bad academics · equity · one · righteous feminist anger

A little spring "sunshine list"

If you live in Ontario, you know that the so-called “Sunshine List” is out. An innovation from the Mike Harris Progressive Conservative government in 1996, the list, featuring all public sector workers who earn total public compensation of more than $100,000, was introduced to “make Ontario’s public sector more open and accountable to taxpayers.” Alberta introduced its own sunshine list in 2014. They make for compelling and controversial reading.

The lists are generally mined publicly to two purposes. First, to decry the sheer number of public sector employees who join the list each year, a means to note that ever more sun seems to shine in civil service while others suffer. Some of this is exaggerated: if the sunshine threshold of $100,000 had been pegged to inflation, for example, the cutoff salary for disclosure would have rise to $142,338. Here, the tool is incredibly politically useful to to pit workers against one another, particularly as the real purchasing power of the threshold salary decreases: the list gets “too big” and despite inflation many (underpaid) workers find it unfair that so many others are tagged as earning a salary high enough to be publicly disclosed. The general move of this is not to argue that private sector workers ought to be better compensated, but that unionized public employees ought to be brought down. So every year the number stays the same, and every year the private sector holds its wages down, the sunshine list becomes more useful as a tool to attack the public service unions. Pegging to inflation would defeat the purpose. In fact, using the inflation-adjusted cutoff of $142,338, there would be 4000 fewer workers on the sunshine list now than in 2005, for example. That would take, for example, a ton of police officers and university professors (including most of my own department, and, well, me) off the list. In fact, if the number stayed pegged to inflation, I would probably never get on it. Ever.

Unless I move into administration in a more serious way.

The second use of the list, of course, is to find the outliers: generally, this group includes C-suite executives of crown corporations–hospital heads, apparently anything to do with electricity, and, this year, Western University President Amit Chakma.

Amit Chakma was given $942,000 in salary last year. This is an outrageous number. (Even in 1996 dollars: $661,803.) I am finding it very, very hard, in this age of adjunctification, of poverty-level graduate student funding, of rising class sizes and 50 year old classrooms with 40 year old chairs, to find a way to wrap my head around a nearly $1,000,000 annual compensation package for the president of a public university.

Ok. I’m finding it impossible.

Apparently, Chakma’s salary is in a one-time doubling scenario, because he’s skipping a full sabbatical. Regardless, in a shared governance scenario where university leaders are supposed to rise up from within the ranks, it seems outrageous to then separate them so effectively by vaulting them into the 1%, a socioeconomic stratum from which they never seem to descend to re-join the ranks.

At my university, when you take a full year sabbatical (after six years), you have your salary reduced to 60% of its value for the duration. If you take an early (six month) sabbatical (after three years), you have your salary reduced to 80% of its value. Under no scenario that I know of can you double your salary by not taking an earned sabbatical. This very term, I myself am meant to be on sabbatical–but I’m not, because grad chair. I am earning a stipend for this work, to compensate for the responsibility and aggravation and the lack of sabbaticals: this stipend amounts to something south of $5000 annually, if you’d like to know. I consider this incredibly generous.

As Jason Haslam noted in an open letter to the Western Board of Governors, the compensation provided to Chakma could fund 130 classes offered by sessionals at Western’s rate of pay. He asks: is President Chakma’s work worth 130 undergraduate classrooms of students? I might add: is President Chakma’s work worth 15 junior assistant professors? Worth 9 mid-career associates? Is it worth a $10,000 top-up to the funding of 94 graduate students to bring them above poverty-level wages for teaching all those undergrads?

These are questions internal to the operations of the university sphere. We who toil (with radically different compensation packages) within it understand what’s at stake. And just how much we’re losing.

Perhaps even more damaging, though, is the blow that Chakma-gate deals to the university in the general conversation. The sunshine list in general and presidential salary in particular lead the public to believe that universities are rife with enormous salaries and privilege. It makes it very hard to understand how so many instructors can be so very poor. It makes it hard to understand why tuition and fees are so high but the teachers are bringing their own whiteboard markers to class. It’s hard to claim austerity and ask for increased government funding for education when university presidents are drawing such outrageous compensations packages.

Here we are, crying structural institutional impoverishment while trying to split hairs that #notallprofs are overpaid (or even profs, for that matter) but #yesalladministrators are taking too much, but could the same government that pays the salaries give us more for … salaries? And, as usual, it’s the students and the contingent workers–and the university project as a whole, understood as a public good–who will be the losers. So many April fools.

backlash · bad academics · copper-bottomed bitch · hiring · job market · professors · righteous feminist anger · structural solutions

The backhand side: stupid job ads and equity

I hate red tape. I hate that every time I travel for research, I have to ask for and then save the receipt I get for buying a $5 sandwich on the airplane, and that if I get breakfast in my hotel room because the conference starts at 8:30am, I have to make sure that my toast and eggs are itemized on the hotel invoice because “Room Service Charge” is not reimbursable. This feels petty and annoying to me.

But sometimes, the pettiness and rules of the bureaucracy are an equity-seeking device.

Last year when I taught our graduate professionalization class to the second-year PhD cohort, we had as a guest lecturer a departmental colleague who was chair for a long time, and was hired in the 1980s. He was talking about the academic job market now and then. Now, as we all know, it’s a paper-heavy bureacractic mess. But then, it was a phone call between two dudes, exchanging grad students and privilege. No application, just backchannel.

In this vein, Sydni Dunn in Chronicle Vitae just reported on Jonathan Goodwin’s work with vintage MLA job ads (building on prior work by Jim Ridolfo). Here’s an ad that really stuck with me:

This is a marvel of insider-clubbiness. There might be an opening, and it doesn’t matter what field you’re in, but we’d like your degree from somewhere good and you should be able to play tennis and engage in repartee about same. The vague requirements leave the position completely open to whim; the emphasis on the rank of the school tends to reproduce privilege. The only real metric you could use to distinguish among candidates is actually tennis: publications are “helpful” but not required, so you can’t compare candidates on research record. You can’t distinguish by specialization, because none is required. You could in fact not hire at all. I can just imagine the deliberations. Oh wait: there wouldn’t be any. Because this was before committee-based hiring. Shudder. I’ll take Interfolio any day, frankly.

In my Facebook feed, then, in 2015, I was surprised to see a link to this ad from MIT. It starts out okay, or at least standard:

The MIT Media Lab ( is seeking candidates to fill two tenure-track positions. Appointments will be within the Media Arts and Sciences academic program, principally at the Assistant Professor level. 

Successful candidates for either position will be expected to: establish and lead their own research group within the Media Lab; pursue creative work of the highest international standard; engage in collaborative projects with industrial sponsors and other Media Lab research groups; supervise master’s and doctoral students; and participate in the Media Arts and Sciences academic program. Send questions to faculty-search [at] 

MIT is committed to building a culturally diverse educational environment; women and minorities are strongly encouraged to apply. EOE.

Yes, that sounds like a job ad. Job type, job rank, job duties, number of jobs available, contact information, assessment criteria. Also, equity statement.

Good. Then the two available positions are listed out. One, in climate change and environment, is pretty standard, too. But then, this, in “undefined discipline”:

The Media Lab is a cross-disciplinary research organization focusing on the invention of new media technologies that radically improve the ways people live, learn, work, and play. 

We are seeking a new kind of early career faculty member, not defined by discipline, rather by his or her unique and iconoclastic experience, style, and points of view. You can be a designer, inventor, scientist, or scholar – any combination – as long as you make things that matter. Impact is key. 

This means somebody with at least these three sets of characteristics: 

  1. Being deeply versed in a minimum of two fields, preferably not ones normally juxtaposed;
  2. Being an orthogonal and counter-intuitive thinker, even a misfit within normal structures;
  3. Having a fearless personality, boundless optimism, and desire to change the world. 

Any disciplines apply as long as their confluence shows promise of solving big, difficult, and long-term problems. And, most importantly, candidates must explain why their work really can only be done at the Media Lab. We prefer candidates not be similar to our existing faculty. We welcome applicants who have never considered academic careers. If you fit into typical academia, this is probably not the job for you. 

Applications should consist of one URL—the web site can be designed in whatever manner best characterizes the candidate’s unique qualifications. Web site should include a CV or link to a CV.

So. Not a real application. Make a website, any kind of website, but unique, and submit that as your application! Also, there’s a personality-based assessment–be orthogonal as well as polymathic! We want you to be young (early career) and iconoclastic! This is a professor job, but if you fit into academia, you’re not the right fit. Except you’ll still need a PhD and do the work of a professor. The ad seems to be asking for a set of personal traits–and personal traits that seem to inhere in a very particular kind of applicant:

Venture-capital tech-dude types who skipped college and traveled to India (not to see family, but to experience life, man) and who have foregone the scholarly article in favor of something showier because they like attention and feel they deserve it and they have rebellious haircuts and gender-bending accessories.

Look. I regularly lobby to have my media appearances and blog work count on my CV. I get “iconoclastic”–and I get weird haircuts and gender-bending accessories. I wear My Little Pony swag to teach. But this kind of ad, in its emphasis on personality and attitude, feels insulting to all the hard, verifiable, assessable work that academics do to become trained and competitive for professorships. And it will lead to bad candidate assessment.

The ability to receive a serve on the backhand side is not named, but implied. Again, how on God’s Green Earth can you sensibly sort a candidate pool? I’ll tell you right now it’ll be like an American Idol open tryout, except many of the sensible people will just not even go.

Once more: in many ways, I’m all about thinking outside the academic box: I take Facebook seriously as life-writing and I refuse to call everyday social media users naive or thoughtless. I’m lobbying hard to change a lot about the PhD at my institution. What is killing me about this job ad is that it gets loosey-goosey about all the wrong things in ways that are going to disadvantage applicants who’ve just barely got a toe-hold into the academy. By removing assessable metrics and by opening the ad so widely, it’s nearly guaranteed that a very narrow set of possible winners is going to emerge.

You can bet your backhand on it.

bad academics · mental health

From lapsed, to failed, to recovering academic

Every single Thursday since this semester has started, I have felt like the next day was a Saturday. The joke is on me, and doubly so, because I teach not one, but two three-hour classes on Friday, so my brain’s skipping over the Friday probably amounts to denial. This Friday, today, my brain completely acknowledged in a melancholy way, because I was actually supposed to be at the fantastic Discourse and Dynamics conference that Hook and Eye‘s Erin Wunker has co-organized. Not being there compounds my feeling as a complete academic failure. Ironically, not being there is also key to my recovery, academic and otherwise.

I did not teach in the Winter term of 2014, and having an alt-academic position meant that I felt only partly like an academic: a lapsed one. My alt-ac position allowed me to do important work, and contribute my teaching experience to improving academic processes such as course evaluations. Similarly, my knowledge of students and their needs informed many other aspects of the job I was involved in. What’s more, I was still going to conferences, and presenting my original research. So, I was not completely off the wagon. Lapsed, but still hanging on, although I could definitely feel the train picking up speed, while my own clinging strength kept diminishing in inverse proportion.

Then this term came, and back-to-teaching meant, I thought, back to the academy. Teaching and conferencing, although not much time for writing in-between the five courses: still academic, no? I even bought my plane ticket to Moncton to ensure I’d be there to take part in this amazing event. As the term picked up speed, and I was buried deeper and deeper under piles of marking, I also postponed booking a room in or around tiny Sackville. With every passing day, the need to secure lodgings was increasing in direct proportion with my anxiety over how I would get my Friday courses covered, when I would get all the marking done, and how many supplementary hours of sleep would have to be sacrificed on the altar of course prep. And I hadn’t even begun to factor in writing the paper.

However, if this decision puts the cherry on top of the failed academic cake, it also signals, I flatter myself, professional maturity. This is the point at which recovery begins. I could have, of course, deluded myself by thinking that “I’ll do just this one more thing,” or some such, but we all know that’s both untrue and unhealthy. I have reached a point in my professional career when I know how I work, and what allows me to perform best. You know what’s vital in that equation that belies the facile identification of work and self? Sleep. Time to think freely. Taking walks. Taking naps. Looking inside myself, rather than outside for resources. More generally, taking a break, or–gasp–maybe even a holiday.

How about you, dear reader? What’s your midterm recovery technique? General impostor syndrome aside, did you take any decisions that made you feel less like an academic, and more like an interloper?

#alt-ac · academic work · bad academics · balance · busy · collaboration · enter the confessional

But what about me?

Negotiating priorities in my work has been really hard recently. And by recently I mean, oh, since the MLA back in January.

It’s not that I haven’t been working. I have. Oh, I have. York is undergoing a pan-university review exercise much like the TransformUS initiative that’s been causing so much of a ruckus (and rightly so) at the University of Saskatchewan, and as one of only a few writers in my office, I’ve been heavily involved in the writing and editing of our Faculty’s report. Scholarships and grants are never ending, and overtime has been rather more plentiful than I would like. A friend and I have (fingers crossed) a book-like online project about graduate training and reform launching soon, and that’s required lots of tending, as has the newly published Digital Studies article about grad students in DH that he and I wrote with a bunch of wildly talented folks. I’m just finishing up the paper for the panel another friend and I put together for the ACQL at Congress, and a good chunk of my free time has been spent researching and editing for a scholarly edition of a Canadian play another friend is working on. Writing this paragraph, it seems that I’ve been doing a good job of working on collaborative projects, or stuff for other people, but not things for me.

In fact, in writing that last paragraph, I’m realizing that neglecting things for me–not just in terms of work and writing, but in terms of all the things–is precisely what I’ve been doing across the board. My dissertation is languishing in Scrivener, a fact that weaves a low hum of anxiety through most of my days. When my Dean asked me recently if there were ways that she could help facilitate my finishing, it didn’t make me feel happy, or supported–it just made me feel guilty. I haven’t kept my Thursday appointment with Hook & Eye for longer than I’d care to admit. I went for a walk after work today, stopping for gelato midway (because spring), but almost didn’t go because I felt a little panicked about all of the things I need to do tonight (write this post! finish my ACQL paper! start packing!) and less than entitled to a break and some exercise. I’ve spent too much money on new clothes recently, because spending money on myself is the easiest way to remedy the feeling that I’m not doing a very good job of actually taking care of myself. When was the last time I did something creative? When was the last time I took an entire day off work, or took time off work and didn’t feel guilty about it? No idea. And aren’t those the things I was trying to steer myself away from by deciding to step off the tenure track?

I think the thing that frustrates me the most is the feeling that I’ve written this post before. I know that I’ve written this post before, and I know that there are so many other things that I could write about, that I’d rather write about, but I’m just…tapped out. I get it–it’s not just me. We all know that we shouldn’t be the last people on our own to-do lists. We all preach the gospel of self care. But we all live in a culture of productivity and anti-procrastination and self-realization through work. And when it comes down to the wire, do I practice what I preach on those subjects? You’re damn right I don’t. And if I think it’s bad now, what about when the day comes that I’ve got a child? I’m nervous (read: terrified) just thinking about it.

I don’t know what the solution is. I love my job, truly, and I really don’t mind the overtime or the end-of-day mental exhaustion, most of the time. I really do want to finish my dissertation, for the personal satisfaction, and for the sunk costs, and because I do think it will get me ahead at work. I’m not willing to give up my writing on #altac or my other academic collaborations, and I’ve already cut most conferencing ( I go to the MLA and Congress, fin) and all additional training completely out of my schedule. I already have someone to help with the cleaning, and a partner/takeout to take care of the cooking when I don’t have the time or energy to. I have the lowest maintenance pet I can imagine, except for when he misses my partner and takes some serious consoling before he’ll stop crying at the top of his lungs (who needs a baby?). So what gives? In the end, it’s quality time with my partner and my friends, and it’s sleep, and it’s me, and the things that no one but me is depending on me to get done.

I’m at a bit of a loss, because I can’t see where something else can give, and something else has gotta give. In the meantime, until I figure it out, I guess I’ll keep trucking along, put the credit card away, and hope that my annual Congress visit with the other lovely ladies of Hook & Eye will bring some enlightenment, or at least some sympathy.

See you in St. Catherine’s?

bad academics · balance · being undone · day in the life · free time · mental health · productivity

In praise of blank spaces

My phone battery died just as I was about to take the dog out for his walk last night. This infuriated me. I use my dog walking time to call my parents every day, and sometimes my sister, and if I can’t get anyone on the phone I listen to work-related podcasts. What on earth was I going to do for half an hour while walking the dog, with no phone?

[Pause while some of us try to remember a time before iPhones, and how we used to walk dogs then too, somehow …]

What I did was this: I listened to my own boots squash through the snow. I looked at how all the neighbourhood condo construction projects are progressing. I noted the progress of the sunset through bare trees. I felt the tip of my nose get cold. I felt the in and out of my own breath, and then, finally, the un-crunching of my shoulders away from my ears.

Like white space in visual design, just doing nothing during my walk gave everything else a bit of room. I needed it.

Last week I was on the verge of tears. Then I took the holiday weekend to drive Way the Hell Up North and back, with my daughter. Now the washing machine is busted and I have insomnia from reading too many books at bedtime. When I woke up yesterday, I felt like hell. 7am felt like 2am and the day got worse from there. I had one phone meeting about a workshop I’m running in the spring, and wrote one email. That was it. I didn’t even load the dishwasher, or read one page of research, or grade one participation activity. I had two naps, and went out for lunch. I berated myself on Facebook for wasting my own time, but then continued to waste it, all day. I skipped yoga. I watched two episodes of 30 Rock with my husband and called it a night. Ugh.

I’m a big advocate of making efficient use of my time (see the quite popular post on the 30 minute miracle to that effect). But in the same way that a one page research summary of 400 words can sometimes convey more and better information than a margin-fiddled, font-optimized one page research summary of 900 words, sometimes, the 30 minute miracle I need is more white space.

So today I’m asking myself:

  • What if I walked across campus to class without using that time to eat my lunch?
  • What if I could wait at the bus stop without reading all the top stories in the New York Times?
  • What if I could walk the dog without having to stop to scribble notes from the podcast I’m listening to?
  • What if I could just watch Magic Schoolbus with my daughter instead of also trying to answer student emails at the same time?

There’s a point at which, I find, efficiency ceases to increase returns, and starts to become counterproductive. Certainly, it’s difficult to adopt a position of mindfulness when you’re trying to walk to class and eat at the same time, or puzzle out the balance between security and freedom on the internet while on the nature trail. Somewhere beyond the point where I could see that 15 minutes of time in my office between meetings could be well used, I forgot that sometimes it’s enough to do one thing at a time, even if that one thing is to lie down on the floor with the cat on my chest, feeling her purring.

So here’s to the blank spaces and what they do for us.

accomodation · administration · bad academics · race · slow academy · solidarity · structural solutions · turgid institution

Accomodation: Where We Waver

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.

bad academics · empowerment

What David Gilmour Teaches us about the Importance of Education, Community, and Collective Action

Today’s post comes from Jana Smith Elford, who has written for Hook and Eye before.
Last week Margrit approached me to write a post about the (sometimes uncomfortable) intersections between theory and praxis. 
I was going to elaborate at length about my recent research on late-nineteenth century British feminism and socialism, and how my investigations of these historical social movements had suggested to me the importance of (in the words of one of the authors I study) “joining something, siding with somebody, letting your comrades have the strength which added comradeship brings, identifying yourself with the side you wish to win, and not being so cowardly as to wish for victory without daring to fight for it.” My intention was to suggest the importance of creating vibrant communities of passionate individuals who can effectively advocate for structural change through a combination of education, community-building, and activism. I was going to discuss how the women I study managed so effectively to advance both the idea of social change and actually effect its becoming, and then muse on how these principles might influence our efforts today.
Like most of you, I was initially shocked and dismayed by the views espoused by Gilmour in the interview. I mean, my very first response was complete disbelief that this guy was for real–I thought the article had to be satire, from The Onion or the like. When I got over my disbelief, what was left was something very close to despair. After this many years of feminist activism, the academy still privileges someone like this? With all the excellent, well-trained PhDs out there who are chronically underemployed and underpaid? 
But then . . . David Gilmour was totally schooled. Again, and again, and again.
In fact, he was so quickly and collectively castigated by the wide literary and academic community that my despair turned into heavy relief, followed by a warm, fuzzy feeling in my stomach that I subsequently identified as “joy”.  (You’ll forgive me: I don’t always feel this way about the literary and academic community.) My take-away? Yes, there are professors (and colleges) out there who privilege this kind of misogyny and racism, but there are many many more who simply won’t stand for it. 
Honestly, I was really heartened. And I think the crux of why I was so heartened comes back to theory and praxis.
I often feel that we in the academy have issues with connecting our research to our practice–that we’re too isolated, that our ideas sometimes remain within our own heads, that we fail to adequately advocate for the importance of an education in the humanities, that we miss how important it is to actively participate in wider movements, activities, and organizations. 
But this whole debacle has motivated a beautiful dovetailing of education, community, and collective, cohesive action. David Gilmour was TOLD (helped out *gasp* by the National Post). Members of the progressive literary community mounted excellent defenses of the way they read, and write, and teach. Many, many individuals across Canada and beyond joined together–online and in person–to remind each other and the wider community of what it is, exactly, that the humanities stands for, and advocates against. 
Yes, it is unfortunate that it took Gilmour’s deeply troubling remarks to get here. But occasionally this kind of event is the type that motivates further activity and action. Let’s hope our responses can continue to, as a friend of a friend of mine put it, “out-good Gilmour’s bad.”

(And, Toronto friends, if you can, please attend this event!)
academic work · administration · bad academics · failure · ideas for change

The 11th hour of the 11th hour …

In the humanities, especially, it’s pretty easy to consider the academic life as an essentially solo act, punctuated by meetings we often don’t want to go to, and classes we fuss over as our main chance to interact with human beings. But we’re actually pretty deeply intertwingled with one another, and the fiction we tell ourselves otherwise can generate some pretty rotten effects.

Recently, I did a pretty rotten thing. I was on a committee of three people who’d portioned out a fraction of a load of work to each member, to be collated into the One Thing before the meeting. Well, the meeting was in the afternoon of the day chosen to consider the One Thing, and I did my part in the late morning. This was the 11th hour, if you will. But what I was thinking was: “I’ve still got 90 minutes before the meeting starts, and I’m done!”

Except I had to send my part to someone else to collate before the meeting, and he had asked to have it the day before. So what happened was my 11th hour () became the 11th hour of the 11th hour for the committee member who had to integrate my work into the whole. The third member of our group had got his work done in plenty of time, so at least it was just me who was pushing the edge, but still: while I was happily eating lunch congratulating myself on my timely completion of an onerous task, I had dropped a big last-minute job on someone else, who hadn’t been expecting to use that 90 minutes to add my work into the group project.

By seeing myself as a solo agent, I conveniently forgot that nearly everything I do requires someone else, at some point, to help me out.

Consider these cases.

Have you ever been in the photocopier room on the first day of class? If your department is like any of those I’ve ever been a member of, there will be a steady parade of increasingly frazzled teachers photocopying enough copies of their syllabus to hand out in … 30 minutes, two hours, tonight, 10 minutes. There will be a lineup. Tempers will fray. Paper will jam. People will be running their hands through their hair fairly violently while passive-aggressively harrumphing. But you see, the photocopier is a shared resource and even if my syllabus is technically done “in time” for the first class, it’s hardly fair to expect sole use of the photocopier!

What about filling in those forms that your department might send, about naming which courses you want to teach, and roughly when and where? If I hand that back at the 11th hour, or, as is sometimes the case, beyond it, it probably means that scheduling officer, either a faculty member or staff, is going to have to stay at the office very very late, or work a weekend–because you can be sure I’m not the only one that left it until the very last possible moment. And what if I’ve inadvertently double-booked myself, or too many people have tried to get the same room at the same time? Is the deadline now impossible to make, unless someone exerts a heroic effort on my behalf?

Or those copy-edits I was meant to turn my attention to? Maybe I’ll only be one day late on handing those in, but have I considered that the collection editors have their own deadline with the press that I’ve just made it harder for them to meet without panic or overtime? I know when I was working on the handbook I edit, once it left me it went to an editor, then back to me, then to a copy editor, then back to me, then to a proofreader, then back to me, then into production. It really became clear to me that there were a lot of people each counting on all of the others to get each part done in a timely way, or everyone else would have their own time compressed, then compressing further the time of the next person in the process, and so on.

There’s a lot more of this going on in the academy than we realize.

The grant application has to be signed by your chair, and your dean, and the research office before it gets submitted. The administrative assistant has to check to completeness and the documentation of the yearly expense claims before forwarding them by a university-imposed deadline. A collaborator had booked a specific day our of her week to incorporate her material into your shared bibliography. The committee can’t deliberate until every member has done their prep work.

I am, and you are, probably, a pretty serious procrastinator. I procrastinate on getting my syllabus finalized because I want the class to remain in the ideal state it can only occupy in my mind. I procrastinate on my writing because I find it terrifying. I procrastinate writing letters or peer reviews and answering complicated emails because they are a lot of work. I used to think the only person who was made to suffer under my last-minute regime was me. But that’s not true at all: the admin staff get frazzled, my students are left confused, academic authors are made to wait for decisions on their manuscripts, my colleagues have their time wasted waiting for me.

I used to think, that is, that my not-optimal time management was my own problem, and if I could live with it, then, there’s no problem. That’s just not true. Not true at all.

I’m going to be thinking a lot harder about this problem of the 11th hour of the 11th hour, and change my own practices accordingly. Do you have any strategies? Do you have any more examples of the way the 11th hour problem can create a cascade of stress and panic?

bad academics · body · health · slow academy

The Tyranny of the Office Chair

I have a not-so-secret fantasy. I really want a beanbag chair for my office. This is a well-known fact at my workplace. We joke about how I could make some extra money on the side by allowing other faculty and staff to sit in it for a small rental fee.

Like most office spaces, my office is dominated by hard, rectangular, pointy-cornered objects: the desk; the shelves; the filing cabinet; the books. Even my chair, while ergonomic, does not satisfy. Every now and then, I want to slouch. I want to sprawl. I want to find a way to let my body relax for a few minutes. Hence, the beanbag dream. I want a structureless blob of over-sized cushion plonked off in the corner that’s just for me.

I recognize that I’m fortunate in that I can entertain this fantasy: I have an office that would be large enough to accommodate such a wonderful object and a windowless door that would let me sprawl sans surveillance.

I think about seating a lot, especially at conferences. I love conferences because they give you the opportunity to meet and interact with lots of folks. You start having “conference buddies.” But even if the conference is awesome, the chairs are not. Conference chairs are always uncomfortable. And I’ve been well trained to not squirm around in my seat, no matter how uncomfortable it is.

One notable exception was at a Feminist Disability Studies panel that I attended last year. People were encouraged to move the furniture around. People were invited to stand. People were invited to do whatever they wanted to do to make their bodies feel as okay as possible in the space. Revolutionary! Why can’t we have more of this?

I remember how important comfortable spaces were to me as an undergraduate. The university that I attended had a large quiet room with red (slightly cruddy) sofas: in my last year, the space was renovated, the sofas were removed, and the space was repurposed for private functions only. I think these kinds of spaces are becoming less and less common in universities as they adopt more of a business culture. And I think that’s unfortunate. I don’t think it’s “unprofessional” to have a quiet space to take a break.

bad academics · failure · mental health

Failing, failure, failed: part 1

I don’t know about you, but I spend a lot of time worrying about failing. I probably spend more time worrying about failure than I do dreaming of success. I don’t think this is uncommon among academics.

Lee has been thinking about winning. Me, I’m thinking about failing.

The three kinds of failure that most terrify academics are, I think, these:

  • Failure as not-winning
  • Failure to live up to an established standard, and being told so
  • Failing to create something of value from our time and effort

Let’s hit ’em in turn, shall we?

Case 1: Failure as not-winning.

We often confuse “failure” with  the quality of not-succeeding. We consider ourselves to have failed as academics if we do not win that graduate fellowship, that research grant, that job interview, that award.

This is a mistake. It’s not you–it’s the pool. Or, it’s not you–it’s the department and its needs. Or, it’s not you–it’s the very precise requirements of the funder. Let me be clear: 99% of the time, it’s really, truly, not you.

For me, this is hard-won knowledge, that I have to hard-win over and over again. May I be perfectly frank with you, dear reader? I have tended to always deem myself a failure in these situations because, at base, I am a control freak: I have this cuckoo sense that somehow my own efforts are enough to shift the earth on its axis to secure a desired outcome. It turns out that I do no have such powers. And neither do you. Sanity is restored through the cultivation of a shrugging attitude towards this reality.

Believe me, it’s only four years of near-constant yoga that’s taught me this kind of non-attachment in the face of 15 years of academic failures of this sort. And hoo boy! I’ve had some doozies. Like the job interview where the members of the search committee didn’t talk to me at all during the fancy dinner, after a long day where it had become apparent by 9 in the morning they weren’t going to hire me. Or like my first SSHRC doctoral application that just missed the funding threshold. And! I just lost an election for a departmental committee I really wanted to be on! That had two open spots! WAAAHHHHH!!!!! I suck!

Obviously, even today this kind of “failure” sends me immediately for my Comfort Gin Drink (Bombay-Sapphire-martini-extra-dry-two-olives-straight-up) and a day of maudlin self-pity and self-recrimination. But I try to damp down the failure self-talk as fast as I can.

In any of these kinds of competition, there are always many more qualified candidates than there are prizes and jobs and grants to bestow. I have been on plenty of appointments committees, scholarship adjudication panels, and the like, and I can tell you this much: rare is the application that is considered to be an outright, positive failure. You know, where the committee members enjoy a moment of levity marvelling at the sheer incompetence of it? Howlers do happen, but they are very, very rare. It is more usually the case that committees employ idiosyncratic sieves (and a good deal of arguing) to sift out an application or an applicant of a particular kind of size and density–what that sieve sifts for is largely dependent on qualities internal to the bestowers of the desired thing, and much less so on the intrinsic qualities of the applicant. Once, I won a travel scholarship over one of my good friends, because she proposed to go to Germany and I to France, and the funder had a special keenness for France: my application was no worse than her, nor hers than mine, but the adjudicating committee applied a particular filter that in this case favoured me.

So in these cases, to judge yourself a “failure” for not “winning” is to fruitlessly cause yourself anguish. It still sucks to not win; but not-winning doesn’t make you a loser or a failure, and it won’t help to consider yourself so.  Remember: attitude of shrugging, Gallic-style. Possibly while sipping a martini, or meditating.

Next week, we’ll tackle one of two varieties of real failure: the kind where you actually fail to live up to standard where only you are being measured. Ulp.