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?
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.
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.
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.
Striking is in the air, dear feminists. As I write this, my partner David Klassen sits with his fellow NYU AWDU bargaining committee members in a room with the notoriously pernicious and overpaid NYU Board of Trustees, negotiating for a fair contract for graduate student workers. If they don’t come to an agreement tonight (update: THEY DID!), strike action is planned for the rest of the week, joining our picketing friends across the border at York at the University of Toronto. The meeting stands as the culmination of over a year of other meetings and negotiations and protests and demonstrations since they resumed their status as the only private school in America with a graduate student union, and I have watched from afar as my partner has volunteered his time and physical and mental energy to fighting for this cause–doing so, ironically enough, without pay, dedicating time to collective action that he could be spending on his dissertation. Notably, four out of the five members of the reform caucus (AWDU: Academic Workers for a Democratic Union) are female. I have no doubt that they are similarly dedicated and fantastic, and probably similarly exhausted.
One of the most compelling recent developments is the swelling of support from undergraduates, over 500 of whom have signed a petition which, amongst other things, avers that “[g]raduate student working conditions are undergraduate learning conditions,” because “[g]raduate students teach our sections, grade our papers and exams, answer our emails late at night, and support our academic growth.” Uh, sob! Rarely do we see such bonds formed between undergraduate and graduate students. An impressive number of undergraduate and graduate allies gathered earlier for a sit-in outside the meeting, demonstrating support and solidarity, and forming a gauntlet as the admin officials entered.
Since it seems as though there’s a growing climate of change and protest against precarious working conditions in academia which is spreading across many former divisions and borders these days–including #NAWD two weeks ago–I wanted to set the actions in Canada and the States in conversation with each other a little more intentionally. I’m not qualified to discuss the U of T/York strikes; however, I got in touch with my friend Norman Mack, a doctoral student in the English Department at U of T, and he was generous enough to type out some answers to my questions. The following is lightly amended from our online exchange:
Q. How (if at all) has the strike brought the student body together?
NM: Solidarity and camaraderie have never been stronger than with this strike. From the strike vote last November on (which saw a record turnout and record yes votes in favour of the strike), there has been a widespread concern over the state of the funding package, and its depreciation over the years since it was last negotiated in 2009 (the year of the last increase in the minimum funding package from $13,500 to the present value of $15,000).
On the picket lines (in this I can only speak from my own experience), there has been as much support from the undergraduate community as here have been uninterestedness and hostilities. I get the sense, however, that support from undergraduates is increasing judging by social media and the students who are everywhere reported to be approaching us expressing sympathies. This increasing support is likely in large part due to the Administration’s tactics thus far: their misrepresentation of facts and the insistence that, despite a work stoppage that’s disrupting classes for thousands of students, the university can function normally.
Furthermore, because of the high number of CUPE3902 members showing up for picket duty and marches, the most varied bonds and conversations are occurring across the many faculties at the university and across the three campuses, particularly on social media, which otherwise might never manifest. There is undoubtedly a community forming, all determined to attain significant gains through the strike.
Q. How do you balance striking action alongside all your other demanding work as a graduate student?
NM: Again, I can speak only for myself and perhaps those in my particular situation in my department (English): the problem of balance has not been easy. Unlike York University, which has also been on strike since [last] Tuesday, the University of Toronto has decided to continue with classes at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. For graduate students like myself, who are taking a full course load, the combination of picketing for upwards of 20 hours a week (along with other strike-related activities) and keeping up with course work has been incredibly taxing. This is not to say that others, who are either preparing for candidacy exams or writing/researching for their dissertations, have it easier. Many have expressed how exhausting this last week has been, particularly as the weather has not been kind, reaching upwards of -24 degrees with either snow or freezing rain. And yet, there remains a strong sense of commitment to the strike, particularly those in the humanities, those in other words who both stand the most precarious, the most at risk.
Q. Do you believe that collective action will benefit your graduate education (even if you don’t get the results you desire)?
NM: As I’ve mentioned above, I believe that strong ties are forming both internal and external to those represented by CUPE3902. As I write this, more and more open letters of support are emerging from both faculty and students. (For a particularly strong version of this, see an open letter by Dr. Paul Downes, Dept. of English) If the new buzzword of the university today is interdisciplinarity and collaboration, there has been no better example of these practices than those in the strike I have witnessed thusfar.
Of course, the goal is ultimately to raise the standard of living for the most precarious of our ranks: those who are living on $15,000 a year in a city where the cost of living has skyrocketed since our last increase; those who are finding themselves past the funded cohort trying to finish their dissertations while making ends meet with low-paying TAships or Instructorships, and in some cases part-time or full-time work outside the academy, while also paying some of the highest tuition in Canada ($8,500/year in my department). Many of us are in this fight with much on the line. It was not an easy choice, but it was a necessary one. And we intend to win.
HUGE thanks to Norman for answering these questions so thoughtfully, expertly, and thoroughly. We at H&E extend you and your comrades our warmest wishes of solidarity and support as you continue the fight. May NYU’s victory give you hope!
This post has been edited to correct an error in the original: I had said that 7/8 bargaining committee members are women, but in fact there are two other men.
I’ve got 5.5 working days left in 2014–less, if today is a snow day like it might be. It’s hard to believe that another term is over, that I’ve been working full-time in FGS for nearly a year and a half now. It’s very hard to believe how agonized I was about leaving academia, to remember the long, awful time (years, really) of not knowing what I would do with my life post-PhD. It seems silly now, all that agonizing, but it really wasn’t. It was a symptom of not knowing who and where would value my graduate training, of not knowing that there were workplaces that could be as, or more, fulfilling than an academic department. I’m learning about more and more places and people that do value what PhDs bring to the workplace every day. And I’m as convinced as ever that leaving academia was exactly the right decision for me, and could be for so many others. I’ve spoken to quite a few readers over the last couple of months–thank you, you lovely people–who have expressed their appreciation for being able to see what an #altac job, and an #altac life, looks like from the other side, from the inside. I wish I’d had more access to that kind of information and perspective myself, and I thought it might be time for an update. How’s this #altac thing going, a year and a half later? What’s it like?
It is, in short, pretty great.
Yesterday was a excellent example of my new normal, and pretty representative of why I love it. I woke up, as I do, at 5:15 and worked on my dissertation for a couple of hours. The lack of pressure–not feeling like my entire future rests on this one document–means that I enjoy my writing time most days, and I definitely look forward to it when I wake up in the morning. (Say what? This was definitely not the case when I was writing full time). Yes, writing can still be excruciating, but I know what a bad writing day feels like (oh, do I) and it’s been a long time since I’ve had one as bad as those I had before I took my #altac job. I relish writing as time for creativity and independent work, in contrast to the more collaborative and administrative work I do when I get to the office. And just needing the dissertation to be defendable, not appealing to some mysterious hiring committee, means that I’m taking risks with my writing that feel very right but that I never would have taken had I been taking this dissertation to market. Instead, I’m hoping to publish it as a work of popular literary history, which means that more than three people might actually read it. Huzzah!
After writing comes getting dressed in real clothes, which I still like doing (it helps that I’m a total pencil skirt fetishist and love an excuse to buy beautiful ones and wear them every day), and then about 45 minutes in transit, which I used to read Nigel Slater’s delightful The Kitchen Diaries and make grand baking plans for the weekend. The idea of spending at least an hour and a half every day commuting was probably the most worrisome thing to me when I got offered my job, but it’s turned out to be no big deal–I go north when most commuters are going south, so the train is usually quiet, and I mostly just read and relax. At the office, I spent most of my day reviewing the final draft applications submitted by our eight Trudeau Foundation Scholarship nominees and compiling their final packages, which is very fulfilling work. I’ve been coaching and supporting these students since May, and they are, without exception, brilliant, kind, committed, and interesting people who are doing important research, research which I’ve taught them to write and talk about in ways that are compelling and direct. Working with them is definitely the best part of my job. Of course, I also spent a good part of my day answering email, and then polishing up a PowerPoint presentation about the research being done by our top doctoral students for our annual Scholars’ Reception. At lunch, I curled up with a book at the campus bookstore, which is actually a very cozy place to hang out. I love how much time I have to read now, and how I don’t feel guilty about reading things that aren’t dissertation-related.
In the afternoon, I got to hear the Provost say lovely things about those same top graduate students (things I wrote for her, which is pretty fun), hang out with many of the students I helped win major scholarships this year and last, and spend time outside of the office with my co-workers, all of whom I like rather a lot. At the end of the night, a very senior administrator smuggled me a giant piece of blue cheese from the cheese tray to take home. When I got home, a home that was sparkly clean because I can now afford some help around the house (as Aimee says, we have more money than time) and full of fresh produce (CSA delivery FTW!), I made dinner while my partner finished his last assignment of the term (like me, he works full time and studies part time). After dinner, I continued re-reading Sandra Djwa’s biography of P.K. Page–I’m on a big Canadian literary biography kick, which is really driving my writing at the moment–with my cat in my lap, and got so cozy that I fell asleep on the sofa. I didn’t think about my day job once.
It was a great day, and I have lots of days like it in my #altac life. Of course, not every day, or even every month, are like this. The fall rush is a real challenge, especially this year when I was developing a dozen Banting postdoc applications and forty Vanier and Trudeau applications simultaneously, while also executing the launch of our Graduate Professional Skills program and coordinating all of our normal scholarship competitions. There were some 18 hours days and many weekends spent working. Sometimes, when 7:30 am rolls around, I do really wish that I could sit and keep writing just a few hours longer. I’ve figure out how to make time for writing despite the fact that I come home from work mentally wiped out, and don’t get home until nearly 7, but I haven’t quite figured out where exercise fits into this schedule.
But now that I’m doing most things at work for the second time, my anxiety level is so much lower, as is my understanding of where and how to prioritize. I’ve found ways to stay engaged with my same academic community, just in a different capacity–I’m still doing the MLA, Congress, and DHSI this year, but I’m now speaking about graduate professional development and careers instead of poetry, and I’m teaching, instead of training, at DHSI. Even better, work pays for me to do some of this. I’ve got a bunch of exciting research projects and conferences in the pipeline, and opportunities for more come my way as part of my day job. I get paid well, I have great benefits, and I live exactly where I want to. I am convinced that no tenure-track job would give me all of this, and when a position in my field, in my current department, came up earlier this term, I didn’t feel even an ounce of envy. It also makes me really happy to talk to others, who I hear from more and more often, who have taken #altac or #postac jobs and are totally contented with their decision. Many of them, including me, have written transition stories for From PhD to Life, which I encourage you to check out if you haven’t already. Where are All the PhDs? is another great resource.
So, that’s me, reporting from the #altac. Another term bites the dust, and I’m off for three weeks to do all the holiday things and hang out with Erin in Vancouver at the MLA. Wishing you all a restorative winter break and the happiest of new years. See you in 2015!
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.
Did I tell you guys I’m going to be the new Associate Chair for Graduate Studies in my department, as of July 1?
It’s a pretty big administrative role for me, and I’m excited, and nervous. I asked to be appointed–and apparently, I’m the first one to ever do so, which I actually found a little surprising. Grad studies questions are near and dear to my heart, as you know, since I’ve written extensively here (as have Heather, and Erin, and Melissa, and Margrit, and Janna, and Boyda) about grad student issues (just look at our keywords in the sidebar, and you’ll see a compendium of writing on the subject–32 posts tagged “grad school”).
I’m pretty proud of the intervention that Hook and Eye has made in the practice of grad studies in Canada. Just this week, I saw our blog name-checked and linked in the excellent and ambitious White Paper on the Future of the PhD in the Humanities, put together by a group of academics under the umbrella of the SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis project on the Future of Graduate Training in the Humanities. The blog was noted for its participation in 21st century practices of open sharing and graduate professionalization. The report is pretty impressive: go get the pdf, right now. I’m hoping that as I take on this new role in grad studies in my department, I can put my money where my mouth has been on this front, in more programmatic ways. It’s exciting, and it’s daunting.
But since this is also a blog about being a professor as much as about being grad students, I thought I’d share some of this position with you, as I figure out how to do it. Like Heather before me, I’m wary about what it means to be an administrator of whatever level and still keep a public blogging platform active. But I think I can do it.
My excellent colleague currently in the position is starting to pass some duties on to me, like some of the planning around graduate orientation in the fall. I think I did about two hours of work on that yesterday, which really got me to thinking: boy, things are really going to change for me at work pretty soon. I’ve been asking for advice far and wide. Some of what I’ve been told is:
- be careful how much you drink
- listen, listen, listen
- don’t try to change everything
- there are more meetings than you can imagine
- be kind to administrative staff
- don’t miss deadlines
- block of time in your calendar for writing, or you will never write
- use fewer words
- put limits on evening and weekend work
- book vacation time in advance and tell everyone you’ll be gone
I fear the meetings and emails and busywork will spiral out of control. I fear that my plans for making more evident and programmatic the excellence of our programs are going to be too much to get done, but I fear not getting enough done. I’m worried I’ll never write. I’m worried that I’ll make mistakes in discipline cases, or admissions, or conflict situations. I’m worried my insomnia will come back. I’m worried I won’t be good at this. I’m a little more worried that I will be good at this.
That’s the squishy stuff, so far.
Here are some of the pragmatics, if you don’t know them, or, if is likely, it’s different at your institution. It’s a three year term. I’ll get a stipend every year for doing it, in addition to a two course reduction in my teaching load (so I’ll be 1:1). I can change my assessment ratio for my merit review to weight more heavily towards service, so instead of 40 teaching, 40 research, 20 service, I can pitch a proportion of 40 service, 30 teaching, and 30 research, or maybe 40 service, 40 research, and 20 teaching, or even 40 service, 40 teaching, and 20 research. That’s a good option to have, and it reflects how the kind of things I’ll be able to get done will shift during this time.
That chunk of my day yesterday thinking about orientation, and then getting led down a paperwork / policy rabbit hole for a couple of hours has made the impending new position that much more real for me. So it felt like a good time to share it with you.
I’m still collecting advice: have you held this kind of position, or been subject to it? Any words of wisdom or warning for me? I’m listen, listen, listen-ing 🙂
It’s been six months, but most of the time it feels like I’ve been in the Faculty of Graduate Studies for as long as I can remember. My days as a full-time PhD student feel like they happened a very long time ago, and a lot has changed. My writing related anxieties (and they were many, and sometimes debilitating) have entirely disappeared, replaced with an affection for my dissertation and the writing process that brings me much joy. No longer worried about making myself attractive on the job market as a Canadianist, I’m delightedly pursuing my other academic passion, which is writing, reading, and talking about doctoral reform, graduate professional development, and post-PhD pathways. I have a decent professional wardrobe, and I finally figured out a quick but put-together hairstyle (a.k.a. have been too busy to get a haircut and it just happened to grow out nicely). Instead of frequently being the oldest person in the room, surrounded by students, I’m quite often the youngest, and more often patronized than I would like. I usually identify myself as a fellow PhD student when I’m working with graduate students, but not when I’m working with other staff. I have people to delegate to, and wish there were more of us to share the work. I’ve seen inside the sausage factory, as Kim Yates delightfully puts it in her great essay about taking a staff position post-PhD, and I’m only mildly horrified.
Some things, however, remain much the same:
1) Impostor syndrome doesn’t just go away when you change jobs (file this under “things I knew but chose not to believe”), and it has cropped up in all sorts of weird places. Like at our monthly Research Officers meeting where my predecessor, now in a different Faculty, commented that my pay band was totally out of line. I was just about to chime in with “I know! I can’t believe what I make!” when she continued “they SO don’t pay you enough. That job is hard.” Oh. Or when I presented at a big provincial conference for higher education professionals earlier this month and worried that I would reveal that I was doing my job totally wrong, and then found out that I was doing it pretty much like everyone else, and pretty damn well for someone who is learning everything as she goes. Or when I was invited to give a talk at another university and realized that I get to take a train (my favourite thing!) and be away from the office for the day and get paid for it (rather than, as with conferences, end up in the hole).
2) My academic credibility hasn’t vanished overnight; if anything, it’s increasing in some areas. I’m getting asked to do more invited talks than ever before. I have a major new publication on the books, and I’m working out a collaboration with one of the country’s major advocates for doctoral reform. My academic network is expanding across the border in useful and interesting ways. And perhaps best, I get to do the work, to build the reputation, to do the research, to share the knowledge, without having to reenter the structure of the professoriate. At the same time, I’m realizing that finishing my PhD remains necessary to achieving my #alt-ac goals, which is a good question to have answered.
3) And speaking of vanishing, neither (I’m both pleased and disconcerted to find) has my wariness of academic administration, despite my being firmly ensconced within it. I’m admittedly not very far into the beast–I’m only one step away from our graduate programs on the organizational chart, and when I’m not liaising with the government or other granting agencies, I work directly with graduate students, faculty, and student services. A fair part of my job is teaching, mostly in the realm of professional skills and grant writing. Critiques of administrative bloat, outsize salaries, and blatant self-interest are, for me, in sharp contrast to the leanness of our Faculty’s operations–we have a reputation for being the busiest and toughest Faculty to work in–and just how deeply the folks I work with care about grad student success. Those critiques don’t seem to apply to us.
But then I attempt to mentally picture the structure of the university that sits over my head, in all of its many many layers, and realize that I can’t completely wrap my head around a structure of its size and complexity. I realize just how newly created the positions are of some people I work with (even my position has only existed in its current form since the year I started my PhD), how many of those new administrative positions there are, and how desperately we fought during our last adjunct strike to get two tenure-stream conversions. I hear from Aimée that her office has curtains from 1972 while the administration building at her university is doubling in size. I try to explain to our President’s manager of communications, who started not long before I did, how polarizing a figure he (and his salary, and his car, and his housing allowance) was during our last labour dispute, which was centred on fair compensation and job security for contingent faculty. I see efforts duplicated, resources misdirected, politics getting in the way of getting things done. I work to bring to the table the perspective of graduate students, the people we’re serving, a perspective that sometimes gets lost with a group of people who never were grad students, or who haven’t been one for a long time. And I try to reconcile my long years of being a graduate student, at a university where grads tend to have a critical and indeed antagonistic relationship with administration, with my few months as just one of those administrators. That reconciliation hasn’t happened yet.
But maybe, as tiring as the internal contradiction can sometimes be, that’s a good thing. I don’t want to become an administrator who forgets what it’s like to be a student. I don’t want to accept the structures and the processes of the university as the status quo if there’s a better way we could do things. I don’t want to feel entitled to my job, or indispensable, when most of my academic friends are still vying for an infinitesimally small number of stable faculty positions. I don’t want to identify as an administrator to the point that legitimate critiques of the structure I’m in make me defensive, or challenge my sense of identity, rather than inspire me to work on the problems they identify. So I’m going to hang on to that questioning, that suspicion, that critical distance, that impostor syndrome for as long as I can. I took this job because I passionately believe in the value of graduate education, and because I want to be somewhere that lets me make a real and tangible difference in the lives of graduate students and in the ways that the academy supports and trains them. And if I can keep on asking those questions, I’ll do those things better.
But remind me to read this in ten years.
The Toronto Star reported the story late last week: in the fall term, Sociology professor Paul Grayson received a request for religious accomodation from a student in an online course. The student, referencing an unspecified religious tradition, expressed an unwillingness to do the one (collaborative) on-campus exercise where he would be placed in a group of other students, if that group included women. He asked to be allowed an alternative assignment. Grayson’s impulse was to say ‘no’, on the basis of gender equality. Sensing that this was likely to be a controversial request and decision, he forwarded it up the chain to his dean, and the dean to the in-house human rights committee.
Amazingly, the dean of arts, Martin Singer, while expressing “unwavering commitment to gender equality and sincere regret,” claims to have had “no choice” but to grant the accomodation, as reported in the Globe and Mail. York President Mamdouh Shoukri released a statement on the matter as well, after the matter drew public comment from Conservative MP Peter McKay, Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair of the NDP, and Liberal MPP and Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities Brad Duguid. Shoukri is struck by the “complexities” of such requests while asserting that “We must always safeguard rights such as gender equality, academic freedom and freedom of expression, which form the foundation of any secular post-secondary institution.”
Marina Nemat, an author and educator who fled Iran for Canada because her defense of women’s rights put her in danger, discusses the York issue in an op-ed entitled “I expected this back in Iran, not at York University.” Sheema Khan, a regular columnist at the Globe who served as chair of the Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations in the early 2000s is similarly clear in her dismissal of the York decision, in a piece entitled “What York University Forgot: Gender Equality is Not Negotiable.”
I wanted to flag this controversy here, as well as the particular issues that resonate with me.
First, this is a case study in intersectionality and its supposed discontents. It comes out more like helpless postmodern relativism rather than a clear-eyed balancing of the needs of a diverse population. York’s administrators see competing but somehow equal interests here: various “minority” viewpoint that require “accomodation.” There seems to be as much risk-aversion as ignorance involved. Remember, the student’s particular religious requirements are unknown: it is not allowed to ask a student to identify his or her religion, so the request for accomodation remains vague. Grayson, unsure what to do, consulted researchers at York who worked on both Muslim and Orthodox Jewish questions of faith and practice, trying to guess at the student’s religion from his (redacted) last name: neither scholar could think of any doctrinal or scriptural basis for granting such a request.
York administrators seem to have consulted case law. They are acting in ignorance and fear, which is hardly the point of accomodation. A truly accepting and open (secular) institution could respect and understand its students, all of its students. This legislated accomodation seems more a knee-jerk lawsuit avoiding strategey–particularly since one of the reasons stated for granting it was that a student studying overseas was allowed to opt-out of the on-campus group work. Um, what?
Second, it seems pretty clear that Dean Singer’s commitment to gender equality is not at all unwavering. It wavered, and collapsed, at the very first challenge. If Singer imagines that the accomodation granted is not a significant erosion of women’s rights on campus he seems beyond help. I probably needn’t paint this picture in terrible detail for you: you live it. Women are tainted. Women are to be avoided. Women are a sinful distraction. Riiiiiiiight. How on earth can anyone not see this as an existential threat to women’s right to full participation in public life?
Third, there’s a kind of accomodation poker being played here, with the variously marginalized equity-seeking groups (women! “blacks”! “muslims”!) are each invoked to raise the stakes in the rhetorical game of chicken everyone is playing. The game goes something like this: the student doesn’t want to work with women … but what if it was blacks he requested to be apart from? What then? Or, religious accomodation is very important, but think of the women! Whose rights are paramount to us (this from the Conservative MPs). This game is disingenous. In human rights trump card bingo, only one player out of the marginalized participants can win a zero sum game whose moves are made by the powerful. In many comments I’m reading a strategic defense of women’s rights to demonize “Muslims” and their “beliefs” that makes me profoundly uncomfortable. I’m scare-quoting because, remember, we don’t know what the student’s religion is, or what beliefs the proposed group work contravenes. This rhetorical game pits every one against each other and when the powerful then throw up their hands in the face of its (rigged) unwinnable nature, they even try to accrue bonus points for caring so much to balance rights. Bullshit. You might have heard something about why we are constantly at war with religiously-defined organizations in various parts of Asia; they want to trample women’s rights, you know. The about face is stunning: both word-games are at least as dangerous as they are disingenous.
Fourth, this controversy points up the massive scale of my own ignorance. I know a fair bit about women’s rights. I know something about trauma, about mental health, about medical accomodation. I know very, very little at all about religions other than the one I was raised in. This is shameful. I’m trying to learn more about different faith traditions, different sacred days and sacred practices. Because if as student made a similar accomodation request from me, I might not be able to accurately assess it. Which makes me more like a York administrator than the intersectional feminist I aspire to be. Alas.
You know what? Grayson told the student his request was unreasonable. The student thanked him for his consideration of the request, and consented to participate, understanding the competing interests at play. There’s a lesson in that human-scale interaction, I think.