affect · sabbatical · self care · selfcare · Uncategorized

Guest Post: Sabbatical Life Lessons, Part I

Today’s guest post is from Colleen Derkatch, an associate professor of English at Ryerson University. Part I was written while Colleen was on sabbatical. Part II, in which Colleen reflects back on the lessons she learned on sabbatical and how she’s applying them now that she’s back on campus, will be up next week–stay tuned!

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Last fall, inspired by Melissa Dalgleish’s post, “Why Can’t We Be Our Whole Selves as Academics?” , I reflected very publicly in a Twitter thread about my own experience as a recently tenured Associate Professor:

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Focussing on the pervasive culture of overwork in academia, I described being flattened by exhaustion by the time I got tenure, my body wrecked in all the ways chronic stress can wreck a body. Naturally, my ability to feel guilty and anxious remained undiminished, having been fine-tuned over my years of grad school, adjuncting, and pre-tenure work, so I was not only exhausted but also hardwired to feel guilty and anxious about it. Perfect.

I’m pretty sure my own disposition and work habits contributed to my wrecked post-tenure state but the very structure of academe seems designed to fail those who study, work, and try to live within it. These structural problems are stuff for another post but, if academia almost wrecked me—a person with quite a bit of privilege as a cis het white woman on the tenure-track, working at a relatively humane institution, with generous extended health benefits, and living in a dual-income household—then what does it to do my less privileged colleagues? Universities seem pretty uninterested in finding out.

And I was left to pick up my own pieces.

So I made a promise to myself (and the Internet) about how I would use my sabbatical:

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I’ve just passed the halfway point in my yearlong leave so let’s see how I’ve done so far, shall we?

What I looked forward to most about sabbatical was the opportunity just to be curious again. Our day-to-day engagements with scholarship are often instrumental, with little time for deep reflection: many of us have to zoom through course prep and marking (because there’s so much of both) and read the literature in our fields selectively and strategically (because there’s so much of it, and because our jobs valorize writing, not reading). And so, in the spirit of intellectual renewal, I gathered a stack of books I’d been wanting to read and headed to the tropics to spend 2 weeks gloriously alone, reading.

Except I wasn’t alone: for the first time since my comps (in 2004!), I was able to luxuriate in the voices and ideas of others, following wherever they took me without any thought about how I would use them in my own work. Freed of my everyday obligations, there was nothing else I “should” be doing, not even writing, because that wasn’t the purpose of the retreat. As the days went by, I felt myself unfurl and de-clench, little by little—forehead, jaw, neck, shoulders. Lingering in others’ thinking pushed mine in new and exciting ways. And because reading involves input, not output, my retreat fed my tired soul.

By the middle of week 2, however, the anxiety and guilt crept back. As my departure neared, I wondered: Had I been productive enough? Was the trip a good use of time? Did it justify abdicating my Mom duties?

Lesson 1: De-clenching takes time and requires ongoing practice.

Lesson 2: Reading retreats rule.

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Overall, I’m happy with my academic progress since the fall: I produced an article from scratch (now accepted and in press), I submitted a grant application (I got it!), and now I’m deep in research for my next book. More importantly, however, I found my curiosity again and have incubated it in the warm pocket of space and time that sabbaticals give. But how will I maintain that precious curiosity when I return to the everyday demands of my job? And what about my progress as a person, putting myself back together? I didn’t realize until this year how intertwined those two things are, that for me to be a functioning academic I need to be a functioning person.

I see now that I got burnt out partly because my identity was so deeply bound up in my work, even though I’d thought I wasn’t one of those academics. But if you spend enough time in grad school, on the job market, and on the tenure track, you really do start to see yourself as measurable only by your productivity. Our academic lives are defined by metrics: teaching evaluation scores, CV lines, impact factors, citations, granting agency scores. I had to learn new ways to measure my life.

Lesson 3: You are not your CV (obvs, yet often hard to remember).

And that’s how I found myself this January, at 41, back in figure skating lessons. And taking French classes. And working with an academic coach. Things finally began to click: the person in me started to wake up.

I took my last skating test in 1990, before I got too cool as a teenager to skate. I always wanted to go back and finish my tests but felt I was too busy as an academic and a parent. What’s more, this may be Canadian sacrilege but I find figure skating aesthetically ridiculous so I was reluctant to admit to myself that nothing beats the way it feels to skate well on the ice. But I promised myself I would spend more time this year doing things that feel good so now I hit the ice every Sunday with a crew of other adult skaters and I practice for my first test in 28 years. I’m no Tessa Virtue but I’m trying to embrace my awkwardness. And I love it.

Lesson 4: Do what feels good, even if it means looking goofy or falling on your ass. Especially if it means that.

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The French class, I’m taking because my kid is going to full-French school next year and I should probably be able to understand some of what’s going on, and also because speaking French is just a good life skill to have. Being on the other side of the classroom again is a total trip. I got so sweaty with nerves during my placement interview, conducted in my rusty French, that I thought I would cry. Now I have piles of homework to do and my daughter is thrilled to help me with it. The role reversal is oddly comforting.

Lesson 5: It’s good to sweat it out in the student’s seat.

Finally, I’ve tried more consciously to round out my life, which means cooking more, getting more sleep, taking evenings and weekends off, saying no to social things I don’t want to do, and perhaps most importantly, hiring a coach for my academic work (thanks for the recommendation, Aimée!). My wonderful coach Rebecca works like a project manager, helping me plot my short- and long-term goals into realistic schedules that keep me on-target and unfrazzled. I’ve never felt more calm and focussed in my work and I don’t feel like I’ve been working very hard but my word count tells me otherwise. Now, you might think of the coach as benefitting me academically but, more importantly, I would call this one a win for me as a person: if I can get though my days without crushing guilt and anxiety, the whole-self me wins.

Lesson 6: You don’t have to do it all by yourself all the time.

So that’s where I’m at seven months into my sabbatical. I’ve made progress as both an academic and a person, and I’ll keep at it over the next five months before I dive back into the fire come September. Hopefully I’ll be ready for it.

Alright, I’ve got French homework to go do.

#alt-ac · parenting

Dispatches from Maternity Leave: It Should Be Easier, But Not for Me

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I made this ear from scratch!

It is 2:20 am, and I’m sitting writing this (on my phone, one-handed) in my favourite armchair with a babe at my breast. We’ve been doing this thing together— being a mother, being a babe out in the world—for a month now, and we’ve gotten good at it. We eat and sleep and play. We go to our doctor’s appointments and the movies and protests. We cuddle and walk and sing.

I love it.

But the conditions under which I’m able to love it are a function of privileges that aren’t extended to everyone, equally. And that sits wrong with me.

I’m on a paid, year-long maternity leave. My employer tops up my salary to nearly its full value for most of my leave. If I wanted to, I could extend this paid leave to a year and a half. This would not be the case if I was working multiple part-time jobs, or freelancing, or was underemployed, or was a graduate student whose funding was considered educational support by the government thus disqualifying me from receiving EI.

My partner is also a full-time caregiver to our newborn, and will be for the baby’s whole first year. The 2:1 ratio of parents to newborns is one that makes these early days of parenting positively enjoyable, not just endurable. We’re all sleeping enough (not a lot, but enough), and we both have time to do non-parenting things that are important to us, like art and writing.

We can do this—have two parents home full-time for a year—because we don’t have a mortgage or rent since we inherited our home from my partner’s mother, and so can afford to be a single-income family. We are keenly aware that this kind of inherited wealth tends to pass down amongst white, highly educated people, thus consolidating wealth in the hands of an already privileged few. It sucks, and yet I’m so grateful to benefit from it.

I don’t have to worry about my job going away, or even substantially changing, while I’m on leave. My job (or a substantially similar one) is guaranteed to be there for me when I come back from leave, and I crafted a plan for the year with my team that will see things stay steady state while I’m gone. Basically, I got to hit pause on my career, and I’ll get to pick up—and go back to charging ahead on new projects—right where I left off next August. I’m also still teaching my usual career development classes while I’m on leave, which is a nice way to stay connected to work while I’m off.

I was able to properly prepare and train the person who is covering my job. Because I work at a highly family friendly organization (it helps that we only do paediatric medicine!), I was comfortable telling my team that I was pregnant the day I found out. (They found out about five minutes after my partner did.) I was confident that I wouldn’t experience pregnancy-related discrimination, or that I’d be penalized if I had to take medical leave if I miscarried. That means I had a full eight months (you’re generally already two weeks pregnant by the time you find out, and I went on leave two weeks before my due date) to train my replacement. This lets me not worry about work while I’m on leave, and know that I’m coming back to order rather than chaos.

Many women aren’t comfortable sharing their pregnancies at work until late in the game because they fear or know they’ll face discrimination, which means they may shoulder the additional burden of scrambling to find and train their replacement in a short time frame while dealing with a discriminatory workplace.

And just because I didn’t face overt pregnancy discrimination doesn’t mean that I didn’t experience other kinds of pregnancy-related impacts on my job and career momentum even before I went on leave, some of which were my doing and some of which weren’t. I’ll have lots more to say about that.

Many women head into motherhood without these conditions in place, and their job is far harder because of it. So my ability to enjoy my mat leave, even those chaotic, sleepless early weeks, is in large part due to privileges and circumstances that don’t exist for people in less stable employment and financial situations than my partner and I are in. And that’s not cool with me.

I’m not confident that there’s any traction to be had on the issues of fair pay, better parental leave, and stronger employee protection practices at the provincial level, even once the crisis that is Bill 5/Bill 31 gets resolved one way or the other.

But my partner and I are both working at the municipal and federal level—through advocacy, and volunteering, and donations—to try to level the playing field for all new parents. Because I can imagine what having a newborn with no income, or a highly limited one, or one dependent on going back to work after three weeks, is like. I can imagine what it’s like to be doing this on my own for eight or twelve or eighteen hours a day. I can imagine what it’s like to be worried about not getting tenure, or not having a job to go back to, or having a job that’s a hollow shell of what I’d built it into to go back to, while on leave.

None of that is good for parents, or for children. My experience should be the rule, not the exception. Maternity leave should be easier: just not for me.

adjuncts · contract work · guest post · Uncategorized

Guest Post: Feeling Included as Contingent Faculty

At the end of last year my first book was longlisted for a literary prize. I didn’t make the shortlist, but I didn’t care. I know that awards are a little bit arbitrary, but that day I felt as if a space had opened up for me in the world of Canadian literature; I counted and the work I was doing mattered.

I teach at a respected university and I was pleased to see that someone posted a link to the prize announcement on my department’s Facebook page. For a moment, I wondered if someone might send out a congratulatory email on the department listserv. But when no one did, I felt silly for needing for such overt validation at work.

When it comes to work as a contract faculty member, I know I’ve got it pretty good. I’ve worked as a sessional lecturer for over a decade now and, for the most part, I like my job. I love working with students. And my days are flexible enough that I can make time for a writing career.  Not only that, I’m lucky enough to be regularized, which means I have job security that many sessionals are denied.

Despite all these benefits I continue to feel the absence of something crucial in my life at the university: a sense of belonging. At first, wanting to belong seemed trivial—especially when so many contingent faculty across North America are worried about more basic things like job security or healthcare. But a quick search yields tons of research on the importance of belonging in the workplace. It matters. And in academia it especially matters for contract faculty.

An acquaintance tells me that she gave up on collegial respect years ago. She loves teaching and she finds meaning in her relationships with students—and that’s enough for her. I’ve been trying to convince myself that it’s enough for me too, but maybe it isn’t. And why should it be? Academia has a reputation for being competitive and exclusionary, but this is especially true for contract faculty— professionals whose work is, by definition, provisional.

I’m not alone in my frustration. I’ve heard stories from colleagues and acquaintances at a variety of institutions. An adjunct who worked long hours to win a big grant, only to have a tenured faculty member announce it at meeting while she was away, never bothering to mention her name or thank her. A sessional who passes the head of his department in the hallway every day, but even after two years has yet to hear a hello. A writer who was deemed unqualified to teach an intro-level literature class but was invited to guest lecture about his work, which was on the course syllabus.

In this way, I get the illusion of value: my accomplishments are as likely to be used for promoting the school’s public image as any tenured faculty member’s; but only one of us gets supported and promoted for the work.

The weight of any single instance of alienation or lack of recognition may vary, but their accumulation is heavy. I’ve spent some time thinking about the question of what my university, my department, my colleagues owe me. And I haven’t come up with a good answer.

My contract specifies that I show up to teach three days a week and that I keep a minimum number of office hours. That’s it. It doesn’t mandate—or even suggest—that I attend department meetings or serve on committees or advise students either formally or informally. In fact, because anything that isn’t in a sessional faculty member’s contract is considered unpaid work, we are often discouraged from doing any departmental service at all. This leaves contract faculty with two options. We can invest the time we don’t spend prepping, teaching, and marking in additional department activities with no additional pay. Or we can pursue opportunities for belonging and community outside of the institution. Over the course of my sessional career, I’ve experimented with both approaches, but neither has felt totally satisfying. Do I need invitations to a tenured professor’s holiday party? Not really. But would I like it if there was a culture of warmth and recognition, if we all knew each other’s names and used them? Definitely.

To be clear, this isn’t an indictment of tenured and tenure-track faculty. “I know I can also do more to create the community I’m looking for. But I am interested in considering how the institution is set up to create and sustain hierarchies—and how those hierarchies get in the way of genuine collegiality. I often sense a scarcity of resources: not enough courses or merit or grant money to go around. Not enough time to do everything that needs doing. Not enough jobs for each graduating cohort. Class sizes that are temporarily raised and then never readjusted, a cost-saving measure that sends those at the bottom of the hierarchy back on the job market.

Contract —in ways both obvious and subtle—that we are replaceable. In this climate, why would department heads or more permanent faculty bother getting to know new sessional or adjunct hires? If a sessional receives a contract for four or eight months, why bother attending department meetings? And, if you are lucky and those months turn into years, a point comes at which it seems too late to say hello to someone in the copy room when you’ve not said hello for the past three semesters.

A culture of social alienation is endemic to academia and damaging to everyone who works there, regardless of where you fall on the social ladder. It’s easy to point out systemic institutional problems, but it’s harder to figure out how to change them. I don’t have the answers but I have a few questions:

What resources really are scarce in our institutions? And how might we make space for those resources that aren’t limited by actual material constraints—things like warmth, recognition, and personal connection? How does the (over)emphasis on hard work and competition sustain the social hierarchies of academia? And how might we begin to question the notion of academia as a pure meritocracy, where status is always earned or deserved? How does the implicit expendability of contract faculty contribute to a culture of social alienation and dehumanization? What might those in positions of stability and power—tenured and tenure-track faculty, administrators, department heads—do to make those with less stability and less recognition feel like valuable, contributing members of a community?

I’m genuinely interested in the answers to these questions—and the further questions they inspire. I hope  they continue the conversation about belonging, validation, and community within the institution.

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Originally from Appalachian Virginia, Mandy Len Catron now lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Rumpus, and The Walrus, as well as literary journals and anthologies. Her first book How to Fall in Love with Anyone: A Memoir in Essays was published in 2017. She’s been teaching writing and literature for over a decade.

grad school · risky writing · Uncategorized

Guest Post: On Feeling Unsure

Today’s guest post is from Jessica McDonald, who is finishing up her Ph.D. in the Department of English at the University of Saskatchewan. Thanks for writing, Jessica!


Most of the time, in most contexts, I feel unsure.

I’ve noticed this pattern over the past several years — ah, let’s be real: over the course of my entire life. But as I’ve worked my way through the Ph.D., it has become a more prominent, more pressing, and also more interesting pattern to me. Nowadays, I try to chalk it up to a healthy and useful practice of “shakiness” — an attention to nuance over sureness, a belief in shades of grey over the black-or-white.

Feeling unsure delivers some advantages to me. I am frequently greeted with feelings of unsureness when I encounter a text, like a book, or an article shared via Facebook, and those feelings mediate my immediate responses to the text. This is useful: I might more seriously weigh the pros and cons of any given issue, might consider the text’s biases, merits, and gaps. I might not have the, say, surety to know how to respond to a text in the moment. I hesitate. Feeling unsure gives me space and time for reflection.

I have also been lucky to make connections with other people because I am open about being unsure. Long conversations with like-minded, similarly unsure colleagues over the various complicated dimensions of any given event in the news – an event, say, on which others have taken stark and strong stands – can be incredibly meaningful experiences. Unsureness bonds me to others.

And students respond, often times, with a combination of surprise, relief, and healthy relaxation when I model unsureness in the classroom. My unsureness as an instructor means that interactions in the classroom become more honest. A common first-day-of-class icebreaker I facilitate asks students to reveal (after I’ve first revealed myself) something they don’t know but they think they should know, or to admit something they fail at. Teaching a class themed around Literature and Place, I admitted to terrible skills in geography. (Seriously terrible. I still get the arrangement of the Canadian provinces mixed up. It’s that bad.)

But while being a deliberately unsure instructor has produced benefits, there are of course risks and challenges. For example, an obstacle to making unsureness an explicit part of my teaching is that, naturally, students sometimes want sureness in an instructor. Learning is hard; sureness can provide helpful stability in the process of negotiating slippery concepts. And when my being unsure is not perceived as intellectually productive, that can shake down into results that are not always positive. For example, student evaluations—troubling and troubled in so many ways, and hotly contested as they are—more often highlight my approachability or my willingness to listen to many viewpoints, rather than my intellectual skills or capabilities in leading students through course content. I don’t doubt that this is, in part, a consequence of my being a woman who dares to be unsure even as an instructor whose theoretical job is to lead classroom learning.

In the face of an unsure person, too, there are those who capitalize on it: let me tell you how things are, since you appear not to know. In the face of an unsure woman, I’ve found, there are one-hundred-and-one Very Sure Men who will swoop in to let her know what’s what.

When I’ve articulated this feeling in academic contexts, I have been met with mixed reviews. Often, I’m advised by well-meaning and wise friends, colleagues, and mentors to simulate an authority I do not care to assume. Particularly for someone like me who is precariously employed and uncertain about where my future employment will come from, the advice is to exude a kind of sureness that I don’t feel comfortable with on the best of days: five-year research plan? no sweat; recite The Narrative of Canadian Literature off-the-cuff? that’s what I’m here for.

I often wonder what this kind of simulated sureness does to the profession: how does it contribute to our health, or the health of our professional relationships? how are students shaped by Very Sure Instructors? in what ways might our published research be failed by the goal of surety?

Talking about how unsure we are can be terrifying for a host of reasons: the atmosphere of competition that academia fosters, which compels us to put our best foot forward at all times; the material effects that publicly embracing unsureness can produce, especially for those seeking employment or financial stability; the ways that articulating unsureness can further marginalize individuals who already experience powerful intersections of oppression and marginalization, such as disabled, queer, trans, and BIPOC scholars.

There are risks, then, to speaking up. But again, let’s be honest: as a cis white woman, I have unearned privilege which means that being unsure, in public and elsewhere, does not greatly endanger my ability to maintain the institutional, structural, and other benefits I reap even in the face of these disclosures. It is not this easy for others. But as a public, official articulation of my hitherto only casually expressed feelings, this post feels liberating to me. Speaking about unsureness can be a relief. A call to others who might feel the same to talk back, collect, change the script.

And how might that script be changed? I’ve been trying to think through how this unsureness, this thing I once perceived as a self-deficit, can productively and meaningfully guide my research and pedagogy. How can I let it inform my interactions with colleagues, mentors, friends? I wonder about how building this feeling into the very systems and structures we occupy might change them.

For me, foregrounding unsureness in the academy could look something like this: relationships with students and colleagues that are anchored in honesty and in open articulations of the limits of our own understandings; built-in time for unsureness to unfold, or for slow and careful consideration to be practiced, in both research and teaching contexts; the ability for unsureness to shape how we practice self-care (how would we feel if we exchanged the pressures of mastery for the possibilities of uncertainty?) and how we negotiate imposter syndrome or other feelings of deficiency that seem so built into the structures of the academy. For me, too, foregrounding unsureness means respecting, trusting, and even prioritizing the knowledge and experiences of others—being accountable to that knowledge and, as an instructor in particular, releasing myself from the banking model of education (critiqued by Paulo Freire) that purports I have knowledge to give and students are there to receive.

Embracing unsureness as a scholar and teacher has helped me envision these possibilities and, in some small ways, put these visions into practice. I offer them as entry points into a conversation I hope to keep having with anyone who is interested. So, I ask: what would an unsure academy look like to you? What would we give up? What would we gain?


McDonald J picJessica McDonald is finishing up her Ph.D. in the Department of English at the University of Saskatchewan. She researches Canadian literature, literary cartography, and postcolonial theories and literatures. When not working, she enjoys making lots of lists and writing poems about crop tops and selfies.

parenting · writing

Bodies and Brains and Babies

So yeah, I’m pregnant. After all the fuss about not being able to be, three years of fuss, my partner and I are having our first kid this summer. I’m firmly in the second trimester, that wonderful time when you look back on the last few months and realize “Oh right! THIS is how I’m supposed to feel, not exhausted and queasy and generally anxious. I’d forgotten.”

You’d think that, feeling good again, I’d be anxious to get back to writing here and elsewhere. Baby brain doesn’t seem to have set in yet, so the words are there in roughly the same quantity and sophistication as usual. I have a list of posts and ideas as long as my arm. I have the time (although less than usual, as a terribly timed basement renovation means commuting to the city from my parents’ house in the suburbs while our place is unlivable).

What I don’t have is the motivation. And it’s not just the motivation to write–it’s the motivation to engage in much of anything academic or intellectual. Instead, I find myself drawn to physical comedy (we’re watching the incredibly silly Baywatch movie as I write this), to cooking, to planning for my vegetable garden and the new basement, to walking, to snuggling the cats, to looking out the window, to examining the outward evidence of my body building a whole new human from scratch with no conscious instruction from me.

I’m into the physical, into sensation, into doing instead of thinking. Which is weird for me.

But I’m relishing being forcefully embodied, as strange as it is. I have a terrible habit, one reinforced by an academic culture that sees bodies as a nuisance or an afterthought, of forgetting that I’m not a mind in a meatsack but a wholly integrated, embodied consciousness. I can’t do that now. There’s nothing about this process over which my conscious mind has control–my body is in the driver’s seat. And I’m letting it be.

I haven’t always been able to. Part of the reason why it took us so long to get to this point was that I was afraid of doing just that. While in theory I wanted to have a child, I was fearful of letting that desire get in the way of my ambition as a professional and a writer, of my intellect. I’m really into my job and my writing, and into being good at (and ambitious about) both.

Through both, I not only get to exercise my skills and feel accomplished; I get to help people who need helping, every day. I get to put policies in place that pay for childcare and airfare for their children when my students and fellows go to conferences. I get to tell the Tri-Agencies that their insistence on postdoc mobility hurts the careers of academic mothers, and watch them make a different decision than they might otherwise have. I get to make sure that my disabled students have all of the equipment and supports they need to do their work and succeed. I get to write about how CanLit in the 1950s and 1960s set the stage for the messed up CanLit of today so that knowing its history can help us do better.

The fear that motherhood would prevent me from doing all of those things, even as I very much wanted both, kept me from actively addressing my infertility for longer than I should have. I was so tied to living and working in my brain that it kept me from doing something I really wanted to, but was afraid of. My ambition was familiar and desirable, whereas becoming a parent is a process entirely mysterious and unknowable.

But I’m not afraid now. That’s  lie–I’m terrified about how hard motherhood will be, because I know it will be ever so good but ever so hard. But I’m not afraid of giving things up. I have, and I will again and again, but I’ll get them back, because I want them. I can be a body who builds and feeds babies and a brain who thinks and writes and works, who does the work of making sure that other people who want to do the same can have as much of both as they want and need. I can be a person who models that for my kid.

It seems silly to say it out loud–of course I can do both, with some significant compromises and what I’m sure will be plenty of guilt and conflicted priorities–but it doesn’t feel silly. And it’s not, really, for me or millions of other ambitious women who face motherhood in a world that makes it really hard not to have to choose.

 

 

movement · risk · Uncategorized · writing

Trying Things that Scare Me

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Have any of you read Carol Dweck’s MindsetIt’s not a new book, and its basic points (or a corrupted version of them) have pretty well sunk into the popular consciousness, so you likely know about it even if you haven’t read it. Dweck argues that people bring two basic mindsets to the things they do (and often a combination of the two): a growth mindset that says that talent and skill are built over time and we can get better and smarter with practice, and a fixed mindset that says that intelligence and skill are innate and cannot be changed or improved with effort.

Tons of academics have a fixed mindset about their intelligence and their work. (It me, at least sometimes.) We’ve tied our identities to being smart, to being good at our jobs. Instead of trying radically new things, risking being bad at something, we can get stuck in the trap of doing what we know that we can do well. If I think that my intelligence and skill are fixed, I’m going to be more concerned about protecting my identity as a smart person (i.e. doing easy things that make me look smart) than doing new things that are going to help me grow (i.e. the hard things that I’m going to be bad at to start and might make me look less competent or skilled).

I’m trying to develop my growth mindset. While a fixed mindset is comfortable and safe, it’s boring. And, I know, false. There are lots of things I’ve gotten better at over time, things I value a lot like cooking, and writing, and friendship, and feminism. I just hate the being bad at things part, and I wanted to challenge myself to embrace the suckitude, to learn to get comfortable with being a beginner. To take pleasure in the process and not the product.

So, I threw myself into a bunch of things that I knew were going to challenge my fixed mindset. I started biking to work, which was something I was afraid of because the stakes for doing it wrong can be really high (Toronto drivers, amirite?). I’m teaching myself how to do Tunisian crochet. And I’m taking a creative non-fiction class where I have to write things pretty far out of my usual academic/blog/advice writing wheelhouse and read them aloud to strangers for critique. Yipes.

And so far, it’s pretty okay! I bike to and from work every day and I’m very comfortable being a city cyclist now. (It helps that the Bike Share bikes, which are what I ride most often, are tanks and I don’t ever have to worry about my bike being stolen.) My first creative non-fiction class was on Tuesday and I really liked being forced to write something fast without time to think or self-critique. Writing “growth mindset” in big letters at the top of the page was actually helpful in terms of reminding me that it’s okay to not be good at this. And the thing that’s the lowest stakes is proving the most challenging–I’ve started and ripped out my crochet project a half-dozen times now, and have put it aside because I’m finding that level of not-goodness challenging to deal with. I’m going to try again tonight, and remind myself that even if my scarf looks nothing like this, there’s enjoyment to be had in playing with beautiful fibres and, hopefully, in slowly getting better at something.

I might not like being bad at things, but I like the person I am when I let myself be.

 

 

 

 

advice · from dissertation to book · writing

From Dissertation to Book: Choosing a Publisher

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Before I went through the process of working to get my dissertation published–or rather, before my dissertation was finished and I wasn’t sure yet what or how good it was going to be–I was worried about any publisher wanting it. Never mind thinking about having a choice of where I’d like it to be published, about finding the best fit for me and the project.

Don’t be like me!

When it comes to publishing your dissertation, you have many choices and considerations:

  • Where to submit your proposal
  • How to frame your proposal for different presses and tailor how you present the project to suit a publisher’s style and mandate
  • Which editors you’re most interested in working with
  • Which publisher is going to give you the most say in how the book turns out in the end
  • Which publisher has a vision for the project that aligns with yours.
  • Which press pays the best royalties, or has the best marketing department, or does the best book design.

In my case, I shopped my dissertation manuscript to two presses in which I was particularly interested, having done my research about all of the possible options and their various strengths. One was a very traditional university press with a strong track-record in Canadian literary studies (my primary field) and the other a younger and more innovative university press with a strong and growing list in Canadian life writing (my genre). My relationships with the acquisitions editors to whom I sent my proposal came about in the twisty, unexpected way that is as often the norm as a straightforward pop into the publisher’s booth at a conference: one editor I had worked with during my brief stint at a university press between my Master’s and PhD; the other editor reached out to me about the possibility of writing an entirely different book after reading my work on H&E and seeing some of it at Congress, and then became interested in my dissertation manuscript during our conversations.

What came next was the same for both editors–a series of coffee meetings and the exchange of ideas about what I had in mind for my biography of Jay Macpherson and what they thought their press would and could do with the project. I wrote a formal proposal, although I didn’t necessarily need to, that we used as our basis of discussion. Because I have a very strong vision for the project–that it be accessible in style and cost, that it be a ‘partial life’ and not a cradle-to-grave biography, that I have significant control over format and design–I shared the same proposal with both editors, despite the very different profiles and approaches of their presses.

In many ways, finding a publisher for my manuscript felt a lot like my most recent job search. I was ready to move on, but I could afford to be very selective–I had a good job, one I could stay in until the just right thing came along. And so when I was interviewing for new positions, I was interviewing potential new employers as much as they were interviewing me–did our interests and approaches align? did we have the same vision for my role? did the idea of working together excite us both? I ended up choosing to work for a place where the answer to all of those was (and continues to be, nearly three years later) yes.

Meeting with publishers was much the same. As we met and discussed, we were both assessing if our interests and approaches with this book aligned, if we had the same vision for the manuscript, if the idea of working together excited us both. It became clear pretty quickly that one press, in particular, had a vision that aligned very closely with mine, and, moreover, that the editor had ideas for the book that I hadn’t even thought of but were both inspiring and exciting. Because I was clear about what I wanted from and for my book, it also quickly became clear to me that working with the other, more traditional press, probably wasn’t something that was going to work well for either of us–they ultimately wanted something in line with what they’ve always done, which would have meant a book that was less accessible, affordable, and innovative than I wanted.

Choosing a publisher also, to a certain extent, felt a little like dating: how much did I connect with this editor? Could I see myself working with them for a couple of years to shepherd this project into the world? Would they make me as a writer and thinker, and the book, better? The clincher came when I took a headlong sprawl across the sidewalk on my way to meeting the editor from the younger press. She handled my showing up bloody, bandaid-strewn, and late with aplomb, and I realized that I could be myself with her–a whole person who writes books, not just a writer or a brain in an unwieldy, bruised body. A project of this magnitude takes your whole self to complete, especially when you work in life writing and are committed to a personally-engaged kind of scholarship the way I am, and I wanted to work with someone who didn’t expect otherwise.

I decided what was important to me in publishing this book, and I found a press that supported those decisions. What’s important to you might be different–it might be prestige, or money, or a different kind of editorial relationship–but you can, and should, decide and then find what you want. Academic publishing might be a buyer’s market, but it’s not so much one that you don’t have choices.

So I wrote to that other editor to let him know that I was going to go with the publisher whose vision aligned more closely with my own, rather than revising the book to meet his publisher’s expectations, and I signed my first book contract. My biography of Jay Macpherson should be coming out with Wilfrid Laurier University Press sometime in 2019, and I’m having a ball with the revisions. I’m also super excited to see how this book turns out, as my editor (the delightful and brilliant Siobhan McMenemy) and I have a bunch of ideas about how to do something innovative and accessible.

And next up in the series: contract negotiations!

enter the confessional · feminist health · risky writing

Why Can’t We Be Our Whole Selves as Academics?

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I recently had a stark reminder of how hard it is to be a whole person in academia. I was sitting in a Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship review meeting, which is one of my favourite committees to be on. Banting has strict rules about postdoc mobility: if you don’t move institutions and in some cases cities after your PhD you’re unlikely to get funded. Banting’s rules are more explicit and narrow than most, though no stricter than the spoken and unspoken ones that govern many postdoc awards, advice about where to take your next postdoc, and new faculty hiring decisions.

Like many of our postdocs, the majority of whom are in prime family-building years, the person we wanted to nominate for the Banting was tied to Toronto, where they had done their PhD, because their partner was employed here and they were expecting a child together in the spring. Banting requires nominees to write a “special circumstances” document making the case for their staying in the same place for a fellowship. A significant part of the first draft outlined the financial, family support, and childcare hardships this postdoc’s family would face if they were forced to relocate for a fellowship with an infant.

The committee had a real debate about whether or not to include that information. Would it not be better to use that space to articulate the strength of our institution as a research environment and justify staying in Toronto that way? The committee, longer embedded in academic culture than the fellow or I, felt strange about letting the non-academic parts of the fellow’s life into an otherwise very scientific, research-focused document. They worried that talking about parts of the fellow’s life outside their research would be to their detriment, that they wouldn’t be taken seriously as a researcher if the Banting Secretariat knew about their child-to-be and their decision to choose stability and family support over a postdoc in a far-flung location that looked better on paper.

The postdoc and I both felt the same way about it: not only did that explicitly need to be in the statement, we both felt this would be a good moment to suggest to the Banting Secretariat that if the proposed location of research is excellent, they shouldn’t otherwise have any say in the geographic or life decisions of postdocs. Postdocs have complex lives that include lots other than just research, and they know best how to manage those lives.

The committee’s concerns didn’t surprise me. But something that happened to me recently, and relatedly, did.

Not long before this Banting meeting, I walked into my senior manager’s office and told her that my in-office hours would be a bit wonky for the next few months as my partner and I pursued fertility diagnostics and treatments. (Despite my best efforts to avoid infertility by not waiting until I had a tenure-track job to try for a kid, here we are anyway. It happens for so many people, but we so rarely talk about it in academia. I have nothing to lose by being open, in large part because I am no longer a full-time academic, so I’m going to use this platform to help destigmatize discussions of reproductive health.)

Coming from academia and having seen how pregnancy is often treated there–as a disruption, an intrusion, something to be ignored–I expected judgment, resentment, and concern from my colleagues about how this decision and a possible pregnancy were going to negatively impact my work and that of our team. Not because of anything I think of my colleagues as people–they’re awesome across the board–but because that’s the culture I’m used to.

Instead, I got delighted claps and nothing but encouragement. I was frankly shocked.

The rest of my team now also knows that my partner and I are trying to have a kid. Because we’ve all been open in various ways about pregnancy, miscarriage, and our plans for the future, I have no qualms about sharing news with them early and giving us the longest possible period to plan for my parental leave.

I know that my office, and my team, are somewhat unusual in this. We’re all women; we’re all born within 15 years of each other and all openly have or enjoy kids; we’re employed by an organization with a culture of work-life balance and staff support; we work largely with and for academics but are not full-time academics ourselves; our organization has some corporate aspects but functions most often as a hybrid non-profit/healthcare/academic space.

But I so appreciate getting to be a whole person at work, one who doesn’t have to pretend that she’s a worker and a researcher and a writer but not also a person. I can be a person who wants a kid and someone who is good at and taken seriously in her work. I can be a person who is sick, or hurt, or stressed out by a pending renovation and someone who is good at and taken seriously in her work. I can be a person who writes about infertility on the internet and someone who is good at and taken seriously in her work.

Why can’t we have that as academics? It’s a genuine question: what does an academic culture that requires us to elide our personal lives, to treat our bodies as containers for our brains (even with broken feet), to elevate intellect over affect, do that’s useful to the academy? Does it make academic work appear more legitimate–and if so, to whom? Does it gatekeep, for the benefit of those in power, the people who cannot wholly divorce their bodily/personal/affective lives from their work? Does it make stressful and onerous academic and administrative work seem simpler, even if it isn’t? Does it delegitimate certain kinds of labour, especially emotional, so that labour doesn’t have to be acknowledged or compensated?

I’m sure it’s a combination of all of these things, and more that I don’t know yet. But I want to know, because understanding better why we can’t be whole people in academia–and still get taken seriously–is going to be crucial to figuring out how to make things different.

 

altac · careers · research

Settling In, Setting My Sights

pexels-photo-289327When I decided not to pursue the tenure-track career path, one reason was my exhaustion with upheaval and change. I’d moved a dozen times in five years, gotten married and then divorced, changed jobs and schools and houses and hairstyles and partners and was just ready to be a bit more settled. I was not interested in leaving the place I wanted to stay long-term to take a postdoc in goodness-knows-where in hopes of getting a job back home.

What can I say? I’m someone who craves routine and stability, and I love being in my 30s and able to give myself that.

And I finally have. This fall is the first since I started my Ph.D. that significant change is not on the horizon. No new degree. No dissertation defence. No personal upheaval. Just the same great job I’ve had for nearly three years, all things Ph.D. wrapped up and put away, a house and a partner and pets in a city I love, and most of my family and friends within an hour’s drive. One book (a biography of Jay Macpherson that started its life as my dissertation) under contract and another proposal (for a book on life and work after the Ph.D.) under review.

And so I’ve finally got the headspace, and the stability elsewhere in my life, to figure out what’s next. I’ve got a solid foundation on which to try new things, build new skills, branch out. I did a good job of figuring out how to be a professional and a graduate student, but I did that knowing that being a grad student had an expiry date. Now I have to figure out what a career as a researcher/writer and professional looks like, in the long term. Like Erin, I’m thinking about five and ten years plans.

I’m also thinking about the obligation of artists and writers–an umbrella that includes academics–to be political. What does that look like as a researcher who writes mostly about poets and poetry in the 1950s? What does that look like when I bring my feminism and allyship to work? What does that look like on Hook & Eye, where the personal has always been political? I have ideas, and plans, and I’m looking forward to seeing where they take me–take us.

So welcome to a new year of H&E, and to our beauty new site. We’ve got a new look, a ton of new voices, and some new projects up our sleeves. It’s good to be back.

 

careers · job market · jobs · networking

Try on Someone Else’s Life

 
I get asked to do informational interviews pretty frequently, and I think they’re one of the best tools out there for doing on-the-ground research about the kinds of jobs people with similar backgrounds have and how they ended up in them. But it can be hard to convince other people of their value, especially people who are shy, uncertain about where to start with career exploration, or convinced that anything remotely resembling networking is gross. In my latest article over at Chronicle Vitae, I suggest reframing informational interviewing as a way to try on someone else’s life and see if it fits, using the idea of life design conversations developed by Dave Evans and Bill Burnett: 

After a series of these life-design conversations, Evans and Burnett argue, you will eventually have prototyped your way to a career (and a life) that feels right to you. You’ll sit down with someone, and find that imagining doing what they do — living how they live — feels … right. You’ll have landed on the career path you want to pursue in earnest. 

Check out the full article over at Chronicle Vitae!
 

Image, Anna Levinzon, Creative Commons