risky writing · sabbatical · Uncategorized · writing

How much can I write in a day?

There is a big tra-la-la on Twitter currently, about profs working 60 hour weeks and other profs not working 60 hour weeks and people talking about power and performance-of-busyness and overwork and systems and ranks and all of it.

This post is not about that. This post is about how much I can write in one day: for how long, what kind of writing, and how.

I’ve been on sabbatical for just over a month. So, I’m not doing much, work wise, except writing. My email is minimal; I have no department or administrative meetings; I’m not teaching. I am still working with my grad students and their writing, and I did go to a conference for three days.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • How much I can write? Between 300-4000 words per day, depending on what kind of writing I’m doing
  • For how long? Between 4 and 6 thirty-minute poms, which, with breaks, means a workday that begins about 9am and runs to 1 or 2pm. (Total writing time is between 2 and 3 hours; total workday is 4 or 5 hours long)
  • What kind of writing? I have been free-writing (easy and fun); note-taking and bookmarking (easy and boring); birds-eye overview of main ideas and the main point of the chapter (intense and exciting); crafting outlines and trying to carve out a structure (hard and slow)
  • How? I write in 30 minute bursts, according to a task list and schedule my coach and I set up once a week, for the coming week.

I had this idea that being on sabbatical would mean that I would be Working On My Research for 8 hours a day. I know writing is taxing, so I figured I would only do that for three or four hours a day (I didn’t seem to plan any breaks in there), and then after lunch, I would read books and article and take notes or do library searches or some such.

That was way too much. That was just not possible for me.

In the 2-3 hours of total writing time, spread over 4 or 5 hours of the day, over the past three weeks, I have got an incredible amount of work done: I have made huge progress on the book chapter I’m working on, including: finding and bookmarking and taking notes (about 7000 words) on all my primary sources, and the popular sources that engage them; adding 4500 words to the chapter draft; creating a solid and workable outline of the structure and arguments of the chapter from scratch; creating a research task list, organized and referenced, for my RA; creating section outlines and cutting and pasting the whole chapter draft into the correct sections of the new outline; and starting to fill the holes that I now see in the draft.

In three weeks, writing for not more than 3 hours per day, I’ve brought a book chapter from 10% done to about 65% done. I’m on track to finish it by the end of the month, which is to say, I will have written a solid draft of a whole book chapter in about 6 weeks. In a work week that usually has between 12-15 hours of writing in it and not the 40 I thought were going to be necessary.

I keep thinking I must not be working hard enough. That I’m slacking off. But I’ll tell you, first, that what I am doing is exhausting: by the end of my writing time each day, I just climb into bed with the cat and a Magic Bag and pass out hard for 45 minutes. I am spent; I have nothing left in me to write or think anymore by the time my last pom is done. Second, by the time I get up the next morning, I am excited and full of energy, and eager to sit back down and start writing. That has been a revelation. Third, I’m able to take care of myself and that makes a huge difference: I am trying new recipes in my Instant Pot; running five times a week, three of those with a running group; going to bed on time; spending quality time with my husband and daughter; taking the weekends to just … live my life. I am feeling really, really good. It’s nice.

So sabbatical for me looks like 16-20 hours of work during the week, and none during the weekend. I expect that the burst of frenetic thinking and writing and editing that comes from finishing a piece will mean the occasional week where I work more than that, and weeks where I travel for talks or conferences will look a little different, too.

But I wanted you to know: in the ideal circumstance of the sabbatical, where writing is my only job, I still can’t do it for more than 6 poms in a day, and that 6 poms a day is proving to be remarkably productive. I would say it’s okay to have limits, but we actually don’t have a choice about our limits. They are what they are. By respecting what my limits are, I am able, paradoxically, to do much better work than when I push myself harder, and am able to be happy, and balanced, and healthy. We don’t hear a lot of stories about doing less. So I wanted to tell you mine.

 

advice · sabbatical · Uncategorized

All the things I’ve said “no” to

Like many academic women, I’m trying to learn how to say no–I can’t believe how deeply socialized I am to never want to disappoint anyone, how deeply-rooted is my fear of being ‘unlikeable’, how unshakeable my imposter syndrome that any opportunity turned down represents the tide turning toward my inevitable unmasking and the end of everything.

I have a problem with saying yes that is partly being socialized female, partly about an ADHD time-tunnel problem where there is only ‘now’ where I can make someone happy and get excited about a new opportunity and a vast amorphous and distant ‘not now’ where somehow the work will happen and I’m not mysteriously triple-booked, and partly about feeling a deep moral imperative to use the incredibly privilege of my tenured professorship to be available to committees and students and collaborations and such. Basically, I am afraid to say no, I feel like an asshole when I say no, and I have terrible foresight into what all my yesses might mean for my actual workflow.

Knowing this, I vowed to make a change on sabbatical. I booked myself a 365-day, all-day meeting and it runs like a ribbon all across my iCal for 2018:

say not
I know there’s a typo. I’m just NOT going to go and change it. No. I’m saying no.

And! I have indeed been saying no. And it was very hard! I was still eating Christmas cookies and day-drinking when I got an email at the very end of December asking me if I would be interested to keynote an undergraduate media conference … in mid-January. I immediately dropped everything and stood in my kitchen, rationalizing a way to say yes, while my partner stood there agog. I was all like, “well, I think I have a paper I could really easily convert into something for this, and it’s on a weekend so that wouldn’t eat into my writing time and it’s close by so …”

No. I said no. It was hard but then? I stopped thinking about it. Poof: literally one less thing to worry about. Because, to be honest, I would have been stressing about slides and making the talk perfect and it would totally have taken away writing time.

Saying no is getting easier. I did not say yes to all the students who asked me for reference letters, just the ones who are working directly with me. I did not say yes to reading all the CVs of our job applicants. I did not say yes to a campus advocacy thing. I did not say yes to participating in another conference. I did not say yes to three separate request for peer review. I said no.

Something amazing happened: I immediately forgot all the things I said no to. I actually had to dig through my email to generate the list above. Let me be clear: I am not wracked with guilt or regret. It’s amazing and freeing! I simply do not even remember what I have said no to. I just moved on. Another thing: no one wrote back to beg me to reconsider. No one. I have not ruined anyone’s life by saying no.

Saying no to all these other things has meant more clearly saying yes to my own sabbatical project: I have made incredible progress this month on a book chapter that was nothing but a good idea and some free writing–it’s grown into a real thing and I have enjoyed focusing exclusively on that this month. It feels really, really good to focus like this, not in a rush and not in a race and not in a panic and not stuffed into the cracks of All The Other Things.

I am still saying yes to things other than my writing: I’m meeting with grad students about their chapters, and I’m participating in defences. I gave a lunch time talk to a women’s group, and am giving that same talk to a staff association lunch. And I am saying yes to some opportunities–that I am choosing, for my own needs–to give talks on my current research in ways that feel like they support what I want to get done this year.

The most important thing I’ve learned is that, ultimately, saying yes to one thing always has costs, because time is not infinitely elastic, nor is attention.  (This is very hard for me to learn.) A yes to something is always, ultimately, a no to something else, and I’m trying to learn to do that accounting every time I’m presented with an opportunity. I said that I wanted to use this sabbatical to really focus on finishing my big projects, and I find that since I’m saying no to things that aren’t that, I actually am making real progress on the thing I am trying to prioritize.

So I have said no, and the results of my negative responses to all these asks has been positive progress on my main goal, and a more positive and less-stressful rhythm to my days. I have said no, and I’m here to tell you: it feels good.

emotional labour · enter the confessional · sabbatical · Uncategorized

What the day looks like

Do you know that academic urban legend? The one about how we all get super sick the minute we hand in our grades / complete the writing project / give the talk? It’s a pretty common belief among academics of particularly the junior ranks that the kinds of Big Push and overwork required to climb some of these work mountains always results in our bodies giving up once the adrenaline wears out. It looks something like this:

(What is she saying? “Graaaades aaaaaaarrrree iiiiiiiinnnnnnnnnnnnn”?)

It seems like sabbatical is like that, too. Guys, I’m tired. Like, adrenal fatigue tired. Nap every day tired. Work flashbacks, minor panic eruptions, and All The Feels about my job that I’ve been suppressing for, I guess, years while I just kept moving. I’ve always said that kind of pace and overload was not sustainable and here I am now, in my pyjamas, living it. I stopped runningrunningrunning to get it all done, and it fell apart.

(Okay, so here’s the crux of this post. My husband just got out of the shower while I was previewing the clip and when he asked me what I was doing, I legit burst into tears, snot running down my face, and squeaking out “academic life is like this and I stopped running and now I’m having all the feels at the same time.”)

Everyone warned me that sabbaticals are for breakdowns. That everyone has big plans about smiling and drinking tea beatifically and Finishing The Book, but a surprising amount of time winds up devoted to Netflix, rich food, crying, and dog walks.

I tried to account for this. I’ve known this sabbatical was coming, and I knew I’m no different than anyone else. I tried to prepare. I hired an academic coach in March, to help me sort out my workflow and writing habits well before the sabbatical started. I tried to deal with my procrastination and panic problem, systematically and kindly. I took real vacations this summer and at Christmas. I allowed myself some real time to process all my feelings after I completed my term as grad chair. I visualized the sabbatical, and made lists of what an ideal day would look like, and how I would be happy and balanced–and the specific actions I would undertake to accomplish that. I made lists of projects and goals and worked on setting realistic work expectations with my coach. I finished all my outstanding obligations and practiced saying no to new ones. I built exercise AND therapy into my life.

As January 1 rolled around, I had good, reasonable plans, and good, reasonable goals. I had accountability and sociability plans. I was cooking good food and moving my body and hugging my family. I joined a half marathon training group.

I have written 10,000 words on a book chapter, presented at a great conference, given a public talk, and seen one of my students defend. I PB’d a 5km run. I am sleeping well at night, and long enough. I’m nearly caught up on Star Trek Discovery (HOLY SHIT, Y’ALL).

And yet, here I am, tucked in my window perch with a fresh coffee, a clean desk, and a good idea for a blog post, outright sobbing while watching movie clips.

I seem to have some unprocessed … trauma? I don’t want to exaggerate. But I’m coming to terms with what six years without a break has done to me, what it means to just recently being diagnosed autistic and ADHD, what I’ve accomplished or not accomplished in my 13 years as a professor (not nearly what I’d hoped to) and what I want in the next part of my career.

So right now, I’m spending the mornings writing and thinking, and the afternoons napping and taking long walks. Interspersed with random bouts of sobbing, that seem to come from someplace really deep.

In general, and in a substantive way, I’m pretty happy: I’m enjoying my writing, and my naps, and my runs, and cooking and eating with my family. My writing is going well and I’m proud of what I’m doing. And yet there’s no denying All These Feelings I seem to be having. So I’m trying to make space to have them. We’ll see what happens next.

 

academic work · best laid plans · faculty · free time · midcareer · new year new plan · sabbatical · Uncategorized

Sabbaticant? or Sabbati-can?

Well. It’s official. I’m actually on sabbatical now, my first in seven years, a full year. It is an unbelievable privilege of my tenured position that I am able to apply for these periodical paid (85% salary) leaves, and devote time to my research.

I have been looking forward to this sabbatical ever since I learned I would have to forego my earned half-year sabbatical when I became grad chair in 2014. I knew the reward would be that I could accrue enough credits to qualify for the full year, which I probably wouldn’t have had the patience for, otherwise. I looked forward to it as a distant mirage, where my time was my own, where there wouldn’t be so many emails, so many meetings, so much grading, so much teaching. I was basically picturing my year long sabbatical as a dramatic arm sweep that would throw everything off all my desks onto the floor, another gesture ripping the phone cord out of the wall, then tapping out the Nuclear Option away message on my email.

I had, that is, a fundamentally negative view of my long dreamed of sabbatical: things would disappear, things would stop.

Me, a runner, who resolves to write
I’m really serious about writing. So serious I wrote it on a fun run bib and sealed the deal by running 5km in -14C weather on New Years Day. Surely writing a book (or two) is easier than this?

But a sabbatical is for something, as much as it is about against other things–it is for research, and I had plenty of that backlogged and untended.

I both longed for the chance to hit the reset button on my campus life that the sabbatical represented, at the same time as I dreaded thinking about accomplishing a Year of Distraction and Excuse Free Writing That Would Make Me Seem Productive and Valuable As A Scholar. Yeah, I think with initial caps about the things that scare me.

I’m going to write, this year, about how I am learning to write on sabbatical. I’ll let you know what it’s like, adjusting to not being on campus, finding my rhythm, saying no to things that aren’t research related, dealing with loneliness maybe, preparing for reentry, finding a way to end on a good note. I hope this will help others who might not be sure what the “right” way to do a sabbatical is. So it will be pitched to faculty, sure, but it strikes me this year I have–a year where I have one book contract to fulfill for sure, and god help me, quite probably another one, too–is a lot like where graduate students land after their proposal pass. Sabbatical is a lot like ABD, all huge expectations, no structure, isolation, and a great big fear of not being able to live up to it.

For now I’ll tell you some early highlights, that I am going to take up in posts this year:

  • full blown meltdown on January 1, the day the sabbatical started
  • spending the six months pre-sabbatical clearing the emotional, mental, and practical decks
  • how much it is possible, and not possible, to write in one day
  • you can’t make up for lost time, and trying makes you miserable
  • how to turn a year into a big picture plan
  • how to turn that big picture plan into a series of monthly, weekly, and daily plans
  • all the things I’m saying “no” to–and how easy it’s turning out to be
  • all the naps I’m saying “yes” to–and why that’s a good thing
  • you can’t do this alone: mad props to my squad, and all they do

Me, I got cold feet the very day I handed in all my Fall grades and concluded my on-campus responsibilities until, ulp, January 2019. This sabbatical is already terrifying, and restful, and busy, and laid-back by turns. Let’s see how this turns out!

disability · enter the confessional · grad school · guest post · Uncategorized

Guest Post: #ADHD in the Academy

Hello, dear readers! Today we have a guest post from Devon Moriarty (Twitter: @devmoriarty), a PhD student in my home department of English Language and Literature at the University of Waterloo. Devon writes about navigating university pre- and post-ADHD diagnosis. Her candor here is really valuable to me personally, as I was diagnosed myself this summer (ADHD/ASD) and am trying to figure out what it all means. So a great big thanks to Devon for sharing this!

—-

My elementary, middle, and high school years were easy-peasy. Well, grade-wise I breezed through them, but the recurring comments from teachers on my report card concerned my work habits, namely that I consistently distracted others, disrupted class, and could never bring myself to complete, let alone hand-in, homework. University provided a real shock to say the least, and in the fall of 2009, I was barely scraping my way through an undergraduate degree in Psychology. Having been demoted in my program 4 times, I was now only eligible for a 3-year general degree. Sitting in my Child Psychopathology class, determined to get my marks up high enough to re-enter at least a 4-year General degree (I mean, every term was the term that I was going to get my shit together), I learned about Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

As I checked off literally e-v-e-r-y symptom listed in the Professor’s PowerPoint it struck me as odd that I fit the diagnostic criteria for a children’s disorder, and also that this was apparently abnormal—I had spent my whole life experiencing these atypical “symptoms” (I find it odd to categorize my normal behaviour as “symptoms,” thus the sarcastic quotation marks). Long story short, over the next year I received the official diagnosis and finally found the right medication to effectively manage the “disability” (cue sarcastic quotation marks again). My marks skyrocketed. I got back in to the 4-Year-General BA, and even squeezed an English minor in there. The English Department at the University of Waterloo clearly took a chance on me when they admitted me to their MA program given my poor grade performance and lack of the “Honours” on my BA – but I think they’re happy with their decision considering I’m now crushing it in their PhD program. Like, I have even won awards and stuff.

But, I should clarify: medication doesn’t erase the symptoms, but it makes it a lot easier to manage everyday tasks. And FYI, deficit is a really bad way to describe what I experience, because in actuality I pay attention to everything. I have over attention. To illustrate how my brain works here’s a little representative anecdote: When driving at night I find it impossible not to pay attention to the bright sequence of headlights coming from the traffic on the other side of the road. My brain just wants to look at every light as it passes by because it thinks it’s more important than looking at the road itself for some odd reason. (Don’t worry, I don’t actually drive at night having learned this about myself).

But imagine having a brain that is unable to ignore irrelevant stimuli when you’re trying to complete more intellectually demanding tasks: reading a book, writing a paper, listening to a lecture, meeting with colleagues: Oh my gosh, the tapping on the keyboard makes a really cool beat! [lights flicker] I wonder if they use eco-bulbs in this classroom? Why am I so uncomfortable? I should cross and uncross my legs repeatedly to address that issue. I’m gonna tap my feet in sync with the keyboard clicks too. Also remember to nod now and then so it looks like you’re comprehending whatever the heck is going on in this class—but don’t look too engaged or else you’ll be called on. Professor is talking about bell hooks, remember that, bell hooks, bell hooks. OOOOOOOOOhhhhhhhhh, Jingle bells, Jingle bells, Jingle all the way! Oh yeah, bell hooks that’s what I was supposed to be thinking about. bell hooks bell hooks bell hooks, what a strange name, two “thing” nouns. Bells and hooks. What about bell hooks? What was I supposed to remember? Annnnnd its gone. God I’m hungry. I’m going to start eating breakfast every day. That’s what my problem is, lack of breakfast. I can’t believe I didn’t do the reading for today’s class, I hate myself for that. If I ate breakfast, I could have read the reading while eating breakfast instead of wasting my morning playing candy crush. I just love that game so much though. *daydreams candy crush patterns for a while*. Why did the person beside me just change their breathing pattern? Can’t they do it in 4/4 time to appease me? I want them to have equal inhales and exhales, and then this whole class would be more bearable and I could pay attention. I HATE HOW UNEVEN THEIR BREATHING IS. I wonder if I have twitter notifications, I’m going to check right now. And facebook too. And e-mail. Because this is the most appropriate time to do it. DEVON, seriously! PAY ATTENTION. Like you’ve missed everything now and can never catch-up. NEVER. But since you can’t ever catch-up, it’s totally okay that you don’t do work today because it wouldn’t even accomplish anything at this point. You’re right! Excellent reasoning, now I can go home and watch Netflix guilt-free, and I’ll try really hard next term! Also, I can still perform well in the other class because it will be no problem to write that 10-page essay that’s due in 2 days tomorrow. But for real, what was I supposed to remember about bell hooks because it’s really bothering me now.

So, that’s my normal. [ed note: WAIT. THIS IS NOT HOW OTHER PEOPLE MOVE THROUGH THE WORLD??? I HAVE NEVER SEEN A BETTER REPLICATION OF WHAT HAPPENS TO ME EVERY TIME I SIT DOWN TO WORK]

But anyways, I’m writing this guest blog to give advice about being an academic with ADHD, and I think I got distracted.

So let’s get to the advice part:

1) Capitalize on your ability to work under pressure. Boy do ADHD-ers procrastinate, but it’s absolute euphoria when we leave something until the last possible minute, and then just do it in an impossible amount of time. 20-page paper in 72 hours? No problem! High pressure, high stakes often brings clarity and hyperfocus. The problem is, once you’re ABD and beyond, you’re independent without the pressure and structure that deadlines offer. No one’s going to force you to submit a journal article, source out and apply to additional funding opportunities, draft conference paper proposals, or write a teaching statement. You have to find a way to mimic deadlines with immediate, external consequences if you miss them (It really doesn’t work when you set your own consequences, trust me, I tried. I’m such a pushover.) For example, you might find a person who holds you accountable to deadlines, and is genuinely disappointed when you don’t meet them. I joined an agraphia group that meets bi-weekly to set concrete writing goals and to report on the previous goals we all set (shout out to George, Kyle, Monique & Saeed who shame me when writing goals are unmet).

2) Capitalize on your ability to multi-task. During my MA I had one term where I had 3 graduate courses, a TAship, and was working at a local newspaper for 15 hours/week. Oh yeah, and I have 2 kids. . .3 if you include my husband. But dammmmmmnnnn, I was at the top of my game! Like I said before, ADHD brains like to pay attention to everything—rapidly shifting my attention from scholarship, to work, to teaching, to home life helped me to control where my attention was being drawn. With ADHD it’s really hard to maintain attention on a single, time-consuming task, so I find I work most productively and effectively when managing multiple projects or commitments. With multiple projects you can drop one, pick up the other and don’t have to feel guilty about it because you’re still accomplishing stuff.

3) Don’t overcommit yourself. It can be tempting, since you thrive on being overwhelmed to overcommit and you end up letting people down. Don’t do that. Find the sweet spot. Also it’s fine to not work on weekends. I mean you can work a little bit, but weekends are mostly for play not for work.

4) Find productive ways to procrastinate. I really hate writing literature reviews, so to avoid them I’ll do other productive things so that I don’t feel bad. Recently I made my own website and taught myself CSS in the process—fun, but productive. Attend workshops, join committees, offer to guest lecture, reformat your cv, update your 5-year-plan, find a target journal for your latest project, coordinate your travel plans for your next conference, blog. I don’t have advice to avoid procrastination because you can make it work for you.

5) Pomodoros. I’m not talking about basic tomato sauce here, I’m talking about the Pomodoro technique, a time management method where you complete 25 minutes of timed work followed by a short five-minute break. After four pomodoros, you get a longer, 20 minute break. You can download a Pomodoro app to your phone to help track your poms! (Disclaimer: My five-minute break often turns into a lunch hour because I like to procrastinate, or because I’m frustrated because I accomplished nothing in one pom. Other days I’ve banged out 12 poms.)

6) Don’t forget things
a. Lists. I forget things. All the time. Lists help you to not forget things, but the caveat is that you have to remember that you have a list and where you put the list.
b. Bullet Journals. A list, calendar, and productivity tracker all in one journal (journals are harder to lose than lists), and you feel so productive when you can cross completed items off your list! I don’t have time to do these life savers justice, but I encourage you to visit http://www.bulletjournal.com to get the basics.
c. Write things on your hand. Hands are an appropriate place to write really important reminders because you can’t misplace your hands. Use sharpie fine point markers to avoid it washing off when you wash your hands. I’m being serious.
7) Have others review your work before submitting anywhere – One of my Professors once asked if I skipped editing my work. I didn’t, I’m just really bad at it. In true ADHD fashion, I make countless thoughtless errors in my work, but the real challenge is that I often can’t even detect the errors—I don’t even know why. I can edit other people’s work, but not my own. So have a reliable colleague review your work, and return the favour to them too. Teamwork!

I could go on, but I need to do some RA work (by which I mean check all social media streams for notifications immediately).

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.