academic work · advice · careers · dissertation · faculty · junior faculty · mentoring · midcareer · Uncategorized

How to be an external examiner

I’m going on sabbatical in six and a half weeks (who’s counting?) and as a result I’m on a mad throw-out binge trying to clear out my office for a fresh start.

I found, among many, many other surprises, a copy of the external examiner’s report on my own doctoral dissertation. I’ve blanked all recollection of this from my mind since 2004 and I was nervous as I sat to read it. It’s about two-and-half pages of single-spaced text, that’s really evenhanded in its assessment. First off, in retrospect I’m impressed that we got such a well-known external. Scott Bukatman was a get. Thanks, Heather! Second, when I posted about finding this, on Twitter, some people expressed a profound unknowing about what an external examiner’s report should be. And it’s true: no one trains professors to do these. I wasn’t trained. Many students are never allowed to see the reports (at the University of Waterloo, it is at the external’s discretion whether the report can be shared with the candidate, with a presumption of not, and if yes, only after the defence has taken place.) I have never seen a guide on how to write one, but sooner or later most of us with tenure will be examining theses, and this work is too high-stakes and too important to leave to chance.

Lucky me that I was the Associate Chair for Graduate Studies for three years. In that time, I saw every report on every dissertation, probably something like 20 in total. I had seen a few before that, including for students I supervised and whose committees I was on. I have also examined several myself, now, so I know what it’s like to write them.

The best reports are formative as much as they are summative–that is, they seek to teach as much as to manage the gates, if you will. Especially if revisions will be required, it’s important to be clear and proactive in expressing not just what the dissertation fails to do, or what it does wrong, but also in suggesting a path forward. Perhaps a dissertation clocks in at 500 pages–easy enough to say “This is far too long and it must be shortened”. But better to say instead “This dissertation is overlong and should be reduced in length. Chapters 2 and 3 largely repeat the same point, while all the other chapters are distinct from one another–perhaps the candidate could condense these two into one. Other chapters spend too much time rehashing what has just been written: substantially reducing the preamble for each chapter would make this a stronger dissertation, and a more appropriate length.” Don’t worry–there’s always check boxes where you essentially give a grade to the whole dissertation, so the force of your judgement will be very visible.

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Don’t let the cat help write the report; she’s really mean.

The best reports make detailed and specific reference to the text in framing their feedback on the dissertation as a whole. Such information, which normally the examining committee sees ahead of time, will give everyone a sense of the particular issues you might raise in a defence, and are later useful in guiding student revision. Saying something like, “This is written in a very flat style that makes the main argument difficult to care about” might be true, but imagine a candidate trying to understand what that means as she contemplates the 500 pages in front of her and thinks about how to address that criticism. More helpful might be something like, “The candidate employs passive verbs throughout, and sentences of nearly uniform length and construction, which makes this text less dynamic than it could be. Also, by mostly foregrounding the secondary criticism at the fronts of chapters, sections, and even paragraphs, the candidate is hiding her own ideas by placing them in much less prominent positions.” That is feedback that gives clear direction for improvement.

The best reports balance kindness and generosity with critique. When, as a professor of 13 years standing and frequent receiver of reports from Reviewer 2, I read the comments I’ve made up above, I am applauding my own pedagogical astuteness, but a candidate is going to receive them like this: “My external examiner thinks my dissertation is too long and I’m a bad writer and I don’t have any original ideas and I’m an idiot and she hates me.” I mean, that’s how I read Bukatman’s comments on my own dissertation at the time, but I see now, he was right about everything, and at the core, he was also very generous and full of praise though that was nearly impossible for me to see. It is your job as an examiner, then, to find some praiseworthy elements of the flatly-written, over-sourced, too-long 500 page dissertation you’re examining. Perhaps you can say, “The candidate’s secondary and primary research is clearly extensive, comprehensive, and well-nigh encyclopedic: this is to be applauded, and speaks to the great care with which this project has been handled.” Perhaps you can say, “Despite some infelicities of writing and construction, there are very clear original contributions to the field in this work: Cute Animal Studies will benefit from this deeply researched and minutely argued case for the Bassett Hound as ‘the next Corgi’ and I encourage the candidate, once suitable revisions are made, to share this work in a series of articles in refereed journals.” Perhaps you can say, “The candidate has show great skill in marshalling and explaining a hugevariety of sources in this work, evidencing a clear eye for both detail and a strong instinct for categorization.” Those portions of your review which aim to praise should have no clauses that undermine this praise–no buts. You have plenty of other sentences for that.

The best reports are attentive to the institutional norms of the host university. Each university has rules about formatting, about length, about what the different “grades” you can assign mean in that institutional context, about timelines, about length and detail required in the report, about responsibilities for attending a defence. Scrupulously attend to these, even if no one tells you what they are–it’s easy to Google this stuff, and you save needless back and forth if, for example, you are about to fail a dissertation for being too short at 150 pages, but that is considered well within the acceptable range at the university in question. A lot of stress arises from cross-institution mis-communication. This is especially true for international projects. Look it up. Save someone (possibly yourself) from a lot of gray hair and stress.

The best reports are complete and handed in on time. Period. Someone’s tuition, graduate career, and professional opportunities are at stake. At my university, most pragmatically, there are hard cut-off dates for graduation requests, as well as staggered full- and partial-tuition-refund deadlines. Please do not dally. It can cost thousands of dollars for the candidate.

The best reports are long enough to offer meaningful feedback. Usually, these can run between three and six single-spaced pages of text. That’s a good guideline.

For junior report writers, the best advice I can give you is to read as many reports as you can get your hands on. Ask if your department has any you can see. Ask your friendly colleagues in your department or in your field if you can see reports they’ve written. Exposure to a range of (anonymized) reports will go a long way to help you accustom yourself to the genre. The stakes are very high, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t admit you don’t know what you’re doing–it means you have every right to ask for guidance. I hope this little guide helps. Faculty who’ve done this a lot, do you have anything to add?

Next week, maybe I’ll write about how to conduct yourself at a defence, if you like?


Funny story. I have read probably six dissesertations in part or in whole since July. I was getting salty about it, and went to recalibrate my own expectations by looking at my own dissertation, which has sat unmolested on its shelf for more than a decade. I was looking to have a moment of hubris pricked–what I found instead was that it was way better than I remembered it and after discussing it on Facebook with a wide variety of people, I’ve lightly rewritten and sent it off, all 85,612 words, to an academic publisher. So, honestly, you never know what benefit you’ll get from reading other people’s dissertations, is the upshot of this wee anecdote.

academic work · book · research · Uncategorized · writing

Research Day

I had a research morning on Monday. This is what it looked like:

  • 8:00-8:30: Read chapter of book, make tic marks, add post-it flags
  • [take kid to bus stop, wait for bus, clomp home]
  • 9:00-9:30: free write my own ideas that flowed from reading
  • [get dressed, make coffee for Write Club, light tidying so they don’t think I’m a slob}
  • 10-10:30: answer invitation for short chapter with an abstract: this abstract is a lightly rejiggered 500 words cut and pasted from my grant application
  • [5 minute break; refresh coffee; celebrate writing with Write Club members]
  • 10:35-11:05: apply to a conference call with an abstract: this abstract is a moderately rejiggered 250 words cut and pasted from an article in progress
  • [long break! 15 minutes outside with Write Club and the dog]
  • 11:20-11:50: open three documents related to chapter 1 of my book; read them; try to cut and paste them into one document (“Chapter 1”) or into other more appropriate documents

A pretty good morning!

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It’s a total goddamn mess, is what it is

However, what struck me about Monday’s research was how it felt like … cheating. Was  I really “working on Chapter 1 of my book” like I’m supposed to be? I don’t see the part where I’m really, actually, writing academically, for real. Look what I did: reading (active reading, but still), and then aimless free writing that was part notes on the book I read but mostly my reactions to it, and later, cutting and pasting from stuff I’d already written in a half-ass sort of way in a bunch of document stubs. I don’t have any formal notes on the thing that I read, and I don’t have any new good sentences for my chapter. I’m at this stage in Chapter 1 where it’s just all garbage: I’m right at the beginning, I hardly know what I’m talking about, I’m sure I’ll never produce intelligent, researched prose ever again. I feel like I’m rearranging the proverbial deck chairs on the proverbial doomed ocean liner. It feels, when I consider it, like I didn’t move anything at all forward in any way. Wwwwwwhhhhhhhhyyyyyyyyyyy.

And the conference “proposal” and the book chapter “proposal”! Those felt like cheating, too, because I wasn’t writing them from scratch, it was just more cutting and pasting, with some rejiggering. I don’t really feel like I’m allowed to say “I wrote 750 words today for a conference proposal and a book chapter pitch” because I don’t feel like I wrote them!

But this is how it gets done, I have to keep reminding myself. I’m never going to get to the “real” writing first if I don’t struggle with the secondary literature and chew it over pretty extensively. I’m never going to get the structure and content of the chapter if I don’t try to find some patterns and sense in my freewriting. I don’t have to make up brand new prose out of thin air for a conference or chapter proposal if I’ve already been doing some real writing on the topics in question. Rejiggering the prose is work, re-placing the emphasis or reframing the audience. That’s writing, in its way. I guess, though it doesn’t look like much, that this is the work. Indeed, it’s Wednesday morning, and I’m staring down more of the same: freewriting, active reading, trying to get a sense of what’s actually in all the notes and freewrites I’ve already produced over the last several months, taking formal notes on that book that is going to be so central for me. The slog. This is what it is sometimes. No brilliant insights, no pages of flowing text, no “thesis statement,” just building a beach, one grain of sand at a time.

If you’re in the slog too, bon courage. Let’s try today to remember that it ain’t pretty, but we’re getting it done. What does the slog look like for you, and how to convince yourself to keep going?

 

academic work · emotional labour · guest post · Uncategorized

Guest Post: Attend meetings or perish….

The advice one gets about pursuing an academic career is to do as little service as one can manage. As a young scholar, I am advised by colleagues, friends, and mentors time and again that research is everything, and that while teaching counts too, service work means little in one’s tenure file, so I should do the bare minimum and get on with things. With the ethos of “publish or perish” in mind, the scholar’s lament seems to be that time that could be spent conducting research is wasted—wasted—in meetings that go nowhere, and achieve nothing.

The advice I receive about service is also informed by the knowledge that seeming burden of service work most often falls to women. A recent study about emotional labour in academia documents how women drastically outperform men in terms of service work and that this results in a lack of promotion of women that is, because of service women publish less and therefore are less likely to rise through the ranks. And the study was posted and reposted in my social media feeds, with male and female colleagues alike describing strategies to get out of service work, and how to advise their students not to get bogged down. They meant well. They mean well.

Startup Stock Photos

But the trouble with this advice is that service work (not all of it surely, but much of it) needs doing. It is the housework, the reproductive labour, of the university and it is not going to go away because we don’t do it. The problem then, isn’t that women are doing too much service work and therefore don’t have the chance to publish enough, rather it is that some of the most important labour that we do—the work of keeping our departments going–is undervalued. And in its devaluation, it has fallen to women and people of colour, in many of the ways that reproductive labour often does. We need to find ways to distribute this labour without offloading it, downloading it, and disproportionately centering around those already precarious within our institutions.

Service work is critical to the ongoing capacity of universities. And we need to recognize that service is important to some of the most important things that our departments and faculties do—creating spaces for the free exchange of ideas by planning speakers’ series and symposia, building (and challenging) the canons of our disciplines through syllabus committees, representing and standing up for our colleagues as Chairs and Deans, finding ways to expand and diversify through hiring and admissions committees, and so on.

Viewing service work as intrinsically valuable is integral to enable us to continue our work in the university and to move it forward. If you’re in a position to do so, recognize it in colleagues’ tenure and promotion files, on your own CV, and your admissions and hiring committees. Service is critical part of scholarship.

CattapanAlana Cattapan is an Assistant Professor at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan and a recent visiting researcher at the Brocher Foundation. A longtime feminist researcher and activist, she studies the governance of reproductive health, interest group engagement in public policy making, and biotechnologies, focusing on the Canadian case.

 

academic work · after the LTA · new year new plan · Uncategorized

Repetition with a Difference

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A funny thing happened this weekend when I stopped by my office to drop off some books and art. As I got out of the car my partner reminded me to have some identification as well as my keys in case I had to call security to let me in. In the past several years we’ve both had trouble getting in on weekends because, I think, of how part-time and contract faculty cards are programmed. As I walked up to the security doors on Saturday they clicked open before I could even pull my card form my pocket. They didn’t quite swing open, roll out a red carpet, and hand me champagne as I passed through them, but the difference was palpable: I have a tenure-track job now. I am legible to the institution.

It is a very strange feeling indeed to return to an institution as a tenure-track faculty. Much of my public-facing work in the last decade has been about precarity, and now I am no longer precarious. My feelings are complicated: I don’t feel guilty about landing a job, not really, but I do feel acutely aware of how very hard the hustle has been. I know I deserve my position, and I am also acutely aware of how many others—my loved ones, my colleagues, my peers—deserve the stability and legibility I’ve been granted.

When I received the call that I got the job several months ago, I burst into tears. I cried (a lot). Then I took a three-hour nap. I slept in a way I hadn’t in who-knows-how-long. My body relaxed in ways I still don’t have the words for. And yet, I’m also more attuned to and more attentive to the ways in which stability is such a privilege. The more I calm, the more I focus, the more time and space I have for carefully plotting out my five- and ten-year research plans, the more I am also aware of how completely precarity is woven into so very much of one’s life.

And so, as I head into a new school year, I’ll be here writing and thinking about the shifting experience of working and teaching within the institution, rather than on its periphery. I’ll be working to structure my time here with the aim and intent of making and holding space for myself and others who are and have been so marked by our precarious times. And, I’ll be doing my very best to strike a balance between having a critical attention and a joyful heart. For, a feminist killjoy’s work is never done.

academic work · contract work · disability · equity · job market

Guest post – Have they thought about what they’re asking?: the inequity of job applications

By Alana Cattapan
Dalhousie University

The highly saturated, incredibly challenging world of the academic job market is made easier, just a little bit, by the standardization of the documents requested by search committees. For the most part there are a few documents—the cover letter, the CV, the teaching dossier, the research statement, the writing sample (and increasingly, the diversity statement)—which are then tailored according to the job ad. It is not that this is a simple task. Writing each document in the first place is challenging and job applications are a genre of writing all their own. But once they are written, it is largely a matter of refining the documents for each application.

Some hiring departments, however, are going in the direction of less standardization, not more. I saw a job ad today that asked for two sample syllabi—not merely syllabi for courses previously taught—but rather syllabi for specific courses in the hiring department, and I was outraged. Asking applicants to write full syllabi for courses not only requires an incredible amount of time for applicants who don’t make the cut. It also perpetuates a cycle of privilege in which only candidates with enough time to carefully put together syllabi (again, above and beyond the norms of regular job applications) are considered for the position. (And this is not even considering cases where there have been accusations on the part of job applicants that their sample syllabi have been used, without permission or pay, to develop actual course content.)

Let’s consider the labour. I’m not sure how much time other people spend on a syllabus, but I spend at least a week. I think carefully about the pedagogical goals for the class, and how they might be achieved through an examination of certain concepts and themes. I think about how each selection of course material intersects with others. I reread texts for ideas about connections that might emerge when we read them in a specific order. I think about how the flow of the class might be interrupted by holidays, and how to time assignments so that students will have adequate feedback to improve. In short, there are many considerations and it takes a while to put a good syllabus together. If fifty applicants each put together one syllabus (and the train from Chicago was going sixty-five miles per hour), then for one specific syllabus request, the hiring committee will have wasted nearly a year of unpaid academic labour.

And beyond the work involved, I think about who it is that has the capacity to fulfil these kinds of requests. If contingent faculty members are applying for this job (a group that includes a disproportionate number of women and people of colour), they will write these syllabi after long days of driving between campuses. They will do so while sacrificing time that they could spend publishing their research, painstakingly crafting a syllabus they may not ever get the chance to teach. Disabled applicants, parents, and those tasked with eldercare are also placed at a disadvantage, for they might have sufficient resources to tailor a job application but not enough to develop two new syllabi. Or they might sacrifice self care, or everyday tasks, to get the application in. And sacrifice they will, because applicants have come to think that if we are to obtain the elusive tenure-track position, it will all be worth it in the end. If we don’t make the time in our lives to write the syllabi, another rare opportunity for a job will pass us by.

These requests are now not just part of tenure-track job ads, but applications for visiting assistant professorships, postdoctoral fellowships, and (gasp) sessional positions. When search committees ask for more documents—for more time-consuming, carefully constructed, well-proofread expressions of one’s commitment to the academy—they are asking for more unpaid, unseen academic labour that yet again falls more heavily on those already bearing the burden of disability, responsibility, and precarity.


Alana Cattapan is a CIHR postdoctoral fellow in the Faculty of Medicine at Dalhousie University and an incoming Assistant Professor at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan. Her research examines women’s participation in policy making, identifying links between the state, the commercialization of the body, biotechnologies, and reproductive labour.















Image: unsplash

academic work · best laid plans · heavy-handed metaphors · productivity · protip

Two-hour Blinders

Time- and panic management are, for me, inextricably linked. If by “linked,” you mean “hopelessly knotted around my soul and the more I struggle the tighter I’m bound.” I think a lot about time, and my workload, and how many hours a week I’m willing to work (if by willing you mean “what my body and mental health will withstand before breaking down”), and about what you can get done in 30 minutes, and what it means to take time off. One of our most popular posts is guest blogger Julie Rak’s piece on crafting a five year plan.

I have another trick I developed in grad school, that I completely forgot about until someone came to me with a version of the same problem I’m currently suffering from, and for which I developed it.

Let’s say you have a five year plan. You know the big goals you want to hit, and you’ve mapped out what needs to happen along the way to move you toward that goal. You have the big picture, and a sense of direction. Great. Let’s say as well that you know that if you wait to work in 8 hour or week-long uninterrupted bursts, you’ll be waiting a looooooooong time before you ever even start anything: that is, you know the value of 30 minutes.

But what happens to me, lately, and periodically, is that I have so much on my to-do list, that when I sit down for that 30 minute blast of whatever, I … freak out and somehow wind up on Facebook for 40 minutes and then wind up not only not doing what I planned but also rushing to the next class or meeting without having eaten or gone to the bathroom or fixed my lipstick.

It goes like this. Me and my list sit down to do a task, maybe for what I know is a short chunk of time (30 minutes between meetings) or what is a more amorphous block (nothing scheduled, working from home in my track pants all day). I open up whatever I’m working on–assessing grad admissions files, say–and start.

Then: I take myself out of the moment and start to extrapolate. I’ll be reading a file, and start to ruminate so: “Ugh, my eyes hurt, and it’s been 5 minutes and I am still not sure if all the reference letters are here, and I should have looked at this yesterday or last week and there are 10 more to do today, but if I do it at this speed it will take three hours and I don’t have three hours because I have to do that grading and I’ll be tired of assessing things by then but maybe I should be writing now while my brain is fresh but I can’t write now because I’m worried about how many of these files I should read so I should just read them so I can stop worrying but OH! I’M TEACHING A YOGA CLASS TONIGHT so I should prep that, and god I’m a terrible person because now it’s been another five minutes and I’m no farther ahead on this and I think I’ll clear the mental decks by making a status update about almost forgetting yoga because that would be a funny way to reference mindfulness. Ooooh, a link about Twitter and the National Park Service? This is research …”

It’s exhausting (and unproductive) inside my head, some days.

Basically, the problem is that even when I sit down to work, I don’t work, because I’m panicking about work, about how I’ll never get finished, or some other larger looming disaster. I get spooked.

The solution is this: the two-hour blinders. Horse blinders, recall, are those weird little side-eye shades that horses wear in urban areas, that restrict their peripheral vision. The idea is that horses are less likely to get spooked by all the things that go on around them if they mostly can just see the road ahead of them, which is the most salient thing to the task at hand, which is moving down the road ahead of them. For an academic, blinders work differently: they restrict not the peripheral vision (SIDE EYE FOREVER) but the temporal horizon.

To wit: when I use the two-hour blinders technique, the world constricts down to the next two hours. The past ceases to exist, and the future ceases to exist. I make a deal with myself where I promise myself I can panic and freak out and make 40 year plans, or ruminate on what I didn’t get done yesterday but I have to do it later and not in the next two hours. Then I made a plan for those two hours, and I just buckle down and do it. If I’m reading that grad file and my mind starts to wander (“If all the files are this good I might admit too many people and then our cohort will be too big and then I’m going to need to schedule more classes but the curriculum is already set and what am I going to do?”) I remind myself that I’ve scheduled a time for panicking later. And then I made myself come back to the present.

It’s a kind of mindfulness practice, really.

I learned in grad school that fixing the past and knowing the future are alike impossible. That extrapolating from what’s happening right now (reading Judith Butler verrrrrrrry slowly) to what will happen in the future (I will not only never finish this book, I’ll never finish another book ever) is a fool’s game. And if we play it too often, we don’t do anything else. It becomes all consuming. Every time we sit down to work, we spend that time worrying about work, instead. That’s untenable. The two hour plan works by acknowledging that panic is likely to happen, but that it cannot be indulged right now. Especially when you start with this plan, you should really actually schedule the panicking time so that you are more willing and able to let it go when you are trying to do something else. Panic time, for me, looks like this: I schedule half an hour of the day to sit down with some paper and write down everything I’m worried about. Even just doing that is remarkably soothing: I can see that some of my fears are existential and unfixable and I can stop trying to solve them. I can see that some of my fears are really very minor and I can solve them in two minutes. The other stuff I can then spend a few minutes trying to figure out a plan of attack to address. Then I stop panicking.

My happiest and most productive days are the ones where I have a clear sense of purpose, a more or less complete schedule of how I’m going to allot my time, and where I get into a flow. The flow comes from the two-hour blinders because I release my worrying and just work.

Experience has shown that sticking to this plan means I can get a remarkable amount of work done. And the things I would have been spending all my work time worrying about just never come to pass. It might take you a few weeks to start to feel this result in your own work, but once you do, the blinders become easier and easier to put on. Try it! Let me know how it goes!

academic work · commute

Commuting: Some Thoughts

For the first time in my life I have what counts as a long commute to work. It isn’t what many business magazines call “a hellishly long commute,” but it is a big change for me. Two hours of my work day are now spent in my car. Let me start by being very clear: I am excited about my new contract; it feels wonderful to be teaching in my field, and the health benefits don’t hurt, either. In fact, the only hitch I have when people ask me how the new gig is going is the distance.

I don’t mind driving. In fact, I am sort of used to it. I grew up in a rural area and getting to school (or the grocery store, or any friend’s house, or the library, or…) meant driving half an hour or more. But this is a bit different. What I mean is this: I find that I account for the time spent commuting for work differently (does the two hour drive count as my work day? Or is it supplemental to it?) In short, I find I am thinking about why and how people commute in ways I hadn’t had to before.

Here are some of the ways I mean this: I think about money and time. My time in the car costs a lot. There’s the gas, of course, but I think about is the less visible cost. Because our kiddo is still a bit too young for daycare, we have a nanny for the term. Two hours in the car is a quarter of the time we pay for child care each day, so I am paying to go to work again, and I am then spending two hours of that work time in the daily commute. That’s okay, by which I mean I am able to do it for now, but I am acutely aware that in terms of the cost many people are not. I wouldn’t have been, not before this new contract. So there’s that: the cost (emotional, financial) of child care. And there’s also the question of productivity. Is it my protestant work-ethic, drilled into me from an early age? Is it the neoliberal institution of higher ed that gives me the not-so-unconscious imperative that I should be working every waking hour and the short term pleasure when I Get All The Things Done? Or is it simply that walking or biking or taking public transit to work felt like I was doing something for myself (fresh air! reading in public!)? Or maybe, as one friend who has commuted further and longer than I, I simply haven’t got my podcast game sorted. Regardless of the psychology of my desire to make my commute matter! (whatever that means) I found myself thinking about how other people use their commuting time. Funny how that happens, eh? I’ve never given real thought to this until it really began to shape my daily life. Hmm… I sense another blog post coming.

Anyhow, I digress. When I started doing some cursory internet research on commuting two themes emerged: how to decide if your commute is too long, and how to improve your commute. The similarities in these articles are pretty predicable in that they are both predicated on the assumption that one has agency in one’s employment situation and one’s housing situation, for that matter. Some bloggers caution that trading a long commute for a job with more money will often deplete your personal happiness. Others suggest that long commutes chip away at your ability to empathize with others. And articles that are specifically about academics who commute are all-too-familiar in their sensationalism meets stasis. You know the formula (& indeed, you may live this too): two academics land good jobs in different cities/countries/timezones/continents. Articles that I’ve read about this underscore the extreme strain of this kind of distance and commute, but few (okay, none) have suggested any practical or structural changes to make the institution more open to the “two-body problem,” except, maybe, this piece by Tenure, She Wrote. In short, public discourse on how academics and and other white collar workers commute are, well, not-so-subtly focused first on class privilege, and then not-so-subtly on gender. Not much (any) overt discussion of race or sexuality.  Surely when we are thinking through the material and affective conditions of academic work we need to take into account how people get there, what options they have for their commute, and how that commute structures their working and non-working lives.

For now, though, as I think about these things and drive my admittedly beautiful 90km drive, I’m also looking for audiobook, podcast, and music suggestions. Bring ’em on, please. Give me a soundtrack to my thinking.

academic work · adjuncts · affect · change · classrooms · emotional labour

Returns, Rituals, & the Road Ahead

September makes me both nostalgic and thrilled. It never fails: whatever my working conditions, when Labour Day weekend rolls around I feel a tug at my memory. My heart starts racing just a little bit. I make more lists that I do in the summer.

My first memory of going to school is hazy. I remember lunchtime which, for me, meant opening an orange plastic lunchbox with the Muppets on the front. The edge of the decal was worn because the lunchbox was a hand-me-down from my babysitter’s older children. I remember the sound of the front snaps and the smell of my sandwich. I remember my thermos filled with water or juice. I remember being excited on the days I got a juice box.

I remember the first day of grade six more clearly because it was the first day in a new school in a new country. My mom drove me. I was nervous. I wore purple overalls because they were my favourite and they made me feel brave and cool. Until this year I had never had a long commute to school. I’d either walked or taken the city school bus.

Yesterday, I texted my mom and asked her if she remembered dropping me off at university for the first time. She did. Of course she did. We had driven nearly twenty hours from Ontario back to North Carolina. We’d made the geographic shift from the cool mornings of August in Halliburton County to the oppressive humidity of Chapel Hill where walking through the early morning air feels a bit more like swimming slowly than anything I’ve ever experienced (except swimming slowly). I remember the yellow painted concrete of my dormitory walls, the surprise at how small the room was and how close my new roommate’s (a stranger) bed was to my own. And I remember struggling with the campus map trying to find my 8:30am Philosophy class.

I remember the first day of graduate school–how excited and nervous I felt to be in Montreal. How fancy everyone looked to me, how polished, how prepared. How unlike me. I remember the first day of my PhD, walking for a full hour around campus confused by the sign for the Art Building and not thinking to look in the Social Sciences tower for my orientation room.

I remember the first day of not starting classes. Or rather, I remember the first day of being the instructor fresh out of graduate school and trying very hard to sound as professional and in-charge as I wanted to feel. I remember driving between the campuses where I taught and thinking, after the first week of introductory lectures and syllabus questions, that perhaps teaching four new classes was going to be too much.

I remember my first “real” job–the excitement of an office with my name on the door, a schedule of department meetings (I know, I am one of those people who loves department meetings…), and a fresh agenda waiting to be filled with lists. I remember my second “real” job. I remember the years, most recently, of going back to sessional work, and how, despite the difficulty of shifting into underpaid labour, I still felt excited at the start of a new year. The first day of school matters, for so many reasons.

This year, as I sit at my new desk having just completed my new hour-long commute, I find myself so eager to take this moment and reflect on what it means to be able to begin a new year on campus. Sure, I am obviously nostalgic. My memories are grounded in my own experiences and affects. And I am also aware–so aware–of the ways in which university and college campuses and classrooms are challenging, restricted, and often inaccessible spaces for so many.

As we begin the new year let’s take a moment to think of our own first days. As we ready ourselves and our classrooms or offices or cubicles or cars or library spots for the labour of teaching and learning in vastly different material conditions let’s try to see one another’s work and support it. Let’s imagine that in spite of inequities (among students, among teachers, among academic workers) we can in our own ways contribute to making the project of higher learning more equitable, more just, and more exciting.

Happy September, dear Readers. Take care of yourselves as we begin.

academic work · feminism · guest post

Guest Post: Bad Faith and Bad Habits

A few years ago I outed myself as a church-goer to some graduate students and colleagues over drinks at our campus pub. My students reacted with a predictable mixture of shock, bewilderment, and thinly-veiled contempt. Confessing to my church habit was like admitting I had an addiction, with a twelve-step program that included weekly church attendance and a cannibalistic ritual of eating a dying man’s flesh and drinking his blood.

One of my colleagues tried to salvage my reputation as a reasoning post-humanist by informing me and everyone who was listening that my church habit was “more cultural than religious, right?” In other words, the only way to explain the anomaly of a church-going academic in a Humanities department in the twenty-first century was through the safety valve of “culture” –colourful foods and folkways that fulfill the “ethnic heritage” requirement and are somehow okay to want to preserve. The problem is that the ethnic culture I belong to is also and inescapably a religious culture, rooted in the church.
A long time ago, in graduate school, I mentioned my religious/ethnic identity to another student who jokingly responded, “Well, you’re doing a good job of hiding it.” Either I was being accused of hypocrisy, or I didn’t match their stereotype, or I was being complimented for concealing something shameful or at least distasteful. Or maybe it was none of these, but I came away feeling that a significant part of who I am was something to withhold. No one wants to hear about it.
It’s hard to be a professing, feminist Christian in a secular institution whose modern history goes hand in glove with the rise of liberal individualism. It’s hard, but not for the reasons you might think. I don’t suffer from the delusion that I am persecuted because we have a holiday party in our department every December. It doesn’t bother me when colleagues or students openly criticize the church, or the Christian tradition. I do it myself in lectures all the time. My specialization in Victorian literature means I’m constantly teaching texts that were authorized by discourses of Christian imperialism and the civilizing mission and I make sure my students recognize this and have language to critique it. The thought of using the classroom as a place to profess my religious beliefs practically gives me hives. I have never tried to “save” anyone. I have never tried to fool myself that my faith gives me some kind of special glow.
But the main reason I don’t talk about church when I’m at work is because our lives outside of work are irrelevant there. I know this because of feminism. In the same way that the work of social reproduction done by women on the second shift is hidden when we are at our “real jobs,” so too is my secret life as a church-goer. Just as the hours I spend raising my children “don’t count” (and are an impediment to my productivity at work), neither does the work I do for the church. And I’ve done a lot. In the past ten years I have served on numerous church committees, taught faith formation classes to children and adults, been appointed as the church librarian, attended countless evening meetings in other people’s homes, written articles for my local church newsletter and our denomination’s national paper, planned and led worship services, delivered sermons (or whatever you’d call them), organized women’s retreats, cooked meals for congregants who are ill or facing death, and a bunch of other things. I have taken on this unpaid work willingly and even joyfully. I have spent most Sunday mornings in church when I might have been writing articles and book chapters. I have sacrificed work time (evenings and weekends) to Sabbath time.
At work I often feel guilty about my modest research record. At church I feel proud to talk about my teaching and research. Calling myself an academic at church brings me social capital; calling myself a church-goer at work diminishes it. So much of what I do at church (teaching, writing, committee work, organizing, community building) are skills that I transfer from my job, but investing those skills at church isn’t recognized by my job. In fact some of my colleagues would see it as a contemptible waste of time that could be better spent being “productive” at work. So I do a good job of hiding it. If I try to make visible the work I do for the church, I am in danger of being branded a lunatic–of being, quite literally, a bad faithacademic feminist.
 And while my feminist colleagues make visible the kinds of socially reproductive labour we do as women (through blogs like Hook and Eye), there is very little room for talking about—confessing to—the other kinds of work we do when we’re not being productive in the narrow sense of fulfilling tenure and promotion requirements and achieving metrical excellence.
It feels scary to admit this because of the pressure to “love” my work—to sacrifice my leisure time, and often my family’s time—to work time. The Do What You Love mantra has been thoroughly internalized by academics; we have put our faith in our work because we believe in it; we believe it is worth doing even when the rest of the world doesn’t recognize its importance, and even when many of us don’t receive a living wage, job security, or the respect of our employers. Our emotional vocabulary about our work—love, sacrifice, faith, belief—is the same vocabulary we use in church.
But the difference between unpaid academic work and unpaid church work is that while my employer can invite me to leave at any time if I don’t conform at least minimally to the market-driven academy’s ever-increasing demands on my time and my love, (or even if I do), my religious faith and the church that gives it expression and coherence will never ask me to leave. My employer is not interested in me or my family, only in the value it can extract from me. It wants only my excellence. Church is interested in all of me, and will take as much or as little as I give it. It sees even my faults and failings—my bad habits—as something to be loved. At its core, church is a rejection of precarity.
Jan Schroeder goes to church in Ottawa and works at Carleton University.
academic work · guest post · kinaesthetic thinking · play · women and sport

Women, Academia, Sport: Finding My Light Switch in the Dark

When the first post of this series popped up on my Facebook feed, I thought: “now THIS is something I can get behind.” Full disclosure: I spend a fair bit of my non-work time moving—biking, running, or walking to and from work; playing recreational hockey (emphasis on the recreational, but for a fabulous team named the Booby Orrs—or the boobs for short); honing my basement soccer, wrestling, and pull-up skills with two very special 9 and 6 year-old friends; skiing when there is enough snow to do so, which there hasn’t been of late; coaching rugby for a fierce and talented group of young twenty-somethings; walking with my 8-lb sporty-diva dog who is a better hiker than I am; and of course, lots and lots of stretching (apparently I am pretty stiff—go figure).

Note sporty-diva dog in backpack!

Most days I choose movement over social activity, not because I don’t adore my friends, or crave human connection, but because most socializing involves sitting still. When planning a trip, I often consider what opportunities for movement there will be, even before checking into local options for food or coffee. When traveling to a new city, I routinely opt for a bike rental over a car. And so on and so forth. I am somewhat maniacal when it comes to moving and movement, and until my early 30s I hadn’t really stopped to consider why (probably because I hadn’t really ever stopped).

Part of me never questioned my need for movement because I was a sporty kid. When I was first on skates, I sprinted (toe picks in ice and off I went). My summer camps were always sports camps. Gym and recess were my favourite ‘subjects’ in school (yes, I was that kid). And by about the age of 10, I was barred from playing driveway basketball with my older (less kinesthetically-minded) brother because I made him look bad. As a then tomboy and now butch identified person, my sportiness has been one of the ways I make sense (to myself and to others) in the world. I understand now that statements like “she’s sporty” stood in for “I know she’s not a normal little girl” (whatever that might be). I also recognize that my “rambunctiousness” and “excessive energy” served simultaneously to excuse and negate as well as to honour and acknowledge my masculinity—and in some contexts it still does.

I began my university path in sport studies because I assumed that’s where maniacal movement people like me went (and to a large degree they do). As an undergraduate student in sport studies, I learned that our kinesthetic sense is that which enables us to find the light switch in the dark. From the Greek word kin, meaning to move or set in motion, our kinesthetic awareness is the sensation of moving in space. In a physical and philosophical sense, it is the way in which our bodies come to know. While I eventually migrated from sport to health studies, I took the lessons of movement (and the analogy of the light switch in the dark) with me.

The summer after my first year in undergrad, my father died. It was also the same summer I took up outdoor running. Until this point, my running had only involved chasing a ball, avoiding a defender, circling a track, or, as previously explained, on skates. At 20, I had neither the emotional wherewithal or environment to talk through the impact of that tragedy, but running helped me come to terms with his loss in my own way. I ran carrying confusion, anger, guilt and sadness, and in learning to jog, I also learned to take these emotions in and let them go, one winded breath at a time.

Fast forward about a decade and I find myself struggling (as many do) in the often exceedingly slow, generally physically still moments of dissertation writing. In an opposite way of what Hannah writes—that some parts of academia gave her body back to her—I’m convinced that my body in movement gave me academia. Not only did I enter the academy through movement studies (the thing I knew and loved most), but my compulsion to move provided me the advice I needed to get through—and sit through—the stillest parts of my PhD. In 2007 I tried my first Bikram yoga class. Warranted critiques of Bikram yoga aside, for the next two and a half years as a chipped away at my dissertation I was reminded to sit through discomfort, without trying to relieve it. This lesson has continuing resonance in my intellectual labours.

With the finish line of my defense in sight, I received the news that my supervisor’s cancer had metastasized. I received this news away from home in Prince Edward County, with a rented bike in hand, a small (sporty-diva) dog in tow, and a local trail map. Unsure of what to do, I pushed, peddled, and rode in 25 degree heat. 50 kilometers later, reconnected with my beating heart, the news had sunk in.

As I approach 40, I still find movement one of the most reliable forms of care I have available to me. It has been one of the most stable and consistent presences in my life. I move because, quite literally, it keeps me together. And while I feel things deeply, I don’t always need to (or want to) talk them through—it’s just not how my body has learned to be in space. Instead, I move through space, and continue to fumble (as many do) for my light switch in moments of darkness.

That, and I continue to stretch.
Alissa Overend is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta. Her research and teaching are in the sociology of health and illness; food studies; contemporary social theory; intersectional feminism; media and discourse analysis. She and her sporty-diva dog are often out on adventures.