administration · advice · work

Campus visit mystery: interview with the dean


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It’s job interview season in the academy and this post is about what was, for me, the most enigmatic part of the campus visit: the interview with the dean.

BUT, let me first say of the wave after wave after wave of sorrow and grief and anger coming out of the courage of the women who have come forward, privately, semi-privately, and publicly — not least, Julie McIsaac yesterday — to tell the stories that are passwords: I am listening and reading and listening some more and I am here in grief and sorry and anger with all of you and  all of this rumbles like subterranean thunder all through my days and my thinking and will continue to as we keep working through how “we might wield the power we already have.”

It also occurred to me that posting about the campus visit, a thing that only a vanishingly small proportion of the people who apply for jobs will actually do, might not be especially useful, especially given the unrelentingly bleak number of jobs available. And then I realized this post isn’t just for the five people out there who might end up doing a campus visit interview this season.

This post is really about decanal power.

When I have interviewed for jobs, the most mystifying part of the campus visit was the interview/meeting with the dean. I understood, more or less, the function of the job talk, the interview with the hiring committee, the meeting with the graduate students, the meeting with the undergraduate students, and even, albeit much more fuzzily, the lunches and dinners. But I really didn’t understand what was supposed to happen in the 15 to 75 minutes (some meetings were really brief and some didn’t seem to end) where I would sit down, one on one, with the dean. There may or may not have been an interview with a dean that went for over an hour and wherein we talked only about a book, not in my field, that the dean wrote a couple decades ago that I did not read. It is entirely possible that many of you know way more than I did. If so, just feel sorry for me and for all the poor deans who watched me fumble through that part of their day because I really had no idea what I was doing.

I knew that this meeting was important. In my experience as a job candidate these were always meetings and not exactly interviews. Questions were not fired off at me. There was an off-the-cuff feel to the whole thing. I’m not even sure that there were any questions asked at some of the meetings I’ve sat through. They were the least standardized part of the day. It was obvious that these meetings mattered since there are no extraneous elements to the jam-packed campus visit schedule. But I did not know really know why.

Now, after having served at two different universities and on multiple hiring committees over the fourteen years that I have worked as a professor, I have some idea.

Deans have a LOT of power over the final outcome of a job search in their faculty. Without being too specific, I have seen one or the other dean make decisions that are entirely contrary to the explicit wishes of the hiring committee and the department. I have seen one or the other dean kill a search before it begins. I have seen one or the other dean veto one or another shortlisted candidate even though the department was enthusiastic about that person. Sometimes this happens at the long list stage. Sometimes this happens after the campus visit. I have seen one or the other dean kill a search after the search has been completed. So, even after the department (or at least the departmental hiring committee) has gone through the whole entire hiring process (reading all the applications, developing a long list, developing a shortlist, going through all the trouble and expense of the campus visit for the shortlisted candidates), the dean can still say no to the hire. And even when the dean and the department are in agreement about the hire, the hire might still fall apart because the dean is in charge of the negotiations and the dean and the candidate may not remotely agree on the many, many parts of a contract that are up for negotiation.

Deans can and do make these decisions alone. At this level, the decisions are not made by committee. The dean usually consults with the department (via the chair or the chair of the search) and their own associate deans, but they really don’t have to. In my experience, there is nothing in the governance docs that require a dean to make these decisions in consultation with anybody. I’m not even saying that this kind of executive power is a problem. Maybe it is but that is a separate conversation. I can see how, sometimes, not every decision can be made by committee.

Mainly, I want to point out that one person has enormous power over the hiring process. That person is not answerable to the department. I have definitely participated in searches where I had no clue what happened after we made the recommendation to hire someone and sent that decision “upstairs.” Even though I understood that I wasn’t  owed an email or a memo about what happened, especially given that pretty much everything that happens in a search is confidential, it was still really weird to be on a hiring committee and learn more about the outcome of that search from twitter or rumour (granted, sometimes they are the same thing) than I did from my own university.

Don’t even get me started on how I wanted to weep whenever a dean decided something that was contrary to the wishes of the departmental committee and department. I think of all that lost time, all those hours reading files and interviewing, and all of the smashed hopes of the candidates, and I still want to weep. But again, I am genuinely not questioning the actual decisions themselves. That is a whole different conversation. I just want to draw attention to the fact that may seem obvious but was not obvious to me: a job candidate can have the enthusiastic support of a department and still not get hired because the dean decides against the hire.

So. If you are a job candidate, what to do? Unlike prepping for the hiring committee interview, where your supervisor and grad programme are likely in a great position to advise you on probable questions and strategies, the interview/meeting with the dean can feel like a total crap shoot. The questions they might ask are not so obviously routinized. They might not even ask any questions.

Still, here are a few things you can do:

  • read the job ad! I know this is obvious but, honestly, I have seen more than one search fail because the candidate, even after we brought them for a campus visit, did not understand the language of the ad and what the department and the university are looking for.
  • read the job ad in relation to other relevant docs about the university such as the university’s strategic plan or the university academic plan; every university has one and your job is to figure out how you fit in it even though it will likely read like alien-corporate-speak and seem to have little connection to your research.
  • talk to people in your network to get a sense of what challenges the department’s home faculty (remember, the dean has to deal with a bigger picture than the dept) is struggling with including all the obvious things like: overall enrollment; recruiting and retaining stellar undergrad and grad students; curriculum development; and relationships with the communities that the university serves
  • remember that the dean will still have to make the case for your hire to a bunch of other people higher up on the decision-making chain and you have to make that part of their job as easy as possible

There are likely lots of other things that I haven’t thought of (please, tell me!).

As for the bigger picture on decanal power, I want to emphasize, as if you didn’t already know, how crucial it is for those of us in the university system, at any level (student, adjunct and TT faculty) to take part in the decision-making processes at the decanal level that we have access to including (advance warning, this will seem boring): attending faculty council and voting on things; and asking lots of hard questions during the decanal search process including questions about “collegial governance,” a phrase that gets tossed around a lot but which often doesn’t connect to clear processes for good governance or collegiality. Collegiality is a term that we use to cover a series of almost unnameable things like “fit” and there are a lot of reasons why we need to be way less subtle about what that means.

#heforshe · administration · equity · ideas for change · modest proposal · role models

What can I ask for? A modest proposal

Academic women are often confounded when presented with the opportunity, obligation, or occasion to ask someone for something: money, teaching release, academic accommodation, etc. This confounding almost invariably results in women structurally under-asking and under-receiving, relative to male peers. And I know how to fix it.

What am I talking about?

Let’s say you are applying for a grant that requires matching funds. (Matching funds: some combination of you, your institution, partners or sponsor kicks in some money, and the granting agency matches it.) Let’s say you are asking your research office or some other funds-holding body on campus for these funds. My dearest spouse has been the receiver of such requests, for a variety of programs, for the last ten years, from hundreds of researchers. Here are the two far ends of the spectrum of requests, composites and only slightly exaggerated.

Professor A: “I need the research office to give me $50,000 in matching funds for this big important grant because I am big and important and if I get this grant the university will look bigger and more important.”

My spouse: “Well, no. We don’t even have $50,000 in that entire fund, and we must serve multiple researcher requests.”

Professor A, ten seconds later: “How much is in the fund?”

My spouse: “$10,000.”

Professor A, five seconds later: “That’s not very much! I need that $10,000 and who can I write to to ask for more? Is it the VP Research? What’s his email address?”

Professor B: “I’m so sorry, but I think I have to ask you for some matching funds for my grant? It’s a funder requirement. Otherwise I wouldn’t ask.”

My spouse: “Of course! How much do you want?”

Professor B, after delay of three days: “I don’t know, is maybe $1000 too much?”

My spouse: “Don’t you need more than that? How much do you need?”

Professor B, after a further delay of three days: “I don’t want to be a bother! I’m so sorry I’m doing this wrong! What can I ask for? Maybe I shouldn’t submit this grant, I obviously don’t know what I’m doing.”


Guess who gets the most money here? These are composite cases, but the gist of it is incredibly common. Professor A asks for the moon, and when shut down proceeds in a completely unembarrassed way to find out what the maximum is, and then to ask for that. Professor B is cringingly embarrassed to have to ask for anything, tries to ask for the absolute minimum, and upon receiving a followup suggesting the ask be altered, assumes they themselves are incompetent and withdraws from competition.

I leave you to guess the gender distribution into A and B categories.

I leave you to guess who wins the most grants, get the most matching funds, gets better funding, thus puts themselves in line for accolades and further prestige. Guess.

Me, there are a bunch of opportunities I don’t pursue because I would have to ask for resources. My first year as grad chair, I missed out on some recruitment funds because I wasn’t sure if I was entitled to ask, if my asks were reasonable, who I was being compared against, what the priorities were, and how much money I could ask for and for what. There was a “cookie jar” of unallocated funds. All the grad chairs could ask for funds from it, as needed. Well, shit, I don’t perform well under those conditions. No rules, no criteria, no guidelines on what and how much and how often and when. I’m getting nervous just thinking about it. I also hate it when people ask me my fee for talks: shit, I don’t know. How much are you paying the other speakers? What’s your budget? What would be reasonable? Just the other week I was on the verge of a clinical breakdown and my plan was to complain on the internet instead of asking for help that would cost someone money–like a good girl I waited for it to be offered to me. I know people, by contrast, who legit fight to get their teaching all arranged on ONE day of the week so they never have to be on campus.

People who aggressively ask, get more stuff. Aptitude for such aggression is often gendered. Institutional acceptance of aggression is often also gendered: you know, “God, she’s so pushy and demanding, who does she think she is?” versus “He really has no tact, but what a genius!”

A modest proposal 

In the spirit of He for She, I’m going to ask the mostly dudes who are in charge around here to do something pretty simple to make the soft-money and informal-arrangements a little fairer to the shy people as well as the bold. The team players as well as the out-for-themselfers.

Lay. Out. Some. Fucking. Parameters. Make them clear, specific, visible, and enforced.

For matching funds, why not have a page describing the process, something like this:

For X Award, researchers must secure matching funds from private and public sector partners, and from their institutions. Normally, the Office of Research can offer between $2500 and $7500 in matching funds in support of applications to this program. We are happy to work with you to determine your needs and to help you fulfill them. In some cases, extra funds may be deemed necessary, and such requests will be considered by the Important People Committee. 

Me, if I knew the parameters of the possible, I would feel WAY more comfortable making an ask. If I knew that the whole thing is negotiable and contingent, I would feel WAY more comfortable with a fuzzy rather than perfect ask.

I think the Powers that Be also need to note that many women are going to be more Professor B than Professor A. And even with clear parameters, are probably going to ask for less. I know it is tempting to let the shy and accommodating people just take less money, so you can get the aggressive and self-aggrandizing Professor B some more money so that he will leave you alone. But maybe that’s not, actually, fair. Maybe that’s not, actually, about whose proposal or whose research is actually better or more worthy, but about who is the squeaky wheel, and who is not. It’s resource allocation based on noise, not quality, frankly.

We can figure out new ways to be transparent about teaching allocation, and informal accommodations, and all the other “soft” requests that we always resist formalizing because of a desire to maintain “wiggle room.” I suggest to you, though, that some people are wiggling a lot harder than others, and tend to jostle the rest of us right off the bench and onto the floor. Wiggle room is often an excuse for the arbitrary distribution of resources, even if we like to frame it as room for empathetic discretion.

A modest suggestion

Many Hook and Eye readers, I am sure, identify way more with Professor B than Professor A. And that’s fine. So do I. But it’s worth learning a little bit about how the other side lives. I have learned, for example, that it’s not necessary to be embarrassed by asking for too much or not enough. Someone will tell you “no,” but it’s not “NO BECAUSE YOU ARE A FLAMING IDIOT OMIGOD I CAN’T BELIEVE WE HIRED YOU.” It’s more, “no, can’t do it — reframe the request and I’ll consider it again.” Or sometimes it’s just, “no, sorry, ran out of money, oh well.” Seriously. I just learned that, like, this year.

It’s admirable to want to be a good team player. But not to the point of total effacement of your own needs and desires. I deal with enough Professor A types to never want to be that person. But I have been Professor B enough times to know that I’m never going to reach my potential that way either.

So if you are a B type, see if you can push yourself a tiny little bit out of your comfort zone. Maybe you have book deadline in a teaching term — maybe ask if you can do some repeat courses instead of new preps in that one term. Maybe you have taken on a big admin role — maybe you can ask to have your courses compressed into fewer days to buy yourself some breathing space. Maybe your one course consistently overenrolls way higher than other similar courses — maybe you can ask for TA or grader support. Just ask; maybe it will be no, and that’s ok. But maybe it will be yes.

administration · altac · careers · PhD · research

We’re Asking the Wrong Questions About PhDs – or Rather, We Aren’t Asking Them Any Questions at All

When I interviewed for my current job we got onto the topic of alumni data tracking. My program had an exit survey on their website, one that suggested they were collecting contact information and checking in with PhDs in the years after they’d left our institution to see how and what they were doing. (It turns out that no one knew the form was there, and it hadn’t been used in many years.) We then got to talking about program evaluation, one of my favourite subjects, and about how we could start assessing if the professional and career development work we were doing–if they hired me–was having any effect on the post-PhD lives of our graduate students and postdocs.
“What we don’t need to do,” I argued in the interview, “is worry about the percentage of our alumni who get jobs after they leave us. In Canada, PhDs have the highest employment rates of any educational level. We know that PhDs get jobs after they graduate. What we don’t know is how hard it is to find those jobs, how long it takes, if those jobs are fulfilling and pay well and use the skills we’ve worked to help them acquire. We don’t know if the work we do teaching people how to develop their careers and transition into new fields works. The success of our programs can only be measured by our success in helping with all of those other things, because we can’t take credit for PhD employment rates. They’re great without us.” 
That employment data wasn’t what we needed, that we had it already and it told us something promising but frustratingly incomplete, was a bit of a revelation to the people who would become my new team, just as it is to the conference panels and PhDs and graduate chairs with whom I often share this bit of information. It shouldn’t be a surprise–this is Statistics Canada data, after all, there for anyone to find and analyze (and, with the reinstatement of the long form census, being collected once again). But my organization is clearly not the only one to still think that employment data is the place we need to start in understanding the lives of our PhD alumni and the value of our programs, academic and otherwise. As Gary McDowell writes in Science this week, higher ed is still furiously mining for what he calls the fool’s gold of PhD employment data. And what they find is fool’s gold not only because it doesn’t have much value, but also because it looks shiny but is tarnished at heart. In the US, the Survey of Earned Doctorates and Survey of Doctorate Recipients stands in for the StatsCan data that we tend to use up here, and like the StatsCan data, it tells us only so much. It tells us that PhDs are employed, and roughly where. But it doesn’t tell us anything about the quality or nature of employment that PhDs are finding, and that is ultimately what we really need to know. 
As an alternative to census data, the other popular approach at the moment is the old “let’s Google it,” and that’s the approach taken by HEQCO,* the Chronicle Vitae Academic Job Tracker project, and the American Historical Association. It’s not a bad approach when done carefully and well, as it at least does allow us to see what specific jobs people in different disciplines are ending up and, if we have things like CV data, the path they took to get there. The better studies, like the AHA and Chronicle Vitae projects (both, not coincidentally, run by Lilli Research Group), limit their Googling to sources that are arguably accurate and verifiable.** But people lie on the internet all the time, or job titles are misleading (is that Assistant Professorship a visiting or a tenure-track one? No way to know from your vague university bio, and no one has bothered to ask you), or people just can’t be found (this is especially true for people who move into non-academic employment).
And these data-collection exercises for the most part still don’t tell us what we really need to know (or at least what I really want to know): What kind–in qualitative terms–of employment are PhDs finding? What was it like finding a job? How long did it take? How much did you make in that first job? Did it use the skills you gained in your PhD? How long did it take you to get your first raise? To get promoted? Did you do any career development workshops in your PhD? Did they make you feel more confident in embarking on your post-degree job search? What is your employer’s perspective on hiring PhDs? And for those of us who work in graduate careers, professional development, support, graduate program reform: is our work doing anything? Are we helping people minimize the transition time between PhD and enjoyable, valuable employment that makes use of their skills? Are we reducing the emotional whiplash of being thrust out of the academy and into the non-academic working world? Do people feel confident in their ability to identify and deploy the skills they’ve learned in the classroom and the lab, in our seminars and in their own work to broaden and deepen their skill-sets? Are we doing anything at all? The TRaCE project running out of McGill University is taking steps in this direction, but major issues have already been raised with the validity of its approach and the data that comes out of it.*** 
The problem with seeking answers to these questions is the difficulty of reaching those who can answer them, and then making sense of those answers. Googling someone is easy. Reaching them by email or phone to ask those questions we want answered is far harder. It takes person-power and time and more money than any of us as individual organizations have. It also takes the buy-in of our PhDs, sometimes long after they’ve left our organizations, and that’s the place where these exercises often fail. Figuring out a baseline against which to measure our efforts is perhaps just as difficult–how hard was it to find a good post-PhD job before we started offering graduate career development programs? Did our PhDs find good jobs faster after we launched that internship program? How do we qualify or quantify what “easier” or “better” or “better aligned to my skills” looks like? How do we adjust for the fact that PhDs and postdocs, who are underpaid and undervalued during their training, might think a first job a godsend that years later seems like ill-fitting, underpaid grunt-work?
We don’t need more employment data. Quantitative data is not what we need. Perhaps my humanist is showing, despite the fact that I now work almost exclusively with STEM researchers, but this is a qualitative research problem. What we do need is contact information and to talk to our PhD holders–actually talk to them, systematically and en masse so that our data is comprehensive and valid and comparable against that useful but incomplete quantitative data–and ask them those questions I noted above. I wish someone had called me up and asked me these a couple of years after I took my first post-PhD job. I could have told them a lot. Instead, I use my experience–and that of the PhDs I talk to, every day, at work and online–to try to do more, and do better. Still, that’s anecdote, not data. We’re never going to be able to do our best in helping PhDs to find well-paying, engaging places to put their knowledge and skills to work in the world if we don’t start asking a whole lot of people the right questions. And start figuring out how to do that in a way that’s sustainable.
I’m in the midst of scoping out just this kind of project to be undertaken by the centre in which I work, and we’re hopeful that, if we’re smart and careful, we can come up with a model for PhD data collection that goes beyond the quantitative, and that uses qualitative data and its analysis not just to inform the work we do locally, but also to inform real change in how we go about the business of graduate and postdoctoral training more broadly. It’s early days yet, but stay tuned.
* For a useful take on the major issues with the HEQCO report, see Melonie Fullick’s Speculative Diction post. Her post on the Conference Board of Canada report, which contains the most comprehensive analysis of PhD employment data collected via the Canadian census, is also interesting and illuminating. 
** Researchers at the University of Ottawa are also doing some interesting work with alumni records and tax data that looks promising in terms of answering the money part of these questions, but that again only gives us part of the picture. 
*** For a thorough critique of the TRaCE project, I direct you once again to Melonie Fullick
#post-ac · administration · change · dissertation · flexible academic · grad school · PhD · possibility · research · research planning · September · writing

Firsts and Lasts

This post marks a big last and a significant first for me. While I’ve been Hook & Eye’s de-facto alt-ac voice for the last few years, I’ve also continued, along with Boyda and Jana, to write about the trials and tribulations of grad school. My last trial–the big one, the defense–is happening tomorrow, and so this is my last post as a graduate student.

It’s been a long road since my “I quit” post back in the fall of 2013, when I took my first full-time academic administrative job. I’m in a different job now, one that has given me the time and mental space I needed to finish my dissertation. After a long period of uncertainty about the value of finishing my PhD, I’m still having a hard time believing that I’ve done it. I’m nervous about tomorrow, despite the many reassurances of friends and committee members. I spend most of my time developing professional skills curriculum, administering research funding, and writing policy, not reading theory or publishing articles. In doing my job, I’ve learned how to explain my research to people far outside my field. I’ve learned to feel confident walking into a room and sharing what I know regardless of who is in it. I’ve learned to identify what my research can tell us about the persistent gendered inequalities of Canadian academic and literary communities and how we might address them. But I’m nervous about being questioned by a room full of people who are full-time academics, who swim in those intellectual currents in a way that I no longer do. I’m also looking forward to spending time talking about a project that I care deeply about with smart people who care about my work, and about me. Now that the day is almost here, that alone seems like a pretty great reason to have committed to finishing my dissertation. The added credibility I’ll have at work is a nice bonus.

My defense tomorrow also means that this fall is a first for me.  It’s the first fall since I was four years old that I’m not going back to school. If I wasn’t already three years down a career path that I anticipate staying on, I might find facing this new beginning scary. But I went through the difficult transition that many PhDs who move into alt-ac and post-ac careers face back when I took my first administrative job. I’m instead looking forward to this first fall, and the year that follows, as a time to experiment with what life as a scholar-administrator could look like now that I can shape my research trajectory however I please.

I’m not really a new breed of researcher, although it sometimes feels like I am. Ever since the academy began producing more PhDs than it could employ–since always, basically–there have been those of us who have moved outside of the professoriate and yet continued to pursue research. The increasing casualization of the professoriate means that there are fewer and fewer people whose job it is to research, and more and more people like me who pursue research but make our money in other ways. We have the desire, the expertise, and the time to remain active researchers while we work in other careers. There’s great freedom in that, for the quest for tenure and grant funding as often blights research creativity and experimentation as it enhances it. I’m going to be using the blog this year to write through the process of crafting a research practice outside of the professoriate. At the same time, I’ll be writing through the process of crafting a life that makes space for multiple identities as administrator, researcher, creative writer, consultant, editor, cook, partner, and more.

Later this month I’ll be starting a new series of posts on transforming my dissertation into a book and live-blogging the process of getting it published. I’ll be continuing the alt-ac 101 series for people who are looking to move into non-professorial jobs or who advise people who are. I’ll also be writing about equity issues in and out of the academy, especially those relating to graduate studies and postdoctoral work. I’m also going to practice what I preach to my students about working to share our research beyond the bounds of the academy by blogging about my dissertation, especially the parts that look at gender bias and rape culture in Canadian literary and academic communities in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.

If you’ve just found us, welcome! And if you’re an old friend, welcome back. It’s good to be back here with you.

#alt-ac · #post-ac · administration · day in the life · enter the confessional · risky writing

Questioning that #altac label: a quit letter update

My role here at Hook & Eye has changed some over the years I’ve been writing, especially when I moved to the part-time PhD track nearly three years ago to take up the first of my full-time academic administrative positions. I started with H&E as a graduate student writer, as Boyda and Jana are now, and my posts were written primarily as and for members of the graduate student community. But then I became our de-facto representative of the #altac track. At the time, my move onto that track seemed like a huge one, one that signalled a major break with academia, or at least with the tenure-pursuing part of it. A few months into my first admin role, I wrote my own contribution to quit lit, a post that remains one of the most read in Hook & Eye‘s history. As I wrote in that post,

And so, I quit. Not as completely as some–I’m still enrolled in the PhD part time, I’m finishing my dissertation because it’s a story I’m committed to telling, and I work at the same university as the one I’ve been doing my doctorate at–but I’ll never go on the tenure-track. I’ll eventually have a PhD, but I’ll never be an academic. At one time, if you had told me that, it would have broken my heart. Now, it’s just my reality. It took me a long time to believe this, but being an academic is just a job–and I have one of those, one that I love.

Some of that is still very true: being an academic is just a job, and I have one of those, and I love it. I will eventually have a PhD; indeed, I should have one sometime within the next few months if all goes to plan. But I was wrong in declaring that I’ll never be an academic. No, I’ll never go on the tenure track. But an academic? I never stopped being one of those, and I probably never will.

And not only on my own time, for my administrative job is eminently academic in all sorts of ways. Yesterday was a pretty representative day in the life, and here are a few of the things I did:

  • Submitted a grant application I’ve spent the last few weeks writing in collaboration with my team at work
  • Worked through the edits suggested by the copyeditor at the University of Toronto Press who is finalizing a forthcoming edited collection in which I have an essay
  • Circulated a new piece in Partisan magazine to which I contributed about the passing of Canadian poet and critic D.G. Jones
  • Collected and skimmed some new resources for a course I co-teach in the summer at the University of Victoria
  • Made progress on revising the introduction of the book-length research project I’m finishing up
  • Spent time advising, encouraging, and sharing information with students and postdocs
  • Started reading a collection of essays I’m reviewing
Looks not unlike a day at work for my professor friends, doesn’t it, minus perhaps some classroom and grading time? And yet my job–my life–gets a whole other kind of label and a very different response from the more conservative elements of the academic community. Because people like me are not professors or academic scientists, we’re altac–separate, and to some, lesser. I’ve quite happily adopted this label myself–I co-edit a series for #Alt-Academy, tweet regularly using the #altac hashtag, have a large group of friends and colleagues who likewise consider themselves on the #altac track. And yet, the label still sometimes rubs–when an audience member at the MLA this January asked about the problems with the #altac jobs label and alternatives, I answered with audible snark that I’d love if we could just call them–and tenured ones–jobs, full stop.
I have a job.
I am an academic.

So what, exactly, was I quitting in my contribution to quit lit? What am I pushing back against as I question, more and more strongly, the necessity of #altac as a category? Looking back on it now, what I was really quitting was the part of academia that narrowly defines academic as professorial. I was leaving behind a community and an ideology that believed one could only be a proper academic if one had tenure, or was still seeking a chance at it. I was, although I didn’t know it then, moving into a very different community, one made up of academics of all stripes, people who contribute an immense amount to the project of academia in a whole host of ways, as researchers and advisors and administrators and program developers and every other role you can think of that we need to keep the academic enterprise afloat, our students taught and supported and readied to make their own moves into the world.

In a very real sense, I did not quit, for I am still working in the heart of that academic enterprise.
And there’s nothing #alt about it.

administration · community · grad school · ideas for change · postdocs · writing

How to: support graduate writers without spending any money

The end of the fiscal year is looming, and we’ve just wrapped up budgeting for 2016/17. And as always, the push is to do more for our graduate students and postdocs with less. Some things are just never going to be free–the fee for a really great workshop facilitator, catering for our annual Career Night, paying the professor who teaches our teaching development course, our salaries–but we’re getting creative about finding ideas for new supports and services that don’t cost much in time, labour, or hard cash.

One of the things I did when I was still at York University was start up a Shut Up and Write! group for our grad students and postdocs, and it is may be my favourite example of a meaningful and useful support for early career researchers that doesn’t cost a dime. Your campus might already have a graduate Shut Up and Write! group, often coordinated by students themselves, but if you don’t, here’s the lowdown:

Shut Up and Write! began as meet-up in San Francisco designed to help creative writers build community, alleviate the loneliness of writing, and do some serious churning out of words. It has since expanded into academia, especially for graduate students and postdocs, who often feel isolated when they transition from coursework to working on their theses, dissertations, and publications. In a Shut Up and Write! session you prioritize writing over everything else (e.g. no email, no Instagram, no texting) and ideally use it as an opportunity to establish a writing routine, do some intensive work, and break through blocks in a supportive atmosphere using the Pomodoro Technique. All you need to run a Shut Up and Write Group! is:
  • a room
  • a timer
  • someone willing to facilitate discussion and run the timer (This person can also be doing their writing during the session; I use it as an opportunity to get in some quiet, distraction-free work on my normal day-job stuff)

Each Shut up and Write! session, at least the way I run it, includes:

  • 10 minutes for introductions and chat
  • 2-3 rounds of writing Pomodoros (each Pomodoro includes 25 minutes of intensive writing plus a 5 minute break)
  • Time to discuss writing, trade writing and productivity tips, and get to know each other. On occasion, a more senior researcher or someone from the writing centre will come in to address a specific writing topic, take questions, or provide one-on-one consultation.

Attrition, particularly in the PhD, tends to happen most at the point when students transition from the relative structure of coursework, qualifying exams and (for my students, at least) collecting data to the nebulous and very self-directed period of writing the dissertation. Community and the motivation of progressing alongside others helps stop that from happening. It also helps postdocs feel like members of a community–an important shift for a group that often feels disconnected from their institution because they’re neither students nor faculty, and often are poorly served because they exist in that liminal space.

A weekly Shut Up and Write! group provides opportunity for community building, peer support, building positive relationships with academic administrators, increased productivity, and the comfort of routine–and it costs nothing. (Sometimes it costs me a little bit, but only because I can’t resist an opportunity to bake for more than my little two person family.) I only wish that there were more easy fixes like it.

What about you, dear readers? Any brilliant ideas for low-cost and low-effort ways to create community- and skill-building opportunities for grad students and postdocs you’d like to share?

administration · modest proposal · structural solutions

The TP Index

Recently, when an intrepid undergraduate, Laura Woodward discovered, as a result of her investigative journalism, that Ryerson has an institutional double standard in terms of access to two-ply toilet paper (not surprisingly, students get single-ply whereas a range of administrative offices seem to be supplied with the cushy stuff), I made a joke on facebook about the TP index as a quick and dirty (sorry) way of measuring administrative bloat (I just can’t seem to help myself) in higher education.
But then I got to thinking about another TP index: the ratio of tuition to presidential salary.
I got to thinking about this because I showed this slide in my first-year course on business and literature (really, it’s not as bad as it sounds):
(Note the particular elegance of the parliamentary formula for prime ministerial compensation where the PM’s salary is exactly double that of the average MP.)
We had been reading Thomas Piketty on income inequality (and the really interesting ways that he uses the literature of Jane Austen, Honoré de Balzac, and Henry James in order to illustrate the effects of income disparity) and the rise of what he identifies as an era “extreme meritocracy” where executive pay has climbed to new levels. As the 25 September 2015 Times Literary Supplementreports in its review of Piketty’s new book, The Economics of Income Inequality, “Over the past two decades, the ratio of CEO pay to the average pay of their workforce has widened in the USA from 20:1 to 231: 1 (with banks themselves leading the way with a ratio of 500:1).” The AFL-CIO measuresthe rate of CEO pay in Canada to be approximately 206: 1. In the university community in Canada, we have started to pay more attention to administrative compensation than ever. Perhaps most famously, there was the recent Chakmagateat Western where we find President Amit Chakma apologizing for his $924,000 compensation in 2014 and offering to return half of it. So, well, yes.
But to return to the scene of my undergraduate classroom, there was at first confusion about the guy on the on right. Understandably, we can’t all be expected to know who the president of York University might be or what he might look like and it seems okay that he is somewhat less recognizable than our current prime minister. But after we sorted out the who’s who, we did of course try to figure out craziness of these metrics. How is it that two public servants can be compensated in such a way where the guy who decides if we should go to war is paid much less than the guy who decides what tuition should be? My point here is not that the prime minister should paid more, or even that the president of York is paid too much. I did stress to my students that President Shoukri’s pay is completely in line with that of other university presidents in Ontario and around the country.
However, they were understandably still perplexed by the actual numbers. To be honest, I am too. I don’t really know why or how we have come to these salaries. I am especially confused by the fact that this compensation extends past their tenure as presidents. But this is not a discussion about how Canadian university presidents’ pay has skyrocketed. And I know that we are all confused about where the money goes.
I just want to talk about how my students processed all this information and what we can take from that.
My students immediately talked about way in which they experience university as a financial problem: tuition.
Although I will be the first to resist the narrative of students as consumers, I do think that considering tuition in relation to administrative compensation would offer a useful way to think about the connection between university administrations and students.
For example, high pay + low tuition would mean that this is one of the few times when a high ratio or a significant gap would be welcome.
Of course, the ideal would be low pay + low tuition.
At my university, full-time tuition for most non-professional programs, including compulsory supplemental fees is $7102.
That means that the TP index at York is about 65:1.
At the University of Alberta, the outgoing president, Indira Samarasekera took home $544,00 in salary and just over $1.1 million in total compensation last year. Full-time tuition and fees for most programs comes in at $7068. That means the TP index at the U of A is about: 156:1.
Of course, indexes are just numbers and they are not numbers that tell us the whole story about any story, especially one as complex as one this one where we need to take into account plummeting levels of public investment in higher education and a range of other pressures on the university system as a whole.
But they do help us get to some big picture questions. How can we understand university executive compensation in relation to the other numbers that we have to think about? At my department meeting today, I was told York’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (where the English department is housed) is looking at a deficit of $6.6 million in 2015-16. At Faculty Council, I was presented with similarly dire numbers where the bars and arrows on the graphs were all going in the wrong direction. But there were no graphs on executive compensation even though I think we all know which direction those bars and arrows would go.
I’m not that interested in the actual numbers as far as executive compensation goes. But I’m very interested in the relationship between numbers.
In talking about income disparity, the general trend is to talk about executive pay as a ratio of that of the average worker. However, in universities, the vast majority of people who take part in the institution are students, and not employees of the university. To think about their place as indexed to that of the compensation of leader of the institution is to ask us to think about other kinds of disparities.  Here, we can go beyond access to two-ply. We can talk about access to education first and foremost. We can talk about access to having the kind of space for breathing and dreaming that an undergraduate education should enable but which many of my undergraduates do not feel that they can afford because they are terrified of being jobless at the end of their degrees. Last week, in a casual conversation, an associate dean in my faculty mentioned that our students seemed to have a kind of “hope deficit.”
I’ve been thinking about that a lot. My experience of  teaching undergraduate students has generally been one of overwhelming gratitude for the courage and perspectives they bring to my classroom. But I know what this associate dean meant when she talked about a hope deficit. Our students are also often desperately uncertain about their futures and this uncertainty leads to a lack of hope and thus a real fear that studying something that might bring them real joy and pleasure can only come at some kind of terrible unspecified future cost.
And yet, we are in a national moment where even unicorns might be real. Or, at least, where the long-form census, un-muzzled scientists and diplomats, and gender parity in government cabinets are suddenly quiet real.
So, maybe what I want from the TP index is not so much all the outrage about outrageous pay packages (don’t get me wrong, I still care about that!), but rather something that takes up a deficit I really care about: hope. And with that hope a genuine belief that a university education really does, as I believe, make life better.
I’m not asking for unicorns (although I too would like braid their glorious manes.) The TP index is just my way of saying that we need a more profound connection between the president of a university and the students who are at the core of the university’s mission. But I’ll take some unicorns too.
#alt-ac · administration · banting · change · equity · research · scholarships

The Challenge of Challenging Unconscious Bias

I talk more about the professional and career development parts of my job here than I do the research funding part, mostly because the PD and careers stuff seems like it would be more useful to more readers. It also tends to be more political, and that’s what we often like to focus on. But research funding administration takes up a good chunk of my time at work, although less now than it used to, and it’s just as political as the state of the academic job market. Because I’m running fewer funding competitions now that I’m at a smaller institution, I’ve got more time to think about the issues with the way that research funding gets applied for and distributed, and to focus on improving our processes and documentation, both for the people applying for awards (graduate students and postdocs) and for the people supporting applicants (their current and former professors and supervisors).

A big chunk of the time I spend in every funding competition is reviewing applications–to make sure people are applying to the right Tri-Council agency, for completeness, to help the students and postdocs I work with to develop their applications and make them more competitive. In consequence, I read a lot of reference letters in a year–easily a couple of thousand. Given how necessary and ubiquitous reference letters are in academia–for funding and admission applications, for tenure and promotion, for job applications–I had never read any, at least of the ones written about me, before I started working in admin. That’s pretty normal, I should think, given that letters of reference are supposed to be confidential. It’s been enlightening to get to read not just a few, but a glut of them. Mostly, though, in terms of how bad some of them were. And not just bad, but so, so biased.

If you were to walk past my office during an intensive application review session, you’d hear a lot of groans and the occasional derisive shout. And those mostly come when I’m reading the letters written for women. If women scholarship, fellowship, and job applicants knew how biased their letters were, they’d be horrified. So too would the letter writers be, given that these letters are largely the result of unconscious bias. And it’s not that the referees are reluctantly writing so-so letters for so-so applicants. These are great applicants with mostly good letters that are completely undercut by unconscious bias–by noting that X manages to be an excellent researcher despite having three kids at home; that Y is nice, polite, and compassionate; that Z is very nurturing toward her supervisees. Want to know how referees tend to talk about these qualities in a man? A is an exceptional and innovative researcher. B’s collegiality allows him to set up and effectively manage productive research collaborations. C is an exceptional mentor whose support has allowed xx students to take up graduate positions at research-intensive universities. Men get more glowing adjectives too–superb versus good, outstanding versus competent–and are less likely to have their accomplishments undercut by hedging or faint praise.

Since I mostly work with grad students and postdocs, I see how unconscious bias works early in the pipeline to keep women from securing the research funding–or admission to a top-notch graduate program–they need to get their research careers off on the right foot. But the problem if anything gets worse as women progress through their careers. We all remember what happened with the CERC program (one of the impetuses behind the start of Hook & Eye)–not a single woman was awarded one in the first round of distributing these super Canada Research Chairs, and as of right now, only two of the twenty-four chairs are held by women. The CERC equity practices are mostly a joke, but the Canada Research Chairs program is doing a little better. They’ve gone so far as to add a big section to their “Letters of Reference” instructions to address the issue of unconscious bias, and to direct letter writers on how to avoid it.

I’ve adapted their language for application instructions attached to the scholarship and fellowship competitions I run, but I know very well that doing so is not nearly enough (not the least because it is very difficult to get faculty to read more than they absolutely have to, never mind act on it). I see unconscious bias at work every day, but how do I, as a research administrator, do something about it? How do I help my students and postdocs get themselves good letters, knowing that they’ll never get to see the letters and judge for themselves? How do I teach their referees how to overcome unconscious bias when they’re writing? How do I tell senior faculty and scientists that they’re exhibiting unconscious bias without pissing them off or making them feel defensive? Figuring out how to tackle these problems–to do what little I can to challenge systemic sexism with what little power I have–is so necessary and so hard. I do what I can–I call my students and postdocs attention to it, I put directions on how to avoid explicit bias in writing for referees and ask them to read it, I advocate to the Tri-Council funding agencies that they put anti-bias practices and guidelines in place (although the ones that already exist are mostly useless), I call the attention of the adjudication committees I work with to instances of unconscious bias when they’re assessing applications. It’s something, but the problem is enormous, especially considering that the unconscious bias that shows up in reference letters is the same unconscious bias that has infected the CERC program, is the same unconscious bias that skews teaching evaluations.

But I want to, and need to, do more. Because we all know that there are exceptional women who should have gotten that scholarship, should have gotten into that graduate program, should have gotten that job, should have gotten tenure, should have gotten that chairship, but didn’t because her smarts, capability, and excellence were undercut by unconscious bias. Any thoughts, dear readers, on what else I (and we) can do in the work we do every day?

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.

#alt-ac · academic reorganization · administration · contract work · enter the confessional · jobs · risky writing · solidarity · strike

Crossing the Lines

I’m taking a break from the #Alt-Ac 101 series this week to talk about the York University and University of Toronto strikes, a topic near and dear to my heart. Despite those strikes being weeks old by this point, I haven’t felt able to address them until now, in large part because I work for York University. More specifically, I work in the Faculty of Graduate Studies, for a Dean who is a key member of the employer-side bargaining team. It has felt distinctly unsafe, in and out of the office, to take any but the party line on the current “labour disruption,” as the university likes to call it. Indeed, any language I use about the strike in the office is prescribed by the university. But I will be a York University employee no longer after today–I’m moving over to the Hospital for Sick Children, where I’ll be running award and professional development programming for the students and postdocs in the hospital’s research division–and so I can now speak as I like.

I had been a PhD student for all of three months when we went on strike in 2008. York University’s CUPE 3903 represents graduate students and contract academic faculty, and it was largely for the benefit of the latter that we went out that year. We knew precarity when we saw it, we knew that the system could do better, and we knew that we were the ones who had to force it to. We struck for months, in the bitter cold, and while we did the university shut down almost entirely. The only cars coming onto campus were those of staff members, or delightful friends bearing sandwiches, thermoses of coffee, and scrap wood for burning. We continued bargaining, although when no agreement could be reached we were legislated back to work and into a new collective agreement. We did at least win some gains in the conversion program, which saw contract academic faculty positions converted to tenure lines. I ended the strike feeling exhausted and disoriented, although far savvier about what lay ahead of me if I ended up becoming CAF myself, and far closer to my program colleagues than I had been before the strike started. I had to trash my parka, because it was so deeply impregnated with smoke from the fire barrel that I couldn’t get the smell out. After months of eating them cold and soggy out of a mittened hand, I could never face the Grad Cafe’s channa masala wrap again. 
This time around, I’m crossing the picket lines daily, because I’m forced to. If I don’t, I lose my job. Students have been given the right to refuse to cross, and faculty can stay away as long as classes continue to be suspended (and are making a case that being forced to resume teaching without TAs compromises academic integrity, and so refusing to is a matter of academic freedom), but I have no choice. I walk quickly, with my hood up, my headphones in, and my hands in my pockets. I want to join my graduate colleagues, to wave and shout encouragement, but from my side of the sidewalk I worry it would look like mockery or a threat. At the office, I’m required to refer to the strike as a “labour disruption,” to point students to statements like “Regrettably, two units of CUPE 3903 representing Teaching Assistants and Graduate Assistants (Units 1 and 3), rejected the University’s offers and remain on strike,” when the only thing I think is regrettable is the lack of solidarity among units. I sit in my office and watch my colleagues be threatened with gun violence on the lines via YouTube, and follow along on Twitter as Senate, amidst strenuous opposition, decides to resume classes while the strike is ongoing. I watch the lines of cars get longer and longer as more people try to enter campus. I watch tempers flare. I watch administration decide that resuming classes is more important than resuming bargaining. I watch the employer-side bargaining team withhold, withhold, withhold until the night before the strike deadline, when miraculously something resembling a decent offer shows up on the table. I watch administration invite Unit 1 and 3 members to return to work despite the fact that they are on strike.

What neither university seems to understand is that this strike is not really about wages. Nor is it about seniority, or benefits, or childcare, not really. It is about the fact that graduate students and contract academic faculty, in Canada and elsewhere (see Boyda for a New York perspective) recognize that the academic employment (and teaching, and research) system is broken. It is about the fact that they feel as though they are the only ones who are going to attempt to change it. It won’t be tenured faculty. It won’t be undergraduate students. It will be graduate students and CAF, or no one, and their chance is now. This is their chance to say “you want to pretend that I only work 10 hours a week and prohibit me from taking any outside employment? Fine–pay me enough to live on.” This is their chance to insist that at least a few of their ranks–a minuscule number, considering that York employed nearly 1800 CAF last year (as compared to not quite 1400 t-t faculty)–have the chance to enjoy at least some measure of job security. This is their moment to seize what is a miraculous surge in positive public opinion and require our universities to be accountable, to step up, to do better. 

Our universities, the people they are made up of, can do better. 
But not by forcing their graduate students to choose between their education and their jobs. Not by using rhetoric that suggests that the only students who matter are the undergraduates, when graduate students are students too. Not by putting them in danger on the picket lines by inviting thousands of people to cross them daily. But by recognizing that once, they as administrators were the graduate students they’re vilifying, the CAF they exploit while hiring ever-increasing numbers of questionably necessary administrators (me included). They can do better by recognizing their own privilege, and their responsibility as those with power to enact change. They can do better by attempting to understand, rather than dismissing. They can do better by getting back to the bargaining table and bargaining in good faith. 
I’m not going to miss crossing the picket lines. But at least now I can speak about it, instead of just watching.