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

Parenting in the PhD: Round II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Library Book Renewal; or: When you Should Purchase Books

Three times a year, my Facebook and Twitter feeds fill up with signs of despair from graduate students at the University of Alberta. Hand-wringing, Facebook ranting, and collective sighing. Not over what you might expect–paper deadlines, proposal submission due dates, or reading list anxieties–no, this deadline is much more difficult to manage. It takes up reams of our time, and tends to plague upper-year MA and PhD students more than first-years.

What am I talking about?

Library Book Renewal.

Here at the University of Alberta, we have a system that is probably similar to libraries at many other universities: graduate students have the luxury of longer-than-average borrowing privileges. This means that we can usually keep books for a semester at a time, if there aren’t any special restrictions. And for up to three times, we can renew said books easily, using the online system.

It can lead to a blissful ignorance of the fact that said books are not, in fact, the sole property of the student who is temporarily holding possession of them. Usually graduate students live blissfully ignorant for months–even a year!–of the fact that we even have a renewal limit.

But one of two things inevitably happens: 1) after the three-time renewal, our book renewal limits are reached; or, 2) someone has–god forbid–placed a hold on your book (it has been recalled), and it must be returned within the week.

If the former–and we’ve been hoarding, which I see oft practiced by graduate students–we have to lug bags of books into the library to renew every last one by hand. If the latter, you have about a week to return the book, regardless of how long you’ve had it (and you might have just finally cracked it open that day).

Either way, the punishment for non-compliance is stringent. No matter if you just moved apartments, and you happened to have packed up a stack of library books in who-knows-what-box. No matter if you are out of town for a conference, or research trip, and can’t return home to physically return the books. No matter if your house flooded last week, and the flood-restoration company happened to accidentally pack up one of your library books into boxes that are now kept, miles away, in a storage facility. No matter if on hold-return-deadline-day you happened to have forgotten at home the library book that had a hold placed on it, and decided to pay the $5 fine instead of going back home to retrieve it (a 1-hour round trip), and then stupidly forgot that said fine would freeze your account, which would make it impossible to renew all your books on the day-later renewal deadline. (Okay, at least two of these things may have happened to me because of a combination of bad luck and my own stupidity.) No matter**: If you do not return or renew said books, you will have to pay the $2 per day fine for each book. If the book happens to have been recalled, the fines are even worse: $5 per day per recalled book. If you happen to have checked out say, 10 books, this results in minimum fines of $20 per day. If you happen to be a graduate-student-hoarder of library books (say, of 50 books), one day’s missed returns could mean at least $100 in fines. I wish I could say that I know of one really impeccably-on-top-of-her/his-shit graduate student who has never paid a single fine because they just keep on top of things, but the fact is, I think every graduate student I know has paid at least one fine. It’s really hard to avoid.

So, you may be wondering: what can I do? Can I minimize, if not eliminate, said fines? Can I prevent myself from paying hundreds of dollars in accumulated library fines over the course of my graduate degree(s)?

As it happens, I think you can, and I have a few suggestions!

1) Check out ebooks whenever possible. If you can handle reading on-screen, check out ebooks, which simply expire or timeout rather than cause you to pay fines. If you can’t read on-screen, save a pdf copy of whatever portion of the book you need to read immediately (copyright regulations usually allow you to download at least 10 pages of the book), and send it to your e-reader or print. If you can read onscreen, either take notes immediately or save those pages you reference the most in a pdf copy. For some, the ebook readers available on library websites are not ideal, and it can be difficult to read books within these systems. Other systems allow for downloads to external readers (Kindle or Kobo), from which you can highlight or take clippings and notes on said text. Either way, figure out what system your library has, and make it work for you as best you can. You’ll pay less fines in the long run if you take out ebooks rather than physical copies.

2) Be on-the-ball. Find out about your library system (browse the library website or ask a friendly librarian!) Figure out your library system and inform yourself of your borrowing privileges, renewal limits, and the cost of fines (and perhaps even how fine appeals work). Set up reminders for yourself on your phone to return books, and pay attention to the reminders your library probably already sends to your email account. If you’re going to a conference or research trip or are out of the country for any reason, be sure to return any library books and/or make sure you’re not going to run into any deadlines (including recalled books).

3) Don’t hoard or accumulate books: When you’re reading a book, take external notes and/or make photocopies of the portions of the book (subject to copyright restrictions) that you found most pertinent, and then return it. Pre-empt the deadline and return it as soon as you’ve finished with it. Try not to accumulate more than, say 30 books out at one time (this may prove difficult for final-paper-writing-first-years, in which case, be sure to follow the first part of my instructions here and return the books as soon as you are done with them).

4) Shift the way you think about library books, and don’t forgot they’re not your own: try to remember that you are borrowing the book and that it really isn’t yours. Don’t take it home unless you really need to. Don’t leave it on your bookshelf at home for weeks at a time just so you can admire it on your shelf. Don’t line the shelves of your office with library books just because you can. I mean, you can, but you may pay the cost in fines if you treat your books this way.

and finally, and most importantly:

5) Buy the books you are most frequently checking out. I think this is a really important, especially if you are a PhD student. I used to check out books for months at a time because they were so important to my dissertation. I resisted buying them because I didn’t think I could afford it. In some cases I was right, and I couldn’t afford that particular book. There are books that are super expensive, only available in hardback, and genuinely out of my price range. These books I still get out from the library, but the key here is to keep your checkouts of these books at a minimum, and refer to my suggestions number 3 and 4 (read the book, take external notes, and/or photocopy what you can and don’t treat them like they’re yours), instead of keeping these books out for months at a time. But with the books that are affordable and you use them frequently and/or they are really important to the way you think/read, do buy them. I think it’s worth it if you will use them again and again plus it will save you the cost of possible fines. Set aside a portion of your graduate student stipend to purchase books (particularly in the years when you’re writing your dissertation), and buy those books that are proving crucial.

I’m interested to hear your suggestions on how to minimize fines or navigate your library renewal systems. Do you have additional suggestions that I’ve missed here? I’d love to hear them! Tweet me at @janasmithelford or add to the hashtag #tacitphd

**We are occasionally exempted by the good will of our dear human librarians, who occasionally by-pass the system to renew our books when we can’t do so, or forgive our fines when we make an official appeal. May we forever be in their good and compassionate graces. 


Boast Post

November is a hard month, no? The lovely fall colours are gone; it’s cold and dreary. We’re in that tough part of the semester where students’ enthusiasm wane as their work loads edge higher, mirrored by our own increasing stacks of grading. Here in Edmonton, despite the shortening days, we usually get a few hours of brilliant sun shining on the crisp bright white snow, but this year, we’ve gotten a lot of dreary grey. And then there’s the utterly devastating state of the world right now, (not to mention the fights we’re all having about those world events on Facebook and Twitter). I think I can safely say we’re all in need of a little pick-me-up.

Sooooo: Boast Post! Let’s offer each other a little cheer, and cheer each other up!

You all know how it works by now, right? Do you have something that you’re proud of, or did right? Did someone offer you a piece of praise? Did you finish a dissertation chapter? Have a conference proposal accepted at a competitive conference? Get through a challenging semester of teaching? Did you submit a ton of postdoc/job applications? Get invited to present your research? Tell us! And tell the world on Twitter with the #boastpost hashtag! It can feel a little weird and awkward, but it also feels great to celebrate our accomplishments, and have others celebrate with us.

I have three things to celebrate over the last semester:

1) I have now finished submitting revisions for two articles and one chapter that are forthcoming in the Journal of Modern Periodical Studies, the Victorian Review, and (co-authored with the brilliant Kathryn Holland!) the forthcoming book Reading Modernism with Machines (Palgrave McMillan). It’s thrilling to see the work of the last couple of years come to fruition!

2) I finished drafting my Mona Caird Chapter, and have begun writing THE FINAL CHAPTER of my dissertation! This one is on Henrietta Müller, Olive Schreiner, and the Women’s Penny Paper. I’m really excited to be writing it!

3) I just finished presenting on a fantastic panel at MSA17 on feminist approaches in DH and Modernism, and it was wonderful connecting with other women who work at the intersection of feminism and DH. I also have an upcoming jointly-organized panel at the Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada (VSAWC). Conferences. They’re so fun!

Okay folks, true story: I actually had a hard time keeping it to three things here. I’m kinda shocked. I have been feeling super low about my accomplishments over the last little while. November has really gotten me down. Let me tell you: it feels really great to think through what I’ve accomplished. So: YOUR TURN. Turn off that part of your brain that is telling you it’s gauche or shameless, and boast!

coping · DIY · emotional labour · empowerment · grad school · teaching · writing

#tacitphd: On Letting it Go (when it’s not perfect)

Last week, Aimée wrote an important post about graduate education and the tacit knowledge that is required to achieve success in the PhD. She wrote: 

“Graduate education is a complex social universe with a lot of moving parts, and the heavy and numerous explicit obligations disguise the substantial amount of tacit knowledge and cultural competence required to succeed at it. We know the what of grad school: coursework, TAs and independent teaching, area exams, dissertation proposal, dissertation, and some professional activities like publishing and conference-going. Applying for grants. Applying for jobs. But the how and sometimes even the why is mystifying.”

Aimée’s post asked readers to join the conversation and make the implicit explicit using the #tacitphd hashtag, and several people took to Twitter to comment, in addition to commenting on her post. Both the tweets and comments are great, ranging from simple protocol, to deeper discussions on how to think about your thesis proposal, exams, and work/life balance. You can see the Storify here:

As several people pointed out, the how of the dissertation-writing process is one of the more difficult things to understand. Part of this is a normal not-knowing, in the sense that you can’t really understand how to do something like write your own original work until you start to do it. But part of this knowledge is, for whatever reason, little taught and infrequently discussed. I had furtive conversations about writing the dissertation with newly-minted PhDs, and occasionally my colleagues, and then, happily, I took a grad course from the Writing Studies department, which helped me think and write about the writing process, and pointed me to some great resources (How to Write A Lot is one of those essential books.) 
This summer, coincidentally, I’ve spent nearly all my time (aside from a few conferences/courses) writing writing writing writing the dissertation. And, as is normal, the Writing has been Hard. It is hard to piece together hundreds of different historical, literary and theoretical sources, and build an argument based on the evidence you discover. It is hard to shift your argument when it doesn’t seem to match what you thought when you first read the source two years previously. It is hard to revisit an author you read in your first graduate degree, and rethink what you thought then. It is difficult to make sure all the ideas you have cohere, and that they flow logically over hundreds of pages. It is hard to know where a section of writing should go: this chapter, the next, the introduction? It is also very hard to pass on that writing for someone else to read, especially when you feel it still has some major problems to be worked out.
There are, of course, the easy writing weeks, where the words seemed to fly out of your head and onto the page, where every morning you get a thrill opening up the computer, because you know exactly what you want to say next. These weeks are amazing, and exciting, and will make you remember why you started this PhD in the first place.
But the easy parts of dissertation-writing are not necessarily the parts that need the implicit made explicit. So, with that in mind, I’m offering one bit of advice with regards to dissertation writing, probably what I’ve found to be the most difficult: letting it go (when it’s not perfect).
One of the things we tend to think about the dissertation is that is has to be perfect. And, it seems, the longer we take working on something, the better it must be. Contrary to what you may think, however, the Dissertation is not the final product, the book ready-to-be-published. The dissertation-as-publishable-book-model is not a particularly useful one. Instead, it’s better to think of the dissertation as a first draft, something to return to later, a hoop to jump through to finish the degree. And get in the practice of being okay with your draft-y work being seen by many before it is as “perfect” as you think it needs to be. 
So, how do you get in the practice of letting go of your writing?
1. Join a writing group: meet up with a couple of colleagues/friends to exchange draft-y writing. If you don’t have a writing group, ask someone in your PhD cohort if she would be interested in exchanging her work with yours and commenting on it. One of the best experiences I’ve had in the PhD was exchanging writing with a friend while we worked together to write papers for a workshop. It helped keep me on track for the workshop, months in advance.
2. Send your stuff to your supervisor before you think it is “perfect”: If you’re anything like me, you would rather be stuck for weeks trying to fix a problem section of writing rather than sending it to your supervisor for comments when it is a mess. Don’t be like me. You will waste days, or perhaps even weeks, of your life. If your supervisor is willing to look at draft-y work (and most are, or should be), send it away. Don’t tinker for ages trying to make something perfect when what it really needs is another set of eyes, and some sage advice.
3. Trust your supervisor when she says it is ready to go to your committee: If your supervisor says it is ready to go, it is ready to go. Don’t wait for days to press send on that chapter. Your committee will thank you for giving them the extra time to read it, and your time to completion will be reduced.
How have you learned to let go of your writing? Do you have other dissertation-writing advice? Leave a comment, or add to the Twitter hashtag #tacitphd.
advice · dissertation · grad school · reflection · writing

On Revising: Some Tips

There is a whole lot of writing studies research that suggests how very difficult it is for students to learn how to revise their writing. Most students tend to initially approach revision as proofreading, changing a comma here, a word there, tinkering with a sentence. They don’t typically understand what it means to develop or discover ideas, which takes engagement with opposing views, a complex multi-layered conversation, and a new, contributing idea.

This certainly was true of me as an undergraduate, and even as a graduate student. My writing practice in most of my undergraduate and graduate coursework was fairly straightforward: think about the paper topic (attend class, read critical articles), write some notes/an outline/select quotes, then whip up a 10-20 page paper in relatively little time. After I’d written the paper, proofreading/tinkering as I went, that was basically it. I’d occasionally read the paper aloud to catch stray grammatical errors, or ask a friend to proofread. But once it was written it was usually done. Only once or twice did I substantially revised a paper I’d already written in full, and it didn’t substantially shift my typical writing practice.
For a long time it worked out just fine. And some of these practices were good ones to develop, practices I still undertake, when I’m thinking about and discovering new ideas. But as an undergraduate and new graduate student, I was a pretty novice writer and thinker. Since the end of my MA and into my PhD, I’ve had to radically shift the way I think about what it means to write, and a big part of that has been learning to revise. After I’ve finished drafting papers, I’ve drafted them again (for conferences), and again (for submission-ready publications), and again (for revise-and-resubmits), and again (for dissertation chapters). I’m finally starting to gain a lived sense of what it means to genuinely revise, particularly for long and complex writing (ie: the dissertation). 
As I’ve begun to approach revising my first bit of really complex revising–the first section of my dissertation, a chapter of about 60 pages–I’ve learned, through trial and error, what really seems to work for me. 
Here are the steps I take when revising a longer piece of work: 
1. Print: Produce a (double-sided) paper copy of the draft. I’m not quite sure why exactly it took me so long to realize this simple but very important element of the revision process. For a long time I tried to do all my editing on my computer, but eventually I realized it just wasn’t working. It was difficult to scroll between pages, I could only see a narrow window of text, and I was finding it hard to conceptualized how all my ideas connected. Once I printed out a paper copy, the process became MUCH easier. Perhaps in part because it is hard to be distracted by social media when staring at a piece of paper.

2. Highlight: Once I printed out a paper copy, I went through and highlighted all the big points I was trying to make in my chapter. Thesis sentence, topic sentences, any central idea that I knew was important to carry through the chapter. This helped me focus on the main points, and make sure I was drawing my ideas through to a conclusion.

3. Write in the Margins: After highlighting the important bits, I went through and basically marked up my entire draft, fixing typos, adding sentences, filling in extra info where my supervisor had asked for more background information or explanation, and making sure my central idea and contribution was carried through my various points. I added transition sentences, did background research on the history of a particular society, and did some significant thinking, but all on physical paper.

4. New Word Docs: I usually work in Scrivener at the beginning of a project (and sometimes all the way through), but this time I found it easier to work with a blank Word screen, probably because I was overwhelmed by the amounts of writing I’d already produced. Opening a blank Word doc worked to help me produce those extra paragraphs and sections I wanted to add without being distracted by the whole.
5. Combine paper and Word drafts into a single whole: this is the fun part! It doesn’t take too much time either. Compile all the changes you’ve made into a single draft. It’s enormously satisfying.
A Final Tip: 
6. Realize IT TAKES TIME: Genuine revision of ideas takes an enormous amount of thinking time, and it doesn’t really work to push it to go faster. Recognize that this kind of hard thinking and writing can be exhausting, and don’t try to push yourself beyond what you can do. I realized I had to say no to writing in the evenings after a long day of writing, even though I felt like I shouldn’t. Pushing yourself like this doesn’t actually work: it makes that work of thinking harder in the long run. You need to give yourself the time and space to do this hard work of thinking, and then the time to recover. Give your brain a well-deserved break, so you can approach the work with fresh eyes again the next day.
community · dissertation · grad school · PhD · saving my sanity · writing

When you just don’t want to write

It’s mid-March. The days are longer, warmed by sun, but frost lingers in the morning, and piles of snow creep into the shadows, refusing to melt. The semester is furiously racing to its end, our energy reserves are depleting, and while we can see the close of the term, we’re all wondering if we’re going to end before it does.

I’ve been working on a substantially revising a long section of my dissertation, but on some days my brain is foggy, or I feel a lack of confidence, afraid I don’t know what I’m doing. As the term winds to a close and writing deadlines approach, I’ve found a few tried and true methods for getting the work of writing done, even if it feels near impossible.

1. The Pomodoro Method: We’ve talked about this a lot on Hook and Eye before, but the Pomodoro technique really does help to give focus to a writing task. If I’m stuck in the endless chasm of research and can’t seem to get my way out of it, I turn off the internet, set the timer for 25 minutes, and then dedicate my full attention to the task of writing. It’s really helpful when I’m not feeling motivated because 25 minutes is such a manageable length of time: anyone can do it. After the timer rings, if I’m really vigilant, I’ll only take a 5 minute break, which I also use the timer to structure. After four cycles, I give myself a 15 minute break.

2. Take Real Breaks: Boyda talked a couple weeks ago about slowing down and unplugging, and I highly recommend it. Even if you can only take a 3-5 minute break, don’t spend it surfing the internet, or checking your phone, or staring at some kind of a screen. If you can, stand up, move around, stretch, or just close your computer and stare out a window or into space. It’s enormously beneficial to do something different so the break feels like a real break and not just the same old.

3. Get Moving: If you have a bit more time, go for a walk with a friend. Get outside for the fresh air and vitamin D, or just go get coffee. Even if you don’t drink coffee, just go for the walk. If you can’t spare the time, spend five minutes doing jumping jacks or running in place, or have a personal dance party. If you only have a few seconds, my three-year-old would probably recommend the Crazy Shake.

4. Make Lists: At the beginning of each day, make yourself a to-do list of what you need to accomplish, and decide what to prioritize for that day. On Mondays, it can be really beneficial to write down your goals for the week, and then break it down into daily chunks. It can also be useful to work back from any impending deadlines in order to help structure your time on a month-or-semester-long basis. Sometimes these goals aren’t met in the way we think we will meet them, but having them in the first place means they can be revisited or that we can make new priorities when the unexpected occurs.

5. Meet up with Friends: One of the most important things for me personally is having people around me to keep me accountable to my writing goals. Whether I meet up with them in person, like for my weekly writing club where we do community pomodoros (if you’re at the U of A, join us!), or to an online googledocs spreadsheet to write out my weekly and daily goals, when someone else knows what I commit to, it becomes much easier to do it. The extra accountability means I’m far more likely to get stuff done. Also, it’s harder to putz around on the internet when someone is hovering over your shoulder.

6. Just do it: Even if your brain doesn’t want to cooperate, just force yourself to focus. Turn off the internet, gather every spec of willpower, and focus on the writing task at hand. Sometimes just writing the first couple of words on the blank page can be the key to gaining momentum.

balance · clothes · empowerment · saving my sanity

My Uniform

My wardrobe has shifted significantly over the last few years to align with changes in my work and personal life. 
The birth of my daughter, reduced flexibility in the time I spend at home and at work, increasing time in the classroom, and of course the never-ending to-do lists of conferencing, dissertation-writing, and researching–all these increasing responsibilities have meant I have much less time and flexibility in my mornings, less energy to spend purchasing new clothes, and more in need of flexible and streamlined routines. 
With less time to make decisions about what items to pair, and even less to purchase new wardrobe items, I’ve found myself wearing tried and true combinations of clothing, my own set way of dressing that is a safe go-to every day. Instead of gravitating towards new, unfamiliar or untested items, I found myself wearing and purchasing the same-old, same-old: my uniform.
By necessity, I’ve drastically simplified what I wear. 
By chance, I’ve found that I love it.
There’s something remarkably freeing about wearing and purchasing the same type of clothing. Instead of the time-suck of trial-and-error combinations, there’s the ease of the comfortable and familiar. Rather than money wasted on items bought and never worn, there are multiple similar items that I know I’ll love.
In teaching months, I often wear a black dress or black skirt, usually paired with a beige or black cardigan or blue collared shirt, with black tights (usually fleece-lined for our cold Edmonton winters) and cognac-brown or black boots. Sometimes I swap out the basic black dress for black and white stripes, or dark blue, or the skirt for black pants. A long gold necklace is my main accessory. If it’s warmer, I’ll exchange the boots for beige flats; if it’s colder, I’ll wear fur-lined sorels and a scarf. It’s the most comfortable, neutral, and flattering outfit I’ve personally come up with, and it works in a variety of situations. In the classroom, I look like an instructor. At a conference, I’m a presenter or attendee. At the coffee shop, I look like I’m a person who drinks coffee.
With wearing what I know has worked, I’ve also found I project more authority. Perhaps it’s the confidence of simply knowing that I’m wearing something that works well; perhaps it’s the fact that the items I dress in tend to be neutral basics, which evoke simple sophistication.
Primarily, though, duplicating my favourite closet staples and wearing a uniform has meant eliminating stress and anxiety. With less time spent on getting ready in the morning, I find I have more time and mind space to focus on other, more important things: my work; my family.
Have you streamlined any elements of your daily routines? In what ways has it made your life more simple and easy to manage?
grad school · learning · mental health · reflection · saving my sanity

Unsustainable Practice

There’s something about the semester system that really gets me. It’s only really four months, I think.

Four months of teaching. Four months of writing, four months of researching. Just four months.
Four months to pound out a chapter, throw myself heart and soul into teaching, send out proposals, revise and submit papers, submit job applications…four months.

Four months is a reasonable time to do all the things, right?

I usually start out in September like this:

And then end-of-December rolls around and I’m all:


This past December was particularly bad. In my last week of work before Christmas, I was fighting off an epic cold. Then, two days into a lovely mountain holiday with my family, I was struck with an awful stomach bug. It proceeded to infect my whole family. It was not pretty.

This isn’t to say I didn’t accomplish a lot of things over the Fall semester. In fact, I did. I taught my second-ever class (writing-intensive, forty students), half of it new material. I continued working with the great research project I’ve been privileged to be a part of, helping to develop a visualization tool. I submitted my first-ever job application, and had my first-ever interview. I wrote, revised, and submitted two articles. I applied and was accepted to present a paper at two different conferences. I did some service work. I helped organize a conference, which included vetting proposals and contributing some pieces to a SSHRC connections grant. With a colleague, I was invited to submit a chapter to a forthcoming book. And I continued to write my dissertation.

It’s all exciting stuff.

But I totally wiped myself out.

Fortunately, this winter semester comes with a much-needed break. This January, I have the privilege of a year-long fellowship that relieves me from teaching and research duties, allowing me to focus on finishing up my dissertation. So, last week, with space to do so, I actually took some time to relax. I read some books for pleasure, for the first time in months (turns out I like graphic novels). I watched some TV. I stayed at home for a couple days and napped.

And then I resolved to develop a sustainable habit of work, one not overly-based on the semester system. If I stop thinking in terms of “just four months, then…” I might just be able to develop a sustainable work practice, one not premised on overcommitting.

My resolutions thus far are simple:

1) Say no (more often). Mostly this means saying no to myself. So far I’ve done a good job crossing items off my list that aren’t important. Last week I decided not to apply to a conference that I didn’t need to go to. Two are enough for this summer.

2) Prioritize. This is related to number one. My main and primary work priority right now is my dissertation. In the last week, I re-conceptualized how my chapters were working and decided to add a new one before my existing two chapters. My current focus is on researching and writing this chapter, and it’s the top of my list. I’m determined not to let anything displace it.

3) Go for Walks. This is one of the main ways that I think and work through problems. And it’s also a great de-stressor. Edmonton in January usually prevents long walks (without frostbite, anyway), but right now we’re having an usually warm spell. I’m determined to take advantage of it to walk and think.

Do you find that the semester-system tends to encourage overcommitment? How have you managed to develop sustainable habits over longer periods of time?

*art credit: Allie Brosh, Hyperbole and a Half

classrooms · community · learning · reflection · teaching · thank you

Teaching and Learning

On Thursday last week I sat in my office all day and waited for my first-year students to pick up their graded papers. As they filtered in and then out my door, a few of them paused, smiled, and thanked me for the semester.

I think I forgot to say “you’re welcome” for at least half of them. I know I always smile, sometimes a little awkwardly, but genuinely. But occasionally I find myself at a loss for words. “You’re welcome”, I suppose, somehow just doesn’t quite seem to cut it. 
Perhaps it’s because those students who have paused to thank me are often those ones to whom I am also grateful: grateful for their commitment to learning, their effort, for their essay re-writes, the way they’ve taken my feedback and pushed themselves, how they’ve made their papers convincing, persuasive, and drawn stronger links to textual evidence. I’m grateful for their genuine searching questions, their involvement in class discussions, and their respectful comments. I’m grateful for their their earnest fastidiousness, their engagement, and perhaps most of all, their deep concern for each other. 
My students this semester have been all this and more, all the more remarkable because for the vast majority this is their first semester of post-secondary education. For some, my class was their introduction to city-living, the cold dark of Northern Novembers, being far away from family and old friends. For most, this semester was their first experience of the university classroom space; their first lesson in self-directed time management, in living life without direct supervision, in juggling financial obligations with academic ones. 
For any first-year student, the experience of university can be challenging, difficult, and overwhelming. For the students that started out at my university this term, they also had to deal with two “non-criminal student deaths” on campus. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to experience the loss of a fellow student, a classmate, a friend. What I do know is that this first semester is hard for most students, and that without contact from caring, compassionate people, students can feel nothing but alienation and loneliness as they begin university life.
Earlier this semester I had two of my students approach me to explain their tardiness to class. They had been trying to get ahold of their friend, also in my class, who had been missing classes for a week. The reason they were late was because they’d decided to track down this friend at her house. Waking up early in the morning, they’d to travelled off-campus to their friend’s home, to see if she was going to make it to class. She didn’t answer the door.
When they told me this story, I was prompted to pass along resources–contact info for the chaplain’s office, peer-support centre, and others–to pass along to their friend, if she needed it. While I don’t know if they were used, I do know that the student did return to my class a few days later.
I’ve always implicitly seen teaching as collaborative, reciprocal learning, but this semester my students have pushed me to consider how to care beyond the classroom space. My students’ concern for their classmate and friend prompted the realization that perhaps other students in my class needed these resources, too. Following the lead of other instructors at my University, I ended up talking to my students towards the end of term about on- and off-campus support. I acknowledged that this is a difficult time of year, a challenging term. But mostly I just wanted them to know that people do care, and that what they may be feeling is important and valid, and that there are people who can help. And it was brought home to me by the demonstrative concern of my students.
I think the next time once of my students drops by to thank me for the semester, I’ll know what to say. A simple “thank you” in response will probably suffice.
Have your students taught you something valuable this term?
media · social media · systemic violence · women

Restorative Justice and Social Media: More Thoughts on Recent Events

Did you see the homepage of Huffington Post yesterday? Here is a screenshot of the first third of it:

These are just a few of the Tweets that use the hashtag #BeenRapedNeverReported. They are gathered on Huffington Post without naming the names of the aggressor, or naming the identity of the Tweeter. They stand together on the homepage as a chorus of voices speaking to experiences that, while individual, attest to a common experience of gendered and sexualized violence.

The editors at HuffPo contextualize the page like this:

Today, we at The Huffington Post Canada have no words. Today, they’re yours. 
Countless women and men have shared this week their stories of rape and sexual assault with a powerful Twitter hashtag, #BeenRapedNeverReported. 

The #BeenRapedNeverReported hashtag and the Huffington Post curatorial project have me thinking about rape culture, and about restorative justice on the Internet. Specifically, it has me thinking about the risks of speaking about gendered and sexualized violence in public. 

Last week I wrote: 

I’ve written elsewhere that I fear that restorative justice and social media are incompatible. I want to return to that thought here, by way of opening up conversation. How are we–by which I mean (for the purposes of readers of this blog) women working in the Canadian academic sphere–working to sustain slow thinking about these pressing issues in a public way. “Public” here is key, I think. Publicness is not a failsafe, often for women it is the opposite, but it does keep attention on a topic maybe–just maybe–long enough to shake the systemic conditions that sustain inequity.

Since last week I have had numerous discussions about the efficacy of anonymity as a public intervention. Some people I have spoken with feel strongly that anonymity is an absolutely necessary in initial steps to making public declarations about experiences of abuse. Other people who, I hasten to underscore, are equally passionate and invested in eradicating misogyny, have expressed their deep ambivalence–even concern–with anonymity. Doesn’t it reify silence? Doesn’t it allow abuse to continue? Do anonymous statements of experience in actuality perpetuate cycles of violence? 

I’ll be the first to admit I don’t have concrete answer to these massive and crucial questions. But I am deeply invested in talking about them in public, and because I have a platform through this blog, I feel responsible to try and do that. Here goes.

How might we employ the message and tenets of restorative justice in the medium of social media? 

If you’re not familiar with the term, ‘restorative justice’ is a theory of justice that puts emphasis on repairing the harms caused by criminal behaviour. And here’s the catch: restorative justice is best achieved through cooperation between all stakeholders involved in the injustice. It is predicated on the following principles:

1. Justice requires that we work to restore those who have been injured
2. Those most directly involved and affected by crime should have the opportunity to participate fully in the response if they wish.
3. Government’s role is to preserve a just public order, and the community’s role is to build and maintain a just peace. 

As information and narratives about rape culture and misogyny in Canada–and indeed, globally–circulate in particularly public ways right not I find myself thinking about the medium and the message. Social media is incredibly important for circulating information and topics quickly. It is less useful, I think (as have others), for facilitating sustainable change over the long-term. I am heartened that conversations about rape culture and misogyny in Canada are trending on Twitter and on the front pages of newspapers and websites, though I am acutely aware that we have great distances to go before these are holistic and encompassing conversations. Where, for example, is the sustained public outrage over the more than 1,200 documented Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women? Where are the sustained conversations about the ways in which risk of gendered and sexualized violence increase when you are a person of colour or of a lower socioeconomic group? Don’t get me wrong, as these conversations are happening, have ben happening, but they fall out of the media spotlight. And then what? 

When hashtags and trending topics fall out of media attention, what do we do to keep the conversations and focus and energy on these necessary issues?