academic reorganization · academy · altac · empowerment · ideas for change

Professionalization and the Skillz to Pay the Bills

My first email address, that I got at York in 1993, was this: I probably only remember it because it was my very first email address, and I only knew, like 10 other people with email addresses, pretty much my friends who were geeks and who were at university:, We memorized each other’s weird handles and it all felt very computery and The Future. We were emailing with command line Lynx.

When I got to Guelph for my MA, I had a new address: The first thing I did was go into the settings of my mail program (Pegasus!) and configure the account so that the name “Aimee Morrison” attached to the email address That way, if you got an email from me, it would list my actual name in your inbox. And if you were on campus and typed part of my name, it would autocomplete the address from the directory. When I got to the University of Alberta (in 1998) I did the further trickery of registering an actual alias address: worked, but so did People marvelled at my astonishing computer skills.

None of this was hard to do. And it was the professional thing to do. Last week, I was ranting on Facebook about the number of students who won’t check their emails at all (YOU ARE ALL GOING TO FLUNK OUT BECAUSE THAT’S WHERE WE SEND DEADLINES), who won’t use their university accounts (FORWARD TO YOUR GMAIL IF YOU WANT BUT THIS IS A WORKPLACE), or who just never attach their names to their emails so that everytime I want to email them, I have to actually look through the university directory. Or they email me, and I have to reverse lookup the email address to figure out the name of the student.

Honest to god. Stop this. This is why people think we’re useless.

It got me thinking about bigger issues, about a different kind of professionalization, and institutionalization. One of the ways, I fear, that graduate students become institutionalized to think that there is no good life for them outside of the university is that we both passively support and sometimes actively encourage a very high degree of practical uselessness in them. You’re 30 years old and wrote a book length treatise on cycle plays but didn’t get paid in September because you never told HR that you moved, and they still have your email address from high school? Yeah. You might not be ready to have a regular job.

My sister works in the private sector. She wears real pants to work every day, uses a corporate intranet, meets deadlines, writes professional emails, uses spreadsheets, runs meetings. She has no patience at all for the life of the mind I describe to her, where everyone habitually misses deadlines, no one is trained on the main parts of their jobs, no one knows the org chart or the policies or the paperwork. Use a spreadsheet. Add. Their. Names. To. Their. Emails. And it is ridiculous, really.

Perhaps when we claim that our careers must take place in universities, we are as much about the negative valuation as the positive: we literally cannot function in office environments, because we don’t even know how to do a hanging indent in Microsoft Word, let alone create a pivot table, or use Excel functions to sort a table along two axes. Maybe we are unemployable.

This is depressing. Yes, academics are eccentric. One of my dear dear colleagues (love you!) knows how to ride a horse, but not drive a car. This type of thing is endemic. But can’t we be both eccentric AND competent? Paleography AND touch typing? Multi-modal poetry AND hand your grades in on time?

It begins with training. You know, when I started as grad chair, I was handed a master key, and a password to an email account, and left at it. Unacceptable. This work is complex, collaborative, multi-departmental, deeply financially implicated, full of ethical pitfalls and legal duties. Not one minute of training. I didn’t have the knowledge to run a lemonade stand, and I found myself in charge of a whole graduate program. It doesn’t speak well of the professional standards of my profession, truly. Just this year, the university is beginning to offer formal training for these roles. Next week, two and a half years into my three year term, I’m going to a workshop on how to lead meetings. Thank god.

We can do better by our students. The number one thing would be to inculcate the idea of the university *as* a workplace, and all of us as professionals in it. And of course, many professors (me!) need a lot more training in the mechanics of the workplace than we ever get. The next, and much easier thing, would be to offer opportunities to acquire basic workplace technical skills: using software, running meetings, emailing like a grownup, navigating the org chart.

Somewhere between debauched bohemian and corporate drone, there’s got to be some kind of middle place, some kind of basic competence in workplace skills and behaviours, so that we have more opportunities open to us, rather than fewer?

What do you want training in?

academy · dissertation · faster feminism · grad school · parenting · PhD · productivity · reform · women

Parenting in the PhD: Round II

It was with mixed feelings that I welcomed September and the onset of autumn this semester. Most years, with the yellow-tinged leaves and the crisp morning dew, I find myself back in the classroom, gearing up for a semester of teaching, welcoming new students, or training incoming RAs.

This year, I’m gearing up for a different kind of semester. I began the term filling out Employment Insurance (EI) forms instead of post-doctoral applications. Instead of stacks of papers mid-semester, I’ll be dealing with stacks of diapers. Instead of scheduled student hours, I’ll be at the beck and call of unscheduled infant cries: my second child is due to arrive at the end of October.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how different my experience of pregnancy, parental leave, and the academy has been on the second go-around.

Although both my children will be born during my PhD, the first arrived at the end of my first year, while I was funded through SSHRC. The second comes at the tail end of my program, as I submit my final chapter, re-write my introduction, and finish my conclusion. My funding has shifted from scholarship-based to teaching-based, and with that shift comes a complete alteration in how (and whether) I qualify for paid maternity and parental leave.

As it turns out, there are vastly different parental benefits available to graduate students at the University of Alberta depending on the source of their academic funding. Although every graduate student is permitted to take up to three years of unpaid parental leave, qualifying for paid leave depends on precisely how you are paid: 1) by scholarship, 2) as a Graduate Student Research/Teaching Assistant, or 3) as a Contract Academic Employee. Each of these options has various benefits and drawbacks, but most graduate students don’t actively chose which one they happen to qualify for. Much depends on how a particular department happens to be able to fund its graduate students, or the scholarships those graduate students themselves happen to win.

1) If you are paid by scholarship, paid parental leave depends on the scholarship itself. If you hold an external SSHRC doctoral award, you qualify for up to six months of paid parental leave at 100% of your stipend. If you hold other awards, it depends on that award. Surprisingly (to me, at least), many of these awards, both external to the university (like the prestigious Killam) or internal (like the now-defunct Dissertation Fellowship) offer no paid parental leave at all, meaning you would qualify for nothing if you happened to need parental or maternity leave while holding these awards.

2) If you are paid as an Research or Teaching Assistant (either full or part-time), you are permitted to take either: parental leave, which allows for 16 weeks of leave at 75% of your current stipend; or maternity leave at 100% of your stipend for six weeks, followed by 75% of your stipend for the remaining 10 weeks. (For more, see the Graduate Student Assistantship Collective Agreement).

3) If you are paid as a Contract Academic Employee, you *may* qualify for leave through Employment Insurance as long as you meet the requirements (you must have worked 600 insured hours as a Contract Academic Employee in the previous 52 weeks, which is not typical for most graduate students). This would permit you to take a full year of paid leave, at 55% percent of your salary.

These, of course, are just the policies at my own university–the University of Alberta. While other Canadian universities operate on similar lines (ie: whether you qualify for leave depends on how you are paid), many actually don’t offer any paid leave at all for students supported through the university (ie: as a research or teaching assistant).

In my particular case, in this second pregnancy, I managed to qualify for a full year of leave through EI by working as a Contract Academic Employee. I got a bit lucky because I was offered an extra course through another department at my university, and a spring course through my own department (which I was not guaranteed with my particular funding package). This meant I was able to work the amount of insurable hours I needed to qualify, and it means that this time I will be taking a full year of paid leave, versus four months last time–which I felt was insufficient (in fact, I wasn’t able to find full-time childcare until well after my four months of official leave). There was, of course, a trade-off: I almost certainly slowed my progress to completion by taking on the additional teaching work.

How, then, might universities better support graduate students who become parents during the course of their degrees?

What I’d really love to see is a full year of paid parental leave for all graduate students, regardless of how they are paid. This would go a very long way in helping women to succeed in academia. However, given that even the best leave (SSHRC) only pays six months of leave (albeit at 100%), I feel like this is a good second choice. So, I’d love to see all graduate students qualify for six months of leave at 100%, regardless of their funding sources. It would also be great to see the qualifying period simply be based on the student’s previous four months of pay. This would negate the need for students to undertake more work (and thus slow their time to completion) simply in order to qualify.

Both these things would help reduce the academic opacity that seems to surround the decision to have a family, and make it more fair for students who happen to be on scholarships or funding packages that mean they don’t qualify. Really, all graduate students should be entitled to paid leave, regardless of the source of their funding.

academy · empowerment · enter the confessional · fast feminism · generational mentorship · heavy-handed metaphors · ideas for change · midcareer

Pivot Point: Mid Career Feminist Academic

Sometime between earning tenure and right now, something important shifted. Instead of asking for signatures, I began to provide them. Instead of putting my name on the ballot for the committee, I became its chair. Instead of asking for orientation and guides to processes, I am now providing them. Instead of standing up for my principles in someone else’s meeting, I am setting the agenda for everyone. Instead of paying to go to conferences, I am invited to present. Instead of responding to CFPs, I am responding to invitations. It has become the case that I am teaching grad courses where half the assigned readings are by people I know personally, and some of the pieces cite work of my own. It’s weird.

Sometimes I look in the mirror and I’m surprised to see my 42 year old face looking out at me. I feel like a fresh young upstart, a rookie. Like a grad student sometimes. I feel like I’m starting out, still trying to figure out how everything works. An outsider.

This is all bullshit, and terrible feminism, to boot. Such a perspective enables me to avoid acknowledging the actual privilege and power that have attached to me over time. It’s flattering to my self-image to see myself bravely storming the barricades around the Ivory Tower. The truth is that at some point, I became an inhabitant safely ensconced on the protected side of the moat. The truth is that I guard the gates now.

This is a pivot point. The point where I acknowledge that while I’m still reaching for greater heights, I’m kind of holding the brass ring, and while still reaching as ably and confidently as I can manage, I need to release my grip a little so that others can grab a little piece of it too.

I’m not sure how to do this. I’ve climbed the Ivory Tower to the position I currently occupy by some combination of luck, timing, doggedness, self-promotion, faked confidence, and an always upthrust hand waiting to grab the microphone. It has taken a certain amount of tenacity and single-mindedness. But now, I have some small measure of power and control not only over myself but over others. My core values have, if anything, become more radical, and my critiques more pointed–I’ve had a lot of time to get smarter. However, it needs acknowledging that my relations to others–to people, to structures, to institutions, has radically shifted over time. This will necessitate some changes in how I act. It will also necessitate some changes to how I understand my own academic subjectivity–I’ll tell you frankly that it’s ideologically expedient to see myself as a rebel outsider rather than an agent of the institution of power.

I do know I need to acknowledge my own power and position not so much to seize it more fully (I was always already leaning into it, from junior kindergarden forward) but to wield it more lightly. To fight less hard to take up space as a the dragon-slaying rebel, but learn instead to use my dragony fire breath to make the clearing a little larger for more rebels to set up larger and better camps, use my wings to shelter them. I’m kind of discovering what that means, in practice.

I would love to hear from other mid-career faculty: what are your pivot points? How do you cope? What are your strategies for wielding power and influence for the cause of equity, or justice, or change from the inside rather than the outside?

#alt-ac · #post-ac · academy · change · community

Feeling More Welcome on the Fringe

I just got back from the 2015 Modern Language Association conference in Vancouver, one that was held in the beautiful conference centre in this photo, a space that was almost as gorgeous inside as it was outside (ocean! mountains! I grew up in Ontario!).  This was my fourth MLA, and definitely one of my favourites. It was wonderful to get to spend some serious time with one of my co-authors (shoutout to Erin Wunker) and a treat to be at a conference somewhere that I could still use data on my phone (it’s the little things). But for reasons that I didn’t anticipate, that this MLA was great had just as much to do with changes to my profession, and changes to THE profession, as it did with geography or excellent choice of roommate.

I want to go back in time for a minute to think through why this is, at least a little. A Hook & Eye reader got in touch with me a couple of months ago, and we met for lunch at a favourite local restaurant to talk about our experiences of being academic staff, and about the work I’m doing on Hook & Eye to advocate for, and demystify, non-professorial careers for humanists. She, like me, is a humanities PhD who now has a job in an academic staff role, although in her case she left a tenure-track job to take it. She, unlike me, hasn’t been to an academic conference since she made the switch from professor to administrator, and her experience of leaving the tenure-track has been, from what I gathered, far more isolating than mine has.

I’d never consciously thought about it before that lunch, but my transition plan was very effectively, although mostly accidentally, designed. I started writing and publishing about higher ed reform and graduate career development about the time that I made the decision not to go on the academic job market, and when I moved into my staff role, I gradually started pitching conference presentations on those topics. My first year as Research Officer, I gave a paper at the MLA on alternative dissertations, a panel which inspired the first cluster of Graduate Training in the 21st Century, and another at ACCUTE on my usual work on Canadian modernist poetry. This year, now that paying work has required that I scale back on my CanLit work, I was an invited speaker on an MLA panel about careers for humanists, I’m giving a talk about skill development and graduate reform at NeMLA, and I’m co-organizing a panel on related topics as part of ACCUTE’s Committee for Professional Concerns. I’m not giving any papers on CanLit at all, and yet it hasn’t been necessary for me to stop attending the conferences I’ve always attended, because I made a space for myself at them that reflects the changing nature of my academic and career goals (and that let me expense my attendance to the occasional one as a work gig). I’ve never had to stand on the sidelines and watch my academic friends gallivant around exciting new cities, and drink bad free wine at the book exhibit, without me. I’d be terribly sad if I did. And that’s in large part also because of the fact that alongside my work to make room for myself at these conferences, they’ve made room for me. When I started attending the MLA, any panels on career development and professionalization were almost exclusively geared to the academic job market, and it was never certain that the paper or panel I was pitching would be accepted. This year, there were three panels and a half-day workshop devoted to careers for humanists in the broadest sense, in all job markets. They had the institutional authority of being organized by the MLA and co-sponsored by the American Historical Association, and instead of worrying if my paper on mid-century modernist Canadian poetry would be too out in left-field for the American-centric MLA, I was invited to speak. I’m not attending DHSI any more, but I still get to go–just as an instructor. Quelle différence! 

Even just a few years ago, I bet that this smooth transition from PhD to staff while maintaining a close relationship with my academic community would have been much harder than it is now. PhDs who moved into non-professorial careers were largely invisible to North America’s largest scholarly associations, and those careers were still considered the booby prize, the Plan B. People I know who made the transition much earlier, and have maintained their research profiles since, largely did so because they took staff jobs that provided them with an ongoing institutional affiliation. But as those same scholarly associations begin to recognize that only 18.6% of PhDs (in Canada, at least) become professors, the more they realize that they need to serve those people who make up the majority of their constituents–people like me who will not become academics–if they hope to stay relevant and to meet the needs of their membership. Moreover, the more they realize that people like me, who can talk about the realities of life in a non-professorial careeer, are necessary to this project. In fact, I can say that I’ve had precisely the opposite experience of that reader I had lunch with. In moving off of the professorial track and into a position that once would have been considered on the fringe (and is still considered such by many, I’ll admit), I feel far more connected and central to my scholarly communities that I ever have before. I’ll admit that I’m in an oddly privileged position, working in an #altac position that is in many ways concerned with graduate careers and training while also researching those subjects. But many of the non-professors at the MLA were doing vastly different things than what I do, and they were sitting on the panel right beside me.

It’s strange to me that I had to get myself to the outside–into a position that I thought would guarantee that the powerful and traditional in academia would see me as a second-class citizen, or not see me at all because I’d become invisible–in order to really be invited in. It’s an odd place to be, and yet I’m not complaining. Mostly I’m just revelling in the fact that life is good on the other side, and that more and more people–from grad student to full professor–are recognizing that my experience is not at all anomalous, that there’s plenty of fulfilling and financially rewarding work to be had beyond the professoriate. To some at the MLA, I might still be on the fringe, but the numbers don’t lie–we are, to steal the NFM’s turn of phrase, the new PhD majority. And as assumptions about the goals of those pursuing PhDs continue to change, so will the inclusivity of the scholarly associations to which we belong. The water’s warm, and I’m loving that I’m surrounded by ever more swimmers.

Image by TDLucas5000, CC

academy · PhD · syllabus · teaching

Syllabus Matters

Holy moley, has this semester snuck up on me. Since I administered a final exam for my Fall Composition course on Dec. 23, I was grading until the 24th (yep, I whipped through those suckers), and then I had a precious 2.5 weeks before diving back into teaching my new course. I mostly stayed in New York with the exception of a brief, cherished getaway to Philadelphia with my partner for a weekend, and because I did not have the relief (?) of family members being around, it was difficult for me to disengage in continually pressing dissertation and syllabus matters. Ohh, The Trap of Perpetual Productivity. (hence, love Aimee’s post on Down Time from last week!)

But it was a nice break nonetheless, and tbh, I tend to maintain a generally higher personal morale during the constantly moving and demanding semester; add that to the fact that I seem to have a mild form of reverse seasonal affective disorder (otherwise known as Summer-SAD), and I’d say I’m doing pretty okay, besides feeling the regular senses of apprehension and nervousness about the impending term.

This semester, I’m teaching a transhistorical course on Dreaming in Literature, which is actually the first Literature Proper course I have ever taught (after having taught five different Composition–or mandatory first-year writing–courses, ubiquitous in the American higher education system though perhaps some Canadian institutions have them as well?). My syllabus took a very long time to generate since I was building it entirely from scratch, and although I’m writing my dissertation on medieval dream visions and I’m excited about the broader temporal context this class will give me, I spent a lot of time seeking out dreamy things in other eras in a way that would offer the course both coherence and variety. Turns out there are a lot of texts that deal with dreams in some capacity! In this post, I’d like to A) sample a few points from my syllabus in order to share ideas and solicit feedback from more experienced professors; B) discuss a couple problems with the course that I can already anticipate; and C) crowd-source for more texts on dreaming, should you worthy readers have suggestions. While my reading list is pretty much set, I’m planning to build an additional Google Drive doc of other possible texts that students can sample from for their final papers and supplementary presentations. So if you can think of something major I’ve missed, toss it in the comments!

A) My course is split into broad (in one case very broad…) chronological units, and its main texts are:

  • Medieval Dreaming: “Caedmon’s Hymn,” “Dream of the Rood,” Chaucer’s The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, and the Anonymous Pearl poem
  • Romantic Dreaming (Renaissance to nineteenth-century): Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Christabel, selections from John Keats and William Blake
  • Modernist Dreaming: Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, Hitchcock’s Spellbound (film), and selections from Freud and Jung
  • Postmodern/Contemporary Dreaming: Jack Kerouac’s Book of Dreams, Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), selections from Rosalind Krauss’s Optical Unconscious 

Of my various assignments (you can peruse the rest through the course website if you’d like), I’m perhaps most excited about the “Slow Looking” Museum Assignment, which I discovered through my medievalist Facebook friend Julie Orlemanski: in brief, this assignment requires students to visit a museum, gallery, or other public space, observe a piece of art relating to the themes of our course for at least 45 minutes (key), and then write a response in which they reflect upon their experience of “slow looking.” The idea comes from an article by Harvard Professor Jennifer L. Roberts, who observes that we professors should be thinking more about teaching pace and tempo alongside material and content, about encouraging practices of “deceleration, patience, and immersive attention,” especially as our current world constantly pushes students towards “immediacy, rapidity, and spontaneity.” I LOVE THIS! My students are going to HATE it (many of them), but I LOVE it! One of my most transformative experiences as an undergrad was when my art class took a trip to a Rodin exhibit at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, and I ended up sitting in front of a fallen caryatid statue for about an hour after other students had left, watching it shift and evolve and emerge in different meaningful ways the longer I chose to allow it. I hope my students derive some similarly surprising insights from this exercise. 

B) A couple problems/concerns:

  • One: you may have noticed, oh feminists. I only have two female authors: Virginia Woolf and contemporary psychoanalytical theorist Rosalind Krauss. I’m basically as bad as David Gilmour! (though, who knows, maybe Pearl was written by a woman…??)  I think a lot of this is the nature of the material, the male-driven canon of course but also the question of who is licensed to have access and agency over their own dreams (oh, Freud…), and I plan to make this problem a recurrent talking-point. But nevertheless I could have found more women authors, especially in the modern/contemporary periods, so I am ESPECIALLY eager for some suggestions in that arena in the comments below (women of color or LGBT writers esp. welcome). I have a little bit of leeway with juggling things around near the end of the term.  
  • Two: An introductory writing exercise yesterday during my first class has led me to believe that most of my students chose this course because they want to learn to interpret their own dreams. While I there is a creative/personal component to the syllabus, and self-exploration is one of the themes of the course, I need to figure out how to cultivate such eager, engaged attitudes while keeping the focus of the class on literature, sometimes literature that won’t initially seem very exciting or, cough, relatable
  •  Three: I’m worried I haven’t assigned enough reading. So many people cautioned me that I need to assign less than I deem possible that I may have overcompensated…hence, tomorrow, we’re examining a mere 15 pages of texts. We’ll see how things go, I guess. I really have no idea!

Lastly, as I think about my own syllabus and the endless tinkering that went on before I distributed it yesterday, I can’t sign off without boosting this article by Rebecca Schuman in Slate, on the question of why syllabi have sprouted in length to something akin to “exhaustive legal contracts that seek to cover every possible eventuality.” Yes, it’s the corporatization of the university system, the sense that students are now consumers who by following as many systematic guidelines possible can purchase rather than earn their grades. I love Schuman’s suggestion at the end that we should relegate all the “admin boilerplate” to the end of our documents, emphasizing through form and physical presentation which issues actually matter. 

Any suggestions or grains of wisdom from your own syllabi, readers? How are you approaching your syllabi this term?
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#alt-ac · #post-ac · academy · administration · risky writing · serious

Silenced by Fear and Doubt: Blogging in the #Altac

The year is still new, but I’m already looking back. I didn’t post nearly as much as I wanted to last year. There were a few reasons. I was busy trying to figure out how to be a full time administrator and a PhD student and a friend and a partner and a homeowner and Moose’s person at the same time. I was tired and anxious, because a year of doing everything for the first time and wanting to do it really well will do that to you. I had a hard time coming up with post ideas that pleased me, that I thought would please you, our readers. Those are all okay reasons. But the biggest reason I deleted so many of the posts I started was the thought of displeasing a very specific some of you, our readers. You see, my co-workers, including the Dean and people I report to, read this blog. Not all the time, I’m sure, but on occasion. Often enough that my posts have come up in conversation around the office. Often enough that it makes me very wary of talking openly about some of the biggest challenges and changes of being a flexible academic who has chosen to move into administration.

Talking about what it’s like to be a woman in the #altac is what I’m here for, for the most part. We have Boyda and Jana to talk about various stages of the graduate student experience, Erin and Margrit to speak to the contingent and in-transition perspective, and Aimee and Lily to be our tenured viewpoints. We’re also bringing on a whole host of fantastic guest bloggers this year to speak to a wider range of jobbed and lived perspectives than we’ve ever spoken to before. We all have our niches, and I’m the #altac girl. Sure, I like to write about my research on occasion, and I’ll be doing more of that this year than last because I feel like I’ve mostly got a grip on how to be a flexible academic who works and researches at the same time. Yes, I like to write about gender and sexism in literature and life and the media. Sometimes I want to talk about my haircut, or my cat. But more often than not, I want to talk about work, the work that I’ve discovered I love after worrying for years that finding fulfillment in non-professorial work would be impossible. My posts on #altac issues tend to be pretty popular around here, at least in part (I think) because many of you feel the same way, and want a view into what life is like on the other side. It’s mostly good, but not always. And I feel like I can’t give you a clear view, at least not in the ways I want to.

When I started my job, all of this seemed much easier than it’s proven to be. But something has changed since that first day in the office, and my identity as an #altac blogger has proven much less stable than my previous identity as a graduate student one. Given the negative experiences of others who have collided headlong with the limitations of free speech as non-tenured academic writers, there are still lots of questions to be answered about how to go about blogging in the #altac. How can flexible academics effectively talk about potential issues like workload, sexism in the workplace, possible career trajectories, or negotiating our commitments to work and family when the promise of safety and freedom that tenure brings doesn’t exist in the same way in the #altac? How can we #alt-academics negotiate our sense of responsibility to the academic community–a responsibility that I argue strongly for, and one that demands the ability to speak openly and honestly about life as a flexible academic–and our responsibility to maintaining workplace protocols and collegiality? Is the university community able to read honest criticisms of its less admirable practices and attitudes from those who have seen it from all sides–as students, and teachers, and staff–as suggestions for improvement rather than attacks? These are questions that I don’t know how to answer–they’re questions that even feel risky to ask openly–and they’re keeping me silent.

I am very aware that there are many of us who have to negotiate the balance between self-expression and self-protection. With the majority of academic work being contingent and outside of the structures of tenure, that number is ever increasing. I know that I’m late to the game in my realization of how difficult this negotiation can be. Erin has written, and Margrit has spoken, about their belief that their openness on Hook & Eye has been to the detriment of their careers. As Aimee has noted, Heather’s voice took on a perhaps uncomfortable weight when she became Vice Dean, and she stopped writing for us not long after. Lee has long been contract academic faculty and a blogger, and now has to negotiate her new status as an #alt-academic who writes in public. This is an issue for all of us who are untenured, who don’t have the protections to our freedom of speech that tenure provides, or who have the protections of tenure only for our lives as researchers and not for our lives as administrators (a sharp divide, as Robert Buckingham so memorably found out). That leaves just Aimee and Lily who can, ostensibly, say what they like and not feel constrained by signing their names to it. Aimee recognizes this, and she speaks out for us when we can’t.

Not having that freedom for myself rankles, especially given the commitment of everyone who writes for H&E to sign our names to our writing. But I am junior. I am untenured, and will never have the protections of tenure. I rely on good relationships with the people I work with–relationships I do have, because the people I work with are great and they seem to think the same about me–to make my working life go smoothly, and to ensure that I’ll be able to move up and on when I’m ready. I could lose a promotion, as Anne Whisnant did when she criticized the way the academy integrates (or fails to integrate) doctorate-holding staff into its ranks. I could even lose my job. I don’t want that to be me, and I’m in a genuine pickle about how to move forward without putting myself at risk.

Whatever the answer is, or even if there isn’t one, it’s a start to have the questions out in the open.

academy · adjuncts

Privilege in things small and big

The more I stay away, the more elusive my return becomes. I have stayed silent for the past few weeks, because I felt both like I had not much of value to say, and like I could not rise to the bar set so high by my amazing co-bloggers. But stay away I cannot, because I have a duty to live up to the privilege that is participating in Hook and Eye. And it’s privilege I want to talk about.
I have been reading a lot lately, and mostly novels I thought would come nowhere near teaching. But you know what they say about taking the teacher out of the classroom? Yes. Most of the books I’ve been reading came from the library: yet another privilege. One day, I was walking back from the library, a prodigiously negative windchill biting at my cheeks, and I raised my eyes from their futile attempts at making my legs go faster, and looked around at the university campus I was strolling through. The first thought that pierced my frozen skull was how much I love university campuses. The second: what a fantastic privilege it was to walk them on a daily basis. Most of them are just so beautiful, and ambling along their paths reveals the amount of work and planning that produced such spaces designed for thoughts to expand courageously, and take flight. The antithesis of cubicles, really, but I digress.
So let me meander back to the point of privilege: HigherEd conversation has been focused on precarious labour for the last little while, seeking to direct energy towards identifying respectful and equitable ways to respond to what has been called “the adjunct crisis.” This week, the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English, ACCUTE, has announced that it has drafted a “Best Practices Checklist” for employing contract academic faculty in Canadian departments of English. It is “designed specifically to further greater awareness of, and respect for, the work of contract faculty members.” In spite of the much bemoaned lack of reliable numbers to contextualize the extent of adjunctification in Canadian Universities, the members of ACCUTE’s Task Force, Michael Brisbois (MacEwan), Heidi Tiedemann Darroch (Victoria), Dorothy Hadfield (Waterloo), Jason Haslam (Dalhousie), Nat Hurley (Alberta), Luke Maynard (Huron), Laura Schechter (Alberta), Stephen Slemon (Alberta), and Erin Wunker (Mount Alison) have put their money where all of our mouths are, and come up with suggestions to make sessional teaching less exploitative. It’s important to note that members of this Task Force represent diverse constituencies of university teachers, and I hope that Erin, whose activism and engagement are truly boundless, tells us more about the aims, workings, and future of the Task Force.
The uneasy question of privilege still haunts us, though, even if this first step in alleviating the discrepancy between different tiers of academic employment starts to respond to the larger question of what do we do with privilege. Privilege can feel like a huge burden, like an unearned reward in a system that looks increasingly more like a lottery than a meritocracy. Erin Morton elaborated on this tricky position in a very thoughtful post on Faculty Orientations. What I’m getting at is how easy it can be for emerging scholars who are in TT positions to feel like they cannot discuss the excessive demands of academia, when so many of their peers struggle to make ends meet. They feel their privilege acutely, and sometimes as a silencing force.
To my mind, privilege implies duty devoid of charity. It’s easy to couch that duty in terms and actions that reinforce exiting hierarchies instead of taking them down altogether. The former is charity, while the latter comes closer to equity. The ACCUTE document goes a long way in illustrating how to use this academic privilege and lack thereof, by working together towards a more respectful workplace in Canadian universities.
We all have some degree of privilege in one area or another, so I’m still left with the question of how can we make use of our own privilege ethically, and in ways that render the notion obsolete for the benefit of equity rather than silence

PS: Happy International Women’s Day Eve! How do you celebrate?
academy · equity · faster feminism

Microaggressions and what your university’s home page says about gender and research

This is the page I see when I open a new browser window. It’s the University of Waterloo home page. I open a lot of browser windows, owing to I fart around on the Internet for a living, so I see this page somewhere between 10 and 50 times a day. One of the cool features of the UW home page is that right up at the top, above the fold, there’s a slide-show of profiled researchers. You can click on their pictures or the brief description of their work in order to see a full length profile. I like this, in principle: it’s a great way to showcase, every week, different aspects of the research life of the university, or, less often, some aspect of student life or teaching.

The problem is, since the beginning of September, the stories have all featured men. Oh, and one featured a spiffy new building, that’s mostly filled with male researchers.

Open browser: smiling dude working in nanotechnology.

Open browser: smiling dude working in nanotechnology.

Open browser: back of some dude, talking about quantum computing.

Open browser: extremely expensive room in extremely expensive building, for quantum nano.

Open browser: smiling Twitter founder (dude), coming for a lecture on being an entrepreneur.

Browser after browser after browser, for a couple of weeks, and I was starting to simmer a low grade annoyance on the back burner of my consciousness. Yesterday, I figured it out: I was feeling excluded, as a woman and as a humanities researcher. I was feeling like the university was trying to represent a normative research agenda and researcher, and it was engineering focused, and male. It felt like a personal insult.

It was a microagression. Just a tiny, little inconsequential thing, that over time, and repeated exposure, turned into, well, feelings of unbelonging and stress. Microaggression: it’s the nanotechnology of exclusions.

I wrote to the head of Communications and Public Affairs (because it’s the PR people who get to decide what the university is all about, and how to pitch it to the world, which is another post, probably) and mentioned both that I love the stories, individually, but that I’d noticed what I’d noticed and I thought it should be fixed.

She wrote back to say that feedback is always welcome and my input will eventually be considered.

Um, no.

I think this is important, actually. You know, I featured in one of those stories last year, in the same week as two other female researchers. Some of my other female colleagues–including some humanists and social scientists, have been profiled, too. I don’t think CPA is being deliberately sexist and exclusive. I just don’t think the balance of fields, disciplines, and genders is something they’re explicitly planning for. They should. Because when you leave it to chance, sometimes September is all men and all engineering all the time. Sometimes, when you don’t make a conscious effort at fostering and celebrating diversity (of fields, of scholars, or even of the balance between the research and teaching and service mandates of the university) you replicate the easy inequities of the culture at large. And that feels icky, to at least one female member of this institution.

academy · advice · DIY · going public · grad school · job market · syllabus

Graduate Professionalization Seminar

I’m putting my money where my mouth is. I teach PhD students, in a department that admits LOTS of them, and wants to admit more. I think a PhD is a great job to hold for five or six years, and I think it can prepare you for lots of different outcomes. I want our grads to be more prepared for the academic, post academic, and alternative academic careers they can move into next, and so does my department: so I’m teaching our new, required PhD milestone seminar in professionalization.

My feminist intervention here is to materialize the PhD: it’s not just about abstract smarts and it never was. It’s also about street smarts, people skills, time management, work/life balance, and questions of identity and culture. I want to make all that explicit.

And since a lot of you have been asking about this, here’s my syllabus. The readings are not 100% settled–I’ll update as we go, but the topics are set and the contours of each meeting are laid out in hwat I hope are bullshit-free terms. Eight of the ten weeks feature guest experts from inside and outside of the academy, from this institution and others, but I’m leaving them anonymous here.

Use what you can, but if you do, please link back. And let me know what you think!

Graduate Professionalization Course
Prof. Aimée Morrison
a h m [at]
Hagey Hall 269
Office hours: Monday and Wednesday, 2:00-3:00
The course addresses professionalization across a number of fronts: it will prepare you to complete your doctorate with grace, aplomb, and skill; it will allow you to prepare yourself for the job you will have after the degree, whether this job is inside the academy, or, more likely, without; it will suggest to you the skills required to do all this in relative calm and steady effort, and with a minimum of panic or maladaptive work habits or counterproductive coping strategies. 
The course is skill-based and culture-based. It is chock full of practical how-tos and opportunities to practice these skills. It also aims to explicitly describe what might seem to be hard-to-decode implicit rules by which the degree and the academy work, as well as the “real world” beyond.
We will learn how to write effectively, copiously, and professionally. We will learn to give conference papers, write abstracts, do peer reviews–and receive peer reviews. We will also learn how to master other oral presentation contexts. We will learn how to build and manage a dissertation committee with the aim of timely and stress-free dissertation writing and completion. We will learn how to locate, interview for, and succeed in such academic jobs as occasionally make themselves available. We will learn how to secure meaningful and interesting work in universities beyond the tenure-track or sessional streams. We will learn how to find meaningful and interesting work “post-academic” style, and how to translate all the hard-won academic skills for non-academic hiring managers.
Class meets weekly, for ten weeks, Monday mornings from 9:30 until noon, in the department library. Bring coffee. Bring your readings. Bring your writing. Bring your laptop / tablet / really big-screened phone. Bring pens and paper. I expect you to have the assigned readings completed, and to be ready to engage in discussion and activity, in writing, in class.
This course is a degree milestone. By registering, you undertake the professional responsibility of attending diligently and participating fully. This is not a drop-in. Please take this course as seriously as you take the other elements of your degree and your future career.
Time management, goal-setting, and the determination of priorities are major topics in this course. The time you spend making this course a priority is going to pay vast dividends in time you no longer fritter away in the future. Commit.
Required Texts
Order these from Amazon or Chapters-Indigo or your favorite online retailer. You’ll be down about $30 if you buy them new, but they’re worth every penny. We’ll be reading these two books cover to cover.
  • Basalla, Susan and Maggie Debelius, So What Are You Going to Do with That? Finding Careers Outside Academia. Rev. Ed. Chicago: U Chicago P, 2007.
  • Bolker, Joan. Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 1998.
These texts will be supplemented with further required readings drawn from the web, as well as photocopies of chapters from other books, as made available in the dedicated mailbox in the department mailroom.
If you’re really super keen, and are looking for supplementary materials to read, the department has begun to amass and make available to graduate students a growing library of professionalization texts on writing, job hunting, time management, and more. These books are available to borrow from the graduate office.
Careers Thinking (September 9)
Guest: Jen Woodside, Career Services
To read: Basalla and Debelius, chapters 1 and 2.
To do: Myers-Briggs Type Inventory
Jen Woodside (Career Services) and I have been consulting over the summer: she’s customized her careers for graduate students workshop for this group in particular, and she and I are going to get you to do some work right now today to advance your future career: what are your goals and aptitudes? how can you chart your course to happiness and solvency? if you’re an ENTJ, can you ever learn to stop trying to run the whole world? The upshot of today’s work is this: you have a lot of options. The main thing is to begin the process of planning the next stage of your life, through careful self-enquiry and a clear-eyed look at how the world of work actually functions.
Managing the PhD (September 16)
Special Guests: XXX
To read: Bolker, chapters 1, 2, and 6; Graduate Studies Office, “A Guide to Graduate Research and Supervision at the University of Waterloo”
To do: write out all your program milestones, find all the forms you need to graduate
I know someone whose supervisor died in a scuba accident a month before her defense. Three of my own committee members left the U of A while I was writing my dissertation. My dad died the day I won my SSHRC! One of my friends got married, another divorced. One friend had her supervisor stand up in the middle of her PhD oral exam and quit the committee in a huff. All of us finished, and not too terribly behind. The PhD is an endurance event: milestones, paperwork, balancing teaching and research, trying to get chapters written and then trying to get your committee to read them. Over and above subject area knowledge, it requires surprising amounts of people skills and political savvy, and sometimes more than a little strategy. Even though a whole university worth of bureaucracy and many, many authority figures structure your degree, ultimately, you are the only one who can move the ball forward. Meet your milestones, get your papers signed, create your own motivation to write. We’ll discuss how.
Grantsmanship and Other Professional Writing (September 23)
Special Guests: XXX
To read: SSHRC Web Site, description and instructions for Doctoral Fellowship Awards; Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities, description and instructions for Ontario Graduate Scholarships, Basalla and Debelius ch 4
To do: find another funding source you can apply to
You know what I hate? Applying for grants. Only six pages to describe my entire research? And what do they mean “methodology,” dammit, I’m a literary scholar?! Everyone knows it’s a total crapshoot, and I’m just wasting my time on this. The government should fund all research. Jerks. Except, when I took two tries in grad school, I won a doctoral fellowship that funded me for two years. And I got some travel funding, and tuition waivers, too. Then as a prof, I’ve won one internal grant. Then I got two “miss congeniality” also-ran awards at one SSHRC program before winning a Standard Research Grant for nearly $60,000. I am never going to prepare my own bibliographies again. Guess what? The rest of your life, inside the academy or out, is going to feature long-form bureaucratic writing like grant apps: budgets, rationales, descriptions, structured data like CVs, prescribed formatting, etc. Get good at this. It matters.
How to Read a Book: Learning Skills (September 30)
To read: Paul Edwards, “How to Read a Book”
To do: contact your exam committee; bring something to take notes from; find old exams; talk to past exam-takers
Enjoy studying for your Area Exams. You are never going to ever have this much time and scope again for “learning” as your number one task. Ever. Are you wondering how you can somehow accomplish the reading on the list with the six months you are allotted? Many students develop huge anxiety around THE EXAMS: we’ll work on how to get through this with style and verve, to make the process both useful, and enjoyable. True story: I did my PhD exams in 2000, and I’m still using notes from my readings in my teaching and research. Because it feels like nearly the last time I was able to read a whole academic book all the way through, just to hear what it had to say.
Networking (ALSO ON September 30)
Special guest: XXX
To read: me, Melonie Fullick, LSE Impact blog Twitter guide–will be posted, Basalla and Debelius ch 3
To do: identify members of your academic and extended public. 
If a dissertation lands on a library shelf, and no one ever picks it up, did any research get done? If a degree is conferred on a bright young scholar and no one tweets it, will she ever get a job? Here’s a truth: you have to do good work and be smart to succeed in life. But those things are not enough. People have to know about your good work, and know who you are, too. The work can only speak for itself if it lands in someone’s hands, and that person has somehow become disposed to consider it with his or her full attention amid myriad of other demands. Networking, in person and online, are increasingly important to all kinds of careers. Let’s think about how and why, and then let’s do it.
How to Write a Dissertation (October 7)
Special guest: XXX
To read: Lamott, “Shitty First Drafts,” “Perfectionism,” “Letter”; Bolker, chapter 3 and 4; Davis, Parker, and Straub, chapter 10
To do: read some dissertations; find some model proposals
Invariably, graduate students tell me, when they start the program, that they fully intend to finish in year 4. And yet hardly any of them do. Why? You’ve probably never been asked to write something so long, with such high stakes, of such originality, with so little direction, and so few meaningful deadlines or milestones. After you hand your proposal in in December of your 3rd year … you are apparently all on your own. You know, with your neuroses and your demons and your insecurities and your toilet that really needs scrubbing and your procrastination and your full-run of Breaking Bad / Gilmore Girls / Jersey Shore that ain’t gonna watch itself. Then your panic and your shame and your despair. Let’s just not go through that this time, okay?
Academic Identity (October 21)
Special guests: XXX
To read: stuff from Chronicle?  I’ll get back to you on that …
Most people are smart enough to get a PhD. But the degree and the profession are a culture as much as a big-brain competition: there are ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways of doing and ways of knowing, mostly transmitted implicitly or by acculturation, that can make the difference between success and failure, between fit and alienation. It will probably not surprise you to discover that some aspirants fit themselves more or less easily, with more or less effort, with more or less emotional difficulty to the role of Graduate Student or Junior Professor. We will aim to uncover and name the ‘hidden’ or implicit rules that structure the academy, and consider the challenges of meeting / thwarting / changing /subverting these norms, as well as how our own racial, gender, national, family-status, and class identities complicate or ease our academic work.
Pedagogy / Writing Pedagogy (October 27)
Special guests: XXX
To read: find a Twitter hashtag for writing instructors; read stuff
To do: bring your syllabi, or someone else’s; bring some lesson plans; create a course!
It may seem natural to you by this point, but it is a profoundly unusual thing to spend so much of your work life standing at the front of a classroom teaching stuff to people. You have to master the content! Design syllabi! Do public speaking! Answer questions! Write lectures! Grade! Manage deadlines / personalities / people! It can be very easy to let the excitement of teaching overwhelm your whole work life–but you shouldn’t do this. It can be very easy to try to improve you teaching by spending more time on it–this is also dangerous. We will consider how to teach smarter, not harder, to secure better outcomes for both our students and our dissertations/books. And we will consider the “transferable skills” conferred by our teaching experiences in the academy, and how these can lead into other jobs. 
Conferencing (November 4)
To read: Paul Edwards, “How to Give an Academic Talk”
To do: write an abstract, dress for success, give the first page of a paper!
Pro tip: do not write the paper on the airplane! Conferences are an integral part of academic careers, and of grad school. Conferencing effectively involves many skills, most of which no one is going to teach you, except maybe the University of Tryandtryagain. But no one ever seems to graduate from there. We will consider: how to write an effective proposal, how to craft a compelling oral presentation, how to read like a movie star, how to use PowerPoint to save the world, and how to leverage the networking opportunities of travel, using the limited budget you have at your disposal. How many grad conferences should you go to? How many should you organize? Is the MLA worth it? Is midnight really the deadline for proposal or can it be tomorrow? Stay tuned …
Jobs in the academy (November 11)
Special guests: XXXX
To read: excerpts from terrifying books, and from Salon, and from Katina Rogers
To do: find jobs listings in your fields, and in the alt-academy
Have you heard? The academy is falling apart! Tenure track jobs are disappearing in the mass adjunctification of higher education! The whole thing is run on the ground-up dreams and aspirations of PhD candidates who take 11 years to finish their degrees while running up mortgage-level debt as their reproductive chances diminish and their number of cats increases. It’s bad, frankly. But not impossible, not in all ways, and not for everyone. When post-industrial capitalism closes a door, it opens a window. We will discuss the (very competitive, highly professionalized) tenure track job market in English, concentrating on Canada and the US. We will discuss job hunt and interview strategies and pragmatics. We will also enumerate and consider the various kinds of alt-academic jobs, of which many more are available: these are alternative academic jobs–that is, inside the university system, but off the tenure- or teaching track. These include work in administration, in communications, in libraries, in computing centres and research institution, in alumni relations, and in fundraising, particularly.
Writing an Article (November 18)
To read: de Silva, from how to write a lot, Bolker on writing articles
To do: investigate submission requirements from target journal, rewrite one intro paragraph
How is an article different from a dissertation chapter, or, God help me, a coursework paper? Reviewers can tell the difference right away, but it seems that junior authors cannot. I can and will happily let you in on the secret. And also show you how to go from idea to submission in about three months. Of course, submission of a proto-article for consideration by a journal involves inviting the dread Double-Blind Peer Review: everyone has some scary stories about that. We will investigate strategies for dealing effectively with peer reviews without turning to elaborate hexes or to alcohol, by looking at some of my first-attempt submissions, the peer reviews that resulted, and the subsequent chain of events leading to eventual (hooray!) publication.