academic reorganization · academic work · adjuncts · guest post

Guest Spotlight: The Crisis Goes Deeper Than We Think, part 1

This is a two-part guest post from Sarah Waurechen. This first part appeared at rabble.ca in April and is republished with permission from both rabble.ca and, of course, from Sarah. Her second part will be published on Monday.

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Six months ago, almost no one outside academia knew what an adjunct was. Now, after National Adjunct Walkout Day, and strikes at two of Ontario’s largest universities, we know that poorly paid and precarious workers called adjuncts (also known as sessionals) are responsible for more than half of the teaching done at universities and colleges throughout North America. On average, adjuncts are paid just $2,500 for teaching a university-level course in the U.S. and $7,500 in Canada. Their contracts expire at the end of every semester, and they have no benefits or sick days. 

While precarious employment among our intellectual elite might seem like an isolated issue — a crisis tied specifically to university and college campuses — this is not the case. In fact, there is an even less well-known group of highly educated and grossly underpaid teachers hidden within the CEGEP system. CEGEPs are institutions, unique to Quebec, that offer both technical programs and pre-university diplomas at the post-secondary level. They are publicly funded and staffed by unionized employees. Most people therefore assume that CEGEP instructors have cushy, public-sector jobs. But this is not the case, and the CEGEPs have evolved a class of precarious workers that look an awful lot like adjuncts.
This is because larger CEGEPs offer something called Continuing Education: evening and weekend courses designed to accommodate students who are working during the day or who need to retake a course. Continuing Education teachers are paid significantly less than those who teach in regular daytime programs, even though they offer the same courses for the same credit. Additionally, teachers working in Continuing Education have no benefits or sick leave. What does this look like in practice? A science teacher with a master’s degree and five years of teaching experience would make just over $52,000 per year if working full time; the same teacher giving the same courses in Continuing Education would only make about $29,000.  If the teacher in question has a PhD, the difference between salaries would be wider still.  
Like adjuncts, teachers working in Continuing Education are therefore constantly worried about their ability to pay the bills. The inequality of the situation is striking in and of itself, especially since it involves public-sector employees, but there are bigger concerns here as well. Teachers working in Continuing Education are only paid for “contract hours,” meaning that they are not remunerated for anything other than course preparation, teaching time, and grading. At some point, suffering from exhaustion and struggling with limited resources, something has to give. That something is likely to be office hours, email time, and arranging accommodations for students who are ill or in crisis, all of which can take hours of a teacher’s time. When Continuing Education teachers can no longer provide these services, we will see the emergence of second-class students toiling alongside these second-class instructors, and the best education will be reserved for the elite. 
The growth of Continuing Education in the CEGEPs, like the increasing number of adjuncts at the universities, is linked to the corporatization of higher education and to government austerity measures. Continuing Education is a cash cow, providing a substantial budget surplus, which can be used to make up shortfalls elsewhere. It’s therefore in the interest of schools to expand these programs in order to balance their budgets, whether or not it’s in the best interest of their teachers or students. Still, individual CEGEPs are not the real culprits. They are merely attempting to make up for repeated funding cuts that have been imposed by the provincial government. These cuts show no sign of relenting any time soon, and on March 26, the Quebec government announced a further $21 million in cuts to the CEGEPs and $103 million to Quebec universities.
The underfunding of higher education is dangerous and amounts to gambling with our future. Young people absolutely must continue to have access to an education that challenges them. They need guidance developing their critical thinking skills and practice in the creative application of abstract ideas. These are skills they will use as business people, politicians, professionals, and the everyday men and women that keep society functioning at a more practical level. And the only way they are going to get these skills is if we pay teachers a living wage so that they can do their jobs effectively.
Right now, a growing number of the people teaching in higher education are distracted by worries about whether or not they’ll need to go on employment insurance next semester, or how many groceries they can buy this week. They come into work with serious injuries or high fevers because they cannot afford to take a night off. The current system is abusive of teachers and students alike. It fixes short-term monetary problems at the expense of long-term societal success by perpetuating inequality on a grand scale. This is why university educators were on strike in Ontario, and this is why students are on the streets in Quebec. And we can, quite simply, do better. 

Sarah Waurechen has a PhD in early modern British history from Queen’s University, Kingston. She has taught courses on a contract basis at the University of Alberta, Queen’s University, and McGill University, and currently works as a Continuing Education instructor at Dawson College in Montreal.
academic work · classrooms · guest post

Guest Post: Transferrable Skills

Last spring  I was asked to write a guest post comparing my work as a corporate educator with my work in the corporatized university.  Much to the surprise of many, including myself, I realized that the pragmatic benefits of corporate work quickly outweighed the far more intangible benefits of academic work.  After I shared this revelation with you, my mind really shifted toward imagining myself in alt-ac.  Not as an alternative, but as a concrete opportunity that I did not feel I could get within the university.  I don’t just want to work.  I want to thrive.  And, I can’t thrive if I am not making a living wage but spend all of my time working.
So today, I thought I might speak a bit about my job search thus far.  I want to speak in big, broad terms.  I am not going to speak to the conversion of my CV to a resume, or about strategically pitching my experience to employers.  Instead, I just wanted to mention some of the things I am looking for when I assess jobs against my own experience and educational background.
In the last two weeks, I have applied for four jobs.  That is more jobs than I saw posted in Canadian literature all year, particularly if I narrowed it down only to permanent, uncontracted positions.  If I look at each of them separately, I see that they are diffuse:  jobs in training, instructional design, learning strategy and grant writing.  But, they aren’t diffuse because I am reaching, trying desperately to fit something to my skills.  They are diffuse because, I have learned, my skills really are transferable and I have a ton of existing experience.  My experience is tangible, and I can tie my work to real, concrete experiences and outcomes.  I can write up portfolios and presentations in various media to illustrate that I have, in fact, done all of the required to excel in each of the positions I applied for.
So often, particularly as a PhD student, we get caught up in narratives of failure and helplessness.  It feels sometimes (and our departments often make this worse!), that we have nothing to offer and have somewhat hopeless futures.  But we don’t.  We don’t.  We just need to realize that there are other industries—closely related to the ones we currently operate in—that value our work experience.  If we treat the PhD like a job, like I have for the last five years, then, we end up with five years of amazing skills and experiences that make us desirable and marketable to employers in both the public and private sectors.

In a recent job screening, I was asked about my salary expectations.  A little voice inside of me said, “Well, I am currently living off of $25,000 or less, so anything more than that would be nice.”  I didn’t listen to that little voice.  I did my homework and looked around at similar jobs and their salary ranges.  Instead of setting the standard at the abysmal low set by the university, I assessed my own value using the field standard.  This was such a necessary reminder for me:  I am valuable.  We are all valuable.  We need to stop defining ourselves by the standards established by part-time labour contracts.  We need to, just for a moment, remember our worth.

Emily Ballantyne
Dalhousie University
academic work · administration · emotional labour

Kindness and bureaucracy

Paula Krebs has written an interesting opinion piece over at Chronicle Vitae. In it, she argues for approaching administrative work (she’s a dean) from a position of kindness. I think by kindness she means empathy, or the capacity to enter into another’s perspective to understand their context and motivations. So much of the work of administration is interpersonal: it’s about getting people to buy into ways of doing things, of getting along with each other, of working toward a common goal. This work must start, Krebs suggests, by looking at a given problem not from the angle of what the correct outcome is, but of where the other person is starting from. Maybe this professor found out she was underpaid relative to her male colleagues for years, and now doesn’t much feel like going on a team-building retreat with any of them. Maybe this student is seriously ill but wants to stay enrolled full time anyways because of the financial implications of changing status. Maybe this TA is grading to the beat of his own drum because he has pedagogical qualms about the standard rubric. These are good things to know.

There are dangers, though, to such inquiries and conversations, as Krebs suggests:

It can lead to a focus on individuals rather than on policy and procedures. That problem is especially troubling for me. I want to understand people and their needs and motivations, but I also need to remind myself that the best way to handle conflict is not to be a counselor or even a mentor. It’s more effective to prevent conflict in the first place, with structures that we all agree on and guidelines both for the way we treat each other and the way change happens. 

Man, did this resonate for me. Rounding the home stretch of my first year as Associate Chair, Graduate Studies I can say that one of the biggest joys has been devising and implementing policy that create supportive structures in our shared workspace: a policy for granting grades of ‘Incomplete.’ new checklists and timelines of degree requirements, explicit contracts outlining responsibilities for Area Exams, policies around residency and availability to be on campus.

I’ve been working (with the graduate coordinator, and the chair, and the graduate committee, and the associate dean) to figure out where our trouble spots were: and this was largely a matter of listening to students, and staff, and faculty tell their individual stories. And I had to listen with kindness, then figure out what to do next.

It’s hard to blend an attention to the unique circumstances of individuals, with the construction and maintenance of an appropriate and supportive set of policies and procedures. (Wow, that was the most boring sentence I’ve ever blogged, I think.) This involves the often deliberate practice of empathy and attention to human behaviors, while I have a tendency instead to jump right to the abstraction, the pattern, and the rule. But I find that if I listen to enough stories, or follow up on enough individual cases, a pattern does eventually emerge, and generalized-enough policy and procedure often then suggests itself.

What I’m getting at is that I’m drawn to administration because I like to find efficiencies and patterns and rules and organize things. I’ve discovered how much interpersonal work and support is actually required of me, and now, like Krebs, I’m finding that these are not opposing practices, but complementary ones. Better policy comes from better listening; better compliance and outcomes come from better policy.

Krebs writes: “Waiting for trouble to boil over before creating policy to deal with it is lazy. Of course, creating a bunch of rules for civility is worse than lazy. Rules don’t make people treat each other well. Culture does.”

Culture is hard: it’s the base as well as the superstructure. It’s both overdetermined, and spontaneous and individual in its manifestations. Balancing these truths is something I’m working on, and I still default too often to rampaging world controlling ENTJ tendencies. But as I keep trying to soften and listen, everything seems to turn out better. Kindness for the win.

#NSBudget2015 · academic work · broken heart

Tristesse in the Age of Austerity

I feel an agonizing sense of loss and regret when I walk out of the classroom for the last time.”

Co-founder and Editrix Emerita Heather Zwicker wrote this in April of 2011. In the full post, which you can read here, she pithily outlines the emotional connections teachers often feel when the term is over. Indeed, many of us here have written versions of our own post-term tristesse. Aimée’s  is the most recent. She writes,

Real learning is transformative–and all transformations are fraught with fear and excitement and loss and gain. The crucible of the new self is necessarily hot; it burns. Teaching, I find, is as emotionally and personally wrenching as learning is, and I need to find new ways to incorporate this reality into my work, even as I create some boundaries for myself and my students.

Yes. 

For all the frustrations–and there are many and they are legitimate–that come from teaching, I feel strongly that we here at Hook & Eye value the classroom-as-crucible-for-change more than just about any aspect of our jobs.

Except here’s the thing: since the blog founded in September of 2010 our demographic of regular bloggers has shifted radically. Back in 2010 it was Heather (tenured), Aimée (soon-to-be-and-now-tenured), and me (ten month contract). Now? One tenured professor, two PhD candidates, two partially-employed/-under-employed workers, and one alt-ac worker who is also completing her PhD. Yes, we have a semi-regular blogger who is tenured, but look at our guest posts: they are mostly coming from graduate students or members of the precariate. 

Why does this matter? It matters because teaching has changed in this age of austerity. Most of the precariously employed contract workers I know who are earning a living wage (& those are few) are teaching fifty percent more students than their tenured colleagues. And they are fighting to keep their research profiles alive and active so that they, in turn, may have a chance to keep their positions, or maybe, just maybe, apply for one of the jobs (the one job…) in their field this year. Indeed, I was one of those precariates earning a living wage, until June of last year when I moved into the severely-under-employed category. 

And the rest of us? We are either scrambling for work that pays less than Employment Insurance, but keeps us “in the game,” or we are stretched beyond the limit, shuttling across kilometres and campuses to make ends meet. 

Yet, we still care about teaching. We still care about students. Care can get warped when you’re put in the position of teaching 400+ students in a semester in order to make around $15,000 less than colleges who are tenured, yes. That care can get worn when you’re teaching classes that only fall outside your area of expertise because they are the only classes on the books for which a Dean or a VP will fund sessional labour, yes. That care can get taxed when you are barred by budgets from doing even the direct action work of the profession. 

In previous years my teaching load has been between three- and four- courses per semester. I have always taught in the spring to offset being laid off for two months. This year, I team taught one course that lasted a year but paid me only for one term of work. The class had a total for 400 students in it. It was a course I worked for two years to design with my co-teacher, whom I respect. And I will be honest, I felt detached when I wasn’t in class and with my students, because the structures that paid me for my labour made it clear my work mattered less than the work of the (wonderful) teaching assistants. 

And yet I am sad. The end of the term has come and I feel all those same feelings of loss, of concern that the students will forget, that I didn’t do a good enough job conveying vital information, that we will all forget what a privilege and what a responsibility it is to come into a classroom together to learn. 

And I am saddened even further, because when I turn on my computer I see that the fight for higher education is being taken up predominantly by students. This is amazing and inspiring, yes. I am in awe of the strength and will and solidarity that is happening in Quebec right now. But I am also acutely aware that just last week the Liberals of Nova Scotia deregulated tuition in this province, which means that my students–the savvy ones, the ones who aren’t yet aware, and the ones who don’t care–are likely going to be massively and adversely affected by this decision. As Rebecca Rose writes, the deregulation of tuition

This means that universities can increase these fees as high as they think “the market” (AKA students and their families) will bear without any government intervention. 

I would say it also means hiring sustainably at the professorial level will again be placed far on the back burner. That’s bad for the precariate. That’s bad for students. That’s bad for universities, provinces, the country. That’s bad for anything that might want, somehow, in the future, to look like sustainability. 

To be honest, this year, I am at an emotional as well as practical loss. I care about my students, I am feeling the post-term tristesse, and yet I am also feeling strange because I don’t have stacks of grading. I don’t have class prep for spring courses that start in a month. What I do have is a series of deficits. This is the first year in seven that I have no teaching lined up. I’m looking at the LSATs and thinking about what’s next not because I am disgusted so much as because I have to pay rent. My EI? It runs out in June. And I am just one person among many. One more would-be teacher. One more person who cares about students, even though they aren’t “mine” any more. One more person carrying the emotional weight of the economics of austerity.

So what do we do

academic reorganization · academic work · solidarity

Reflections On Talking #CAF Crisis to Mainstream Media

In the last few weeks there has been a shift in the attention paid to Contract Academic Faculty. It hasn’t been a sea change per se, but with #NAWD and the on going strikes at the University of Toronto and York University the mainstream media has been paying some attention to what we who work in the academy have known for some time: things need to change.

But as a teacher who is trained in literature and language I rankle at my own use of the nebulous term “things.” What, exactly, are those “things” that need changing? As I tell my students over and again defining your terms is crucial because it allows you to situate yourself. You know not only precisely what you’re talking about, you also know the history and context of the term you’re using. So what are we talking about when we say “things” need to change?

This isn’t just a navel gazing question. When I was interviewed by Simona Chiose of the Globe & Mail two weeks I found myself faced with this very question. The article was mostly about the strikes happening in Toronto. Chiose was working to situate the immediacy of the strikes, which, let’s not forget, are happening at two very different institutions, in the larger question of what needs fixing in post-secondary education in Canada? A tough task indeed, especially when writing for that necessary readership of people who care, but, as most work outside academia, need to be told exactly why they must care and why their care needs to be actioned. Put differently, this was one of the first Canadian mass media pieces on the crisis in higher education that attempted to spell out some of the material issues facing workers and students.

When  Chiose called me to ask if I would participate in an interview I was happy to do so. I was prepared to talk about my past and on going experience as a CAF and, because I have also had experience sitting on a Faculty-wide Council of Chairs, working with academic development committees, and have been a member of the Faculty of Graduate Studies, I felt that I was uniquely positioned to speak to CAF work and, to an extent, about how administrative processes work (or don’t) at the faculty and university level.

The questions Chiose posed in our thirty-five minute phone interview were insightful and demonstrated her research and knowledge of higher education in Canada. She knew acronyms like ACCUTE and CAUT, she was more than familiar with the shifting structures of SSHRC, and she was even familiar with some people (CAUT executives who I cited as allies for CAFs) I mentioned. I felt comfortable, I felt heard, and though I knew our interview would be edited down to the best sound bite that popped out of my mouth, I felt unusually prepared.

Then she asked me a question I couldn’t answer.

After discussing my own personal career trajectory on the job market–graduated in 2008 (auspicious…), sessionaled for a year in Calgary, moved to Nova Scotia to hold a 10-month limited term contract as Assistant Professor, had that contract renewed for three more sequential years, and, after the budgets had been cut drastically in the faculty where I worked and my department chair had to raise my class size enormously in order to manage to keep my position, I landed a 12-month contract at a smaller school. I was encouraged to take it, and I did. You likely know this story. That 12-month contract did not get renewed, and I am still not ready or able to tell that story in full in print. I’m still on the job market. I still feel like being frank can be risky–anyhow. After all of this, after noting that I was indeed SSHRC-funded, that I did my PhD in just under four years, that I have kept up a record of publication, Chiose said, “It sounds like you did everything right. So what do you think happened? Is there no longer a formula?”

Huh.

I remember when I was finishing my degree that there were two trajectories I was encouraged to explore: the post doctoral fellowship or the limited term contract. I think, if I had finished a year or two prior, I would only have been really encouraged to pursue a postdoc, but again let me remind you: 2008. I also recall that when I finished my PhD having an article or two and a few book reviews under your belt was really quite good. Many of my peers were encouraged not to publish, to save their energies until they finished their degrees, and to hold back that material for The Book. I went to a lot of conferences, many of my peers didn’t due not only to funding issues, but to suggestions that they focus their energies elsewhere. I’ve talked to colleagues who finished around the same time as I did at different institutions and they describe similar experiences.

But as we know, much has changed. And yet, looking at my friends and colleagues who have landed tenure track positions, I can’t say with confidence that there is a formula any more, if there ever really was one in the first place. Having The Book, having teaching experience, having grants, having scads of publications, no discernible combination of these things leads to stability and employment.

As austerity in higher education tightens its grip the one common denominator I have observed in my job-seeking peers is paranoia and exhaustion. Nothing is good enough, so you have to do everything. Or maybe not, because sometimes the candidate who appears to have the least experience is the most financially attractive to the hiring administration. So what do you do? Most of the time, you hedge your bets and work yourself and your emotions into the ground. Oh yeah, and you’re scared. Scared to speak up, scared to say no, scared to talk publicly about the material realities of your working conditions because hey, you might not get rehired. Believe me, you really might not.

Did I say all this to the journalist? Yes, I did, or at least I tried. What I have found myself thinking about in the weeks since that interview, as several things I have written have–miraculously!–reached a wider audience than usual, is this: we contract academic faculty need to be better at clearly articulating our own experiences. And yet, there is risk. And so you, tenured faculty, need to be more attentive in your listening, in your solidarity, in your ability via tenure to navigate the incredibly labyrinthine and shifting space of the institution. I don’t know if grassroots organizing will change “things” for contract academic faculty, but I do know we cannot do it in isolation. We need to articulate our terms and those terms differ from one department and faculty and institution to another.

So I’ll leave you with a question, readers, and it is the same one that the journalist asked me: is there a formula anymore? Was there ever? And should there be–can there be?–again?

#alt-ac · #post-ac · academic work · balance

Do What You Love, Part Deux

Y’all know that I’m totally not into the “do what you love” thing. Not when it means that people, as Erin so eloquently articulated on Monday (and in Rabble!), do what they love at the expense of their present and future wellbeing. At least in part, DWYL is what keeps people trapped in jobs they love in systems that exploit and wear them down. It breaks my heart to see people I love trapped in this cycle, knowing that the solution is either to give up the job that they’re so very very good at, or find a way to fix a system that is very very broken. It’s February, and I have the SADs, and Erin says it better than I ever can, so I’m going leave that all alone and talk about the other kind of “do what you love.” And that’s doing things that you love, hang the academy (and our workaholic culture generally) that says we should only think and work and do.

Screw that, frankly.

Y’know what I’m doing right now? I’m sitting on the couch with my love under an HBC blanket watching Chef. We ate dinner together at the dining room table, no work allowed. I had wine, on a Wednesday. On my way to and from work today (and at lunch for awhile too) I read M.F.K. Fisher’s With Bold Knife and Fork, book thirteen on the food writing comprehensive list I’ve set for myself this year. I should have done a PhD in food writing, but I’m making up for it now. On Friday night, I had belated bachelorette party that reminded me how much fun it is to just dance. On Sunday, I spent most of the day in the kitchen, alternating between the stove and some articles I was editing. I made Marcella Hazan’s tomato-butter sauce (the best recipe ever, no exaggeration), poached pears with cardamom and orange, a giant pear bundt cake for my co-workers, beluga lentils with garlic and bay, an orange root vegetable soup spiked with vermouth and zata’ar, coffee ice cream, and Food52’s genius oven fries (which really are genius). We’re eating really well this week–pears with greek yogurt and muesli for breakfast, soup with lentils for lunch, and veggie meatball sandwiches with tomato sauce and provolone for dinner–without having to think about it, because I did all that thinking on Sunday. I get up early and start work an hour late so that I can write before I head to the office, but I also spend 20 of those minutes meditating and 10 minutes drinking coffee and hanging out with Moose for his daily “chair time.”

Moose + his people + the living room carpet he thinks we bought just for him = happy cat. 
It’s telling, though, that I still feel the need to write what comes next, to justify doing the things that light me up: I write, every single day. I work hard at the office, and we get a lot done. My side research and publishing projects are all well in hand. I’m presenting at a conference every weekend but one in May. I love that stuff. But it’s important to note that I love it in ways that I didn’t, or couldn’t, when I was labouring under the delusion that to do anything other than meet the demands of the academy was a waste of time. I wanted an #altac job at least in part because I wanted more of this–more of the revelling in a fridge full of things I’d made myself, more of delicious prose about meals eaten sixty years ago, more time with my guys, more control over my life. Almost without realizing, I got it. 
I treasure the people, the very many of my friends, who are so committed to their teaching, to their students, that they’re willing to do whatever it takes–teaching at three schools, going without an office or medical benefits, being on EI over the summer, living apart from their partners–to do what they love. But I also marvel at the power of the academy, the draw of that culture and its privileging of a single kind of love and worth, that makes me feel like the outlier in making the choices I have about work and life. I don’t know where that gets us, but it’s something I think about a lot. 
What about you, dear readers? How do you make room for doing what you love? What choices, easy or hard, have you made to get to keep doing what you love, at work or out? 
academic work · best laid plans · empowerment · ideas for change · modest proposal · organization · saving my sanity

Drop in, tune out

Here’s an experiment I’m undertaking this term: I hold four hours of in-person office hours every week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 2-4, and I encourage any student that needs anything from me to come by during those hours. If they’re out of town, they can call. At the same time, I’m also telling them: please think twice before emailing me. I’m overwhelmed with tiny tasks ping-ping-ping and I think you can solve most of them on your own, if you just spend five minutes looking it up instead of 30 seconds emailing me so that I can look it up for you. If you want me to solve your tiny problems, I say, come to my office hours and I will totally solve whatever you bring to me. But you might have to wait in line.

Some people keep emailing. I redirect them to my office hours. People are now coming to my office hours.

My office hours are the biggest party in my hallway all week. Students are sometimes lined up four or five deep. Some of them, I can hear calculating: could I fix my own problem faster than standing in line? Or, Wow, Professor Morrison sure has to help a lot of people. Or once they come see me: OH! I feel so much better now / I understand what’s happening / I know what book to read / Thanks for your help.

So far, I’m calling the experiment a success. I’m getting less email now, AND, I’m solving more problems for students, more quickly. I’m trying to really devote some Grad Chair time to direct student concerns, but without having it take over my entire life, which it was threatening to do before. Now that time is intense, but it is limited. I’m also, I discover, not super awesome with email. I have trouble triaging what comes in and I forget about stuff that slips below the fold, as it were. When I did my year end review with my chair, and had to identify my own strengths and weaknesses, I brought up the email thing before he did: I often drop the ball and while I keep working on my game, I’m not really getting that much better at it.

In my defense, I often receive malformed or misdirected queries: students ask me ambiguously worded questions without indicating some key salient piece of information, like that they’re part time students, or that they are paying international fees of something. These details are fast and easy to sort out in person. And there’s nothing wrong in students learning that there are 135 of them that I’m helping and maybe it might not be instant: the open door and the lineups make visible the advising labour in ways that help keep everyone’s expectations in check.

I might still fiddle the parameters. I might have a few more drop in hours, but I like limiting them to a couple of days of the week, to give me some flexibility to schedule the other work that I need to do, and not be on campus 35 hours a week like last term: that was too much, and productivity suffered. I’ll probably survey the students at the end of the term to see how they liked it. But my sense is that everyone is getting what they need, and faster, and with smiles, and I love to see them and they’re even having fun together out in the hallways. It’s convivial.

And it helps hold back the ever growing email tide, at the same time as it models a sensible approach to overload. For me, at least.

A couple of my colleagues have expressed skepticism. They use email to track their work and their to-do. I know I used to be like this, too: “Send me an email to remind me!” I’d say. But then, honestly, I’d let the email slide off the first screen and forget anyway. This is how you get to inbox 2000.

For me, a good solution to a good chunk of my email overwhelm was to enforce a system whereby I still do the work the email required of me, but I don’t do it over email anymore. Because I have some tiny modicum of authority (this is why so many students need my help) I can shift the culture and the expectations by fiat. I hope it works out for all of us. Like I said, it’s an experiment.

In fact, I feel so freed by this loosening of the email noose that I’ve finally found the wherewithal to start up that drop in writing workshop for dissertating students. Sixteen of them showed up to our first  meeting, and we all wrote for an hour. And none of it was email.

academic work · advice · collaboration · global academy · research

How to: Manage a Distance Research Collaboration

Since the beginning of my PhD, I’ve worked on a number of long-term, long-distance research projects with people in France, India, Nova Scotia, British Columbia, and the UK. I’ve gotten pretty good at scheduling meetings across time zones and finding ways to share documents and ideas with people on opposite sides of the planet. Given the increasingly interdisciplinary and international focus of academic research, I’m betting that at some point you’ll find yourself wanting to collaborate with someone who is just getting up when you’re going to bed, and those collaborations function rather differently than those with the folks in the office down the hall. So you don’t have to figure out from scratch how to successfully pursue research or other projects with people from away, here’s what I’ve learned that can make your life easier:

  1. Figure out what blocks of time in each of your time zones conveniently overlap, and use those blocks as your default meeting times. I know my lunch hour in Toronto is the end of the work day in London, and so my UK-based collaborator and I tend to schedule our meetings then. It saves us from having to figure out a time that suits both of us every time we need to meet. I also keep this bookmarked: http://www.timeanddate.com/worldclock/converter.html
  2. Make use of free communication technology. Skype is your friend, as is Google chat. Email is useful, but I find that the best long-distance collaborations are nurtured with lots of less-formal conversation. If you can’t meet for coffee to talk shop, or pop into one another’s offices in the middle of the afternoon, try to replicate that experience online. I also advise using methods of communication that automatically capture a record of the conversation for you–Google chat does this, as does the SMS backup app I use to save all of my text messages to my email account, where they’re searchable. 
  3. Keep your documents somewhere central and easily accessible. I don’t know how I survived before the advent of Google Drive. I have a separate shared project folder for each of my current ongoing research collaborations, and everything lives there. We all appreciate being able to see who was the last to edit a file, precisely what edits those were, and exactly what collateral we have on hand at all times. I certainly appreciate not having my inbox clogged with huge attachments, and knowing that we’re all always working from the most up-to-date files. 
  4. Set deliverables and a follow-up plan at the end of every meeting. This is good practice for real-world meetings too, but it’s especially important in distance collaborations to make sure that everyone knows what needs to be done (and by when) at the end of every meeting, and when the next meeting will be (if one is necessary). If you know that your urgent 8:00 am email to your collaborator isn’t going to get read until she wakes up 10 hours later, it becomes extra important to ensure that expectations, deliverables, and timelines are clear when you already have her on the other end of the Skype call. 
  5. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Long-distance collaborations already have physical distance built in, and that physical distance can turn into mental distance and misunderstandings all too easily. Add the potential issues with cross-cultural communication–and this can be differences in institutional culture, not just broader regional or national culture–and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. It’s incredibly important to make sure that you’re all understanding terms in the same way, that your research goals and plans are clearly and regularly articulated, and that channels of communication are open. 
  6. Make plans to occasionally meet in person, if at all possible. Despite working with collaborators as far away as India, I’ve managed to meet up with my research partners at least once during each project, most often at a conference we were all attending. It is incredibly helpful, and incredibly invigorating, to spend some time talking and working together, even if just for a few hours.
  7. Let someone be in charge. It’s particularly important, when working remotely, to be clear about who is responsible for what, and to have someone taking the lead on the project (or certain aspects of it). Ensure that responsibility is clearly assigned, and that divisions of labour are clearly understood, or else you’ll spend your time worrying about if you were supposed to do that thing, or waiting for your collaborator (for whom it’s the middle of the night) to confirm that he’s doing whatever it is. 

What about you, dear readers? Any tips and tricks for successfully negotating long-distance research collaborations?

#alt-ac · #post-ac · academic work · day in the life · translation · writing

Seeing the Links: Transferring Skills between Work and Research

I do a lot of different things at work, mostly because despite all of the moaning about the explosion of administrators, there really aren’t enough people in our office to go around. It’s also a little because I’m not your average Research Officer. Many of you have probably worked with someone in my role at your university, especially if you’re a faculty member putting in a grant application. The other Research Officers at my university focus mostly on that–helping faculty prepare grant applications and then administering the grants post-award. Because I work with graduate students and not faculty (and there are far more students than there are faculty), I end up being a bit of a jill of all trades. I manage our graduate scholarship competitions, oversee research requiring ethics approval or an intellectual property agreement, coordinate our graduate professional skills program, run research-based competitions (like the Three Minute Thesis), and develop applications for grants and fellowships like the Banting postdoc. My job is often a bit harrying, but it’s endlessly interesting, and it’s always rewarding to feel like I’m useful and valued.

I genuinely enjoy almost all of the parts of my job (some of them in smaller doses than others, like wrangling schedules to get a dozen faculty members in a room to adjudicate scholarships), and I’m good at all of them. But I’ve discovered over the last year that I especially love, and am especially good at, developing fellowship and grant applications. What “development” means changes depending on the application, but it can mean anything from copyediting to substantive editing to writing whole sections of the application (like all of the institutional documents for the Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship). Because I’ve read hundreds upon hundreds of scholarship and grant applications (I have to review every SSHRC, NSERC, and CIHR application that comes through our university, and that’s quite a lot of them with 6, 000 graduate students), I’ve become–almost by osmosis–really good at knowing what a winning application looks like. I’ve become even more fluent in the genre of grant writing than I was as a grad student. I’ve also become good at helping people get past their own lack of fluency in the genre of grant writing, and their inability to translate what they’re doing in their research into words on a page. I love that part of it, because it means that I get to work closely with brilliant people who just need a little help to figure out how to write about their research and its importance in ways that are clear and compelling to other people. And I love it because it means I get to write, and feel confident while I’m doing it. I know what I’m doing, I’m good at it, and I get heaps o’ praise for doing it well.


It’s quite the sea change from my life as an academic writer.


I’ve been writing essays and articles for going on twenty years now. It seems like writing about my own research should feel effortless by this point, given how much practice I’ve had doing it and how well I know the subjects about which I write. Instead, it’s sometimes the complete opposite. Writing about my own research can feel like pulling teeth, while writing about other people’s research just feels fun. It’s much more difficult to get into the flow state while I’m doing writing for myself, and it’s even rarer that I get praised for what I’ve written. Or rather, I should say, it was. I don’t have a lot of time for writing these days, other than snatched moments at 5:30 am, but it tends to go well when I do. It wasn’t until recently that this mental disconnect, between my work writing and my research writing, and the changes that my work writing were inspiring in my research writing, became obvious to me.


It’s clear to me that I’m good at the writing I do at work because of my long experience with academic writing. We don’t talk about it as much as we could, but graduate students are becoming ever more aware of the ways that the skills they develop during their degrees can be transferred into future jobs, in whatever field, just the way mine have done. But why shouldn’t it, and couldn’t it, work the other way around? Despite the fact that my job is, from the perspective of many, a distraction from the academic work that I should be doing, it has worked that way. The non-academic, high-volume, to-deadline, highly communicative writing I do every day at work takes skill, and that skill is transferring into my academic writing. I write faster. I write more clearly. I don’t agonize over word placement and the perfect turn of phrase, because I’ve gotten out of the habit in a work environment where I just don’t have time to. And I’m sure that the confidence in my writing ability I’ve developed at work, bolstered by the positive feedback I get from those I write to and for, has done wonders for my confidence as an academic writer.


The idea of the shadow C.V., of taking on outside work before or during the PhD to gain some breadth of work experience in anticipation of looking for non-academic employment, has been around for awhile. But the major criticism of doing this other work is that it takes students away from their degrees, forces them to do multiple things instead of the one thing that they should be doing. It also insinuates, as does most rhetoric about hobbies and non-academic work in academe, that doing anything other than pure academic work will make you a bad academic. I don’t disagree that time is certainly an issue there, as it is for me in trying to finish a dissertation with a full time job. But just as I’m increasingly wary about the artificial divide between academic, alt-ac and post-ac jobs (isn’t a job just a job?), I’m also increasingly wary about the idea of non-academic work only being useful in non-academic contexts, and I’m calling foul on the idea of non-academic work making people lesser scholars. Just as the skills and expertise I developed in grad school got me my job and made me good at it, the skills and expertise I’m developing as a Research Officer are making me better at my research. Which is as it should be, no? So can we stop disparaging academics who have interests or do work outside of academe, stop denigrating non-academic work as a distraction from (or to the detriment of) “pure” academic work? Skills are skills, inside or outside of the academy, and honing them one place only sharpens them for use in the other. I’m only surprised that it took me so long to figure out that the river runs both ways.
academic work · advice · grad school · PhD

On Finding a PhD Supervisor

I picked my PhD supervisor when I was eight weeks pregnant, so ill and nauseated that I had to schedule all my meetings in the late afternoon (the time my so-called “morning sickness” had abated just enough that I could make it out of the house without guaranteeing that I’d vomit in public). I was sick, I was exhausted from the anti-nausea pills, I was completing coursework, and at the same time trying to figure out the next step in my PhD program.

You might think this was a bad place to be in terms of choosing a supervisor, but for me, the very reverse was the case. Being ill and inflexible had the glorious effect of making me focus only on the most important things while settling on a supervisor. Was s/he a good match for what would be my complicated schedule, particularly as I prepared for my candidacy? Would I be supported as I moved through the program, juggling my various professional and personal responsibilities? Did the way we both work match up?

Much of the literature on finding a PhD supervisor centres on other questions: questions of research interest and subject areas, and expertise in your field of choice. The advice often references those “star” researchers with international reputations who are constantly publishing and have an excellent reputation in their field. While these types of supervisors can indeed be excellent advisors, professors with strong research profiles do not by default make good advisors. In fact, the most important criteria for choosing your supervisor should not be the “star” criteria, but instead should focus on issues of compatibility. With that in mind, here are some tips for choosing a supervisor in your graduate degree:

1) Ensure your supervisor is interested in / has a strong investment in your work. Having a supervisor in your field is certainly a good idea, but sometimes you may find that for whatever reason–the interdisciplinarity of your work, your preferences in terms of work, their inflexible schedule, etc.–you need to choose someone slightly outside of your field. This can work swimmingly. Choose someone directly in your field to be your second or third reader on your committee, and your external examiner. Simply be sure that your supervisor thinks the work you are doing is valuable, insightful, and important, and can comment on it in critical and creative ways.

2) Know your work pattern, and try to match it with your supervisor’s. I knew that I wanted a relatively hands-on supervisor who would read and comment on my draft work, could meet regularly, and would allow me to talk through some of my ideas while they were in process. One of my good friends, in contrast, wanted a hands-off supervisor who would allow her to submit completed chapters only, with little contact (pressure! she said) in between. These are two extremes, but they illustrate my point: figure out how you work, what you’d like or need in terms of a supervisor, and choose one who will complement and enhance your own work patterns. This can make a huge difference in terms of how you progress through the program.

3) Do your homework. Set up a meeting to talk to your potential supervisor about how they work, your own project, and if they would be interested in pursuing a supervisorial relationship. Did the meeting go well? Great! Do more follow-up. Ask around. Talk to other students that professor has had: Will s/he read and comment on your work in a reasonably, timely fashion? Does the student feel energized/encouraged by working with him/her? Does the supervisor have a good record of showing students through to completion? Of students who have found good jobs (in or outside academia, whatever your preference might be)? Take the time to ask former students and current ones about their supervisorial relationships, and then take more time to think about it. No need to rush the process, just do it thoroughly.

4) Try to find an advocate. The very best supervisors are those who are not only committed to your work and project but who also will have your back as you navigate the complicated and onerous bureaucracy of the university. I’ve been lucky to have a supervisor who has at least on two occasion written letters or attended meetings in order to represent my interests. You might not think this is important, but when you run up against what can be a dehumanizing and rigid system, you will be inestimably grateful that your supervisor can help you pierce through it.