Uncategorized

Smart, clever, or wise?

I cannot bring myself to write a word about the debacle at Laurier. Generally, I am massively disappointed in the WLU administration, in the mainstream media coverage of this as “free speech”, in Shepherd’s overwhelming arrogance and bad faith throughout, and in her immediate supervisor’s really poor handling of the issue when it was flagged by the undergraduates in the TA section. I really feel for those students, the ones who took a real risk in bringing this to the prof’s attention and have seen their situation on campus rapidly deteriorate as a result of everything that’s happened since.

Looks like I’m writing some words. I can hardly express to you how much I hate doing this.

But I don’t want to debate free speech (not the correct issue), Shepherd’s “academic freedom” (again, wrong issue), or the “chill” against controversial speech on campus (bullshit), or even the overwhelming hypocrisy of, say, the Globe and Mail describing the travesty that was the response to Masuma Khan’s personal speech on Facebook (“very controversial”) versus the response to Lindsay Shepherd (“free speech advocate”).

What I want to discuss here is that it has been clear to me for a long time and is hopefully becoming clearer to a lot more people that academics may be research-smart but they’re not culture-clever and it matters.

Shepherd–with her surreptitious and leaked recordings, with her brand new Twitter and strategic follows, with her framing of a bad teaching decision as academic freedom and free speech, with her canny deployment of White Lady Tears (TM)–is absolutely, 100% running circles around administrators and professors of all sorts who somehow cannot frame a response to this that doesn’t advance an anti-intellectual, transphobic, misogynistic, white supremacist alt-right agenda. It’s an amaaaaaaaazing degree of incompetence. She doesn’t seem to be terribly smart, but my god, is she clever. And she’s totally winning at this in ways that make all of us lose.

Should she have been called into such a formal meeting with so many people in it with no real warning? No. Of course not: the optics are terrible and it escalated the issue really quickly. Probably, she should have been better supervised before that point. The recording is kind of damning: just listen to it, and if you kind of believe in “free speech” and “due process” and “academic freedom” you’re going to hear her as a victim.

Did the press coverage completely misunderstand her role in the university? Yes. It blindly repeated her claims of “losing her job” (she doesn’t have one; she has a stipend). It talked of formal reprimands when instead she was being asked to share her lesson plans in advance–look, when I supervise TAs, **I write the lesson plans for them**. It failed utterly to know the role of a TA in a course taught by a professor. It totes missed the point about what the course was meant to teach. It did not convey exactly how tremendously junior Shepherd is. It did not note that many people teach exactly the issues she does, but enframed in scholarship. It did not distinguish between cultural controversy and academic debate, which are two very different things.

It might have been corrected on these matters, but a herd of academics ran to their op-eds to foment about free speech and evil administrations. I could not have been more shocked if I’d woken up with my head stapled to the carpet. We might easily enough have filled in the media on the actual details of the working conditions and academic conditions and the difference between enframing a discussion of Peterson as somehow a very popular thing that nevertheless is not suitable as ‘debate’ because he is in no way an expert on these issues. And no serious scholar is debating whether we should respect trans people.

And why on Earth Laurier admin is apologizing to Shepherd so abjectly and publicly is beyond my capacity to understand. In so doing, they let her preferred narrative–free speech martyr in the land of dinosaur feminist ideologues–stand, and completely threw all the trans and genderqueer and enby students under the bus.

Progressive academics, we need to get clever. The battle for hearts and minds on Twitter and in the op-ed pages moves fast, and the agenda is being set by the alt-right. We need to get serious about learning how to effectively engage on these platforms, and fast. Because from what I’m watching, never have such a collection of highly educated and possibly even well meaning people undermined their own careers, scholarship, and values so quickly and effectively as they have these week, and made themselves look stupid losing a public relations battle to a 22 year old alt-right provocateur.

Me, I know I failed. The very first day this story showed up in the local paper, I knew exactly what was going to go wrong. I should have written an op-ed myself and I should have done it that day. But I was anxious and insomniac and I felt too angry to do it right. I figured someone else would take care of it. They didn’t. Only now are we getting better nuance here, and that’s partly my fault.

We can talk about how we can avoid doing this to ourselves again, and it’s something I’m thinking about a lot, and I’m going to sit in this corner by myself until I can figure out where to start. This mess is so big: I had no idea so many of us were so ill-equipped to put down an out-of-line, intellectually nonsensical MA student who inappropriately introduced a transphobic “debate” into a class on sentence structure. This should be a wake up call. I hope it is.

classrooms · emotional labour · grading · pedagogy · teaching · Uncategorized · writing

Feedback

I was complaining to myself about how slow my grading was going and how I was a slacker for not getting it done faster. Then I added up some numbers. Then I tweeted this, that is to say, complaining to others, and it got a LOT of traction relative to my usual Twitter complaints:

 

So that’s what I’m going to expand on today: grading is writing, and it’s work, and we do way more of it, probably than we think we do.

Here’s how I grade. Students hand in their assignments (a lot of short writing assignments, usually between 400-1200 words) and I mark them up with pen as I go–I put tiny underlines under simple errors; I write marginalia that queries a point, or offers a readerly reaction like “ha!” or “aha!” or “hm” or “!” or “are you sure?”; I write sentence fragments in response to the main idea. When I’ve finished reading and marking-up the paper copy, I write up more formal notes, summative and formative, in Word. This weekend I was grading Evidence-Based Arguments for my first years, so I have one Word doc called “Evidence-Based Argument” and I just concatenate everyone’s feedback in that one doc, separated by page breaks. So there’s a running word count for the whole thing.

For 24 Evidence-Based Arguments I graded this week, I wrote 2735 words. That’s a lot of writing, it struck me. I opened the other files for that course. The Internet Literacy Narrative? 2898 words. The Fact-Check Report? 2763 words. You can see that’s about 100 words per assignment, for a total in the course so far of about 8500 words. That’s a longish academic article worth of words.

Now I’m curious. For my grad class this term, 15 students, I’ve graded essay proposals and annotated bibliographies, and two 400 word response papers per student. [Goes away and calculates] Just over 6000 words of feedback.

That makes 14,500 words of formal written feedback since September. Not counting marginalia or emails or verbal feedback in office visits.

Last semester my courses were bigger–a fourth year seminar of 25 students and a first year course of 40. [More calculation ensues] 22,000 words for the first years and 16,000 for the fourth years, so that’s 38,000 formal grading words in the winter term.

In my assigned teaching in 2017, I’m at 52,500 words of direct feedback to students typed into Word docs. I’m not done yet: my first years and my grads have final papers yet to hand in for me to give them feedback on.

I have also read and given extensive feedback on …. lessee …. four complete dissertation, and about 8 dissertation chapters this year? I don’t know how much I wrote for those, but it was a lot.

I don’t begrudge this work. But I would like it to be more visible than it is. A writing intensive course for students is a feedback intensive course for professors. I often will note in my annual reports that my first years write: a response paper, then revise it, then produce a paper with a stepped structure of proposal, bibliography, intro paragraph, draft, and final paper. But I do not note what *I* am writing in response to this.

Linda Carson on Twitter suggested that in academic life as in most other domains, what counts is what gets counted. She encouraged me to think about writing out these numbers on my report. I might. But even personally, I think I generally tend to dis-count this writing as writing, because not only do I not literally count up how much of it I do, I don’t think it “counts” as real writing.

But it does, in its way: crafting feedback on student work is a balancing act of formative and summative goals, a kind of specificity of address that lets the student know you really heard them, but a level-appropriateness that encourages reach without overwhelming. No wonder we get tired doing it.

Anyhow. I’m at about, as I say, 52,000 words of feedback I can directly count up in my Word docs from my 2017 teaching. That’s not all of it, but it’s most of it. If it feels supportive, I encourage you to look back, if it’s easy enough to do, and see how much you’ve got done this year, too.

This is real work, real writing, creative and laborious. It counts.

academic work · advice · careers · dissertation · faculty · junior faculty · mentoring · midcareer · Uncategorized

How to be an external examiner

I’m going on sabbatical in six and a half weeks (who’s counting?) and as a result I’m on a mad throw-out binge trying to clear out my office for a fresh start.

I found, among many, many other surprises, a copy of the external examiner’s report on my own doctoral dissertation. I’ve blanked all recollection of this from my mind since 2004 and I was nervous as I sat to read it. It’s about two-and-half pages of single-spaced text, that’s really evenhanded in its assessment. First off, in retrospect I’m impressed that we got such a well-known external. Scott Bukatman was a get. Thanks, Heather! Second, when I posted about finding this, on Twitter, some people expressed a profound unknowing about what an external examiner’s report should be. And it’s true: no one trains professors to do these. I wasn’t trained. Many students are never allowed to see the reports (at the University of Waterloo, it is at the external’s discretion whether the report can be shared with the candidate, with a presumption of not, and if yes, only after the defence has taken place.) I have never seen a guide on how to write one, but sooner or later most of us with tenure will be examining theses, and this work is too high-stakes and too important to leave to chance.

Lucky me that I was the Associate Chair for Graduate Studies for three years. In that time, I saw every report on every dissertation, probably something like 20 in total. I had seen a few before that, including for students I supervised and whose committees I was on. I have also examined several myself, now, so I know what it’s like to write them.

The best reports are formative as much as they are summative–that is, they seek to teach as much as to manage the gates, if you will. Especially if revisions will be required, it’s important to be clear and proactive in expressing not just what the dissertation fails to do, or what it does wrong, but also in suggesting a path forward. Perhaps a dissertation clocks in at 500 pages–easy enough to say “This is far too long and it must be shortened”. But better to say instead “This dissertation is overlong and should be reduced in length. Chapters 2 and 3 largely repeat the same point, while all the other chapters are distinct from one another–perhaps the candidate could condense these two into one. Other chapters spend too much time rehashing what has just been written: substantially reducing the preamble for each chapter would make this a stronger dissertation, and a more appropriate length.” Don’t worry–there’s always check boxes where you essentially give a grade to the whole dissertation, so the force of your judgement will be very visible.

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Don’t let the cat help write the report; she’s really mean.

The best reports make detailed and specific reference to the text in framing their feedback on the dissertation as a whole. Such information, which normally the examining committee sees ahead of time, will give everyone a sense of the particular issues you might raise in a defence, and are later useful in guiding student revision. Saying something like, “This is written in a very flat style that makes the main argument difficult to care about” might be true, but imagine a candidate trying to understand what that means as she contemplates the 500 pages in front of her and thinks about how to address that criticism. More helpful might be something like, “The candidate employs passive verbs throughout, and sentences of nearly uniform length and construction, which makes this text less dynamic than it could be. Also, by mostly foregrounding the secondary criticism at the fronts of chapters, sections, and even paragraphs, the candidate is hiding her own ideas by placing them in much less prominent positions.” That is feedback that gives clear direction for improvement.

The best reports balance kindness and generosity with critique. When, as a professor of 13 years standing and frequent receiver of reports from Reviewer 2, I read the comments I’ve made up above, I am applauding my own pedagogical astuteness, but a candidate is going to receive them like this: “My external examiner thinks my dissertation is too long and I’m a bad writer and I don’t have any original ideas and I’m an idiot and she hates me.” I mean, that’s how I read Bukatman’s comments on my own dissertation at the time, but I see now, he was right about everything, and at the core, he was also very generous and full of praise though that was nearly impossible for me to see. It is your job as an examiner, then, to find some praiseworthy elements of the flatly-written, over-sourced, too-long 500 page dissertation you’re examining. Perhaps you can say, “The candidate’s secondary and primary research is clearly extensive, comprehensive, and well-nigh encyclopedic: this is to be applauded, and speaks to the great care with which this project has been handled.” Perhaps you can say, “Despite some infelicities of writing and construction, there are very clear original contributions to the field in this work: Cute Animal Studies will benefit from this deeply researched and minutely argued case for the Bassett Hound as ‘the next Corgi’ and I encourage the candidate, once suitable revisions are made, to share this work in a series of articles in refereed journals.” Perhaps you can say, “The candidate has show great skill in marshalling and explaining a hugevariety of sources in this work, evidencing a clear eye for both detail and a strong instinct for categorization.” Those portions of your review which aim to praise should have no clauses that undermine this praise–no buts. You have plenty of other sentences for that.

The best reports are attentive to the institutional norms of the host university. Each university has rules about formatting, about length, about what the different “grades” you can assign mean in that institutional context, about timelines, about length and detail required in the report, about responsibilities for attending a defence. Scrupulously attend to these, even if no one tells you what they are–it’s easy to Google this stuff, and you save needless back and forth if, for example, you are about to fail a dissertation for being too short at 150 pages, but that is considered well within the acceptable range at the university in question. A lot of stress arises from cross-institution mis-communication. This is especially true for international projects. Look it up. Save someone (possibly yourself) from a lot of gray hair and stress.

The best reports are complete and handed in on time. Period. Someone’s tuition, graduate career, and professional opportunities are at stake. At my university, most pragmatically, there are hard cut-off dates for graduation requests, as well as staggered full- and partial-tuition-refund deadlines. Please do not dally. It can cost thousands of dollars for the candidate.

The best reports are long enough to offer meaningful feedback. Usually, these can run between three and six single-spaced pages of text. That’s a good guideline.

For junior report writers, the best advice I can give you is to read as many reports as you can get your hands on. Ask if your department has any you can see. Ask your friendly colleagues in your department or in your field if you can see reports they’ve written. Exposure to a range of (anonymized) reports will go a long way to help you accustom yourself to the genre. The stakes are very high, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t admit you don’t know what you’re doing–it means you have every right to ask for guidance. I hope this little guide helps. Faculty who’ve done this a lot, do you have anything to add?

Next week, maybe I’ll write about how to conduct yourself at a defence, if you like?


Funny story. I have read probably six dissesertations in part or in whole since July. I was getting salty about it, and went to recalibrate my own expectations by looking at my own dissertation, which has sat unmolested on its shelf for more than a decade. I was looking to have a moment of hubris pricked–what I found instead was that it was way better than I remembered it and after discussing it on Facebook with a wide variety of people, I’ve lightly rewritten and sent it off, all 85,612 words, to an academic publisher. So, honestly, you never know what benefit you’ll get from reading other people’s dissertations, is the upshot of this wee anecdote.

teaching · Uncategorized

The Two Greatest Ed-Tech Tools of All Time

Educational technology can be frustrating and tricky. I was complaining a couple of weeks ago about weirdly placed projectors and white boards with no markers and projectors that don’t work no matter how hard you try. Our learning management system is full of gargoyles and error messages and snake pits I keep stepping in.

But there are two educational technologies that have never let me down; two educational technologies that have brought nothing but sunshine, student engagement, hilarity, good work, and authentic learning to my classroom; two technologies that make my life easier at the same time as they push students forward. Cheap, robust, accessible, always working–no down time, no tech support, no upgrades.

Those two technologies? My iPhone timer, and the random number generator feature on Google.

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Seriously. Try it.

Let me explain.

iPhone Timer: A lot of my courses are writing focused. All of my courses ask students to participate in class discussion. All of my courses feature group work and in-class collaboration. With my iPhone timer, I structure timed writing sessions, with every class, every meeting. In a writing class, it’s really hard to teach by lecturing: students should learn how to write by writing. So we write. I often open class like this: “Take two minutes, and write absolutely as much as you can about possible research directions for your paper–what you need to learn, what you already know, keywords for library searches, names of authors you know on this topic, names of websites likely to have information, everything. I’ll set my timer for two minutes, and I’m watching to make sure your pens don’t stop moving, or your fingers don’t stop typing … GO!” Maybe later in my grad seminar, I’ll say, “We just finished a unit on social justice selfies. I’m going to set the timer for five minutes and I want you to brainstorm all the ideas we’ve been exposed to. Then we’ll do another five minutes where you can use that material as a prompt to write a paragraph summarizing the unit.”

I use the timer every day, in every class. Students expect to have to write, and they quickly get used to it. Timed writing is purposeful–I will always say before we start what we’re going to do with the writing after: think / pair / share; or, class discussion; or, personal process writing for an upcoming assignment. Timed writing is great to move students forward on a project. Timed writing is great for making sure that everyone has something to contribute to class discussion–I tell the shy students that if they are called on, they can just read verbatim what they’ve written down, and they like that a lot. Timed writing is great for modelling what I teach: we are maybe learning to write (my undergrad course is called ‘Intro to Academic Writing’ but strong students are also always writing to learn.

The timer is great because it seems objective and science-y to everyone. No one fights the timer. Everyone works. The best? When the timer goes off and everyone is shoots their eyes up in shock: already?

Random Number Generator: I just started using this last year, in a first year digital culture / writing focused class taken by reluctant Math majors. I would do timed writing before a class discussion, and so I knew everyone had at least the stub of something to contribute, and then I would ask the question, and no. one. would. raise. their. hand. Crickets chirped. A whole lot of nothing-burger. No one. I would cajole, and I would eventually point at someone and make them talk. Yuck.

What I do now is have students number off before the timed writing. And then I say, “We will discuss this question as a group, and the random number generator is going to decide who talks!”

This is a great system, remarkably effective, and fair, and fun. It’s like video slots, only no one wants to win. Instead of trying to guess the odds that I will point at them and make them talk, the human element is taken completely out of it. The random number generator cares not if you are making eye contact, or if you are studiously scribbling. It just picks a number. Students also stop blaming me for putting them on the spot. It’s not a test of wills between me and them. They know this is a teaching strategy I use to make sure that everyone uses their timed writing wisely, and saves them from having to take the risk of volunteering to talk, or the potential dread of being called on by me. I use it nearly every day in my undergrad classes, and it has really improved discussion, attitudes, and students’ effort levels. And we laugh a lot, too.

I use the RNG for group work, too. I used to have groups work on things independently and then sequentially report back to the class. That took forever. Now I have all the groups working in shared public Google docs, so everyone can read what they’ve produced whenever they want, and the RNG picks two groups and they report. Everyone works really hard, because they’re producing class notes, and no one knows when they’re going to have to present to the class, so everyone has to prepare for that.

It is a truism that students put effort where grades are involved. I understand that their time and attention is diverted and fragmented and limited and scarce. I want to make sure that if they’re going to come to class, it’s going to be worth their time–they’re going to get something measurable and meaningful done. The iPhone Timer and the RNG add a tiny bit of accountability and stakes to in-class work–it’s not like grades are involved, but there’s a non-trivial chance that any given student or group is going to have to say something out loud, or present an idea, or fill in a shared worksheet. The iPhone Timer and the RNG make the time/attention calculus easy: it’s just easier to participate fully than it is to try to game it. And the result is a win for all of us: they do better work, they learn more, I talk / lecture a lot less, we build shared resources, we laugh at the idiosyncrasies and unintended hilarities of the RNG.

Do you have a favourite or unexpected ed-tech? I’m always looking for more classroom hacks.

 

classrooms · inconvenience · teaching · Uncategorized

Classroom design and architectural determinism

You can learn a lot about an institution from its classrooms. The politics, values, and pinch-points inadvertently reveal themselves in infrastructure, I find.

In general, the classrooms I teach in attempt to squeeze too many students into a space designed for fewer of them. That’s problem number 1. One of our alumni, who took his degree in the 1970s when our building was new, remembers all of his classes having between 8 and 15 students (some of them smoking!) in classrooms that now have tables and chairs for 18-25. If someone at the back needs to get up, pretty much everyone else has to stand up and move out of the way.

Problem number 2 is that when these rooms are “redesigned” or “refurbished” the after condition is often worse than the before. The brown brick classrooms in my building, with chalkboards and pull-down screens and projectors bolted into the ceiling have now all been repainted retinal-burn white, have whiteboards that are actually wall paint and can only bear one brand of marker and be wiped only with a special rag (most classrooms have neither rag nor markers available) and instead of a screen there’s a giant wall mounted TV the people keep hitting their heads on. The instructor console is bolted to the wall now, so you have to turn your back on the class and stand up and lean in to use it. I hit people with my butt a lot this way.

The upward pressure on class sizes is visible here, as is the trend to one-size-fits all, vendor-led classroom design. There was a time when we taught classes of 12 students, and this time haunts us in the rooms we’re left with: too small for what we’re trying to do now, the awkwardness and discomfort of the new arrangements physically felt by everyone.

The bureacratization, managerialism, and business-ing of higher education is manifest in classroom redesigns that very, very clearly took no input at all from either students or teachers: I imagine it was all vendors, IT people, plant operations, and budget staff who did this. The rooms are literally unusable. So in one room I have to hit students with my butt to show some powerpoints and half of them have to move seats in order to see it. In the other room I’m teaching in right now, where there’s never any markers and no cloth, the classroom clock is hung in the middle of the painted-white-board wall that is most often obscured by the pull down screen. The students are seated stadium style (there are only 25 of them) and the rows are too close together, or too close to the wall, for me to walk past them without touching some part of my torso against the backs of their heads. No.

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Yeah. I “erased” this as hard as I could.

It’s depressing.

In my ideal classroom the seating is flexible, so we can move it if we have to. I need the seating spaced enough that I can easily walk around the room. At the very least I should be able to walk to some vantage point where I can see their laptop screens. Crowded classrooms with inflexible media arrangements enforce a separation of the front of the room from the rest of it, a separation I feel keenly when I can’t even manoeuvre my way to my students to answer a group-work question, or hand back a marked paper. I can’t walk around during writing time to see what people’s screens are showing. This classroom turns it into me and them, not us. I hate that.

In my ideal classroom the technology serves teaching and learning, rather than serving as the kind of sun around which we must all orbit. Most of the projectors, for example, cover the whiteboard area, and can’t be ‘muted’–which means if the projector is on, it stays on and you can’t use the board. If you turn it off, it goes through its whole routine, and then again if you want to turn it back on. Flexible, it ain’t.

There are always tradeoffs in any situation, I understand. But as I watch all the rooms around me get retrofitted to be somehow uglier, more crowded, and even less usable than before, I fear we show a different set of values as an institution, a kind of carelessness or committee-think that has forgotten that classrooms are for students, and they are for teachers, to work together, to build something magic. All the phone calls because the TV is not working, or not being able to use the paintboard because someone else used the wrong marker, or shouting across the room at people because you just can’t get to where they are? That’s not it.

What does your ideal classroom look like?

advice · positive thoughts as I fill out grant applications · Uncategorized

Working on my grant application…

I’m about 80% done my SSHRC Insight Grant application, the 80% where I made a serious go at getting all the moving pieces drafted and formatted and collated and sent it in for feedback. When it came the feedback was detailed, useful, and totally overwhelming and I pushed the whole thing away for a week or so to regroup. I did not regroup. I had to call in reinforcements, actually: my dear love who used to be the guy that did the feedback. He sat down with me and went over it step by step, while I tried not to lash out and/or cry.

Hilariously, the issue with my SSHRC Insight Grant application is the issue that I raise with all the grad students whose SSHRC Doctoral Fellowship applications I see. The issue is threefold:

  • Give the main point first
  • Be less tentative
  • Be more specific

The reason it’s hard to do these things is that it requires a kind of assertive confidence that is, understandably, hard to muster at the start of a project. This hesitation is natural and useful and keeps the mind open to the possibilities of the research as it proceeds. Good. That is, I dare see, the right way to feel. However, the grant application rewards confidence and straight-aheadness–literally rewards it, you are asking for money, remember–so the correct way to write the app requires bald directness, confidence, and the impression of mastery of time and space. Fake it if you have to.

So.

Give the main point first: If you ask my grad students what editorial suggestion I make most frequently on their writing they will probably say, “Take this thing at the end and put it at the beginning.” I say that a lot. Quite right. Most of us discover what we’re thinking once we see what we’re writing and often that means that we really get the point of the whole thing right at the end of the application / chapter / article,/ dissertation. That’s fine as a process. But then literally ask yourself every time: what would happen if I took my last paragraph and made it first. I will tell you: 9 times out of 10 your thing will get better, and clearer, and more fundable.

Be less tentative: I know that I’m not sure where my research is going to end up, but I sure as hell have to sound like I do. I’ve been tentative in my writing, saying things like, “this project aims to address” when I should say “this project addresses” or even “this project argues.” Tentativeness manifests mostly in the verbs, and the verbs hedge in two ways: they describe actions the author is going to do instead of what the research will prove, and they downplay the thesis animating the research. Here is a list of weasel words you should mostly cut almost completely from your grant application: understand, examine, explore, investigate, consider, aim, compare. Mostly, these words are about what you are going to do. But the grant app is not a biography, it is a statement of research. Better verbs: argue, prove, show, demonstrate, produce, craft. These verbs have the benefit of being much more active, and of being focused on the value of the research, rather than the process of the researcher.

Be more specific: It is frustrating to have to write very specifically about something you’re going to be doing three years from now, that you may not have properly even started yet. But it is also very frustrating to read things like, “over the course of the grant, I will examine the secondary literature and compare pertinent examples from among possible primary texts.” There’s nothing I can actually picture there. I would rather read “In the first year, I will perform a literature review of sources in social media practices (Jenkins, Ito, and Boyd; Noble and Tynes; Thumin; van Dijck) and begin to select primary texts for the case studies, beginning with social justice selfies (eg, #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, #StayMadAbby)” Being specific is hard. You have to make decisions and go to the library. I hate it, myself, particularly when I’m trying to write about the second half of the third year of the grant. However. That’s what people want to read, myself included.

It’s pretty funny that this is the exact advice that I give grad students and yet it is very hard for me to follow it, too — I need my own reader to make exactly the same editorial comments I make to others. I guess we all need editors!

Anyhow, this is my day today. Changing my verbs, beefing up the details, getting to the point. If you’re still working on your Insight Grant, or your doctoral fellowship app, well, bon courage. I’m right there with you.

academic work · book · research · Uncategorized · writing

Research Day

I had a research morning on Monday. This is what it looked like:

  • 8:00-8:30: Read chapter of book, make tic marks, add post-it flags
  • [take kid to bus stop, wait for bus, clomp home]
  • 9:00-9:30: free write my own ideas that flowed from reading
  • [get dressed, make coffee for Write Club, light tidying so they don’t think I’m a slob}
  • 10-10:30: answer invitation for short chapter with an abstract: this abstract is a lightly rejiggered 500 words cut and pasted from my grant application
  • [5 minute break; refresh coffee; celebrate writing with Write Club members]
  • 10:35-11:05: apply to a conference call with an abstract: this abstract is a moderately rejiggered 250 words cut and pasted from an article in progress
  • [long break! 15 minutes outside with Write Club and the dog]
  • 11:20-11:50: open three documents related to chapter 1 of my book; read them; try to cut and paste them into one document (“Chapter 1”) or into other more appropriate documents

A pretty good morning!

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It’s a total goddamn mess, is what it is

However, what struck me about Monday’s research was how it felt like … cheating. Was  I really “working on Chapter 1 of my book” like I’m supposed to be? I don’t see the part where I’m really, actually, writing academically, for real. Look what I did: reading (active reading, but still), and then aimless free writing that was part notes on the book I read but mostly my reactions to it, and later, cutting and pasting from stuff I’d already written in a half-ass sort of way in a bunch of document stubs. I don’t have any formal notes on the thing that I read, and I don’t have any new good sentences for my chapter. I’m at this stage in Chapter 1 where it’s just all garbage: I’m right at the beginning, I hardly know what I’m talking about, I’m sure I’ll never produce intelligent, researched prose ever again. I feel like I’m rearranging the proverbial deck chairs on the proverbial doomed ocean liner. It feels, when I consider it, like I didn’t move anything at all forward in any way. Wwwwwwhhhhhhhhyyyyyyyyyyy.

And the conference “proposal” and the book chapter “proposal”! Those felt like cheating, too, because I wasn’t writing them from scratch, it was just more cutting and pasting, with some rejiggering. I don’t really feel like I’m allowed to say “I wrote 750 words today for a conference proposal and a book chapter pitch” because I don’t feel like I wrote them!

But this is how it gets done, I have to keep reminding myself. I’m never going to get to the “real” writing first if I don’t struggle with the secondary literature and chew it over pretty extensively. I’m never going to get the structure and content of the chapter if I don’t try to find some patterns and sense in my freewriting. I don’t have to make up brand new prose out of thin air for a conference or chapter proposal if I’ve already been doing some real writing on the topics in question. Rejiggering the prose is work, re-placing the emphasis or reframing the audience. That’s writing, in its way. I guess, though it doesn’t look like much, that this is the work. Indeed, it’s Wednesday morning, and I’m staring down more of the same: freewriting, active reading, trying to get a sense of what’s actually in all the notes and freewrites I’ve already produced over the last several months, taking formal notes on that book that is going to be so central for me. The slog. This is what it is sometimes. No brilliant insights, no pages of flowing text, no “thesis statement,” just building a beach, one grain of sand at a time.

If you’re in the slog too, bon courage. Let’s try today to remember that it ain’t pretty, but we’re getting it done. What does the slog look like for you, and how to convince yourself to keep going?

 

chaos · classrooms · collaboration · grad school · ideas for change · pedagogy · skills development · Uncategorized

the Do-It-Yourself grad class

I’m trying something a little different with my grad class this year. We have a really big cohort and we’ve bumped our course caps up to 15 and that’s what I have and it’s a lot. A lot of grading and name-remembering, maybe, but also–what an opportunity!–a lot of brain power in the room.

I’m trying to turn big enrolment into a feature, not a bug. I’m experimented with, if you will, a kind of parallel processing or distributed cognition at the very foundation of the course, right up to the top.

I’m making the students do the bulk of the work–designing the syllabus, choosing the readings, teaching–and pedagogically, I think it’s the right thing to do.

Here’s what I’m trying. The course is on selfies, which is the book I’m deep in writing right now. So I know the crap out of all of this. I could teach this in my sleep–but I don’t want to teach in my sleep. Instead, I am making the students create the course as we go. They’re not experts on this material, and this is the best way I can think of to make them so. On the first day I made some handouts with different options on it, and had them discuss and debate, in pairs, then fours, the half the room, then all together until we had reached a consensus on whether we would run the course like a survey, or as case studies–we had to really think it through, not just what, but why. They decided case studies and then we had to debate to consensus on which three of five possible cases we wanted to focus on. My job then was to create a frame for the rest of the semester, to distribute the work and attention.

The next two weeks were foundations in theory and method, ideas that are going to be our North Star for the rest of the term, where I assigned the material and organized the classes. I also created five groups, and for each case study (lasting either two or three weeks of class) assigned groups to specific tasks related to the very methodologies I use to produce these cases in my research: finding and sharing context from secondary literature, intensive browsing across possible primary texts, picking representative or exemplary texts for analysis, producing a persuasive interpretation / argument, and linking the case to the broader work of the course. Starting next week, it’s the students who are going to have to figure out what we’re going to read, what theory is going to be relevant, which hashtags or instagram accounts are most useful to consider, what it all means. Already they’re asking great questions: who are the major theorists of art photography? Or, I know how to find primary materials for fine art photography, but how do I find and decide what vernacular photography to use? Yeah, those are basic research questions. I already know the answers but the goal of the course is not really for me to perform my own scholarly excellence–it’s for students to develop their own skills and excellence.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what grad students need from their courses. I think they need a lot more skills training, in the basic skills of the degree and the profession. I did a bit last night on how to read like a researcher, and how to create a lesson plan. Someone came up to me afterwards to tell me, excitedly, how that was most important bit about class. I’m teaching them how to start from literally nothing: “this is a course about selfies, and we are grounding in auto/biography studies, surface reading, new media studies, and photography studies” and figure out how to say something valuable and humane about why some images get banned from Facebook and some don’t. This is a skill that PhD students really need if they’re going to write dissertations. This is a skill that MA students need if they want to join a professional workforce and move beyond the entry level. Self-efficacy develops when we are presented with malformed problems and have to figure out how to bring some order to that chaos. They’re learning about how to find the important works on a topic they start off with very little knowledge on. They’re learning how to read a ton of primary material fast, looking for patterns. They’re learning how to link these patterns to broader cultural and theoretical contexts. And they’re learning how to frame all that work to be useful to all of us in a classroom setting.

I expect I’m going to have a LOT of meetings with students about this. That’s exciting: working one on one, or group on one, with students who have urgent and concrete scholarly problems they’re trying to solve, that have real stakes.

So far, I’m loving the results. Next week is when the plan fully launches. It might be a little bumpy until we all figure it out, but I am really looking forward to seeing how we all grow.

accident · accomodation · bad news · balance · being undone · best laid plans · Uncategorized

Hustle and no

I broke my foot. The doctor’s office phoned at lunch yesterday to confirm Monday afternoon’s x-ray: I broke my foot.

I broke my foot about 10 days ago, actually, in Nova Scotia, falling down some dew-covered stairs in the dark. At the time, it hurt so much I nearly threw up, and when I stood I was incredibly dizzy and disoriented, but I really had to go pee and I was all alone in the dark on the grass so I kept walking another 200 meters or so to the camp bathroom. And when I got back to my cabin it hurt to even have the pressure of the lightweight sleeping back on it, so I stuck my foot out into the open air, and gritted my teeth for the hour or so until the pain subsided enough for me to sleep. I mean, people were sleeping, what was there to be done? The next day I clocked about 8500 steps. I let my friend Megan carry my luggage for me, out to the camp bus, and up and down the stairs at her house. My foot was comically swollen. I walked to Erin’s house and back. (WORTH IT–BISOUS BISOUS TO THE WONDERFUL ERIN WUNKER.) The next day, I walked around two airports, took the dog around the block. The day after that, I taught all day, on my feet, walking around the room to every student, every group work laptop, writing all over the boards. Later that week I walked to and from campus. Yeah, my foot hurt, and was weird colours and was swollen, but there were things to do, you know?

My partner and my sister eventually convinced me to go the doctor on Monday, after I’d insisted on a 5km walk on Sunday to clear my head: my toes bruised solid purple and the top of my foot turned an alarming green.

I should have sought medical attention the night I hurt my foot.

I didn’t, and probably, you wouldn’t, either. People kept suggesting it and I was like, but what’s the point? I can walk, I’m fine. I don’t have time for the appointment itself, let alone whatever nonsense convalescence anyone is going to recommend to me. Rest. Elevate. I laughed out loud when the doctor murmured rest-and-elevate, stay-off-your-fee, a big mean guffaw: BUT WHEN? I demanded, HOW? There’s a dog, and I teach, and what about the groceries, and my kid’s pickups and her lessons, and all the rest of it. I have an incredibly supportive partner, and the blessing of a sister in town, but I was really like, meh, I’ll just muscle through it.

There’s something in that, something about the contemporary academy and contemporary woman- or mother-hood. There’s no slack in the system: we break our feet and we keep walking, because we feel we have to, just to keep the system moving forward, but also, and importantly, because we just don’t want to be a bother to anyone.

We break our feet and keep walking.

There’s something in me that doesn’t want to listen to my own body: I wanted to start the term strong, teach my classes, keep my writing days, be the prof I want to be. The life of the mind, the knowledge professions, can be intensely alienating: our bodies are impediments that we appease in order to keep thinking, seamlessly, frictionless. There was no room in this narrative for a broken foot and so I edited that part out. My partner already does at least half of the child care and the house work and the emotional labour and I don’t want to burden him, so I carried my own weight. My sister has a family of her own and a demanding job: she doesn’t need to come walk my dog at lunch everyday so I hold the leash in my other hand and pretend that makes things easier. My own pigheadedness and refusal to acknowledge my own body’s reality is pretty impressive. My denial game is STRONG.

We break our feet and keep walking.

I’ve emailed my chair and department administrator and the occupational health and safety officer to let them know about my foot, and ask about parking accommodations. I’ve canceled my on-campus meetings today so I can stay home and type with my foot up high on the desk beside me. I’ve taken off my fitbit and put it in a drawer. My sister is coming at lunch. I feel really awful about asking for and accepting this help, this help I would gladly and unhesistatingly extend to friends and colleagues.

So I ask you, dear readers, beyond pig-headedness and heavy responsibilities and maybe some guilt, why, why, why do we keep on walking, alone, when our feet are broken? And how can we stop.

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Yeah, that’s me in my grad class, 8pm, teaching with my foot on the desk. IN DENIAL.