community · PhD · writing

Still Writing, Still Eating, Still Together

Every third Saturday, we gather around someone’s kitchen table. Brunch gets served, coffee gets poured, and we settle into our chairs and share stories about our weeks and plans for the weekend ahead. We talk about cooking, and travel, and books, and movies, and gossip, and babies, and partners, and jobs. And then, when we’ve caught up, we talk work. Structure. Application of theory. Voice. Organization. Negotiating our committees. Publication. Productivity tools. Grammar. Turning conference papers into articles into chapters. Syntax. Analysis. We’ve been doing this for years.

Each session, two of us send around a 25-ish page chunk of writing for the others to read, and the rest of the group responds with comments that we then discuss in person. Despite writing on sometimes wildly different topics—nineteenth century novels, Canadian modernist poetry, contemporary anarchist poetry, the picturesque, modern drama—we’ve come to know each others’ work well over the many years we’ve been working together. We prize that familiarity, that ability to see how the work is changing and developing as it progresses, but we also prize fresh eyes that can see what our own myopic perspectives cannot. We’re kind, but we’re also critical. We want to help each other get better, and we want to see each other succeed. And not just in our academic writing. Most of us are now finished or nearly finished our dissertations, and doing some combination of teaching/working/writing/preparing for the future. We trade tips and horror stories about job applications, book proposals, writing resumes, finding jobs, figuring out what comes next. And we’re still doing it together.

I don’t know how common this kind of arrangement is. Narratives of competition, of isolation, of backstabbing and loneliness and alienation, are all too common when we talk about doing a PhD, especially the years we spend writing a dissertation. Our PhD program is quite large—my cohort had nine people in it, and that’s about average for the English program at York—but I know others whose isolation is exacerbated by being the sole doctoral student in their year, or one of only two. As a writing group—indeed, as a graduate program—we’ve rejected narratives of conflict, mistrust, and isolation. Instead, we work hard to foster a sense of community, a culture of collegiality, and a genuine caring. We like each other–a lot. And while competition and backstabbing are presumably intended to help you get ahead, research shows that those of us who form writerly communities actually do more, and better, writing. Few of us are intending to stay in academia, but our writing skills are crucial to our success wherever we end up, and being together–writing a lot, and writing well–will serve us well wherever we end up. Indeed, it has already. I’m testament to that.

I can’t say how grateful I am for our little group, one that is filled with people who make me a better scholar, a better friend, a better person. It’s no coincidence that on the same day as our last writing group session, our host Sam also held a meeting for the group of couples we both joined to sponsor a refugee family from Syria–that’s the kind of people my writing group is. I’m privileged to be able to write about the “we” that is my immediate scholarly community, one that is invested in my success, as I am in theirs. These folks are very necessary to my health and happiness as a person and a writer, and in ways I couldn’t have imagined back in the days when we all thought we were headed for the tenure track. That our group has continued and adapted as our plans and goals and lives have changed is a wonderful thing.

So tell me: what version of academic or creative community do you have in your life? What role does it play? And how can we foster these kinds of supportive and collaborative communities across the academy, particularly in graduate programs?

affect · emotional labour · grief · heartbreak · women

Guest Post: That lachrymose season: a term of crying in academia

Last week’s Hook and Eye post by Margeaux Feldman, “There’s no crying in academia,” is vital reading about largely unacknowledged emotional labour in the academy. In twelve years of academic instruction, I have never spent a term without having someone cry in my office for some very justifiable reasons. There’s plenty of pain out there: depression, divorce, violence, crippling anxiety. But this term, I’m the crier in my office. There’s no saying no to it and no separating the personal from the professional. And while the grief is terrible – how could it be anything but? – the reception of it in my department and my classes has been surprising.

My mother passed away in September from injuries sustained after a fall; she died on the first day of the fall teaching term. I have all kind of feminist criticisms about our health care system, and I’ll be writing about those soon. But first, grief. For the record, any time of the year that your mother dies is a terrible time of year but it’s the timing that my sympathetic colleagues have most remarked on. And if it hadn’t happened to me, I too would immediately wonder how to handle such an upheaval in schedule. Since it has happened to me, here’s the answer: I haven’t handled it. It’s the steamroller that has run over me, cartoon-like, and I can only work with the physical demands that are left.

It’s emotional labour, no question, but to tell the truth, it’s taking a toll on my body. Fatigue activates my sciatica, which is now a long taut string of poker-hot muscle that hobbles me. Being in public is a challenge; the performance of normality is the hardest work of all. I swing between being too voluble about the horrible to saying nothing at all. I am indebted to my colleagues who have offered me everything from tea to Kleenex to non-judgemental ears to teaching classes if I feel I can’t. The fact that I appear to have replaced my memory with a sieve has fazed no one. My Chair advised me well to cancel a class or two when I was too stunned to make a good decision, and – maybe more importantly – he was also mindful enough not to insist that I was too stunned to make a good decision. And when he asked me what I wanted to tell the students when I cancelled classes, I knew what I had to say.

I chose to tell my students that I was cancelling class because I had a death in the family. When I was a student, I found the lack of information given to me about a professor’s sudden absence not practically useful and a bit insulting as it assumed that I was a doofus who couldn’t be trusted with basic human information. I remember saying to the department admin, “I don’t need salacious details. I just want to know if she’s okay.” This appeal got me the hairy eyeball. Now that I was the prof, I knew that my students would eventually look me in the face and my face would tell all. I needed to prepare them.

To be clear, I’m not a pool of tears trickling from room to room, discomfiting students. I speak in full sentences, grade papers, discuss texts; I write and sit on committees. But I know that I look odd, strangely strung out: broken blood vessels in my eyes, no makeup, everything a little off-kilter. Because that’s grief. One thing that happens when death occurs is that the boundaries between private and public are wiped out for a while. You have to conduct private business in ways that are horribly public. Many things about the breaching of those boundaries has been and continues to be shocking, but my students have been great. Many immediately sent me condolences via email, or told me when they saw me that they were sorry for my loss. I could even see a few of them — those I’ve taught several times — keeping a close eye on me in my first few classes back.

In turn, I have protected them from the awful knowledge that one’s mother can die by just keeping my statement about “a death in the family.” Because it’s not right to frighten them, but it is right to let them step up and be adults, to make the leap to the understanding that their professors have lives, and loves, and tragedies. It’s right to show them their red-eyed professor who is not absent and not made of stone. It’s right to show them that grief forges its own pedagogical model.

Tanis MacDonald
Wilfrid Laurier University
feminist health · guest post · ideas for change

Guest Post: Towards a Critical Theory of Breast Cancer

My sister and I share a lot of things: a love of reading; a room until she was a teenager; when my sister got her first bra, she made me wear it (I was 7); we geek out over queer theory; and we both have the ability to produce lots and lots of estrogen.
But I’m the only estrogen maker days while Emily’s hormones are being blocked by not one but two inhibitors. And, after my 31 year-old sister’s double mastectomy, the bras are all mine, too. Emily made the decision to remain what she calls “a flattopper,” which means that she didn’t want breast implants. In doing so, she joined the 58% of patients who choose not to reconstruct. Post-mastectomy bodies underscore what we’ve been taught all along in Women’s Studies classes: gender and biology are not correlative.
photo cred. Chloe Wicks

Ever since Emily lost her breasts she gained a mission: to make bodies like hers less taboo, to proudly display images of breastless chests. I think of my sister’s body as an essay on performative gender roles come to life, a breast cancer theory from inside the body and out.
After my sister’s breast cancer diagnosis, during my first year as a PhD student, I was often frustrated with academia. I imagine I’m not the only one who’s felt that graduate seminars are useless when someone you love is facing a life-or-death situation. But, for Emily, being in university was part of the healing process. In fact, she chose to go back to school after finishing treatment to find theoretical frameworks to incorporate the felt experiences of breast cancer, gender, and queer identity.
During treatment, Emily felt like she had signed her body over to a team of doctors. Now she can name it: the medical gaze. When her visible signs of cancer are met with stares when out in public, Emily can name that, too: panopticism. More than anything else she learned in university, Emily says Lauren Berlant’s affect theory “resonates with every other aspect of my life, and it changed the way I went about my campaigning.” If chemo and surgery took away a sense of control over her body, knowing how to use her affective body to elicit change is a way of taking it back.
There were limits to what school could do for Emily, however: “Going back to school was really empowering, but it was also difficult because I had chemo brain,” she explains, “I was not capable of engaging with my brain in the same way.” Limited memory, along with other lingering post-cancer effects form what Emily calls “an invisible disability,” which made schoolwork difficult. There were restrictions within the university, too. Even though Emily praises her program, the Comparative History of Ideas at the University of Washington, she found both rigid disciplinarity and the inaccessibility of academic writing to be challenging to her ultimate goal of sharing her scars and her ideas with the public.
Ultimately, Emily used what she learned in the classroom as platform to launch, a website of resources and first-person essays. The term “flattopper” is a way of naming the decision not to undergo breast reconstruction post-mastectomy. It is an identity. Choosing to have implants or not is an act of agency, an individual choice that shouldn’t be contested—yet it is. My sister tells me stories of women who adamantly wanted flat chests but who woke up from surgery with extra skin still attached (to make space for implants). The surgeons, in these cases, taking away their patient’s agency along with their breasts. Facing the loss of body parts is a grim enough choice as it is, and having a medical professional question your choice only makes it worse. But, more than that, a surgeon dismissing that choice carries these patriarchal undertones that women’s bodies are not their own.
photo cred. Kat Chambers
In the idea of a flattopper alone there are infinite possibilities to work through theories about bodies, identity, and agency. I’ve read the awful and amazing comments on websites where Emily’s topless images are posted and I have learned this: we need a flattopper praxis. We need to challenge the equation of breasts and womanhood.
As breast cancer and gender theory intersect more and more, we can look to what Emily calls the productive potential of “what bodies like mine, post-cancer bodies, can do in terms of adjusting the way we think about gender.” When I ask my sister who should develop these critical theories of breast cancer, she reminds me that most people’s lives are affected by cancer. For me, Emily’s struggles show that there’s more work to be done both inside and outside the academy. And while I don’t share my sister’s disease, I can certainly share her ideas.  

Sarah Jensen
PhD Candidate, York University 

family · grad school · PhD · research · role models · women · writing

Reading (Through) the Mothers

I do most of my writing in a room in my house we call the library, a room that used to hold something like five thousand books–on shelves, in piles on the floor, tucked under the yellow Danish chair that never got used. Very many of those books were written by, or about, the women I consider my literary mothers, poets and novelists and theorists. They were all bought, or written by, or gifted to one of my actual mothers, my husband’s mother, who was the Canadian academic-translator-editor Barbara Godard. Very many of those books were gifted a few years ago to the university to which we both belonged, but many others still line the walls as I write, or come down to share something with me when I need to hear a critical voice that’s not my own.

I’m currently reading and writing my way through the grouping of poems that Jay Macpherson wrote to submit to the E.J. Pratt Poetry Prize when she was in her Master’s degree, poems that she would turn into O Earth Return: A Speculum for Fallen Women, and then into her Governor General’s Award-winning collection The Boatman. Macpherson had been spending a lot of time in rooms very different from my library full of women–in Robert Graves’s studio, where women and women writers were relegated to the position of Muse, and in Northrop Frye’s office, where his library shelves were stocked with very male canon-fodder–and she began to wonder where in those rooms she fit, where she might find the missing mothers she needed as a young woman writer. So she went out to find them, which she did, as I do, through reading and writing them. She found one in Eve, “the mother of all living” (“Eve in Reflection”), and another in the Queen of Sheba. She found others in the myths of Sibylla, Eurynome, Andromeda. But what she also found was that her mothers were in a double bind. In the literature and myth she so loved, women were the object, always subsumed under the male gaze and secondary to the plot of the male story. They only became women in and of themselves after they had fallen, after they had transgressed and been cast off. Then, and only then, in developing a self-consciousness that set them apart from their male creators–as Eve with her apple did from God and Adam–did they have an identity of their own.

So, Macpherson let them fall. And found her mothers, who had been hidden in the canonical texts she loved all along. She also found herself as a writer, not as Graves’s Muse, or as Frye’s disciple, or as a writer bound by the strictures of the canon, but as someone who could freely play with the stories she loved, turning them inside out and upside down in order to see how they fit together, to see how she fit into them, and they into her, however uncomfortably: You fit into me/like a hook into an eye//a fish hook/an open eye. Her poems are full of mirrors and reflections, women drowned and women watching images of themselves wavering on the water. As Barbara wrote in an essay about one of Macpherson’s best friends and poetic daughters, Margaret Atwood, “in paradises of art, grounded in but limited by the issue of gender, we write/weave our mirror doubles, men or women as the case may be, into eternity.” In her early poems, Macpherson wrote to weave her mirror doubles–her fallen women, her personal goddesses–into eternity. Macpherson is one of my fallen women–fallen out of the canon, fallen from critical favour–and now I write to weave her back into the story of the creation of that thing we call Canadian literature. I write to give her a story of her own that isn’t a subplot in a narrative about the canonical men–Frye, Graves, George Johnston, Hans Jonas–who have been credited with shaping hers.

As I sit on my sofa reading words that “the mom,” as my husband Alexis calls her, wrote back in 1987, my reading is mirrored, doubled. I sit reading an article Barbara wrote in the space where the words I read were written. I am reading Macpherson through Atwood through Godard. I am sitting on the sofa with the man who was, in my imagination of one of those days in 1987, downstairs making himself an after-school snack while his mother sat upstairs writing the words I am reading, a hungry twelve year old who now often reminds me to eat because he knows hangry when he sees it. I am finishing a dissertation on Canadian literature in a house that used to be home to one of the people who made doing that possible, who forced English departments like the one we both called home to teach the literature of our country, to recognize it as a legitimate subject of inquiry, to put writers like Macpherson on the syllabus and the comprehensive exams. I think about what it must have been like to do this work–the writing, the reading, the advocacy–as a mostly single parent with a growing son, what sacrifices that must have required of both of them, what sacrifices I don’t have to make because Alexis is grown and because we don’t have children of our own and because Barbara and my other mothers made them before me. And I recognize that because of Barbara and Jay, the mothers who came before me, I don’t have to go looking for my academic and writerly mothers–they’re here, in the room, on the shelves, and with me as I write.

Photo credit: James Gillespie. 

emotional labour · guest post · outreach

Guest Post: “There’s No Crying in Academia,” Acknowledging Emotional Labour in the Academy

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the demands made on graduate students and the emotional labour that is required as a result. Academia privileges and glorifies mental labour (from the qualifying exams you have to take to the dissertation that you will write). But in my experience, the academy is mute when it comes to the question of the emotional labour that these acts of mental and intellectual rigor entail. Nobody talks about his or her feelings. If, as Tom Hanks famously proclaims in A League of Their Own, there’s no crying in baseball,” then there is certainly no crying in academia. And so academia requires maintaining a vow of silence as you fight to live in this Darwinian “survival of the fittest.” Yet the dirty secret that no one wants you to know is that there is actually much crying in academia. But we do that crying in private. Our suffering takes place in bathroom stalls, in our private offices, or in our homes. We suffer in private where we cannot be shamed.
I say that we suffer not to be hyperbolic, but because labour and suffering are etymologically linked. In the first half of the 12thcentury, labour meant trouble, effort, affliction, and misfortune. By 1170 labour became a burden. One hundred years later, our labour was our suffering. And another hundred years later, our suffering became more specific, with labour denoting physical pain, fatigue, hardship, distress, wear and tear. I’m compelled here to read tear in both senses of the word: as in ripping or tearing and as the drop of liquid that our eyes release as a sign of emotion, but especially when we feel grief or sorrow. So the labour we perform – which could be physical, mental, or intellectual –hurts us and can make us suffer. And that hurt, I’d argue, is doubled when the labour we’re asked to perform (or need to perform, for ourselves, for others) is emotional in nature.
I’ve seen emotional labour take many shapes in my own academic life. I’m passionate about my research and so writing a conference paper, dissertation chapter or grant proposal is as much a physical labour (sitting down at my computer, fingers typing) and an intellectual labour (figuring out what my ideas are and how to best articulate them) as it is an emotional labour. Then there’s the emotional labour that goes into being a teacher. I’m deeply invested in my students and their successes. I work hard to create a classroom that is a safe space where students can be vulnerable and admit when they don’t understand something, a space where they treat one another with respect and care. I accept and want to perform these emotional labours.
But there are certain acts of emotional labour that I don’t wish to perform, like the emotional labour of pretending that I’m okay. Academia requires that you conceal your feelings all the time, because, god forbid someone (a professor, supervisor, administrator, colleague) be confronted with the fact that you’re a human being and you have feelings. I’ve been pretty lucky in this regard. My supervisor [1] came into our first class and told us how she’d just had a panic attack and explained why. She wanted us to know that, as a result, she’d be a bit off for that class. This was the first time that I heard a professor talk about their feelings (outside of “I love this book”). In that moment I felt like I could breathe again, that there was perhaps a space for emotions within the academy. The professors that I’ve TAed for before have also made space for my emotional life. When you make space for someone’s emotional life, you’re also opening up space for him or her to be a human. Recognizing another emotional life is not just a vital act, but also an ethical one. When I have to hide my feelings for the sake of other people’s comfort, I become exhausted. While I pride myself on always thinking about the comfort of others, I’ve also come to realize that living ethically means that sometimes we have to sit with that discomfort, we have to confront it, interrogate it, for the sake of the other.
I’ve cried in front of various administrators throughout my time in the PhD. Some have known how to handle it while others haven’t. One might say that it’s unprofessional to cry in front of your department head; but when you say that, you’re policing affect and failing to acknowledge that as human beings we feel things. What you’re saying is “there’s no crying in academia.” And you’re also shifting blame: you, the crier, need to change so that the person you’re crying in front of doesn’t have to figure out how to make space for your feelings. It’s this kind of thinking that has made the words “mental health” taboo. So when you say that it’s important for grad students to take care of their bodies and minds, you’re at the same time attempting to absolve yourself of any responsibility or accountability. You need to take care of yourself.
This year, UofT’s Graduate English Association executive decided to run its first ever workshop on health and wellness in academia. I was incredibly excited that this was happening and volunteered to talk about how I’ve dealt with my anxiety disorder while completing my PhD. Other students volunteered to talk about everything from having an eating disorder to how to make time and space for physical activity, and how to deal with failing your comprehensive exams. There were representatives from Student Life and Accessibility Services, as well as the newly created “Healthy Grad Crew” who came to talk about the different services that the university offers to support mental health and wellness.
It was an amazing workshop. Unfortunately, the volunteers and speakers were the only ones who were there to experience it. No other students came. There are many reasons that this could’ve been the case. Perhaps there are other, more private ways that they deal with their mental health. Maybe when it comes to their mental health, they desire privacy. I want to respect those choices. And yet many students expressed excitement at the thought of having this kind of workshop on offer, which leaves me feeling that the lack of attendees speaks – at least in part – to the fact that students don’t feel like there is time or space to make mental health and wellness a priority. Of course, I say this as someone who stopped going to yoga in the first semester of my PhD and then felt so awful as a result. Still, I think it also speaks to the fact that people are afraid to talk about their mental health, afraid to admit that they sometimes (or oftentimes) struggle when it comes to anxiety, depression, imposter syndrome, and a whole other host of affects that grad students tend to feel. The fact that the executive decided to call it the “Health and Wellness” workshop instead of “Mental Health and Wellness” speaks to their own awareness of the lived reality of the stigmas and taboos surrounding mental health – both inside of academia as much as outside of it.
In thinking about emotional labour within academia, it’s also important that we highlight just how gendered that labour is. All of the student volunteers were women and all of the representatives at the workshop were women. It was women who came together to talk about the importance of mental health and wellness. And it was women who were going to perform emotional labour – by sharing their stories and struggles – in the service of others. This shouldn’t have shocked me; it is taken as a fact that women are emotional caregivers. We can see this in the fact women outnumber men in the fields of social work, counseling, and teaching. We can see this in the ways in which women are criticized for not smiling or for having “Resting Bitchy Face.” And yet here I was, not only surprised but also angry. I’ve spoken to many men in my program about their struggles with anxiety and depression, yet it was only women at this workshop (although one member of the executive is a man, who couldn’t be at the workshop but put a good deal of labour into the planning and organization). 
In “Multiculturalism and the Promise of Happiness,” Sara Ahmed describes how the gendered performance of affects – happiness in particular – “erases the signs of labour under the sign of happiness” (121). She goes on to point out that “the claim that women are happy, and that this happiness is behind the work they do, functions to justify gendered forms of labour not as products of nature, law or duty, but as an expression of a collective wish and desire” (121). Ahmed points out how the emotional labour that women perform is not for them, but for the collective that holds certain wishes and desires – those wishes might be everything from the desire to not have to be confronted with “negative” affects to a wish to not recognize the suffering that is etymologically, if not inextricably, linked to the emotional labour performed by women.
I do want to take a moment and acknowledge that men are confronted with a great amount of stigma when it comes to mental health. Historically (and sadly, even presently) women have been portrayed as weak, hysterical, emotional. And so we’re the ones who take on this burden of emotional labour; it is our terrain. Men have been portrayed as strong, self-sufficient, rational. To admit that you’re struggling, that you’re dealing with a mental illness, might seem impossible. It is tragic when a man suffers but it is quotidian when a woman does.
In a recent article for GUTS Magazine, “DEAR BB: DUDES INRAPE CULTURE,” the author addresses a man who wants to know how he can stop being complicit in rape culture. He writes: “Can you talk to me about talking to rapists about rape?” The unnamed author responds by asking the man to think about the emotional labour he is asking the women in his life to perform. She writes: “Teaching people not to rape (and indeed, trying to not get raped) is work that is disproportionately performed by the people who are raped most often: women, even more so if they are of colour, Indigenous, trans, sex workers, disabled, fat, or poor. Rape is quotidian to us.”
The author wonders why is it women that must teach men about rape when men are the ones who are experts. Why is it that women are the ones to talk about their struggles with mental health when men struggle too? When you ask women to tell you about x, or when you place them in the position of being the only ones to share their stories, you’re asking them to perform some heavy emotional labour; labour that can be painful, distressing, fatiguing; labour that can tear new wounds and reopen others. I’m willing to do this, but I can’t be the only one to do it. While so many women are willing to do with work with me, I don’t feel like that is enough. I don’t want women to be the only ones crying, in academia or in general.
I want this essay to be a manifesto that is not just a call to the academy to recognize the ways in which it asks (or tells) us to keep our emotional labour a secret. This manifesto is also a call to the men who exist within the academy’s walls, especially to the men who identify as feminists. I want us to push back against “the residue of certain cultural,” and I would add emotional,  “imperatives: to have a relationship to pain defined by the single note of resistance” (Leslie Jamison, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” 209). Emotional labour doesn’t need to be painful but if we refuse to talk about it, if we continue to tell graduate students that we don’t want to hear about their feelings, if we continue to promote the idea that the only relationship one should have to their emotions is one of resistance, of stoicism – then we end up valorizing exhaustion, pain, and suffering. If we continue to ignore the emotional labour that is part and parcel to being an academic – and a human being – then we’re saying: “you just got to figure out a way to deal.”
This kind of logic begs the question: where has all the empathy gone? To borrow the words of Carl Gombrich, we are experiencing an “empathy deficit” in academia. So what would it mean for us to rectify this deficit? If empathy requires “knowing you know nothing,” as Leslie Jamison argues, then the stakes are pretty high (“The Empathy Exams,” 5). To admit that you know nothing when you exist in a field that is committed to the performance of knowledge, well, that’s a pretty scary thought. And yet this is what I try to do with my students. I try to teach them to feel okay about admitting that they don’t understand something. Being okay with not understanding doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to understand. When we confront the unknown what we’ve actually done is give ourselves an opportunity to travel into another world.
As a PhD candidate in English, what draws me towards literature (and what made me fall in love with literature in the first place) is that I’m able to enter a new world – sometimes familiar, sometimes unfamiliar. I get to meet new people in the form of characters; I see how they struggle and what enables them to thrive. And more often than not, I come to care about them. Literature has taught me how to be in the world with others, it has provided me with different roadmaps for ethical relations and enabled me to create my own. I find that I’m compelled to read stories of great sadness, suffering, and sorrow – and it is these stories that ask me, beg me, to empathize. There’s plenty of crying in literature. When will there be a space for crying in academia?

University of Toronto

 [1]I’ve spoken to my supervisor about disclosing this moment and she has told me that she is more than okay with that (the decision to not name her was my own).

academic reorganization · academic work · adjuncts · guest post

Guest Spotlight: The Crisis Goes Deeper Than We Think, part 2

This is the second of a two-part spotlight on the crisis in higher education written by Sarah Waurechen. The first part, originally published at, was posted Friday and can be read here. 

Teachers who work in Continuing Education in Quebec CEGEPs, like adjuncts who work in the universities across North America, continually face a dilemma: how do you strike a balance between the need to protect yourself and the need to protect your students? The short answer is, you don’t. Most of us perform significant amounts of free labour in order to provide the extra support that will help our students succeed, sacrificing our personal time and private lives at the altar of higher education in the process.
I’m not sure that this would be healthy even if it did work, but the issue is that it clearly doesn’t work. The number of vulnerable students is on the rise, and students who need extra guidance and protection from the realities of budget cuts and restructuring are legion. Teachers simply cannot help them all. There are no more compromises to be made, and every attempt to protect one student seems to end up hurting another.
I work at a Cegep where the size of the Continuing Education program has doubled in the last decade. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 30% of the overall student body is now registered in Continuing Education classes, which means studying in the evening or on weekends. These classes attract mature students, immigrants who are trying to integrate into Quebec society, and a growing number of working-class individuals who just can’t afford to study full time or during the day.
The demographics of Continuing Education therefore mean that these students tend to need more help, not less. Continuing Education students are tired because they work all day and then go to school for 3-4 hours at night. They eat on route or during break, and sometimes have difficulty staying awake through class. Some of them have small children or sick family members to care for at home; others are sick themselves, or are members of the LGBT community and navigating the troubled waters of identity politics.
Despite this, I am not paid to answer their emails or meet with them during office hours. Continuing Education students are, instead, left to fend for themselves. And while my colleagues and I do our best to help them via informal consultation, there are simply more students who need help than there are hours in a day. 
More troubling still, students who are suffering from emotional distress, or those in need of serious career advice, need more specialized help than a teacher can provide.  But Continuing Education students don’t have reliable access to the services that could help them with these problems. This is because Counseling Services and Academic Advising both close before night school begins.
As the provincial government has reduced funding and imposed austerity measures on Quebec CEGEPs, teachers and professionals have made compromises. The availability of support services has failed to keep up with demand, but the services themselves do remain available. And although positions aren’t replaced as people retire, everyone else has tried to pick up the slack.
But these compromises have not been enough to protect everyone, and they have been made with an eye to regular day-division programs. Facing a very real lack of resources, colleges like my own have therefore been forced to rely on the funds generated by Continuing Education to make ends meet.
Once you understand this reality, the expansion of Continuing Education makes sense because Continuing Education is very profitable. Students in night or weekend classes still pay student fees that help fund things like Counseling Services and Academic Advising, even if they can’t get to school while those services are open. They also pay a certain amount of money per course, if they’re not full-time. And don’t forget, the teachers who work in Continuing Education are paid only half the salary of their counterparts who teach during the day.
In sum, we’ve created a context wherein colleges are encouraged to turn to exploitative systems like Continuing Education in order to keep everything else running the way it should. We’ve reached the point where the only way I have left to protect my students is to advocate for them, and for myself. Making more compromises would make me even more complicit in the system than I already am – and I cannot allow that to happen. For me at least, it’s time stand up, raise my voice, and fight.
Sarah Waurechen has a PhD in early modern British history from Queen’s University, Kingston. She has taught courses on a contract basis at the University of Alberta, Queen’s University, and McGill University, and currently works as a Continuing Education instructor at Dawson College in Montreal.
academic reorganization · academic work · adjuncts · guest post

Guest Spotlight: The Crisis Goes Deeper Than We Think, part 1

This is a two-part guest post from Sarah Waurechen. This first part appeared at in April and is republished with permission from both and, of course, from Sarah. Her second part will be published on Monday.


Six months ago, almost no one outside academia knew what an adjunct was. Now, after National Adjunct Walkout Day, and strikes at two of Ontario’s largest universities, we know that poorly paid and precarious workers called adjuncts (also known as sessionals) are responsible for more than half of the teaching done at universities and colleges throughout North America. On average, adjuncts are paid just $2,500 for teaching a university-level course in the U.S. and $7,500 in Canada. Their contracts expire at the end of every semester, and they have no benefits or sick days. 

While precarious employment among our intellectual elite might seem like an isolated issue — a crisis tied specifically to university and college campuses — this is not the case. In fact, there is an even less well-known group of highly educated and grossly underpaid teachers hidden within the CEGEP system. CEGEPs are institutions, unique to Quebec, that offer both technical programs and pre-university diplomas at the post-secondary level. They are publicly funded and staffed by unionized employees. Most people therefore assume that CEGEP instructors have cushy, public-sector jobs. But this is not the case, and the CEGEPs have evolved a class of precarious workers that look an awful lot like adjuncts.
This is because larger CEGEPs offer something called Continuing Education: evening and weekend courses designed to accommodate students who are working during the day or who need to retake a course. Continuing Education teachers are paid significantly less than those who teach in regular daytime programs, even though they offer the same courses for the same credit. Additionally, teachers working in Continuing Education have no benefits or sick leave. What does this look like in practice? A science teacher with a master’s degree and five years of teaching experience would make just over $52,000 per year if working full time; the same teacher giving the same courses in Continuing Education would only make about $29,000.  If the teacher in question has a PhD, the difference between salaries would be wider still.  
Like adjuncts, teachers working in Continuing Education are therefore constantly worried about their ability to pay the bills. The inequality of the situation is striking in and of itself, especially since it involves public-sector employees, but there are bigger concerns here as well. Teachers working in Continuing Education are only paid for “contract hours,” meaning that they are not remunerated for anything other than course preparation, teaching time, and grading. At some point, suffering from exhaustion and struggling with limited resources, something has to give. That something is likely to be office hours, email time, and arranging accommodations for students who are ill or in crisis, all of which can take hours of a teacher’s time. When Continuing Education teachers can no longer provide these services, we will see the emergence of second-class students toiling alongside these second-class instructors, and the best education will be reserved for the elite. 
The growth of Continuing Education in the CEGEPs, like the increasing number of adjuncts at the universities, is linked to the corporatization of higher education and to government austerity measures. Continuing Education is a cash cow, providing a substantial budget surplus, which can be used to make up shortfalls elsewhere. It’s therefore in the interest of schools to expand these programs in order to balance their budgets, whether or not it’s in the best interest of their teachers or students. Still, individual CEGEPs are not the real culprits. They are merely attempting to make up for repeated funding cuts that have been imposed by the provincial government. These cuts show no sign of relenting any time soon, and on March 26, the Quebec government announced a further $21 million in cuts to the CEGEPs and $103 million to Quebec universities.
The underfunding of higher education is dangerous and amounts to gambling with our future. Young people absolutely must continue to have access to an education that challenges them. They need guidance developing their critical thinking skills and practice in the creative application of abstract ideas. These are skills they will use as business people, politicians, professionals, and the everyday men and women that keep society functioning at a more practical level. And the only way they are going to get these skills is if we pay teachers a living wage so that they can do their jobs effectively.
Right now, a growing number of the people teaching in higher education are distracted by worries about whether or not they’ll need to go on employment insurance next semester, or how many groceries they can buy this week. They come into work with serious injuries or high fevers because they cannot afford to take a night off. The current system is abusive of teachers and students alike. It fixes short-term monetary problems at the expense of long-term societal success by perpetuating inequality on a grand scale. This is why university educators were on strike in Ontario, and this is why students are on the streets in Quebec. And we can, quite simply, do better. 

Sarah Waurechen has a PhD in early modern British history from Queen’s University, Kingston. She has taught courses on a contract basis at the University of Alberta, Queen’s University, and McGill University, and currently works as a Continuing Education instructor at Dawson College in Montreal.
perpetual crush · solidarity

I Heart Academic Administrative Staff

Some things that my (yes, I think of her as mine even though I know she isn’t mine at all, but I can’t help feeling a little possessive) Research Officer has said to me over the course of assisting me as I lurched towards clicking the “submit” button for my SSHRC grant application:

“Naughty, naughty for trying!”
I tried, twice, to sneak something into my budget that is not permitted.
“sigh, ‘hope’ appears again.”
One may anticipate or expect to do things, but, really, there is no hope.
“You didn’t sleep last night, did you?”
When I couldn’t remember my password and was two attempts away from being locked out with only hours to go before the submission deadline.
“We were worried about you.”
For a while there, every budget document turned to magical mush in my hands.
It is no exaggeration to say that, without the support of my RO, and the coordinator of the research unit that hosts my application, I would not have submitted this application. Aside from little old me, no one cared more about my application than Janet and Alicia aka Goddesses of Research Support. I cannot think of the last time anyone read anything I wrote line by painstaking line and edited it with so much care, again and again and again and again and again.
They also insisted that I sing my own praises more fully. It seems so obvious now, but it never occurred to me to include positive quotes from reviews of my book when I was asked to think about the impact of my research. It wasn’t even modesty, false or otherwise, that made my first draft of the attachment that talks about my record as researcher so lame. I honestly just didn’t know that one could include reviews. I needed someone who had seen a lot of applications to tell me.
In the days before the deadline, I got more emails (each one action-packed with stuff that helped me along) from them than I got from my husband in the heady, early days of our courtship. The day before the deadline, when I showed up at their offices clutching my laptop with that quiet air of desperation that only SSRHC can engender in me, they asked me how I was feeling and I was so grateful that they thought to ask, that they knew exactly where I was at – right down to the number of characters I still had to cut on one of my attachments – that I almost cried. The night before the application was due, they emailed me to let me know when they would be stepping out for a few hours, and when they would be back on email to help me through any last minute crises that would erupt. They were totally there for me. They had my back.
Yesterday, Aimée wrote about the pivoting that is part of being a midcareer feminist academic. In the quiet hum of panic that preceded the hours before I submitted my grant application (I blame that feeling almost entirely on the countdown clock on the website which made me feel like I am in a boring academic version of 24 where the logic of the ticking clock leads me to moments of intensifying absurdity), I was thinking about her post and how incredible it is to be in a career where there are unbelievably brilliant and competent people whose whole job is about making me look good, or at least less of the dope that I would be if left to my own devices.
Hook & Eye has known about the power of academic administrative staff for a long time. We are lucky to count among our crew someone who is, among many other things, an outrageously awesome Research Officer. When Melissa wrote recently about the challenge of unconscious bias in reference letters, I was reminded all over again about the kind of crucial behind-the-scenes work that academic administrative staff do every single day. In a lot of ways, they know the stakes better than most of us because they see so much that academics just don’t see. Melissa reads thousands of reference letters a year. She lobbies funding agencies on our behalf for anti-bias practices and guidelines. She is totally there for us. She has our back.
We are a long way from Administrative Professionals’ Day (April 27, 2016 – put it in your calendar to buy some chocolate) but, in the hazy glow of my post-application submission moment, I want to remember how much we owe to the people who are at work every day making our jobs easier and better, who actually make our universities run, who make us look good because they are so freaking good.
And, of course, this is a feminist issue. It has not escaped my attention that the people who had my back with my latest research hurdle are women. Overwhelmingly, academic administrative staff members are women. There are vulnerabilities and actual silences for academic administrative staff in general. But, because we are really talking about a group largely made up of women, we have to attend to how these vulnerabilities are gendered too.
Of course, we also know that you cannot separate gender from class. Last week, I was at a Faculty Council meeting where the Provost and Vice-President of Finance for my university presented a new budget model. But it was also a presentation of our many budgetary crises and a general narrative of the need for more austerity. At one point, it was pointed out that “there was a lot of duplication” in the ranks of academic administrative staff. I thought about that comment, and how any of the staff members I work with would feel about the view that there wasn’t enough work for them. So, we as tenured academics, were being told that we were spending more money than we had, and that we had more staff (who have significantly few protections than tenured profs) than we need. We talk a lot about precarity on this blog, but it tends to be in the context of Contract Academic Faculty. Let’s also remember that academic staff live with precarities too.
Last spring, when the strikes by CUPE 3903 were over but still fresh in the minds of everyone on my campus, almost no one I knew was aware that the academic staff association was also in bargaining and that the bargaining had been going very badly. They were going to a strike vote. No one I knew who was not a staff member seemed to be aware of it. I remember talking with a staff member about what might happen, about how hard it was for them to communicate to the public, and to students in particular for whom staff are often the face of university administration, their position. Thankfully, it never came to a strike and an agreement was signed. But the shadow of that near-miss, and the realization of the way in which staff are so often caught between competing institutional agendas, remains with me.
So. Let’s be there for them.
academy · empowerment · enter the confessional · fast feminism · generational mentorship · heavy-handed metaphors · ideas for change · midcareer

Pivot Point: Mid Career Feminist Academic

Sometime between earning tenure and right now, something important shifted. Instead of asking for signatures, I began to provide them. Instead of putting my name on the ballot for the committee, I became its chair. Instead of asking for orientation and guides to processes, I am now providing them. Instead of standing up for my principles in someone else’s meeting, I am setting the agenda for everyone. Instead of paying to go to conferences, I am invited to present. Instead of responding to CFPs, I am responding to invitations. It has become the case that I am teaching grad courses where half the assigned readings are by people I know personally, and some of the pieces cite work of my own. It’s weird.

Sometimes I look in the mirror and I’m surprised to see my 42 year old face looking out at me. I feel like a fresh young upstart, a rookie. Like a grad student sometimes. I feel like I’m starting out, still trying to figure out how everything works. An outsider.

This is all bullshit, and terrible feminism, to boot. Such a perspective enables me to avoid acknowledging the actual privilege and power that have attached to me over time. It’s flattering to my self-image to see myself bravely storming the barricades around the Ivory Tower. The truth is that at some point, I became an inhabitant safely ensconced on the protected side of the moat. The truth is that I guard the gates now.

This is a pivot point. The point where I acknowledge that while I’m still reaching for greater heights, I’m kind of holding the brass ring, and while still reaching as ably and confidently as I can manage, I need to release my grip a little so that others can grab a little piece of it too.

I’m not sure how to do this. I’ve climbed the Ivory Tower to the position I currently occupy by some combination of luck, timing, doggedness, self-promotion, faked confidence, and an always upthrust hand waiting to grab the microphone. It has taken a certain amount of tenacity and single-mindedness. But now, I have some small measure of power and control not only over myself but over others. My core values have, if anything, become more radical, and my critiques more pointed–I’ve had a lot of time to get smarter. However, it needs acknowledging that my relations to others–to people, to structures, to institutions, has radically shifted over time. This will necessitate some changes in how I act. It will also necessitate some changes to how I understand my own academic subjectivity–I’ll tell you frankly that it’s ideologically expedient to see myself as a rebel outsider rather than an agent of the institution of power.

I do know I need to acknowledge my own power and position not so much to seize it more fully (I was always already leaning into it, from junior kindergarden forward) but to wield it more lightly. To fight less hard to take up space as a the dragon-slaying rebel, but learn instead to use my dragony fire breath to make the clearing a little larger for more rebels to set up larger and better camps, use my wings to shelter them. I’m kind of discovering what that means, in practice.

I would love to hear from other mid-career faculty: what are your pivot points? How do you cope? What are your strategies for wielding power and influence for the cause of equity, or justice, or change from the inside rather than the outside?

academic work · classrooms · guest post

Guest Post: Transferrable Skills

Last spring  I was asked to write a guest post comparing my work as a corporate educator with my work in the corporatized university.  Much to the surprise of many, including myself, I realized that the pragmatic benefits of corporate work quickly outweighed the far more intangible benefits of academic work.  After I shared this revelation with you, my mind really shifted toward imagining myself in alt-ac.  Not as an alternative, but as a concrete opportunity that I did not feel I could get within the university.  I don’t just want to work.  I want to thrive.  And, I can’t thrive if I am not making a living wage but spend all of my time working.
So today, I thought I might speak a bit about my job search thus far.  I want to speak in big, broad terms.  I am not going to speak to the conversion of my CV to a resume, or about strategically pitching my experience to employers.  Instead, I just wanted to mention some of the things I am looking for when I assess jobs against my own experience and educational background.
In the last two weeks, I have applied for four jobs.  That is more jobs than I saw posted in Canadian literature all year, particularly if I narrowed it down only to permanent, uncontracted positions.  If I look at each of them separately, I see that they are diffuse:  jobs in training, instructional design, learning strategy and grant writing.  But, they aren’t diffuse because I am reaching, trying desperately to fit something to my skills.  They are diffuse because, I have learned, my skills really are transferable and I have a ton of existing experience.  My experience is tangible, and I can tie my work to real, concrete experiences and outcomes.  I can write up portfolios and presentations in various media to illustrate that I have, in fact, done all of the required to excel in each of the positions I applied for.
So often, particularly as a PhD student, we get caught up in narratives of failure and helplessness.  It feels sometimes (and our departments often make this worse!), that we have nothing to offer and have somewhat hopeless futures.  But we don’t.  We don’t.  We just need to realize that there are other industries—closely related to the ones we currently operate in—that value our work experience.  If we treat the PhD like a job, like I have for the last five years, then, we end up with five years of amazing skills and experiences that make us desirable and marketable to employers in both the public and private sectors.

In a recent job screening, I was asked about my salary expectations.  A little voice inside of me said, “Well, I am currently living off of $25,000 or less, so anything more than that would be nice.”  I didn’t listen to that little voice.  I did my homework and looked around at similar jobs and their salary ranges.  Instead of setting the standard at the abysmal low set by the university, I assessed my own value using the field standard.  This was such a necessary reminder for me:  I am valuable.  We are all valuable.  We need to stop defining ourselves by the standards established by part-time labour contracts.  We need to, just for a moment, remember our worth.

Emily Ballantyne
Dalhousie University