Trust the process: On writing as a kind of renovation

I’ve been watching a lot of reno shows: Leave it to Bryan, Holmes Inspection, Sarah 101, Real Potential. Strangely, I find watching other people’s renovations soothing, even while my own house being torn apart and rebuilt was causing me great stress.

It’s got me thinking about how we deal with big projects where things have to get a whole lot worse before they get better. Renos are a little like big writing projects, in that way. Both writing and renovating are about crafting that first vision of the difference between where you are and where you think you can get to, and about seeing past the (sometimes awful, usually dirty, often unexpected) details between those two pristine conditions of “before” and “after”

Because it’s the “during” where both renovating and writing tear their subjects apart.

When I write, it’s usually prompted by an exciting idea: “Hey! What if this seemingly political speech about the nature of the Internet actually discourages political participation???” I head to the library (virtually, usually) and grab everything relevant. I take tons of notes, highly great quotations, try on different methodologies. I’ll spend all day Googling. This is the fun part. In a reno, this is akin to the stage where you’re like: “What if just had a half-wall between the kitchen and the dining room? Then we’d get more light …” and then out come the stack of decorating magazines and I pick out door pulls and paint colors.” I’ll spend all day on Pinterest.

But when I commit to the actual writing, I find it’s pretty hard: a lot of the research already covers my big idea. Or, the main strands of thinking are incompatible with one another and I don’t know what to do. Or, I actually start a document draft and find I just can’t write anything interesting or even sensible. This is discouraging. My good idea is hard, and unpleasant, and might not work. In the reno, this is where they take the panelling off the ceiling and discover that your second floor is unsupported by joists of any kind. Or that wall between the kitchen and the dining room, while not structural, is actually full of vent pipes and heating runs, and, hooray, some knob and tube wiring (vintage baseboard: good; vintage wiring: not good).

OMIGOD my argument is totally without foundation!

This is the scariest part: I’ve committed resources to a project that has turned out to be harder and different than what I expected. There are obstacles, and it’s scary. My original idea is less joyful, and it’s not clear where I should go next. Ugh.

If you’re a writer (or a renovator) you have to just keep plugging away at it. You have to trust the process: you now from your own and from others’ past experiences that this is usually how it goes, and that the project will emerge out the other side. The mental and literal dust and noise and surprises and dead ends are very tiring though, and psychically / financially costly, to boot. I work at this every day, and it’s hard.

Looking good.

The next trick, if you keep plugging away at it, is to learn to see through the bones to the finished room (article) or, sometimes, through the terrible wallpaper to the good room dimensions. Trusting the process means seeing differently: an article that is only 8 pages long in draft, but that has a good hook and some clear sections that are defining themselves is just a matter of filling it in and refining–you can see this in the same way you can see that the plumbing rough-ins running inside a framed wall are going to give enough room for two people to brush their teeth at the same time. Alternatively, see through terrible wallpaper when you’re house hunting is like seeing past the overuse of semicolons or the run-on sentences or the 1000 words over the limit to know that some judicious application of hot water and vinegar and elbow grease will reveal the good underneath.

I can totally picture it.

This is part of what’s interesting for me about watching reno shows, or sometimes real estate shows: the reason people hire designers and agents is because most people can’t see the potential, can’t see past the wallpaper, can’t figure out what ‘after’ might be possible from a particular ‘before.’ Or they can’t deal with the noise and the confusion and the tools and the mess. And in reno shows, particularly, people demonstrate themselves completely flummoxed by the ‘during’–that’s where the drama comes from.

It’s really a lot like writing. And as writers, we ought to gain the expertise, if you will, of the contractors, and agents, and designers: to see the potential, to learn the process, to leap imaginatively from before to after, while staying steady through the turbulence of during.

coping · empowerment · grad school · mental health · PhD · righteous feminist anger · systemic violence

Mental Health and the PhD (Part II)

I’m a fifth-year PhD student, finishing the seventh year of my graduate studies overall. I’ve been trained in pedagogy, in writing a thesis, in publishing articles, in archival research, in networking, in library research, in organizing conferences, professionalizing, in mastering a field of literature.

But never have I been trained in how to deal with the emotional and psychological stress of writing a dissertation.

It has been difficult, to say the least. My mind is constantly hovering around the exigencies of the imminent job market, and on where my academic partner and I might find ourselves the year after next. Will we find jobs? In the same place? In the same country? WHAT WILL HAPPEN?! Needless to say, these persistent thoughts and questions do not inspire passion or motivation to write about fourteenth-century apocalypse prologues written in Anglo-Norman. They do not push me to delve deeply into my dissertation material, or traipse gleefully through bibliography items. They make me question the point of it all, and they are deeply and profoundly unproductive.

And there are other things. At this advanced stage, many in my cohort have become isolated with our projects, rarely crossing paths and engaging in the fun, collegial decompression and emotional support that occurred frequently during coursework. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one gripped with fear and anxiety about The Future; we all develop our own coping strategies, sequestering ourselves with our work, pouring all free time into surfing listservs for networking and publishing opportunities, simply attempting to stay sane with television and other hobbies and relationships. (I frequently insist that we need to maintain lives outside academia, to enjoy these years as funded [hopefully, if insufficiently] graduate students, not because doing so will make us more productive as academics [though it will], but because “academic” is not the sum total of my identity, as much as the academic superstructure attempts to inculcate our identities differently.)

A little over a year ago, Jana reposted this article from The Guardian about the “culture of acceptance” in academia over mental health issues—not only is mental illness rampant in academic culture, but it becomes almost a marker of accomplishment, as though if you don’t push yourself to the brink of depression or alcoholism, you’re not doing it right (in the follow-up to this article, various PhD students suffering from mental illness share their stories as they battle the attitude of “if you can’t stand the heat, you shouldn’t be here”). A post on The Professor Is In assesses the paralyzing effects of academia’s uniform dependence on “the principle of external validation. You are good only if others in authority authorize that you are good. Your comps, your diss, your job docs, your job talk, your book, your article, your grant proposal, your tenure case…all live or die based on the judgment and approval of people ‘above’ you. And the properly socialized academic makes that approval the core of their identity.” I really do want to follower Dr. Karen’s [edgy] advice to “write like a motherfucker”—to “say no to the less-than status, the linking of your identity to others’ judgment, the servile dependence on others’ stamp of approval.” Sure….I’m all about empowerment and fierceness, but–barring leaving the profession (a perfectly viable choice, of course, but I’m still holding out hope here), how do we do that, exactly?

I wish I had more answers to such questions, but I guess I’ll just keep striving for a healthy work-life balance while fighting against the complacency fostered by the #DWYL neoliberal dictum, as Melissa has so eloquently blogged about. Despite my whining, I have some wonderful, brilliant, and supportive friends, both inside and outside the institution, and I’ve been part of productive academic communities, such as the online writing group that Christy Pottroff described a couple weeks ago. I have library buddies, yoga buddies, and cat buddies. I think I’ll be okay, but the point stands: there are some serious structural changes that need to happen in order to begin to reverse the endemic guilt and anxiety that thrives in precarious academic communities, and a simple bulleted list of coping mechanisms and facile individualized solutions just ain’t gonna cut it for me right now.

day in the life · DIY · gradgrind · guest post

Guest Post: Why We Work

How much of graduate students’ time is truly their own? This post confronts this question by focusing on grad students working outside of their department or the university, and thus outside of their departmental funding. The authors of this post, one MA student and one PhD candidate, have each held/continue to hold such positions, and have been actively involved in an ongoing conversation in their department about whether these forms of work are appropriate and/or necessary.
While the piece is presented as a dialogue, both authors wish to emphasize the fact that this post is building upon numerous discussions each of us have had with other graduate students, faculty members, family and friends. This blog is therefore not intended as a definitive account of the matter, but is instead an attempt to highlight and work through some of the issues of importance surrounding this debate, as well as what we see as a broader disconnect between faculty vision and student realities.
K: Graduate student employment has become a point of discussion in our department. To simplify it, some faculty members were surprised at the number of grad students working in other departments and outside the university, and expressed a desire to limit our work hours in various ways. I became concerned about the assumptions that were being made about grad students and our needs, and I wanted to extend this conversation further. The way I understand it is there is this model English grad student, with certain desires and needs and practices, that is being supported through these guidelines. But there are many ways in which this model is outdated or wholly unrealistic.

M: Kaarina, I think you’re absolutely right that what seems to be at stake here is not just existing regulations and whether they are enforced, but a broader conception of who contemporary graduate students in the humanities are, and what they want or need to work successfully.

One of the ways concern about external work has been expressed, for example, is fear about time to degree completion. And it’s not that this isn’t an issue in academics, or that most graduate students aren’t crushinglyaware of the possible consequences of not completing their projects in a ‘timely’ fashion. But why, when there are so many studies out there demonstrating that completion times are rising across the board because of the uncertainties of the academic job market and other aspects of post-degree life, should non-departmental work be singled out as a cause in this way?

And, to get back to that ideal grad student again, this suggestion that extra-departmental work can only slow us down really seems to reduce us all to one type of worker. Many of us, I think, really value our time spent working on stuff that isn’t our own project, and find that getting some distance actually makes our work easier to return to and focus on. And we know this about ourselves, because we’re competent, professional adults who have, by this point, spent a long time in school. This doesn’t mean we’re beyond the need for guidance or support, but it does mean that the idea of being told how we can or should work best is more than a bit troubling.

The department we work in also emphasizes its interdisciplinarity quite a lot. It was definitely stressed to me during recruitment, and it’s all over the department website. Many of the students in my cohort identify their work as interdisciplinary. So I would think that gaining experience in other departments and beyond the university itself, would be considered not just permissible, but…necessary, even? Maybe that’s too strong a word, but my time teaching in Writing Studies, for example, has been incredibly valuable to my project. Not to mention that experience focusing on writing instruction makes me a better teacher within my home department! It sorta feels like everyone wins, here.

There also seems to me to be a broader connection to make here between the need for interdisciplinarity and the need for departments to really come to terms with the fact that the graduate students of today are not the graduate students of yesteryear. We don’t (and can’t!) identify primarily or exclusively as researchers. And from Day 1 in graduate school, many of us have been told that this is healthy, that we can’t get attached to the idea of a tenure-track job in a context where such positions are rapidly disappearing. If the Ideal Grad Student (™), is a trope that needs to be used at all, then, it should at least be updated to account for this context. And our department is making strides in these areas in several respects; we recently hosted a series of events related to alt-ac preparation, for example. But there seems to be a disjunction between the department accepting that a broader conceptualization of professionalization is important and necessary, and the ways in which these attempts to limit graduate students’ abilities to work outside the department necessarily contradict that awareness.

K: And obviously, money is a major factor. Even when funding is good, it’s only so good, and there can be a lot of unspoken discrepancies in funding between different students or different institutions. The rhetoric of adequate funding is totally bewildering–it does not account for the different needs of students who are supporting others, paying off debts, travelling to see loved ones, or simply saving for an unpredictable future.

M: YES! The language of adequacy really tends to treat graduate school as if it exists in this completely contained vacuum. This ignores not only the areas of life that fall outside of research during the course of the degree, but also the fact that we have lives that will go on after that degree is completed, and which cannot simply be put on hold.

K: For my part, one way I managed my stress this year was by taking on a second job to eliminate financial stress altogether. I don’t have to worry about making ends meet, and that has been a huge relief. Otherwise, my relatively excellent funding would put me below the poverty line.[1]

M + K: To move beyond the level of our department, this seems to be fundamentally an issue of transparency. There is so little transparency around funding, and this manifests in all kinds of ways. In discussions with other students, for instance, we’ve noticed a recurring theme of surprising ignorance (willful or otherwise) among some faculty about how and how much their students are funded. There have also been serious issues of over- and under-payment in our department, and these mistakes are indicators that the administration does not fully understand or care how our finances function. And ultimately, these ambiguities have real, material effects here and beyond. As Zane Schwartz explains, the U of T’s strategic deployment of the language of ‘wage increase’ deliberately relied on a similar lack of transparency, and used it against its students and employees.

Put simply, our struggles over graduate student labour here are necessarily part of the dysfunctional labour scene at most universities. We hope this post can function as an invitation broaden the conversation beyond both our institution and graduate studies itself. There are, for instance, important continuities and contradictions between attitudes toward graduate student labour and approaches to contract adjunct labour.
Kaarina Mikalson is completing her MA, and she is about to defend her thesis on Canadian fiction from the Great Depression. She is the project manager for Canada and the Spanish Civil War, and a research assistant for CWRC.
Megan Farnel is a SSHRC-funded doctoral candidate working in the fields of new media, affect, and materialist studies. She is blogging her dissertation over on HASTAC, and blogging some more over the summer for UAEM Alberta.

[1]According to info from Statistics Canada.
Low income cut-offs before and after tax by community and family size, 2011 constant dollars.” Statistics Canada. Government of Canada, 27 Jun. 2013. Web. 9 Apr. 2015.

ideas for change · mental health · research planning

Office Space: The Academic Fantasy Edition

This post is by Lily Cho! 

Over here at Hook & Eye, we have never shied away from that which may be considered frivolous. We understand that figuring out your hairhas a lot to do with figuring out your life, which has a lot to do with figuring out your job. We have covered the importance of the go-to (as opposed to go-go) boots. We have discussed the politics of eyewear. Most recently, there was Aimée’s completely spot-on piece about the power of the blazer. Following in this august H&E tradition, today I would like to take a moment to think about the kind of space you might fantasize about working in.

Let me begin with a space of fantasy tucked neatly into Terry Eagleton’s recently much circulated piece on the slow death of the university. Somewhere in the midst of his trenchant discussion of philistine university administrators and the rise of the entrepreneurial university, there was this astonishing (to me) revelation:

There had been a time earlier when college tutors might not even have bothered to arrange set tutorial times for their undergraduates. Instead, the undergraduate would simply drop round to their rooms when the spirit moved him for a glass of sherry and a civilized chat about Jane Austen or the function of the pancreas.

Forge the part about not scheduling tutorials (as the Undergraduate Program Director for my department, this idea makes my tummy do backflips in the most unpleasant ways). What about the part where he refers to the college tutor’s rooms? As in, an office that has more than one room? (I hear from those of you who have been through the Oxbridge that such rooms really do exist and that they really are full of nobly tattered Persian rugs and silver tea services so I realize that this is a fantasy space that actually exists, but just indulge me as I persist with my incredulity.) Okay, and then there’s the part about the glass of sherry. I tried to imagine a world where I would work in the kind of office where anybody who came to my office, least of all one of my undergraduates, would be offered a glass of sherry.

Even if I was allowed to serve alcohol to my students – and I’m pretty sure I’m not – who would provide the sherry? Would it be in a decanter? Who is going to wash the glasses afterwards? I have trouble picturing any Oxford don trundling down the hall to rinse out the sherry glasses in the bathroom. Maybe you can’t have sherry unless you also have a porter?
These questions remind of another representation of a fantasy academic office space that has stayed with me. Donna Tartt’s The Secret Historygives us the delicious idea of the office not only as a fantasy, but also a secret fantasy:

Julian answered the door… by opening it only a crack and looking through it warily, as if there were something wonderful in his office that needed guarding, something he was careful not everyone should see. (32)

And when we are finally permitted entry, it is abundantly clear that some secrets are worth keeping:

It was a beautiful room, not an office at all, and much bigger than it looked from outside – airy and white, with a high ceiling and a breeze fluttering in the starched curtains. In the corner, near a low bookshelf, was a big round table littered with teapots and Greek books, and there were flowers everywhere, roses and carnations and anemones, on his desk, on the table, in the windowsills. The roses were especially fragrant; their smell hung rich and heavy in the air, mingled with the smell of bergamot, and black China tea, and a faint inky scent of camphor. Breathing deep, I felt intoxicated. Everywhere I looked was something beautiful – Oriental rugs, porcelains, tiny paintings like jewels – a dazzle of fractured color that struck me as if I had stepped into one of those little Byzantine churches that are so plain on the outside; inside, the most paradisal painted eggshell of gilt and tesserae. (33)

Did you read that and call to mind your own office? If it looks like Julian Morrow’s, I’m very pleased for you. Maybe, though, if you are a Canadian academic and you are lucky enough to be in a TT job, your campus office might look something like mine (you can’t see but there is a cactus just outside of the frame so I am not entirely without greenery):

Don’t get me wrong. I like my office. I really do. I have windows! And, depending on the time of day and the light, a great view into random student dorm rooms. It is obviously my own fault that this space is not filled with flowers, porcelain, and the scent of bergamot and camphor.

I’ve been thinking about this partly because I realized that, perhaps like many of you, I think of my campus office as the place where I meet with students and do admin stuff. I might even do some marking here although even that I am more likely to do off-campus. I don’t think of it as the place where I will write (although this blog post is being written in this very office right now!).

When I think of a fantasy writing space (and yes, this is also a space of fantasy for me which tells you that I really am no good on the interior design front), it looks a lot more like… 

all photos from http://cabinporn.com

Of course, in my head, all of these spaces are accompanied by a hunky barista who makes perfect cortados on demand. 

Barista aside, I am struck by how my fantasy of a good place to write is one that is very private, and magically isolated. It seems that I think that I need to be somehow cut off from the world in order to write. More precisely, I don’t see any students or colleagues in this picture. Unlike the office in Eagleton’s piece, or Julian Morrows’ fictional office in Tartt’s novel, these are not spaces where one thinks and works and encounters the occasional student or colleague. I don’t know how my idea of the space of teaching and the space of writing became so bifurcated, but it did. 

Is it that way for you? 

What might it mean for my teaching and my research if I brought those spaces more closely together? I ask this question even though I am nowhere near being able to write an essay in my campus office.

Once upon a time, in a university where I may or may not have worked, there may or may not have been a dean in the general field of the liberal arts and humanities (this is, I suspect, less of an issue for folks who run labs) who thought that faculty members should, like everyone else in the working world, identify the two weeks of the year in which they planned to take their allotted vacation, and then be present in their campus offices, with their office doors open, the rest of the year. It was not an idea that was embraced. And, at the time, I may or may not have thought that this idea showed little sympathy for the way in which most of us conduct our research and writing, but also verged on being anti-intellectual. But I can see the point of trying to make our research more visible not only in terms of its intended outcomes (brilliant publications that are widely cited and transform the field of knowledge, no pressure folks) but also in terms of the work we do to get there.

Of course, it is no accident that the college tutor’s room in Eagleton’s essay is a placeholder for an academic way of life that is increasingly rare in the age of austerity. Even though I am no fan of the university’s turn to corporatization and entrepreneurialism, I also do not want to be nostalgic for a university structure (which allowed for offices with multiple rooms and porters that might magically whisk away the sherry glasses and tea service) that was much, much more exclusive. As Aimée has already written, making the office space a writing space has a lot to with not feeling as though it is just where I hide when I am bouncing from obligation to obligation. Maybe it is about getting a bean bag chair. Maybe it’s time I brought some flowers to the office.
Works Cited
Eagleton, Terry. “The Slow Death of the University.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 23 April 2015.

Tartt, Donna. The Secret History. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992

academic reorganization · classrooms · contract work · guest post

Guest Post: Corporate Education vs. Corporatized Universities

Those of us teaching in post-secondary settings have a tendency to vilify corporate education writ large. In my mind, I have always equated the ‘corporatized’ part of the university institution with the most insidious and inhumane aspects of teaching part-time at a public institution. For example, I believed that because the university has adopted a corporate model—i.e. piecemeal pay for part-time work, a valuing of “learning outcomes” without a sense of what preparation, delivery, and developing classroom empathy entails—I am not properly valued as an instructor.
Here is a more concrete example of what I mean. Earlier last week, I applied for a sessional teaching position at my home institution, where I would be teaching 180 students, supervising 8 TAs, lecturing for two hours, running office hours and offering a weekly one hour tutorial.  Because of our collective agreement, if I am hired, I will be paid about $4500 ($1125 per month) before taxes, regardless of how many hours it takes for me to prepare and deliver the course material.  Our agreement does not distinguish between half-credit courses with 30 students and half-credit courses with 180 students.  It also does not distinguish between brand new classes and established ones.  Finally, the newest courses—those requiring new teaching preparation and that have never been taught in my department previously—tend to be the largest courses in terms of enrollment. Why? Because in the corporatized university model, departments like mine can sometimes get money to hire sessionals if we offer a new, huge class. So, the fact that the university has requested that the part-time instructor develop new curriculum is not factored into pay, but is an assumed part of teaching duties that is not billable.  Neither is the additional time spent on administration, and educating and training TAs.  And, if I need supplies, like a new dongle to connect to the projector system, these are additional personal expenses that are not reimbursable.
I tell you all of this as if it is not a familiar story to all of you.  I narrate these expectations and pay arrangements because they are indicative of the neo-liberal, corporatized university model that is now the industry standard.  Though it is obvious that this hiring practice is exploitative, and certainly is in massive need of change, this is a model that I have accepted, and to some degree, encouraged, by continuing to accept these working conditions.
However, as a point of contrast, let me narrate another experience. I was recently hired to work part time as a corporate educator for a test preparation firm, and a lot of my strongly held beliefs were tested and realigned.  Let me, as a point of comparison, give you a sense of my experience with this corporation thus far.
In applying to work for a corporate educator I had to prove my abilities. I was required to pass the section of the test I was hired to help the students prepare for.  Begrudgingly, I took the test and felt anger that my teaching experience didn’t speak for itself.  When I passed that, I was then required to complete a teaching interview.  I received scads of paperwork detailing the expectations of the company for the interview, and was given a clear indication of what they were looking for in a sample lesson.  During the interview, my lesson was followed up by questions about scenario-specific situations about classroom management, and was assessed on my ability to handle underprepared, and aggressive students.  Once I was officially hired, I was flown to headquarters for an intensive training weekend.  I was expected to prepare extensively for the training, and would be teaching four different sections of the prescribed syllabus based on a standard set of materials.  It wasn’t training so much as it was further evaluation of my pedagogy, and my ability to follow their stringent model of instruction.  The expectations were very high, and very specific. They were also wholly different than any expectations, assessment, or application processes I’ve ever experienced teaching in the corporatized university. Further, to become a corporate educator, I was evaluated publicly in front of my peers, and was received criticism and feedback on content and style in front of my fellow trainees for at least ten minutes after each twenty-minute lesson.  After the training, I had to wait 48 hours to find out I was certified.
In some ways, my somewhat negative expectations of corporate education systems were met.  I had to adapt to a rigid model of instruction, and my creativity as a teacher was certainly hampered by the set schedule and learning objectives. Yet I would be remiss not to note that the high expectations and demanding hours were much like teaching for the corporatized university. Moreover, as I reflect back on this experience, I realize that in many ways, I found this initial foray into corporate education much more satisfying. 
It was certainly more humane.  The salary was hourly, and was negotiable based on my experience and education. 
When I teach for the corporate educators, I will be paid for every hour of prep and all student emails.  I was paid for training, which included being flown to a different province and put up in a hotel. I have access to my performance evaluations.  I have a mentor and a clearly established line of communication for both administrative and pedagogical questions and feedback. Also, get this: emailing my mentor is billable.  My teaching will be regularly evaluated; my positive teaching reviews equate to raises and further opportunities. I am able to train for other positions, and am encouraged to do so. I was hired permanent part time.  Though I am not guaranteed work, my contract is permanent, and I will never need to reapply.
I have been trained to believe that my lack of value is linked to the corporate direction universities have taken.  What I have learned in the last two weeks is to be far more careful about applications of labels and the way they translate into labour experiences.  It turns out, I want many of the things corporate education models can offer.  Maybe there is more room to maneuver and cause change from within this corporatized university structure than I ever thought possible. 

I can’t believe I am saying this, but: we can learn a lot from corporate education models.

Emily Ballantyne is a PhD student, part-time lecturer, and most recently, a corporate educator.
change · guest post · solidarity · women and violence

Guest Post: On Violence in the University and Still Trying to Live With a Loving Heart

Today’s guest post is by Dr. Dory Nason of UBC’s First Nations and Indigenous Studies and the Department of English. Mighty thank you to you, Dory! 

In thinking about what I could share in this blog post, I am aware that I hold a tremendous responsibility, as a scholar, as a teacher and as an Indigenous woman, to confront the subject of settler colonial violence, a gendered, racialized and political violence that displaces and dispossesses us all from a better set of relationships. While I struggled to think of something more uplifting to discuss, such as mentorship, my upcoming sabbatical or what it’s like to be Indigenous and a woman in the academy (the good parts!), I couldn’t turn my mind away from what I have been feeling these last few months, indeed these last few years, as a faculty member witnessing story after story of violent acts perpetrated against women on campus, often by fellow students.

For a list of examples, one need only turn to the news stories of assault that has taken place on my campus over the last two years, and its underreported statistics. Or the trouble another young Indigenous student faced in receiving aid after she was the victim of numerous domestic violence assaults while she lived in campus housing. My campus to its credit has worked to address these situations through calling attention to them in press conferences and in convening task forces such as this one: UBC’s task force on Gender-based Violence and Aboriginal Stereotypes, which released its findings in 2014. 

You might ask why the addition of Aboriginal stereotypes to this important task force? The answer is, in addition to the “rape chants” exposed in the business school’s Frosh week culture, there were also reports of a “Pocahontas” chant students joyfully sang as spirit building exercises, that when exposed caused an uproar on our campus and others across the country.  The Pocahontas chant consisted mainly of the words “white man, steal our land.” While this exercise was meant to bring together incoming business students in a “fun” activity, it served to also remind Indigenous women on this campus how little has changed. It served to underscore that what still holds together settler camaraderie is a culture of gendered violence and dispossession  that still hunts us to this day.

But this is only the context of what I want to discuss. My title suggests that I do not wish to dwell on a culture of violence but that I want to live, teach and work with a loving heart that is not overtaken by this darkness. I believe this can only be accomplished by confronting the violence, naming it and setting a path out of this destruction in order to live better and more just relationships.

Not just a better set of relationships but a more loving set of relationships: to our communities, homelands, the land, human and non-human peoples, to ourselves, and, most of all, to a way of being in the world that in Anishinaabeg philosophy is referred to as Mino Bimaadiziwin, or simply the Good Life, or as my great uncle Paul Buffalo has described it, the way you live your life in the service of life. I often turn to his ethnography for inspiration and for memories of a different time and place where my ancestors flourished.

Paul grew up in a place and a time where he could attend to this philosophy in his own language, on Anishinaabe territory, and with a worldview that saw power in all things and required deep knowledge of a specific territory and its beings. He could draw on vast networks of knowledge passed down from elders, and for my Uncle, much of that knowledge came to him from his mother Margaret, my great grandmother on my father’s side.  Though I would never meet her, except in the stories my father tells, or that I read in Paul’s words, I think about her often as a woman of great resilience and skills.

Margaret was an herbalist, a mid-wife and apparently an excellent doctor of horses. She lived from sometime before 1880 and died in 1958, a period of time of great change and struggle for her community. She was a religious woman, and told Paul to remember the “Indian way of life,” and to practice it, telling him someday people would come and want to learn it from him and to write it down. This task consumed the last 13 years of his life working with a professor of anthropology to record his teachings.

I end with this story, because it situates me, and yet embedded in it, are all the forms of violence that I spoke of before. Yet at the same time, what I chose to foreground is the steadfast commitment that both Paul and Margaret had to ensure the continuance of cultural practices and a philosophy that valued life and creation over personal power and gain.  Resistance in their lifetime was to not allow powerful forces of boarding schools, allotment, or racism to remove them from a way of thinking and a set of life-affirming relationships that constituted an Anishinaabeg world.  It is a story of resistance familiar to all Indigenous peoples the world over.

I also think of my mother’s story, a joyful Mexican woman who came from a family of migrant farmworkers and who I remember as always working, laboring in restaurants, factories and retail shops in a small Nebraska town filled with anti-immigrant racism. And yet, she had so much generosity, often bringing home new immigrants who needed a place to stay or a warm meal.

These intersections of immigrant and Indigenous inform who I am. The violence of settler colonialism and anti-immigrant racism converge in ways that for me have always been experienced as gendered violence. This informs the work that I do but not in the ways that dwell at this convergence. In my research and teaching, I have tried to focus on the creative acts of resistance that Indigenous women have made in bringing back into view a better way of relating to the world and to each other. I look to stories and artistic practices that create connections and hold us up. That is not to say, these writers and artists shy away from the violence, in fact they are incredibly incisive in describing its varied forms, permutations, and hegemonic nature. 

What I am interested in however is how stories and artistic practices recall and recast Indigenous philosophies that express heart knowledge, a radical love and resistance and offer ideas about decolonization, resurgence and better ways to be in solidarity with each other.  With that brief explanation of what I do, I thought I’d close my ramblings with a few words from my Uncle Paul in a passage that comes from his discussion of power. For him real power is accessed through attentiveness to one’s well-being, the well-being of others and one’s understanding of the natural world around her. In this excerpt, he explains the importance of not dwelling in sadness in order to maintain a sense of empowerment.  I think this is an important and difficult task for a lot of us who study these important yet difficult things:

He says:

Don’t cry. If you do cry maybe it will be cloudy again, and that means trouble in your life. You’ll cry tears and then you can’t see a brightening when it’s there. When you don’t cry you show appreciation to the sun and the moon that brightens up, gives you light, makes things grow–like vegetation, and the stuff you eat. You have to appreciate what nature’s doing for you. The spirits, the Great Spirits, are doing all these things during the rest hours at night. You have to rest too, and if you do then there’s no drawback that you can cry over.

You’re given life on this earth and it’s up to you to go around and appreciate it. By appreciating that life, you have to thank for what you have got. You have to appreciate it by speaking to yourself and your heart saying that you appreciate what has been done in the past. That’s what I do. I do that. And the trees are living and birds are singing. Birds sing too, they sing, and talk amongst themselves. If we did hear them talk we couldn’t understand them anyhow, but we know they’re singing. It’s nature, of all things! Oh, this is the world to study! It is the answer to your life. When you practice this with your friends you’ll see a good life. (Roufs)

Dory Nason is Anishinaabe and Chicana and a proud member of the Leech Lake Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe.  She is a grateful guest on Coast Salish territory where she teaches at UBC in First Nations and Indigenous Studies and the Department of English in the fields of Indigenous methodologies, literature and feminisms. Her research focuses on Indigenous women’s creative activism and intellectual history on Turtle Island.  She is currently at work on her book, Red Feminist Criticism: Indigenous Women, Activism and Cultural Production and the co-editor of the forthcoming volume Tekahionwake: E. Pauline Johnson’s writing on Native America with Broadview Press.

Works Cited
Roufs, Timothy. “Power, Chapter 28.” When Everybody Called Me Gah-Bay-Binayss, “Forever-Flying-Bird”: An Ethnographic Biography of Paul Peter Buffalo.  Available at 
adjuncts · after the LTA · contract work · ideas for change · media · reform

CAF Bits & Bobs

In lieu of an essay-style post today, I have a request. If you’re a contingent academic faculty member and you haven’t yet taken the HEQCO survey, please head over to their site and fill it out. It’s a little thing, but policy makers are looking to find out what needs fixing, and you’re the ones to tell them. The survey can be found at http://www.nonfulltimefacultysurvey.ca/

And if you’ve missed them, Erin now has four articles in her series on CAF over at Rabble. Check ’em out here: http://rabble.ca/category/bios/erin-wunker

academic work · administration · emotional labour

Kindness and bureaucracy

Paula Krebs has written an interesting opinion piece over at Chronicle Vitae. In it, she argues for approaching administrative work (she’s a dean) from a position of kindness. I think by kindness she means empathy, or the capacity to enter into another’s perspective to understand their context and motivations. So much of the work of administration is interpersonal: it’s about getting people to buy into ways of doing things, of getting along with each other, of working toward a common goal. This work must start, Krebs suggests, by looking at a given problem not from the angle of what the correct outcome is, but of where the other person is starting from. Maybe this professor found out she was underpaid relative to her male colleagues for years, and now doesn’t much feel like going on a team-building retreat with any of them. Maybe this student is seriously ill but wants to stay enrolled full time anyways because of the financial implications of changing status. Maybe this TA is grading to the beat of his own drum because he has pedagogical qualms about the standard rubric. These are good things to know.

There are dangers, though, to such inquiries and conversations, as Krebs suggests:

It can lead to a focus on individuals rather than on policy and procedures. That problem is especially troubling for me. I want to understand people and their needs and motivations, but I also need to remind myself that the best way to handle conflict is not to be a counselor or even a mentor. It’s more effective to prevent conflict in the first place, with structures that we all agree on and guidelines both for the way we treat each other and the way change happens. 

Man, did this resonate for me. Rounding the home stretch of my first year as Associate Chair, Graduate Studies I can say that one of the biggest joys has been devising and implementing policy that create supportive structures in our shared workspace: a policy for granting grades of ‘Incomplete.’ new checklists and timelines of degree requirements, explicit contracts outlining responsibilities for Area Exams, policies around residency and availability to be on campus.

I’ve been working (with the graduate coordinator, and the chair, and the graduate committee, and the associate dean) to figure out where our trouble spots were: and this was largely a matter of listening to students, and staff, and faculty tell their individual stories. And I had to listen with kindness, then figure out what to do next.

It’s hard to blend an attention to the unique circumstances of individuals, with the construction and maintenance of an appropriate and supportive set of policies and procedures. (Wow, that was the most boring sentence I’ve ever blogged, I think.) This involves the often deliberate practice of empathy and attention to human behaviors, while I have a tendency instead to jump right to the abstraction, the pattern, and the rule. But I find that if I listen to enough stories, or follow up on enough individual cases, a pattern does eventually emerge, and generalized-enough policy and procedure often then suggests itself.

What I’m getting at is that I’m drawn to administration because I like to find efficiencies and patterns and rules and organize things. I’ve discovered how much interpersonal work and support is actually required of me, and now, like Krebs, I’m finding that these are not opposing practices, but complementary ones. Better policy comes from better listening; better compliance and outcomes come from better policy.

Krebs writes: “Waiting for trouble to boil over before creating policy to deal with it is lazy. Of course, creating a bunch of rules for civility is worse than lazy. Rules don’t make people treat each other well. Culture does.”

Culture is hard: it’s the base as well as the superstructure. It’s both overdetermined, and spontaneous and individual in its manifestations. Balancing these truths is something I’m working on, and I still default too often to rampaging world controlling ENTJ tendencies. But as I keep trying to soften and listen, everything seems to turn out better. Kindness for the win.

advice · dissertation · grad school · reflection · writing

On Revising: Some Tips

There is a whole lot of writing studies research that suggests how very difficult it is for students to learn how to revise their writing. Most students tend to initially approach revision as proofreading, changing a comma here, a word there, tinkering with a sentence. They don’t typically understand what it means to develop or discover ideas, which takes engagement with opposing views, a complex multi-layered conversation, and a new, contributing idea.

This certainly was true of me as an undergraduate, and even as a graduate student. My writing practice in most of my undergraduate and graduate coursework was fairly straightforward: think about the paper topic (attend class, read critical articles), write some notes/an outline/select quotes, then whip up a 10-20 page paper in relatively little time. After I’d written the paper, proofreading/tinkering as I went, that was basically it. I’d occasionally read the paper aloud to catch stray grammatical errors, or ask a friend to proofread. But once it was written it was usually done. Only once or twice did I substantially revised a paper I’d already written in full, and it didn’t substantially shift my typical writing practice.
For a long time it worked out just fine. And some of these practices were good ones to develop, practices I still undertake, when I’m thinking about and discovering new ideas. But as an undergraduate and new graduate student, I was a pretty novice writer and thinker. Since the end of my MA and into my PhD, I’ve had to radically shift the way I think about what it means to write, and a big part of that has been learning to revise. After I’ve finished drafting papers, I’ve drafted them again (for conferences), and again (for submission-ready publications), and again (for revise-and-resubmits), and again (for dissertation chapters). I’m finally starting to gain a lived sense of what it means to genuinely revise, particularly for long and complex writing (ie: the dissertation). 
As I’ve begun to approach revising my first bit of really complex revising–the first section of my dissertation, a chapter of about 60 pages–I’ve learned, through trial and error, what really seems to work for me. 
Here are the steps I take when revising a longer piece of work: 
1. Print: Produce a (double-sided) paper copy of the draft. I’m not quite sure why exactly it took me so long to realize this simple but very important element of the revision process. For a long time I tried to do all my editing on my computer, but eventually I realized it just wasn’t working. It was difficult to scroll between pages, I could only see a narrow window of text, and I was finding it hard to conceptualized how all my ideas connected. Once I printed out a paper copy, the process became MUCH easier. Perhaps in part because it is hard to be distracted by social media when staring at a piece of paper.

2. Highlight: Once I printed out a paper copy, I went through and highlighted all the big points I was trying to make in my chapter. Thesis sentence, topic sentences, any central idea that I knew was important to carry through the chapter. This helped me focus on the main points, and make sure I was drawing my ideas through to a conclusion.

3. Write in the Margins: After highlighting the important bits, I went through and basically marked up my entire draft, fixing typos, adding sentences, filling in extra info where my supervisor had asked for more background information or explanation, and making sure my central idea and contribution was carried through my various points. I added transition sentences, did background research on the history of a particular society, and did some significant thinking, but all on physical paper.

4. New Word Docs: I usually work in Scrivener at the beginning of a project (and sometimes all the way through), but this time I found it easier to work with a blank Word screen, probably because I was overwhelmed by the amounts of writing I’d already produced. Opening a blank Word doc worked to help me produce those extra paragraphs and sections I wanted to add without being distracted by the whole.
5. Combine paper and Word drafts into a single whole: this is the fun part! It doesn’t take too much time either. Compile all the changes you’ve made into a single draft. It’s enormously satisfying.
A Final Tip: 
6. Realize IT TAKES TIME: Genuine revision of ideas takes an enormous amount of thinking time, and it doesn’t really work to push it to go faster. Recognize that this kind of hard thinking and writing can be exhausting, and don’t try to push yourself beyond what you can do. I realized I had to say no to writing in the evenings after a long day of writing, even though I felt like I shouldn’t. Pushing yourself like this doesn’t actually work: it makes that work of thinking harder in the long run. You need to give yourself the time and space to do this hard work of thinking, and then the time to recover. Give your brain a well-deserved break, so you can approach the work with fresh eyes again the next day.
#NSBudget2015 · academic work · broken heart

Tristesse in the Age of Austerity

I feel an agonizing sense of loss and regret when I walk out of the classroom for the last time.”

Co-founder and Editrix Emerita Heather Zwicker wrote this in April of 2011. In the full post, which you can read here, she pithily outlines the emotional connections teachers often feel when the term is over. Indeed, many of us here have written versions of our own post-term tristesse. Aimée’s  is the most recent. She writes,

Real learning is transformative–and all transformations are fraught with fear and excitement and loss and gain. The crucible of the new self is necessarily hot; it burns. Teaching, I find, is as emotionally and personally wrenching as learning is, and I need to find new ways to incorporate this reality into my work, even as I create some boundaries for myself and my students.


For all the frustrations–and there are many and they are legitimate–that come from teaching, I feel strongly that we here at Hook & Eye value the classroom-as-crucible-for-change more than just about any aspect of our jobs.

Except here’s the thing: since the blog founded in September of 2010 our demographic of regular bloggers has shifted radically. Back in 2010 it was Heather (tenured), Aimée (soon-to-be-and-now-tenured), and me (ten month contract). Now? One tenured professor, two PhD candidates, two partially-employed/-under-employed workers, and one alt-ac worker who is also completing her PhD. Yes, we have a semi-regular blogger who is tenured, but look at our guest posts: they are mostly coming from graduate students or members of the precariate. 

Why does this matter? It matters because teaching has changed in this age of austerity. Most of the precariously employed contract workers I know who are earning a living wage (& those are few) are teaching fifty percent more students than their tenured colleagues. And they are fighting to keep their research profiles alive and active so that they, in turn, may have a chance to keep their positions, or maybe, just maybe, apply for one of the jobs (the one job…) in their field this year. Indeed, I was one of those precariates earning a living wage, until June of last year when I moved into the severely-under-employed category. 

And the rest of us? We are either scrambling for work that pays less than Employment Insurance, but keeps us “in the game,” or we are stretched beyond the limit, shuttling across kilometres and campuses to make ends meet. 

Yet, we still care about teaching. We still care about students. Care can get warped when you’re put in the position of teaching 400+ students in a semester in order to make around $15,000 less than colleges who are tenured, yes. That care can get worn when you’re teaching classes that only fall outside your area of expertise because they are the only classes on the books for which a Dean or a VP will fund sessional labour, yes. That care can get taxed when you are barred by budgets from doing even the direct action work of the profession. 

In previous years my teaching load has been between three- and four- courses per semester. I have always taught in the spring to offset being laid off for two months. This year, I team taught one course that lasted a year but paid me only for one term of work. The class had a total for 400 students in it. It was a course I worked for two years to design with my co-teacher, whom I respect. And I will be honest, I felt detached when I wasn’t in class and with my students, because the structures that paid me for my labour made it clear my work mattered less than the work of the (wonderful) teaching assistants. 

And yet I am sad. The end of the term has come and I feel all those same feelings of loss, of concern that the students will forget, that I didn’t do a good enough job conveying vital information, that we will all forget what a privilege and what a responsibility it is to come into a classroom together to learn. 

And I am saddened even further, because when I turn on my computer I see that the fight for higher education is being taken up predominantly by students. This is amazing and inspiring, yes. I am in awe of the strength and will and solidarity that is happening in Quebec right now. But I am also acutely aware that just last week the Liberals of Nova Scotia deregulated tuition in this province, which means that my students–the savvy ones, the ones who aren’t yet aware, and the ones who don’t care–are likely going to be massively and adversely affected by this decision. As Rebecca Rose writes, the deregulation of tuition

This means that universities can increase these fees as high as they think “the market” (AKA students and their families) will bear without any government intervention. 

I would say it also means hiring sustainably at the professorial level will again be placed far on the back burner. That’s bad for the precariate. That’s bad for students. That’s bad for universities, provinces, the country. That’s bad for anything that might want, somehow, in the future, to look like sustainability. 

To be honest, this year, I am at an emotional as well as practical loss. I care about my students, I am feeling the post-term tristesse, and yet I am also feeling strange because I don’t have stacks of grading. I don’t have class prep for spring courses that start in a month. What I do have is a series of deficits. This is the first year in seven that I have no teaching lined up. I’m looking at the LSATs and thinking about what’s next not because I am disgusted so much as because I have to pay rent. My EI? It runs out in June. And I am just one person among many. One more would-be teacher. One more person who cares about students, even though they aren’t “mine” any more. One more person carrying the emotional weight of the economics of austerity.

So what do we do