feminist communities · good things · ideas for change

Hook & Eye Research Hangout: a better new normal

I’m thrilled to report that our first research hangout was so fabulous that I am committing to hosting one every week for the next long while. I want a better new normal and I want it to be about nurturing communities and work that I care a lot about.

When the hangout started and we turned to our work, it took me twenty minutes to even find the book manuscript that I had been working on before the emergency descended. For about half that time, I was in a full panic and worried that I had done something dumb like saving the most current version only on the hard drive of the computer in my office. And then, once I finally found it, in the quiet company of all these lovely women, I oscillated between being sad and mad at myself too. The “last modified” date showed that I hadn’t touched this document since March 10, 2020. That date really hit me. Remember where you were then? Probably, like me, you knew that something world-changing was descending but you didn’t really fully know how, or how much would change. I thought I would be leaving my office for a few weeks, maybe a few months. Now, I really don’t know.

It has been more than ten weeks since I had touched that document. Every day (and, to be honest, every night too) since then, I have been inside the emergency as a university administrator, in the seemingly endless work of trying out how to keep the university going when the news changes everyday.

When I signed up to be an Associate Dean, I knew that I would only survive that work if I continued to teach and if I always stayed close to my research. Being with my students, and being with the books and ideas and conversations at the heart of my research, are the things that keep me alive to the world as a scholar.

I don’t want to be away for so long from my students and my research. This is not normal. I want a better new normal. I bet you do too.

I’m tired of being told that “this is the new normal” when it is always about having to adjust to something I don’t really want.

So, I am taking a baby step towards a normal that I do want.

I’m so grateful to the women who joined me at this first hangout. They came from all different time zones and from all over the continent. Some of us have known each other for years. Some of us were meeting for the first time. Some of us are senior scholars. Some of us are graduate students. We chatted a little during the first few minutes and then I closed the virtual door, we muted our microphones, and settled into work.

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Erin Penner joined us from Kentucky and wrote after to tell me:

Working from home recently has made research challenging.  Not impossible (I am doing background reading for a new project, and just finished revisions of an article), but less “worth” the fight to carve out that time and focus from my other demands (namely, kids, students, and home).  

This morning, I completely forgot for long stretches that there were any other people working.  But when I did look up, it was wonderful to see other women, heads down, brows furrowed, fighting to keep that focus.  And that made it all the easier to go back in.  

Erin is so right. Getting our research done is something we have to fight for because, more than ever, everything else will call us away. Looking up every once in a while to see other women fighting for focus, for this little sliver of time to be inside our own work, lessened my own struggle.

So, for the next long while, we will keep this ritual and this community going. Every Monday at 11.30am EST for one hour, I’ll be there, fighting for focus. If you’d like to join me, please sign up here by 6pm EST the night before (Sunday). If you know someone who would like to be there too, please share this post or just the link to the sign up.

I’ll send the hangout details Sunday night and I will be there every Monday. I’ll ask you to keep those details (of where and how to find us) to yourself because feminist communities need to be closely held. I’m also asking, in the spirit of addressing the gender inequity in research output that spurred our first hangout, that this hangout be just for those who use she/her and they/them pronouns. Thanks to all our beloved Hook & Eye readers for understanding.

Research is a ritual. Research is community. Here’s to finding the ones we need.

feminist communities · good things · ideas for change

Hook & Eye Research Hangout

Welcome to an experiment in making a research community. Hook & Eye is going to host its first-ever live event. We’ve never done this before, but we’ve never been so in need of community and connection.

I’ve been thinking about doing this ever since I had an alarming conversation last week where I realized that I had become profoundly disconnected from my research. I had agreed to chat with a university librarian about my research for a survey they were doing. I couldn’t even remember the most basic nouns connected to my work, never mind the name of the book I’m trying to finish. It was scary. I felt like a toddler learning to talk — except that it was about the things that I have spent a decade researching.

We know that women are submitting fewer journal articles, and that women’s research productivity has plummeted since this emergency began. Mine certainly has. I also know that I am more likely to do something if I promise other people that I will do it with them. We also know that many of our students study better by watching someone else study. We can learn a lot from our students.

So, if you’d like to join me, let’s try working together apart. Let’s pretend we are going to a beautiful library to work for a while.

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Here’s what it’s actually going to look like.

On Monday, May 25, 2020 at 11.30am EST, I will commit to doing one whole hour of research with you.

If you want to join me, please sign up here. I’ll send you the details of where and how to find me the night before.

When you arrive, you will see me at my desk. I’ll chat for a few minutes but will get to work at 11.35am EST on the nose. I will be closing the virtual door to our virtual room at that point so please be on time because I will be focusing on my work and won’t be looking up to let latecomers in. Sorry!

Once we close the door and start working, I will be muting my mic as well as yours. This will be like being in the library but with less whispering.

I’ll leave my video on but please don’t feel that you have to as well. We know that one of the most exhausting things about a virtual meeting is looking at yourself. I won’t be looking at my own video.

I’m probably going to be listening to some music on my headphones. You might want that too. Or you can listen to the sound of being in a not-quiet library in New York, or the sound of a slightly quieter library (pages turning, keys clicking, chairs being pushed around once in a while). Whatever works for you.

At the end of the hour, I will look up and wave good-bye but won’t say anything in case you are in a happy work groove and want to keep working.

And, even if you can’t join us, find a few minutes or an hour, or even a few hours, and open up that document that you haven’t seen in months, or read that book or journal article that has been patiently waiting for you to come back to it. Know that we are are cheering you on in our own quiet and distant-but-close ways.

administration · being undone · change management

Inside a State of Emergency, the University Edition

What you were doing ten days ago? Hugging a friend? Meeting someone at a talk and shaking their hand? Teaching inside a classroom? Doing research in your lab or at the library? Going for coffee or lunch somewhere?

So much has changed so fast. And we are still living with so much uncertainty. But I want to take you inside the last ten days for me. I can hardly remember what happened and I want to remember.

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“The loneliest place in Toronto.” Ross Building, York University, 4.31pm on March 20, 2020. Huge thanks Eve Haque for permission to use this image.

I am an Associate Dean at my university.  That means that I make some decisions, but I also am in charge of seeing that the decisions that the people higher up than me in the hierarchy (and there are a lot of them — dean, associate provost, provost, vice presidents, president) are made real. I am not in the highest level rooms where decisions are made, but I am definitely at other tables and rooms where we have a little — or a lot, it depends on who is in charge and what the issue is — of influence on the big decisions.

The Province of Ontario, where my university is located, declared a State of Emergency on March 17, 2020. Let me take in you inside the last ten days of an emerging state of emergency, and its immediate aftermath. A lot of what follows has to do with international students since looking out for them is a big part of my portfolio but also because I don’t think we’ve paid enough attention to how especially hard this situation has been for these students.

March 12 — three hour meeting with the dean, two hour meeting with department chairs, two hour meeting with Faculty Council where we (the dean’s office) try to say, we have not yet moved to canceling face-to-face classes but please, please start to prepare for this possibility. One of the other assoc deans and I sit down after that meeting and write out a quick guide for “going digital” for our colleagues. Just in case.

March 13 — dean texts all assoc deans and other key folks at 7.43am to say, I’m sorry but I’m calling an emergency teleconference for 8.30am. We learn that the announcement to move courses online will be coming. We ramp up our planning work. Lots to figure out. For example, we have exactly 12 spare laptops for a Faculty that has 650 faculty members, hundreds of TAs, and three hundred staff members. How to rent laptops for everyone who will need one? We put our “going digital” guide up on a website. At least we got ahead of that. How to help our 21,000 students? What will they need?

We wait and wait for the official announcement to come from the president. It was supposed to come at 11am but doesn’t. It is agonizing to know that this is coming but not be able to do much until the official word drops.

Finally, late in the afternoon, the official word is out. We send out mass email to faculty colleagues to talk about next steps. We send out an email to all our students telling them that we are here for them. In this email, we also ask international students who have questions or issues to email me (my portfolio is global & community engagement and working with international students is a big part of it).

My email is flooded almost immediately by students who are frantically trying to leave the country because they have heard that borders are closing and flights will be grounded.

They knew. The Canadian Minister for Foreign Affairs would not advise Canadians to come home until the next day. But these students already knew that the borders were closing. That if they were going to get home, they needed to get on a flight immediately.

I immediately ask our IT genius to set up a separate email account so that I can at least track the torrent of emails by cc’ing them to that account. It’s a quick hack but proves invaluable later because I can ask others to go into that inbox and start helping me track the needs and respond to them.

Friday night and wee hours of Saturday spent trying to help hundreds of international students. I start to feel that I can’t leave my computer for even a few minutes because the students need to make decisions now.

March 14 — the emails from terrified and anxious international students keep coming. Hundreds of them. Often one every minute. I get so many that my email starts bouncing emails because of the sheer volume.

I start to hear things before they are reported on the news. Ukraine is closing its borders. India is asking its citizens to come home and will soon close the borders to them if they don’t make it. For many students, whether to stay or go is a wrenching decision.

I call the dean on Saturday night and say, we need to send a message to our students to say that we know that they that they are grappling with these decisions and a lot of uncertainty and that if they decide to get on the next flight home to be with their family during this crisis, we will absolutely support them and figure out how to help them finish their courses from wherever they are. He calls the provost for approval. I text our director of communications. We write as fast as we can. We call up a staff person who has to access the student contacts. We call our IT genius. I am ruining everyone’s Saturday night but it is worth it because we get the message out.

The Minister of Foreign Affairs tells Canadians that if they have to come home “while commercial flights are still available.” It’s not reported in Canadian or US news, but other governments are giving their citizens the same message. Come home or you will be stranded.

March 15 — the messages asking for helping are still coming fast. I have been answering them day and night for 36 hours. I have a bleary-eyed Sunday zoom meeting with staff from my team and we figure out a way for them to share the load even though I am now ruining their Sunday and I feel terrible about that. But these students are under so much pressure and they need answers and they can’t wait for the office to open on Monday. We only decided to take courses online a day ago. The profs still don’t know what their courses will look like, whether or not there will be in-person exams etc. I tell the students, if you want to go, we will support you. Be where you feel safe. Don’t worry about the academic pieces. We can sort that out. That seems like the only humane thing to say even though I don’t have the power to make any colleague teach or give exams in any particular way.

March 16 — Canada announces the first border closures. I hear a rumour from students that flights will be grounded by Wednesday. It was only Monday but they knew. They were right.

Please, if you take nothing else from this, listen to your students. They know things.

Emergency meetings with assoc deans across the university. We keep checking texts and email because every ten minutes, things change and we have to decide again the thing we thought we had already decided.

The new normal is to write emails and official memos that begin, “Because this situation is fluid and changing very rapidly…”

March 17 — emergency meeting where we try to think about how to help international students who were supposed to start classes in summer semester now that there is a travel ban that denies them entry into Canada.

Still torrents of email from international students who have to make tough decisions. But now it’s worse because, if they leave, I don’t know when they can come back.

Ontario declares a state of emergency.

March 18 — after hours of agonizing waiting, we move to required-services-only mode which means we can finally allow staff to work from home and close libraries and services. I am happy that this is happening but so sad for the international students who will be even more alone on campus.

At 11.01pm the provost releases a memo telling everyone that university buildings will be closing and that if they want access to campus, they should email the Associate Dean for Research in their Faculty.

That’s me, too.

In addition to being Assoc Dean, Global & Community Engagement, I have also been pinch-hitting as Interim Assoc Dean, Graduate Studies &  Research since January.

I suddenly get a surprising number of requests from colleagues who don’t want to stop going to their office, don’t want to shut down their labs, don’t want to lose access to the computer room etc.

March 19 — huge fights about accessing buildings. These go for hours across many platforms — email, zoom meetings, text. Back and forth and back and forth.

I become a little hysterical. Maybe because I am tired. But I also feel an enormous responsibility for helping to break the virus’ chain of transmission [nyt link] and that means urging colleagues to stay home and telling them that accessing buildings after the official closure will jeopardize the health and safety of the person who wants to go into the building, and that of our security staff who will have to escort them in.

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Image via New York Times

March 20 — still a lot of back and forth about when and how to close the buildings. I am waiting for decisions from higher up. I tell colleagues, please, just plan on not going to campus, please.

Our IT folks have rented and set up 1500 laptops for staff and students who urgently need them. They did all this while helping hundreds of faculty colleagues put their courses on-line. There are a lot of heroes in this story, and the IT folks are definitely among them.

People across the academy are shutting down labs and research centres and losing millions of dollars of research. They are going to be without their libraries and research equipment. There are costs to the rapid shutdown that we are initiating. I feel it.

March 21 — here I am, with you.

A friend told me that you can’t write about a hurricane when you’re inside it. So what I’m sharing is just a view from a place where everything is whirling too fast.

As Erin Wunker tells us, this is not business as usual. Our lives are changing. This is changing us. We are not going to be the same and we will not go back to business as usual. I don’t know how we will change yet but I can feel it. You feel it too, right?

 

 

administration · faster feminism · hope · perpetual crush · popular culture

Cho on Oh: thoughts on The Chair

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Left: me, as Chair of English, on the threshold of my future office

Right: Sandra Oh, future Chair of English as seen in The Chronicle

(same difference, right?)

This week, we learned that there will be a flashy new mini-series starring my forever Asian Canadian Kween, Sandra Oh, as the Chair of English at a major university. Like all of you, I had a lot of thoughts. And feels.

As a former Chair of English at a major university, here are a few of mine.

The GoT Connection [with apologies to those who haven’t watched and don’t care]

Let’s get this one out of the way. Knowing that the show will be produced by the same people who gave us Game of Thrones, it is impossible to resist re-mapping university hierarchy with the landscape of the Seven Kingdoms even though I know this show will not be a David Lodge-George RR Martin mash-up. But still, I imagine:

  • The Iron Throne is clearly the Dean’s Office (because the White Walkers have to be all the folks with the power of fast ice zombies — and I mean this with much respect since the Night King is one of my fave characters — the Provost, President, Board of Governors)
  • The English Department is Winterfell (doomed but noble despite a few bad seeds);    Casterly Rock is the School of Business (obvs)
  • The Red Wedding in this series will be when the English department and Media/Film Studies celebrate a successful merger only to discover that both units will be swallowed by the Business School resulting in the majority of the English, Media, and Film faculty specialists re-purposed into teaching courses on Business Communication; a few English profs will survive the merger/massacre and will spend the rest of their careers trying to re-establish English as an independent department

If you like, please insert your variations on this theme in the comments. I might be totally wrong about Tywin Lannister and the Dean of your Business School.

Departmental minutes as plot lines

Read over the last set of minutes. Rewrite with Kween Oh talking about hiring and the crisis of adjunctification. Consider going to department meetings again.

This show will do for undergraduate enrollment in English what CSI did for Criminology

It’s a fantasy. Let me have it.

This show will make being a feminist academic look good totally glamorous and real

It’s a fantasy. Let me have it.

But, seriously, my time as Chair (and especially a Chair who was also a woman of colour who was also the second-most junior faculty member in her dept at the time) taught me that chairing while feminist is an elaborate exercise of perceived power enmeshed with a surprising lack of structural power.

The real surprise: how often male colleagues who, by virtue of the accident of age and gender, were the most privileged people in the whole of academia, persistently insisted upon their victimization, powerlessness, and entitlement to more privilege at precisely the moment when more women are being promoted to academic leadership. The real drama/trauma: how many male colleagues were feminists until I made decisions they didn’t like.

I love that The Chronicle ran the story of this new show with an image of the future Chair in sequins and feathers. But I know that feminist chairs past, present, and future, have stood on the threshold of power with hard hats and steel-toed boots in hand because chairing while feminist is still work that is very much in progress.

 

 

 

 

emotional labour · outreach · possibility

Showing Up: A Manifesta

Guest post by the fabulous Sydney Tran!

Last year, I was at a conference where many of us lamented the state of the world in presentations, roundtables, and those deeply honest late night conversations that feed your soul. It was a conference with lots of scholars who work in the humanities, and so we theorized about problems and solutions with overuse of words like “neoliberalism” and “utopia” and spoke a language so many other people wouldn’t understand. We did a lot of talking.

There was one session, though, that wasn’t about talking and more about doing. We were offered a workshop about how to handle sexual violence on campus, led by a Facilitator who works with survivors and those who have done harm within university communities. We covered the nuances of consent, how to handle disclosure of harm, and how to think through policies of sexual violence. No one said the word “neoliberal” or the word “utopia”, but also very few people showed up. And one year later, I’m still trying to work out why.

There’s no question that thinking and theorizing and talking are hard work. But what does it really mean to “show up”? When I was teaching and researching as a graduate student, I thought about my role as a curator of new ideas. The beauty of a university, for me, was the new knowledge students received and created in a classroom—knowledge about the state of a world that often blows their minds. The hope for so many of us, of course, is that a post-secondary education is not just informative, but transformative; we want to shift a social consciousness by sharing the gorgeous, complex, and mystifying structures of cultures. We want help students think through that darker underbelly of a society to in turn, make it better.

In my own undergraduate education, I took my first cultural studies class in the winter semester of my second year. At the end of the term, I sat in my professor’s office asking “So now that you’ve exploded my idea of the world, am I just supposed to go home for the summer like everything is fine?” He looked at me shrugging and said, “Sydney, I’m not your therapist.”  I continue to hear echoes of this all the time: faculty members reminding each other and other university staff that they aren’t trained to do care work. And they’re right, most faculty aren’t trained that way—but when offered a training session on how to care for a student in an acute situation (like disclosure of sexual violence), these are often the faculty members who don’t show up. And even when we do carve out a minute to attend, we are as distracted by devices as our students are—emails that can’t wait, projects that have deadlines—we “multi-task.” In other words, academics are choosing not to be trained with these skills, instead choosing to do something else (another conference session, a grant proposal, etc…). The critical act of “showing up” is not simply in being present though, it is making the choice to go in the first place.

Naturally it’s more complicated than I’m making it out to be. With competing demands on time and energy in academia, no one can do it all. But then I have to wonder whose responsibility it is to take care of students who are suffering, specifically students whose suffering is often connected to their studies or related to campus culture? University counselling services are buckling under the volume of students requesting support, disability services offices are chronically understaffed, and campus sexual violence centres are increasingly trying to function beyond their capacity. The faculty I see engaging in any type of student support are often those who are already over-committed to service work and are desperately exhausted. To be frank, I’m exhausted from watching the disproportionately high number of women and queer folks do the majority of the care work in the university—and still be asked to do more (but that’s for another blog post).

Instead of simply thinking about epidemics of anxiety and having looping conversations about trigger warnings, I wonder what we can start doing to create a stronger community of support for our students. As we see increasing numbers of students who enter university suffering with mental health, and others who experience the first onset of a mental health condition while enrolled, we might try showing up in a different way than we have in the past. We may consider that there could be value in learning what we don’t know, or gaining skills we haven’t already mastered, to create a stronger network for our students—and each other.

 

Sydney Tran is a learning and transition specialist, with a current focus on accessible, post-secondary education. She manages a variety of initiatives, projects, and programs for students and faculty.  She spent many of her own school days in the hallway rather than the classroom, after teachers removed her from their class because her talking was disruptive: Sydney is someone who likes to “talk to think.” Collaborative by nature, she finds herself on wonderful teams of people supporting individuals that require nuanced forms of care. In her few solitary moments, she continues to work toward a Ph.D. in English Literature studying feminism, theatre, and asking why the world is the way it is.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

academic work · emotional labour

Invisibility and its contents

The other day, a colleague stepped into an elevator at the same time that I did. We established that we were headed to same floor and the same meeting. We exchanged some  pleasantries about the new year, the new term, the usual. As the elevator door was about to open, she turned, looked at me very carefully, and asked, “Who are you?

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Image via

I’ve been quietly dining out on this encounter. Even now, I’m savouring it contentedly. And I’ve been trying to figure out why. It’s a joke that makes me laugh even though I’m part of the punchline.

I’ve been a tenured professor at my university for over a decade now. In that time, I have served as the Undergraduate Programme Director for my department, then Chair, and now Associate Dean. This colleague has been a colleague in the graduate programme for my department. We’ve exchanged emails where I’ve asked her to serve on a thesis committee for one of my grad students. I’ve served on committees where I’ve read her syllabi.

I guess I thought I’ve prettyummm, present. 

I am so glad that she didn’t try to fake it. She could just as easily have pretended that she knew exactly who I was and she would have gotten through the whole meeting with no trouble. Indeed, it was one of those meetings where we went around the room and introduced ourselves right at the beginning.

There was something wonderful about being a little invisible.

Even though I am part of scholarly communities that have demanded more visibility for writers of colour, and more presence for thinkers who theorize and engage with differences, I am surprised to realize that my own invisibility at work can have its own contentedness.

It’s counter-intuitive in so many ways, but it made me feel weirdly delighted to have been unseen. It made me realize that I am at a point in my work where I am happy to be unknown in person and known by the work only when it matters. And this contentment, I know, only comes because I feel valued and seen and heard when it counts. I didn’t always feel this way — I’m pretty sure there was another time when an encounter like this would have hurt my feelings — and feeling so ok now makes me realize that this is its own career milestone. I didn’t realize that career advancement would come in the form of not being recognized or seen by a senior colleague. But I’ll take the wins when they come and I’m not looking back.

I am just another person running around campus, forgetting her lunch, going to meetings, and making small talk in an elevator.

So, back to work. Nothing to see here.

 

 

administration · change management

Confessions of a feminist associate dean

I’ve been an associate dean for about six months — just about enough time for me to ‘fess up about a few things.

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  1. I didn’t really know what an associate dean is when I agreed to be one.

It is an understatement to say that I was completely unprepared when the dean  called me about six months ago and asked me to serve as an associate dean. I was still figuring how to be a department chair.

My first instinct was to try to learn how to do the job by reading the entire back catalogue of posts from the ass_deans twitter account in order to figure what NOT to do.

In case you’re wondering, you should not try to figure out how to do your new job through a satirical social media account that mocks the job.

Before I said to the dean, yes, sure, sign me up, happy to serve, I wish I had the read Sheila Cote-Meek’s super-smart, “Four Questions to Ask Yourself When Considering a Move Into Senior Administration.” And also, Patricia Ann Mabrouk’s terrific “The Indispensable Associate Dean.

Instead, I said, yes, sure, sign me up, happy to serve, and then, months later, I read these excellent pieces.

2. It’s weird to be “The Man”/ “The Administration”

Even when I was chair of my department, I was still part of my faculty union. Now, I’m definitely on the other side. I am ascribed power that I don’t usually think I have. My tendency has been to throw that power back (collegial governance means that I serve my colleagues not that I boss anyone around!). And I don’t actually have much power. But a big part of learning how to do the job has been for me to actually own up to the power that I have, and to use it in ways that line up with my values (hullo, fast feminism! hullo, equity, equity, equity!). More on this in the coming months.

3. I like the gig

I know, crazy right? What kool-aid have I been drinking? But I really, genuinely, actually like the work! I am surprised as you might be. It’s intense. I have to learn a lot and learn fast. It can be scary sometimes. And lonely (I keep track of how many meetings I am in where I am the only woman or the only person of colour; it happens more than I would have thought and I’ll be blogging about this too).

Still, it’s super-interesting to see how things happen at this level, to be at the table, and to be loudly and unrelentingly advocating for faster feminism and equity, equity, equity. I get to do a lot of different things (more support for international students, working with students who are refugee claimants, etc) and I can see the difference these things are making and that is really amazing.

4. I dream about the job every night that I’ve been doing it

This is embarrassing, kinda pathetic, and true. I’ve dreamt an associate dean dream every single night since July 1, 2019. So far, they are not anxiety dreams. They are more like sorting dreams. Does this go here? What about that? I am finding places for things. And, somehow, these dreams tell me that I am also finding a place for the things that I want —  my real dreams for the academic worlds that we are in.

That’s pretty awesome.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Uncategorized

How to Write an Academic Cover Letter

 

 

RE-POST: It’s the academic job application season again. That means many of you are either writing cover letters, or reading drafts of cover letters from your students. Either way, we can all learn from the very smart Lai-Tze Fan! It’s academic job season. Her advice on writing a cover letter is SO GOOD. Without further ado…

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Recently, I’ve offered to look over the cover letters of a few people applying to professor positions. The academic cover letter is a unique genre, and getting it right is as hard as the first time you wrote a grant proposal. It is your brief chance to show a search committee what you have to offer–including your existing/future research, your teaching methods, and that you’d be a great colleague. The cover letter is less finicky than the grant proposal (hurray, no citations!), but needs to be both cleaner and even more persuasive.

We all know the precarious futures of young academics, as well as the struggles faced by those who have been on the job market for six months or six years. I don’t judge anyone for going into alt-ac or leaving academia all together; some of the smartest people in my PhD cohort chose not to finish the degree, preferring other paths that I’m sure make them happy, and I am happy for them.

For those who want to stay, I’d like to offer suggestions based on my own experiences, noting that different disciplines may have fine-tuned requirements that I haven’t acknowledged here or even differing advice. As I will state at the end, I welcome additional tips that others in the community have to add. Please post them below!

Some background information: I’ve been lucky and am extremely grateful to have had interviews every season and back-to-back tenure-track jobs. I am not guaranteeing anything– these are just observations I’ve made in applying to nearly thirty jobs (some research-focused and some teaching-focused), serving on search committees, and editing dozens of cover letters for others.

I realize the length of the list is daunting. Think of it this way: after the job season, you’ll have written maybe half a dozen varieties of research- and teaching-focused letters. Let’s say you are an artist: maybe one letter highlights creative practice, one highlights curriculum building, one is suited for a fine arts department, one for social science, and one for the humanities. You now have templates that can be recycled and tweaked for most future job applications, but the first time is usually the hardest.

A lot of these suggestions you may already know. I hope the list may be useful, but whether or not it is, please offer your own advice to other scholars giving the job market a shot. I myself focus on helping young scholars, including women and non-binary people, and especially those of colour like me.

These suggestions aren’t necessarily in order, but I’ve also organized them in a way that, if you prefer, can be followed step-by-step.

Note on terminology: I was trained in Canada, so some of my terminology will reflect this. Other countries and systems have their preferred terms for “tenure” (such as “substantiation”), graduate students (“postgrads”), and various levels of teaching positions (“lecturer” in Canada vs. the UK). Please keep these variations in mind for your own job-seeking needs.

Throughout this document, the word “department” is used, but may also refer to specialized programs, research labs, centres, etc. to which you may be applying.

BEFORE YOU START

The #1 rule

Do not waste the search committee’s time. Don’t give them extra work or extra pages, don’t submit something that is incomplete, and don’t mislead them with confusing information.

Optional: Crack down on social media

The world of academia is small. Scholars that are associated or in close contact with any departments to which you apply shouldn’t be able to see questionable photos on your Instagram or read unprofessional posts on Facebook. Please don’t think that I am suggesting that friends who are academics do not care about who you are; nor would I ever advocate for faculty members to share others’ private information (we have witnessed these breaches of privacy and everyone gets upset). What I refer to is a scholar’s conflict of interest that might put them in a professional bind; maybe they’d even like to help you out, but they may excluded from important conversations because they are a bit too close to a job candidate.

Again, this is up to you! But if you are interested in limiting social media, then you could, for instance, place select people on private/acquaintance lists, have separate personal accounts, or even temporarily deactivate. If you haven’t done this yet, that’s ok: start now and limit visibility on previous posts that are questionable. What counts as sharing too much information you can decide for yourself, but as a rule of thumb, do not publicly criticize your current department and students, nor the department to which you’re applying or its faculty members. You are entitled to your own opinions, but you are also entitled to protect them.

ONTO THE LETTER

2.5 pages max

The cover letter should be 2.5 pages max, even with a signature at the bottom and your school logo/letterhead at the top (if you are currently affiliated with a school, then do use their logo and make it small). The signature adds a personalized touch.

Do your homework

Following the rule of not wasting the search committee’s time, take the time to learn what this department is about. Go online and explore their website, perhaps for 30 minutes per university. Familiarize yourself with their and the university’s research/mission statements. Do they offer their students/graduate students professionalized degrees–which means they want practical and culturally engaged work? Do they offer a more conservative or more experimental approach to their course offerings and/or graduate programs?–or is it a mix? Which faculty members do similar research to yours and in what ways do you offer something different (just figure this out, but never state in the cover letter why you are different from Professor X or Y)? What does their curriculum look like?

Other questions to consider, but which you may not want to address in your cover letter: Are they interested in collectively answering a problem–such as lowering the carbon footprint or greater representation for Indigenous students, cultures, and histories? Are they Hispanic serving? Is there a high number of international students? Is their student body composed of many “first-generation students” (this means something specific in the USA compared to Canada)?

The gist is: find out what they care about and what they’re dedicated to demonstrating to their current/prospective students, and make sure you explicitly state how your research, teaching, and/or service may share some of the same concerns. From what others have said, this method has never failed in making me stand out as a serious candidate in cover letters, Skype interviews, and campus interviews: learn about their goals and respect who they are; write them a letter that is unique to them; do not waste anyone’s time, including your own.

Optional: Write it as a story

While very few scholars have focused all of their work around a central interest, your task is to find a central interest or concern that can encompass many (not necessarily all; do not force it) of your work. The effect of the storytelling cover letter is that it can make you look focused and consistent, and the bonus is that central interests are often expressed in very simple and recognizable academic language: “I work on the representation of LGBTQ+ communities”; “I work on people’s relationship with food”; “I work on youths’ relationship with social media.”

Examples would be helpful, so I’ll plug them in when I can. My own cover letters have noted my interest in many media forms, including photography, print texts, and computational media. My method of tying these together is to state that “I work on storytelling in and across media,” which allows me to include traditional and experimental modes of storytelling. Not only does this narrative justify why some of my publications are on literature and some are on smart phone apps, it also makes it easier for committees to trace my career trajectory from being a literary scholar to a media scholar.

This overarching narrative allows the committee to follow an explicit argument, which many cover letters do not have. Cohesion is key here, so that everything seems to have its place. That does not mean the narrative is even accurate, but it’s the effect you’re going for.

Organize for easy/fast reading

It helps to organize sections so that they’re easy to skim. If you like, you can use headers such as “Background”/”Education,” “Research,” “Teaching,” and “Service” (call them whatever). What I cannot stress enough, however, is to start every section with one overarching sentence that summarizes the rest of the section. The sentence should take a structure like this (let’s say it’s the Research section): “My research focuses on [central concern] through a, b, and c,” where a, b, and c are your main qualities/interests in each area. The rest of the paragraph is up to you, as long as it covers a, b, and c–preferably in order.

The rule of thumb is to imagine that your reader will only read each header and the overarching sentence. What do they need to know? When you’re editing the cover letter, see if a stranger can figure out what you work on and teach just by skimming the letter.

Note: I’ve seen many cover letters that discuss educational background with research or that don’t have a service section at all. My advice here is to appeal to the department to which you’re applying: for example, if they clearly pride themselves on service or community engagement, then do not leave out a Service section!

THE CONTENT

Read the job call

Unless a general description has been used, a lot of what the committee wants you to speak to in detail–especially in your cover letter–is already in the job call, thus revealing exactly what you should focus on. The call will often state what position the job is trying to fill: sexuality studies? Critical race studies? If the job call includes a long list of desired expertise, the first two or three are the main foci, and the rest are perks that you can choose to mention as desired.

Based on these listed expertise, mention in every section you offer (research, teaching, etc.) how you approach these area(s) with specific examples–and here, it is again beneficial to take a look at the existing curriculum. What concentrations do the department or their programs offer?

What’s the difference among cover letters for research jobs, teaching jobs, and contract jobs?

This is possibly the most common question. Unfortunately, research positions, teaching positions, and short-term/contract positions each require unique content. I will try to be specific, but do have a look at the job call and use your judgement to figure out what kind of requirements are asked of you; tailor the cover letter to suit.

First, know the difference. A quick Google search may be enough to tell you if a university is research or teaching intensive; on Wikipedia, my institution is listed as “a public research university.” Then have a look at the website of the department/program/centre to which you’re applying and read for what their undergraduate and graduate programs offer potential students: are they intent on professionalization and internships? Do they stress being trained in critical theory? Very quickly you will figure out what kind of department you’re dealing with. That said, the job call may reflect this or may deviate slightly. For additional information, also see the item “include a summary of your teaching philosophy” below.

Note: if you’re applying to an American university, you can check out their research/teaching classification according to the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education (where, for instance, PhDs are only granted by “R” or “Research”-level universities).

If you are applying to a research-heavy position, the Research section of your letter should take precedence. Make sure you present a comprehensive research pipeline (academic speak for “your next books/projects”) that shows, regardless of whether you are finishing your dissertation or you’ve been on the market for five years, that you can hold your own as a serious researcher. You’re publishing in refereed journals; you’re collaborating as befits your discipline (and maybe it doesn’t); you are applying or at least planning to apply for research grants. Make yourself look like you’re full of research ideas, full of energy, full of action. For more on this, see the item below entitled “present yourself as a multi-faceted scholar, not a one-trick pony.”

Note: If your dissertation or another book-length (research or creative) project is being edited or submitted for publication, say so, and also state which presses you will or intend to submit it to.

If you are applying to a teaching-heavy position with some research (such as some 1- and 3-year positions, including limited-term appointments and visiting assistant professorships), the teaching section of your cover letter should use the same amount of space as the research section. It is vital that you do not present yourself as foremost a researcher, but as equally researcher and teacher, or perhaps as a research-minded teacher. Ideally, you will present yourself as someone whose research interests have shaped your exciting pedagogical methods. Here, the “write it as a story” method of cover letter writing is effective, especially in communicating an earnest account of how your research and teaching are intertwined. Make sure that your Teaching Dossier, if requested, offers concrete examples of your experiences. I know many disapprove of sharing free sample syllabi in job applications; how many you choose to share is ultimately up to you, but if you want to do it, then include syllabi for classes you’ve previously taught (if applicable) and mock syllabi that suit the needs of the department to which you’re applying.

If you are applying to a teaching-only position (including full-time, part-time, and contract lectureships and limited-term appointments), your research statement may be no more than a paragraph to explain your background and maybe to offer context to your teaching interests. Simply put, unless a teaching-heavy job call notes that there are some research expectations, this position involves little to no research. Therefore, it is extremely crucial that you do not present yourself as a researcher or even as a teacher who is interested in making the jump to a more research heavy position in the future. Focus on sharing your teaching experiences, especially if you’ve ever worked as a writing instructor, a tutor, a mentor, a course designer, a translator, or if you’ve instructed in other languages, education systems, or countries. Mention any relevant pedagogical training you’ve had that may be an asset. The advice above about including sample syllabi holds; in fact, in many cases, job calls may ask for it

Jobs asking for curriculum and program development

If the job call notes that the successful applicant will develop a new program (graduate, undergraduate, certificate), then speak to your experiences especially in teaching and service in designing courses/capstone projects in this field, developing curriculum changes, and/or participating in meetings and committees where such changes have been made. Following the section above, it may be beneficial to include sample syllabi to show the depth or breadth of your design and development capabilities.

The interdisciplarian

The presentation of oneself as interdisciplinary without seeming “watered down” is a common concern for young scholars who did or are doing PhDs that are interdisciplinary, non-specific, and non-traditional. I would spend no more than two lines making an argument for this, though, as everyone is ultimately interdisciplinary: a full-time faculty member cannot be a one-trick pony who produces one major project. If successful in acquiring a tenure-track position, you would be expected to juggle research, courses, service, and student projects/theses/dissertations from a variety of fields, so interdisciplinarity means flexibility. In your cover letter (and also in potential interviews), do not apologize for your diverse background. Do try to highlight which one (or two) areas in your interdisciplinary work most strongly match the job call, proposing it as an asset that you have all this under your belt–and more! The key is to avoid looking unfocused. Instead, foreground your high aptitude in select areas.

There are a few ways to present interdisciplinary research. You could briefly speak to how your expertise in X, Y, and Z areas allows you to–or, how it is even necessary to–address the current state of [your central interest/concern]. Or, structure this sentence backwards: the current state of [your central interest/concern] requires that your dissertation bring together X, Y, and Z areas.

If you’d like to explicitly state the value of connecting multiple disciplines for your research, have a look at the argument you made in your dissertation literature review that brings together these various fields. The literature review might argue what the connection is, as well as how your approach is unique in bringing these together; however, the cover letter is not the place to persuade the search committee of this novelty. Instead, the cover letter should get to the gist of the results/payoff: summarize, in plain language, what the disciplinary connections bring to your research or how they advance the project.

I’m certain that others have more advice about how to present oneself as an interdisciplinary scholar; please do share your thoughts if you’re comfortable.

Avoid too many details

What a search committee wants to glean from the cover letter is who you are as a general package, not about the contributions of every article you’ve published/submitted and the details of every class you’ve taught. If they want details, they will go to your CV, so only mention major milestones/accomplishments that contribute to an overall argument/story/focus in your cover letter. Lists are your friend. Use plain language and curriculum-esque categories that anyone on the committee, regardless of their expertise, would understand. For example, if you work on fashion in Jane Austen novels, you could say that you draw from literary studies, gender studies, and consumer culture–three areas that are general enough for you to riff off of, discussing how you’ve extended one or more of these to related or future research projects.

If the application calls for a separate Research Statement, Teaching Dossier, or otherwise, then leave these sections (Research, Teaching) short and sweet in the cover letter (again, lists are your friend!), followed by “For more information, please see the attached [STATEMENT].” This means that these sections of your cover letter need to be impactful enough for the search committee to get an idea of what you do and to be eager to look at the separate attachment. If you’re working on a new book or project, give a one-liner on what it’s about or what it’s called, then let the separate statement say the rest.

Note: Unless stated otherwise, Teaching Dossiers should be 20 pages, give or take a few pages. Be strategic in what you choose to include, shaping the Dossier around the job and therefore not including every teaching evaluation or sample syllabus you possess. Pick syllabi that most strongly reflect the department’s current curriculum as well as the general areas they are seeking to fill in their job call. For teaching evaluations, all you need is an average of the scores or the average score of each question. You can always say that originals (evaluations, letters of recommendation, etc., are available upon request).

You’re a multi-faceted scholar, not a one-trick pony

You are no longer or soon will no longer be a graduate student. Do not present your dissertation as the only research project in your cover letter; do not treat it as your magnum opus. Instead, extend the dissertation and any other side projects/publications you’ve worked on by explaining how they have led to your current and next research questions or projects. One of the biggest mistakes I see in cover letters for research-based jobs is when an applicant doesn’t list their three- and five-year research plans, which is one thing a research-based institution will ask about if you get a first-stage and campus interview. So let them know early: what is the next book or project going to be? Also mention any grants or projects you’re excited to get up and running.

If you’ve picked the “write it as a story” approach, you could present your research plans as the next step in the story after the dissertation, mentioning in 1-2 sentences the way your next book/project answers questions or extends issues raised by your original interests. Everything comes tied together this way.

Taking this one from Prof. Jennifer Harris at U Waterloo (thanks, Jennifer!): If you’re a scholar who focuses on a single author, “you need to work harder to prove your interests extend beyond that author. Don’t spend all your time [explaining] how innovative your approach to that author–show that this inflects your understanding more broadly.”

Be clear when listing publications and accomplishments

Use numbers to save room and create quick effect. You currently have: X refereed journal articles, X forthcoming, X submitted for consideration; X book chapters, X forthcoming, X submitted; and so forth. Unless it’s a book, you’ve won an award, or there’s a very important co-author, there’s no need to name most or any of the publications; that’s what your CV is for. If you’re comfortable, you can also mention that you have X institutional, association, national, and/or international grants/scholarships won, for a total of $X.

Do not try to “trick” the committee with fancy numbers or misleading organization. A common way this is occurs is when scholars state in their cover letters or CVs that they have “7 publications” when they actually have 2 refereed journal articles, 3 non-refereed journal articles, and 2 book chapters. If you’ve done this by mistake, change it, as unclear organization or formatting makes it difficult for the committee to break down your contributions. And yes, it does matter: for every 1 kind committee member who takes time to look up these individual publications, 9 may toss out the application.

Name dropping may be a waste of space

Don’t make the letter about other scholars you’ve worked with, because the committee is potentially interested in you. Talk about you. There’s a small exception to this: if you’ve worked with a person who is very important to the field that the job call is seeking, it may be worth to quickly mention the collaboration. What I’m critiquing is name dropping to excess or mentioning names that won’t mean much to some members of a (likely interdisciplinary) committee. Don’t waste space with this.

On the subject of name dropping, do not mention members of the faculty that you’d like to work with or who you are inspired by (this is more likely something to do during a campus interview if you and a faculty member are getting along, but even then, avoid being overly presumptuous). It is possible for you to engage with or collaborate with some of these people if you get the job, but until you are successful, you cannot know about internal politics in the department. I don’t mean to be unkind, but naming current faculty who interest you is actually a tip for graduate school applications; doing so in an academic cover letter might suggest that you still think of yourself as a student instead of as a potential colleague.

Include a summary of your teaching philosophy

Unless the job call is completely administrative, the cover letter should have a teaching section. The length of the section will vary depending on what the position is looking for, but even if a separate teaching dossier is requested, your cover letter should still state what kind of teacher you are.

In plain language, include a brief summary of your teaching philosophy that is founded on your interests and experiences. For instance, following the “write it as a story” technique, I say that my research on digital devices has led me to think about the ubiquity of popular media for today’s undergraduate student; therefore, I train students to think about digital cultures and technologies both in the classroom and in their lives, aiming to extend their critical thinking to everyday situations.

Back to stating what kind of teacher you are. Ideally, you are the kind of teacher who fits easily into a department’s existing curriculum (and if requested in the job call, also their future plans). It is not helpful nor your place to propose reinventing their wheel; instead, state your teaching areas/interests so that they complement the department’s offerings and concentrations. If you are applying to a department that is slightly different from or more specific than your training, shift the language into their court. For example, if you did your PhD in media studies in a social science department and are applying for a media studies position in a humanities department, words such as “communication,” “policy,” and “technology” can be replaced with “rhetoric,” “system,” and “media.”

Finally, ask others to read it over

It doesn’t hurt to exchange letters and get the insight of others. (:

 

There is a comment section below. Please add your own tips and suggestions, including anything you think I’ve missed!

Lai-Tze Fan is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Waterloo, conducting research in the Critical Media Lab. She is also an Associate Editor and Director of Communications of electronic book review. For more information, visit https://laitzefan.com

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advice · change management · community · equity · ideas for change · saving my sanity

Woman, interrupted: a guide for men

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It’s a new school year and, if you work in a college or university, that means another year of meetings. Woohoo! I’m in a lot of meetings and I think a lot about how to have a better meeting. One of the things that makes some meetings really dispiriting are unwanted interruptions from male, and male-identified, colleagues who stop women from speaking.

We already know that men often interrupt women in a meeting. It is a “universal phenomenon.” And we have a lot of good thoughts and suggestions for what women should do when men interrupt them. It’s got a hashtag, #manterruption, and there’s even an app to track it. The current global interruption rate is 1.4 times a minute.

But there is surprisingly little help for men who interrupt women. We know what women should do when they get interrupted. But men shouldn’t be left out. There should be a guide for them too.

Never fear! Hook & Eye is here to help! Here’s a friendly letter for your male colleagues and mine:

Dear Male Colleague in a Meeting,

It’s really great to see you here! Collegial process is so important and I am so grateful that you have taken the time to come to this meeting. Having your depth of experience and expertise at this table, or in this room, makes all of our work better. I know you know a LOT. It might sometimes (often?) happen that you have the urge to share your knowledge urgently even though someone else is already talking. Maybe the other person who is already talking is a woman? Especially if the other person is talking is a woman, please, I beg you, pause for a moment and consider withdrawing your desire to interrupt and ask the following questions:

  1. Do you really need to do this? Can this point wait until the speaker has finished talking?
  2. Is this an unwanted interruption? That is, does anyone else want you to interrupt?

You might ask, how can I tell if this is an unwanted interruption?

Good question! I’m so glad you asked.

Consider: will this interruption help the speaker clarify or further her point? will this interruption upset and destabilize the speaker so that she loses her train of thought and has trouble continuing to make her point? would other people at the meeting want me to interrupt?

Not sure? That’s good. I work in the liberal arts where embracing uncertainty is one of the cornerstones of intellectual inquiry.

Here’s a quick and easy way to get some answers: ask someone, preferably a woman. Pass them a note. Whisper in their ear. Send them a text or DM. If you’re really organized, before the meeting, arrange for sign that you can make to a colleague, preferably a woman, who will be in the room and she can tell you if your interruption will be welcome.

Ok, you’ve checked and this interruption really would be welcome. Great! But you still shouldn’t be the person interrupting. You still have to withdraw.

Ask a colleague, definitely preferably a woman, to do it for you. This is a terrific way to triple check that the interruption really is wanted. And to make sure that you’re not another dude preventing a woman from speaking.

I know, all this takes time. The meeting is moving fast and you want to interrupt because this point is urgent. You’ve got to trust me on this. It’s not so urgent that it can’t wait a few moments so that you can be really sure that this is a good move.

Thank you. Welcome back. Let’s have a great year of meetings and let’s try for no more meetings where men interrupt women.

being undone · emotional labour

Crying at Work is Work

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I cried in a meeting. I wish I hadn’t. Now I am thinking about about that.

Over the years, I have sometimes had a quiet little cry in my office or in the bathroom or, once when I was a visiting speaker and couldn’t find a bathroom quickly enough, in the back of a building behind a dumpster. I did not feel badly about those occasions. I needed a few moments to have a lot of feelings and those quiet, private moments of crying were the most efficient way for me to center myself again and go back into the room with those feelings nicely channeled towards whatever work I had to do in that room.

But this time was different. It was in a meeting with others. And I regretted it. It was uncomfortable for me and, I’m pretty sure, for the people in the room with me.

Has this happened to you?

Even the most cursory search will show that there is no shortage of internet wisdom about gender and crying at work. Make no mistake, it is gendered. Olga Khazan summarizes research by Stephanie Shields and Leah Warner, “The Perception of Crying in Women and Men: Angry Tears, Sad Tears, and the “Right Way” to Cry“:

Men who teared up were viewed more positively than any of the other groups—either gender of full-on criers or women who teared up. (It made little difference whether the women cried or teared up)… The subjects also thought the women’s tears were less genuine.

Popular discussions (such as this one, but there are lots of others) of gender and crying in the workplace often circle back to Mika Brzezinski who wept when she was fired as co-host of a morning show on MSNBC. She is very clear about regretting having cried and adheres to the classic formula of equating emotional control with power:

When you are in control of your emotions, you are communicating that you are in control. Being in control of your emotions gives you much more power at work … much more control over any situation … and much more dignity. I suggest never, ever, ever crying at work.

This advice is the exact opposite of what Hook & Eye has advocated in the past. Margaux Feldman’s brilliant 2015 post, “There’s No Crying in Academia,” is a manifesto for making public the labour of feeling in the work that we do:

Emotional labour doesn’t need to be painful but if we refuse to talk about it, if we continue to tell graduate students that we don’t want to hear about their feelings, if we continue to promote the idea that the only relationship one should have to their emotions is one of resistance, of stoicism – then we end up valorizing exhaustion, pain, and suffering.

In a follow-up post, Tanis MacDonald writes movingly about working while in grief and the importance of showing our students “that grief forges its own pedagogical model.”

Here’s the thing. I agree with Margaux and Tanis (yes, all the feels and all the feels in a way that embraces how the work of feeling is central to the work of thinking), but I secretly want to agree with Mika. I would much rather not ever, ever cry in a meeting or a similar kind of setting where there are others in the room who are not crying.

It’s not because I believe that I have ceded power or that the people in the room will think less of me. After going over that meeting in my head a few times, I wish I hadn’t cried because crying took so much out of me that I couldn’t get back. There was so much feeling in that moment, and I’m not ashamed of that, but I also wish I could have felt a little less. Feeling so much took me away from me.

I’m reminded of one of my favourite moments (I’ve written about it before in my academic work) in Rei Terada’s  Feeling in Theory, where she talks about the zombies in George Romero’s films as being “notably undivided about their desires.” As a “well-known counterillustration,” she offers the case of the replicants in Philip K. Dick’s Bladerunner:

In the film … the explicitly sentimental moment for the replicant played by Sean Young—the one time she cries—is the moment when she discovers that she’s a replicant, whose memories are not her own. We assume she had feelings before, but reserving the sight of her tears for this occasion dramatizes the fact that destroying the illusion of subjectivity does not destroy emotion, that on the contrary, emotion is the sign of the absence of that illusion. (Terada 2001: 157)

“Unlike replicants,” Terada argues, “zombies don’t experience themselves as though they were someone else” (Terada 2001: 157). There is something noble about the zombie’s undivided desires, the clarity of it, that I would like to replicate but I know that I can’t maintain it. I can’t feel without division. The best I can do is to recognize that the expression of intense emotion — let’s call it crying in a meeting for now — is a deeply alienating moment where I am experiencing myself as though I were someone else. It is not fun to feel this way but it is a discomfort that I have to hang on to because I want to be alive to the difficulties and the deeply divided desires at the heart of all the good fights that I want to keep fighting.