool.

I’ll leave you with the opening questions of the Love, Anonymous project:

How does a community—one that is dispersed across a country, one that comprises diverse people and experiences—come together to express solidarity? What do solidarity and support look like when the galvanizing issues are so deeply rooted in personal experience as well as systemic injustice? And what can words do to support those people who need it, even or especially when they haven’t been able to ask for support?

Any thoughts, readers? 

best laid plans

Smelling the roses… unwillingly

This morning, the universe had a message for me that had to do with ‘practice what you preach’, ‘get a taste of your own medicine’, or some such cliché. You see, I had scheduled myself into an early start because my courses required my undivided attention: between the marking, and the setting up of essay topics, and the *all new* class prep, I was in for a busy day. And that’s before even doing the actual teaching. However, either I was getting ahead of myself, or the universe had it in for me: either way, it was not meant to happen.

I managed to get the kids out the door in time, and you should know that I count that as a victory every morning. Whoever said anything about herding cats clearly had no kids, because getting them dressed and out the door in any decent amount of time, and without pulling all of one’s hair should have made it into the popular saying instead. Never mind the snow pants, and the scarf, and the mitts, and the hats, and the backpacks, and the boots… oh, wait, did you not put the socks on yet? Then take the boots off. Where did you leave the socks? Upstairs? Fine, I’ll get them, but you stay here. No, you cannot play with the trucks in the kitchen. Why? Because we’ll be late for school. Why? Because that’s how time works. Why did you have to take your jacket off now? I know you’re hot, that’s why I’m trying to get you out the door faster… Well, dear reader, if you don’t already experience–or have in the past, you lucky creature, you!–then that was a 2-second snippet of what takes place in my house every single morning for about 15 minutes. Can you see now why I count getting the kids out the door in time as an accomplishment?

That episode behind me, the glow of victory over tiny bodies with outsized wills propelled me up the stairs to get ready for work. I even put my audiobook on in celebration of the luxury that is alone-time [It’s Ali Smith’s There but for the if you’re curious, and it’s keeping me on edge]. I managed to get myself dressed with the efficiency that is characteristic of adulthood, all the while patting myself on the back for reaching that stage. Then I went to the kitchen to–you guessed it!–even pack myself a lunch for the day. If that isn’t the apex of responsibility, I don’t know what is. I rummaged in my freezer for some frozen falafel I knew had been lurking there since last month, found even a bonus frozen pita, and called it triumphantly lunch. Then a quick and efficient glance at my watch told me it was time to go catch my train.

I scramble to collect all the paraphernalia I’m likely to need today, and out the door I bolt, with the tiny habitual prick of worry that the red light might just make me miss my train. I pat my pockets to ensure I have my fare card, my house keys, and I hasten to position my earbuds, and resume my audiobook. I start sprinting just to make sure I get to the train station with a least two minutes to spare. And then I look up. And I stop running. The sun shinning makes even the bare January trees glow, but should they really have such an aura at the edges? I look around, not in admiration of the beautiful day, but in apprehension that I am surely missing my train. Inertia makes me take another step in the direction of the station, but then I stop. There is no way I can teach without my contacts on.

I exhale the long breath I had held in since the realization gripped me, and retrace my steps home. My morning victory refuses to turn sour, because, what the hell! the sun is shining, and I’m not even late for teaching. I would in be half an hour later, and I can totally live with that. Universe or not, something sometimes has to force me to slow down, or else, I’ll just forget my contacts, and have to start over. 

backlash · bad academics · copper-bottomed bitch · hiring · job market · professors · righteous feminist anger · structural solutions

The backhand side: stupid job ads and equity

I hate red tape. I hate that every time I travel for research, I have to ask for and then save the receipt I get for buying a $5 sandwich on the airplane, and that if I get breakfast in my hotel room because the conference starts at 8:30am, I have to make sure that my toast and eggs are itemized on the hotel invoice because “Room Service Charge” is not reimbursable. This feels petty and annoying to me.

But sometimes, the pettiness and rules of the bureaucracy are an equity-seeking device.

Last year when I taught our graduate professionalization class to the second-year PhD cohort, we had as a guest lecturer a departmental colleague who was chair for a long time, and was hired in the 1980s. He was talking about the academic job market now and then. Now, as we all know, it’s a paper-heavy bureacractic mess. But then, it was a phone call between two dudes, exchanging grad students and privilege. No application, just backchannel.

In this vein, Sydni Dunn in Chronicle Vitae just reported on Jonathan Goodwin’s work with vintage MLA job ads (building on prior work by Jim Ridolfo). Here’s an ad that really stuck with me:

This is a marvel of insider-clubbiness. There might be an opening, and it doesn’t matter what field you’re in, but we’d like your degree from somewhere good and you should be able to play tennis and engage in repartee about same. The vague requirements leave the position completely open to whim; the emphasis on the rank of the school tends to reproduce privilege. The only real metric you could use to distinguish among candidates is actually tennis: publications are “helpful” but not required, so you can’t compare candidates on research record. You can’t distinguish by specialization, because none is required. You could in fact not hire at all. I can just imagine the deliberations. Oh wait: there wouldn’t be any. Because this was before committee-based hiring. Shudder. I’ll take Interfolio any day, frankly.

In my Facebook feed, then, in 2015, I was surprised to see a link to this ad from MIT. It starts out okay, or at least standard:

The MIT Media Lab (www.media.mit.edu) is seeking candidates to fill two tenure-track positions. Appointments will be within the Media Arts and Sciences academic program, principally at the Assistant Professor level. 

Successful candidates for either position will be expected to: establish and lead their own research group within the Media Lab; pursue creative work of the highest international standard; engage in collaborative projects with industrial sponsors and other Media Lab research groups; supervise master’s and doctoral students; and participate in the Media Arts and Sciences academic program. Send questions to faculty-search [at] media.mit.edu. 

MIT is committed to building a culturally diverse educational environment; women and minorities are strongly encouraged to apply. EOE.

Yes, that sounds like a job ad. Job type, job rank, job duties, number of jobs available, contact information, assessment criteria. Also, equity statement.

Good. Then the two available positions are listed out. One, in climate change and environment, is pretty standard, too. But then, this, in “undefined discipline”:

The Media Lab is a cross-disciplinary research organization focusing on the invention of new media technologies that radically improve the ways people live, learn, work, and play. 

We are seeking a new kind of early career faculty member, not defined by discipline, rather by his or her unique and iconoclastic experience, style, and points of view. You can be a designer, inventor, scientist, or scholar – any combination – as long as you make things that matter. Impact is key. 

This means somebody with at least these three sets of characteristics: 

  1. Being deeply versed in a minimum of two fields, preferably not ones normally juxtaposed;
  2. Being an orthogonal and counter-intuitive thinker, even a misfit within normal structures;
  3. Having a fearless personality, boundless optimism, and desire to change the world. 

Any disciplines apply as long as their confluence shows promise of solving big, difficult, and long-term problems. And, most importantly, candidates must explain why their work really can only be done at the Media Lab. We prefer candidates not be similar to our existing faculty. We welcome applicants who have never considered academic careers. If you fit into typical academia, this is probably not the job for you. 

Applications should consist of one URL—the web site can be designed in whatever manner best characterizes the candidate’s unique qualifications. Web site should include a CV or link to a CV.

So. Not a real application. Make a website, any kind of website, but unique, and submit that as your application! Also, there’s a personality-based assessment–be orthogonal as well as polymathic! We want you to be young (early career) and iconoclastic! This is a professor job, but if you fit into academia, you’re not the right fit. Except you’ll still need a PhD and do the work of a professor. The ad seems to be asking for a set of personal traits–and personal traits that seem to inhere in a very particular kind of applicant:

Venture-capital tech-dude types who skipped college and traveled to India (not to see family, but to experience life, man) and who have foregone the scholarly article in favor of something showier because they like attention and feel they deserve it and they have rebellious haircuts and gender-bending accessories.

Look. I regularly lobby to have my media appearances and blog work count on my CV. I get “iconoclastic”–and I get weird haircuts and gender-bending accessories. I wear My Little Pony swag to teach. But this kind of ad, in its emphasis on personality and attitude, feels insulting to all the hard, verifiable, assessable work that academics do to become trained and competitive for professorships. And it will lead to bad candidate assessment.

The ability to receive a serve on the backhand side is not named, but implied. Again, how on God’s Green Earth can you sensibly sort a candidate pool? I’ll tell you right now it’ll be like an American Idol open tryout, except many of the sensible people will just not even go.

Once more: in many ways, I’m all about thinking outside the academic box: I take Facebook seriously as life-writing and I refuse to call everyday social media users naive or thoughtless. I’m lobbying hard to change a lot about the PhD at my institution. What is killing me about this job ad is that it gets loosey-goosey about all the wrong things in ways that are going to disadvantage applicants who’ve just barely got a toe-hold into the academy. By removing assessable metrics and by opening the ad so widely, it’s nearly guaranteed that a very narrow set of possible winners is going to emerge.

You can bet your backhand on it.

best laid plans · contract work · good things · january blues · positive thoughts as I fill out grant applications · women

Generous Thinking

If you ask me, Mondays sort of beg for some kind of genuine inspiration. Especially Mondays in January. Mondays are, in a micro-manner, a day to ever so slightly return to and reset your larger best laid plans. Sure, it is very easy to slip into Blue Monday mode, but let’s not today.

Why the optimism? Well, this weekend I have found myself thinking time and again about generosity. I thought about it on Friday evening when my partner and I went out for dinner with colleagues. Amidst the genuine anguish about what is happening on our campus here was such an undercurrent of real, palpable care for the spaces in which we work and especially for the students we teach in our classes. We talked about what’s wrong, got angry–righteously so!–about the many systemic injustices, and throughout it all I kept thinking ‘what luck, to be engaged in such generous thinking.’ Generosity was the electric current of the conversation. It kept us coming back from rage or frustration to a refrain of how much we care.

And then, on Saturday morning at oh-my-lord-o’clock I met a former student for coffee before she joined her badminton team for 8:30am game preparations. She took a bus from where the team was staying on the outskirts of the city to meet me. (I’ll admit, all I did was clean off the truck and drive, but it was c-o-l-d!!! and e-a-r-l-y!). There we sat, the only people in the coffee shop, and talked about her classes, my research, her plans for grad school, my intention to shake off fretfulness, the Taylor Swift channel on Songza, strategies for self-care in Canadian winter, how badminton differs from tennis (a lot!), and books we wanted to read.

Later that day, as I worked on a SSHRC application, I was grateful for my colleague’s generosity. As a contract academic faculty member I am not on the research services email list, yet she has continually made sure I get the information and support I need. I thought again with gratitude of the people who have read and edited the proposal on their own time. And I thought about my colleagues across the country who are joining the application. These people are completing the Canadian Common CV for me. How unspeakably generous! Seriously.

Some basic definitions of generosity include “a liberalness in sharing or giving,” and “willingness to give value to others.” In addition to some of the lovely conversations I have had this weekend, I have also come across that liberalness in sharing or giving on the web. Specifically, I have had the pleasure of coming across Ayelet Tsabari’s blog post outlining her reading intentions for last year. Tsabari writes that in 2014 she intended to read only writers of colour. In her post outlining her intent she is candid about her reasons and her reservations:

I thought of VIDA and CWILA and their yearly counts, which often spring an offshoot discussion about the lack of writers of colour in reviews and magazines. And I remembered that the brilliant Madeleine Thien recently spoke about the underrepresentation of writers of colour in literary awards. And then, I thought I should dedicate 2014 to only reading writers of colour. And immediately dismissed it as a silly idea and went to bed.

But I kept thinking about it. When I woke up that night to feed my baby, I thought of books by writers of colour I can’t wait to read and got excited. In 2011, when I only read short story collectionsI discovered many incredible writers I’d never heard of because I was always on the hunt for new collections, and I read more, simply because I made a public pledge to do so. It wasn’t a burden, but a blessing. I imagined this would be a similar experience; by imposing ‘restrictions’ on my reading list I would be reading more widely, not narrowly, the same way that writing under constraints may sometimes result in better writing. And I knew I’d have many great writers to choose from. Last year, Roxane Gay of The Rumpus had conveniently compiled a long list of writers of colour (a list in which I’m proud to be mentioned) in response to the argument that there are simply not enough writers of colour. That list would be a good place to start.
But the idea made me nervous.  Unlike reading books of short stories, this choice felt political. And coming from Israel, politics tend to scare the shit out of me. I shouldn’t be choosing books by authors’ ethnicity, should I? It’s so arbitrary, so random. But then again, what’s wrong with that? People choose to read books because they’re on the Giller list, or on Canada Reads, or on the staff picks at their local bookstore. People choose books based on covers and blurbs and titles and gut feelings. So why not this?
But I was still hesitant. Ethnicity is a complicated thing, and identities can be layered and shifting and blurry. Where do I draw the line? What about writers of mixed heritage? Or writers of colour who write about white people, or choose (stubbornly!) not to write about their heritage? (I loved this article which speaks about the expectation from writers of colour to write about their heritage and their heritage only, or to write novels that—as a dear friend of mine, an Indian-Canadian writer, has put it—“have mango trees.”)  And what about other minorities? LGBT writers? Writers from other cultures who aren’t ‘of colour’? And really, should we be even talking about race? It makes people so uncomfortable. (Read Tsabari’s whole post here)
How generous is this thinking? This willingness to be public, vulnerable, adamant, dedicated, and nervous? Tsabari, it seems to me, gives her readers something of value, and she does it for free. And then, just recently, she returns to give again by returning to her original intent and telling us about her experiences, about her thinking. You can read her post, “My Year of Reading Only Writers of Colour” here
Tsabari isn’t the only person out there thinking meaningful, challenging thoughts in public forums, but as I came across her writing this weekend I was grateful for her. For her generosity and for the generosity of others, like this blogger, who share their thinking, work, and resources. 
What kind of generosity have you come across in the academy or its vicinity,  readers? I’d love to have some more examples to buoy me through this January Monday and maybe, just maybe, right through until spring. 
balance · new year new plan

Pace Yourself

Welcome back to the new term! Were *your* holidays refreshing? Did you manage to take time to yourself without guilt-tripping yourself every two seconds? Or did you spend the break fretting about not working, and missing out on responding to that CFP or procrastinating from writing your Major-Conference-That-Shall-Remain-Nameless paper? No matter where you fit on the spectrum, we all know the promise of freshness in the New Year/New Term combo does not  materialize in our bodies, and that we inherit the fatigue of both the Fall term and the holidays (family! travelling! all the food!). My take? Better be realistic about it, and stop pretending mountains will be moved by sheer willpower and perilously low energy levels (it’s cold. it’s dark a lot of the time. it’s January, *then* February before any colour comes back into the world).

Grey January skies over Lake Ontario

So, what is there to do? I’m not one for sports metaphors in general, but it looks like the running one is a refrain here at H&E, so I’ll just re-iterate it. We’re in it for the long haul, so we might as well pace ourselves. The Winter term has only just started, so I know it feels like if you don’t write that proposal, you’ll be written out of that Conference, which is so germane to your larger research project that missing it will cause an irreparable gap in your CV, and potential questions from your doctoral committee, hiring committee, peers, etc. But really? Chill! Unless you’re on the organizing committee, nobody will question your absence, especially these days. Why not take that time that you’d frantically put to inking yet another argument to letting your brain do some unguided rambling? Take the resources you’d put into going to that conference (money, time, physical effort, missed sleep) into translating your brain’s free ramblings into writing. No, I mean it literally: how long would the travel take you? Translate that into writing time over multiple days. Actually sleep the sleep you’d otherwise miss by going to the airport at ungodly hours because you can only afford the 7 am flight. Take it easier on yourself, the environment, and the academic ecosystem.

Try ditching one of the major academic events that you engage in per year, and do the accounting on it, bank those resources, and use them elsewhere. Then do the tally. [I know economic metaphors are not much better than sports ones, but that’s all I got just now, when the lesson plan for the class that starts in two hours, for the course I’d never taught before, beckons. See how I’m pacing myself here?] If there’s one thing I wish we could do more is turn inwardly, and actually understand what it is we want to do. As researchers, we spend so much time trying to make sure we’re abreast of what everyone else in the field is saying. As teachers, not only do we have to prepare the material, we also expend an immeasurable amount of emotional labour ensuring our classes are open and our students feel welcome and engaged in the process.

So, at this begging of term, instead of resolving to work more, be more productive, write more, do more grading, please ask yourself “What’s the healthiest way to accomplish what *I* really want?”

#alt-ac · #post-ac · academy · change · community

Feeling More Welcome on the Fringe

I just got back from the 2015 Modern Language Association conference in Vancouver, one that was held in the beautiful conference centre in this photo, a space that was almost as gorgeous inside as it was outside (ocean! mountains! I grew up in Ontario!).  This was my fourth MLA, and definitely one of my favourites. It was wonderful to get to spend some serious time with one of my co-authors (shoutout to Erin Wunker) and a treat to be at a conference somewhere that I could still use data on my phone (it’s the little things). But for reasons that I didn’t anticipate, that this MLA was great had just as much to do with changes to my profession, and changes to THE profession, as it did with geography or excellent choice of roommate.

I want to go back in time for a minute to think through why this is, at least a little. A Hook & Eye reader got in touch with me a couple of months ago, and we met for lunch at a favourite local restaurant to talk about our experiences of being academic staff, and about the work I’m doing on Hook & Eye to advocate for, and demystify, non-professorial careers for humanists. She, like me, is a humanities PhD who now has a job in an academic staff role, although in her case she left a tenure-track job to take it. She, unlike me, hasn’t been to an academic conference since she made the switch from professor to administrator, and her experience of leaving the tenure-track has been, from what I gathered, far more isolating than mine has.

I’d never consciously thought about it before that lunch, but my transition plan was very effectively, although mostly accidentally, designed. I started writing and publishing about higher ed reform and graduate career development about the time that I made the decision not to go on the academic job market, and when I moved into my staff role, I gradually started pitching conference presentations on those topics. My first year as Research Officer, I gave a paper at the MLA on alternative dissertations, a panel which inspired the first cluster of Graduate Training in the 21st Century, and another at ACCUTE on my usual work on Canadian modernist poetry. This year, now that paying work has required that I scale back on my CanLit work, I was an invited speaker on an MLA panel about careers for humanists, I’m giving a talk about skill development and graduate reform at NeMLA, and I’m co-organizing a panel on related topics as part of ACCUTE’s Committee for Professional Concerns. I’m not giving any papers on CanLit at all, and yet it hasn’t been necessary for me to stop attending the conferences I’ve always attended, because I made a space for myself at them that reflects the changing nature of my academic and career goals (and that let me expense my attendance to the occasional one as a work gig). I’ve never had to stand on the sidelines and watch my academic friends gallivant around exciting new cities, and drink bad free wine at the book exhibit, without me. I’d be terribly sad if I did. And that’s in large part also because of the fact that alongside my work to make room for myself at these conferences, they’ve made room for me. When I started attending the MLA, any panels on career development and professionalization were almost exclusively geared to the academic job market, and it was never certain that the paper or panel I was pitching would be accepted. This year, there were three panels and a half-day workshop devoted to careers for humanists in the broadest sense, in all job markets. They had the institutional authority of being organized by the MLA and co-sponsored by the American Historical Association, and instead of worrying if my paper on mid-century modernist Canadian poetry would be too out in left-field for the American-centric MLA, I was invited to speak. I’m not attending DHSI any more, but I still get to go–just as an instructor. Quelle différence! 

Even just a few years ago, I bet that this smooth transition from PhD to staff while maintaining a close relationship with my academic community would have been much harder than it is now. PhDs who moved into non-professorial careers were largely invisible to North America’s largest scholarly associations, and those careers were still considered the booby prize, the Plan B. People I know who made the transition much earlier, and have maintained their research profiles since, largely did so because they took staff jobs that provided them with an ongoing institutional affiliation. But as those same scholarly associations begin to recognize that only 18.6% of PhDs (in Canada, at least) become professors, the more they realize that they need to serve those people who make up the majority of their constituents–people like me who will not become academics–if they hope to stay relevant and to meet the needs of their membership. Moreover, the more they realize that people like me, who can talk about the realities of life in a non-professorial careeer, are necessary to this project. In fact, I can say that I’ve had precisely the opposite experience of that reader I had lunch with. In moving off of the professorial track and into a position that once would have been considered on the fringe (and is still considered such by many, I’ll admit), I feel far more connected and central to my scholarly communities that I ever have before. I’ll admit that I’m in an oddly privileged position, working in an #altac position that is in many ways concerned with graduate careers and training while also researching those subjects. But many of the non-professors at the MLA were doing vastly different things than what I do, and they were sitting on the panel right beside me.

It’s strange to me that I had to get myself to the outside–into a position that I thought would guarantee that the powerful and traditional in academia would see me as a second-class citizen, or not see me at all because I’d become invisible–in order to really be invited in. It’s an odd place to be, and yet I’m not complaining. Mostly I’m just revelling in the fact that life is good on the other side, and that more and more people–from grad student to full professor–are recognizing that my experience is not at all anomalous, that there’s plenty of fulfilling and financially rewarding work to be had beyond the professoriate. To some at the MLA, I might still be on the fringe, but the numbers don’t lie–we are, to steal the NFM’s turn of phrase, the new PhD majority. And as assumptions about the goals of those pursuing PhDs continue to change, so will the inclusivity of the scholarly associations to which we belong. The water’s warm, and I’m loving that I’m surrounded by ever more swimmers.

Image by TDLucas5000, CC