academic reorganization · administration · bad academics · change · community · equity · faster feminism · good attitudes about crappy possibilities · job market · job notes · solidarity

The sweet spot to be cranky

Erin’s most recent post, on the gamble that is the leap off the cliff from graduate student to … whatever … comes … after … is compelling for several reasons. The awkwardness of the situation–of being neither here nor there, one of us or one of them, or the question of how to become member of a tribe as yet undetermined, the looming unknowns of money of travel of location, of permanence and impermanence or lock-in versus flexibility–stresses the body, the soul, the wallet. It hampers the vision of the future; it colours the present, usually in greyish tones. The gamble has high stakes; it plays out over years.

But I’m struck most forcefully by the bind that Erin articulates in the comments: how can she write honestly about any of this when she’s still in between? How to be anything but positive, a good team player, before all the teams are chosen and you’re still hoping to be picked? How to talk about teaching when your experience is thin enough that generalizations don’t protect the innocent or the guilty? How to take yet more risks when standing on the knife-edge between in and out?

Well.

I don’t know. She can’t, I guess is the short answer. Nor can many of you, those of you who are contingent or temporary or contractually limited, or who are students, and thus have very little weight to throw around. Maybe Heather can’t either: she’s Vice Dean now and her words have, maybe, too much weight. Maybe she’s bigger than herself, in the ways that those of us who lift up the institutional mantle to carry it forward necessarily become first person plural.

Who’s left, then?

Me, probably. Tenured, but still young. Wising up to the way the institution and the profession works, without yet having been sucked up into actually making the machinery operate as an administrator. I’ve often heard of the particular and heavy burden that the mid-career (that is, tenured) associate professor faces: a ton of committee work, some administration, a lot of peer review and evaluation. But I think it’s less a weight right now than a power. Can you even imagine? With tenure part of my responsibility is to promote those ideas I think are the absolute best ones, damn the torpedoes. And I’ll still have a job if I do draw enemy fire. Academic freedom protects the process and products of my research from any kind of interference, but the model of collegial governance under which universities are organized extends this privileged capacity to speak–this responsibility–to more mundane and consequential questions of how the work we do gets done, and by whom, and under what conditions or circumstances.

I’m in the sweet spot. Tenured and in full possession of my academic freedom, without the weight of all the necessary balancing of interests that a chair or a dean or administrator might have to deal with. I already serve on committees where I get to advocate for graduate students, for our curriculum, for what kinds of computers the labs should get, for whom we should hire. The trick now is to expand my view, to try to take in the interests of all those members of my department, my institution, who can’t express their needs with as full-throated a job-protected, academic-freedom granted volume as I can muster. And I can muster it, believe me, effective or not.

So. The job falls to the associates now: it’s our job to call bullshit, our job to notice when the emperor has no clothes, or when those clothes have been created from skinned graduate students and sessional labourers (figuratively, of course). We’ve got the biggest, least fractured, best protected voices on campus, and we should use ’em. We must use ’em.

Are you an associate professor? How do you see your role in speaking up for those without your privileges or access? Not an associate professor? What gaps in my knowledge should I address to better serve the interests of all the members of the university?

I’m in the sweet spot. And I’m willing to be cranky on your behalf. Bring it.

bad academics · classrooms · grad school · teaching

What grad supervision looks like

I was talking with a colleague the other day, about the crisis in graduate education. (Pick your crisis, I guess: is it the no-academic jobs crisis, the time to completion crisis, the building grad programs to staff crappy teaching assignments crisis, what?) We were actually talking about the problem of graduate supervision: that is, how are you supposed to supervise a PhD student?

I mean, there are department or faculty milestones and such, like how many courses are required, and what constitutes passing the language requirement hurdle, and how many times you can attempt the comprehensive exam, and the Faculty of Graduate Studies or whatever it’s called where you are has rules around the font size in the dissertation. And our guidebook here says something about “reading drafts in a timely manner” and “yearly meetings.”

But, to supervise a graduate student, beyond simply flagging for that student the dates they are well enough able to look up unassisted. What does that entail, really? Go on, try to answer me. Now think: where did you get your ideas from? Was it from your own dissertation process, being supervised?

Uh-oh.

Think about teaching. Those of us who’ve taken any of the university teaching workshops at all know that generally, the only teaching training most of us used to get was … sitting in classrooms being taught. And so when called upon to teach, we replicated that. At least most PhD students starting to teach have taken something upwards of 40 courses, which, while not the ideal way to learn how to teach, at least offers some range of perspectives and methods brought to bear on the problem.

But again: how do you supervise a graduate student? If we assume the same passive training model (that is, teach as you have yourself been taught) all of us really only have one experience to draw on. And that experience may or may not have been ideal, but in any case it’s hard to generalize from one experience.

And do we, once professors, really see how our colleagues supervise graduate students? I don’t think so–or at least, I don’t see it. These strike me as very private relationships. And yes, the projects are individual and the relationship is much more strictly interpersonal than other aspects of our teaching careers, but still, we probably could stand to think more systematically about what, in essence, competent (never mind good or excellent) supervision looks like. Does the university teaching centre offer courses in how to supervise a dissertating student in the humanities? Err, not here.

So let’s bring it out into the open. I ask you: how were you supervised, how do you supervise, what are good strategies and what are poor strategies for graduate supervision? Let’s build up some real data, with some heft to it, and then maybe we can start to generalize. Please bring on your good ideas, your bad experiences, your helpful suggestions, your terrible warnings, the tips you’ve learned from books, or the research you’ve consulted. Let’s shine some light on this question, could we?

I’ll go out on a limb and say that, for me, graduate supervision is an act of teaching and mentoring, as much as it is one of assessment. It is an active process, or should be. You may disagree, and please! Tell me more!

For myself, I think competent supervision entails attention to the student’s professional goals (what kind of job do you want to get, and how can we get from here to there?), intellectual development (yes, but what do you really mean when you say “discourse”?), academic professionalization (how to apply for grants, which conferences, when to try to publish and how), and writing skills and process (no, that’s not how you use a semi-colon, actually; binge writing does not lead to good results or a happy life). I’m still working out how to model those skills or do that teaching.

You?

academic reorganization · advice · bad academics · bad news · best laid plans · change · grad school · ideas for change · job market

The degree is the job: a modest proposal for the PhD

Part one: an institutional shell game.

One of the absurdities of the contemporary university is this: at the same time that those of us firmly held in the tight embrace of tenured institutional belong begin to really acknowledge that most of our PhD students are not going to become professors, we same tightly embraced tenured people are being actively pushed (“incentivized,” I think, is the jargon for this) to increase the numbers of graduate students we enrol.

The math here is complicated. Which is to say, I don’t quite understand it, but it tends to the effect that graduate students in all areas are profit-making for the institution. There’s a net gain to the university for each grad we enrol, and a bigger cumulative gain if we enrol a certain biggish ‘target’ number.

I begin to suspect that like the users of Facebook and like the audience of broadcast television, graduate students are the product of the institution rather than its consumers (forget apprentices). Facebook and TV sell their users for advertising revenue. And the university? From what I can tell, over and above the reputation points we gain for having PhD students around generally, and beyond whatever measure of glamour or power that accrues to individual supervisors for having acolytes, the university ‘sells’ graduate enrolments to the provincial government for incentive money. I think. Like I say, the math is complicated.

I am developing some ethical concerns here.

Part two: when do you break their hearts?

Many of us tell many others of us to stop admitting graduate students to our programs: there are already too many graduates without jobs! (By ‘jobs,’ we only ever really seem to mean ‘tenure-track professorships’.) The debt loads are crushing! You’ll be 40 and unemployed, living in a basement, teaching remedial composition to part time phys ed majors for approximately 40 cents an hour. Students, though, still clamour to come. They have big ideas (like I had) and dreams of the life of the mind (like I had).

We’ve already discussed here (and others have discussed elsewhere) what to do about this disjuncture. So you want to get a PhD in the humanities? Ha! But then, every one who sits in a chair in an office with SSHRC reference forms in hand and grad applications piling up can’t say that it’s impossible: we did it, right? I actually get to live my life of the mind with my big ideas and it’s pretty sweet. But no tenure for you!

Many of them–many of you–want to keep coming, regardless of the dire warnings. Many of us–me!–are uncomfortable either squashing the grad school dream or nurturing it. I mean, I love the big ideas the graduate students bring to the seminar table, the office hours, the committee meetings. But I don’t want to see anyone disenchanted, disillusioned, broke and in despair after they graduate. Or, God help us, dragging their degree out for a decade to hold on to the pittance of one teaching assignment per term, gripping the life of the mind by the fingernails.

What to do? I have yet more ethical concerns telling potential grad students not to follow their dreams and their interests.

Part three: a modest proposal

If you want to do a PhD, you should do one. But! Only under this condition: you treat it like the first job of your career. Think of the PhD like a 4-6 year chunk of time, a discrete part of your life, where you earn a salary, live a real life (of the mind, of course, but also without taking loans to pay for food), and enjoy the full range of adult experiences. Don’t put your life on hold for some future utopia: that ain’t how this works anymore. Treat your PhD like a job: maybe it’s a low paying job, but that’s okay, because you really enjoy it. If you’re not going to enjoy this time, if you’re not going to be satisfied with your life while you do it, then don’t do it holding your nose for the glorious reward of the coming professorship. Because that’s a recipe for misery, all round.

People change jobs a lot over their lifetimes. Consider the PhD as one more job: it’s a great job, so far as it goes, really. You get to follow your interests and your passions. You mostly set your own hours. Your colleagues are great fun, and really smart. You often get to travel. You’ll write a book-length study of your own devising. You’ll get opportunities to interact with the public through teaching. While in this job, you prepare for your next one, the next part of your career: sure, you’ll learn how to be a professor, but you should also hone your other professional skills, too, because you know the PhD doesn’t last forever.

The sticking point in my plan is that you have to make enough money to live on. The real tragedy of grad school, often, is that students are so invested in the idea that are apprenticing into a well-paid professorial gig that they consider grad school an investment in future earnings–so it’s okay to take on debt, sometimes a lot of it, like law students or medical students do.

That’s not okay, actually. Don’t go to grad school unless you can live on your stipend. It’s absolutely not worth taking on debt for. Debt will limit your options once the degree is done. Debt will embitter you. Debt will make you desperate. Let me be perfectly clear: if you consider the PhD a job (as I’m suggesting to) don’t go unless they pay you.

Go if you think the PhD is a job you will enjoy for the amount of time you do it. Prepare for a number of different job scenarios that will arise when you finish. Maybe you will become a professor, but probably, you won’t: prepare for the next stage of your life, post-degree, accordingly. You don’t ‘waste’ your time in a job just because you ultimately change jobs. But we often think of the PhD as a waste if we don’t get a particular kind of next job, or if we’ve gone into catastrophic levels of debt to pursue it, or put off things in our lives (like having a family, or moving out of our parents’ homes) to get the degree. In those circumstances, a PhD might be a waste. Approach it like a low-paying, highly-rewarding, short-term job, though, and you can see more clearly to do a real cost-benefit analysis before you begin.

Is that offensive? I don’t think this kind of pragmatism is incompatible with ideals: please, follow your passion! But the reward for that passion and its pursuit is going to be a dissertation well-written–I can pretty much assure you the reward is not going to be a tenure-track job. Don’t let that reality stop you from coming if you really want a PhD, and I would absolutely encourage you to come if you’re happy to live on your stipend for five years and then move on to something else.

That, I think, is an ethical approach to graduate studies.

What do you think?

bad academics · community · intolerant shrew

Rage against "the powers that be"

Remember my rant about empty buzzwords, from a couple weeks back? Let me introduce you to Unsuck It, a web based translation service to turn corporate jargon into normal language. (Props to The New Yorker for blogging about this.)You input the term (“low hanging fruit,” say), click UNSUCK IT, and out pops the translation (“easy goal”). If the term isn’t in there, you can crowdsource a definition (twitter link: “Hey, Lazyweb. Help me define silo #unsuckit”). If you find your obnoxious term, you can “Email the douchebag who used it.”

(Sidebar: is “douchebag” a sexist metaphor?)

There are not enough terms in the Unsuck It dictionary yet (hey, lazyweb: ditch “enhance” #beforeilosemymind). What was particularly disappointing to me today is that there is no entry for “the powers that be.” Because if I could excise any particular phrase from the academic lexicon, that would be the one.

My first objection is that “the powers that be” is vague. Consider its 73 synonyms from the Moby Thesaurus:

John Bull, Rasputin, Svengali, Uncle Sam, VIP, Washington,
Whitehall, access, bad influence, big wheel, bureaucracy, court,
directorate, eminence grise, five-percenter, friend at court,
good influence, gray eminence, heavyweight, hidden hand, hierarchy,
higher echelons, higher-ups, holdover, incumbent, influence,
influence peddler, influencer, ingroup, ins, jack-in-office, key,
kingmaker, lame duck, lobby, lobbyist, lords of creation,
man of influence, management, manipulator, ministry, new broom,
office-bearer, officeholder, officialdom, open sesame, prelacy,
president-elect, pressure group, public official, public servant,
ruling class, ruling classes, sinister influence,
special interests, special-interest group, the Crown,
the Establishment, the administration, the authorities,
the government, the ingroup, the interests, the people upstairs,
the power elite, the power structure, the top, them, they,
top brass, very important person, wheeler-dealer, wire-puller

Whenever you’re blaming Whitehall and the wheeler-dealer, you know you’ve lost your rhetorical way.

But my real objection is that “the powers that be,” in a university context, eviscerates an entire tradition of collegial governance. It’s a lazy shortcut, an abdication of intellectual and political responsibility that lets you bitch about – whatever – without making even the slightest effort to understand where the objectionable policy / procedure / rule / requirement comes from. I’ve worked at a university for a long time and I have yet to see any curriculum, spending, research, outreach, teaching, administrative, intellectual, or financial decision conveyed in an email from Jesus@HeavenlyKingdom. It may feel like “the administration” is ruining ___ [insert fail] ___, but the complaint at the heart of the usage can almost always be traced to specific decisions made by actual people in an institutional context at a particular historical moment. That doesn’t mean the decisions are good, but they are historical and therefore subject to change.

Our tradition of academic self-governance is precious. Canadian public universities are not corporate structures, but there are some worrying trends in that direction, and they are often conveyed through objectionable policies, procedures, rules and requirements. Object to them – please: do it for yourself, do it for your students, do it for the ideas you care about and for the common good. But please also do it as smartly as you can.

bad academics · going public · heavy-handed metaphors · outreach · writing

Reduce, reuse, recycle?

I’m in Maryland (well, when you read this I’ll be in Maryland. Right now I’m at the airport in Cincinnati, of course) for a conference. We’ll be Theorizing the Web all day on Saturday, and my contribution is a paper on the privacy practices of personal mommy bloggers.

I’ve been joking that what I’ve been creating this week, in preparation, is a “Frankenpaper”: parts of Saturday’s 15 minute conference paper is built from text I created for a public talk in the Digital Media Series at Stratford, reworked for a lecture celebrating 50 years of the Faculty of Arts at UW, and then reframed in a minor way for an invited lecture hosted by the MA in Humanities at Laurentian University in Sudbury. Incidentally, those talks all revisited ideas and prose I first considered and wrote in 2005, for the Reader’s Forum of English Studies in Canada. Still with me? Okay. My conference paper is also built from an article I’ve recently submitted to Biography–which was written from the ideas I pulled together for a different conference paper for last summer’s International Auto/Biography Association conference in Sussex. Oops, I did pull stuff right from the conference paper, too, that I had removed from the article version of that research.

The Keynote slides draw from the Stratford/Arts/Sudbury presentation, as well as from the IABA presentation.

Basically, the only strictly-speaking new writing in Saturday’s conference paper is in the transition sentences between the ideas. (Although, arguably, those are the places that evidence is turned into argument.)

What I’ve been really thinking about lately is this: how much reusing and recycling of our work is appropriate here?

I used to build absolutely everything from scratch every time. Have a look at my CV: one article on 80s video game movies. One article on email in romantic comedy. One article on mid-1990s rhetorical posturings in Internet manifestos. One book chapter on blogging in literary studies. It is exhilarating and exhausting to write like that.

Lately, I’ve changed practice: I’ve got one article published, one forthcoming, and one submitted, all on personal mommy blogging. I’ve given three public lectures this year, on largely the same thing, but to very different audiences. I’m giving two conference papers reporting on one survey, to two different academic communities.

Is this ‘cheating’ somehow? Or is this what depth of engagement looks like? Is this purely strategic maximization of lines on the CV? Or is it better dissemination of research results in an interdisciplinary field?

Basically, is this reduce (effort), reuse (the same materials), recycle (my ideas)? Or is it, to switch metaphors, back to yoga, deepen (my knowledge by repeated trials), broaden (my scope by bringing different theories to bear on one set of practices), and open (by sharing my work more widely and frequently)?

How much reuse is good? Or is it all bad?

What do you do?

bad academics · bad news · broken heart · femimenace · righteous feminist anger · sexist fail · solidarity · turgid institution

How we’re ‘celebrating’ International Women’s Day at the University of Waterloo

Today is International Women’s Day. While we have much to celebrate–and indeed, have taken to celebrating here on this blog–it remains true that women do not enjoy the full complement of human rights in much of the world. Here at the University of Waterloo, a recent spate of incidents on campus and online demonstrate that even on the campus of a research university in Canada, women are still the targets of hate for some, and, perhaps, not taken fully seriously by others.

This is a guest post by Shannon Dea, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, and Associate Chair of Undergraduate Studies in Philosophy, here at UW.

——

For just under a month, women at University of Waterloo have been terrorized by an anonymous propagandist who claims that women’s “defective moral intelligence” poses a serious risk to the planet. Starting on February 7, when student election posters for female candidates were covered by misogynistic flyers, there have been three waves of flyers (two of them attached to eccentric and disturbing email messages) and two Facebook messages disseminated by an author who has variously referred to himself as Lord Irwin, nath007, Feridun Hamdullahpur (University of Waterloo’s president), and Sylvester J. Pussycat. The rustic and syntactically idiosyncratic communications, the most recent of which was emailed to assorted students, staff and faculty members late March 1, have bit by bit advanced the thesis that women should not be educated as highly as men, and that universities should not teach gender equity, because woman’s deceptively weak exterior hides her evil interior. When women are educated and treated as equals, according to the propagandist, they pose a real danger to the planet. The poster girl for this campaign is Marie Curie, who figures prominently in all of the flyers, and is characterized by their author as the “mother of the Nuclear bomb,” as the “evil” woman responsible for the deaths at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and as the Eve leading a hapless Adam-Pierre Curie toward the apple of Nuclear weaponry.

Understandably, women at UW are frightened. The day after the first Marie Curie email was sent out, the student government (the Federation of Students) closed the university’s volunteer-run Women’s Centre and LGBT student centre (GLOW), out of concern for volunteers’ safety. And, rightly so. Both centres are obvious targets. And, while the propagandist’s misogynistic ambitions may not extend beyond distributing his paranoid ramblings, no one’s willing to rule out the terrible possibility UW might join the ranks of Polytéchnique Montréal or Virginia Tech.

Well, no one but the University, that is.

Throughout this business, the administration has had remarkably little to say about UW women’s fears that the flyers may be warning signs of a misogynist who poses a real danger to them. At first, the University’s newsletter, the Daily Bulletin, didn’t discuss the flyers, with at least one staffer there dismissing them as a “prank”. Then, when the propagandist sent an email in which he impersonated Hamdullahpur, the Daily Bulletin reprinted an official letter from the president deploring the offensive message conveyed by the flyers and assuring readers that the president wasn’t really the email’s author. Of course, no one had ever taken seriously the idea that Hamdullahpur might really have sent the offending email. This wasn’t the message the university community needed to hear. We needed to hear that senior administrators and campus police were concerned about our safety and knew that the only way to secure it was to devote all of their resources to apprehending “Lord Irwin.” However, in the various official communications since this all began, the university has remained limp.

In a discussion panel concerning the flyer campaign, audience members were disappointed to hear that the UW Police were pursuing the mystery man for charges of impersonation (of the president) and posting prohibited flyers. If they had any leads, they didn’t let on. Of course, I hope that the reason the UW Police are investigating misdemeanour charges against the perpetrator is that they know it’s important to catch him before he hurts someone and these misdemeanour charges are the best mechanism currently available to catch him. That is, I hope that the police are taking the incidents and the investigation more seriously than the charges they’re investigating would, in themselves, warrant. I hope that these charges are to the author of the posters as tax evasion charges were to Al Capone. While I hope all of these things to be true, no communication we’ve yet received from the University has warranted any confidence in these hopes. Instead, we get periodic reassurances that police are taking “appropriate action” and that all members of the UW community have the right to be safe and to feel safe.

Well, sure we do, but what I need right now isn’t a university administrator telling me “I really want you to feel safe.” What I need is a crack team of computer scientists – this is University of Waterloo, after all! – quickly tracing the emails and Facebook messages back to their author before he hurts someone.

Emblematic of administrators’ blindness to women’s fears was Associate Provost Bud Walker’s advice to audience members at the discussion panel that “You probably think everyone here is on our side, but there might be people walking through this room right now who don’t understand that women have a right to equitable treatment.” [Ok. Full disclosure: Walker has never in his life, so far as I know, uttered the sentence “Women have a right to equitable treatment.” But the foregoing is a plausible, if charitable, paraphrase of what he actually did say.] This shows just how wide the gap is between Walker’s experience and that of women at UW. No UW woman ever enters a public space on campus and assumes that everyone there agrees that she has a right to be there, and to be treated as an equal. As one after another audience member revealed in the Q & A following the panel, the climate for UW women is a chilly one at best, and sometimes it gets downright cold.

How cold is it? Well, cold enough that weekly flyers railing against the evil that is woman have become a thing here. And cold enough that, within days of the scariest of these flyers, the following remarks about the matter were posted on Bill’s Portfolio, a blog authored by a self-described UW student: “Yeah, the campus is full of big bad scary monsters…. Now, most UW students that I know are intelligent enough to know that this shit is wrong…. Yes, it is wrong, yes, it is inappropriate, but get a life if you are going to fuss and cry over stupid shit like this. Because if you do, you must be living in a sheltered bubble.”

Now that’s cold.

advice · bad academics · saving my sanity · writing

Essential supports

I am a writer.

Phew, that’s hard to say! I write it down up there and I still experience cognitive dissonance. I mean, a ‘writer’ is someone who spends a lot of time alone, thinking. Always scribbling (or typing) stuff down. Someone who writes constantly, who chooses writing over stuff like reruns of Holmes on Homes or a yoga blog. Someone serious.

Someone, that is, totally unlike me. The idea of starting a nice fresh article draft from my own idea file literally makes me itchy. Sometimes, it takes me three hours of pfaffing around to settle in for 20 minutes of writing. I like to be around people. I find writing really hard and annoying. I am not at all confident about what I write down. It takes time and time and time and time and time for anything I write down to look like anything worth reading, and even longer for it to be apparent that what has been written might have any value to anyone.

As it turns out, a lot of successful writers look a lot more like me than like the vision of that imaginary writer I’ve always compared myself so unfavourably to.

Huh.

You know how I have finally (well, functionally) overcome the cognitive dissonance that for years kept me anxious and guilty? I played to my strengths. For me, being a real writer means setting the iPhone timer for 40 minute stretches of nothing-but-writing-seriously-now-leave-your-email-alone, then giggling over Go Fug Yourself for 10 minutes with one friend, or swapping grading and syllabus tips with another friend, topping up our lattes, and setting the timer again. Being a real writer for me means shitty first drafts, really, really shitty first drafts. It means posting daily updates about how many words written and how long, and writing little comments for 10 or 12 other members in the same boat as me. Being a writer means a weekly drinks date with my lady colleagues as a reward. It’s calling my husband up when I get blocked, and telling him my ideas verbally until I get it sorted out. It’s cupcakes and new pens and other daily rewards.

Since I’ve decided to just accept the kind of writer I actually am, rather than beating myself up every day for not being how I thought a real writer should be, I’m writing a lot more. Every day. And it’s easier. I mean, I still hate it, but that’s my process. That’s who I am as a writer. My essential supports are cupcakes, friends, Internet breaks, daily accountability to other writers, permission to write really awful prose that I rework, sometimes with a peer editor, and near-daily verbal processing of ideas with someone married to me.

What are your essential supports for writing? Does it match your idea of what a real writer needs? What if who you are is what a real writer is?

bad academics · good attitudes about crappy possibilities · reform

Resolved

So I’m sitting around enjoying my last salary-free furlough day when all of a sudden it hits me: I have to get a blog post together! Already! (Already??)

Time-off time always disorients me (though I adapt to it with startling ease). There’s a different pace: the pace of the unemployed, I call it. If you’ve ever been jobless, or written a dissertation, you know what I’m talking about. You set yourself a clear and manageable task du jour: say, to mail a letter. You get up full of resolve: today’s the day I’ma mail that letter! You seal the envelope, find the address. And then you pause. You could just dash down the address, but wouldn’t it be so much more professional to word process it? in fact, wouldn’t this be a good time to learn to use labels? Absolutely: you’ve put off learning that 1980s task for long enough! Oh, the chewy satisfaction of that moment when you think you’re going to accomplish twice as much as you’d imagined…

Of course, you have no labels. Should you buy some? Maybe, but will that leave you time to mail the letter? Maybe not. Indecision, indecision, indecision. You come tentatively back to Plan A, only you’re thrown off your game, so you decide maybe today’s not the day to mail that letter after all. It’ll keep.

Next day, same resolve – only, having wasted the first letter-mailing day, you’re determined to get a jump on it. But first, a shower. And you should have a nutritious breakfast. (Wasn’t that one of last year’s resolutions?) Then you realize there’s probably a line-up at the post office, so you’d be better to wait until after lunch. But after lunch – well, how can you justify leaving the house if you haven’t accomplished anything yet?

The letter sits … and sits ….. and sits ……. and before you know it, the longest semester break in recorded history is over and you have nothing to show for it except a new PB in Angry Birds.

Novels read: 0
Papers written: 0
Moonlit skating dates: 0

Did I see the Natalie Portman movie? Oops. Did I lay in some food for the coming semester? Nope, didn’t do that either. Start an exercise regime? clean my desk? crack that grant application? No, no and no.

To be honest, readers, I have no idea what happened to the last two weeks, and for that reason alone – but if you call me on this, I will deny it – I am not unhappy to be heading back to work tomorrow, full of resolve: this year, I will own my time!

PS That letter I promised you? On its way tomorrow. Most definitely. Almost certainly.

bad academics · grad school · ideas for change · turgid institution

So you want to get a funded PhD in the humanities?

By Matt Schneider, PhD Candidate

Over the past week, this blog has been abuzz with insightful and well-considered responses to the now-infamous “So You Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities” video. The conversation has unearthed a number of important concerns, and has identified some worrisome trends that have emerged in scholarship in the humanities, especially concerning the teleological assumption that PhD students are working towards employment in the academy. These concerns highlight the facts that the humanities in general function on the basis of a number of unexamined assumptions, and that these assumptions are damaging both to PhD students at any stage of their programme and to the public’s perception of the humanities in general.

One thing I think I’d like to add to the conversation is the way that departments tend to avoid dealing with students who want to work in what essentially amount to “unproven” fields. In my programme, I’ve noticed a lot of students finding themselves having to fight with their departments to varying degrees in order to be able to do the work they want to do, simply because some aspect of their work—be it comics/graphic novels, digital texts, children’s literature, romance novels, speculative fiction, etc—has not yet become a Proper Field and as such the university is unsure whether that work is Serious and Important. And to make matters worse, these projects are almost always SSHRC funded, normally with a CGS, and every one of these projects was accepted by the department when the PhD students applied.

It is frustrating that the government is willing to fund these projects (and well, too), and that the university is willing to accept them (at least initially), but when it comes time for the student to get to work, the university (or key figures in it) would then express doubt as to the feasibility/hire-ability/validity of this same work. This contradictory behaviour is especially frustrating because many of the students working in these unproven fields are especially well-suited to work in them, having great personal interest in an area that is either misunderstood or ignored by most scholars. Essentially, some of the brilliant students who could well one day be the stars of these new and emerging fields are being told that their work is interesting and could hold great potential (so much so that the government was willing to pick up the tab), but that they’re not allowed to do it until the field is better established.

This attitude is detrimental to those emerging fields, too. Several of my fellow students have had to change their projects drastically, often times cutting out the very interests and elements that made their work so valuable and unique. A student studying affect in the non-fiction comics of Joe Sacco, Art Spiegelman, and Marjane Satrapi, for example, quickly shifts focus, with supervisors and faculty asking the student to include more novels or biographies that aren’t comics until, by the time the student hands in her dissertation proposal, the comics have moved from the position of primary text to secondary, at best, or entirely absent, at worst. This is not to say that dissertations in new fields wouldn’t benefit from a grounding in canonical (that word!) texts and methodologies—I, for example, just recently discovered a connection between the work of Jonathan Swift and Unicode (for those interested, search for the words “bigendian” and “smallendian”)—but rather that these canonical works should simply enrich our studies into new fields, rather than authorise or rationalise these studies. If we insist that students spend the majority of their time studying the tried and true, we effectively stunt the developing fields by forcing students to wait until they’ve become established in a “traditional” field before shifting their scholarly focus back to their passions.

Perhaps most frustrating is the fact that many of these fields could well make the humanities more serious in the eyes of the public. Sure, the public may at first find it amusing that Intellectuals are Studying something like romance novels, comics, and videogames, but ultimately these are works the public can connect with. There’s a reason books like The Philosophy of Buffy the Vampire Slayer sell better than your average scholarly anthology. The latest collection of post-Lacanian psychoanalytic explorations of the works of Djuna Barnes may well be stunningly insightful and invaluable to scholars studying that amazing writer (I meant Barnes, but you can pick your favourite of the two), but much of the public is simply not in a position to connect with this work. By contrast, a dissertation examining the intersections between religion, gender, and politics in the Twilight series has the potential to reach a much broader, non-academic audience—the series has sold over one hundred million copies according to Publishers Weekly. If a scholar were to connect with even a fraction of a percent of this audience, she would, by academic standards, be a best-seller dozens of times over. When we discourage scholars from studying these popular works, we are wilfully distancing ourselves from the public at large.

Perhaps if we in the humanities want to be taken more seriously, we should encourage bright up-and-comers to prove themselves in these new or obscure fields. Not only would this attitude prevent students who were accepted for proposals in these areas from feeling like they fell for the old bait-and-switch, but it would also open up new avenues for the scholarly community to engage with the public. If we want others to take the humanities seriously, perhaps we should first ensure that we take the humanities seriously ourselves.

bad academics · best laid plans · having it all · saving my sanity · time crunch

Multitask? Or multipurpose?

I don’t know about you, but I seem to be getting busier every day. The more established I become in my field, my department, my university, and my community, the more my name seems to be top of mind when someone needs a paper reviewed or a chapter written, a committee seat filled, a report written, or a public talk delivered. People ask a lot more of me now than they did, say, when I landed here in Waterloo with a freshly-framed diploma and my excellent collection of ironic t-shirts. And yet, my time available seems to have dwindled significantly in the interim, just like that Astroboy shirt doesn’t quite seem to go over those yoga-powered deltoids and that pregnancy-‘enhanced’ belly roll.

That is, I have way more to do but seem to have less time to do it.

It’s a pickle, it is. Right now, for example, I’m sitting on my couch in my polar fleece pajamas, sipping gin and decompressing after my second public lecture of the week. Next week, I have an article draft due to a peer-reviewed journal, and soon after that, a deadline for my draft of one chapter of a writing handbook revision. I just handed in a SSHRC SRG grant, it seems.

I used to think I could do it all, if only I would be important enough for people to ask me to do it. I said yes to everything, to increase my profile and test my mettle. My mettle, it turns out, is not unlimited. I am, perforce, shifting my work philosophy from an ethic of multitasking to one of multipurposing.

Here’s how it works: Got a contract to revise a writing handbook? Angle to teach a first year course, then assign them the current version of the handbook. BOOM! It’s teaching, and it’s work on the revision, all at once. Scheduled to give two public talks on something about your research and teaching interests in two different towns two nights in a row? Give a thinly reworked version of the same damn talk (apologize profusely to the one graduate student who attends both events). Bonus points if the talk can use as one of its four case studies the survey results that form the backbone of that article that’s due … next week. Bonus bonus points if you’ve organized your grad class to have as its assigned readings material you need to complete this current research. All of this work should be drawing liberally from the literature review from the SSHRC SRG bibliography. Doing university service? Can it be on a web design committee that is great fodder for your digital design seminar?

I am so. frigging. busy. that it is a matter of some urgency, lately, try to wring the maximum amount of product from every research activity I undertake. Perhaps this is a ‘well, duh’ insight for you. Not for me. I used to think (ha!) that every talk, every class, every committee, every article had to be something new. I had this idea that it was somehow cheating to do otherwise, like how students are told not to submit the same paper in two different courses. For me, it’s only ever rarely the ‘same’ paper, but I have really needed to stop creating everything from absolute scratch for every occasion.

So now, I don’t multitask anymore. I multipurpose.

In that vein, if you want to know more about social media and privacy, why don’t you read this newspaper article? The writer wanted to talk to me about my ideas, but I handed him the paper copy of my lecture when it was over and told him to quote as liberally as he liked. No extra work for me, and, bonus! he quoted me exactly, from my own script. (God bless him, he’s made the whole presentation sound coherent, to boot.)