enter the confessional · parenting · work

When should I have a baby?

Melissa’s post (yay! Melissa!) last week made me think about babies and work and, specifically, a very clear moment when I realized that there was no “good time” to have a baby.

First, let me say that I don’t mean to imply that any one, or you or me specifically, should have a baby. That is a different, and also very personal question. Maybe the best answer to that so far is in this excellent Dear Sugar column, “The Ghost Ship That Didn’t Carry Us,” which I still re-read every once in a while because I love what she says, and I want to remember that I need to salute the sister life that I did not choose, the one where maybe I didn’t become a mother, and know that this other life is also important and beautiful.



Hello there, other life! You rock! Sending you love!

But, in this life, I get to do work that I love and also have this totally awesome kid who has completely redefined the whole idea of love for me. For me, there is this whole universe of love I didn’t know about and then, poof, there it was in this tidy 6.9 pound package of non-stop sweetness.

I didn’t know that I wanted a baby. I was not one of those people who “just knew.” Even right up until especially at the moment when I was about to give birth, I was really not convinced that this whole having-a-baby thing was such a good idea.

I did know, and I had known for quite a while, that there didn’t ever seem to be a good time to have a baby. This realization hit me on New Year’s Eve some time during the end of grad school. I was  in LA and had just broken up with a boyfriend who lived there, and my beloved friend Emily told me that I could join her in San Francisco where she would be meeting up with her girlfriend. I was sad and lonely and I will never forget the generosity of these two great people letting me crash their romantic getaway so that I would not have to bring in the new year being sad and lonely (which, sadly, I did anyways but I have only myself to blame). Anyways, the three of us were having dinner somewhere cool. It was a place where there were lots of fancy cocktails and no kids. And we somehow got to talking about when, if we wanted to do it, we would have children. This was a purely hypothetical conversation. Emily was in law school. I was finishing my dissertation. We had no intention of actually doing anything about this baby thing any time soon. It was just a conversation about what might be good time for that to happen, if it was ever going to happen.

Emily and I have been friends since high school so I would sometimes have these kinds of “life-plan” conversations with her. The hubris of these conversations are now amusing. The conversation went something like this:

Me: Well, even if I did find someone to have a baby with me, I can’t do it until I finish my diss.

Em: No, that doesn’t make sense.

Me: If I got a postdoc, that would not be a good time. I probably wouldn’t even be in Canada since I want to do my postdoc in the states.

Em: Nope, that would definitely be a bad time.

Me: And if I got a job after the postdoc, that would be the worst time because I’ll have to work my butt off to get tenure.

Em: Nope, I guess you definitely can’t have a baby then.

Me: So, maybe after tenure…

Here, I stop to count how old I would be then. And then I stop and realize that I would be old (sorry, current self, but the person I am now seems totally old to that girl who sat around in that cool restaurant in SF back then). Em, her girlfriend, and I look at each other, blinked, shrugged our shoulders and said to each other, I guess there’s no good time! I remember this didn’t seem all that terrible to me. I just thought that it was a puzzle and I hadn’t figured it out yet. Like, there was some secret code and, once I was in the right place in my life, someone would give it to me and it would all work itself out.

We ordered more drinks.

In my late-twenties and thirties, I had boyfriends, I lost boyfriends, I found new boyfriends. The baby question seemed even more impossible. I mean, it was hard enough to just figure out if these relationships would still be a thing in my life from one month to the next. One of my long-term boyfriends told me that dates with women in their thirties were like “husband interviews.” Since we had made it past those early dates where I (maybe?) played it cool, I gathered that it was desirable to never treat any date like a potential husband interview. So any question about any future beyond what band we should get tickets to see, or what restaurant we should go to, or what cool trip we should take, was off the table. At the time, I didn’t know that I necessarily wanted to be married, or have a baby, so this all seemed fair enough. Or, as Jess Zimmerman put it so beautifully in “Hunger makes me,” it was too hard to even acknowledge that there were things I could want. Now, I see the imbalance of a relationship where one person declares talk of real futures super-uncool and the other then just suppresses any thought of such futures.

All through this time of forestalling futures I didn’t know I could want, I kept seeing news articles about the precipitous drop in fertility that women experience after a certain age. I became really angry about such news items and was secretly convinced that they were part of an anti-feminist conspiracy anxious to get women out of their jobs and back in the home making babies. It seemed to me that it was no accident that there were suddenly so many of these articles everywhere at precisely the same historical moment (in the first world) when more and more women had decided to put off marriage and babies in the interest of being rock stars at their jobs.

But I was secretly also a little anxious. I felt like I had done something wrong, like I had planned badly, like I had somehow failed. And I still really truly wasn’t even sure that I wanted to have a baby.

Fast forward and I meet this amazing person and he is fabulous in every possible way and now we are parents and it is amazing and fabulous. Still, when I was pregnant, I learned that mine was technically considered a “geriatric pregnancy” and that I was of “advanced maternal age” because I was older than 35. I was directed to genetic counseling that, because I was not prepared for it, left me feeling like big jerk for trying to have a baby as an old lady and thus subjecting my poor unborn child to elevated risks for all kinds of bad things. I’m sure that was not the intention but that was the effect on me and I felt awful about it.

There wasn’t any plan. I did end up getting tenure before I had a baby. I did end up getting a job in the same city where my husband lives. Even though I didn’t get pregnant at the exact moment when I decided I wanted to have a baby, it did happen. And those first years of being in a job and being a mother were bananas and bananas-exhausting. How we laugh now when people who don’t have children tell us that they are “so busy.” Mostly though, nothing bad happened. It was all fine. I couldn’t have known any of that then.

Here’s the thing. I keep referring to a “good time” to have a baby as though such a thing existed. That was and is a fantasy. Not least because you can only plan so much. Becoming a parent taught me humility in nine thousand different ways, but one of them involved learning that parenting is about surrendering a lot agency about timing because your kid will have their own ideas about when it will be a “good time” to do anything — that includes everything from putting on snow pants to when they will emerge into the world.

I probably don’t need to rehearse the somewhat depressing stats on the “motherhood penalty,” or why women who have children generally take more hits in their career trajectory than men. This graph sums up some of the latest research (yep, it deserves a whole special post of its own):


Source [link to pdf]: “Children and Gender Inequality,” Working paper for National Bureau of Economic Research, January 2018

It is now widely recognized that “family formation negatively affects women’s—but not men’s—academic careers. For men, having children can be a slight career advantage and, for women, it is often a career killer” and “that men with young children are 35 percent more likely to get tenure-track jobs and 20 percent more likely to earn tenure than women in the same boat.” On top of all that, this penalty can begin even before there is a baby in what Jessica Winegar calls the “miscarriage penalty.”

Or, coming at the question differently, there is Rivka Galchen whose book Little Labors includes a tally of great women writers who have opted out of motherhood including: Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Hilary Mantel, Janet Frame, Willa Cather, Jane Bowles, Elizabeth Bishop, Hannah Arendt, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Mavis Gallant, and Simone de Beauvoir.

For these women, there was no good time.

But, to be honest, I don’t think there is a good time for anyone. I know that this can sound like a useless platitude and there are others who offer more concrete advice. It leans towards the idea that the ideal time might be when you are in grad school. I can see that argument but I can say that it would not have worked for me.

It will never be a good time AND, if this is the sister life you choose, it is always the right time. I know that my younger self would find this frustrating. I wish I could tell her, and you, that there is a secret code, a magical time, when it will all be perfect and easy. But she (and you) would see right through me and call me out on that anyways.

Looking back, I will say that I wish I had been able to talk more honestly and more openly about this question — even just with myself.

Whatever happens, whatever you decide or have decided, let’s keep standing tall and saluting these great feminist lives that we are making.

Hello there, other life! You rock! Sending you love!










administration · advice · work

Campus visit mystery: interview with the dean


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It’s job interview season in the academy and this post is about what was, for me, the most enigmatic part of the campus visit: the interview with the dean.

BUT, let me first say of the wave after wave after wave of sorrow and grief and anger coming out of the courage of the women who have come forward, privately, semi-privately, and publicly — not least, Julie McIsaac yesterday — to tell the stories that are passwords: I am listening and reading and listening some more and I am here in grief and sorry and anger with all of you and  all of this rumbles like subterranean thunder all through my days and my thinking and will continue to as we keep working through how “we might wield the power we already have.”

It also occurred to me that posting about the campus visit, a thing that only a vanishingly small proportion of the people who apply for jobs will actually do, might not be especially useful, especially given the unrelentingly bleak number of jobs available. And then I realized this post isn’t just for the five people out there who might end up doing a campus visit interview this season.

This post is really about decanal power.

When I have interviewed for jobs, the most mystifying part of the campus visit was the interview/meeting with the dean. I understood, more or less, the function of the job talk, the interview with the hiring committee, the meeting with the graduate students, the meeting with the undergraduate students, and even, albeit much more fuzzily, the lunches and dinners. But I really didn’t understand what was supposed to happen in the 15 to 75 minutes (some meetings were really brief and some didn’t seem to end) where I would sit down, one on one, with the dean. There may or may not have been an interview with a dean that went for over an hour and wherein we talked only about a book, not in my field, that the dean wrote a couple decades ago that I did not read. It is entirely possible that many of you know way more than I did. If so, just feel sorry for me and for all the poor deans who watched me fumble through that part of their day because I really had no idea what I was doing.

I knew that this meeting was important. In my experience as a job candidate these were always meetings and not exactly interviews. Questions were not fired off at me. There was an off-the-cuff feel to the whole thing. I’m not even sure that there were any questions asked at some of the meetings I’ve sat through. They were the least standardized part of the day. It was obvious that these meetings mattered since there are no extraneous elements to the jam-packed campus visit schedule. But I did not know really know why.

Now, after having served at two different universities and on multiple hiring committees over the fourteen years that I have worked as a professor, I have some idea.

Deans have a LOT of power over the final outcome of a job search in their faculty. Without being too specific, I have seen one or the other dean make decisions that are entirely contrary to the explicit wishes of the hiring committee and the department. I have seen one or the other dean kill a search before it begins. I have seen one or the other dean veto one or another shortlisted candidate even though the department was enthusiastic about that person. Sometimes this happens at the long list stage. Sometimes this happens after the campus visit. I have seen one or the other dean kill a search after the search has been completed. So, even after the department (or at least the departmental hiring committee) has gone through the whole entire hiring process (reading all the applications, developing a long list, developing a shortlist, going through all the trouble and expense of the campus visit for the shortlisted candidates), the dean can still say no to the hire. And even when the dean and the department are in agreement about the hire, the hire might still fall apart because the dean is in charge of the negotiations and the dean and the candidate may not remotely agree on the many, many parts of a contract that are up for negotiation.

Deans can and do make these decisions alone. At this level, the decisions are not made by committee. The dean usually consults with the department (via the chair or the chair of the search) and their own associate deans, but they really don’t have to. In my experience, there is nothing in the governance docs that require a dean to make these decisions in consultation with anybody. I’m not even saying that this kind of executive power is a problem. Maybe it is but that is a separate conversation. I can see how, sometimes, not every decision can be made by committee.

Mainly, I want to point out that one person has enormous power over the hiring process. That person is not answerable to the department. I have definitely participated in searches where I had no clue what happened after we made the recommendation to hire someone and sent that decision “upstairs.” Even though I understood that I wasn’t  owed an email or a memo about what happened, especially given that pretty much everything that happens in a search is confidential, it was still really weird to be on a hiring committee and learn more about the outcome of that search from twitter or rumour (granted, sometimes they are the same thing) than I did from my own university.

Don’t even get me started on how I wanted to weep whenever a dean decided something that was contrary to the wishes of the departmental committee and department. I think of all that lost time, all those hours reading files and interviewing, and all of the smashed hopes of the candidates, and I still want to weep. But again, I am genuinely not questioning the actual decisions themselves. That is a whole different conversation. I just want to draw attention to the fact that may seem obvious but was not obvious to me: a job candidate can have the enthusiastic support of a department and still not get hired because the dean decides against the hire.

So. If you are a job candidate, what to do? Unlike prepping for the hiring committee interview, where your supervisor and grad programme are likely in a great position to advise you on probable questions and strategies, the interview/meeting with the dean can feel like a total crap shoot. The questions they might ask are not so obviously routinized. They might not even ask any questions.

Still, here are a few things you can do:

  • read the job ad! I know this is obvious but, honestly, I have seen more than one search fail because the candidate, even after we brought them for a campus visit, did not understand the language of the ad and what the department and the university are looking for.
  • read the job ad in relation to other relevant docs about the university such as the university’s strategic plan or the university academic plan; every university has one and your job is to figure out how you fit in it even though it will likely read like alien-corporate-speak and seem to have little connection to your research.
  • talk to people in your network to get a sense of what challenges the department’s home faculty (remember, the dean has to deal with a bigger picture than the dept) is struggling with including all the obvious things like: overall enrollment; recruiting and retaining stellar undergrad and grad students; curriculum development; and relationships with the communities that the university serves
  • remember that the dean will still have to make the case for your hire to a bunch of other people higher up on the decision-making chain and you have to make that part of their job as easy as possible

There are likely lots of other things that I haven’t thought of (please, tell me!).

As for the bigger picture on decanal power, I want to emphasize, as if you didn’t already know, how crucial it is for those of us in the university system, at any level (student, adjunct and TT faculty) to take part in the decision-making processes at the decanal level that we have access to including (advance warning, this will seem boring): attending faculty council and voting on things; and asking lots of hard questions during the decanal search process including questions about “collegial governance,” a phrase that gets tossed around a lot but which often doesn’t connect to clear processes for good governance or collegiality. Collegiality is a term that we use to cover a series of almost unnameable things like “fit” and there are a lot of reasons why we need to be way less subtle about what that means.

being undone · feminist communities · solidarity

Surviving Our Questions

we learn from those who help us survive our questions by inviting us into their own

— from Gila Ashtor, “Two Girls2″




I think maybe my whole life as an academic has revolved around asking questions, or trying to ask the right questions. But, until I read Gila Ashtor’s essay, I don’t think I realized that there is also, always, the question of surviving my questions. I didn’t know that my questions — the ones I wanted to ask and the ones I was afraid to ask and the ones I finally got the guts to ask — were something that I had to live through, endure, move past.

I knew that asking a good question, the right question, could disturb, unsettle, intervene. I worked hard at doing that. I tell my students that they should try to ask good questions. That such questions can make a real mark whether they are posed at the end of a lecture or whether the are the beginning of what will be a doctoral project or book or lifelong intellectual investigation. In this sense, I thought of questions, my good ones anyways, as something unambiguously good. And if they unsettled or disturbed people or fields of study, then good.

But I never stopped to think that such questions exact a cost and demand that a burden be borne. I did not understand that asking a question was also about testing my own ability to survive the act of asking.

I love the turn that Ashtor takes in this densely beautiful essay on relationality, Mary Gaitskill’s novel Two Girls, Fat and Thin, and Lauren Berlant’s essay on that novel, queer affect, pedagogy, and so much else. It is a turn that finds solace in a kind of doubled questioning: we survive our questions by learning from those who invite us into their own. Surviving our questions is all about finding a way into the questions of others. And those others need to be generous enough to invite us into their own questions.

Reading Ashtor somewhat out of context, I have been thinking about how to survive the questions that have been unleashed in the wake of the deeply complex waves of recognition and sadness and awfulness and solidarity that is #metoo and everything that came before and everything that will come.

What now? You too? Can we say the names? Are you scared? How can we stop being scared? When do I stop being so enraged and exhausted?

Who will invite us into their questions so that we can learn how to survive these questions? I thought a lot about this and, because I work in an institutional context, I immediately thought about feminist leaders, senior academic allies, women who will know stuff. But then I realized, yes, them (and how lucky we are to have them), BUT also: us. We have turn, more than ever, to each other. We have to invite each other into our questions.

And it is going to be hard and we will only survive if we can find what is transformable and be ourselves transformed:

To the extent that “history” is not only what “hurts,” it is also in no small part a result of whom we meet and what, because of who they are, we find transformable, and transformed, about ourselves. (Ashtor)

Let’s keep asking our questions and do it knowing that we can survive them because we have to keep inviting each other in.

change management · righteous feminist anger

The Notebook Dump



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Allegations are coming by the bushel, and we are in a moment of figuring out how to sort them. In journalism, there’s a term called “notebook dump,” the process of throwing together all your reporting — every note taken, interview conducted, scene observed. Some stuff won’t make the ultimate story; the notebook dump is how you see what you’ve got, and figure out how to move forward.

The women of America are currently engaged in a notebook dump of epic proportions, releasing the anecdotes they’ve been carrying since puberty.

— Monica Hesse and Dan Zak, “Who’s next? A moment of reckoning for men – and the behavior we can no longer ignore”

Every day, the whisper network roars more loudly. Women used to tell these stories to each other, but now we can start putting together documents and massive correspondence chains. Once untouchable bullies and titans are coming down and falling hard.

It’s amazing. It’s exhausting. It’s about time.

It is, as Hesse and Zak note, a notebook dump of epic proportions. Most of us are not seasoned journalists with armloads of notebooks to sort through. But I think we have all been doing our own notebook dumps. Quietly, or not so quietly, we have been sifting through all the crap that we’ve lived through and lived with, the grossness of all the stuff we saw, all the garbage behavior we have suffered through.

I don’t know what we should do with all that. But I’m becoming more and more sure that we need to do a real, no holds barred, notebook dump in the academy. Maybe you’re already doing this? As Emma Healey’s “Stories are Like Passwords” passes through our hands again and again, I know that we have been doing this, and doing it for a long time. But, even still, it’s hard to resist holding back a little. I know I have. I’m sorry. I am still trying to figure out know how to do this. Naming names feels dangerous. And this from me, a tenured academic who has much more security in the profession than most. As Jennifer Berdahl’s personal reckoning tells us,

a fancy professorship doesn’t shield a woman from being harassed or empower her to do anything about it… Ambition is the enemy of righteousness in poorly led academia. High h-indexes, editorial power, and social networks protect harassers by motivating their targets to remain silent, administrators to do nothing, and otherwise honorable colleagues to duck in the sidelines. You might end up where and what you want to be, but not who or how you wanted to be when you get there.

We have a lot of truths to tell even though we know all too well that there are still devastating consequences for us when we tell them. And I also know that, for many, even telling in the most private of spaces is not, or not yet, possible. It will trigger too much.

But, if you have some notebooks to dump, and you want to dump them, let’s do this. We don’t have to decide in advance what we want to do with what we share and what we dump. But let’s do this and let’s be really loud about the fact that we are resolutely engaged in a notebook dump of epic proportions. And we are not going to stop.

Just letting everyone know that this is what we are doing, that we are talking to each other and doing so with names and dates, that we are tracking patterns of this crap as much as we are singular incidents, could have a behavioural modification effect going forward. Every sexual harasser should know that their high h-indexes and pals in admin can’t protect them forever. They should wake up every morning wondering if this is the day where the story of their terrible behaviour is busted wide open and their legacies will be swept away in a torrent of righteous feminist anger.

Let’s go back to our notebooks, and find some places where we can start comparing them, again. Let’s help each other figure out what we want next. Let’s do it together and let’s have each other’s backs.


appreciation · balance · conferences

Leaning into the weight and being off balance


This is me giving a conference paper in Paris a few years ago. That’s my daughter in the baby wrap thing. Those are her little legs sticking out. She had  fallen asleep right before my panel. We had just survived our first trans-Atlantic flight together. I was SO tired. I know she was too. Once she fell asleep, that was it. I was not going to disturb that nap no matter what. So I gave my paper with the lights dimmed and reveling in the white noise of the projector. I whispered. The whole time. The room was hot. I am pretty sure everyone in the room was asleep by the time I was done.

Not the greatest conference paper of my career. For sure. But I got through. And the whole thing seems very funny now.

I’ve been thinking about this moment again. There’s always a lot of talk about work-life balance and how hard it is to strike that balance. I would be the first to agree. But I’m also starting to think that, sometimes, it’s ok for things to be kind of totally unbalanced. Maybe you’re a new parent. Maybe you have to care for a parent. Maybe your partner needs you a lot all of a sudden and you need to be there for them.

When I look at this picture, I can feel how heavy my baby was. I can feel the straps cutting into my shoulders and the heat of her little head against my chest. It wasn’t exactly pleasant, but there was a kind of sweetness in that weight too and I want to hang on to that.

Let’s keep talking and staying with each other about all the craziness of this thing called work-life balance, about whether to lean in or lean out.  I don’t have a lot of grand thoughts about any of that except to say that, sometimes, things just won’t be in balance. You will try. And you will let that be good enough. And, sometimes, you will lean into the weight of the things that throw you off balance. You’ll feel it in your shoulders and your in your chest and it will probably be exhausting. Lean into that too. It’s ok.

good things · perpetual crush · self care · style matters · you're awesome

Jump in!


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(with huge thanks to Leigh and Michele for agreeing to let me write about our conversation)

Last week, I went to an amazing conference and I admit that one of the many, many highlights was a moment of sartorial sisterhood between one of my totally fabulous co-panelists, Leigh, and me. The panel was done and we stood up, looked at each other, and she said something like, “Nice jumpsuit.” I don’t really know exactly what she said because I had been so busy admiring her jumpsuit. We were in on the same not-so-secret secret: jumpsuits are awesome.

Hers was blue. Mine was black. Hers was more structured. Mine was a little more flowy. Hers didn’t have a belt. Mine did. But, really, it was the ways in which they were the same that mattered. The top was attached to the bottom. Somewhere (in a place usually apparent only to the wearer) there is a zipper. It’s never all that obvious how one gets into one of these things and that, I think, is just one of their many advantages.

More on the advantages in a sec. Let me first get right into what you – if you are not already a jumpsuit convert – are probably already thinking. What about when you need to go the bathroom? Isn’t it a huge bother?

I know. I thought that too. It was the main reason why I resisted for so long. But here’s the thing. It’s not a bad thing to be forced to think ahead a little about when you might need to go. I know you’ve been there. You’re in office hours and the students are lined up down the hall and all of a sudden you have to run to teach or go to a meeting, or you’re writing and you don’t want to stop, or you’re at a conference and listening to mind-blowing papers and you can’t imagine slipping out of the room and missing anything you think you’ll just wait till the break but then the break comes and you end up talking to people you really like and then it’s time for the plenary…  and you remember, too late, that you actually really needed two, three, four, heck maybe even five minutes for yourself somewhere in all of that rushing around. Leigh described actually hopping on one foot by the time she got home at the end of the day because what had been discomfort had verged into crisis. She tells me her husband says, Why do you do this to yourself?

How many days have you had where you were so busy that you didn’t have time to find a bathroom? Let’s not do this to ourselves.

Leigh put it perfectly when she told me that the jumpsuit has taught her a kind of self-care. It forces her to stop and check in with herself about some pretty basic needs. It forces her not to wait until discomfort becomes crisis. It forces her not to do this to herself.

Michele, another conference attendee, overheard this conversation and immediately pulled out her phone to show us a picture of a jumpsuit that her partner bought for her at the very same moment that she had liked it on insta. We paused to celebrate how all these jumpsuit-stars were aligning and Michele pointed out that she likes jumpsuits because they reminded her of a kind of futurism (think: astronauts, star trek). Okay, yes!

Here’s my vote for the jumpsuit as the uniform of feminist futurism. Jump on in. The future is fine.


random · research

On Being Published and Having No Idea

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 A few weeks ago, I couldn’t sleep. So I lay in the dark and started vanity googling myself. Now you know that I do this. I find looking at the search results for “lily cho” to be sort of vaguely interesting (how the internet sees me is not how I see me) and, mostly, stultifyingly boring. Usually, after a minutes, my eyelids are drooping (or I realize that I should just get up and make some toast).
But this latest search, in all its algorithmic idiosyncracy, turned up something I hadn’t seen before: an essay of mine published (re-published actually) in a book I did not know about. In Postcolonial Studies: An Anthology (Wiley-Blackwell, 2015), you will find my essay, “Asian Canadian Futures: Diasporic Passages and the Routes of Indenture.” This essaywas first published in Canadian Literature 199 (2008), a special issue on Asian Canadian Studies.
I blinked and thought, at first, wow, how unbelievably cool to be anthologized with so many of my postcolonial theory heroes. There I am, listed in the same table of contents as Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak (indulge me for a moment and let me be thrilled to the gills)! And then I thought, how did I miss this? I am very bad at keeping track of my own publications but this seemed like kind of a big thing to miss. But I do tend to read publishing agreements a little too quickly. I decided that I would look up the publishing agreement in the morning. It was late. I had probably just forgotten ever having any kind of conversation about this book.
I went through my inbox the next day and looked and couldn’t find anything. Of course, my inbox is messy and it was possible that there was something buried in there but I couldn’t find it even though I really tried. But I was already beginning to suspect that something kinda funny was going on. I wrote to the tirelessly awesome editor of Canadian Literature and asked if, when she had a moment, she could please poke around the journal’s files to see if anything was there. I also wrote to the editor of the anthology. I wanted to tell him how thrilled I was to be a part of the anthology and to ask if, ummm, he and I had talked about it and I had just forgotten?
The editor of the anthology wrote back right away to tell me that he agreed to edit the anthology on the condition that the publisher handle all the copyright and permissions. Fair enough. He is super lovely and we are now chatting about our projects and I am delighted to have had this chance to talk to him.
In the meantime, I told this story in a funny-ha-ha way to a friend, another postcolonialist, who wrote me right back and told me that this very thing, with this very publisher, had happened to him in 2004.
So what happened? A major international publisher invites an authority in the field to edit an anthology. This editor is brilliant (not least because he chose to include my essay!) and, rightfully, wants to focus his energies on editing and not managing the permissions process. The publisher was supposed to take care of this work. And yet, somehow, somewhere along the line, no one asked me for permission to use my essay. The anthology will be sold mainly in order to profit the publisher. And I get the genuine thrill of being in such serious company, but also a lingering sense of puzzlement about how this can happen and whether it really matters.
I also know that the process is not supposed to engender this kind of puzzlement. It’s not the first time that an essay of mine was republished. I am so proud and so completely ecstatic to be included in Roland Colama and Gordon Pon’s Asian Canadian Studies Reader (UTP, 2017). Another essay will be in the The Routledge Diaspora Studies Reader. In each of these cases, I have a clear file of correspondence where permissions were negotiated. In the case of the Routledge book, I didn’t even own the copyright but was looped into the conversation anyway.
It might be that permissions had been obtained and I have somehow missed it. Maybe all this happened between the Wiley-Blackwell and Canadian Literature. But I have a sinking feeling about that hope.
I’m so pleased and humbled to see that my work is circulating, that it is in such amazing company, and that it might help future readers sort through complex fields of study. But this experience of puzzlement leaves me with a lot of questions too. Of course, I benefit from being a part of these anthology projects. Of course, I also hope that these books will help future readers. When I was studying for my comps, anthologies like these were so useful for helping me to map the field, and for getting a sense of general trends and trajectories. But I also can’t help wondering  about a publication process where copyright and permissions are seemingly not relevant even though the finished product is not open access, not cheap, and, financially, benefits only the publisher. This experience of being unwittingly anthologized seems to be another potential part of our on-going conversations on the increasing enclosure of the intellectual commons by a handful of powerful international publishers. Or am I missing something here?
Update: This post has only been live for a few hours but I’ve already heard a lot of stories from other folks who have had this happen to them. I would love to hear more in order to write a post to follow up on this one. I promise to be discreet and respect your privacy. If my experience here is not unique, I think it’s important for us to track what’s happening and to think collectively about what to do. If you have had a similar experience and want to share please do drop me a line either in the comments or via lilycho [at] yorku [dot] ca.

Second update: Canadian Literature had a chance to check their records and it looks like they did give Wiley permission to re-publish my essay. Until now, it has not been the journal’s policy to inform the author when permission to reprint their essays are granted. Canadian Literature will be looking into changing this practice. So this is ALL good news. But the fact remains that, until we get a better system of permission in place, we will all be reduced to vanity googling in order to keep track of the circulation of our own work. 


Outside Smoke

Swimming is my thing. Sure, I’ll go for a run sometimes. But that’s only because I couldn’t get to the pool.
If I won the lottery, I would build a fifty-metre lap pool in my backyard and swim endless laps every day, many times a day, any time I didn’t have to be doing anything else. If it could be a magically (and, yes, terribly wasteful) heated outdoor pool where I could swim with the rain and the snow falling on my lips and ear every time I turned for a breath, even better. If you’ve never swum laps in an outdoor pool during a rainstorm, I’m not sure you’ve lived.
When I was in high school, I accidentally joined the swim team. I remember it being an accident. I think some friends suggested that we go to try outs. It was a lark. I could barely swim the length of the pool. I figured there was no way I would get on the team. I didn’t know that my high school swim team was the MOST democratic athletics team ever. They took everyone. My team won the city championships one year. Maybe two years in a row. I don’t really remember. I remember knowing that I didn’t do much to contribute to our victories and learning that, if the team is big enough, you can have a gold medal hanging around your neck and still not have won your heats (ahem, that was often me). You could lose individually, but your team will still pull through for a win.
That was one of the many, many things I learned, and am still learning, from swimming.
Like, how you only ever win a race by staying focused on what’s happening in your own lane. It was always so tempting to sneak a peak at the swimmers beside me, to see how I was doing compared to them, to see if they were pulling ahead. But that was always a mistake. It was completely wasted movement in a race where every millisecond counts.
For me, there is a lot about academic work that is like that. I can look over to see how someone else is doing (did I publish more than him this year? Are my teaching scores going to beat out the department average?) but I am only ever wasting energy that I really should devote to my own race, my own swim.
But it’s the whole idea of outside smoke that really gets me. In Swimming Studies, Leanne Shapton tells us that outside smoke describes an unlikely winner in a race:
The woman with the fastest time after preliminary heats occupies lane four. Second-fastest is in lane five, third in lane three. The rest, in descending order, are in lanes six, two, seven, one, and finally, eight. This placement accounts for the inverted-V formation that typically occurs during a race. A swimmer who leads from lane one, two, seven, or eight is often called “outside smoke.”
Swimmers who are understood to be less competitive are placed in the outside lanes of the big races. When you are in the outside lanes, you are at a disadvantage. The water is choppier on the outside. You have to deal with more drag. Being put in lane one or eight means that you are literally racing against expectations and that you will start from a position of disadvantage because of those expectations.
There is something about being outside smoke that seems especially relevant to thinking about difference in the academy. If you are a woman, if you grew up poor, if you’re not white, if English is your second language, if you are not able-bodied, if the circuits of your desires didn’t always line up with what dominant culture told you to want, you are swimming a race where you’ve already been put into the position of someone who is not expected to win. You are in lane one or eight. You might have a sense of structural disadvantages but you won’t always be able to name it the way a swimmer who is ready to leap off the block in lane eight will know, before the start gun ever sounds, that she has got to swim faster and against clear structural disadvantages if she wants to win.
Outside of the pool, you don’t even always know that you have been put in a crappy lane. At least in a real race, you can clearly see that you have been given a bad lane to start with. But part of the problem is that everyone tells you that the race to tenure is the same for everyone, when it really isn’t. Or you think you can go to a meeting and say something smart and be heard when what actually happens is that the (inevitably male) chair of the meeting doesn’t hear you and then, when a male colleague says the exact same thing a few minutes later, the chair of the meeting pauses thoughtfully and says, Great point! And then you want to gag or punch the table or both. Sometimes, there is SO much drag to get through before you hit the finish line.
But here’s the thing: you can still win. Remember: swimming has a sexy name for that kind of magic trick. Outside smoke. Here’s the other thing, I look around and I see all kinds of outside smoke all around. It’s amazing. There are so many of you out there, swimming these impossible races, coming up first even though you were given the worst lane to start with, and you are totally doing it. 

It’s March and a winter storm is about to descend even though I don’t think I can bear one more day in my winter boots. These last few weeks of term always seem so long. Already, twice this month, I’ve been so sick that I couldn’t get out of bed. I am staring down a lot of marking. And deadlines. And everything else. I know you are too. So, I just wanted to remind you, you are amazing. You keep hitting that finish line and beating all the expectations and you have to remember that even though every race you swim is your own, you’re on a big team and you’re not alone.
community · research planning

No Gold In Them Thar Hills: academic journal publishing

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