community · research planning

No Gold In Them Thar Hills: academic journal publishing

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A long time ago, there was an house I wanted to live in. I didn’t get to live in that house but, years later, I got to go a party there and, as I wandered from room to room, I had a brief glimpse into what my life would have been like if I had lived there. It would not necessarily have been better, but it definitely would have been different.
A couple weeks ago, I experienced the publishing equivalent of that not-better-but-different experience. I was at the copyediting stage with an article that had been accepted for publication at pretty great international journal. Fast forward through three rounds of peer review (real life social scientists making sense of my humanities-based approach) and I was finally at copyediting and signing the publishing agreement.
Along with the proofs came an email:
Dear Lily Cho
Your article listed above is currently in production with [Big Academic Publisher].
We are delighted that you have chosen to publish your paper in [Great International Journal]. This email is to tell you about the publication options available to you.
Standard publication route
Your article will be published in the journal, and made available online permanently for subscribers and licensed institutions throughout the world, including provision of online access through developing world initiatives. You will also receive a link via email that you can send to 50 colleagues who can download the article free of charge. After the embargo period for this journal, you may deposit the Accepted Manuscript into an institutional or subject repository (Green Open Access).
Gold Open Access publication
You have the option to pay a charge to make the final version of your article freely available online at the point of publication, permanently, for anyone to read (Gold Open Access). This requires payment of an Article Publishing Charge (APC). Please note that this option is strictly your choice, and is not required for publication in the journal. It is not available for research articles of less than two printed pages in length.
If you would like to publish your article via the Gold Open Access route please read the notes below:
• You will retain the rights in your article but will be asked to sign an appropriate article publishing agreement to enable us to publish the article.
• Many institutions and funders partner with [Big Five Academic Publisher] to offer authors a discount on the standard APC or enable them to publish open access at no cost to themselves. Please visit our Author Services website to find out if you are eligible.
Choosing the “Gold Open Access” would cost me somewhere in the neighbourhood of $2500. I went through one of those lightening fast thought processes that I go through when I am expecting to do something pretty routine (not my first time signing a publishing agreement, have allotted exactly two minutes for this routine task in the midst of a busy day, and am momentarily startled by a glitch in the two-minute plan (woah! Gold access? Whuuuut?) and then plough through to keep to my two-minute plan (whuuut? pay thousands of dollars so that my colleagues and students have a chance to read this article without having to click through proxy server? No, thanks).
I am not about to start on a rant about “Gold Open Access,” or other ways of further privatizing the (completely vital) circulation and exchange of academic work. Maybe another time. But this moment of deciding not to pay for the privilege of giving my brilliant work away did make me go back to a different moment.
Back when I co-edited an academic journal, we were approached by more than one of the Big Academic Publishers. This particular publisher, the one that just offered me “Gold Access,” came closer than any of others to taking over the journal. At the time, the offer was enticing for someone like me. They offered to deal with all the non-academic stuff (subscription management, marketing, manuscript submission processes). We would keep all the editorial control but they would take all the money and the content. I say the offer was enticing because there were definitely things we could have done better and it was all so much work. Keep in mind that editing the journal was essentially a volunteer position. There was no money at all for doing it. There was no course release (there might have been a little before but there was no release by the time I signed up). This work wasn’t even listed as a “professional contribution” under my university’s promotion and tenure guidelines. It is considered to be “service” (and under my department’s p & t standards, service does not rate the same way as teaching and professional contribution aka research) and I was very happy to serve. (All you journal editors out there, I see you and I admire you and know that you are working your butt off only to have everyone mad at you because their article is stuck in peer review limbo when it is totally not your fault.) Given these conditions, you can see how dreamy it would be for a Big Academic Publisher to swoop in and save me. I could actually edit and they would take care of the all the essential but nit-picky stuff.
But the editorial board, in all its wisdom, voted against the offer from the Big Academic Publisher. They thought about our credibility as a journal, what it would mean to ask our colleagues to peer review when the journal would then turn around and charge huge fees for access to the finished work, and many other things besides.
For me, turning down the offer to let someone else manage the journal was a lot like not getting to live in that house. I remember once reading a book called Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House. I don’t remember the book now, but I do remember that sentiment. That belief, no matter how silly, that everything wrong would somehow be fixed if I could just live there. 
Going through production for my article was like living through a weird alternate world where I got to experience, albeit as an author and not an editor, what it would have been like if the journal I had co-edited had gone down that other route, had moved into that other house.
Everything was so smooth. The submission process was so elegant. The turnaround on production was so fast. There was an official Academic Editor overseeing the copyediting AND a copyeditor. All this in addition to the editors of the special issue, and the editors of the journal itself. So much editing was being done so seamlessly. I admired the web interface for uploading copyedits, the way they streamlined copyediting queries, the professionalism of everyone working at this Big Academic Publisher.
It was like I was at that party in that house that I didn’t get to live and I wandered around saying quietly to myself things like, Wow, these floors! This window! This light fixture! I didn’t actually want to live there anymore. I had moved on. But it was just a moment where I could see what that other life might have been.
I thought of all this again when I saw yet another news story about a major university having to cut its subscriptions to journals because the publishers have once again raised the prices. It is no secret that academic publishing has become an oligopoly:
Combined, the top five most prolific publishers account for more than 50% of all papers published in 2013. Disciplines in the social sciences have the highest level of concentration (70% of papers from the top five publishers), while the humanities have remained relatively independent (20% from top five publishers). (Larivière, Haustein, and Mongeon).
In the humanities, we are still choosing, more than most disciplines, to support journals that are outside of the circuit of the big publishers: Reed-Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell, Springer, and Taylor & Francis. By support, I mean we are still choosing to read, publish, and teach articles that are published outside of these circuits. It seems to me that now, more than ever, we have to pay attention to these questions of ownership. Next time you submit an article for publication, or assign an article to teach, look at who owns the journal, and think about whether or not you want your work to be aligned with that publisher. I know I will.
And I know that this is easier said than done. This year, I am serving on my university’s Senate Tenure and Promotion Committee. That means I read a LOT of Tenure and Promotion files belonging to colleagues across every discipline at York. I know that there is a fight about metrics going down. It is not just optics. Publishing with a big journal means that your work will be promoted differently. It will likely register differently in terms of citation and general circulation. How widely your article circulates, and how often you are cited, matters more than ever.
But there are options and it is worth exploring them. In my own field, I am really lucky that there are amazing journals edited by amazing people that are not (yet) part of the oligopoly (hello there, ARIEL, Canadian Literature, ESC, Imaginations,  Postcolonial Text, Small Axe, Studies in Canadian Literature, TOPIA, and many, many more). Not all of these are open access. Most are not. Some are owned or managed by reasonably big publishers too but, as far as I can tell, these publishers have arrangements with the journals that are pretty fair and equitable. These arrangements can be actually be a good thing. For example, ESC’s relationship with Johns Hopkins offers a real benefit to all members of the main scholarly association in my field, ACCUTE.  
There are no fast and easy solutions. As someone who has grappled with the budget of getting a journal out, I can tell you that open access is not the silver bullet for fighting “Gold Open Access.” And I actually don’t really believe that academics should be paid for their academic writing. It is a basic and important part of our job. I also don’t believe in paying for peer review. That is also a basic and important part of my job. It is invisible and thankless labour. But, as with so many things, I do it because  that’s what it means to be part of an intellectual community and I am grateful every single day for the great privilege of being in this community.
But, at the very least, I want to remember that my life would definitely not be perfect if I lived in that other house. And I want to stay alert to the politics and possibilities of the vibrant intellectual life outside and beyond the oligopoly.
enter the confessional

Not waving but drowning

Okay here’s the thing. Everything is awful and I’m not okay. Have you missed me these past weeks? I haven’t posted because I just couldn’t get my act together. I didn’t even tell all my other lovelies that I needed a break. (I’m so sorry …) I just disappeared.

I find myself experiencing serious overwhelm. I am hurting. It’s not clear to me how I’m going to get through this semester. I just want to be real about it for a moment. Every Monday and Wednesday after class, I push two chairs together in my office, crawl under my coat and fall deeply asleep for 40 minutes. When my iPhone alarm goes off, I’m staggeringly disoriented. Sometimes, I cry.

I pushed back a grading thing by a week, which moved another deadline by a week, for my first years. Still, I’ve graded, for them, 40 short papers, and 120 online quizzes, and answered at least 40 intro emails, and met with a dozen of them in office hours. My fourth years have also produced 35 short papers that have been graded, and they’ve been coming to meet me about their projects, and it’s a new course so I’m hauling ass to get everything prepped. My first year class turned into a new prep too, because my Dropbox got hacked and all my teaching materials disappeared (please don’t give me advice on how to fix this: trust me when I say I’ve tried everything).

A couple of days ago, I told my daughter to stop jumping up and down on the squeaky part of the floor because “I don’t like that noise, and you must stop.” Her response? “Mom, there’s a LOT of things you don’t like.” It’s true. I’m very short tempered and impatient, lately.

The first week back at school I had a dissertation defence. I’ve got through one advisee chapter since then, and half of another, and I have two more on my desk that need my attention. Three students are waiting on me for stuff. I’ve organized two more defences since then, and two others took place this week.

Yesterday, I snapped at my husband in the car, for singing a funny song to make our kid laugh. “It’s too loud and I need you to stop that right now!” I barked at him. Poor man. He’s been making suppers and being quiet, and taking on extra chores. But I’m snappish and mean.

I’ve led four three-hour grad committee meetings, four Fridays in a row. We’ve also had team meetings, and a department meeting. And we’re doing a program review and there’s lots I’m in charge of. And my annual performance review files I had to pull together and narrate. And the kind of crisis that pops up unexpectedly but with great force in a big grad program, sometimes, that takes 10 hours and 30 emails to fix. Also we’re doing an internal recruitment thing that means I’m having a lot of meetings with candidates and assessing a lot of files on my own instead of passing them to the committee. I’m asking for money, I’m planning an event, I’m dealing with people upset about decisions.

From January 30 to February 18, I worked every single day. And every night I slept in two short naps, usually between 11 and 3, and then from 5:30-6:30. I spent the intervening hours with a racing heart and racing mind, miserable. Some mornings, I isolated myself from my family, because I could not bring myself to be nice to them. Everything is too loud and too bright and too itchy, and if you drop a pencil too close to me, I will scream and my heart rate will shoot up to 140.

January 31, I co-planned a rally attended by more than 600 people. I did press, I did promotions. I cooked a meal for a local refugee family on the same day, in a fit of terrible scheduling. It was my birthday, and I had to be dragged out. I cried a little before we went to the restaurant. I missed, somehow, an email from my kid’s school about an important meeting, so I missed the meeting, too.

I wrote a 6000 word research talk, and made a 72 slide Keynote deck to go with it. I spent a (truly lovely, inspiring, and amazing) day at McMaster to present it and meet people. The woman who introduced me made a big deal out of how important Hook and Eye was to her.  It was so touching! When I got back home, every email I’d missed reminded me how that time was not really mine to use for research.

I have two boxes of Cliff bars and a dozen meal replacement shakes in my office. I don’t take lunches. I shovel food in my face dashing between my office and the department photocopier. I guzzle a latte between my office and my fourth year class. I guzzle a Diet Coke between my office and my first year class.

I have to convert the Works Cited for an accepted chapter into MLA 8. I hid from the editor so successfully because I couldn’t find time to do it that she actually phoned my chair. This is my life now.

I’m not well. One day, I had to cancel some meetings because every time I stood up, I got dizzy. My insomnia is literally impairing my ability to think: I tried to drive somewhere a couple of days ago, and when I got in the car I couldn’t visualize the whole route, I just knew which direction to start in. I figured I’d recognize it as I went. I did. That was scary. I had to meet a student today, and I went to school in oversized track pants and my pyjama shirt. I have not had a shower today. I feel like if I have to gussy myself up for one more thing I am going to have a complete meltdown.

I haven’t been to yoga for months, except to teach.

A faculty member recently came to my office to berate me for asking him to spend ten minutes writing a reference letter: did I not know how busy he was? and what an outrageous claim on his time this was? I had a vision of screams and fire and violence. I saw myself grow to the size of the entire building, rampaging. I pressed my nails into my palms and stayed quiet.

I don’t need anyone to help me — that is, this post is not itself a cry for help. It’s reading week now, and I’m going to try very hard to catch my breath. I’ve taken some walks. I’ve played piano. I’ve baked with my kid, and cuddled my spouse. I’m letting myself sleep. I do myself the kindness of reaching out to the people who love me, who are loving me, and it helps. I’m writing this post.

What I’m intending with this post is to just flag that …. what? That I have all kinds of good advice and good habits and boundaries and all the rest of it but sometimes there’s just actually too much work to do. That this can imperil your health and your happiness. That sometimes, mid-semester, all you can do is cling on by your fingernails, cut corners where you can, and wait for it to end. The problem right now is that there is just too much work to be done, and it’s important sometimes just to recognize that. To recognize as well that my body is giving me strong signals that this is not sustainable: the dizziness, and the insomnia, will soon enough knock me flat on my ass, and force me to take a sick day. My body sends important signals, and I should listen.

If this is you, too, please know: I feel you. I’m sorry this is happening. Do not grin and bear it — you might have to bear it, but there’s no need to be cheerful about it. If you want to unburden yourself in the comments, please do. I do not want to normalize or heroize this kind of labour. I want to call it what it is–terribly and unhealthy, and harmful in many ways–and work towards making the kind of university where it doesn’t happen nearly as often as it does.

advice · defense · PhD

How to: Defend Your Dissertation (like a Superstar) in 10 Easy Steps

Of all the academic things I turned out to be good at, defending my dissertation is perhaps the most surprising. I was not awesome (to put it mildly) at the oral defence portion of my comprehensive exams, and I’ve had at least one job interview where I bumbled questions like a nervous wreck. But I KILLED my dissertation defence. Best people ever saw-level killed it. And now that it’s been six months and I’ve got some perspective on it, it’s time to share my pearls of wisdom so that you too can have the snake fight of your life.

(Caveat: I’m in the humanities, so this advice might not exactly apply to people in other fields. You know what the deal is in your discipline, so adapt as necessary.)

1. Put it in Context 

We hear about this mysterious, terrifying thing called the dissertation defence all the way through our PhDs, but without real context. It’s not the same as a qualifying exam, or even as a proposal defence. Is it like a chalk talk or a job talk? Is it really like McSweeney’s snake fight? And what do people mean by defend–is that just a euphemism for poking holes and grilling me until I cry?

As a humanities PhD, the best advice I got was to think of the defence as a meeting with a book publisher who you might want to publish your academic monograph, and who wants to know more about the project. And that editor (a.k.a. your committee) is going to ask you to explain and expand on your choices (that is, defend them) so that they can understand this project and its contribution to knowledge in your field. Why did you make the methodological and theoretical choices you did? Why did you choose the parameters you did for this study? What made you want to pursue this research in the first place? How is this work different from the work other people in your field are doing, and why? What’s the most important contribution to knowledge this research makes?

2. Know the Boundaries

The defence is, first and foremost, about the work your committee has on the table in front of them. It is about defending and justifying the choices you made in doing that research, and just that research. Don’t worry too much about questions that take you outside of your project. Those might come up, mostly in the context of how this research fits into and contributes to your field more broadly, but 90% of your discussion is going to be about the work you did and how and why you did it the way you did. Focus your preparation on your dissertation–on knowing it well, on being able to explain and justify your choices, on being able to identify its limits–and not on trying to know everything about your field that an examiner could possibly ask you.

3. Set the Terms 

In many fields, an opening presentation at the defence is mandatory. In some, like mine, it’s optional. Do one. The opening presentation is your opportunity to set the terms of discussion in your defence, to frame the conversation in a way that works for you. Your examiners, especially your external, will have questions prepared but the presentation is a golden opportunity to set the terms of engagement. Preparing the opening talk is also one of the best ways to prepare for the defence, because it forces you to see and talk about the big picture of your project before you delve into the nitty-gritty of preparing answers to specific questions.

If you’re working in a lab, ask your recently graduated labmates or the new postdoc if they would share their presentation. In the humanities, you might find a colleague who is willing to share their script (or slides, if they had them). I found this one a good starting point.

Another way you can set the terms of engagement for your defence is to have a say in where it happens. Because I worked in the Faculty of Graduate Studies at my university, I knew what rooms were typically used for defences, and I knew about ones that were available but rarely used and SO COOL. So, I decided to defend at Hogwarts, a.k.a. the York Room.

 

4. Know your Audience 

The questions your examiners are going to ask you don’t need to be a mystery. They are people with specific interests and biases. Happily, there’s lots of evidence out there–in the form of their scholarship and public writing–that can give you insight into what those are. Read a bunch of stuff written by your external examiner, and refresh yourself on the work of your committee members. Identify the places where their ideas conflict with yours, what is of significant interest to them that intersects with (or didn’t get much time in) your work, where your work significantly overlaps. And learn what you can about your external as a person–is s/he prickly or friendly? is s/he defensive or open to being challenged? what does she care about as a researcher? Given the size of our academic networks, there’s a good likelihood that you or your supervisor knows someone who knows your external well–talk to them!

5. Fill the Bank

This one is both the easiest and the hardest: find a useful list of common defence questions for your discipline, and prepare answers to them. Use what you’ve learned about your defence committee, and the framework you prepared in developing your opening presentation, to guide your answers. Don’t be afraid to research your answers a bit. And then review those answers a bunch before the defence. Make your labmate/partner/cat listen to you deliver those answers out loud. (I drove my husband a bit crazy with this, as I spent the weeks before my defence constantly monologuing about my research. But it worked!) You should also ask your supervisor and other committee members to share with you, to the extent that they can, the areas of your work on which you should focus your preparation.

Doing this works. There were almost no questions that I hadn’t anticipated in advance, and I pulled answers to some of the trickier ones almost verbatim from my mental bank of prepared responses. Those were the answers that most impressed my committee. The one I personally liked the best answered a challenging question from my supervisor about an unusual and often-denigrated approach I take in my research by pointing out, with specific examples, that her widely acclaimed work also sometimes takes the same approach, just without directly acknowledging it. My preparation and knowledge of my committee paid off–I was sure she was going to ask me some version of that question, and I prepared a strong answer that directly referenced her own scholarship.

6. Know to Stop

It’s two days before your defence. You’ve prepared your statement. You’ve anticipated the questions your committee will ask and you’ve practiced your answers. You feel confident in your ability to defend the choices you made in conducting this research.

Time to stop.

There’s nothing more you can do. It’s time to give your brain a rest and be confident in not only your preparation but in the years of work you did to get to this point.

7. Choose your Gear

You can, however, choose your clothes and the other things you’re going to bring. The defence outfit is crucial, and it must meet three key standards:

  • It must make you look like a colleague: like a fellow academic, not like a graduate student.
  • It must be utterly and totally comfortable. If any part of your outfit pinches or rubs or needs adjusting, chuck it–your clothes cannot be a distraction.
  • It must make you feel AWESOME.
I defended in the still-steamy part of September, and my power outfits always blend femme and more masculine pieces, so I wore a skirt, a sleeveless blouse, and a blazer. (No piece of clothing makes me feel more powerful than a blazer, and I wear one just about every day despite my work dress-code being rather more casual than that.) It ended up being too warm to wear the blazer during the defence, but I had strategically chosen the rest of my outfit so that it didn’t matter whether I wore it or not. I felt smart and powerful and comfortable and it was perfect.
Other things to bring:
  • a bottle of water
  • paper and a pen for writing down notes (you can also buy yourself a little time in answering questions by writing them down)
  • a copy of your dissertation with the key sections you might want to refer to — methods, results, a key experiment or analysis — flagged
  • anything else your department or supervisor tells you that you must bring — it can vary
  • a person or people (if you can and want to) — STEM defences are almost always public, but humanities ones are often in principle but not in practice. My partner attended my defence, and it was great. He’s been there for all the rest of the process, and I wanted him there for the last part. (One of my committee members also used to be his babysitter, so it was a bit of a reunion.)

8. Get your Mind Right

Mindset plays a major part in determining how you’re going to do during your defence. I knew that my external examiner had a reputation for being prickly. I knew that my supervisor was a superstar who can theorize me under the table any day. But I decided to frame the defence in my mind as a rare and valuable opportunity to spend a few hours discussing my research with six brilliant people who were going to help me make it better. I was going to be happy and excited to be there and delighted to answer questions that were going to help me think about my project more deeply.

I also — as you should — figured out where the room was, got there early, got everything set up, and was calm, cool, and collected by the time the rest of the committee arrived. The scientific validity of power poses is hotly contested, but they work for me, so I did a bunch. You do you.

9. Have Fun

All my preparation, practical and mental, totally worked. I had a TOTAL BLAST at my defence. As my committee came into the room and we started talking, the atmosphere became more and more celebratory–a tone I set. Between my determination to have a good time and my preparation, I got my brain to interpret all questions as helpful and supportive, even when they were hard and prickly, and answering them was no.big.deal. when I came at them from that place. You too can have a good time at your defence, if you’re prepared and you come at it as a discussion that’s intended to make you and your research better, not as a moment that’s intended to trip you up, or make you look stupid, or poke holes in your work.

10. Drink the Champagne

You deserve it! Congratulations!

With my husband immediately post-defence.
advice · compassion · solidarity

Embracing and Resisting Mediocrity

It has been twenty-five days since Donald Trump was inaugurated as 45th President of the United States. We’ve already seen a spate of hateful and discriminatory decrees perpetrated by the Trump administration in rapid-fire succession, and a beautiful uprising of resistance manifesting in a variety of forms, including mass protesting, calling representatives, donating to the ACLUPlanned Parenthood, or CAIR, disrupting town halls, punching nazis, and other acts of defiance. Źižek, whatever you might think of him, certainly had a point when he said the election would spark a kind of awakening; imagine how apathetic we’d all be if Hillary Clinton were elected president, even as she in all likelihood furthered Obama’s mandate of arresting and deporting undocumented immigrants and dropping 26 171 bombs on predominantly Muslim countries. I’ve seen many of my liberal friends transformed into progressivist activists, and the Women’s March I attended in NYC was full of newbie protesters whose outrage was expressed more through their signs than their chants. At the same time, in spite or perhaps despite of these developments, studies are showing that productivity has been decreasing across the board.

I feel that. Like some of my cobloggers, I’ve had to back away from social media a little bit because it was filling my head with too much despair (ok, really, I deleted Facebook from my phone a week ago and now can’t seem to redownload it, so not all of this distancing has been by choice…). And how can I reasonably focus on writing about dream interpretation practices in the late fifteenth century when the mothers of fourteen-year-old girls are being deported? (speaking of dreams…I hope you all read Lily Cho’s beautiful post from yesterday)

But who am I kidding, I haven’t even been trying to work on my own stuff. I’ve been teaching three classes, all entirely new prep, and continuing to apply for jobs. Dealing with the emotional toll of continuing not to have any idea where we’ll be next year, even which country, requires quite a bit of scheduled downtime—reliance on friends, intentional social or cultural outings, TV ok. I simply can’t work 12 hours a day like I used to…and nor, of course, do I think anyone should.

I don’t feel like I’m doing much right at all these days, I thought to myself as I tried to brew up an inspirational post for this esteemed blog.  I’ve been teaching well, and even getting liiiiife from teaching, but by this point I’ve settled into enough of a routine that I have no major streaks of inspiration to write about. I can’t blog about the job market, except to say that, uhh, I’m still on it. I keep meaning to do more yoga, more meditation, more blogging, more (or any) creative art projects, more leisure reading, more protest-y things. All of these mores that accumulate and weigh on my psyche, making me feel unaccomplished and worthless. Maybe you’ve been feeling that way too.

So I guess I’m back to that classic lesson about the good enough professor – maybe mediocrity, or less-than-perfectionism, is sometimes okay. For me, now, this means simply accepting that what I’m already doing is good enough, and recognizing and honouring the things that are going well. I may never be able to do a handstand at yoga, but at least I’m there, wildly kicking my feet in the air and spending some meditative time in my own head. I’ve been prepared for all my classes, getting the grading done in a reasonable amount of time, submitting applications, and cultivating some meaningful relationships. And I’ve been doing what I can to resist political normalization, aiming for one Thing a day, big or small. Sometimes that can just be sending a friend a text to see how they’re doing.

Paradoxically, if I accept that I’m already good enough, an unintentional side-effect might emerge of becoming better. Wallowing in guilt and productivity FOMO doesn’t get us anywhere; it fills us so full of self-hatred that we keep refreshing Twitter or pressing snooze. So being realistic about goals and grateful for the opportunities and achievements that naturally unfold throughout the daily realities of life might just boost my spirits enough to help me find time for more of the things whose absence I’ve been ruing.

Something that’s rarely mentioned when self-care strategies are discussed is that self-care can actually help you become more intentional about taking action in other areas, perhaps without you even realizing it. It helps you become more grateful, a better person. I hate to hover near the productivist argument that being kind to yourself will help you become more efficient, but…it’s true? Or, at least, it will help you better identify and reward the tasks and hurdles you are completing, to realize a more concrete schedule that will allow time for care, time for work, time for protest. Again, I don’t think becoming better should necessarily be the goal–because then you’re caught back in the trap of unreasonable expectations and disappointments. Perhaps embracing mediocrity can also count as a form of resistance against it.

And I want to echo some of the thoughts of Margeaux Feldman’s post about the Women’s March and intersectionality. Just as we need to struggle through our mistakes to land at a more inclusive movement, we need to fight against our tendency to judge others on their chosen mode of resistance. To be sure, everyone should be resisting in some way. I am not okay with apathy or wait-and-see-ism, not while people are being deported (to our Canadian readers: you too can make phone calls! You too can be vigilant against injustice! Surely I don’t need to cite certain recent events to underscore this point). The time to wait and see has long passed if it ever existed in the first place. But for those of us who are stretching ourselves to make a difference, I echo the words of this smart post by Mirah Curzer:  

The movement works as a coalition of people focused on different issues, so don’t let anyone convince you that by focusing your energy on one or two issues, you have effectively sided with the bad guys on everything else. Ignore people who say things like, ‘you’re not a real feminist if you aren’t working to protect the environment’ or ‘you’re betraying the cause of economic justice if you don’t show up for prison reform.’That’s all nonsense. There is a spectrum of support, and nobody can be everywhere at once.

Focusing on the things where you have leverage and the possibility of shifting policy (even at a local level) requires not getting involved in everything. And we all make our choices and don’t owe the world our reasoning–if you’re out at a protest and you see your friend posted an Instagram of her cat at home, try not to jump straight to the conclusion that she must not care enough to come out; perhaps she was feeling fatigued and is focusing her energies elsewhere.

Be kind to yourselves and each other, readers! And thank yourself for the awesome humans you are, fighting for manifold worthy causes during a difficult and uncertain time. In sum, this blog might not be the best blog I’ve ever written, but I’m happy to have pushed past my uncertainty to produce something. And this counts for my daily Thing right? 🙂 Thanks for reading.

Thanks to Christopher Michael Roman for this timely image share. 

balance · coping

Bad dreams

Lately, I’ve been having been have bad dreams. I am not the only one. Mine aren’t all that interesting, but I’m interested in how so many of us seem to be having them. They aren’t necessarily about the political moment but they probably aren’t disconnected from it either.
Sometimes, lately, I’m just scared. I mean, I find a lot of courage and balm-for-the-heart-and-soul in all of the resistance and in the knowledge that this resistance is working. But, just for a moment here and there, I’m also scared. There is no real reason except for, oh, you know, all the reasons.
It feels sometimes like there are no grown ups around. Even though I’m a real grown up (that’s what I keep telling myself), it’s hard to shake the flash of vulnerability that these bad dreams open up. As Aparna Tarc writes in her beautiful essay on the nightmares of a Fatima, a Syrian child who witnessed so much horror, “A Child is Dreaming”: “ we all were once children with nightmares, we may still be too close to the violent truth of feeling vulnerable at the mercy of grownups in charge of a big scary world.”
This disquiet, this vulnerability, reminded me of the dreams of terror that Charlotte Beradt collected, with considerable difficulty, in Germany between 1933 and 1939. I found myself rereading them last week. These are the dreams of ordinary people who knew that something bad was happening even if they couldn’t quite pin down what that bad thing might be. This structure of anticipatory knowledge, of knowing before knowing, strikes me as something to hang onto in a time when things can feel really scary really fast.
And when things happen so fast, it’s hard to hang on to the small moments where something bubbles up, reveals itself to us, especially when they don’t feel that great. I’m not a fan of waking up from a bad dream and staying with all those bad feelings. But maybe we can recognize that this disquiet is also a kind of knowledge. As Sharon Sliwinski so brilliantly recognizes in Mandela’s Dark Years: A Political Theory of Dreaming: “Dream-life is one of the key points of contact with this unconscious knowledge that each of us carries but does not quite possess.” Sliwinski’s distinction between possessing and carrying knowledge is important here. There are some things that we know and we know them because we will carry them, maybe only for a while, but we don’t have to keep them. Possession is its own kind of entrapment. We don’t have to fall in. We might just need to hold on for a bit.
Hold on and also remember that there are other dreams too. I had been driven to reread the Beradt dreams of terror because I wanted to remember that one is not alone in one’s bad dreams. Then I remembered that there was another great collection of dreams out there that connect, albeit obliquely, to this moment. During the 2008 US Democratic Primaries, Sheila Heti collected “real dreams that people have had about Hillary Clinton.” I reread a bunch of these too and remembered how funny and charming this project was back then and thought about how strange it was to read them now. It is tempting to fall into nostalgia, to feel as though these dreams captured another, sunnier, time. But we all know better than to think that the past is ever really just about the past. I don’t have a grand theory about the dreams Heti collected but I do know that they helped me remember that not all dreams are bad. I know that seems obvious. But, when you’re scared, even the obvious can seem stupidly out of reach.
Waking up from a bad dream is one of the loneliest things I’ve ever known. And then I lie there in the dark and remember that we are all dreaming and it is not all bad.
academic reorganization · grad school · guest post

Guest Post: The Grad School Decision: Thoughts and Advice for Students, Professors, and Mentors

Last weekend, I took a two-day workshop on active listening organized by my campus’ student union.

The workshop was geared towards supporting survivors of sexual assault and harassment, but needless to say the skills could be widely applied. I started thinking about the conversations I have with my friends and family, especially regarding personal difficulties or decisions, and how I can be a more effective support person. Specifically, I started to notice that people were coming to me seeking certain things, whether they (or I) realized it: sometimes they need hard, clear advice; sometimes they need commiseration; and sometimes they just need someone to listen deeply, and to leave the analysis and decision-making up to them.

To be clear: these needs aren’t always mutually inclusive, and it’s ok for me (and others) to mistake one conversation for another. Communication is hard, and as they reminded as in the workshop, there is no ‘right way’ to support someone. But the very act of stopping, listening, thinking, and setting your own concerns, experiences, and judgments aside can be as valuable as it is challenging.

So why is this post about choosing to continue grad school?

Well, it’s February. The applications for scholarships and programs are submitted, or about to be. Grad committees are meeting. And students everywhere are seriously contemplating whether or not they should go to grad school, and where. And though many students may not have heard back on their applications, the decision starts to press in from all sides (especially if your lease expires in just a few months).

In this post, I hope to offer two things: reassurance to my fellow students or would-be students; and advice to profs, supervisors and mentors who will be consulted on this major decision.

To students and potential-students:
· It’s ok to want to go to grad school, even if you don’t see a job at the end of it.

· It’s ok to not want this (anymore), even if you’ve worked towards it. It’s ok to feel worn down, or like you aren’t up for this, or like you want to put your energy elsewhere. You are so wonderful, and you will be valuable no matter where or how you work, fight, and love.

· It’s ok to feel weird at any/every stage of the process. I felt sick to my stomach when I got my acceptance. I’m not the only one.

· It’s ok to prioritize family, community, health, comfort, geography, and financial stability in your decision-making. You are more than just a student, and your program will go smoother if you let yourself know this.

· It’s ok to think short-term: does your funding package appeal because it’s more than you make at your retail/service job? Does student-status look better than precarious work or unemployment? It’s ok if this is your motivation, rather than a passion for research and teaching. Maybe your motivation will shift, maybe it won’t.

Which brings me to this:

· It’s ok to imagine yourself dropping out or not finishing. Sometimes, just the knowledge that you can leave is the only thing that keeps you going. (Shout out to RM and MK: one or both of you told me this when I felt full of despair).

· It’s ok to leave. Whether that means turning down that offer next month, or leaving your program mid-way through.

· And above all: this decision affects you most of all, so centre yourself and your needs. No matter what your decision, your supervisor(s) will be fine. That helpful grad coordinator or administrator will be fine. Your best friend in the program will be ok. You’re the one who has to live with this decision, so listen to yourself.

To the faculty, advisors, supervisors, professors, and mentors:*
This is when my thinking around active listening comes in. I can imagine it’s incredibly difficult to provide emotional and professional support to your students. Maybe you feel invested in them, or maybe you are too busy to be the kind of helpful prof that you had or needed or wanted. But if you know you’ll be a part of these conversations, my primary advice is to apply the basic principle of active listening: wait, listen, think, and try to gauge what the student actually needs from you.

· Do they need information? That could be straightforward. Maybe they just need to be put in touch with a grad coordinator. Maybe they need that kind of tacit knowledge Aimée has discussed. Or maybe they need the kind of information that feels like gossip but is actually vital. If you don’t feel comfortable telling them that that star academic probably won’t give them the support they desire, try and put them in touch with a grad student or colleague who can speak honestly with them.

· Do they need advice? This is tricky. First of all, do they need advice from you in a professional capacity or as a friend? Does this difference mean something to you? More on advice-giving below.

· Do they need reassurance? Don’t we all. If you’re not able to give the kind of emotional support they need, especially during that awful period of waiting-to-hear-back, then just ask them “Do you have someone you can talk to about this?” This can help to signal that maybe you are not that person, and can remind them about that other student going through the same process, or the career counselling services on campus.

· Do they need space? Then please give it. Note if you are always the one starting the conversation about [ominous tone] next year. Note if they try to change the topic. Give them back control: remind them that you are available to talk, and let them start these conversations when and if they need them.

Some general advice:

· Your student is not you. What was right for you won’t necessarily work for them. They can’t follow your trajectory–times have changed and so has tuition.

· No matter what decision they make, they will never be wasted. Yes, professors have told my friends that if they don’t go to grad school, it would be ‘a waste’ of their ability; this can sting. If your student is talented, intelligent, passionate, and skilled, they will bring that spark to any job, career, program, or path they choose.

· You don’t need to know their personal context in order to respect it. Maybe they are hesitant to move away: they don’t need to disclose to you that they want to be near a sick relative, or that their partner’s job is a priority, or that they need to prioritize adequate mental health services. You just need to recognize that geography is a major concern for them.

· Money is personal. They may need more–or less–than you did. Again, they may not want to disclose that they are supporting dependents, or dealing with debt, or accounting for the cost of healthcare, divorce, family planning, a long distance relationship, etc.

· We all value different things. Some people prioritize prestige or reputation more than others. If they signal that they don’t share your values, that’s not a judgment on you. Rather, it’s a sign that they know themselves pretty well.

· Just because the academy needs them, doesn’t mean they need the academy. Shout out to HM for this. This applies especially to students who are marginalized within institutions. Yes, we need more Black and Indigenous students. More students of colour. More queer and trans students. More disabled students. More students from working class backgrounds. But it’s not on your student to make diversity happen. If they fought to earn a degree or two from institutions that aren’t built for them, then they are fierce as hell, and you can remind them of this. But if they are ready to leave and put their energy elsewhere, that’s ok too. Back to my first point: they will never be wasted. And if you feel like they would have stayed if the university didn’t have oppression built into its very old, very white bones, then let this be your motivation to make the institution better for the next student.

*I came to my PhD with the support of some amazing professors and fellow students. The advice offered here is modelled off of supportive behavior I have witnessed, and should not be taken as shaming faculty and instructors for being imperfect. Your efforts are so valuable and so deeply appreciated.

Kaarina Mikalson is in her second year of her PhD in the Department of English at Dalhousie University. She doesn’t regret it (yet), though the initial decision made her nauseous and weepy. She reads CanLit and comic books, and currently researches the Spanish Civil War and labour in literature. She plays roller derby, sews and embroiders, and now owns a soldering iron, so she’s ready for the apocalypse.