#alt-ac · #alt-ac 101 · best laid plans · new year new plan

Back to School for #alt-academics

This Labour Day marks my third fall of going back to school as an #alt-academic, although it’s the first year when I’m not actually working in a school. Still, I work in a teaching hospital, and our annual rhythms are much the same–we’re still gearing up for an influx of new undergraduate and graduate students joining us for their first year of doing research with one of our faculty, we’re still getting ready for the fall funding rush, and I’m still wrapped up in my usual rounds of reviewing postdoc applications and prepping for Writing a Winning Research Proposal 101 sessions. And I’m so glad.

It may seem like a little thing to be worried about giving up, but my life has been ruled by the academic calendar since I was four years old. I’ve spent just one year of my adult life working outside of the structures of a school or university, and that was at Oxford University Press, where we still largely observed the academic calendar because all of our writers and buyers did too. Labour Day is my New Year’s Day, the marker of the beginning of a fresh new year with no mistakes in it (as Anne Shirley would say). And being in an #altac position where–even if there’s no back to school for me–the spirit of back to school still reigns is such a comfort. Some things don’t have to change.

But some things do change. And the transition from summer to fall brings some extra challenges for #altac folks who are trying to maintain a semi-active research profile while working full-time jobs. My collaborative projects mostly went dormant over the summer, as everyone turned their attention to large-scale writing projects, research trips, and holidays, but they’re all ramping up again. Hook & Eye is back, and I’ve also got a dissertation chapter, plus some other writing/editing/teaching projects all requiring lots of attention (and completion) in the next couple of months. I’m lucky, though, that I’ve moved from a position that saw me supporting research funding and professional development programs for 6,000 students and postdocs to one that sees me doing the same for about 1, 200–I can do more for fewer people, and my job doesn’t spill over into the rest of my time the way it once did. Like Erin, I’m deliberately moving away from the fastness and hyperproductivity that neoliberalism so loves towards a slowness that that lets me “have intellectual fulfillment as well as a home [I] love coming home to.” 

Still, mine is affective labour–I work the job I do because it lets me help grad students and postdocs more easily make their way through, and out of, the academy. So too is my research and writing affective labour. Because I care, I work to make unheard voices heard, whether it’s the voice of a poet silenced by sexism and rumour, or graduate students, postdocs, and contract academic faculty silenced by those who don’t want to believe that the academy is failing its most vulnerable. If I was looking for an easier time of it, I could scale back or call it quits on my research, but so long as I feel like I have the opportunity to do some good, I’m not willing to give it up. I also need the balance of the 9-5 and my academic work to keep me happy. It turns out that having one to turn to when I need respite from the other is exactly what suits me, and what keeps me productive. It’s what keeps me from falling back into the writing paralysis I described in my “I Quit” letter, and what lets me have that intellectual fulfillment I want.

My transition into the new year isn’t as abrupt as it is for some. I didn’t have the “normal” academic summer (i.e. the summer of those with the privilege of a well-paying tenure-track job or graduate stipend) of setting aside the usual routines of the school year for four months of all research all the time. I took a week off work to finish up a dissertation chapter and get some projects done around the house, and another to visit family and research sites in London and Copenhagen. Most days, I did what I do every weekday–wrote from 6-8, walked to work, worked from 9-12, wrote from 12-1, worked from 1-5, walked home, made dinner, did household or fun or social things, went to bed, and did it again. Turns out that this routine, at least for me, is the prescription for avoiding summer guilt and the end of summer hangover. My summers as a full-time academic were clouded by guilt–either that I wasn’t working enough, or that I wasn’t enjoying downtime because I felt guilty about not working enough–and capped off by an orgy of shame about the distance between my beginning of summer goals and my end of summer accomplishments. My goals for this summer were minimal–get my writing routines completely embedded so that they were automatic. And I did that, no shame hangover required. It’s a good way to start the new year.

I’m featured in the October University Affairs cover story, and it paints a rosier picture of #altac careers than I think really exists. They’re not the cure-all for the ills of the academic job market, nor a reason to keep PhD enrollments high. But even so, I’ll be damned if I can’t help as many people as possible make their way onto the #altac track. It is such a good place to be for those of us who don’t want the tenure track, but don’t want to leave the rhythms and routines (and research) of the academic life behind. For that reason, I’ll pick back up with the #altac 101 series shortly, and I’ll talk more about how to succeed off the tenure track, about the gendered aspects of job searching, and about how scientists, social scientists, and humanists are in precisely the same boat when it comes to the ills that plague academia. I’m so looking forward to another year of H&E, and of you.

Happy new year, dear readers, and see you soon.

image credit: death to the stock photo // cc

best laid plans · body · busy · family · good attitudes about crappy possibilities · writing

From the Archives: The More She Sleeps

Last Wednesday our daughter was born. Every day since then has been a wonderful–and somewhat exhausting–blur of getting our bearings in this new life of ours. While I plan to write a post on navigating being pregnant and on the job market that’s not what is on my mind today. Rather, after a bleary night of feeding and rocking and trying to sleep, I’m thinking about my partner who has a writing deadline. I am thinking about all of you heading to Congress. I am thinking about the summer research and writing plans. And of course, I am thinking about this wee little person who is strapped to my chest while I type.

Here, in the spirit of writing and sleeping and finding your bearings, is a post that Aimée wrote about how writing is like sleep training.
__________________________________________________________________
When my daughter was an infant she and I both often sported the wild looks, red eyes, flailing movements, and terrible mood swings associated with chronic lack of sleep. Every day was a battle, both of us to try to stay awake, only one of us with reason. Sometimes, of an afternoon, I wandered glassy-eyed through the local grocery store with her staring glassy-eyed out of the sling. No morning nap, no afternoon nap, and oh dear lord the colic hours approaching. Well-meaning friends, strangers, and cashiers of all sorts would cluck and say, to comfort me, “Well, at least she’ll sleep tonight for sure!”

But here’s the thing: her worst nights for sleep were the ones that followed the days that she didn’t nap. And, those weird days where she’d get 2 hours of day-time sleep? She’d conk out at 7pm for 12 hours.

My husband and I developed a saying, repeated like a mantra to everyone who completely misunderstood her sleep cycle. The saying is this: The more she sleeps, the more she sleeps. And it was absolutely true.

Writing is like that, too, I’ve been recently thinking. Looking around at my friends and colleagues online and off, the conclusion I’ve come to is this:

The more you write, the more you write.


I’m thinking particularly about the relationship of informal, lower- or different-stakes writing to the much higher-stakes academic writing, the peer-reviewed articles, the dissertations, and the books. Extra-particularly, I’m thinking about the role that blogging plays in my practices and productivity as a writer.

I have written a ton more, in a ton more venues, and a ton more easily* since I began blogging. That’s the truth!

In the early days of academics blogging, many in the professoriate espoused the belief that time spent blogging was time away from research. It seemed to me that the view of “writing” was very narrow and very parsimonious. Certainly, blogs (and op-eds, and public talks) were held in much lower esteem than the gold standard represented by the peer-reviewed article. And that’s fine, as it goes. But there was something else, too, almost as though many in the academy believed that we had each only a finite lifetime allotment of usable words, and that it was a terrible waste to let these spill out onto the screens over the internet rather than pages through the library.

[You may develop your own quasi-religious metaphor involving masturbation and spilled seed here, if you wish. I’m not going to go there.]

But in my experience, words don’t work like that. Words are more like kittens: the more you have of them, the more you’re likely to get. If you nurture a couple of them, they’ll soon start to produce more and more of them without much conscious effort on your part to increase their number. And so it is with my words: I nurture a couple of small ones, and suddenly every computer I have has open documents full of jottings for a book project or an article or a syllabus or a blog post or an op-ed, a crazy crowded mishmash of self-multiplying words and ideas.

Why?

For me, first, blogging has developed the writing habit. I carry that mental pencil and pad with me all the time, always busy trying to convert my experience into blog bait. I’m pre-writing, that is, all the time. And this habit spills over to my research: I’m always busy trying to convert my reading into article-bait. This is a habit I did not have before blogging.

Second, the feedback I receive from blogging (and media appearances, and public talks) offers nearly immediate positive reinforcement, and that makes me write more. When people tell me they think an idea is great, I’m more likely to push harder to write something more substantial about it; when people tell me the like reading my writing, I know that the work is not solitary or without a point or audience. Writing starts to feel good.

Third, informal writing has clarified my voice and made me a more confident (and, I hope, effective) communicator. Blogging (etc.) does not tie me in compositional knots relating to disciplinary jargon (or, worse, interdisciplinary jargon). There’s no onerous citation requirement. I don’t have to tone down my metaphors for an imaginary international audience. I write to please myself, largely, and as a result the writing process is pleasant, and the results are more conversational. For high-stakes professional writing, jargon is necessary, adherence to strict rules of citation is necessary, and (I think) some of the enforced clunkiness of writing style is a historical artifact that I can only chip away at one little piece at a time. But that’s all very tiring. High-stakes writing is an 800m butterfly swim in a tech-suit at the Olympics; low-stakes writing is skinny dipping from the paddle-boat at 11pm at the cottage. It’s fun, but I’m probably still building muscle and endurance.

I know that many of you have digital lives or write in public as well. I would be very, very interested to hear how you think your own “low-stakes**” writing has an impact on your “high-stakes” work. We could maybe change the prevailing narrative!

Maybe we’ll start worrying about the productivity of people who don’t fart around writing stuff on teh intertubes 😉

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* “easily” is relative. I still really hate writing. It’s just that the hating part is so much less debilitating than it was before.


** the degree of stakeness is relative to your perspective, of course: in my JOB, articles count more than blogging or public appearances, but this month I’ve had a) an article appear in a big journal and b) a five minute appearance on national radio and I leave it to you to guess which of these events prompted more hallway talk and productive debate about digital culture, more emails from friends and relatives, more phone calls, more Facebook posts, more debates, more Twitter RTs, and more “Wow, I’m impressed.”

appreciation · best laid plans · change

Getting’ Out of Dodge: In Praise of Wee Adventures

Well, readers, at the risk of stating the obvious: it is May. Forget April showers; if you were anywhere near where I live this spring the snowbanks are only just starting to melt and we’ve all broken down and started talking to the crocuses. Suffice to say it has been a challenging winter.

In academic spheres May brings more than just flowers. Chances are, if you were teaching this semester you are finishing up grading or thanking the powers that be for having already finished your grading. You might be looking for work, preparing to write your MA thesis, scrambling to prepare for spring courses, or, in some cases, still finishing up semesters that were lengthened due to job action. Given that I’m based in the Maritimes and you *know* what kind of winter we’ve had, I’m willing to bet that whatever you’re doing, there’s a good chance you’re doing it with with the promise of spring outside your window.

But here’s the thing: as we have confessed time and again the end of the regular school term can bring exhaustion, apathy, disorientation, and tristesse for all sorts of good reasons. You don’t have to be a Nova Scotian survivor of the horrible weather, devastating budget, and introduction of Bill 100 to be feeling, well, done.

So let me give you a little bit of unsolicited advice: get out of dodge. Seriously, if you can manage it for a day or two (or three!) put an automatic reply on your email, leave your computer at home, and go. Where? Anywhere.

Last week, at the end of our ropes for all the reasons and more, my partner and I packed the dog into the truck and drove out to the shore. The weather was awful–rain, sleet, snow, wild winds–and our escape was perfect. We visited his mom at her home which perches by the sea. We sat by the fire and read, and the dog and I battled the elements to take walks by the ocean. Three days later we came back to Halifax refreshed. A change of scenery, a step away from social media, and some restorative and wonderful conversation with family; all of these things made the difference. And yes, it was basically a trip home. Nothing exotic or expensive, just a little adventure. The break allowed us, upon return to the everyday, to remember why so much of the quotidian is really very good.

I realize not everyone is as lucky as I am to have a partner whose family is so near, and with such a lovely place to escape to, but fear not: you too can take a wee adventure. I promise you’ll feel better for it. If you’re bound to where you are geographically, which is likely for so many reasons, why not choose a weekday as a weekend day? I mean it. What are the benefits of being in the academic sphere if not the flexibility of schedule? The very same 24/7 mentality that has us fretting about doing work all the damn time means that you’re probably able to switch Monday for Saturday. Or, if you’re daring, just take a bloody Monday off. Drink your coffee in bed with a novel. Walk the dog an hour later than usual and then take yourself out for brunch. On a budget? If it is a nice day go to the grocery, get some fruit and a baked good or whatever makes your tum excited and get thee to the park. If it is crummy out, go to your local library or botanical garden or art museum or a matinee. Do it! And then don’t go home and work. Cook dinner for yourself. Heck, invite a friend. Have a Monday-night dinner party! Or watch a movie on Netflix and eat popcorn for dinner. Whatever. Just get out of your normal routine, turn the notifications off, do NOT check your email until the next morning. There will be time enough to get into your routine, make your spring/summer research/work/teaching plans, and time will fly. For now, in this, the Friday-night-and-all-the-weekend-is-ahead-of-you-of-summer, just take a break.

Here at Hook & Eye we are going to try and take our own advice to heart. As we head into conference season (& several other things besides) we’re going to take a different approach to posting. For the month of May I will be pulling gems out of our considerable archive and offer them with a wee preface. Periodically, one of my stellar co-bloggers may be inspired to post, but we’re not going to put too much press on ourselves. There will be fresh material up each week, but not five days a week. We’re trying to take our own advice, you see.

In June I’ll post a collaboratively written year-end round-up and reflection as well as a call for guest posts and suggestions for topics for the coming year. We’re going to go on vacation for July and August, because even though we will undoubtably be working, we’re also trying to foster some of that life balance we talk so much about here.

So here’s to spring, dear readers! And here’s to wee adventures that get you out of dodge (or at least out of a rut or a routine) and ready you for the possibilities that spring and summer can bring. And, here’s a soundtrack to get you in the self-permission-granting mood.

                                         

                        Because come on, who doesn’t need Tracy Chapman on a Monday morning?

academic work · best laid plans · empowerment · ideas for change · modest proposal · organization · saving my sanity

Drop in, tune out

Here’s an experiment I’m undertaking this term: I hold four hours of in-person office hours every week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 2-4, and I encourage any student that needs anything from me to come by during those hours. If they’re out of town, they can call. At the same time, I’m also telling them: please think twice before emailing me. I’m overwhelmed with tiny tasks ping-ping-ping and I think you can solve most of them on your own, if you just spend five minutes looking it up instead of 30 seconds emailing me so that I can look it up for you. If you want me to solve your tiny problems, I say, come to my office hours and I will totally solve whatever you bring to me. But you might have to wait in line.

Some people keep emailing. I redirect them to my office hours. People are now coming to my office hours.

My office hours are the biggest party in my hallway all week. Students are sometimes lined up four or five deep. Some of them, I can hear calculating: could I fix my own problem faster than standing in line? Or, Wow, Professor Morrison sure has to help a lot of people. Or once they come see me: OH! I feel so much better now / I understand what’s happening / I know what book to read / Thanks for your help.

So far, I’m calling the experiment a success. I’m getting less email now, AND, I’m solving more problems for students, more quickly. I’m trying to really devote some Grad Chair time to direct student concerns, but without having it take over my entire life, which it was threatening to do before. Now that time is intense, but it is limited. I’m also, I discover, not super awesome with email. I have trouble triaging what comes in and I forget about stuff that slips below the fold, as it were. When I did my year end review with my chair, and had to identify my own strengths and weaknesses, I brought up the email thing before he did: I often drop the ball and while I keep working on my game, I’m not really getting that much better at it.

In my defense, I often receive malformed or misdirected queries: students ask me ambiguously worded questions without indicating some key salient piece of information, like that they’re part time students, or that they are paying international fees of something. These details are fast and easy to sort out in person. And there’s nothing wrong in students learning that there are 135 of them that I’m helping and maybe it might not be instant: the open door and the lineups make visible the advising labour in ways that help keep everyone’s expectations in check.

I might still fiddle the parameters. I might have a few more drop in hours, but I like limiting them to a couple of days of the week, to give me some flexibility to schedule the other work that I need to do, and not be on campus 35 hours a week like last term: that was too much, and productivity suffered. I’ll probably survey the students at the end of the term to see how they liked it. But my sense is that everyone is getting what they need, and faster, and with smiles, and I love to see them and they’re even having fun together out in the hallways. It’s convivial.

And it helps hold back the ever growing email tide, at the same time as it models a sensible approach to overload. For me, at least.

A couple of my colleagues have expressed skepticism. They use email to track their work and their to-do. I know I used to be like this, too: “Send me an email to remind me!” I’d say. But then, honestly, I’d let the email slide off the first screen and forget anyway. This is how you get to inbox 2000.

For me, a good solution to a good chunk of my email overwhelm was to enforce a system whereby I still do the work the email required of me, but I don’t do it over email anymore. Because I have some tiny modicum of authority (this is why so many students need my help) I can shift the culture and the expectations by fiat. I hope it works out for all of us. Like I said, it’s an experiment.

In fact, I feel so freed by this loosening of the email noose that I’ve finally found the wherewithal to start up that drop in writing workshop for dissertating students. Sixteen of them showed up to our first  meeting, and we all wrote for an hour. And none of it was email.

best laid plans

Smelling the roses… unwillingly

This morning, the universe had a message for me that had to do with ‘practice what you preach’, ‘get a taste of your own medicine’, or some such cliché. You see, I had scheduled myself into an early start because my courses required my undivided attention: between the marking, and the setting up of essay topics, and the *all new* class prep, I was in for a busy day. And that’s before even doing the actual teaching. However, either I was getting ahead of myself, or the universe had it in for me: either way, it was not meant to happen.

I managed to get the kids out the door in time, and you should know that I count that as a victory every morning. Whoever said anything about herding cats clearly had no kids, because getting them dressed and out the door in any decent amount of time, and without pulling all of one’s hair should have made it into the popular saying instead. Never mind the snow pants, and the scarf, and the mitts, and the hats, and the backpacks, and the boots… oh, wait, did you not put the socks on yet? Then take the boots off. Where did you leave the socks? Upstairs? Fine, I’ll get them, but you stay here. No, you cannot play with the trucks in the kitchen. Why? Because we’ll be late for school. Why? Because that’s how time works. Why did you have to take your jacket off now? I know you’re hot, that’s why I’m trying to get you out the door faster… Well, dear reader, if you don’t already experience–or have in the past, you lucky creature, you!–then that was a 2-second snippet of what takes place in my house every single morning for about 15 minutes. Can you see now why I count getting the kids out the door in time as an accomplishment?

That episode behind me, the glow of victory over tiny bodies with outsized wills propelled me up the stairs to get ready for work. I even put my audiobook on in celebration of the luxury that is alone-time [It’s Ali Smith’s There but for the if you’re curious, and it’s keeping me on edge]. I managed to get myself dressed with the efficiency that is characteristic of adulthood, all the while patting myself on the back for reaching that stage. Then I went to the kitchen to–you guessed it!–even pack myself a lunch for the day. If that isn’t the apex of responsibility, I don’t know what is. I rummaged in my freezer for some frozen falafel I knew had been lurking there since last month, found even a bonus frozen pita, and called it triumphantly lunch. Then a quick and efficient glance at my watch told me it was time to go catch my train.

I scramble to collect all the paraphernalia I’m likely to need today, and out the door I bolt, with the tiny habitual prick of worry that the red light might just make me miss my train. I pat my pockets to ensure I have my fare card, my house keys, and I hasten to position my earbuds, and resume my audiobook. I start sprinting just to make sure I get to the train station with a least two minutes to spare. And then I look up. And I stop running. The sun shinning makes even the bare January trees glow, but should they really have such an aura at the edges? I look around, not in admiration of the beautiful day, but in apprehension that I am surely missing my train. Inertia makes me take another step in the direction of the station, but then I stop. There is no way I can teach without my contacts on.

I exhale the long breath I had held in since the realization gripped me, and retrace my steps home. My morning victory refuses to turn sour, because, what the hell! the sun is shining, and I’m not even late for teaching. I would in be half an hour later, and I can totally live with that. Universe or not, something sometimes has to force me to slow down, or else, I’ll just forget my contacts, and have to start over. 

best laid plans · contract work · good things · january blues · positive thoughts as I fill out grant applications · women

Generous Thinking

If you ask me, Mondays sort of beg for some kind of genuine inspiration. Especially Mondays in January. Mondays are, in a micro-manner, a day to ever so slightly return to and reset your larger best laid plans. Sure, it is very easy to slip into Blue Monday mode, but let’s not today.

Why the optimism? Well, this weekend I have found myself thinking time and again about generosity. I thought about it on Friday evening when my partner and I went out for dinner with colleagues. Amidst the genuine anguish about what is happening on our campus here was such an undercurrent of real, palpable care for the spaces in which we work and especially for the students we teach in our classes. We talked about what’s wrong, got angry–righteously so!–about the many systemic injustices, and throughout it all I kept thinking ‘what luck, to be engaged in such generous thinking.’ Generosity was the electric current of the conversation. It kept us coming back from rage or frustration to a refrain of how much we care.

And then, on Saturday morning at oh-my-lord-o’clock I met a former student for coffee before she joined her badminton team for 8:30am game preparations. She took a bus from where the team was staying on the outskirts of the city to meet me. (I’ll admit, all I did was clean off the truck and drive, but it was c-o-l-d!!! and e-a-r-l-y!). There we sat, the only people in the coffee shop, and talked about her classes, my research, her plans for grad school, my intention to shake off fretfulness, the Taylor Swift channel on Songza, strategies for self-care in Canadian winter, how badminton differs from tennis (a lot!), and books we wanted to read.

Later that day, as I worked on a SSHRC application, I was grateful for my colleague’s generosity. As a contract academic faculty member I am not on the research services email list, yet she has continually made sure I get the information and support I need. I thought again with gratitude of the people who have read and edited the proposal on their own time. And I thought about my colleagues across the country who are joining the application. These people are completing the Canadian Common CV for me. How unspeakably generous! Seriously.

Some basic definitions of generosity include “a liberalness in sharing or giving,” and “willingness to give value to others.” In addition to some of the lovely conversations I have had this weekend, I have also come across that liberalness in sharing or giving on the web. Specifically, I have had the pleasure of coming across Ayelet Tsabari’s blog post outlining her reading intentions for last year. Tsabari writes that in 2014 she intended to read only writers of colour. In her post outlining her intent she is candid about her reasons and her reservations:

I thought of VIDA and CWILA and their yearly counts, which often spring an offshoot discussion about the lack of writers of colour in reviews and magazines. And I remembered that the brilliant Madeleine Thien recently spoke about the underrepresentation of writers of colour in literary awards. And then, I thought I should dedicate 2014 to only reading writers of colour. And immediately dismissed it as a silly idea and went to bed.

But I kept thinking about it. When I woke up that night to feed my baby, I thought of books by writers of colour I can’t wait to read and got excited. In 2011, when I only read short story collectionsI discovered many incredible writers I’d never heard of because I was always on the hunt for new collections, and I read more, simply because I made a public pledge to do so. It wasn’t a burden, but a blessing. I imagined this would be a similar experience; by imposing ‘restrictions’ on my reading list I would be reading more widely, not narrowly, the same way that writing under constraints may sometimes result in better writing. And I knew I’d have many great writers to choose from. Last year, Roxane Gay of The Rumpus had conveniently compiled a long list of writers of colour (a list in which I’m proud to be mentioned) in response to the argument that there are simply not enough writers of colour. That list would be a good place to start.
But the idea made me nervous.  Unlike reading books of short stories, this choice felt political. And coming from Israel, politics tend to scare the shit out of me. I shouldn’t be choosing books by authors’ ethnicity, should I? It’s so arbitrary, so random. But then again, what’s wrong with that? People choose to read books because they’re on the Giller list, or on Canada Reads, or on the staff picks at their local bookstore. People choose books based on covers and blurbs and titles and gut feelings. So why not this?
But I was still hesitant. Ethnicity is a complicated thing, and identities can be layered and shifting and blurry. Where do I draw the line? What about writers of mixed heritage? Or writers of colour who write about white people, or choose (stubbornly!) not to write about their heritage? (I loved this article which speaks about the expectation from writers of colour to write about their heritage and their heritage only, or to write novels that—as a dear friend of mine, an Indian-Canadian writer, has put it—“have mango trees.”)  And what about other minorities? LGBT writers? Writers from other cultures who aren’t ‘of colour’? And really, should we be even talking about race? It makes people so uncomfortable. (Read Tsabari’s whole post here)
How generous is this thinking? This willingness to be public, vulnerable, adamant, dedicated, and nervous? Tsabari, it seems to me, gives her readers something of value, and she does it for free. And then, just recently, she returns to give again by returning to her original intent and telling us about her experiences, about her thinking. You can read her post, “My Year of Reading Only Writers of Colour” here
Tsabari isn’t the only person out there thinking meaningful, challenging thoughts in public forums, but as I came across her writing this weekend I was grateful for her. For her generosity and for the generosity of others, like this blogger, who share their thinking, work, and resources. 
What kind of generosity have you come across in the academy or its vicinity,  readers? I’d love to have some more examples to buoy me through this January Monday and maybe, just maybe, right through until spring. 
best laid plans · change · CWILA · feminism · writing

Setting Intentions to a Soundtrack

Just before we took a hiatus for the holiday season Margrit noted that it is something of an unofficial Hook & Eye imperative tradition to create lists. And she’s right, of course, to rethink the ways in which those lists become tools not for tracking goals and accomplishments, but rather for self-flagellation later in the year. When the high of being well-rested, fed by time with loved one (or just time away from the quotidian routine) has been worn down by a demanding term that drains that energy despite our best laid plans, well, we tend to focus on what we didn’t accomplish. Indeed, part of what we do here at the blog in our own individual ways, is to be public with our struggles as well as our successes.

It makes sense, really, that we are so list-oriented here. Several of us have noted year in and year out that in the education system we are afforded not one moment for setting intentions, but two. Whether you’re a tenure-track professor or permanent college faculty, a graduate student, a post-doc, a contract worker, a sessional, an alt-ac worker, or working in the library or university press (& the list goes on) September is the “New Year,” January is for resetting intentions, and May is for lofty goals in both research and refuelling.

Except, of course, those different engagements with the education system I just listed are not the same, are they?

As you may remember, the end of the regular term last spring marked a substantial transition for me. For the first time in six years I went from full employment (either as a sessional teaching a 4/4/2 load, or as a contract employee on a salary) to virtual unemployment. It was, as I have alluded here, a blow both emotionally and financially. There’s much to say about how the Canadian political and social systems are messed up, certainly, but lucky for me I qualified for Employment Insurance. Though, for the purposes of this blog we need to consistently remember that very few precariously employed sessionals, recent graduates, and postdocs rarely qualify for EI. Anyhow, what I am getting at is this: I have lived, trained, and worked in the post-secondary education system for thirteen years now. Put differently, the impulse to reset intentions in January runs high. But it is different this year. I find myself thinking about how to positively set intentions (ok, write lists. I love a list.) without hanging on to the injustices, disappointments, devastations, and distractions that keep me from really moving forward?

Let me give you an example by looking at what I did with my time in the fall. In August my partner and I moved back to Halifax where he took up a two-year contract. I team taught a really cool course that I designed with my co-teacher a few years ago. Neat, but it also only took up a small bit of my time. What else did I do? Well, a lot as it turns out. CWILA launched its third annual Count which was 80% larger than ever before. As Chair of the Board it was my responsibility to work with the Board, the Count Director, and all the incredible volunteers to make this data public. I worked with essayists, a translator, and teams of editors. And when the narratives of abuses of mentorship in the Canadian literary community began to surface I wrote an essay on mentorship. And then the dam broke. #GamerGate didn’t so much as happen as it continued to occur and became more and more public. Anita Sarkeesian was threatened again and campus police in Utah pleaded inability to do anything about it because gun licenses trump women’s safety. Ghomeshi tried to spin Canadian’s reception of his abuses through his preemptive and manipulative Facebook post. Then Lucy DeCoutere showed us what bravery looks like. Then more women followed. And then, just before the winter break, very close to the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Montreal Massacre, news of the Dalhousie Dentistry “Gentlemen’s Club” broke. What does any of this have to do with me? Well, like many of you this onslaught was triggering. It consumed my thoughts. It was–and is–distracting and distressing. As Chair of CWILA it also meant that I had people asking what we as an organization were going to do. And so, we consulted, asked, and are now putting the final touches on a crowd-sourced project we’re calling Love, Anonymous. The project required a privacy officer–someone to receive, edit, and make anonymous all the submissions that narrativized experiences of gender-based violence and discrimination. That person was me. So for November and December I spent many many hours reading people’s stories of abuse, writing to them, and developing trust.

I also did some freelance work for another university, co-organized a conference, presented at another conference, and applied for a few jobs. Actually, I obsessed over the need to find a job more than any other thing I did (except work with the anonymous submissions). I fretted. I paced. I gnashed teeth and tore garments. I spent more time on worrying about needing a job, not having a job, where-will-I-ever-find-a-job-style-wailing than I did writing. And friends, writing is what I had wanted to do this fall.

So here is my intention for 2015: I am going to, in the immortal words of Taylor Swift, work to shake off the all-consuming ennui of finding a full-time job in the academy. No, I’m not ceasing to look. I’m just going to try to let that fretfulness go. I want to write. I want to find things besides teaching that nourish me and fulfill me, because I don’t have much teaching at all. I want to focus on things other than what I don’t have.

And so, to start this new year, I give you a catchy soundtrack for your Monday. Here’s to you all, readers, and especially to those of you who, like me, have bits of 2014 to shake off.

best laid plans · gradgrind · grading · PhD · productivity

Grading Strategies (…I need ’em)

(read Erin’s post from yesterday first, if you haven’t already!)

It’s that time of year, to invoke the old academic cliche (when is it not that time of year?). I have a stack of grading that I’ve barely touched: 31 4-page papers, plus 30 journals that span roughly the last month of weekly journal entries. Plus I have to teach those courses, sometimes be observed by my superiors teaching those courses (twice in the last week, including this morning, which is why this blog is late, apologies), and I’m supposed to have written two chapters of my dissertation by the end of this semester.

Oh, and the venerable holiday of Halloween happened.

 My partner and I, as “American Goths”

So yeah, that was important to make time for too (…I’m serious!). To some of you, this schedule–basically juggling two things, teaching and dissertation–may seem pretty tame. Some of you have hundreds of students, hundreds of papers to grade, you’re writing three books, some of you teach at multiple institutions, some of you have families and kids and administrative responsibilities and…overall, I know I should be thankful that my schedule is relatively simplified, but to be perfectly honest,  I’ve never taught more than one course at a time before and so am finding managing two plus general dissertation workload quite difficult. You have my permission to scoff.

So, I think it’s time to consolidate some grading tips! We haven’t talked about that too much on this thing, it seems; Aime discussed clumping her papers in a 2011 post, generating a useful discussion in the comments with such strategies as recording rather than writing your comments, and giving detailed feedback only on the first page. I clump, but I can’t see myself recording, and I am constantly plagued with guilt when I don’t comment on every page or paragraph so I’m not really sure about that last one either. Here are some other strategies I’ve thought about, discussed, learned, attempted to put into practice (key word: attempted):

1. First things first, establish reasonable expectations. I have heard of first-year Composition & Rhetoric courses requiring something like 4-page papers every week. I think we can all agree that that’s too much for all parties involved, engendering writing produced under exhaustion and duress, and stressed-out and overworked professors. Immersive, high-pressure learning environments work, arguably, for language acquisition, but not for writing, when the goals are more geared around precision, nuance, attention to detail, personal expression. So, teachers, if it is within your power, don’t construct an unreasonable syllabus! Remember that the demands of the academy and the pervasive DWYL dictum within academia ask too much of us to justify spending every waking moment grading; we simply aren’t paid enough, aren’t compensated for our labor enough, to sacrifice personal or research time for written feedback to students, who generally care more about the letter grade anyway.

2. Structure peer review into the writing process. Jana talked about this a little bit last year. At the very least, forcing them to write and print out a rough draft gets them thinking about and wrestling with their projects early on, and instills in them a sense of writing as a process, not an isolated event.  I’ve found, however, that my in-class peer reviews yield mixed results, as my students are often too nice to one another to provide useful critical feedback, or they get caught up in (important, but still) local problems such as formatting the Works Cited page rather than global issues. I always distribute a handout, but have adopted different formats;  on the one hand I don’t want to set them loose on each others’ papers with no guidance, but on the other I want to leave room for personal engagement and independent critical thinking. For my last essay, I had them read each other’s drafts over the weekend and write neutral summaries of them; then, in class, I gave them a handout with guiding questions for their conversations. The authors were supposed to chronicle on this handout the feedback they received, but I think they got too caught up in conversations to be able to complete that fully. I want to keep experimenting with formats that keep them responsible to each other as well as sparking independent thinking.
The point is: peer review and sequenced assignments should help produce better quality work in the end, allowing for an easier grading process.

3. Make sure the assignments are carefully scaffolded so that they can be as prepared as possible to write. Relating to #2, but there are lots of things you can do besides peer review: devote time in class to having them pair up and talk through thesis statements/outlines, brainstorm research possibilities together, have them write out intro paragraphs in class and then ask for volunteers to read and discuss them. (N.b: if you’re teaching Comp, you can turn this into a fun exercise in tone–pass out slips of paper that provide individual instructions for rewriting their introductions from different perspectives, eg. “Write an intro paragraph to your paper as though you are a strongly right-wing critic,” “Write an intro paragraph to your paper as though you are writing the introduction to a children’s book,” “Write an intro paragraph to your paper as though you are writing the beginning of a manifesto,” etc. Learning to approach the material from different perspectives will help them nuance and master their material, and it’s always a fun exercise to have them read out their paragraphs to one another, having them guess what persona they’ve adopted.)

4. Maintain a routine. Set the timer, keep to it. I aim for 20 minutes per 4-page paper. Sometimes I (still) take longer than this, but having the timer go off as I’m still reading through the last page will give me added urgency to speed things up and get to the end comment as quickly as possible. I also always grade with the same blue pen, play music that peps me up, keeps me cheerful, or calms me down as necessary, and (of course) take short breaks to minimize my own crankiness.

5. Experiment with oral forms of presentation/grading. Someone in a recent Facebook discussion noted that she actually grades in concentrated one-on-one settings, which seems to me to be a little too high pressure (for both me and the student; I know I often have a hard time concentrating with someone [who has a vested interest in what I’m doing] just sitting and watching me!). But perhaps you could transform a written assignment into an oral presentation to the class. Explain to your students that this is an opportunity for them to hone their oral delivery skills, cater their arguments to a broader audience, and experiment with different kinds of electronic media, such as Prezi.

6. Skim through all the papers and stack them according to what you initially perceive as A, B, and C-worthy papers. I actually don’t do this much anymore, because when I did I often couldn’t help but engage with the work the first-time around, and then it ended up taking approximately twice as much time if I had to go through them all twice.

7. Quality over quantity; fewer assignments, higher stakes. I recently decided it was unreasonable of me to give written feedback on every single weekly journal entry (and my students probably weren’t reading/absorbing everything either), so I adjusted my policies so that students choose one out of four or so entries to submit as a hard copy for written feedback; the others, I just skim through online, keep a log of what I anticipate their grade to be, and leave short comments, briefly observing what worked in the entry and what didn’t.

Those are what I’ve come up with so far; now I really need to go put these suggestions into practice! Maybe I just need to continue to channel the austere, hardworking spirit of the American Gothic couple. More tips welcome!

being undone · best laid plans · failure

No one is taking care of the chickens

Oh, I started the term with grand ambitions, that I framed to myself as reasonable ambitions: get up with the chickens, and write for an hour. Then carry on with my day, secure in my awesome researcherness and ready to tackle mounds of paperwork, the unending travails of trying to schedule meetings let alone attend them, the course prep, the grading. I blogged it!

Reader, I’ve slept in.

A lot.

Yesterday, I got up an hour early, and read two short book chapters on snapshot photography. It was the first research I’d got done in a month. I feel awful–I know better! I know all the tricks, I write blog posts about the tricks! And yet, my research has receded so far into the dim recesses of memory that I don’t even know where to start if I was going to pick it up again.

What happened? And how can I get out?

First, I overcommitted. Like Julie, I need a better long range plan: I say yes to things that don’t seem like too much, but when added all together mean I have no time left. I did a keynote for a conference on campus. Then drove to Toronto to do a different short keynote and presentation the next day. Then had a yoga weekend of 20 hours duration. I reprepped my first year course, to add more assessment of textbook materials–so I not only have to grade six new reading quizzes and a final exam, I have to create these assessments, too. Without removing any of the other assignments. Oh, and there’s a new edition of the textbook. I’m prepping a new grad class for next term.

Second, I underestimated the capacity of admin work to colonize every single goddamn moment of my life. A million grad students want to talk to me, not just the ones enrolled, but the ones who’ve already graduated, and additionally ones who want me to recruit them. SSHRC letters. Meetings about how to schedule more meetings. Report writing then endless meetings about the reports. Small fires, immediately needing attention. Big fires, simmering scarily in the middle distance. Questions that require me to make decisions, and I never seem to have enough context to do these quickly.

Third, I had no slack time to absorb contingency. My daughter got sick with some sort of stomach bug and was home for two days. My husband’s job hit Peak Busy in early October and he needed me to cover for him. Then I got sick, then had another yoga weekend to go to. Then my father in law died, and his brother, too, in the same week, in two different time zones. I’m near tears and out of clean underwear pretty much all the time, recently.

Fourth, the truly unexpected: I had a tweet go viral a couple of weeks ago, and that resulted in pretty much an entire week of international media barrage on all fronts. I’m too tired of the whole thing, frankly, to link it but Jezebel, the Globe and Mail, CBC, Global, NBC Atlanta, Fox LA, Canadian Press, The Sun, a bunch of comics blogs, and thousands of retweets and mentions and emails and personal messages and the PR office on campus were pretty much happening nonstop. You’ve probably already seen it. It got to the point where I forgot that the local paper was doing a feature interview and sending a reporter over. Forgot! And I’ve done a bunch of other press as well on unrelated topics. It’s all extremely germane to my research and a high-value experience but HEAVEN HAVE MERCY I JUST CAN’T EVEN ANYMORE.

A good friend of mine told me a long time ago, in the midst of another of my panics: This is not a crisis, this is your life. And my yoga teacher, as I was grumbling about backsliding in one of another fancy pose, reminded me: This is a practice, not a perfect.

So. This is my life, not a crisis. And this is a practice, not a perfect. All I can do is admit what’s not working, and try again. It’s refinements big and little, and constant, that’ll help me find my balance. Writing this post is step one. Admit I’ve fallen off my path, and try to climb back onto it, not making up all that I’ve missed, but just starting again, one step at a time. Maybe learning some lessons about overdoing it, but probably having to learn them again later.

advice · best laid plans · mental health

The Good Enough Professor

Today’s post is the first in a series of posts we’ll have from our new semi-regular blogger Lily Cho. Welcome, Lily!
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Are you wondering where September went? Me too. So it seems like a good time to revisit something I was thinking about over the summer: the Good Enough Professor. It came up for me when an interviewwith Adam Phillips was floating through my FB networks. The interviewer, Paul Holdengräber, notes at one point: “In Winnicott’s essay ‘On the Capacity to Be Alone,’ he writes that the goal for the child is to be alone in the presence of the mother. For a long time this has seemed to me the single best definition of reading.” Being someone who loves to be alone, and a newish mother, and reader, I thought, ding, ding, ding, ding… I really should read that essay again. So I did. And that lead me to a few other biggies in the Winnicott archive and I found lots there to think about in terms of aloneness, parenting, and reading, but I also was especially struck by his brief discussion of “the good enough mother” in Playing and Reality. The idea of being “good enough” really got me.

I’m not the only one. There’s this Good Enough Professor. And this one. And this one. The idea of being good enough at anything, including being a professor, is both seductive and useful. It gives us a chance to stop and think about letting go of our perfectionism. It asks us to think about what it really means to be good enough.

The first thing that jumps out for me is the literal idea of being good enough. For example, there’s Erin’s incredibly useful call to be strategic and efficient about course prep. For those of us who are lucky enough to be full-time faculty members, it might mean taking seriously the 40-40-20 split between research, teaching, and administrative work that our jobs usually demand. For me, taking on a lowly admin gig as my department’s Undergraduate Program Director, it has also meant trying to figure out how to keep this part of the job from taking up all of my work time when it is only supposed to take up part of it (so that I can, you know, teach and get that thing called research done). Before I took on the UPD gig, it was true that my research never knocked on my door, or sent me middle of the night panicked emails. Now, it is even more true.

So figuring out how to be a Good Enough Professor has something to do with embracing your inner slacker and, maybe more crucially, figuring out boundaries like: not looking at email after dinner; or setting aside one day of the week as a research day and making it an inviolable part of the schedule; or collaborating with others on research so that your research actually does knock on your door, or email you with stuff that has to get done, or call you for a meeting (huge shout out here to my crew at the Toronto Photography Seminar). I do all of these things and they work for me.

But, looking back at Winnicott, there’s another way of thinking about being a Good Enough Professor. For me, it’s really useful to remember that Winnicott’s theory of being good enough was first and foremost a way of thinking about parenting and the specifically gendered form of parenting (notably, he’s not writing about the good enough father). He talks a lot about illusion and disillusion – how the mother should give the infant the illusion of her constant presence and attendance to the child’s needs, only to slowly disillusion the child of that unfettered availability. Hello, transitional objects! What might this have to do with being a professor? Well, a lot, I think.

First, let’s tackle the (often unspoken) myth of the professor-as-parent. There’s this discussion about how the best professors resemble parents from a man who also refers to some of his brilliant undergrads as “excellent sheep” (sheep or child? I wouldn’t want to choose). Although it might be tempting, even obvious, to connect the professor with the parent, I think we have to shy (or run screaming at the top of our lungs) away from that connection for all kinds of reasons. For one thing, the student-professor relationship often already risks over-infantilizing students. Instinctively, and maybe because I actually have a child, I find the idea of thinking of my students as anything like children to be kind of awful no matter how persuasive Mr. Excellent Sheep might be. The student-professor dyad is not the only relation that marks this job. What’s more, profs are not merely teachers. Our jobs involve a lot of other duties.

So, what if we put the institution, the university, where Winnicott put the infant? Most of the institutions that I have been at always seem to be in a state of perpetual re-birth. Hello, sigh, cyclical program reviews. Hello, huge sigh, strategic plans. Hello, huge, huge sigh, prioritization exercises. But also, hello to the wonderful kind of questioning on the part of students, faculty, and administrators that is always breaking the university down even as the ivy on the walls or the concrete breezeblock in my office might just hold the thing up for a little bit longer. Putting the institution in the place of the child in Winnicott’s theory would make it so that the professor’s job would be to provide the institution with the illusion of constant availability, of an unwavering commitment to respond to all of its demands and needs, only to slowly engineer that disillusionment. 

We move from being academics doing something purely because of our love for the job to a more detached relationship where labour relations are more visible. We come to the university as providers of an illusion of our love for this work, but this illusion can only be sustained temporarily. Ultimately, we have to disillusion the institution. We can only love our work within limits and with boundaries.

What does that look like? I really don’t know. Maybe, just maybe, for me it might involve not doing things that make me feel important when don’t actually help anyone else. It’s a tiny shift. I plan to resist the urge to copyedit my students’ papers and actually evaluate them; to only write constructive peer review reports; to agree to book reviews only when I know that I have something to say; to go to fewer conferences but to make them really count; to write more slowly and take more care with what I write. Maybe, maybe, maybe. I’m figuring it out. But I can’t help feeling that it’s important to keep in mind that, for Winnicott, being good enough was not about doing less, but about detaching in ways that actually sustain relationships, and that allow that relationship to thrive. For anyone navigating their place in the academy, it seems like a good idea to keep this idea handy.

How do you think you could be a Good Enough Professor?

Lily Cho
York University