risk · teaching

A pedagogy of provocation

Boyda’s excellent post from yesterday, on how to cultivate a healthy detachment in teaching, got me thinking about my own pedagogy of care. I’ve long since made the move that Boyda describes, of sticking to her guns and not over-explaining or apologizing for decisions on deadlines and readings and attendance policies.

Here’s something I’ve found, as I grew comfortable teaching that way. When the rules of engagement–the contractual parts of the course–are clear and consistent, it creates a boundary around the classroom and students come to feel more supported and more secure. Everyone knows there are going to be five quizzes and they’ll all be about the textbook. Everyone knows there is a final exam. Everyone knows that every day there will be informal writing, and group work. Everyone knows I’m actually really serious about having the reading done before class, and that I will in fact answer absolutely any question if someone bothers to come to my office hours to ask it in person.

From that security and predictability comes the possibility to push into what I call the pedagogy of provocation.

The pedagogy of provocation means pushing back against my students’ ideas, letting them work through contradictions, prompting them to consider alternative views, correcting them on facts, asking them to differentiate between opinion and scholarship, to name the methodology or theory from which they draw their arguments.

Yesterday, I provoked my first year Digital Lives students. Just for context, I will note that this is the first time I’ve taught it where the classroom demographic skews 90% to Math and Computer Science and Engineering students and the vibe in the room is palpably different. Much of the course content interrogates tech culture, from innovation to business practices to digital divides of various sorts to web culture to Silicon Valley. I’ve never taught a cohort who so clearly mark themselves as invested in the tech industry as programmers, entrepreneurs, or engineers.

We opened class with two questions I’d written on the board:

  1. What happens to your digital stuff after you die?
  2. What is “free speech” on Twitter? What is “criminal harassment”?

I gave everyone 10 minutes to write notes towards answers for these questions, and prompted them to think through some of the material we’d already covered: what do we know from the history of media technologies that sheds light on these questions? What are some different scholarly approaches to these questions? Are there technical answers, or legal answers, or regulatory answers, or geographically specific answers, or cultural answers?

And then we discussed.

The first question revealed that notions of “property” and “ownership” are complicated online, and that regulations about willing property to beneficiaries is not readily analogous to taking over someone’s iTunes library. Or that maybe I want to have my Facebook persist as a memorial after I’m dead, but I want some way to nuke my AshleyMadison.com account without my family ever knowing it existed. Students offered their ideas, and I pushed back (“Are you sure?”) or I grabbed keywords (“Aha! But you don’t ‘own’ your music on Spotify! How is subscription different from ownership?”). Some of it was frustrating: it turns out there’s no easy answer, and not one answer, and that different answers are more or less true in different ways on different services in different contexts.

The second question was a little more contentious. Many of us are free speech absolutists. Others pointed out that in Canada we don’t have free speech but rather “free expression.” Some were Darwinist in their belief that the strongest Twitter users should set the pace and tone of the service. Others wanted Twitter to act as arbiter in cultural norms disputes. Someone looked up the legal definition of “legal harassment.” And then we debated the fuzziness of “reasonable person.” I told them about my own Twitter experiences with hate speech, and those of my friends. “Why?” one student asked–“Because I am a lady on the internet, talking about ladies on the internet” I told them. People furrowed their brows, shot their hands up, nodded yes while scribbling. Some crossed their arms and snorted.

It was super difficult and it was great. The discussions managed to address most of the methodological and historical questions from the readings, through the lens of a contemporary controversy (or two). By the end more students were leaning forward in their chairs than leaning back. The material had become interesting and no one, in a first for the semester, began packing up their bags before I dismissed the class.

For me, it was hard. The stakes feel high when an 18 year old with an expressed wish to move to Silicon Valley and work with a startup tell me how progressive social media companies are and I answer “Why do you think that? Because Twitter has more guys named Peter on their board than they do women. And they have zero people of color.” I expose my own blind spots when a student from Eastern Europe puts a caveat on our discussion of libertarianism and what it is–a core belief in the freedom of markets is a feature particularly of North American libertarianism, not all libertarianism. Quite right.

There’s a chance, of course, that by constantly provoking my students like this I risk alienating them, losing them. They may find me disagreeable or biased (although I try to poke holes in my own favorite arguments as well). I hope to make this pedagogy feel a little safer for them by showing them how dependable, consistent, and fair I can be by crafting a detailed and full syllabus with all readings and tasks and due dates in advance, by having the quizzes and papers graded so quickly, by affirming everyone’s efforts, particularly those students who want to challenge something *I* have said. I never let myself get upset by things they say, but to always remain detached enough from my own emotional responses and preferred outcomes that I can stay attuned to what they need to say and to hear in order to learn.

So that’s my pedagogy of provocation. Make all the mechanics of the class, from reading to attendance policy to returning marks quickly, very very predictable and stable–but turn the classroom space into one where any idea might come up, and be thoroughly tested, and the outcome might be surprising.

emotional labour · grad school · professors · teaching

A Pedagogy of Detachment

“So, we’re supposed to read two things for every class?”

A number of thoughts cross through my mind when a student asks me such a question:

1. Why are they asking me this?
2. Have I put too many readings on the course syllabus?
3. Are they feeling overwhelmed and it’s my fault?
4. Am I contributing to a culture wherein students are overworked and placed under undue pressure to succeed and enter the workforce as soon as possible and never have time for themselves or for play? 

In spite of these thoughts, what I should say, when confronted with this question, is simply “Yes, there are a couple readings for every class,” and leave it to them to follow up if they have a problem with this fact. But what I did say, following from that thought progression, was something along the lines of, “uhh, yes, there are a couple, but you know, the reading schedule is open and evolving and adaptive to the needs of our course, so if I find that we’re getting overwhelmed with work or anything, I’ll dial it back–or, conversely, add texts if it seems like too little. Also, other professors assign an essay a week, so my courses are a little more reading-heavy than others, so you should be thankful you’re in my class and stop complaining.” (ok I didn’t say that last bit)

This was not a good teaching moment. It was, in fact, an instance where I faltered in my current pedagogy strategy as I enter a new semester of teaching: a pedagogy of detachment, of caring less, of embodying more authority and not feeling so beholden to the needs and preferences of each student. Rather than adhering to my carefully thought out teaching principles, I nervously rattled off all the reasons I had for assigning ‘so much reading,’ even though in reality some of those pieces are only a few pages long, and these students are adults, and the readings are important and interesting and diverse and carefully selected.

In essence, my new strategy can be embodied in one important emoji:

I deploy this metaphor of the hammer in my head whenever I need to give fewer f***s. Aided by this emoji (with the exception of the two-readings question), so far I’ve been maintaining more authority than I have in the past, stuck to my principles more, fought against the urge to externalize the running nervous commentary of feelings and questionings in my head. Past students have written on course evaluations that I am sometimes inconsistent in my assessment standards: I will say one thing in class, perhaps revise proceedings to accommodate the class’s supposed needs, but then not be quite so accommodating in my grading. This semester I am going to try to leave things in the same place where I set them down, as much as possible–hammer them into place, if you will. Paradoxically enough, I think caring (and apologizing) less will earn me more respect as a teacher, so hammering things into place is mutually beneficial.

Most people write about the importance of a pedagogy of compassion, of treating students like humans and being sympathetic and flexible when they experience life crises or fall behind on their work. I agree with all of that, of course: undergraduate students, like grad students, are under more stress than ever in this precarious socio-political climate, and we as instructors should be sensitive to the pressures they face. I am not the type of person who could ever be fully detached–even after only a couple classes, I can feel myself growing fond of the students in my classes as unique individuals, and I enjoy joking and chatting with them on a personal level. So in dialing back my propensity for caring too much, I’m just reestablishing balance, fighting against the feminine nurturing stereotype instilled within me, cutting down on draining emotional labour, and attempting to instate a reasonable level of care and compassion while retaining my own authority as an instructor.

Yet I know, and fear, that this approach may have its own host of negative repercussions, as this timely NYT article on the “madonna-whore complex” that still tends to persist in modern academia suggests. I guess with this new tactic I’m trying to achieve whatever the word for the aunt-equivalent of “avuncular” would be, an alternative to the girlfriend or mother affiliation: related, yet detached; skin in the game, but not my whole body. I wish more cultural codes existed for this type of persona for women. I wish I didn’t continue to worry that a non-nurturing front will read as overly assertive or abrasive to students, to whom I remain indebted for strong evaluations. I wish I could just enter the classroom and immediately command authority without feeling under scrutiny for my outfit or my hair. I wish things were a little bit easier for us female instructors.

best laid plans · careers · emotional labour · precocity

Once More, With Feelings

This weekend, as I was scrolling through social media, I came across a post from a colleague at a university down the road. It was announcing a guest speaker — Harsha Walia, if you’re curious — and I found myself feeling that familiar sensation of vertigo. You know what I mean, the feeling that the floor is getting a bit further away and the room is darkening at the edges. This feeling had nothing whatsoever to do with the guest speaker or my friend who has posted about her arrival. Rather, that feeling of falling, or rather, of being dropped came from my archived emotions. Once more, the sharp realities of my own job precarity reared up and shook my foundations. If you’re wondering why the announcement of an activist coming to campus made me look, navel-gazingly, at my own conditions of labour you’re not alone. I, too, thought ‘what the hell is wrong with you, Erin? Why does this bother you so much?’

And it came to me, once again, my heartbreak on an eternal feedback loop: precarity means not having a place at the table. It means not being a part of the structural and institutional mechanisms that bring people to campus, that build curricular change, that afford you the luxury of teaching the same classes for several years (or more) in a row.

I hate writing about precarity. And yet I feel compelled. I haven’t written about it here for months (even though I am the Contract Academic Faculty representative for ACCUTE), and that’s been deliberate. I’m making something of an unofficial and unpaid career talking about underpaid and precarious work. While that is hilarious and kind of fun to say, the reality is that it is isolating, exhausting, and lonely. It puts strain on me and on my family. But as we creep towards the one year anniversary of National Adjunct Walk Out Day, I find myself here again, thinking publicly about some of the effects and affects of precarity.

Being a part of the precarious labour force means watching my brilliant and likewise precarious friends and colleagues try to innovate in their classrooms to make up for the fact that they can’t innovate in the long term on their campuses.

Being a part of the precarious labour force means watching at department meetings while the tenured faculty become more and more tired from shouldering the work that new hires would be able to help with, not to mention bring fresh energy to.

Being a part of the precarious labour force mean not being on the email lists that tell you when the guest speakers are coming, or when the grant deadlines are (if, of course, you happen to be eligible despite your precarity).

Being a part of the precarious labour force means pouring your energies into teaching the classes you get, rather than the classes you’re an expert in, and then watching your field advance while you struggle to make comma splices interesting to two hundred non-major undergrads.

Being a part of the precarious labour force also means you really do give a shit about those two hundred undergrads because, dammit, you’re trained as a Marxist and you understand how the material conditions of labour reverberate from you to them and back again.

Being a part of the precarious labour force means that if you’re in a contract position you’re trying to do that service work because a) it might be the only time you get to _________ (teach a grad class, mentor an honours student, do a directed reading, sit on a departmental committee, etc.) and b) because no matter how often you tell yourself differently, hope is a tenacious beast and maybe this service work will matter for reasons other than altruism.

Being a part of the precarious labour force means your colleague lose sight of your areas of expertise–if, indeed, they ever knew in the first place–because you become a ghost. In to teach your class, then elsewhere for office hours or to teach another class on another campus or to work your other job to make rent.

Being a part of the precarious labour force in Canada, where letters of reference are tailored to each job application, means worrying about the time your referees put in to writing these letters. It means wondering why the hell a job ad didn’t just say what it was looking for and save you and three to four letter writers the time and energy. And it means knowing that you’ll do it again next time; you’ll ask for the letters and imagine yourself into this different iteration of what you do, in hopes that someone on the committee sees you for who you are, for your potential, and for your commitment.

Being a part of the precarious labour force means you get really bloody tired of people asking you about how the job market is, but even more scared that they will stop asking you. No one asking means no one thinking about you. No one asking rings loud, thought not clear.

Being a part of the precarious labour force means nothing is clear. Not your career, not your plans, not your life choices, not your work.

Being a part of the precarious labour force means making life choices regardless of your precarity.

Being a part of the precarious labour force does not mean you’re not interested in/ aware of/ participating in/ and constantly thinking about the work in your field and your own place within it. But it does mean that the feeling of scholarly loneliness is compounded.

Being a part of the precarious labour force means the politics of childcare, of being a woman, of being a person of colour, of being queer, of being differently abled, of being ______ are compounded.

Being a part of the precarious labour force means you are quiet because talking about precarity is exhausting. It becomes what people think you are about, and then you become more exhausted, because honestly, aren’t we scholars trained to diagnose and close read systems?

Being a part of the precarious labour force means you’re a killjoy, because let’s not forget that killing the so-called joys of normativity is a world-making project. A necessary, if isolating and exhausting project.

Being a part of the precarious labour force means finding genuine pleasure in spite of the crummy conditions of your labour.

administration · community · grad school · ideas for change · postdocs · writing

How to: support graduate writers without spending any money

The end of the fiscal year is looming, and we’ve just wrapped up budgeting for 2016/17. And as always, the push is to do more for our graduate students and postdocs with less. Some things are just never going to be free–the fee for a really great workshop facilitator, catering for our annual Career Night, paying the professor who teaches our teaching development course, our salaries–but we’re getting creative about finding ideas for new supports and services that don’t cost much in time, labour, or hard cash.

One of the things I did when I was still at York University was start up a Shut Up and Write! group for our grad students and postdocs, and it is may be my favourite example of a meaningful and useful support for early career researchers that doesn’t cost a dime. Your campus might already have a graduate Shut Up and Write! group, often coordinated by students themselves, but if you don’t, here’s the lowdown:

Shut Up and Write! began as meet-up in San Francisco designed to help creative writers build community, alleviate the loneliness of writing, and do some serious churning out of words. It has since expanded into academia, especially for graduate students and postdocs, who often feel isolated when they transition from coursework to working on their theses, dissertations, and publications. In a Shut Up and Write! session you prioritize writing over everything else (e.g. no email, no Instagram, no texting) and ideally use it as an opportunity to establish a writing routine, do some intensive work, and break through blocks in a supportive atmosphere using the Pomodoro Technique. All you need to run a Shut Up and Write Group! is:
  • a room
  • a timer
  • someone willing to facilitate discussion and run the timer (This person can also be doing their writing during the session; I use it as an opportunity to get in some quiet, distraction-free work on my normal day-job stuff)

Each Shut up and Write! session, at least the way I run it, includes:

  • 10 minutes for introductions and chat
  • 2-3 rounds of writing Pomodoros (each Pomodoro includes 25 minutes of intensive writing plus a 5 minute break)
  • Time to discuss writing, trade writing and productivity tips, and get to know each other. On occasion, a more senior researcher or someone from the writing centre will come in to address a specific writing topic, take questions, or provide one-on-one consultation.

Attrition, particularly in the PhD, tends to happen most at the point when students transition from the relative structure of coursework, qualifying exams and (for my students, at least) collecting data to the nebulous and very self-directed period of writing the dissertation. Community and the motivation of progressing alongside others helps stop that from happening. It also helps postdocs feel like members of a community–an important shift for a group that often feels disconnected from their institution because they’re neither students nor faculty, and often are poorly served because they exist in that liminal space.

A weekly Shut Up and Write! group provides opportunity for community building, peer support, building positive relationships with academic administrators, increased productivity, and the comfort of routine–and it costs nothing. (Sometimes it costs me a little bit, but only because I can’t resist an opportunity to bake for more than my little two person family.) I only wish that there were more easy fixes like it.

What about you, dear readers? Any brilliant ideas for low-cost and low-effort ways to create community- and skill-building opportunities for grad students and postdocs you’d like to share?


How to ask for stuff: email edition

I hate asking people for stuff. It feels so rude. Of course, there are times when I do really need help or resources, and often when I have to force myself to make such asks I’m more abrupt than I need to be, because panic and embarrassment and fear of “no.”

So, one of the things I’ve been working on, professional-development-wise, since become Associate Chair for Graduate Studies is to be more gracious and professional around asking for things, and being gracious and professional about being asked for things. I have asked for resources, like funding for recruitment visits or a sessional stipend or extra administrative help. I have asked for time, like delegating a fact-finding task to committee members. And I have asked for changes to people’s behavior, like instituting new processes for annual reports from graduate students or new paperwork around degree milestones. This stuff used to fill me with dread and panic and shame, but I’ve figured out the patterns and it’s all so much easier now.

I am also myself asked for a lot of things, by senior administrators, by fellow faculty members, by current students, and by prospective students. I have to say my experience of being asked for things has run the full spectrum from awe at some people’s suavity and professionalism (the kind where the ask is so good you feel like you owe the person a favor after you’ve just done them one) from shock and horror at others’ rudeness, cluelessness, and entitlement (the kind where you need to walk away from the computer and march around campus for 20 minutes before calming down enough to answer).

I have some advice for junior askers.

How to ask for things from people who can give them to you

Audience, subject, purpose. You go a long way in successful communications by heeding the very same advice we give to first year students: study the writing situation to determine audience, subject, and purpose.

In request letters, obviously the purpose is to extract some favor or resource from a person in a position to grant that request. There is necessarily a power imbalance: the askee has the power of refusal to the asker’s request. So the audience is someone with some sort of power to say yes or no to a request. Please know, and I can’t stress this enough, that often the audience is also feeling awkward about being in this position of saying yes or no. It’s just going to be awkward in that sense no matter what, but please know, as well, that it is a routine part of most jobs. No big deal, really. The subject, and we’ll take example from my own domain, can range from “Can you top up my funding package to match a competing offer” to “Can you sign an override form for me to get in this class” to “Can you grant me a language credit for the language I speak at home” to “Can you change my teaching assignment” to “Can you grant me an extension.”

The ideal request gives all necessary contextual information, is to the point, and is respectful. Since it’s admissions season, I’ll start with the example of negotiating entry scholarships.

Don’t do this:

Hey Amy,
Awesome University really wants me to go there for my PhD, as my work in the meaning of shoelaces in important American postmodern writer Thomas Pynchon’s minor works has already attracted the attention of the most senior members of that department.
Can you offer me any more money?
Bye! Junior Star

Please do this:

Dear Prof. Morrison, 

I was very happy to receive an offer from Waterloo! I have been fortunate enough to be accepted into several schools and am currently weighing my options. One factor I am considering is financial support. Awesome University has offered me an annual package of $30,000 for four years. I was wondering if Waterloo might be able to match this offer; your program is a very strong one and a good fit for my research, and I want to make sure that I have all the information I need to make the best choice for my doctoral studies. 

Thank you in advance for your consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you.
Best wishes,
Full Name

I’m only exaggerating a little. The first letter is bragaddocio and a lack of relevant detail coupled with an excess of irrelevant detail. The second letter is both confident and humble. The first letter evinces absolutely no regard for the recipient, while the second is subtly complimentary.

It’s hard to write requests. Sometimes people don’t like to just ask for things and so add in too much detail and this can come across as arrogant (you really think I don’t know who Thomas Pynchon is? Do you think hearing a recitation of how awesome the other program is helps make my day any more productive?).

I myself make and receive a lot of requests around teaching assignments, and these can go spectacularly wrong as well.

Don’t do this:


Since I am entering my fourth year of the PhD, it is very important that I have the most time possible in order to write my dissertation. It is very challenging to teach while doing original research, but since it is an unavoidable part of the funding, I realize I have to do it. I would like to only be assigned an online course, because it is the only way it will be possible for me to get any writing done. The dissertation is the whole point of the degree, and it is crucial that I manage my efforts. I would prefer an online course that only has essays and an exam, because managing discussions is very time-consuming. 


Do this:

Dear Prof. Morrison, 

I am sure you are beginning the work of assigning teaching to graduate students for next year. Since I know that most fourth year PhD students are assigned independent teaching, I am writing to ask, if it is at all possible, that I be assigned an online course to teach this year. I have truly enjoyed my experiences as an online TA, and I would like to expand my experiences in this area. 

I understand that the department must balance its teaching needs with the needs of graduate students, and I know it might not be possible to have my request accommodated–but I thought I would mention if, just in case. 

Thank you in advance for your consideration of this request. 

Best wishes,
Reasonable Person

The first request, note, is mansplain-y with a side of bitterness: I’m grad chair–do you think I need the purpose of the PhD explained to me? And if you want to be a professor, it’s bad form to evince such a plain distaste for teaching. I read this kind of email and see a Terrible Future Colleague in the making. And again, since you’re being paid, and I’m the person doing the hiring, probably better not to frame your request in terms of “I’m trying to do the least amount of work possible.”

The second request, by contrast, asks for the very same preference to be accommodated, but does so politely and carefully. It flags its request as purely discretionary rather than as a demand. It is attuned to audience in that it recognizes that it’s a lot more work to sift 140 grad students into teaching slots than it is for any 1 graduate student to demand a particular course to teach. It’s not simpering or flattering. It is realistic and kind.

Any other type of request email generally splits along these same lines: me-first-and-do-it-now, versus, I-would-like-something-if-possible-thank-you.

While seniority is not directly correlated with grace in these situations, I feel that a lot of the mistakes that graduate students make in asking me (and I’m sure others) for things stem from a) the same kind of discomfort about asking for stuff that I myself feel (truly, I’m sympathetic to this) and b) an inadvertent inattention to genre stemming from unfamiliarity. Hence this post.

90% of the problems I see in request emails can be solved by remembering that the university is a workplace, and that the person you are addressing is a colleague you will work with for some time. Manage the relationship. Pay attention to the needs and constraints of the organization rather than restricting your view to your own desires or needs. Be a little more formal. There is a lot of room for give and take, for favors and accommodations in turn, but not if you burn all your bridges while standing on them. I feel sorry for many students who send me ill-formed requests: their distress and raw need are palpable and they seem really upset or aggrieved.

I do try to see past some of the errors of address, but it’s a teaching moment I can’t pass up here. Demonstrate an understanding of the constraints on the askee. Be polite and clear in making your request. Do not frame a justification for the request in terms of ME ME ME*. Provide all relevant context but nothing more.

Thank you in advance for your consideration of this advice,
Best wishes,

* medical accommodations are a whole other story. It is still best practice to be polite, but of course the request must be framed in terms of your needs. I receive those requests with open arms and will move heaven and earth for you.

#MLA16 · day in the life · emotional labour · feminist communities

Radical Feminist Self-Care, MLA Style (Towards a Manifesto)

“So did you know that apparently all of us feminists at the MLA are passing one another packages of fancy face masks and holding beauty parties?” This came from Amy as we were getting ready for our first days at the MLA conference in Austin last week. If you haven’t heard about how ten-step Korean-beauty-inspired face masking is, apparently, the new radical academic feminist mode of self care, then let us catch you up. In an article for Slate, former Chronicle blogger Rebecca Schuman posited that a ten-step face masking regime, practiced by women in South Korea for decades, was emerging amongst academic feminists as a new form of self-care.
Her article, which now has a substantial retraction, is, we think, ultimately trying to advocate for academic women to take some time for themselves. But it made everyone in the room uncomfortable, and if our social media feeds are any indication, we were hardly the only MLA-feminists having trouble swallowing this prescriptive branding and beautifying of feminism in academia. The general response in our room was incredulity. As we talked about what bothered us, worried us, and made us LOL, we realized we needed to take our discussion public. So here, for you, are some of our collective thoughts around the claims that academic feminists need elaborate beauty regimes to practice self-care, and what our self-care looks like instead.
It’s true that there are times when “self care” looks like “self indulgence”–an extra glass (or an extra bottle) of wine, an overflowing bubble bath, a pan of brownies–but the two are by no means identical. What made us go “ick” about Schuman’s article was the conflation of radical feminist self-care with expensive, indulgent attempts to conform with normative standards of beauty–self-care as the pursuit of a dewy, youthful, white complexion–that are often harmfully sexist, racist, ageist, classist, and superficial. The straight up shill for Adeline Koh’s products, as great as they may be, was nearly as galling as the idea that women academics are focused on cosmetics at MLA rather than their presentations, interviewing, networking, and/or reuniting with colleagues.

While we are all for self-care, especially in the way that Audre Lorde talks about it–as political warfare–we think there is something a bit insidious happening in Schuman’s piece. First, it seems to assume a beleaguered female body as the only academic feminist body possible. Second, it seemed to suggest that is you weren’t following this regime, should you be fortunate enough to be in the know, then your fate was to remain beleaguered and haggard. In short, one of the issues we take with Schuman’s deployment of her argument is that she presumes a self-conscious femme body preoccupied with the coercive patriarchal norms that see women’s bodies as always already insufficient, less than, and invisible.

We agree that radical feminist self care at MLA is often necessary. We have very different ideas about what it might look like.
Radical feminist self care at MLA means surrounding yourself with people who support your work and career. It means generous professionalism. It means eschewing toxic behaviors of academic posturing and jockeying–rejecting the idea that academia is a zero-sum game–in favor of generating community, camaraderie, and friendship.
Radical feminist self care at MLA means self care as group care, as recognizing that caring for yourself can also involve the emotional labour of caring for members of the community that buoys and empowers you. It means building meaningful community with other women in early, pre-tenure, just-tenured, newly-sabbatical-ed, precarious, alt-ac, and other complicated career positions.
Radical feminist self care at MLA means calling out male academics on their bad behavior when you have the power to do so.
Radical feminist self care at MLA means sitting around a hotel room at midnight, with a bottle of wine, validating the shit out of each other.
Radical feminist self care at MLA means attending to your physical and mental health more than your complexion. Sometimes it means leaning out as far as you can. It means saying no to FOMO and yes to naps. It means drinking lots of water between coffee and cocktails.
Radical feminist self care at MLA means spending your money on All The Books–The Beauty Myth, perhaps?–instead of pricy beauty regimes containing snail mucus.
For us, radical feminist self care at MLA means rooming with a bunch of other meat-eschewers so that you don’t have to fight to feed yourself with the delicious vegan tacos that both your tastebuds and your ethics demand.
And you know what? Radical feminist self care in academia isn’t limited to the MLA.
We would love to hear some of the ways you care for yourself and your community.
My thanks to Amy Clukey (University of Louisville), Hannah McGregor (U Alberta), and Melissa Dalgleish (Hook & Eye, Hospital for Sick Children) for writing this with me.
{Editor’s note: we totally wrote this in our pyjamas while drinking wine and eating vegan donuts. Actually, no, we didn’t. We wrote it in Google Docs after the MLA, after long days at work, in our scant spare time, because sometimes radical community care means working together on a heart-piece that we really care about. But we did eat vegan donuts at the MLA. More than once.}  
feminist communities · you're awesome


transitive verb: to admire excessively, perpetually, intelligently, avidly, with all the feels
A few months ago, I met with a terrifically smart student to talk about some work that she was doing. She had been invited to do a really cool thing (sorry to be so vague – I just don’t want to embarrass her) and I asked her how she knew the organizers. She looked up and said, without missing a beat, “Oh, I fangirled them.”
I loved that.
And I thought about that moment again when I read Laura Fisher’s brilliant review/fan letter on Carrie Brownstein’s Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl. For Brownstein, “to be a fan is to know that loving trumps being loved.” Fisher beautifully observes, “Brownstein finds words for the particular quality of feeling that is love for the stranger who compels you, who has somehow formed you, and who may but more likely will not answer you back.”
I love that.
I love that for so many reasons. For one thing, and I guess this speaks to my essential nerdiness, I immediately thought of all the theorists and critics and writers who compel me, who have somehow formed me, and who will not answer me back because I don’t want them to. I just want to read them. I just want to soak them up and let myself and my ideas and my thinking be transformed by that nearness. It is no accident that they are all feminists. It is no accident that Fisher’s description of the “sensuality reality” of a being at a Sleater-Kinney show (“It’s a mass conversion. You can feel the crowd’s collective longing for a moment of mutual recognition, for any indication that its affection is reciprocal.”) brought me immediately to the intensely sensual reality of reading something that you know, just know even when you barely understand it, will change you.
Maybe you are falling in love – in the way that Eve Sedgwick has so perfectly articulated:
Oh, right, I keep forgetting, for lots and lots of people in the world, the notion of “falling in love” has (of all things) sexual connotations. No, that’s not what I think is happening. For me, what falling in love means is different. It’s a matter of suddenly, globally, “knowing” that another person represents your only access to some vitally
        transmissible truth
        or radiantly heightened
        mode of perception,
and that if you lose the thread of this intimacy, both your soul and your whole world might subsist forever in some desert-like state of ontological impoverishment.
(from A Dialogue on Love and so perceptively re-lived and related in Jane Hu’s poignant exploration of Hal Sedgwick’s devotion)
Fangirling is not mindless. Fangirling demands a certain openness to being “radiantly heightened.” To allow oneself to be open to, and to fall for, this kind of global knowledge is hard work. It is mindful. It asks that we let go of our skepticism and our paranoia and our desire to be too smart to fall into the vulnerabilities of a crush from which there is no return.
And, as this student showed me, it can be productive. It builds connections. It makes communities. It can make the lonely work less lonely.
I’m a fan. I hope you are too.
community · ideas for change

Conference Papers are the Worst: An Unfair and Biased Diatribe

I’m recently back from my fourth or fifth Modern Language Association Conference, and one of the best that I’ve ever attended. Partly that was due the fact that I purposefully spent my time (and shared a room) with some of my favourite academic women, and we’re going to talk more about that aspect of the conference (and its relationship to radical feminist self-care) next week. Partly it was because Austin is amazing, and I had the chance to eat delicious vegan tacos twice a day, take long walks along the Colorado River in the sunshine, and drink some really excellent local beer. And partly it was because I largely avoided going to panels of conference papers.

My MLA looks rather different than it once did. I mostly teach, rather than talk–this year, I co-facilitated a breakout session on DH in/and the Dissertation as part of the joint DHSI@MLA pre-conference workshop, and later in the conference taught graduate students and administrators how to start identifying, and taking action on, the reproducible parts of all those PhD transition stories that seem so idiosyncratic. The Canadian representation at the MLA has shrunk in the last few years, so there’s rarely a panel squarely in my field in which I’m interested, and I mostly attend panels on which my friends are speaking. I find conference presentations a singularly bad way for me to learn anything–despite the fact that the idea of learning styles has been quite thoroughly debunked, I simply do not process complex arguments well when they’re spoken rather than written. And nearly every post-panel debrief amongst my friends had the same complaints: the papers were too long, they were often badly written and/or presented, the chairs were weak in their attempts to keep to time, there was never enough time for questions, those questions that did arise were more often quomments (what I like to call comments, often self-aggrandizing, disguised as questions), and issues with gender and power abounded (from the classic “congratulations! you have an all male panel,” to if the panelists allowed the chair to have the power to properly moderate, to who sucked up all the little Q&A time that existed). Perhaps I feel the freedom to finally say it because my career success does not hinge on giving conference papers, but I have decided that it is time to declare that conference papers are the worst.

The MLA seems to agree with me, at least a little. They already recognize three kinds of standard conference session formats–formal-presentation sessions, roundtable sessions (which may be interactive electronic demonstrations), and workshops–and are advocating for people to propose alternative, innovative sessions for MLA 2017.

I’ve been in some of these sessions, at the MLA and its regional conferences, and they can be really fantastic. A group of us interested in innovative dissertations did a pecha kucha/ignite-style session at MLA 2014, and perhaps the most interesting (and valuable) aspect of that format was how much time it left–because there’s no way to go over, when your slides advance automatically–for genuine discussion and questions, which then informed Sydni Dunn’s article on the panel. The other great thing about pecha kucha sessions is the way they–because you only have six minutes–force you to distill your ideas down to their most important core. The MLA regional conferences are seemingly more willing to do seminar panels than the main conference, which are very common in other disciplines and subfields, and the chance to read (rather than listen to) papers and then have a genuine discussion is a valuable one, for presenters and the audience. But we can go even further than that, and if you’re looking for some ideas for innovative panels, I’ve curated three for you:

Chain-Reaction Panel

Panelists are responsible for reading each other’s papers in advance, and on the day of, each panelist spends ten to fifteen minutes interviewing the panelist directly to his/her left about the research and argument contained in his/her paper. The moderator begins by interviewing the first panelist, and ends by making connections, thanking the panelists, and setting the stage for an engaging q&a. People are required to succinctly and clearly explain their research and thinking, not just read half an article disguised as a conference paper, and this format has the advantage of providing plenty of time for questions and collaborative thinking between the panel and audience.

Research Speed Dating

Speakers are seated at smaller tables scattered around the room. Participants select the table (and paper) in which they’re interested, and after a very brief intro and contextualization by the moderator, speakers are given thirty minutes to present their research and then discuss it with participants. Participants then switch tables and do it all over again, and the session ends with a summary and large-group Q&A that makes connections across papers. The advantage for both speakers and panelists is that everyone at the table is interested in that specific topic, and will hopefully enter into a discussion that is informative (and perhaps transformative) for everyone. For those who are worried about missing some of the speakers, paper summaries can be shared at the end of the session or online.

Table Talk

This format might not work terribly well for a traditional research presentation panel, but the MLA does all kinds of other things, and there are many panels–especially the ones that I tend to belong to–that are about problem solving rather than just presenting ideas. Table talk panels are great for that. (That said, so much of the way we frame our research is about solving problems, even if that problem is just a gap in knowledge, so this format could work for more kinds of topics than I perhaps think it might.) The panel begins with a brief 10-15 minute presentation from the moderator that sets out the topic and problem of the panel–how do we understand the role and form of the dissertation in the 21st century? how can we create more useful and engaging conference sessions for non-academic job seekers? how can we best edit unruly objects? what can theory do for the Victorians?–and then each speaker takes a table along with participants. Speakers are responsible for coming up with, and guiding the discussion of, a specific question and/or discussion cue at their table. After the discussion concludes, the moderator invites some or of all of the groups to share the major insights or answers generated during the discussion. And now that the MLA Commons is in fairly wide use, notes from each discussion could easily be shared online so that participants have access to the entirety of the conversation, not just the one that happened at their own table.


I’m taking the MLA up on their call. After participating in far too many panels that are just four people with non-professorial jobs sharing transition stories, I’m thinking of proposing a meta table-talk panel for MLA 2017 on how we can create more useful and engaging conference sessions for non-academic job seekers and the faculty who serve them.

What about you, dear readers? Do you share my opinion that conference paper panels are often quite terrible? What innovative formats have you proposed or been part of? And if you like conference paper panels, what aspects of them are valuable to you, and how can we do them better?

collaboration · free time · grad school · phdchat · self care

Structure for Structureless Schedules

As many of you know, grad school can be frustratingly amorphous. Contra most of my cobloggers, it seems, my schedule isn’t jam-packed, and I have few daily structural commitments–though many responsibilities, some of them paralyzingly huge. While some people thrive without a pre-ordained schedule, I’m someone who needs it: I dwell more comfortably within the parameters of appointments, responsibilities, deadlines, and course slots. So as we enter into a new year and a new term, I thought I’d share a few tips I’ve developed for a) carving out my own structure; b) allowing myself some flexibility and compassion within this structure; and c) caring for myself as a human being who requires community and a life outside academia.

1. Maintaining a dissertation completion schedule: years ago, my supervisor made me create a schedule for writing my entire dissertation. From its home in GoogleDocs, that document has been repeatedly revised and updated, but since the diss is the most gargantuan yet nebulous component of the entire graduate experience, it’s nice to have a skeleton framework for the whole–and a reminder that it someday will end. 

2. Keeping a daily research journal: “Daily” is a bit of an exaggeration, let’s be honest, but when I do keep up with sketching out my accomplishments, however big or small, at the end of each day, it makes me feel like I’m moving forward. I prefer a physical journal, because it allows flexibility for doodling, noting down useful references, or writing out a research phrase that I want to keep at the forefront of my mind as I work. Or, er, screaming silently at myself. 

You could also choose to keep a running list of accomplishments and breaks throughout the day, as featured in this inspiring IG by @empathywarrior:

3. Keeping an agenda: Again, I like keeping a physical one, because I enjoy any chance not to look at a screen, but here I write down appointments, deadlines, and sketch out broad weekly goals. Week-at-a-glance type stuff.  

4. Creating an online boot camp:  Over the summer, I coordinated a collaborative online “Dissertation Boot Camp,” based on the Spring Break Dissertation Boot Camp my colleague Christy Pottroff blogged about here. We opted for a shared Google Doc, and the idea was to set macro-goals for the summer and the week and micro-goals for the day, posting and celebrating our accomplishments as we went along. The instructions recommended maintaining constant communication, and acting as cheerleaders for one another, developing healthy online accountability. While I found the exercise valuable overall, I’d have to say that it perhaps worked better as a Spring Break rather than an Entire Summer thing: out of nine of us, by end of August only….a few were still actively posting, and the document also became very long and unwieldy, extending to over 50 pages, making it difficult for us to keep up with one another’s progress. But I’m sure improvements in format/medium could be made, and I would certainly try this again.  

5. Creating an online hangout camp: Branching off of Boot Camp, fellow H&E-er Jana and I now use Wikispaces to keep an online goal-setter, where we update each other on a weekly or biweekly basis on intentions and progress. We have a longstanding rapport, so we can be perfectly comfortable with each other; generally, we tend to mix personal and professional, blabbing about our personal lives and venting about other challenges we’re facing even as we’re trying to crank out that chapter draft. 

Other possibilities for this point include: forming small Twitter groups who check in with each other spontaneously to see who is around and up for working for short sprints, Pomodoro-style (I was part of one such group for awhile, I think we sort of dissolved…); creating a secret or invite-only group Facebook page for people who want to track each other’s progress (ditto the last parentheses…). 

5. Finally, I highly recommend the good ol’ fashioned personal diary. Not as explicitly about goal-setting, I guess, but one of my major problems is distraction: I’m reading a book on Peter of Cornwall, but thinking about a particularly upsetting episode of Transparent, or a disagreement I had earlier with my friend. My diary helps me compartmentalize (much as I enjoy the intermixing of work/life stuff, as above), and to channel some of my daily interpersonal drama into a safe, private, nonjudgmental space. Occasionally work stuff creeps into my journal, of course, such as goals or reflections, but its primary purpose is the nonacademic, the things I can’t voice in my many other outlets of professional expression. Additionally, I think keeping a diary has helped me become a more fluid, expressive writer.

As you can tell, I’m a little goal-obsessed oriented. If I go through periods when I’m not listing, that probably corresponds with reduced mental health: I’m feeling unmoored and directionless, perhaps having trouble getting out of bed in the morning.

And how about you, dear readers? Any further tips you have for setting and maintaining goals?

Aaaand now I can go record in my research journal that I finished drafting up some thoughts and ideas for my next Hook & Eye post, five days early!

Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.

-from Joan Didion, “On Keeping a Notebook”
global academy

A Canadian Goes to the MLA

I don’t usually go to the MLA for a few reasons. First, as a Canadianist the fact that the organization has cut the number of Canadian panels means its not a particularly disciplinarily relevant conference for me. Second, despite the shift in the MLA’s timetable the conference still falls in the first week of classes for me. Third, the context, by which I mean the Americanness of it, is both complicated and, for the most part, alienating. The people who come to the panels I am on tend to be my Canadianist colleagues, and while it is always amazing to see my friends and colleagues I’d rather do it context that didn’t feel so structurally oppositional. I go to conferences to talk with people about their work, to present my own work and, hopefully, have a few people who want to talk with me about it. I don’t usually go to conferences to interview for jobs, thank goodness (though there is a shift towards this tactic). And, for the most part, the conferences I do attend aren’t predicated on a kind of ferocious posturing that seems to be the new normal requirement for being in this long neoliberal moment on the job market.

This weekend, however, I was in Austin, Texas for the MLA. Specifically, I was on the plenary panel of the MLA Subconference, which has for the past three years operating alongside and as an oppositional critique of the international conference. There were, of course, the usual frustrations ranging from the ubiquitous shock of many presenters who realize, OMG, that yes, you should bring your own dongle. And there was, of course, the frustration of being on a panel where almost no one but the young scholars–especially the young women and the young scholars of colour–stick to time.

And yet, as I sit on the last plane on the las leg of a very long trip from Austin to Halifax I am feeling that the trip was worth it. I’m tired, yes. Not quite finished my lectures for tomorrow, yes. But I’m feeling lucky to have been there, and its not because my radical academic feminist self-care involved an elitist circulation of ten-step bespoke beauty products (I’ll talk about this next week). 
I’m feeling positively reflective about my trip to the MLA for a number of reasons, most of which stem from thinking about differences between the American and Canadian academic contexts. Here are a few that I will be thinking about for a while to come:
1) “Let’s Not Forget the Violence Caused By and Uncritical Academic Fetishization of Borders”
At the Subconference I was on the plenary panel with seven other people. In any context that’s a lot of bodies on stage together sharing the spotlight. The most amazing performance of all my co-panelists came from Jesus Valles, who is a Latinx performance poet and high school teacher at a predominantly Latino high school in Austin. After an hour and a half of presentations that provided differing degrees of practical and navel-gazing considerations of the neoliberalization of the concept of the public Mr. Valles stood up and delivered the most incredible piece of spoken word I have heard in ages. He took up the theme of the Subconference and situated his mediation on the question of whether the classroom was a public or private space. In seven minute he taught the audience about the ways in which an uncritical academic fascination with metaphors of movement and displacement were fundamentally disenfranchising for immigrant, refugee, and undocumented peoples. It was, for me, as a listener, a vital instance of the power of performative poetics and pedagogy. My hair stood on end, my tears welled up, I felt angry and fearful not because what Mr. Valles described was my experience, but because he made room for all of us to listen to what it means to be Latino in Texas in a classroom and a city right now, today. 
2) Borders Were Clearly Marked at the MLA
When I go to Congress each spring I dutifully spend my dollars on my membership and my conference registration. I get my badge and I wear it, most of the time. But I never worry about being barred from accessing a panel if I don’t have my badge on, nor do I think any more than usual about the possibility of encountering a gun on campus. At the MLA there were signs in every room, hallway, and doorway that declaimed the necessity of wearing a badge. Without a badge the implication was that you would be barred from access or be forcibly removed. I thought of the half-million dollar salary the President of the MLA pulls in, and I thought of Mr. Valles’s students. I thought about who would benefit from listening to panels on conceptual poetics and the politics of race, and who could afford them. 
I also thought about the ways in which gun control differs between America and Canada. There were signs discouraging open carry at the MLA. Discouraging. I’m just going to leave it at that.
3) Public and Private Mean Differently in Canada and That, As It Turns Out, Has Consequences
In my own presentation I talked about teaching from a position of decolonization as a means of moving beyond reproducing colonial violence within the institution. I explained to the audience that in Canada the vast majority of post-secondary institutions are ostensibly public institutions. If we are failing the mission statements of post-secondary institutions in Canada we are failing the institutional project, not just the public. 
This took the Americans in the audience by surprise. Indeed, there was (unsurprisingly?) not much interest or uptake in talking about cross-border coalitions or organization because the majority of the audience seemed unwilling to make the conceptual reach to collaborative thinking from different contexts. Since this is my second year in a row being invited to the MLA to talk about issues of precocity, austerity, and the institutional mission I am starting to feel more than anecdotal when I say that we Canadian university and college teachers and graduate students and precarious workers will not gain much meaningful hands-on support from our American counterparts. We need to organize on our own terms and on our own campuses, and then share our organizational tactics with others. But the contexts are, I think, too different and the stakes, paradoxically, equally high right now.
I’m interested in what kinds of structural differences other Canadians at the MLA noticed.