commute · grad school · job market · travel

Easy commutes and hard choices

It’s turned into commuter week on Hook & Eye, with Erin thinking about her new commute,  and Aimée musing on her un-commute. Like Aimée, I’m currently an un-commuter,  although it wasn’t always that way, and getting to this point took some tough decisions and a whole lot of privilege. It might not seem like it, but my current commute says much about the state of academia, my place within it, and the kinds of decisions grad students have to make on the regular.

Scenes from my un-commute

For nearly seven years, I commuted from downtown up to York campus, the last two of those full time. When I started my PhD,  I was commuting from the apartment I shared with my then-husband at the edge of Yonge/Eg and Don Mills, which took up to ninety minutes each way in the winter. I was also, for the first while, commuting to my full-time job at OUP. I’d never, not since I was old enough to work, not worked and gone to school at the same time–I’m a pretty typical first generation university student in that–and I thought my PhD should be no different. The work commute ended when I realized how wrong I was, and the school commute changed when my marriage ended and I moved back in with my parents in the suburbs. I couldn’t afford to live in the city on my own–humanities graduate funding packages aren’t kind to single people, especially not in Toronto–and I was lucky to have a home base I could commute from, no questions asked, until I could find a roommate.

But that commute from my parents’ house was wearing, and when I moved in with a grad school friend downtown, we chose somewhere central that would minimize our travel time. The forty-five minutes I spent in transit–a walk, plus the subway, plus the bus–morning and evening was doable, for a time. But somewhere during that time I decided that one of the things I was absolutely unwilling to do was to become an academic road warrior, piecing together teaching across multiple campuses while I was hunting for a tenure-track job. And when my current partner and I inherited a house in the city (extraordinary, extraordinary privilege, despite the fact that it was only possible because he lost a parent), I made the decision that I was also not going to apply for tenure-track jobs that would require us to sell that house and move across the country, away from my family and his aging father, or that would see him stay in Toronto and me commute home at intervals from wherever I was working. Which meant, in practice, that I wasn’t going to apply for tenure-track jobs, because there weren’t exactly floods of Canadian literature jobs in the Golden Horseshoe.

Scenes from my un-commute

Making that decision was freeing, and taking my first full-time administrative job at York was even more so. But ninety minutes a day in transit, five days a week, was a lot of time I could have been using to do other things–writing, exercising, spending time with my people–and a hard transition after so many years of a flexible academic schedule. And having made the first big decision not to become a professor, I felt confident in choosing to look for a new job that gave me back that time. So now I have a lovely walk to work, and colleagues that affectionately tease me that I only took the job for the commute. It’s no coincidence that I wrote the largest chunk of my dissertation in the year after I settled into this new job, because the absence of a long commute–and the walking and thinking time my un-commute time gives me–turned out to be what I needed to write.

My choices were largely driven by personal preference, and I have enough privilege–financial, racial, health–that I could make those choices. For lots of my people, choices about their commute, or their lack of one, are a matter of necessity. They have to choose jobs, or entire careers, that permit a commute and a schedule that accommodate a sick or disabled child, or their own disability, or their mental illness, or an elderly parent, or the need to be close to family for childcare, or a combination of these. Sometimes that means choosing no commute because it means choosing unemployment; sometimes that unemployment isn’t a choice at all. And the reality is that for those of us who aren’t the lucky ones like Aimée, those kinds of necessities often drive our career choices, and drive us out of an academy that likes to tell us that having preferences about where we work and how we get there and how long it takes are less important than the tenure-track dream. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to make the connection between the kinds of choices that academia tells us are legitimate, the kinds of flexibility it accommodates or doesn’t, and the leaky pipeline that pushes people who want, or have, to choose different kinds of working arrangements, different priorities for their location and time, out of the academy.

Uncategorized

Un-commuting: some further thoughts

Erin commutes 90km to work. I commute about 1/40th of that distance. Or, rather, I mostly uncommute it, because 90% of the time, I walk. This walk is essential to my emotional and physical health. I am grateful for this but can’t take credit for any of it, really.  Where I live, relative to where I work, and the subjective and objective qualities of any and each of home, the office, and the space in-between is pretty highly deterministic of some important parts of my life.

My situation is this. From home to office is about 27 minutes on foot, half through a heavily treed heritage residential area, one third of it through a park, and the rest through two big parking lots. It is mostly extremely pleasant: minimal traffic, lots of green leafy things, a skateboard park and playground, a tiny bridge over an adorable river shaded by an arch of overgrown trees. And the parking lots.

This walk helps my heart. I have feelings about this walk, feelings from this walk: except for the days when the garbage truck and I pace each other through the neighbourhood, I smell dirt and see birds and watch the clouds. One day last winter, I had to navigate on the narrow trail to get around a red tailed hawk that had just killed and was happily disemboweling a pigeon: we looked each other in the eye, eight feet apart from one another. I feel my shoulders soften. I breathe fresh air. I calm down. My FitBit, too, tells me that it’s nearly half an hour of elevated heart rate–it sends me congratulatory stickers about my commitment to movement. I meet my daily exercise goals before I even get to work in the morning. I double it on the way home, and that walk has me shedding the film of anxiety and bother and other people’s stresses and tiny tasks and big problems that descend on me at the office.

Sometimes I have to drive. On those days, I quite often head to bed at night several thousand steps off my 10K step target. I miss my exercise target of 30 minutes of daily moderate exercise. I feel crabby and rushed and spend only as much time outdoors as it takes to get the dog around the block, because I don’t have time for anything else. Work all day is very busy. Evening are full of chores and family activities and obligations. I don’t have time. Who wants to get on the treadmill in the basement at 8pm, looking out for spiders? Or, ack, have to leave the house and go to the gym. Not me. I would just never do it at all.

One of my departmental colleagues invited me to address some graduate students about The System, and one of them asked me about scheduling self-care. She could see my digital planner: I’m really busy! And that planner didn’t show the yoga classes I teach, or piano lessons I bring my girl too, or any of the rest of it.

I told her this: I focus all my working during the day, and I go at it really hard, so I can be with my family in the evenings. I didn’t mention the double-duty of converting my commute into emotional and physical self-care.

I didn’t do that because I know that choice is not, particularly, free. I know that it is some combination of the privilege of being able-bodied, living in a mid-sized city, somehow accidentally timing a real estate market, the incredible dumb luck of having a secure academic position.

We hear so much, lately, about the so-called obesity and inactivity epidemics, the terrible road congestion and pollution, how people eat bad food and don’t sleep enough. And we blame individuals for all this. Our activity trackers exhort us to move more, eat better, or generally make so-called better choices. But what kinds of choices do we, really, mostly control? Circumstances very largely out of my direct control mean I can walk to work in optimal conditions most of the time. I do it because, frankly, it’s easy. My life is dramatically improved as a result. The exercise I get, the emotional release of the outdoors, the time I save not driving and not having to find ‘exercise’ time and can thus use for other things, enriches my life beyond measure, but I deserve nearly no credit for any of it. It is circumstance, luck.

I grew up in Kirkland Lake, where pretty much everything is 2km or less away from everything else. You could choose to walk everywhere or walk some of the time, and some people did, or you could choose to drive everywhere (there was plentiful parking, mostly free, mostly everywhere) and a lot of people chose that. Mostly, the choice was purely individual. When I lived in Toronto, I could live on campus and save the commute, but there was nothing for miles around York campus I could get to. Or I could live in a real neighbourhood but ride the bus for 90 minutes to and from school. In Guelph and Edmonton, it was easier to align a walkable life style with rental apartments and still be close to school. It would be nearly impossible in Vancouver, or Victoria.

Our jobs, our capitalist patriarchy, seem for the most part to conspire against this kind of balance, the balance that most of us really want. Our jobs are largely contingent and ill-paid. We have little control over where we might have to move to, closer to or further from our extended friend and family networks of support. We uproot so much and so often we have little say in determining the neighbourhood and city infrastructures that shape our experiences of life between bouts of work. We eat in our cars because we have no time to eat at home. We live where we can afford to live. We drive to work because it’s too far away or the commute is too unpleasant or dangerous to walk or bike.

The struggle to have some balance is real. Most of us try really hard to do eat right, get our exercise, help the environment, all of it. But whether we can or we can’t is mostly out of our capacity to choose.

As in most things, I’m left pondering the relation between individual agency and structural constraint, and wondering how much those of us in circumstances that make it easy to ‘do the healthy thing’ need to be less proud of ourselves as individuals, how much those of us labouring under more constraints can be kinder to ourselves about those realities, and how together we might advocate for better societies so that we all have a chance to stop and smell the flowers on the way to work, sometimes?

academic work · commute

Commuting: Some Thoughts

For the first time in my life I have what counts as a long commute to work. It isn’t what many business magazines call “a hellishly long commute,” but it is a big change for me. Two hours of my work day are now spent in my car. Let me start by being very clear: I am excited about my new contract; it feels wonderful to be teaching in my field, and the health benefits don’t hurt, either. In fact, the only hitch I have when people ask me how the new gig is going is the distance.

I don’t mind driving. In fact, I am sort of used to it. I grew up in a rural area and getting to school (or the grocery store, or any friend’s house, or the library, or…) meant driving half an hour or more. But this is a bit different. What I mean is this: I find that I account for the time spent commuting for work differently (does the two hour drive count as my work day? Or is it supplemental to it?) In short, I find I am thinking about why and how people commute in ways I hadn’t had to before.

Here are some of the ways I mean this: I think about money and time. My time in the car costs a lot. There’s the gas, of course, but I think about is the less visible cost. Because our kiddo is still a bit too young for daycare, we have a nanny for the term. Two hours in the car is a quarter of the time we pay for child care each day, so I am paying to go to work again, and I am then spending two hours of that work time in the daily commute. That’s okay, by which I mean I am able to do it for now, but I am acutely aware that in terms of the cost many people are not. I wouldn’t have been, not before this new contract. So there’s that: the cost (emotional, financial) of child care. And there’s also the question of productivity. Is it my protestant work-ethic, drilled into me from an early age? Is it the neoliberal institution of higher ed that gives me the not-so-unconscious imperative that I should be working every waking hour and the short term pleasure when I Get All The Things Done? Or is it simply that walking or biking or taking public transit to work felt like I was doing something for myself (fresh air! reading in public!)? Or maybe, as one friend who has commuted further and longer than I, I simply haven’t got my podcast game sorted. Regardless of the psychology of my desire to make my commute matter! (whatever that means) I found myself thinking about how other people use their commuting time. Funny how that happens, eh? I’ve never given real thought to this until it really began to shape my daily life. Hmm… I sense another blog post coming.

Anyhow, I digress. When I started doing some cursory internet research on commuting two themes emerged: how to decide if your commute is too long, and how to improve your commute. The similarities in these articles are pretty predicable in that they are both predicated on the assumption that one has agency in one’s employment situation and one’s housing situation, for that matter. Some bloggers caution that trading a long commute for a job with more money will often deplete your personal happiness. Others suggest that long commutes chip away at your ability to empathize with others. And articles that are specifically about academics who commute are all-too-familiar in their sensationalism meets stasis. You know the formula (& indeed, you may live this too): two academics land good jobs in different cities/countries/timezones/continents. Articles that I’ve read about this underscore the extreme strain of this kind of distance and commute, but few (okay, none) have suggested any practical or structural changes to make the institution more open to the “two-body problem,” except, maybe, this piece by Tenure, She Wrote. In short, public discourse on how academics and and other white collar workers commute are, well, not-so-subtly focused first on class privilege, and then not-so-subtly on gender. Not much (any) overt discussion of race or sexuality.  Surely when we are thinking through the material and affective conditions of academic work we need to take into account how people get there, what options they have for their commute, and how that commute structures their working and non-working lives.

For now, though, as I think about these things and drive my admittedly beautiful 90km drive, I’m also looking for audiobook, podcast, and music suggestions. Bring ’em on, please. Give me a soundtrack to my thinking.

advice · chronicle vitae · feminism

Ladies, Let’s Negotiate

Did you know that Hook & Eye is now on Chronicle Vitae? We’re excited to be able to expand our audience, and Erin, Aimée, Boyda and I have posts up over there.

My first, on negotiating while female, discusses what the research says about the best strategies for negotiating as a woman, strategies that help to counter the unconscious bias that has contributed to the gendered wage gap.

I was annoyed at negotiating advice that just told women to ask for more, as research suggested that asking for more in the wrong ways could have significant negative social and financial impacts for women. But what I didn’t know at the time–for new research has just come out–is that women do ask. In fact, they ask as much as men–they just don’t get what they ask for. You can check out that study from the University of Warwick here.

I still stand by my advice about how to ask in ways that may get you what you want more of the time. But the fact that asking more doesn’t seem to be part of the issue at all makes me even more angry than I already was.

You can read the full post over at Chronicle Vitae.


Image: vintage photo of women boxing (via Creative Commons

best laid plans · enter the confessional · research · writing

I need a dissertation supervisor

I am stuck on my writing. Stuck, stuck, stuck, full of despair and overwhelmed. It’s not getting my bum in the seat that’s the problem, it’s not finding the time. It’s not that I’m not writing, even. I’ve done a lot of research (and have the Zotero to prove it! And oodles of reading notes from teaching a grad class on the topic!) I have documents and documents of free writing, idea testing, blog posts, conference papers, and more on the topic, already filed in their own folder. There’s probably somewhere between 80-100 pages of writing and notes already committed to bits for what I imagine as a 40 page chapter. But I’m stuck. Every document I open, I stare at helplessly: I have both too much and too little and every thread I grab at just seems to snarl into a giant knot, or unravel the entire scholarly garment I’m trying so hard to knit together.

I have cut documents into pieces and taped them together. I have reverse outlined. I have done yet more freewriting. I have organized my references. I have tried to read what I already have. Stuck.

You know what I need? I need a dissertation supervisor. But I already have a PhD and I’m not sure what professors do in this situation.

I’ve spent much of the summer being the supervisor that I need, with two MA projects completed, two full dissertation drafts assessed and commented on, two dissertating students producing first drafts of chapters that I find myself perfectly well able to help them improve.

I actually really enjoy that. I enjoy reading big first drafts, I love finding the path hidden under the bushes, the one sentence that captures the whole thing, buried in the middle of a paragraph on page 12. I love giving people the feedback that helps them see the forest when they’re overwhelmed with trees. Just the other day, I suggested to one student that she might be writing a completely different dissertation than she planned and then we got so much done thinking about what she was actually doing that I had to go home after and have a nap.

But here I am, circling the drain in my writing. All trees, no forest. A bunch of great ideas and great examples and close reading and theoretical frames …. but no forward momentum, no aha moment, nothing.

I need a dissertation supervisor.

Long suffering excellent listener and person I’m married to suggested I trick myself into being my own supervisor. “Look,” he said, “If your student came to you with this ‘draft’, what would you tell them?” And I knew what to tell them, and so I told him what I would say, but it’s not the same.

My writing lately feels very lonely and overwhelming. I’m always telling my students that one of the reasons having a supervisor read early and many versions of their writing is so that another intelligent human being can tell them it’s going to be okay, that they have good ideas, that it will all sort itself out, and here’s a first step to take. I mean, I can’t really do that part of it for myself.

So my question is this: those of you who are professors, who have the PhD, who no longer have a dissertation supervisor, what do you do? Do you just not get stuck like this? Do you have friends you lean on to help you? Can I pay someone to help me with this? What do I do? It’s not good that I’m finding myself jealous of my own students, because they have someone to help them! I want to move forward with all this writing, but the book-length project is something I’m really finding I have trouble managing at scale. All trees, no forest.

#shinetheory · academic reorganization · feminist communities · you're awesome

Hot Topic: How to Amplify Women’s Voices in the Academy

Last week a short article was making the rounds on social media. The article was about how women in the Obama administration managed to make their voices heard. The interviewees in the article noted that initially it was difficult to even get into the important meetings. And, when they did get into the meetings they were often overlooked. Or their ideas were not heard and credited as theirs.

Peggy accurately captures my feelings.

So they made a plan.

The women got together (hello, shine theory!) and decided that each time a woman made a suggestion in a meeting other women would repeat her suggestion while naming her and giving credit.

There they were: women boosting other women’s ideas and demonstrating how to give credit where credit is due. Think of it as amplification.

I love this idea, and since I read the article I have been thinking about how to bring this more deliberately into my practice in scholarly writing. So here is the beginning of a list of ways to amplify  work by women and other marginalized people:

Citations

I often make an effort to write two lines of argumentation into one paper. Rather than being confusing (two thesis statements?!) this is fun and political. Here’s what I mean: I regularly make an effort to cite friends, peers, colleagues, and mentors in my paper if their thinking is relevant to the work I am doing. I’ve done this since I was a graduate student, and I learned the practice from some of my mentors who thanks me and other students in the acknowledgements of their books. Now, I go out of my way to reference the intellectual work of women when I speak publicly and write. It’s my academic version of Le Tigre’s anthem Hot Topic.

Invitations
If you’re on advisory committees or in department meetings or have any opportunity to influence who gets brought to your campus then speak up! Bring in women. Bring in women of colour. Bring in Indigenous women. Bring in differently abled women. Bring in trans people. In fact, bring them into your classroom! Skype and google hangout are free. Departments often have some sort of funds for guest lecturers. Getting invited to speak, getting paid for your public thinking, and getting your work introduced to a new group of people is invaluable. So speak up and suggest names when you have the opportunity to do so!

Book Reviews
In one of my other writing lives I chair the board of Canadian Women in the Literary Arts aka CWILA. Every year we do a gender audit of book review culture in Canada and one of the things we’ve found that doesn’t show up in the metrics (yet) is that reviews matter in terms of how books and ideas circulate. You know: buzz. It is a real thing. And here is something I have found, though again anecdotally: there’s not as much buzz around academic writing by women and other Others. So pitch book reviews! And feel good about the crucial contribution you’re making to a richer, more diverse and representative discourse of writing happening in academic circles. Hype books you’re excited about (I for one cannot wait for Professor Karina Vernon’s book to come out, for example). And speaking of hype…

Referrals
When you’re in a conference Q&A or sitting in the department lunchroom talking to colleagues or speaking with graduate students and the inevitable “do you have a text to recommend?” question comes up… recommend with relish and enthusiasm and care! Reference diverse work in your lectures! In your conversations! And…in order to do this, challenge yourself to keep a current sense of new and archival work by to draw on. When’s the last time you had Mary Ann Shadd on your early Canadian Literature syllabus, for example? Or what about Tanya Lukin Linklater‘s work on your Performance Studies syllabus? Referencing and referring feels awesome and it is awesome.

#alt-ac · altac · boast post · defense · PhD

When In Doubt, Buy Office Supplies (or, I Got My PhD)

I spent Saturday morning swimming in a soupy blend of emotion and leftover adrenaline. I don’t think I spoke much. Mostly I just read the Black Panther comic my husband had bought for me earlier that week, curled up in my favourite living room chair, and exclaimed quietly every time our eyes met: “I did a thing!”

I did. I did a thing. I did a big thing.

I got my PhD.

Dr. Dalgleish, happy and tired post-defense.

I’ve been so grateful for the family and friends who wanted to hear the story of the defense, because telling the story over again has let me consolidate in my mind what is a genuinely treasurable memory, one that has already become a touchstone. My defense was a joyful, fun, challenging, exciting, euphoria-inducing experience–probably the best single academic experience of my career. I had fun!  My committee made me think hard about how and why I’d done the work I had, and made me think more and differently about my place in the field. I shared in my post last week my worry that my day job has made me less effective as a researcher, but the defense proved that it was actually quite the opposite. Having a career in addition to my research practice has made me more confident, better spoken, more thoughtful, more stylish in my writing, less cautious and conventional in how I perform my research, far better able to articulate the value of my work, and far better able to craft a research practice that has real value in and out of the academy. I walked out of my defense completely over the moon, and that’s a feeling that I hope stays with me for a long time.

Aside from my happiness and pride at accomplishing something that was hard work and took a long time and demanded a lot, there are other things the PhD has given me that I don’t want to lose: the structure that having a large ongoing project lent to my days, the time I carved out for research and thinking and writing, the sense of purpose it lent me, the broad set of skills I developed, the confidence in my abilities, the friendships with fellow researchers and writers, and the deeper and more nuanced understanding of the world. I want to use this time, while I’m still on the high of having finished, to be intentional about crafting the next phase of my life, one that holds on to all of the space I’ve made for thinking and reading and writing. I also desperately want and need to reshape my life in ways that are more balanced than it has been recently, in ways that leave room for creativity, spontaneity, embodiment, exploration. Not having my dissertation fill so much of my time makes me both exhilarated by the possibility, and a little panicked about how best to make use of all the time not having it on my plate has opened up.

When in doubt, I buy office supplies. On Sunday, I picked up some lovely paper, some new highlighters, and more ink for a beautiful fountain pen I was gifted as a defense present. I sat down at the dining room table on Sunday afternoon, and I drew what I wanted my first week post-PhD to look like, the week that I’ve been dreaming about for years. I drew it with my new fountain pen, and beautiful paper, and all the colours of highlighter I could find. I took my time, and I thought about the things I wanted this first week to have, the week that would let me begin as I mean to go on.

And so I penned in time to read in the living room with Moose the cat. I drew in time to go running and swimming and yoga-ing, to remind myself that my body is something other than a living jar for my brain. I put in time to walk and listen to podcasts, time to cook, time to work on the novel I started at the beginning of the summer and some non-dissertation academic projects that are in the pipeline. I penned in time for relaxing and self-reflection and projects around the house. I drew in time with my husband, my family, my friends, and more time to sleep that I’ve allowed myself in a long time.

A very colourful week.

It’s a beautiful week, not just on paper but in practice. It’s a week that’s chock full of all the things that to me say a good life, one that’s full of intention and effort and expanding my horizons. On paper it looks a little like panic, a little like trying to keep the uncertainty of the future at bay by locking the present into tiny boxes, but to me it looks more like intention, like putting down on paper how I want my life to be, the life that the PhD gave me.

My external examiner mentioned that she’d read my “I quit” letter, and she jokingly told me that she thought that letter was a lie. She’s right. I didn’t actually quit. I’m just swimming in a different lane of the same pool. And the water’s fine.

affect · being undone · loneliness · teaching

On being lonely in university

A Huffington Post article made its way into my Facebook feed, last week, describing how “Almost 70% of University Students Admit to Feeling Lonely.” I clicked it because I remember the absolutely crippling loneliness of much of my undergraduate years. The post led to original news story on the topic at CBC, that details the study more closely, and outlines what staff at the University of Winnipeg are doing to support students. It links as well to a Washington Post article describing the terrible health effects of loneliness–“molecular level” physiological effects comparable to diabetes! smoking! obesity!

So go make some friends! suggests the article. In fact, there’s a different HuffPo story on “How to Cope with Loneliness at University“–spoiler alert, you cope with loneliness by making friends! The CBC story is a little more nuanced, giving space to several employees from a campus wellness program at the University of Winnipeg describing counselling and support interventions offered to students. Still, students have to seek these out.

If you’ve ever been really lonely–not solitary, not introverted, but lonely–you will know at least one thing: it’s such a terrible feeling that no one resides in it willingly, and if you knew how to be less lonely, you would do it. . People risk loneliness by coming to university, full of people, but people who are already established in campus networks, or everyone else uprooted from their home contexts and starting from nothing. If you don’t live in residence, or socialize easily while wearing multiple sets of beads and a ridiculous hat, while shouting university fight songs, it can be hard to make connections. Doubly hard if you commute from away, or if you have family obligations, or are an international student, an older student. If you are a graduate student, for whom not even these forced social encounters are organized.

I don’t know how fair it is to ask the lonely to just “make some friends!” or even necessarily to reach out for formal help.

What if we asked the non-lonely to do something instead? How might those among us blessed with social connections and a feeling of community help incorporate lonely undergrads, lonely graduate students, lonely professors?

What can we do in our classrooms, our department get-togethers and meetings, our course materials and assignments, to help ease this heavy burden of isolation?

One thing I’m still trying to do is to move beyond my own comfort zone–so hard won!–and interact with new people at events. I have been running formal and informal writing groups that make space for simple chat, and for being alone together in a common cause. In my classes, I will continue to find new ways to structure activities so that students have opportunities to meaningfully interact with one another–one of the simplest tricks being that each group has to nominate someone to introduce all the members to the class, or making space for students to have negative feelings, or having all the students send me an email introducing themselves and their interests, and I respond to it in kind.

Loneliness in higher education is real. I have at various times and stages suffered terribly from it myself, and felt completely powerless to change my situation. I think now that I’m more secure and supported, it’s time for me to be part of the solution. You? Have you suffered academic or other loneliness? How do you reach out to others?

academy · dissertation · faster feminism · grad school · parenting · PhD · productivity · reform · women

Parenting in the PhD: Round II

It was with mixed feelings that I welcomed September and the onset of autumn this semester. Most years, with the yellow-tinged leaves and the crisp morning dew, I find myself back in the classroom, gearing up for a semester of teaching, welcoming new students, or training incoming RAs.

This year, I’m gearing up for a different kind of semester. I began the term filling out Employment Insurance (EI) forms instead of post-doctoral applications. Instead of stacks of papers mid-semester, I’ll be dealing with stacks of diapers. Instead of scheduled student hours, I’ll be at the beck and call of unscheduled infant cries: my second child is due to arrive at the end of October.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how different my experience of pregnancy, parental leave, and the academy has been on the second go-around.

Although both my children will be born during my PhD, the first arrived at the end of my first year, while I was funded through SSHRC. The second comes at the tail end of my program, as I submit my final chapter, re-write my introduction, and finish my conclusion. My funding has shifted from scholarship-based to teaching-based, and with that shift comes a complete alteration in how (and whether) I qualify for paid maternity and parental leave.

As it turns out, there are vastly different parental benefits available to graduate students at the University of Alberta depending on the source of their academic funding. Although every graduate student is permitted to take up to three years of unpaid parental leave, qualifying for paid leave depends on precisely how you are paid: 1) by scholarship, 2) as a Graduate Student Research/Teaching Assistant, or 3) as a Contract Academic Employee. Each of these options has various benefits and drawbacks, but most graduate students don’t actively chose which one they happen to qualify for. Much depends on how a particular department happens to be able to fund its graduate students, or the scholarships those graduate students themselves happen to win.

1) If you are paid by scholarship, paid parental leave depends on the scholarship itself. If you hold an external SSHRC doctoral award, you qualify for up to six months of paid parental leave at 100% of your stipend. If you hold other awards, it depends on that award. Surprisingly (to me, at least), many of these awards, both external to the university (like the prestigious Killam) or internal (like the now-defunct Dissertation Fellowship) offer no paid parental leave at all, meaning you would qualify for nothing if you happened to need parental or maternity leave while holding these awards.

2) If you are paid as an Research or Teaching Assistant (either full or part-time), you are permitted to take either: parental leave, which allows for 16 weeks of leave at 75% of your current stipend; or maternity leave at 100% of your stipend for six weeks, followed by 75% of your stipend for the remaining 10 weeks. (For more, see the Graduate Student Assistantship Collective Agreement).

3) If you are paid as a Contract Academic Employee, you *may* qualify for leave through Employment Insurance as long as you meet the requirements (you must have worked 600 insured hours as a Contract Academic Employee in the previous 52 weeks, which is not typical for most graduate students). This would permit you to take a full year of paid leave, at 55% percent of your salary.

These, of course, are just the policies at my own university–the University of Alberta. While other Canadian universities operate on similar lines (ie: whether you qualify for leave depends on how you are paid), many actually don’t offer any paid leave at all for students supported through the university (ie: as a research or teaching assistant).

In my particular case, in this second pregnancy, I managed to qualify for a full year of leave through EI by working as a Contract Academic Employee. I got a bit lucky because I was offered an extra course through another department at my university, and a spring course through my own department (which I was not guaranteed with my particular funding package). This meant I was able to work the amount of insurable hours I needed to qualify, and it means that this time I will be taking a full year of paid leave, versus four months last time–which I felt was insufficient (in fact, I wasn’t able to find full-time childcare until well after my four months of official leave). There was, of course, a trade-off: I almost certainly slowed my progress to completion by taking on the additional teaching work.

How, then, might universities better support graduate students who become parents during the course of their degrees?

What I’d really love to see is a full year of paid parental leave for all graduate students, regardless of how they are paid. This would go a very long way in helping women to succeed in academia. However, given that even the best leave (SSHRC) only pays six months of leave (albeit at 100%), I feel like this is a good second choice. So, I’d love to see all graduate students qualify for six months of leave at 100%, regardless of their funding sources. It would also be great to see the qualifying period simply be based on the student’s previous four months of pay. This would negate the need for students to undertake more work (and thus slow their time to completion) simply in order to qualify.

Both these things would help reduce the academic opacity that seems to surround the decision to have a family, and make it more fair for students who happen to be on scholarships or funding packages that mean they don’t qualify. Really, all graduate students should be entitled to paid leave, regardless of the source of their funding.

adjuncts · blacklivesmatter · gradschool · phdchat · solidarity · structural solutions · unions

On the Recent NLRB Ruling in Favour of Grad Student Unions

Definitions matter. It’s a lesson I teach my Composition students every year: define your terms. Redefine old terms. Assert your intimate understanding of the topic and sculpt out the contours of your study at the outset. Writing a paper on gentrification? Identify and describe what that term means right away, so you can prove you’re in control and the reader can trust you as guide her through the paper.

In Canada, graduate students employed by the university have been allowed to unionize since a 1975 decision by the Ontario Labour Relations Board in the case of a graduate association at York University. Most major Canadian universities contain at least one student union, though it is important to note these unions are not the same as legally recognized collective bargaining units (*thanks for this important correction by the anonymous commenter below). These are not all affiliated with a larger national union, but as often funded and subsidized by the government, they retain autonomous power over their working conditions and ability to speak and act as a collective. The Canadian Federation of Students exists in order to represent the graduate employee needs of publicly funded universities. I’m not always on-board with the idealization of Canada that happens down here in the States, but this is one issue where I’m like – omg, yes.

In the US, public universities function under state law, and most of the major ones were unionized by the end of the twentieth century. Prior to 2000, and between 2004 and 2016, graduate students at American private universities were defined primarily as students rather than employees, blocking their ability to unionize on the basis that any labour conducted for the university serves as mere apprenticeship, training students for our future jobs. But, in this precarious academic climate, students are no longer satisfied with treating graduate school as a holding period for a future that may never come. In 2015, the super awesome graduate workers at New York University (many of whom I’m proud to count as friends) set the precedent for altering the NLRB’s ruling, and Columbia’s appeal for official recognition for private universities has just, in late August, been approved, reversing the Brown University ruling from 2004, and dispensing of an Amicus Brief submitted by a number of leading Ivy League universities voicing their opposition to the proposed ruling (using the dubious reasoning that collective bargaining would detract from the educational experience).

The Board Decision, found here, states in no uncertain terms that “student assistants who have a common-law employment relationship with their university are statutory employees under the Act,” countering the Brown University Board claim that graduate assistants are “primarily students and have a primarily educational, not economic, relationship with their university.” This is a victory of definitions–of better defining who is and isn’t an employee, who is and isn’t an employer, and what it means to be both a student studying to enhance the mind and a labourer working to enhance the university. It is both/and, not either/or. Already, in response to this decision, universities like Columbia have crafted subtly anti-union websites to try to dissuade students from acting on this decision (not linking, for obvious reasons). The campaign against graduate student workers has moved from a national to a local level.

Many grad students, especially those in the first years of the program, are beset by an innate sense of gratitude and obsequiousness toward their superiors; I remember this. Just the other day an anxious facebook status popped up in my Timehop wherein I bewailed the accidental sending of an email about graduate student business to a number of faculty members as well. I remember being afraid to speak up about conditions that seemed latently unfair, because hey – I’m tough, we’re all in this together, that person seems worse off than I am, I can handle being asked to work a few extra hours a week beyond my contract, right? Wouldn’t want to stir the pot and risk creating enemies.

But unions can give collective voice to these individual grievances, rendering instances of injustice both less personal and more urgent. And faculty should be on our side too–happier working conditions for us means happier working conditions for faculty.

Some believe that we should be grateful for the luxury of engaging in ideas of the mind, that this work is inherently fulfilling, and besides: we are not coal miners, whose working conditions are objectively worse than ours. According to such positions, by barely making above minimum wage, we are participating in a centuries-old tradition of the suffering monk, bent over his poorly lit desk and scratching away at parchment until the wee hours of the morning. There is a beauty and a nobility in that. But as a medievalist, I know that even these monks sometimes scribbled exasperated comments in the margins; they probably deserved and desired better working conditions, too! And as for the coal miner: true, we don’t experience the physical and mental duress and possible health risks of working long hours in a dingy mine. But we do face rampant mental health issues that we can’t even talk about for fear of demonstrating unfitness for the very conditions that have made us this way, and some of us confuse self care with actual care, neglecting to look after our basic needs. The presence of extreme suffering in the world does not negate the hardship we might also face, but on a relatively smaller scale.

A quick read through any of the extant graduate union contracts shows that graduate student unions empower the graduate community, giving them some control and autonomy over the precarious working conditions that enable institutional exploitation of cheap labour. But they also do more than this. Grad student unions can help us reach outside the bounds of the academy and partner with existing social movements in order to advocate for broader social change, examples of which are the grad union votes around the BDS movement, or actions against police unions inspired by #blacklivesmatter. Hillary Clinton, to her credit, praised the NLRB decision on Twitter, but elsewhere condemned BDS. The conversation is becoming more heated and more urgent, and as the new school year rolls into full swing, and election day draws (looms?) ever closer, I’m eager to see how the conversations will shift.

Definitions matter. I speak the voice of “we” and of “us” here, but technically I’m not part of the student body anymore – definitionally speaking. Like now Doctor Melissa (yay!!!!), it has been 25 consecutive years since I’ve entered the Fall semester not as a student, having successfully defended my dissertation in late August. But I still care about students’ rights, and I care about social movements that can mutually thrive and grow together, like the fight for graduate employee representation at private universities, the fight for more fair and equitable treatment of adjunct workers and other contingent faculty, and even the fight for just treatment of permanent faculty, who at Long Island University in Brooklyn have recently been locked out alongside their sessional brethren (ousted from their positions the day before the semester, deprived access to their university emails and health insurance, and replaced by temporary workers of dubious origin). Graduate employee, adjunct professor, and tenure-track professor alike, we’re all in this together.

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js Other works cited: 
Zinni, Deborah M., Parbudyal Singh, and Anne F. MacLennan. “An Exploratory Study of Graduate Student Unions in Canada.” Relations Industrielles / Industrial Relations 60.1 (2005): 145-176. JSTOR.