#alt-ac · #post-ac · academy · change · community

Feeling More Welcome on the Fringe

I just got back from the 2015 Modern Language Association conference in Vancouver, one that was held in the beautiful conference centre in this photo, a space that was almost as gorgeous inside as it was outside (ocean! mountains! I grew up in Ontario!).  This was my fourth MLA, and definitely one of my favourites. It was wonderful to get to spend some serious time with one of my co-authors (shoutout to Erin Wunker) and a treat to be at a conference somewhere that I could still use data on my phone (it’s the little things). But for reasons that I didn’t anticipate, that this MLA was great had just as much to do with changes to my profession, and changes to THE profession, as it did with geography or excellent choice of roommate.

I want to go back in time for a minute to think through why this is, at least a little. A Hook & Eye reader got in touch with me a couple of months ago, and we met for lunch at a favourite local restaurant to talk about our experiences of being academic staff, and about the work I’m doing on Hook & Eye to advocate for, and demystify, non-professorial careers for humanists. She, like me, is a humanities PhD who now has a job in an academic staff role, although in her case she left a tenure-track job to take it. She, unlike me, hasn’t been to an academic conference since she made the switch from professor to administrator, and her experience of leaving the tenure-track has been, from what I gathered, far more isolating than mine has.

I’d never consciously thought about it before that lunch, but my transition plan was very effectively, although mostly accidentally, designed. I started writing and publishing about higher ed reform and graduate career development about the time that I made the decision not to go on the academic job market, and when I moved into my staff role, I gradually started pitching conference presentations on those topics. My first year as Research Officer, I gave a paper at the MLA on alternative dissertations, a panel which inspired the first cluster of Graduate Training in the 21st Century, and another at ACCUTE on my usual work on Canadian modernist poetry. This year, now that paying work has required that I scale back on my CanLit work, I was an invited speaker on an MLA panel about careers for humanists, I’m giving a talk about skill development and graduate reform at NeMLA, and I’m co-organizing a panel on related topics as part of ACCUTE’s Committee for Professional Concerns. I’m not giving any papers on CanLit at all, and yet it hasn’t been necessary for me to stop attending the conferences I’ve always attended, because I made a space for myself at them that reflects the changing nature of my academic and career goals (and that let me expense my attendance to the occasional one as a work gig). I’ve never had to stand on the sidelines and watch my academic friends gallivant around exciting new cities, and drink bad free wine at the book exhibit, without me. I’d be terribly sad if I did. And that’s in large part also because of the fact that alongside my work to make room for myself at these conferences, they’ve made room for me. When I started attending the MLA, any panels on career development and professionalization were almost exclusively geared to the academic job market, and it was never certain that the paper or panel I was pitching would be accepted. This year, there were three panels and a half-day workshop devoted to careers for humanists in the broadest sense, in all job markets. They had the institutional authority of being organized by the MLA and co-sponsored by the American Historical Association, and instead of worrying if my paper on mid-century modernist Canadian poetry would be too out in left-field for the American-centric MLA, I was invited to speak. I’m not attending DHSI any more, but I still get to go–just as an instructor. Quelle différence! 

Even just a few years ago, I bet that this smooth transition from PhD to staff while maintaining a close relationship with my academic community would have been much harder than it is now. PhDs who moved into non-professorial careers were largely invisible to North America’s largest scholarly associations, and those careers were still considered the booby prize, the Plan B. People I know who made the transition much earlier, and have maintained their research profiles since, largely did so because they took staff jobs that provided them with an ongoing institutional affiliation. But as those same scholarly associations begin to recognize that only 18.6% of PhDs (in Canada, at least) become professors, the more they realize that they need to serve those people who make up the majority of their constituents–people like me who will not become academics–if they hope to stay relevant and to meet the needs of their membership. Moreover, the more they realize that people like me, who can talk about the realities of life in a non-professorial careeer, are necessary to this project. In fact, I can say that I’ve had precisely the opposite experience of that reader I had lunch with. In moving off of the professorial track and into a position that once would have been considered on the fringe (and is still considered such by many, I’ll admit), I feel far more connected and central to my scholarly communities that I ever have before. I’ll admit that I’m in an oddly privileged position, working in an #altac position that is in many ways concerned with graduate careers and training while also researching those subjects. But many of the non-professors at the MLA were doing vastly different things than what I do, and they were sitting on the panel right beside me.

It’s strange to me that I had to get myself to the outside–into a position that I thought would guarantee that the powerful and traditional in academia would see me as a second-class citizen, or not see me at all because I’d become invisible–in order to really be invited in. It’s an odd place to be, and yet I’m not complaining. Mostly I’m just revelling in the fact that life is good on the other side, and that more and more people–from grad student to full professor–are recognizing that my experience is not at all anomalous, that there’s plenty of fulfilling and financially rewarding work to be had beyond the professoriate. To some at the MLA, I might still be on the fringe, but the numbers don’t lie–we are, to steal the NFM’s turn of phrase, the new PhD majority. And as assumptions about the goals of those pursuing PhDs continue to change, so will the inclusivity of the scholarly associations to which we belong. The water’s warm, and I’m loving that I’m surrounded by ever more swimmers.

Image by TDLucas5000, CC

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.

change · emotional labour · job market · positive thoughts as I fill out applications

What’s "fit" got to do with it?

Every now and then I scroll through the archives of Hook & Eye to see what we were talking about last year, two years ago, and yes, as far back as four years ago. Much has changed, much has stayed the same. I have been writing about mentorship, precarity, and contract work since we started this blog in 2010, for example, and as I read through some of my own earlier posts I am struck by the ways in which my temerity has remained constant. There are still so many things that feel risky to talk about in a frank manner. My years on the job market (which number more than my years blogging publicly here) have not made me bolder. In some ways, I have become increasingly aware of the risks of speaking publicly about a bruised and broken system. And yet. And yet, it is a system that has, until this year, for the most part paid me a living wage. It is a system that has, until this year, in many ways validated my work–most often in the classroom. And so, as another fall semester winds down, and I find myself looking through the archives thinking about change, one of the things I notice are the little absences. The things that have slipped out of conversations without so much as a quiet shutting of the door.

An example: four years ago this month I wrote a post on the moving imperative. A friend has suggested I write about the implicit need to move for one’s degrees. This struck me as interesting and, frankly, at the time it seemed easy. I’d moved for all my degrees, and I had just moved across the country for a ten-month contract. If moving was imperative, then my track record was solid. So I wrote about it with interest, but with little understanding of the experience of someone who was either not free to move or, much more difficult for me to understand, unwilling to move for reasons of community, of family history, of filiation with the lands on which they were living.

I was, I think, living with a rather neoliberal mentality: highly mobile, no ties to place. Is that a good thing? It is for the job market, in the short term, I suppose. But in the long term I suspect hyper-mobility–as a mentality, at least–erodes connection to place. For examples of connection to place I think, for example, of the Land Protectors fighting to save Burnaby Mountain right now, of the anti-frackingblockades of last fall in Elsipogtog, of the EnPipeline project. Is moving for a job directly connected to unsustainability at the levels of environment and of community? It depends. But I offer this shift in my own thinking as an example of a topic we don’t much talk about in the search for stable work in higher education.

Let me shift gears again and point to another topic that seems to have quietly vanished from conversation. It is a genuine, deeply earnest, and somewhat uncomfortable question for me to ask: does the question of fit come into play anymore? More specifically, does the question of fit come into play for the candidate and not just for the committee?

Here is where this thinking stems from: I’ve been writing reference letters for potential graduate students in the last few weeks. I have also been writing reference letters for applicants to tenure-track positions. And, I have been writing my own applications to jobs. Also, it is fall. All of these things put me into a nostalgic mood and have me thinking back to the advice I got when I first entered the job market, as well as the advice I have given to people applying for school or work. When I was first applying for work my mentors put me through all my paces. Practice interviews? Check. Instruction on how to write a job letter? Check. Read the hiring institution’s website, collective agreement, departmental philosophy, and strategic mission statements? Check, check, check, check. I was taught how to dress (that’s changed somewhat), how to answer questions, and I have learned how to be myself in an interview too. But people also always used to tell me and my cohort that fit works both ways. Obviously, the hiring in department is looking for you to fit (and there are scores of good article like this one reminding you how to make yourself fit), but I haven’t heard any applicant talk about whether or not a department is the right one for them. Not for a long, long time. In fact, I think the only post we have ever had about fit was a post from the wonderful Lindy Ledohowski. She wrote about having the right departmental fit, but no agency in advocating for a spousal hire for her partner. Beyond Lindy’s post, I can’t find any talking about the candidate looking for, thinking about, or of being allowed to admit to caring about departmental fit.

I don’t think it is necessary to rehearse why “fit” has slipped out of conversations, at least where the applicant is concerned. The market is bad and it feels as though it is getting worse all the time. Departments are fighting to keep courses on the books as retirements aren’t replaced and more and more classes are covered by sessional and contract faculty–many of whom don’t qualify for benefits. We know this. And yet. Sometimes, as I try to think hopeful thoughts while filling out job applications, I do think about fit. I think about me, the applicant, a person with a life that extends (as one hopes it would) beyond the institution where I work. I think about people I know who have jobs and hate where they are. I think of people in those same places who don’t have jobs but stay in that pale because they have made lives. And I worry. I worry for myself, of course, but I also worry for the institutions we work in, the education systems we’re fighting to better, and the people it takes to make them better. Somehow, somewhere, I think “fit” needs to reenter the conversation.

Maybe this post could just as easily have been titled “what’s love got to do with it?”

But of course I feel compelled to end the post by saying this is hypothetical. This topic is like the other risky things that precarious workers can’t really talk about without wondering if its the thing that lost them the interview. If you’re a potential employer reading this post you can bet your boots I’ll be willing to consider moving just about anywhere for the opportunity to work in your institution.

change · collaboration

Art in the time of precarity

Last week, Camilla Gibb, celebrated Canadian writer, who authored Sweetness in the Belly, The Beauty of Humanity Movement, and The Petty Details of So-and-So’s Life, among other, wrote an op-ed about the lack of financial support for writers. In “The More You Writer, the Less You Make,” Gibb exposes the penury writers live in, even if they attain the elusive measure of success. Writers’ average incomes, Gibb points out citing the Writers’ Union, is $12,000 a year. Still, she says, when you’re fairly young and “do what you love,” it is still a privilege. She continues:
You don’t squander that privilege. You work your ass off. And hopefully you’re rewarded for that effort. It worked for me, as it did for many writers of my generation, perhaps the last for whom it was possible to live off their writing. In Britain, writers’ incomes have fallen by 30 per cent in the past eight years, collapsing to what one Guardian headline called “abject” levels. 
I shuddered at the familiarity of this proposition. How many current PhD students still say the same things to themselves, that in spite of the abysmal academic job market, it is totally worth working your derrière off through grad school while subsisting on ramen and insecurity, because your ideas are important, and they deserve to be followed through? That gratification–or living above the poverty line and eating nourishing food–will be delayed only momentarily. That surely, the magnificence of those ideas will carry one through to the deserved and coveted position?
Trust me, I do not mean to be sarcastic in saying the above. Gibb’s op-ed made me question, yet again, if we have the tools to tackle this systemic assault on arts and humanities. Training PhD students for alternative career paths, Alt-Ac and Post-Ac, would benefit everyone: the PhD graduates as well as their employers and society at large. However, are we putting a band-aid on this systemic issue that has come to devalue–literally–artistic work, while coveting creativity and innovationat every other step?

As Gibb mentions, instituting big prizes is awesome, but hardly a solution to fostering a vibrant literary culture that would actually enable most of its key participants–the writers–to subsist. See a pattern here? I could go on, but I fear a rant rearing its ugly head, and there’s no reason for any friend of H&E’s to be subjected to such. So, can I ask you, instead, what it is we can do collectively to advocate on behalf of the value of the arts, the humanities, and to get the word across that artists cannot live on the beauty they create alone? How can we create a sustainable system that does not entail the patronage of a nefariously-motivated or politically-driven Maecenas?
change · enter the confessional · first-name managerialism

Listening, or something I’m learning to do

I’m an extravert: I gain energy from being around people, and normally that means talking. I love writing blog posts because it has a real audience, real “someones” that my words will reach. When I get stuck in a bog of conflicting research sources, I collar someone and explain my problem to them, as a way out. Or I write a pretend email to a Good Listener. When my ideas are at a tipping point, but not quite tipped, I cancel my evening 30 Rock episode on the couch with my husband and make him listen to me explain how I’m almost almost there and sometimes that will tip me over. I think out loud at meetings–that is, by talking–as though the process of putting things into sentences turns nothingness into plans.

I’m a talker. It’s how I learn. It’s how I generate ideas. It’s how I formulate and consolidate plans.

You know what, historically, I’m not super good at? Listening. I’m working on it.

I like to tell myself that I’m an “active listener”–I’m interrupting you to show how interested I am! I’m restating what you said so you’ll know I hear you! I’m grabbing the kernel of what you just said and moving it forward to the next idea, or the solution, or the resolution. I like to tell myself all those things, but really, it’s all just rationalization for my talking habit.

In my new grad chair role, my listening deficits must be addressed. I’m meeting with a lot of graduate students, to discuss the particularities of their projects and degree progress. I’m meeting with professors to talk about any and all issues related to our grad programs, and other things. I’m meeting with our departmental staff to learn how things work; I’m meeting with other grad chairs to find out what they do. This has required a tremendous amount not just of shutting up (which, honestly, I’m really not good at, I know) but also listening, really listening.

Shutting up is staying silent and letting other people have the floor. Brute force lip clamping can achieve this. But listening is something different, harder, more profound. Listening, I find, means being radically open to the possibility that what someone else is saying might just shift everything. These conversations are not a scene from a play, where once I hear my cue I know what I’m going to say next. These conversations should be radically interactive: that is to say, they ought to be engaged with as though they will produce unknown outcomes. Listening entails a tacit acknowledgment of a pretty fundamental kind of “I don’t know.”

Really listening, that is, is an act of humility and vulnerability, when in my heart of hearts I prefer to be invincible and always right–a benevolent dictator who has all the right ideas, already. When I’m really listening, it’s ontologically as well as practically terrifying: who will I be if I learn something new in the next 30 second? Who knows what might happen next? I might have to change what I think, change what I do. Admit that I didn’t know something and just learned it right now.

I had a meeting this week where I made a conscious effort to listen. It was hard, but it was incredibly rewarding. I let the other person talk until she went silent on her own. I thought about what she said. And then I had to reframe what I thought I knew, and change my mind about something I was pretty confident about. And then it kept happening, with each conversational turn! Wow.

It’s easier to already know all the right answers, even if they’re just the “right answers,” for me at least. Easier to craft diatribes and pronouncements with pauses to allow for murmurs of approval and applause. Much harder to not know, to make mistakes, to ask for actual advice–and then to take it–rather than a rubber stamp on a course of action already decided on.

Listening. I’m going to keep practicing. It’s humbling and it’s difficult, but I’m really learning things. I think this might be good.

change · community

Guest post: Moving Costs Institutions and Communities

My friend and colleague Kathleen Cawsey has written a response to my post from yesterday on avoiding the empathy trap / on moving. Thank you Kathy!!
_________________________________________________

Erin Wunker recently wrote about the personal costs of the peripatetic academic life – the emotional and psychological, as well as financial and practical, costs of moving that most grad students and new-career academics face. But there is a flip side to this taken-for-granted culture of ‘go-where-the-job-is’ that is academia. Constant moving has costs not only for the individuals moving, but, I believe, the institutions and communities who host those individuals.
I am blessed to be in a department that often hires internal candidates, and which has three (count them – three!) spousal pairs; but I think this department is probably unusual. Certainly most other departments I have been in, both as a student and a professor, have been less caring about their own.
I have seen, again and again, the phenomenon of ‘hiring from away.’ Usually – even in the days of regular replacement of TT jobs – there is at least a one-year gap between someone leaving and the job being filled, and a sessional or limited term contract employee is hired to teach during that time. Yet rather than hiring that person to the full-time position, search committees almost always choose someone else.
It’s unclear to me why someone unknown would be chosen over a candidate who has already proven he/she could do the job, but it happens all the time. My theory is that we alllook better on paper, before the bumps and knobs of our day-to-day real personality become evident. I think too, especially for us Canadians, there is something appealing about the ‘exotic,’ the ‘far away,’ – that if we could get an American from a big American university to come work at our little ol’ Canuck university we would be proving we can play in the big leagues. Or maybe there’s just the hope that someone new will be on our side in all the petty department factions and struggles (we already know where the old person stands).
But this attitude and practice has major problems. I have seen, again and again, the ‘away’ person come in with little or no commitment to the university hiring him or her. Many of them want to get out of backwater small-town Canada as quickly as they can – so either we end up doing a whole expensive search again in two or three years, or we end up with someone discontented, frustrated, and alienated. Or they live in Toronto and only show up on campus for the two afternoons they teach, contributing nothing to the atmosphere of the department or the collegiality of the faculty.
There are other, more subtle costs. Bringing up kids is hard – bringing up kids with no family or social support nearby must be brutal. Although I am far from my family, I am lucky enough to have inlaws nearby who can be here by 8:00 a.m. when I have a kid puking on me and an 8:30 class to teach. I can take a night away with my partner, sans kids, for a blessed recharging and revival. My department benefits hugely, though it doesn’t know it, from the fact that I have a support system nearby.
And because my partner’s family is here, and we have no thought of moving, I can put down real roots and make a real commitment to this community – both to my departmental and university community, but also to the larger community of neighbourhood, church, community groups, local politics, school boards, and local charities.
Departments need to think about more than just what a person looks like on paper before hiring. Of course the person from ‘away’ has twenty publications – the person from ‘here’ has been teaching your classes instead of writing! Departments should choose to hire individuals who might even be second-choice in terms of on-paper qualifications, but who will stay, be good citizens, contribute meaningfully and long-term to the university and community, and who themselves might be better-adjusted because they have better support systems.

A lot has been written recently on the hardships sessionals, adjuncts, and the precariously-employed of academia face, and Erin’s post details yet another. I’m not sure, though, that universities have thought enough about the toll an ever-moving workforce has on departments and the university as a whole. 

Dalhousie University
change · collaboration · community · race · social media

Listen: Learning As Community Responsibility

This morning my social media news feeds are a mix of reflection, rage, and resolve. Here is what I am seeing: Many of my friends and acquaintances were able to be in Edmonton for the last days of the hearings for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I’ve been reading their reflections and watching videos of speakers like Cindy Blackstock in order to learn and listen from here. This afternoon I’ll be teaching Marie Clements’s play Burning VisionHere at home, though, I am altering my class lectures to make room for discussion about the editor of the local paper who made the egregious decision to run a photograph of a person in blackface on the cover of the paper.

What do these things have to do with one another? A lot. Specifically, I think that together they model or open opportunities to talk about responsibility, community, and learning. Who are your teachers? Who are mine? Who gets listened to when? Whose voices are consistently and often violently left out of conversations? And how might we–with all the diversity that collective pronoun might mean–start having those conversations.

As most of you know I do much of my teaching and research under the auspices of literary studies, so let me talk about Clements’s play in order to start to unpack what I mean by a model of learning as community and responsability.

Burning Vision is a play in four movements, and it is a play that moves across time and space and between cultures. It has been described variously as a complicated play, as a postmodern play, and play about environmental justice. It may be all of these; I want to suggest it is also a model for learning as community responsibility.

The facts informing the play are these: in the late 1880s a Dene Seer prophesies a burning vision that will come in the future. The timeline in the play depicts how his vision comes to be. Between 1898-1925 radium becomes a valuable commodity. Between 1931-1932 the Canadian government issues a publication that warns of the health hazards associated with radioactive ore. 1930: The LaBine brothers discover highgrade pitchblende stake on Great Bear Lake. 1932 Dene men are hired to carry ore out of the mine and transport it to Fort McMurray. 1938: The Nobel Prize is granted to Enrico Fermi who has discovered the fissurable properties of uranium. 1941: Japanese Canadians are required to carry identification cards. 1941 the US orders eight tones of uranium from Great Bear Lake to conduct military research. 1942: Japanese-Canadians are forced into internment camps. 1945: Atomic bombs are dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 1960: the first Dene miner dies of cancer. And in August of 1998 six Dene residents travel to Hiroshima to pay respects on the anniversary of the detonation of the first atomic bomb.

As I said, the play works across time, space, and cultures. It is about Canada’s colonial history and its historic and ongoing violence against First Peoples. It is about systematic racism. It is about ecological devastation and mass violence. And it is about building communities of responsibility.

What I hope to discuss with my students in the comping classes are the ways in which this play models community responsibility and demonstrates the necessity for learning as a life-long process. Here’s what I mean: Burning Vision brings together historical and cultural specificity. As readers (or playgoers) we encounter historic injustice from our own cultural, racial, and gendered experiences. Crucially, Burning Vision does not let us stop there. The play–which draws on fact–requires that readers engage with injustice, historic violence, and reconciliation in the present. Let me be even more direct: as a white reader this play requires me to check my privilege. It does not allow me to relegate injustice, racism, and violence to the past or to something I might want to pretend is in the past. It reminds me that my silence or my limited knowledge is a kind of complicity. It teaches readers–it teaches me–that learning history is an on going process and that teachers don’t always, or even often, stand at the front of a classroom. Burning Vision opens a space to talk about historic inequity in the present. It also opens a space to talk about learning as a collaborative practice.

Let me turn back to the third of my opening examples: what can be gained by talking about the local paper’s decision to run a photograph of a person in blackface? I’m not going to reproduce the photo here because, as El Jones made so clear on CBC this morning, turning the discussion about the racist history of blackface into a single talk about one person and one paper sidelines the bigger, more urgent conversations we need to have. If you are in a position of privilege–when that privilege is unearned (ie. whiteness, maleness, cisgenderedness)–it is your responsibility to listen. Listening is responsible engagement. Listening is learning.

Far too often ears are shut. Often, I find myself at the front of a classroom and realize that I’m not the teacher. I don’t have all the knowledge. In those situations it becomes my responsibility to make space for that knowledge to circulate.

I’ll close with an opportunity and an example of learning as a community project, as a project of building communities and of listening. Tomorrow #30daysofprisonjustice will begin. It is a collaborative teach-in happening on social media. It is being initiated by El Jones and is, as she notes, a collaborative project.

To participate in #30daysofprisionjustice use this hashtag. Please note: 

Dehumanizing language about prisoners will not be permitted (monster, evil, animal.) Respectful questioning and dialogue is encouraged in order to critique, clarify and understand. Everyone is encouraged to both teach and learn, with the recognition that personal experience, lived experience of prison/racism etc. should be respected and listened to. This list is only my list, others are encouraged to add. Teaching can take many forms as in posting videos, articles, beginning disucssions, asking each other questions, sharing stories, drawing attention to cases of injustice, etc. Grammar policing or classist/racist values of what proper discussion look like is not welcome – all are encouraged to post.

Who are your teachers? Who are mine? Who gets listened to when? Whose voices are consistently and often violently left out of conversations? This is one way that we–with all the diversity that collective pronoun might mean–can start having more of those conversations.

#alt-ac · administration · best laid plans · change · transition

My "I Quit" Letter

Sarah Kendzior and Rebecca Schuman, two of my favourite pundits on the post-academic problem, have recently agreed that the “I Quit Academia” letter has become an official THING. It’s been a thing for a long while–Kenneth Mostern‘s “What it Means to be Post-Academic” was written in 2001, and I’m sure people penned send-offs long before that–but the genre is proliferating, with Zachary Ernst‘s “Why I Jumped Off the Ivory Tower,” Kendzior‘s “The Closing of American Academia,” Alexandra Lord‘s “Location, Location, Location” (which I’ve written about before here), Schuman‘s classic “Thesis Hatement,” and Lee Skallerup Bessette‘s brand-new “Moving Forward.”

For every person who has transitioned into the world of #alt-ac and #post-ac, there’s an “I Quit” story to be told. And it seems like more and more people are willing to tell their stories, to throw up their hands and say, openly, that they’re through. It’s partially a vent, a cry to a world that still believes that professors have it oh-so-easy, that we’ve all got cushy tenured jobs with summers off and tweed jackets. And it’s partially a service: a moment to let others–people like me, people like some of you–see themselves reflected in the words of others, a chance to impart some hard-won wisdom to those who are thinking of academia with stars still in their eyes. Despite being very happily ensconced in a role I would not likely have gotten without having pursued a PhD, I wish someone had told me their story before I started. Like Lee, I’d rather have heard that, and been able to make a clear-eyed choice to still do a PhD, than been given the platitudes and untruths I was. 

So then. I quit. And here’s my story.

***

I started my PhD in Canadian Literature in 2008. After a year working in publishing after my M.A., I started coursework feeling like a bit of a dunce, like I’d forgotten how to speak academese. It took awhile to catch up, but I loved it all the same. And then we went on strike. For nearly three months, I did precisely six things. I walked in a circle in the blistering cold, I took the bus, I showered, I ate, I read, I slept. I was exhausted and depressed, and when the strike ended, so did my marriage. I finished coursework, and writing about poetry was my salvation. I started comps, and they were great–because who doesn’t love getting paid to hang out with their friends reading and talking about books all day? I mulled over my dissertation proposal for awhile, and then wrote it in a weekend. I started working on my dissertation. I published articles and reviews and encyclopedia entries. I gave conference papers. I won grants. I started a peer-reviewed academic journal, helped to run my department’s graduate students’ association, got great reviews as a teacher. From the outside, I looked like the model of a successful academic-to-be on the rise.

It’s hard to tell when exactly it was that the disillusionment crept in. It might have been realizing that the adjunct issues we fought so hard for in the strike would soon be, if I kept on this path, my issues. It might have been realizing that in a given year, there were usually about two jobs in my field. It might have been realizing that my partner’s mother, despite being a brilliant scholar, struggled to get tenure and then have her excellence recognized by her institution. It might have been recognizing that some of the professors I looked up to most were somewhere between a little and profoundly unhappy on the tenure-track. It definitely had something to do with sensing a fundamental disconnect between my desire to exercise control over where I lived and the academy’s refusal to admit that as a legitimate desire. It certainly also had something to do with the emotional maelstrom induced by my mother-in-law’s death, my partner’s grief, a major renovation, and my realization that the project I really wanted to do was impossible because of major archival restrictions. Whatever it was, it made me profoundly unhappy. Most of all, I felt very much like every word I wrote of my dissertation was a step closer to the edge of a cliff. Off the end of the cliff was a misty void, a vast nothingness–because if I finished my PhD and didn’t become a professor, as I was pretty certain I would not get to become, I would be nothing. My identity was so tied up with being an academic that contemplating not being one was something like contemplating my own death. It was terrifying and paralyzing and profoundly awful. It made me miserable and scared and edgy and sad and eventually, because of all the therapist bills, kinda broke.

That all changed on a sunny afternoon in Winnipeg. I was at the University of Manitoba on an archive trip, and I finished going through all of the boxes I needed a few hours early. One of my earliest #post-ac mentors had recommended that I read So What Are You Going to Do With That?, and I decided that I was going to park myself on a bench in the quad in the sunshine and actually take the time to read it. It was, in a word, transformational. Here was a book that was telling me that off the end of the cliff wasn’t nothingness. There was a whole world of things that I could do–things that I’d want to do, things that I’d love to do–that weren’t being an academic. They were jobs that would let me have everything I fundamentally wanted–intellectual stimulation, colleagues I liked, financial security, job stability, the ability to have a family on my own timetable, the choice of where I lived–on my own terms. I flew home feeling as though I were the one with wings.

Inevitably, all was not totally peachy thereafter. My desperate desire to stay in academe turned into fury at the system that had taught me that my self-worth lay in conforming to its standards, that those PhDs who didn’t become academics were second-class citizens, lesser, unworthy. Realizing that I was aiming beyond the tenure-track certainly removed a lot of the motivation to work on my dissertation, and I spent a lot of time figuring out why I was writing this book, a book that few would read, if not to get a job. Going was very (read painfully) slow until the archival restrictions that had stopped me from pursuing the project closest to my heart were lifted, and I started writing the book I had long wanted to, one that had (and has) intrinsic merit beyond its value on the academic job market.

And then I got lucky. At just the moment when my desire to change what was clearly a broken system was seeking an outlet, an outlet came my way. I got hired as a special research assistant in the faculty of graduate studies, researching and developing policy around graduate student professional and transferable skills development. I got to see how administration worked from the inside, talk to every single program, read the latest research on transferable skills, and find out from students what support they wanted the university to provide for preparing for #alt- and #post-ac careers as well as academic ones. In getting that job, I got luckier than I knew–because I wasn’t just researching transferable skills, I was developing them. More accurately, I was recognizing them, recognizing how all of the things that I did as an academic–writing, researching, speaking, analyzing, synthesizing, coordinating, project planning and managing–could be translated into terms that made sense in the working world.

And then I got even luckier–up came a job that required time spent in grad school (but not a PhD), a well-rounded familiarity with my university and its workings, a successful grant-writing record, experience with graduate student professional development, and all of those skills I just listed. I almost missed it. I wasn’t even looking for a job. I was planning to spend the year writing, defend, and then look for a job. But this one came up on my Facebook feed, posted by a friend, and–well, you’ve heard this part of the story. Eh, what the hell, I thought. I scrambled to put together a resume and a cover letter, sent in my application, and waited. When I got an interview, I went into overdrive and prepared like nobody’s business. I met with people who had been in this role, with others at the university with the same job title, with my old boss in the faculty who had worked closely with the person who had just vacated the job. I Googled everyone on the search committee, memorized Vanier guidelines, went shopping for the perfect interview outfit, studied power poses. I agonized over the memories of the interview for my old publishing job, in which my boss basically had to ask me to calm the hell down. But all that prep did just what I wanted it to do. It did calm me the hell down. And without desperate nerves to get in my way, I showed them who I was, and I tried to convince them of two important things: one, that I wasn’t biding my time until a tenure-track job came up, and two, that a PhD could be of real value outside of the tenure-track.

They bought it, and they gave me the job. And so, I quit. Not as completely as some–I’m still enrolled in the PhD part time, I’m finishing my dissertation because it’s a story I’m committed to telling, and I work at the same university as the one I’ve been doing my doctorate at–but I’ll never go on the tenure-track. I’ll eventually have a PhD, but I’ll never be an academic. At one time, if you had told me that, it would have broken my heart. Now, it’s just my reality. It took me a long time to believe this, but being an academic is just a job–and I have one of those, one that I love. Working in graduate administration has not gotten rid of my resentment for the way academia indoctrinates its graduate students to believe that those who go the #post-ac and #alt-ac route are second class citizens, or the way it fails to show grad students the ways in which their skills set them apart in the working world, or the way it glosses over the terrible realities of the academic job market in an effort to put on a happy face and keep enrollments up, or the way that it frames precarious labour as a necessary apprenticeship rather than as exploitation. But I’m in a far better position to actually do something about some of that where I am, than I could have where I was headed.

“I quit” isn’t the story I thought I’d be telling, back when I started my PhD. But it’s one I’m happy to be the main character of all the same.

being undone · change · enter the confessional

I am David Gilmour: a cry for help

I keep telling everyone I know, in every forum that I can find, that David Gilmour is not a literature professor. Or any kind of professor. There’s a variety of reasons why that matters, but the point that has struck me, and right in the solar plexus, is this:

I’m hardly a literary scholar at this point either, and I find I’m turning into David Gilmour.

I was hired here as a rhetoric professor specializing in new media studies and digital humanities, but of course I was trained as a literary scholar and am often called upon to teach or profess literature at the undergraduate and graduate levels. So my research in digital life writing is explicitly feminist, in dealing with writings by mommy bloggers, and my overall project interrogates the loaded distinctions between public and private, emotional and rational, domestic stories versus Men of Note. I read widely across male and female writers and critics online, am at the forefront of pushing for gender equity and inclusivity in new media studies and digital humanities organizations.

But. Literature?

It’s been 15 years since I’ve been a student of literature. I am so busy reading the entire Internet that I hardly ever read novels anymore, and what I do pick up are book I already read, books I bought during my time as a literature student. It’s kinda not my field.

Now, I’m developing an online version of our foundational literary criticism class. And all the example texts that keep suggesting themselves to me … are written by men.

Oh. Shit.

Shakespeare, e. e. cummings, the Six Romantic Poets everyone studies, T. S. Eliot, Philip Larkin. Sweet merciful Leavis, I am the problem.

I love the texts I’m using already, because they really do the work I want. But I need a lot more texts. By people of color, by women, by anglophone writers outside of Britain and the US. The textbook I’m using, Ways of Reading, actually does a pretty good job of showing the variety of literatures and Englishes. But I keep falling back on the stuff I can readily call to mind, from a literary education that hit its peak in 1996-97, the end of my BA, before I turned more into a digital scholar.

Unlike David Gilmour, who as a pet writer at U of T can teach whatever he likes off the top of his head, I am a literary professional. The standards of inclusion and being in tune with the discipline are higher for me, as they should be. I am not on top of emerging inclusive canons of short story writers, poets, or novellists. It’s not my field, and I can assure I’m working my damnedest to be 100% at the front of the line for a more equitable sub-discipline where I actually do most of my work.

So I’m asking for help.

I’ve got more than enough living and dead British and American white guys on the roster. Can you suggest to me any poems, stories, novels by other kinds of writers that you love, or love to teach? I want to be as wide-ranging as I can be. Whatever you suggest, I can assure you I’ve got the critical tools at my disposal to do them justice in my teaching. It’s just that the imaginative cupboard is awfully bare, and I just can’t conquer all of literature on my own right now. So maybe your suggestions can be my bedtime reading as well.

I throw myself on your mercy, Internet. I’m not as widely read as this course requires me to be. If you suggest it, I will read it.

Halp!

change · emotional labour · risky writing

Ch-ch-ch-changes: Contract to Contract

I am moving.

More precisely, I am moving from Dalhousie University where I have been a contract employee for four years. On July 1 I will take up a 12-month contract position as an Assistant Professor in the English Department at Mount Allison University in beautiful Sackville, New Brunswick. 

I am thrilled about the move, thrilled about working in this new department, and beyond thrilled to make my new home in the centre of the universe (The Black Duck! Sappy Fest! Struts!) I am truly excited about the possibilities that await me there. For example, in terms of teaching responsibilities for the first time in the five years since completing my degree I will be teaching less than 200 students in a term (indeed, in the whole year). In terms of my personal and social life there is more happening in Sackville than almost any other place I have visited. And in terms of my research I am hoping that the additional time, the presence of such a rich intellectual and artistic community, and the smaller professor-to-student ratios will allow me to finish the two manuscripts that I have under contract as well.

At the same time, it feels risky to leave a place that I have lived, worked, and developed communities in for four of the last five years. I am not leaving for a tenure track job, if I was my decision to leave Dalhousie would have been far less emotionally challenging.

The other piece that feels risky is writing about my shift from one contract to another, from one university to another. Yet, I’m emboldened by two things. First, since beginning to write for Hook and Eye I have tried to talk frankly and publicly about my own experiences as a precarious worker. Second, the job I’ve been hired for is Canadian literature and gender and literature. As Heather has written, we need to continue talking about work and women. So here I am telling you: I’m excited about my new contract, my new colleagues, my new home, and all the incredible benefits to my personal life as well as my professional life. And here I am telling you that I am sad that the conditions in the academy are such that the kind of leave taking I’ve just experienced are more than common.

That’s the thing about contract work, though: in addition to the constant scramble for employment, you also have to think about those things that fuel your ability to work. In other words, you have to think about balance and those things that help you breathe.

So here’s to change. Sackville, I’m yours.