advice

How to Write an Academic Cover Letter

 

 

Here’s a guest post from the very smart Lai-Tze Fan! It’s academic job season. Her advice on writing a cover letter is SO GOOD. Without further ado…

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Recently, I’ve offered to look over the cover letters of a few people applying to professor positions. The academic cover letter is a unique genre, and getting it right is as hard as the first time you wrote a grant proposal. It is your brief chance to show a search committee what you have to offer–including your existing/future research, your teaching methods, and that you’d be a great colleague. The cover letter is less finicky than the grant proposal (hurray, no citations!), but needs to be both cleaner and even more persuasive.

We all know the precarious futures of young academics, as well as the struggles faced by those who have been on the job market for six months or six years. I don’t judge anyone for going into alt-ac or leaving academia all together; some of the smartest people in my PhD cohort chose not to finish the degree, preferring other paths that I’m sure make them happy, and I am happy for them.

For those who want to stay, I’d like to offer suggestions based on my own experiences, noting that different disciplines may have fine-tuned requirements that I haven’t acknowledged here or even differing advice. As I will state at the end, I welcome additional tips that others in the community have to add. Please post them below!

Some background information: I’ve been lucky and am extremely grateful to have had interviews every season and back-to-back tenure-track jobs. I am not guaranteeing anything– these are just observations I’ve made in applying to nearly thirty jobs (some research-focused and some teaching-focused), serving on search committees, and editing dozens of cover letters for others.

I realize the length of the list is daunting. Think of it this way: after the job season, you’ll have written maybe half a dozen varieties of research- and teaching-focused letters. Let’s say you are an artist: maybe one letter highlights creative practice, one highlights curriculum building, one is suited for a fine arts department, one for social science, and one for the humanities. You now have templates that can be recycled and tweaked for most future job applications, but the first time is usually the hardest.

A lot of these suggestions you may already know. I hope the list may be useful, but whether or not it is, please offer your own advice to other scholars giving the job market a shot. I myself focus on helping young scholars, including women and non-binary people, and especially those of colour like me.

These suggestions aren’t necessarily in order, but I’ve also organized them in a way that, if you prefer, can be followed step-by-step.

Note on terminology: I was trained in Canada, so some of my terminology will reflect this. Other countries and systems have their preferred terms for “tenure” (such as “substantiation”), graduate students (“postgrads”), and various levels of teaching positions (“lecturer” in Canada vs. the UK). Please keep these variations in mind for your own job-seeking needs.

Throughout this document, the word “department” is used, but may also refer to specialized programs, research labs, centres, etc. to which you may be applying.

BEFORE YOU START

The #1 rule

Do not waste the search committee’s time. Don’t give them extra work or extra pages, don’t submit something that is incomplete, and don’t mislead them with confusing information.

Optional: Crack down on social media

The world of academia is small. Scholars that are associated or in close contact with any departments to which you apply shouldn’t be able to see questionable photos on your Instagram or read unprofessional posts on Facebook. Please don’t think that I am suggesting that friends who are academics do not care about who you are; nor would I ever advocate for faculty members to share others’ private information (we have witnessed these breaches of privacy and everyone gets upset). What I refer to is a scholar’s conflict of interest that might put them in a professional bind; maybe they’d even like to help you out, but they may excluded from important conversations because they are a bit too close to a job candidate.

Again, this is up to you! But if you are interested in limiting social media, then you could, for instance, place select people on private/acquaintance lists, have separate personal accounts, or even temporarily deactivate. If you haven’t done this yet, that’s ok: start now and limit visibility on previous posts that are questionable. What counts as sharing too much information you can decide for yourself, but as a rule of thumb, do not publicly criticize your current department and students, nor the department to which you’re applying or its faculty members. You are entitled to your own opinions, but you are also entitled to protect them.

ONTO THE LETTER

2.5 pages max

The cover letter should be 2.5 pages max, even with a signature at the bottom and your school logo/letterhead at the top (if you are currently affiliated with a school, then do use their logo and make it small). The signature adds a personalized touch.

Do your homework

Following the rule of not wasting the search committee’s time, take the time to learn what this department is about. Go online and explore their website, perhaps for 30 minutes per university. Familiarize yourself with their and the university’s research/mission statements. Do they offer their students/graduate students professionalized degrees–which means they want practical and culturally engaged work? Do they offer a more conservative or more experimental approach to their course offerings and/or graduate programs?–or is it a mix? Which faculty members do similar research to yours and in what ways do you offer something different (just figure this out, but never state in the cover letter why you are different from Professor X or Y)? What does their curriculum look like?

Other questions to consider, but which you may not want to address in your cover letter: Are they interested in collectively answering a problem–such as lowering the carbon footprint or greater representation for Indigenous students, cultures, and histories? Are they Hispanic serving? Is there a high number of international students? Is their student body composed of many “first-generation students” (this means something specific in the USA compared to Canada)?

The gist is: find out what they care about and what they’re dedicated to demonstrating to their current/prospective students, and make sure you explicitly state how your research, teaching, and/or service may share some of the same concerns. From what others have said, this method has never failed in making me stand out as a serious candidate in cover letters, Skype interviews, and campus interviews: learn about their goals and respect who they are; write them a letter that is unique to them; do not waste anyone’s time, including your own.

Optional: Write it as a story

While very few scholars have focused all of their work around a central interest, your task is to find a central interest or concern that can encompass many (not necessarily all; do not force it) of your work. The effect of the storytelling cover letter is that it can make you look focused and consistent, and the bonus is that central interests are often expressed in very simple and recognizable academic language: “I work on the representation of LGBTQ+ communities”; “I work on people’s relationship with food”; “I work on youths’ relationship with social media.”

Examples would be helpful, so I’ll plug them in when I can. My own cover letters have noted my interest in many media forms, including photography, print texts, and computational media. My method of tying these together is to state that “I work on storytelling in and across media,” which allows me to include traditional and experimental modes of storytelling. Not only does this narrative justify why some of my publications are on literature and some are on smart phone apps, it also makes it easier for committees to trace my career trajectory from being a literary scholar to a media scholar.

This overarching narrative allows the committee to follow an explicit argument, which many cover letters do not have. Cohesion is key here, so that everything seems to have its place. That does not mean the narrative is even accurate, but it’s the effect you’re going for.

Organize for easy/fast reading

It helps to organize sections so that they’re easy to skim. If you like, you can use headers such as “Background”/”Education,” “Research,” “Teaching,” and “Service” (call them whatever). What I cannot stress enough, however, is to start every section with one overarching sentence that summarizes the rest of the section. The sentence should take a structure like this (let’s say it’s the Research section): “My research focuses on [central concern] through a, b, and c,” where a, b, and c are your main qualities/interests in each area. The rest of the paragraph is up to you, as long as it covers a, b, and c–preferably in order.

The rule of thumb is to imagine that your reader will only read each header and the overarching sentence. What do they need to know? When you’re editing the cover letter, see if a stranger can figure out what you work on and teach just by skimming the letter.

Note: I’ve seen many cover letters that discuss educational background with research or that don’t have a service section at all. My advice here is to appeal to the department to which you’re applying: for example, if they clearly pride themselves on service or community engagement, then do not leave out a Service section!

THE CONTENT

Read the job call

Unless a general description has been used, a lot of what the committee wants you to speak to in detail–especially in your cover letter–is already in the job call, thus revealing exactly what you should focus on. The call will often state what position the job is trying to fill: sexuality studies? Critical race studies? If the job call includes a long list of desired expertise, the first two or three are the main foci, and the rest are perks that you can choose to mention as desired.

Based on these listed expertise, mention in every section you offer (research, teaching, etc.) how you approach these area(s) with specific examples–and here, it is again beneficial to take a look at the existing curriculum. What concentrations do the department or their programs offer?

What’s the difference among cover letters for research jobs, teaching jobs, and contract jobs?

This is possibly the most common question. Unfortunately, research positions, teaching positions, and short-term/contract positions each require unique content. I will try to be specific, but do have a look at the job call and use your judgement to figure out what kind of requirements are asked of you; tailor the cover letter to suit.

First, know the difference. A quick Google search may be enough to tell you if a university is research or teaching intensive; on Wikipedia, my institution is listed as “a public research university.” Then have a look at the website of the department/program/centre to which you’re applying and read for what their undergraduate and graduate programs offer potential students: are they intent on professionalization and internships? Do they stress being trained in critical theory? Very quickly you will figure out what kind of department you’re dealing with. That said, the job call may reflect this or may deviate slightly. For additional information, also see the item “include a summary of your teaching philosophy” below.

Note: if you’re applying to an American university, you can check out their research/teaching classification according to the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education (where, for instance, PhDs are only granted by “R” or “Research”-level universities).

If you are applying to a research-heavy position, the Research section of your letter should take precedence. Make sure you present a comprehensive research pipeline (academic speak for “your next books/projects”) that shows, regardless of whether you are finishing your dissertation or you’ve been on the market for five years, that you can hold your own as a serious researcher. You’re publishing in refereed journals; you’re collaborating as befits your discipline (and maybe it doesn’t); you are applying or at least planning to apply for research grants. Make yourself look like you’re full of research ideas, full of energy, full of action. For more on this, see the item below entitled “present yourself as a multi-faceted scholar, not a one-trick pony.”

Note: If your dissertation or another book-length (research or creative) project is being edited or submitted for publication, say so, and also state which presses you will or intend to submit it to.

If you are applying to a teaching-heavy position with some research (such as some 1- and 3-year positions, including limited-term appointments and visiting assistant professorships), the teaching section of your cover letter should use the same amount of space as the research section. It is vital that you do not present yourself as foremost a researcher, but as equally researcher and teacher, or perhaps as a research-minded teacher. Ideally, you will present yourself as someone whose research interests have shaped your exciting pedagogical methods. Here, the “write it as a story” method of cover letter writing is effective, especially in communicating an earnest account of how your research and teaching are intertwined. Make sure that your Teaching Dossier, if requested, offers concrete examples of your experiences. I know many disapprove of sharing free sample syllabi in job applications; how many you choose to share is ultimately up to you, but if you want to do it, then include syllabi for classes you’ve previously taught (if applicable) and mock syllabi that suit the needs of the department to which you’re applying.

If you are applying to a teaching-only position (including full-time, part-time, and contract lectureships and limited-term appointments), your research statement may be no more than a paragraph to explain your background and maybe to offer context to your teaching interests. Simply put, unless a teaching-heavy job call notes that there are some research expectations, this position involves little to no research. Therefore, it is extremely crucial that you do not present yourself as a researcher or even as a teacher who is interested in making the jump to a more research heavy position in the future. Focus on sharing your teaching experiences, especially if you’ve ever worked as a writing instructor, a tutor, a mentor, a course designer, a translator, or if you’ve instructed in other languages, education systems, or countries. Mention any relevant pedagogical training you’ve had that may be an asset. The advice above about including sample syllabi holds; in fact, in many cases, job calls may ask for it

Jobs asking for curriculum and program development

If the job call notes that the successful applicant will develop a new program (graduate, undergraduate, certificate), then speak to your experiences especially in teaching and service in designing courses/capstone projects in this field, developing curriculum changes, and/or participating in meetings and committees where such changes have been made. Following the section above, it may be beneficial to include sample syllabi to show the depth or breadth of your design and development capabilities.

The interdisciplarian

The presentation of oneself as interdisciplinary without seeming “watered down” is a common concern for young scholars who did or are doing PhDs that are interdisciplinary, non-specific, and non-traditional. I would spend no more than two lines making an argument for this, though, as everyone is ultimately interdisciplinary: a full-time faculty member cannot be a one-trick pony who produces one major project. If successful in acquiring a tenure-track position, you would be expected to juggle research, courses, service, and student projects/theses/dissertations from a variety of fields, so interdisciplinarity means flexibility. In your cover letter (and also in potential interviews), do not apologize for your diverse background. Do try to highlight which one (or two) areas in your interdisciplinary work most strongly match the job call, proposing it as an asset that you have all this under your belt–and more! The key is to avoid looking unfocused. Instead, foreground your high aptitude in select areas.

There are a few ways to present interdisciplinary research. You could briefly speak to how your expertise in X, Y, and Z areas allows you to–or, how it is even necessary to–address the current state of [your central interest/concern]. Or, structure this sentence backwards: the current state of [your central interest/concern] requires that your dissertation bring together X, Y, and Z areas.

If you’d like to explicitly state the value of connecting multiple disciplines for your research, have a look at the argument you made in your dissertation literature review that brings together these various fields. The literature review might argue what the connection is, as well as how your approach is unique in bringing these together; however, the cover letter is not the place to persuade the search committee of this novelty. Instead, the cover letter should get to the gist of the results/payoff: summarize, in plain language, what the disciplinary connections bring to your research or how they advance the project.

I’m certain that others have more advice about how to present oneself as an interdisciplinary scholar; please do share your thoughts if you’re comfortable.

Avoid too many details

What a search committee wants to glean from the cover letter is who you are as a general package, not about the contributions of every article you’ve published/submitted and the details of every class you’ve taught. If they want details, they will go to your CV, so only mention major milestones/accomplishments that contribute to an overall argument/story/focus in your cover letter. Lists are your friend. Use plain language and curriculum-esque categories that anyone on the committee, regardless of their expertise, would understand. For example, if you work on fashion in Jane Austen novels, you could say that you draw from literary studies, gender studies, and consumer culture–three areas that are general enough for you to riff off of, discussing how you’ve extended one or more of these to related or future research projects.

If the application calls for a separate Research Statement, Teaching Dossier, or otherwise, then leave these sections (Research, Teaching) short and sweet in the cover letter (again, lists are your friend!), followed by “For more information, please see the attached [STATEMENT].” This means that these sections of your cover letter need to be impactful enough for the search committee to get an idea of what you do and to be eager to look at the separate attachment. If you’re working on a new book or project, give a one-liner on what it’s about or what it’s called, then let the separate statement say the rest.

Note: Unless stated otherwise, Teaching Dossiers should be 20 pages, give or take a few pages. Be strategic in what you choose to include, shaping the Dossier around the job and therefore not including every teaching evaluation or sample syllabus you possess. Pick syllabi that most strongly reflect the department’s current curriculum as well as the general areas they are seeking to fill in their job call. For teaching evaluations, all you need is an average of the scores or the average score of each question. You can always say that originals (evaluations, letters of recommendation, etc., are available upon request).

You’re a multi-faceted scholar, not a one-trick pony

You are no longer or soon will no longer be a graduate student. Do not present your dissertation as the only research project in your cover letter; do not treat it as your magnum opus. Instead, extend the dissertation and any other side projects/publications you’ve worked on by explaining how they have led to your current and next research questions or projects. One of the biggest mistakes I see in cover letters for research-based jobs is when an applicant doesn’t list their three- and five-year research plans, which is one thing a research-based institution will ask about if you get a first-stage and campus interview. So let them know early: what is the next book or project going to be? Also mention any grants or projects you’re excited to get up and running.

If you’ve picked the “write it as a story” approach, you could present your research plans as the next step in the story after the dissertation, mentioning in 1-2 sentences the way your next book/project answers questions or extends issues raised by your original interests. Everything comes tied together this way.

Taking this one from Prof. Jennifer Harris at U Waterloo (thanks, Jennifer!): If you’re a scholar who focuses on a single author, “you need to work harder to prove your interests extend beyond that author. Don’t spend all your time [explaining] how innovative your approach to that author–show that this inflects your understanding more broadly.”

Be clear when listing publications and accomplishments

Use numbers to save room and create quick effect. You currently have: X refereed journal articles, X forthcoming, X submitted for consideration; X book chapters, X forthcoming, X submitted; and so forth. Unless it’s a book, you’ve won an award, or there’s a very important co-author, there’s no need to name most or any of the publications; that’s what your CV is for. If you’re comfortable, you can also mention that you have X institutional, association, national, and/or international grants/scholarships won, for a total of $X.

Do not try to “trick” the committee with fancy numbers or misleading organization. A common way this is occurs is when scholars state in their cover letters or CVs that they have “7 publications” when they actually have 2 refereed journal articles, 3 non-refereed journal articles, and 2 book chapters. If you’ve done this by mistake, change it, as unclear organization or formatting makes it difficult for the committee to break down your contributions. And yes, it does matter: for every 1 kind committee member who takes time to look up these individual publications, 9 may toss out the application.

Name dropping may be a waste of space

Don’t make the letter about other scholars you’ve worked with, because the committee is potentially interested in you. Talk about you. There’s a small exception to this: if you’ve worked with a person who is very important to the field that the job call is seeking, it may be worth to quickly mention the collaboration. What I’m critiquing is name dropping to excess or mentioning names that won’t mean much to some members of a (likely interdisciplinary) committee. Don’t waste space with this.

On the subject of name dropping, do not mention members of the faculty that you’d like to work with or who you are inspired by (this is more likely something to do during a campus interview if you and a faculty member are getting along, but even then, avoid being overly presumptuous). It is possible for you to engage with or collaborate with some of these people if you get the job, but until you are successful, you cannot know about internal politics in the department. I don’t mean to be unkind, but naming current faculty who interest you is actually a tip for graduate school applications; doing so in an academic cover letter might suggest that you still think of yourself as a student instead of as a potential colleague.

Include a summary of your teaching philosophy

Unless the job call is completely administrative, the cover letter should have a teaching section. The length of the section will vary depending on what the position is looking for, but even if a separate teaching dossier is requested, your cover letter should still state what kind of teacher you are.

In plain language, include a brief summary of your teaching philosophy that is founded on your interests and experiences. For instance, following the “write it as a story” technique, I say that my research on digital devices has led me to think about the ubiquity of popular media for today’s undergraduate student; therefore, I train students to think about digital cultures and technologies both in the classroom and in their lives, aiming to extend their critical thinking to everyday situations.

Back to stating what kind of teacher you are. Ideally, you are the kind of teacher who fits easily into a department’s existing curriculum (and if requested in the job call, also their future plans). It is not helpful nor your place to propose reinventing their wheel; instead, state your teaching areas/interests so that they complement the department’s offerings and concentrations. If you are applying to a department that is slightly different from or more specific than your training, shift the language into their court. For example, if you did your PhD in media studies in a social science department and are applying for a media studies position in a humanities department, words such as “communication,” “policy,” and “technology” can be replaced with “rhetoric,” “system,” and “media.”

Finally, ask others to read it over

It doesn’t hurt to exchange letters and get the insight of others. (:

 

There is a comment section below. Please add your own tips and suggestions, including anything you think I’ve missed!

Lai-Tze Fan is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Waterloo, conducting research in the Critical Media Lab. She is also an Associate Editor and Director of Communications of electronic book review. For more information, visit https://laitzefan.com

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advice · disability · enter the confessional · teaching · Uncategorized

Work hack: adrenaline management

I prep almost all of my classes in the 90 minutes before they take place. I usually teach two classes per day, two days per week, so my two teaching days are actually prep-two-classes-teach-two-classes-do-office-hours days. It’s pretty intense. Ok, it’s really intense. I sleep really well after those days. I do my runs really fast and hard on those days. I talk a lot at supper on those days.

So much of our academic work is that goddamn cliched iceberg: you can only see the 10% that sticks up above the waterline, while the looming and awesome bulk, the main structure holding everything together, sinks deep down under the water and away from the light. I’m starting a series of posts where I am going to describe my 90%, and I invite you to pitch us some guest post work hacks of your own.

I had this idea for a long time that being a good and organized professor would be to map out a syllabus three months in advance, and then in the three months before term I should create detailed lesson plans and formal lectures and slide shows and extravagant LMS pages and the whole shebang could be in a three-hole punch splendor-binder of preparedness before day 1.

I have learned I’m never going to be that person.

First, after my first year on the tenure track, I have NEVER prepared a “lecture” per se. It takes me hooooouuuuuuuurrrrrrs and it’s boring to do and I hate it. Second, I have noticed that if I try to schedule a semester worth of lesson planning into sensible one hour blocks of effort over long period of time before the semester in question I simply procrastinate and then hate myself, which is not a good use of my time. After all that procrastinating and self-hating I was always doing it all at the last minute anyway and hating myself for that too.

After some years of this, and from sheer exhaustion, I gave up trying to do it “right.” I decided to try to manage my own inclinations into a functional work plan, one with less “procrastinating” and less “should” and less “hating myself” and more kind of finding my own talent and supporting it.

I now sometimes create ornate slideshows of images with headers and the headers are tied to topics that I will jot a 3 bullet set of notes for myself to speak from. You know how long it takes me to make a 30 slide presentation on internet history? 30 minutes. I am a MONSTER at Google image search and if Keynote were a symphony I would be first violin. Most days, though, usually I walk into class with one sheet of typed notes, with an agenda/outline for class at the top, and the briefest of notes to lead me through it. And I will have prepared that in the period just before class. I schedule this purposefully now. My teaching days are teaching-and-prep days and I schedule the time that I need to get the prep done before I teach and I’ve accepted that that’s how I do things. I have been teaching long enough that I’m pretty confident in setting aside the right amount of time. I know myself well enough to know that I’m more likely to hate myself for procrastinating if I try to start too soon than I am to succumb to panic because I’m not prepared enough.

lecture-notes
Good enough. Let’s go to class.

Caveat: I need a good syllabus for this, the kind I make in a one-day blast, where I have to pick out every single reading and set all the deadlines and lay out the entire schedule in excruciating detail. Normally before the semester starts, then, I have read all the materials I have assigned, at least once, even if I don’t have great (i.e., any) notes, so I’m not learning new content every day. As long as the frame of the semester–schedule, topics, reading, assignments, due dates–is laid out clearly in advance, I just need a short window of time before class to get my class plan ready.

So much of many of our troubles in this job come from not being taught the processes for producing the end products, and then, after that, from not knowing that there are many different ways to get to that end product and that some ways will work better for different scholars, depending on their natures, inclinations, life circumstances, and more. Me, I have an incredibly difficult time getting motivated to do things that I’m not 100% interested in doing right now–like many people with ADHD, rewards and consequences and importance I understand on a cognitive level but they just don’t make me stop procrastinating; I need interest, novelty, challenge, or urgency. I used to think I was lazy and irresponsible; I’m actually usually mostly just nearly dying of boredom. Prepping an 80 minute class in the 60 minutes directly before that class takes place is interesing, and urgent, and kind of a challenge. Highly motivating. Not boring.

It turns out that what I’ve been doing all these years is self-medicating my ADHD by producing an urgent situation that releases adrenaline into my system and allows me to focus intently. I get in the flow, and I really enjoy prepping my classes this way, and it all feels very fresh and fun when I walk into class with a brand new lesson plan still hot from the printer and I get to surf my way across the ideas and energy of the room and see if it’s all going to come together or not. I find the whole process very energizing, exciting, and rewarding. Mostly, it comes together and my students describe my classes as really active and engaged and fun. Me, I have a great time, too. It works for all of us because I’m playing to my own strengths instead of fighting them to do it “the right way” that’s never going to work for me.

I won a teaching award this year.

The flip side of this, of course, is having to learn that my way is not the only way. When I discovered this prep and teaching strategy I told all the teachers I knew, and urged them to try it. “It’s amazing!” I told them, “Everyone should do this! It’s so fun and efficient and functional!” Friends and colleagues demurred. I just could not understand these people, my friends!, who went to class with prepared lectures and handouts and worksheets, and novels with sticky notes in them, materials they laboured over in the summer or on their non-teaching days. It took me a long time to learn to really hear it when they would tell me that speaking in front of people was scary and they liked to be prepared in order to feel less anxious, or that they were more comfortable with a more encyclopedic command of the material in the case of any eventuality, or that they really liked the process of taking a few months in advance of a course to settle and refine their ideas. When I started, I thought my way was the Wrong Way and worked hard to be the Right Way; when I finally figured out that my own way was the Right Way, I wanted everyone else to do it that way too. Finally, I’m coming to a more mature understanding that maybe there are a lot of different right ways to prep for class, run that class, make a syllabus. If you feel good and competent, and your students feel adequately supported, and it’s not harming your health or burdening the support staff, then that’s the right way, too.

I’m still learning new tricks, going to workshops, reading about new kinds of class activities online in the blogs and the literature, talking to my colleagues. I’m refining My Way, trying to make space for other people to have Their Way, and learning from it all.

I would love to learn from you, too: do you have a class prep hack that really works for you? Pitch a post, or leave a comment, or suggest another iceberg-bottom-bit you’d like to see explored further.

 

advice · sabbatical · Uncategorized

Clearing the decks

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I said I would write about some of the work I did in the six months leading up to my sabbatical in order to prepare to make the most it when the time came. One the main things I did was clear the decks, in a pretty thoroughgoing way. There were many “decks” to clear: my home office, my campus office, my two computers, my cloud storage, my grading and feedback for graduate students, peer review obligations.

I had this worry that January 1 would roll around, and I would helplessly spin around in one or another of my offices, with no surfaces to put things onto, desperately trying to remember where I put a printout. I had visions of endless search-and-preview loops on my MacBook, trying to find a document I knew existed but where I had just digitally stuffed in the wrong place out of expedience. I woke up at night afraid the towering pile of dissertations and INCs would smother me at any moment, anxious also of forms unsigned and letters unsent, chewing my nails about article reviews coming due and me forgetting them, or worse, spending all my time on them.

So I read a lot of dissertations, made plans with students, took scrupulous care to get all of my grading and peer reviews done before the end of fall term.

The more serious problems were in many ways the more straightforward ones of space.

I had too much stuff: too many books, so that new ones had no place. Too many stacks of printouts, and no room in the cabinets, too many references in my Zotero just dumped in, too many folders and subfolders for all my projects across two computers and two cloud storage services. Too many late library books, and fines.

It was probably early October, sitting in my office hours, brain dead from having submitted my SSHRC IG application, that I decided to do something, right now. Sitting at my desk, I looked at the big pile of books stacked like a tower in the corner. I would put them away. But there was no shelf space left.

Something in me snapped. All I could see were the wrong books in the wrong places and the right books hidden and no room to breathe anywhere. Ghosts of the past, past roles and past theories and outmoded scholarship and fields I don’t participate in. I removed somewhere between 8 and 10 linear feet of books, and brought them all to the giveaway cabinet in the common area. This took hours. I sneezed nearly the entire time. Everything was dusty and neglected and crammed in. I made space. I shelved all my new books. It was beautiful.

This started an avalanche of paper. I went through my teaching files: 13 years of lesson plans and overhead transparencies and grading rubrics and printouts and attendance records. Recycled. I went through the 4 linear feet of printouts stacked in piles on my bookshelves: from course packs and grad classes, stuff I copied out of my own books, stuff I didn’t care about, stuff that was outdated and useless. About two linear feet went right in the bin: the other two went to my RA, who put them all in my Zotero database, and filed everything. I went through research notes from projects long completed, marked up drafts, correspondence, notes-to-self. Recycled. Grad chair documentation of an informational and non-confidential nature: recycled. I freed up over a hundred file folders this way. Then I recycled the file folders to the giveaway cabinet.

I have been a professor for 13 years. In the beginning, it was important to accumulate lesson plans and course evaluations and desk copies of textbooks and my new scholarly library. I have been in the same office for 13 years. I didn’t notice when not-enough-stuff became enough-stuff and certainly not when enough-stuff because way-too-much-stuff. I’m going to have to remember to do the work at regular intervals. It’s remarkably invigorating.

There was, suddenly, room to breathe. I had removed literally hundreds of pounds of paper from the office, linear foot upon linear foot of stuff I don’t need, desk drawer after cabinet of stuff squirrelled away and completely forgotten. Oh yeah: I cleaned out all my desk drawers, too. Goodbye powdery packets of tea dated 2008, au revoir mystery bag of … aspirin? ibuprofen?, so long 20 stick pens that don’t work, one weirdly rock solid Clif bar.

I found my awfully late library books. I paid my fines.

I did the same work at home: box after box of books–textbook samples, books I bought in grad school, old notebooks full of old notes about things I’m not ever going to need to think about again. Goodbye to all that.

It felt good. It felt like taking off all these chains attaching me to the past, to projects never-completed, or well completed, to paths I really am never going to pursue, to things that have outlived their usefulness, to clutter and distraction. I made space for new printouts and new books and new ideas. It felt fantastic. It took, literally, weeks.

And then the digital decluttering: my MacBook Pro was sending out cries for help in the form of crashes and meltdowns. Since 2004, with every new computer I got (five?) I used Migration Assistant to copy the old hard drive over to the new one. The result was a crufted up machine with three versions of MS Word, incompatible suites of Adobe software, and backups of an iPod I haven’t had since 2010. My 500GB only had 30GB of space left. At the Apple store we rebuilt the machine from scratch, and I completely reviewed all my documents and folders. I deleted A LOT. My 500GB hard drive now has a little more than **300GB** of storage free. And it doesn’t crash anymore. Like in my physical offices, I made space and set things up to foreground the work I want to do now, making everything easy to find and easy to call to hand. This took over a week.

When January 1 rolled around, I had at least a clear sense of what I was going to do, and, importantly, I had enough mental space, enough shelf space, enough desk space, and enough hard drive space to just get right to it. Everything was radically simplified and pared down. It turned out to be one of the very best things I did to get ready for my sabbatical.

advice · disability · enter the confessional · productivity · Uncategorized

I did it myyyyyyy waaaaay: and you should, too

I love paper. I love paper journals and notepads, I love printouts, I love paper books. I love pens and highlighters and pencils and erasers and tape-flags and Post-Its. I love sorting my printed-out grading into stacks, into piles. I love cerlox-bound dissertations on my lap, squeaking under my highlighter. I love 12 sheets of scrap paper on my desk as 12 weeks of a semester as I plan out a grad course. I love fanning my research notes across a 7′ by 10′ area rug and crawling among them, attaching paper sticky notes. I love printing out 40 pages chapter drafts and arranging them linearly across all my kitchen counters, then cutting them with scissors, sticking bits together with tape, and rearranging them linearly, over and over. I even do outlines on tiny strips of paper that I cut up and arrange and rearrange and cut and add and throw away and rearrange again.

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Please note the paper bits are actually in bulleted and sub-bulleted lists.

I love paper. E-stuff, hilariously and paradoxically, I’m not so keen on. I love social media and happily surf multiple streams and platforms simultaneously, obviously: this is my research area, after all. But. I don’t read journal articles online, don’t grade online, don’t buy e-books, or e-magazines, don’t use a stylus on a tablet. I’m happy to read the whole internet online, and happy to free write and do maybe up to 30% of my editing work online. The whole work online thing gives me the heeby-jeebies and makes me desperately confused.

 

I often feel like some cranky Luddite, making my students print papers and hand them in. I feel like a monster for compulsively printing hundreds of pages of research articles when I’ve got them all stored as PDFs on my tree-saving screen. I feel dumb and old-fashioned when I ask my coordinator to print out all the bits and pieces of the graduate teaching assignment instead of working virtually on the beautiful spreadsheet she’s made.

Basically, there’s a part of me that knows I get the best results, more happily and easily, when I use my paper methods. And there’s a part of me that thinks I should instead do it completely online and virtually because my way is weird and therefore terrible.

I’m learning a lot about myself since my ADHD and autism diagnoses. One of the things I’m learning is that a lot of my ways of working are actually disability hacks: as it turns out a LOT of my people are very visual and a LOT of my people have poor working memory. Instead of trying to change myself to fit the ways of working I think I should have, because other people, I should maybe instead celebrate that I have, by trial and error and very little help or encouragement from anyone, kluged my way into some best practices for my particular career and set of challenges. I should congratulate myself on the self-knowledge that got me to a place that I’ve devised a whole workflow that minimizes the disabling effects of my particular forms of neurodivergence and allows me to shine.

I suggest to you, too, that maybe those “one weird trick for productivity” hacks that you use and are secretly ashamed of, might be something YOU should be proud of, too.

For me, paper is visible in very important ways: scale, scope, the gist. How much progress I’m making, how much I have left. Where the holes are, sometimes literally. Paper is a massive memory aid, an externalization of my working memory, all the more crucial the larger or more complex a task becomes. Colour coded sticky notes and pens and paper clips and highlighting–I scan it from above and easily zoom down to what I need.

For me, electronic text is inscrutable and frustrating, like trying to watch a movie in the front row of the cinema with a pinhole camera: I can’t get any sense of scale or make sense of anything, and I get dizzy, to boot. There’s no way I could follow any kind of narrative and it’s a challenge not to barf. All the blue light, not enough screen, too many tabs and open windows and nothing findable. Stress nap!

I thought requiring my paper memory prosthetics meant I was too dumb to “keep it all in my head.” I thought that getting frustrated and anxious using virtual text meant I had no attention span (well, okay, that’s true). But honestly, who cares? As I build up a body of research and teaching and service, I can see that I actually produce really good stuff. Who cares if I do it weird? Pretty much no one, actually. So why am I (are we?) so hard on myself (ourselves?) for doing it my way?

My former coordinator, watching me use pencils and scrap paper and printouts and rulers and tick boxes and lists and hand-drawn tables to slot 140 grad students into 3 semesters of teaching with no overlaps, howlers, or inequities, laughed at me a little (rightly so, I look like a loon; we laughed together a lot) but she kept all those sheets: they really worked, and it was fast, and it was fair. It all eventually got put into a spreadsheet for tracking purposes, but it was okay that I did it my way.

And it’s okay that you do it your way. This job is supposed to be about results; we are supposed to be free to do the work how and when we want, as long as we produce the required end-products–a syllabus, a lesson plan, a dissertation, a teaching schedule, an academic article. But in truth I think a lot of us secretly or not-so-secretly berate ourselves for doing it wrong. It seems so strange to me but here it is: in a profession where we get almost no training in the methods for actually doing our jobs, when we figure out our own methods, we’re nearly always convinced we’re doing it wrong, and should be ashamed of ourself, or at least very secretive so we don’t get found out.

There’s a vast market in productivity advice (I know, I write a lot of it) and there is much we can learn from different kinds of best practices and different kinds of systems, particularly when we haven’t yet found a system that works for us. We should remember, though, that there are different systems, and it’s okay to prefer one kind of working style over another.

So now you know my one weird trick: Print everything, and spread over all flat surfaces with paper so that I can see everything I’m working on and with at the same time. What’s your one weird trick?

advice · sabbatical · Uncategorized

All the things I’ve said “no” to

Like many academic women, I’m trying to learn how to say no–I can’t believe how deeply socialized I am to never want to disappoint anyone, how deeply-rooted is my fear of being ‘unlikeable’, how unshakeable my imposter syndrome that any opportunity turned down represents the tide turning toward my inevitable unmasking and the end of everything.

I have a problem with saying yes that is partly being socialized female, partly about an ADHD time-tunnel problem where there is only ‘now’ where I can make someone happy and get excited about a new opportunity and a vast amorphous and distant ‘not now’ where somehow the work will happen and I’m not mysteriously triple-booked, and partly about feeling a deep moral imperative to use the incredibly privilege of my tenured professorship to be available to committees and students and collaborations and such. Basically, I am afraid to say no, I feel like an asshole when I say no, and I have terrible foresight into what all my yesses might mean for my actual workflow.

Knowing this, I vowed to make a change on sabbatical. I booked myself a 365-day, all-day meeting and it runs like a ribbon all across my iCal for 2018:

say not
I know there’s a typo. I’m just NOT going to go and change it. No. I’m saying no.

And! I have indeed been saying no. And it was very hard! I was still eating Christmas cookies and day-drinking when I got an email at the very end of December asking me if I would be interested to keynote an undergraduate media conference … in mid-January. I immediately dropped everything and stood in my kitchen, rationalizing a way to say yes, while my partner stood there agog. I was all like, “well, I think I have a paper I could really easily convert into something for this, and it’s on a weekend so that wouldn’t eat into my writing time and it’s close by so …”

No. I said no. It was hard but then? I stopped thinking about it. Poof: literally one less thing to worry about. Because, to be honest, I would have been stressing about slides and making the talk perfect and it would totally have taken away writing time.

Saying no is getting easier. I did not say yes to all the students who asked me for reference letters, just the ones who are working directly with me. I did not say yes to reading all the CVs of our job applicants. I did not say yes to a campus advocacy thing. I did not say yes to participating in another conference. I did not say yes to three separate request for peer review. I said no.

Something amazing happened: I immediately forgot all the things I said no to. I actually had to dig through my email to generate the list above. Let me be clear: I am not wracked with guilt or regret. It’s amazing and freeing! I simply do not even remember what I have said no to. I just moved on. Another thing: no one wrote back to beg me to reconsider. No one. I have not ruined anyone’s life by saying no.

Saying no to all these other things has meant more clearly saying yes to my own sabbatical project: I have made incredible progress this month on a book chapter that was nothing but a good idea and some free writing–it’s grown into a real thing and I have enjoyed focusing exclusively on that this month. It feels really, really good to focus like this, not in a rush and not in a race and not in a panic and not stuffed into the cracks of All The Other Things.

I am still saying yes to things other than my writing: I’m meeting with grad students about their chapters, and I’m participating in defences. I gave a lunch time talk to a women’s group, and am giving that same talk to a staff association lunch. And I am saying yes to some opportunities–that I am choosing, for my own needs–to give talks on my current research in ways that feel like they support what I want to get done this year.

The most important thing I’ve learned is that, ultimately, saying yes to one thing always has costs, because time is not infinitely elastic, nor is attention.  (This is very hard for me to learn.) A yes to something is always, ultimately, a no to something else, and I’m trying to learn to do that accounting every time I’m presented with an opportunity. I said that I wanted to use this sabbatical to really focus on finishing my big projects, and I find that since I’m saying no to things that aren’t that, I actually am making real progress on the thing I am trying to prioritize.

So I have said no, and the results of my negative responses to all these asks has been positive progress on my main goal, and a more positive and less-stressful rhythm to my days. I have said no, and I’m here to tell you: it feels good.

administration · advice · work

Campus visit mystery: interview with the dean

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Image via

 

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.

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

How to be an external examiner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

advice · positive thoughts as I fill out grant applications · Uncategorized

Working on my grant application…

I’m about 80% done my SSHRC Insight Grant application, the 80% where I made a serious go at getting all the moving pieces drafted and formatted and collated and sent it in for feedback. When it came the feedback was detailed, useful, and totally overwhelming and I pushed the whole thing away for a week or so to regroup. I did not regroup. I had to call in reinforcements, actually: my dear love who used to be the guy that did the feedback. He sat down with me and went over it step by step, while I tried not to lash out and/or cry.

Hilariously, the issue with my SSHRC Insight Grant application is the issue that I raise with all the grad students whose SSHRC Doctoral Fellowship applications I see. The issue is threefold:

  • Give the main point first
  • Be less tentative
  • Be more specific

The reason it’s hard to do these things is that it requires a kind of assertive confidence that is, understandably, hard to muster at the start of a project. This hesitation is natural and useful and keeps the mind open to the possibilities of the research as it proceeds. Good. That is, I dare see, the right way to feel. However, the grant application rewards confidence and straight-aheadness–literally rewards it, you are asking for money, remember–so the correct way to write the app requires bald directness, confidence, and the impression of mastery of time and space. Fake it if you have to.

So.

Give the main point first: If you ask my grad students what editorial suggestion I make most frequently on their writing they will probably say, “Take this thing at the end and put it at the beginning.” I say that a lot. Quite right. Most of us discover what we’re thinking once we see what we’re writing and often that means that we really get the point of the whole thing right at the end of the application / chapter / article,/ dissertation. That’s fine as a process. But then literally ask yourself every time: what would happen if I took my last paragraph and made it first. I will tell you: 9 times out of 10 your thing will get better, and clearer, and more fundable.

Be less tentative: I know that I’m not sure where my research is going to end up, but I sure as hell have to sound like I do. I’ve been tentative in my writing, saying things like, “this project aims to address” when I should say “this project addresses” or even “this project argues.” Tentativeness manifests mostly in the verbs, and the verbs hedge in two ways: they describe actions the author is going to do instead of what the research will prove, and they downplay the thesis animating the research. Here is a list of weasel words you should mostly cut almost completely from your grant application: understand, examine, explore, investigate, consider, aim, compare. Mostly, these words are about what you are going to do. But the grant app is not a biography, it is a statement of research. Better verbs: argue, prove, show, demonstrate, produce, craft. These verbs have the benefit of being much more active, and of being focused on the value of the research, rather than the process of the researcher.

Be more specific: It is frustrating to have to write very specifically about something you’re going to be doing three years from now, that you may not have properly even started yet. But it is also very frustrating to read things like, “over the course of the grant, I will examine the secondary literature and compare pertinent examples from among possible primary texts.” There’s nothing I can actually picture there. I would rather read “In the first year, I will perform a literature review of sources in social media practices (Jenkins, Ito, and Boyd; Noble and Tynes; Thumin; van Dijck) and begin to select primary texts for the case studies, beginning with social justice selfies (eg, #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, #StayMadAbby)” Being specific is hard. You have to make decisions and go to the library. I hate it, myself, particularly when I’m trying to write about the second half of the third year of the grant. However. That’s what people want to read, myself included.

It’s pretty funny that this is the exact advice that I give grad students and yet it is very hard for me to follow it, too — I need my own reader to make exactly the same editorial comments I make to others. I guess we all need editors!

Anyhow, this is my day today. Changing my verbs, beefing up the details, getting to the point. If you’re still working on your Insight Grant, or your doctoral fellowship app, well, bon courage. I’m right there with you.

advice · from dissertation to book · writing

From Dissertation to Book: Choosing a Publisher

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Before I went through the process of working to get my dissertation published–or rather, before my dissertation was finished and I wasn’t sure yet what or how good it was going to be–I was worried about any publisher wanting it. Never mind thinking about having a choice of where I’d like it to be published, about finding the best fit for me and the project.

Don’t be like me!

When it comes to publishing your dissertation, you have many choices and considerations:

  • Where to submit your proposal
  • How to frame your proposal for different presses and tailor how you present the project to suit a publisher’s style and mandate
  • Which editors you’re most interested in working with
  • Which publisher is going to give you the most say in how the book turns out in the end
  • Which publisher has a vision for the project that aligns with yours.
  • Which press pays the best royalties, or has the best marketing department, or does the best book design.

In my case, I shopped my dissertation manuscript to two presses in which I was particularly interested, having done my research about all of the possible options and their various strengths. One was a very traditional university press with a strong track-record in Canadian literary studies (my primary field) and the other a younger and more innovative university press with a strong and growing list in Canadian life writing (my genre). My relationships with the acquisitions editors to whom I sent my proposal came about in the twisty, unexpected way that is as often the norm as a straightforward pop into the publisher’s booth at a conference: one editor I had worked with during my brief stint at a university press between my Master’s and PhD; the other editor reached out to me about the possibility of writing an entirely different book after reading my work on H&E and seeing some of it at Congress, and then became interested in my dissertation manuscript during our conversations.

What came next was the same for both editors–a series of coffee meetings and the exchange of ideas about what I had in mind for my biography of Jay Macpherson and what they thought their press would and could do with the project. I wrote a formal proposal, although I didn’t necessarily need to, that we used as our basis of discussion. Because I have a very strong vision for the project–that it be accessible in style and cost, that it be a ‘partial life’ and not a cradle-to-grave biography, that I have significant control over format and design–I shared the same proposal with both editors, despite the very different profiles and approaches of their presses.

In many ways, finding a publisher for my manuscript felt a lot like my most recent job search. I was ready to move on, but I could afford to be very selective–I had a good job, one I could stay in until the just right thing came along. And so when I was interviewing for new positions, I was interviewing potential new employers as much as they were interviewing me–did our interests and approaches align? did we have the same vision for my role? did the idea of working together excite us both? I ended up choosing to work for a place where the answer to all of those was (and continues to be, nearly three years later) yes.

Meeting with publishers was much the same. As we met and discussed, we were both assessing if our interests and approaches with this book aligned, if we had the same vision for the manuscript, if the idea of working together excited us both. It became clear pretty quickly that one press, in particular, had a vision that aligned very closely with mine, and, moreover, that the editor had ideas for the book that I hadn’t even thought of but were both inspiring and exciting. Because I was clear about what I wanted from and for my book, it also quickly became clear to me that working with the other, more traditional press, probably wasn’t something that was going to work well for either of us–they ultimately wanted something in line with what they’ve always done, which would have meant a book that was less accessible, affordable, and innovative than I wanted.

Choosing a publisher also, to a certain extent, felt a little like dating: how much did I connect with this editor? Could I see myself working with them for a couple of years to shepherd this project into the world? Would they make me as a writer and thinker, and the book, better? The clincher came when I took a headlong sprawl across the sidewalk on my way to meeting the editor from the younger press. She handled my showing up bloody, bandaid-strewn, and late with aplomb, and I realized that I could be myself with her–a whole person who writes books, not just a writer or a brain in an unwieldy, bruised body. A project of this magnitude takes your whole self to complete, especially when you work in life writing and are committed to a personally-engaged kind of scholarship the way I am, and I wanted to work with someone who didn’t expect otherwise.

I decided what was important to me in publishing this book, and I found a press that supported those decisions. What’s important to you might be different–it might be prestige, or money, or a different kind of editorial relationship–but you can, and should, decide and then find what you want. Academic publishing might be a buyer’s market, but it’s not so much one that you don’t have choices.

So I wrote to that other editor to let him know that I was going to go with the publisher whose vision aligned more closely with my own, rather than revising the book to meet his publisher’s expectations, and I signed my first book contract. My biography of Jay Macpherson should be coming out with Wilfrid Laurier University Press sometime in 2019, and I’m having a ball with the revisions. I’m also super excited to see how this book turns out, as my editor (the delightful and brilliant Siobhan McMenemy) and I have a bunch of ideas about how to do something innovative and accessible.

And next up in the series: contract negotiations!