appreciation · balance · conferences

Leaning into the weight and being off balance

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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!

jumping

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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. 

Uncategorized

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.
balance · coping

Bad dreams

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

Professionalization when "the profession" isn’t (only) what we’re aiming for

Like many, my graduate program has long had a mandatory professionalization workshop series–PWPs, as we call them–that all PhD candidates must complete before we’re allowed to graduate. Rachel Cayley wrote a useful blog post last week that distinguishes nicely between professionalization and professional development, and PWPs are very much about professionalization as Cayley defines it: they happen at the department level, are targeted at preparing grad students to work within, and eventually become tenured members of, our discipline, and are run by faculty. (My job at SickKids, in contrast, is about professional development as Cayley defines it, which happens at the institutional level, is generally aimed at less discipline-specific or narrowly academic professional skills, is often explicitly about non-academic career preparation, and is run by people like me). As professionalization, my department’s PWP series covers the usual stuff that one needs to succeed as a graduate student who is aiming to become a faculty member: conference papers and journal articles, job applications and interviews, teaching, writing the dissertation proposal, applying for scholarships, etc.

I somehow managed to miss out on one of our PWPs–“Professional Resources and Strategies,” run by our own Lily Cho, who also happens to be my supervisor–and squeaked it in on Tuesday, just in time to defend. Because I’ve been at York since 2008, I’ve been able to watch with interest the shifts in how it understands and addresses what it sees as the fundamental purpose of graduate education. I started out as a new PhD student in a graduate department that spoke of “the profession” as though there were actually just the one, in 2012 became a graduate assistant in the Faculty of Graduate Studies whose job it was to research professional and career development programs on campus and across the country, then in 2013 took a full-time job in administration and launched the Faculty’s university-wide graduate professional skills program. Back in 2008, the PWPs I attended didn’t acknowledge, never mind confront, the idea that we were training to become anything but tenured professors at R1 institutions. In her PWP, however, Lily spent quite a bit of time acknowledging that a workshop on strategies for professionalizing within academia occupied a fraught position given the awareness that only about 20% of us would ever enter that profession. It made for a useful and realistic but strange sort of workshop, and it made me wonder:

What does professionalization look like when “the profession” isn’t, or isn’t only, what we’re aiming for? And how do we balance the need to prepare all of the graduate students who are interested in that route for the academic job market and a future academic job in case they do end up in one, while recognizing that we’re professionalizing 80% of them for a profession they’ll never enter?

The other grad students who were in Lily’s PWP with me wondered this too, and they seemed to find her very considered attempt to do both things–acknowledge the realities of the job market while preparing people for that market–disorienting. A couple of them suggested dispensing with a discussion of those realities altogether, which certainly would simplify things. That’s essentially what we do at SickKids, in some very specific contexts. We do a lot of transferable-skills type professional development, but I also coordinate a thing called PI Prep School, which is a very comprehensive career development program designed to get people jobs as academic scientists (or principal investigators, i.e. PIs). It covers everything from preparing job documents to establishing your first lab, and includes a full day mock campus interview (awkward lunch with the hiring committee included). At the PI Prep School intro session, we talk very little about the job market for academic scientists, which is just about as bad as any other. Mostly, we just proceed as though everyone in the room who wants an academic job may very well get one, and work from that premise. It’s straightforward, and while it might be unrealistic, it does away with the uneasiness that the mismatch between purpose and reality seemed to create for some of the people who attended Lily’s PWP.

But PI Prep School is aimed at preparing people only for the very last part of being professionalized–the point at which you move into being a professional–and only those people who are interested in and committed to going that route participate. The people interested in learning how to do a good job talk either know what the job market is like and have decided that they don’t care, or don’t know and don’t care to know. A discussion of the realities of the job market they’re professionalizing toward could, and largely has been, dispensed with. But what about a mandatory workshop on publishing journal articles, or giving conference presentations, or teaching? To a certain extent, those workshops could be considered useful to all grad students because those activities are arguably a part of the graduate degree, although you could absolutely–if you had no intention of becoming an academic–never publish a journal article or give a conference presentation as a PhD candidate. But how do we–or do we need to–address the fact that these professional competencies, when framed in specifically academic terms, are attending to the professional futures of so few?

Some of the other participants in Tuesday’s PWP seemed to think that we don’t, but I’m not sure I agree. I was, like many people who began their PhDs alongside me, woefully unaware of the academic job market when I started, and only became aware as the market in my field–Canadian literature, never a very robust one to begin with–tanked very loudly after the economic downturn. My program made no effort (at least that I was aware of) to make its students aware of its academic placement rates, or of the other kinds of jobs its graduates were taking up after their degrees. PWPs talked about “the profession” without the scare quotes, as if there were only one, and contextualized the professionalization we were doing only as preparing us for that singular career path. I found the culture that approach promoted very damaging when it came time to figure out my own non-academic career path, and I’m certainly not alone in that. The old approach served very few, and my graduate program seems to have realized it. Lily’s workshop is evidence of that, and so too is the new #altac workshop the department is bringing me in to run as part of the PWP series starting in the fall.

I’d suggest that there’s a third way to approach this–not to professionalize as though entering academia is inevitable and the only option, or to get caught up in the seeming strangeness of professionalizing 100% of graduate students for a job 20% of them will have, but making professionalization a little more like professional development. One of the things that professional development for graduate students works to do is to make clear to PhDs the transferability of their skills to a fields and jobs in and out of the university environment. And while professionalization as Cayley defines it is about preparing people to be professors and academic scientists, what we teach in professionalization workshops and courses isn’t applicable to just that profession. Yes, the PWP on writing articles and giving conference presentations is aimed at helping us build our C.V.s, but it is also–and could, perhaps should, be explicitly framed as–preparing us to be effective writers and public speakers wherever we end up. Writing grants is a key part of being a faculty member in most fields, and a major topic in professionalization programs, but guess what? A major proportion of the non-professor PhDs I know work in research funding administration, writing, developing and administering grants (me included). Let’s talk about that in our PWPs. The same goes for Lily’s professional resources and strategies workshop: the same strategies that she suggested as useful for becoming an academic professional (making connections with people in your field, reading blogs by people who write about higher ed, keeping up on major trends, figuring out the dress code, going to the most useful conferences) are the very same ones that help you become a professional in whatever field you choose.

It isn’t a major change, and it doesn’t require much of professors–not much more than figuring out where else academic skills could be useful and then talking about it–but it might solve the problem of professionalization when “the profession” isn’t (only) what we’re aiming for.

#BeenRapedNeverReported · #BelieveSurvivors · social media · solidarity

Sweaty Concepts & Solidarity

All last week I walked around in a clammy, sweaty fog. I was getting over a cold, yes, but there was more to it than that. My jaw ached from clenching. My stomach jumped. I was distracted and tired and short-tempered. And I was that terrible kind of hot/cold all the time.

As I sat at my kitchen table on Thursday morning, trying to hit my word count before the baby woke up from her nap, before I had to get ready to go to campus and teach, before all of that, I could feel beads of sweat rolling down my back. Drip drip drip. I sat there, tense and typing. My jaw ached. That muscle between my thumb and forefinger was tight and sore. My hips hurt from tapping my feet while I worked. My eyes were having trouble focussing.

As I sat there, writing and sweating, I listened to the radio. CBC Radio 2, to be precise. I had been up since about seven that morning, so I had heard three rounds of the hourly news by this point. My ears pricked up each time the bom-bom-bom! sounded on the hour. I noticed right away, at seven, that instead of  the usual male voice saying “it is seven o’clock, and this is CBC News,” that today it was a woman making the announcements. Interesting, I thought. Savvy choice, I thought.

It was a woman, who, at eight o’clock, announce that “some women’s groups were upset by the Jian Ghomeshi trial proceedings.” Some women’s groups? Fuck you, CBC, I thought. Do better, I thought.

It was a woman’s voice who, at ten o’clock, announced that the judge would be reading the proceedings beginning at eleven.

And then, at noon, while I sat at my kitchen table, it was a man announcing the news. A man telling me that the verdict was “not guilty on all counts.” It was a man. Someone, somewhere at CBC thought to make that shift–women preparing listeners for a verdict, a man to give it. Huh, I thought. Sinister choice, I thought. No small thing, these micro-aggressions.

After I listened to those five words–not guilty on all counts–my ears started ringing. I tried to split my attention between my daughter, who was awake and clamouring for a bottle, and the sound bytes from the judge who decided it was a good idea, a fine plan, to verbally attack the three women who came forward as witnesses in this trial. This judge, this man, took it upon himself to try and tear down all the work these women had done. It was them, their bodies, their words that he disrespected.

As I stood in the kitchen feeling like the floor was getting further and further away my phone started to buzz. Friends and acquaintances were reaching out to each other, trying to make sense of the vertigo and nausea we were all feeling.

It was me, you, my daughter who got called into question with the judge’s monologue. That’s what I was thinking as I stood in my kitchen, shaking. Don’t talk to me about the law right now, I thought, I get it. I am another reasonably intelligent woman. Talk to me instead about how you hold up someone’s story and say no, this doesn’t count. Your experience is wrong, questionable, doesn’t matter. And then talk to me about metonymy, because this judge wasn’t just talking about the three women in that courtroom. No. He was saying “don’t trust any survivor.”

Listening to him filled me with an electric and incandescent rage. I had to sit down. I was so angry and shocked I could hardly see. Another example of words being weaponized. That’s what this judge gave us.

These women, oh, how I have thought of them in the past year and the past month. Their bodies had to carry their words and their stories into that courtroom. What would that feel like? When I am nervous and have to speak in front of people my voice shakes. I get tunnel vision. I break into a cold sweat. This happens a lot, because I am a lecturer. But the difference between my physical reactions to public speaking is that I, ostensibly, am the one in power in the classroom. Not these women. No, despite their bravery, and despite all we know about how we don’t fully know what trauma does to memory, despite all of this they were not the ones given power and agency in that room.

Sarah Ahmed’s notion of “sweaty concepts” is my guide here, as I try to think about embodiment and survival. As I try to think about embodiment and survival and solidarity. For Ahmed, the phrase “sweaty concepts” is a way of demonstrating how the work of description and exploration is labour. 

Here she is:
A concept is worldly but it is also a reorientation to a world, a way of turning things around, a different slant on the same thing. More specifically a “sweaty concept” is one that comes out of a description of a body that is not at home in the world. By this I mean description as angle or point of view: a description of how it feels not to be at home in the world, or a description of the world from the point of view of not being at home in it…. 

When I use the concept of “sweaty concepts” I am also trying to say we can generate new understandings by describing the difficulty of inhabiting a body that is not at home in a world. 

Sweat is bodily; we might sweat more during more strenuous activity. A “sweaty concept” might be one that comes out of a bodily experience that is difficult, one that is “trying,” and where the aim is to keep exploring and exposing this difficulty, which means also aiming not to eliminate the effort or labour from the writing…[1]

Trying to write about living in rape culture is exhausting. It makes me sweat and shake. Trying to write as a way of witnessing is, as Ahmed articulates, difficult. For every brilliant piece of writing about rape culture I read, I wonder what it cost the person who wrote it. How much sweat? How much shaking. 

And yet, they keep coming. The stories keep coming. The narratives are intersecting, and points of connection–between sexual assault, rape culture, transphobia, racism, and the failures of the carceral system–are becoming more and more clear. 

The cost of writing, and of speaking, seems to be far smaller than the cost of holding it in. Not everyone can talk about their experiences, I know that. I believe survivors who don’t report (I didn’t), who can’t speak up (I couldn’t). What I mean is this: things are shifting. Survivors, supporters, and allies are doing the hard, sweaty labour of thinking and writing their stories in public. We are writing through the sweatiness and shaking

It is difficult, this trying, but we are doing it. 

Need some inspiration and fuel for your resolve? Give yourself the gift of reading all the links in the GUTS Sunday round-up for this week

And know you’re not alone. 

emotional labour · goals · silence

How to Handle Bad Behaviour at Work


Someone I know once had an argument with a colleague. The colleague was technically also my friend’s manager/supervisor. The argument was about an intellectual problem and was not personal. But it did get heated. They were sitting on opposite sides of a desk. At one point, the colleague threw a book at my friend. To be more accurate, the colleague picked up a big heavy book, and threw it across the desk in the general direction of my friend. The book bounced on the desk, skidded across the remaining surface of the desk, and landed on the floor.
This is where I am pretty sure I would have cried. Maybe I would have cried and run out of the room. Maybe I would have cried and run out of the room and felt crappy.
But that is not what my friend did. He looked at the book, looked at his colleague, and did not move. He waited for his colleague to get up, go around the desk, pick up the book, return it to the desk, and sit back down to continue the discussion.
I think a lot about that story because I want to remember that, should anyone at work decide to throw a book at me, I should resist the urge to cry and run out of the room. I should stand my ground.
This post is about bad behaviour. By bad behaviour, I am not euphemistically referring to behaviour that is criminal and/or in violation of various campus codes of conduct. I am talking about things that are unacceptable, but not illegal. You know what I’m talking about. It’s the kind of thing that I find especially shocking in the workplace because it is not the kind of behaviour that I expect from generally polite, educated, and typically nice people. But it happens. I have now seen plenty of it. And, I admit, I am shocked every time.
And then I remember that I have to resist the urge to cry and run out the room. I have to wait for the other person to pick that book up off the floor. I have to maintain my dignity and hold my ground. It is really hard to do.
But, over the years, I’ve learned a few things. They are not the complete solution. But they have helped me. Here are five steps for handling bad behaviour in the workplace.
1. Recognize that it is bad behaviour, and that such behaviour is unacceptable.
This is harder than you might think. I am usually so busy being shocked that it takes me a long while to realize what’s happening. But it’s important to just see it for what it is. Sometimes, when someone is being awful, I have found it helpful just to say to myself, over and over again in my head, that is bad behaviour. It becomes a kind of mantra. I find it sort of grounding.
2. Do not engage by reciprocating.
No point in going down to their level. Make them come up to yours. Engaging with bad behaviour – let’s say yelling at the person who is yelling at you – only reinforces it.
3. Remember that the best response is often a silent one.
Sometimes, totally hypothetically, it might be that, as one of two Asian faculty members in your workplace, you might be mistaken for each other. You might have someone ask you about her recent book. You might have someone ask you about that great course she taught. You might be in a meeting and have someone ask for response when she is not on the committee and not in the room. Here, silence, sometimes even a bemused and quizzical silence, is golden.
4. Document, document, document.
Sometimes this stuff happens so fast it’s hard to remember that it even happened. Or it is so fast and so egregious that you wonder if it happened at all. Write it down. Write an email to a colleague. Maybe write to that person. Identify specifically what happened. It might make you feel better. It might not. But it might help you identify patterns of behaviour. And, if things ever get worse, it’s good to have, however one-sided, a record of events.
5. Take up physical space.
Breathe. Stand or sit up straight. Keep your chin up.
accomodation · balance · best laid plans · self care · winter

Sick Days

A few days ago, I went to work sick.
I was not so sick that I couldn’t get out of bed. But I wanted to stay in bed.
I was not so sick that I couldn’t get dressed. But I didn’t want to get dressed.
I was not so sick that I did not stay up past midnight the night before finishing my lecture. But I should not have finished it.
I was not so sick that I couldn’t go to work. But I should not have done it.
I can only say that now that I have completely failed to be sensible. Of course, I went to campus. Of course, I delivered my brilliant lecture noting that it was made more brilliant by the halo of rainbows that seemed to wobble in and out of the periphery of each powerpoint slide. Of course, I stayed on campus after teaching and kept all of my appointments.
Of course, I dragged my sorry self home at the end of a long day and wondered why I did that to myself.
You have totally done this too. Don’t even try to pretend otherwise.
I wonder now why I did not take Sheila Heti’s excellent advice. Heti reminds us that it is especially important to take a sick day right before you are really, really sick:
I recommend being sick in bed especially when you are not that sick. When you are seriously knocked out, eyes crusted over, sneezing nonstop, it’s hard to have life-changing epiphanies. The sick days we must take advantage of are those when it’s just a simple cold. The days when, if we pushed ourselves, we could get out of bed; the days when all it would take is a shower to make us feel 70 percent better. Those are exactly the days we should choose to be sick in bed. You still have your brain; you’re not aching all over. You just need to take things slower.
Heti’s recommendations are so gentle, and so right, that you should just, if you have not already done so, read the whole thing yourself. But, for now, let me draw out few things in particular. First, note the reference to life-changing epiphanies in the above passage. For Heti, being sick in bed, ideally, is a chance to pause and arrive at illumination of some kind. It is not just about lying there, buried in tissues, hoping that the meds will kick in soon so that they rest of the day can be spent in sweet oblivion. Although that would be nice too.
I thought about the times when I have been sick in bed. I have never been as wise as Heti. I have only been sick in bed when I have been really, really, really sick. In a hospital. Once, that happened the year before I came up for tenure. I was sick for a while. Months. I came out of that with a tremendous sense of gratitude for the friends who saw me through, but also with a wonderfully recalibrated attitude towards getting tenure. After being very sick, and then no longer being sick, I came to the realization that I was pretty awesome generally, and pretty awesome at my job specifically, and that any tenure and promotion committee would have to be blind not to see that. I also finished my book in four months. I had been sitting on that thing for over four years before that. It took getting sick and forcing myself to only read murder mysteries and trashy magazines for many months to kick my ass in gear. I can say now that I did not do it because I was afraid I would not get tenure. It’s hard to believe, but that honestly was not the motivation. I did it because I had been very sick and then I was not and I realized that I should just finish that thing. Not because it was my life’s work or anything like that. Just because it was something I should do.  
There is no logic to any of this. It’s just how it went down. I’m not even sure it was a life-changing epiphany. It felt much more prosaic.
I think back to that now and I wonder why I put myself through that. Maybe I could have just done it after being a little bit sick?
That is the second thing that I wanted to draw out from Heti’s essay. She suggests that the best sick days are the ones where you are not really all that sick. How hard it is to really take that wisdom to heart, to know to push the pause button just before the full-blown fevered climax. That this is the real trick.
And this trick is connected to the third and final piece of tender wisdom that I want to sit with. “Why,” she asks, “is it so hard to stop doing, to just rest?”
Although Heti connects this question to the need to value unproductivity simply for its own sake, in my case, there is also some unthinking machismo involved. I’m not saying it is like that for you. I am just owning up to the ridiculousness of the way that I man up.
Last fall, I had a bike accident. I flew over the handlebars and my chin bore the brunt of the fall. I was really lucky. There was a lull in traffic so there were no cars around me right at that moment. I had my helmet on. I was not going fast. So I was a bit banged up, and cut my chin up enough to need some stitches, but I was otherwise ok. Still, I couldn’t really open my mouth without pain (hello, stitches). Did I go into class the next day and lecture for two hours? Yep. Did I run my tutorial after, wincing the whole time? Yep? Did I refuse to cancel any of my appointments? Yep. Did anybody make me do that? Nope. Would my teaching or any of the other parts of my job have been compromised if I had just called in sick and stayed in bed, mouth shut, drinking smoothies and reading murder mysteries and trashy magazines? Nope. Was I an idiot? Yep.
Am I writing this right now while still sick? Yep.
Am I ever going to learn? I really hope so. And if I don’t, I hope you do. Do you feel a little sick? Don’t man up. Keep your jammies on. Stay in bed.