chaos · classrooms · collaboration · grad school · ideas for change · pedagogy · skills development · Uncategorized

the Do-It-Yourself grad class

I’m trying something a little different with my grad class this year. We have a really big cohort and we’ve bumped our course caps up to 15 and that’s what I have and it’s a lot. A lot of grading and name-remembering, maybe, but also–what an opportunity!–a lot of brain power in the room.

I’m trying to turn big enrolment into a feature, not a bug. I’m experimented with, if you will, a kind of parallel processing or distributed cognition at the very foundation of the course, right up to the top.

I’m making the students do the bulk of the work–designing the syllabus, choosing the readings, teaching–and pedagogically, I think it’s the right thing to do.

Here’s what I’m trying. The course is on selfies, which is the book I’m deep in writing right now. So I know the crap out of all of this. I could teach this in my sleep–but I don’t want to teach in my sleep. Instead, I am making the students create the course as we go. They’re not experts on this material, and this is the best way I can think of to make them so. On the first day I made some handouts with different options on it, and had them discuss and debate, in pairs, then fours, the half the room, then all together until we had reached a consensus on whether we would run the course like a survey, or as case studies–we had to really think it through, not just what, but why. They decided case studies and then we had to debate to consensus on which three of five possible cases we wanted to focus on. My job then was to create a frame for the rest of the semester, to distribute the work and attention.

The next two weeks were foundations in theory and method, ideas that are going to be our North Star for the rest of the term, where I assigned the material and organized the classes. I also created five groups, and for each case study (lasting either two or three weeks of class) assigned groups to specific tasks related to the very methodologies I use to produce these cases in my research: finding and sharing context from secondary literature, intensive browsing across possible primary texts, picking representative or exemplary texts for analysis, producing a persuasive interpretation / argument, and linking the case to the broader work of the course. Starting next week, it’s the students who are going to have to figure out what we’re going to read, what theory is going to be relevant, which hashtags or instagram accounts are most useful to consider, what it all means. Already they’re asking great questions: who are the major theorists of art photography? Or, I know how to find primary materials for fine art photography, but how do I find and decide what vernacular photography to use? Yeah, those are basic research questions. I already know the answers but the goal of the course is not really for me to perform my own scholarly excellence–it’s for students to develop their own skills and excellence.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what grad students need from their courses. I think they need a lot more skills training, in the basic skills of the degree and the profession. I did a bit last night on how to read like a researcher, and how to create a lesson plan. Someone came up to me afterwards to tell me, excitedly, how that was most important bit about class. I’m teaching them how to start from literally nothing: “this is a course about selfies, and we are grounding in auto/biography studies, surface reading, new media studies, and photography studies” and figure out how to say something valuable and humane about why some images get banned from Facebook and some don’t. This is a skill that PhD students really need if they’re going to write dissertations. This is a skill that MA students need if they want to join a professional workforce and move beyond the entry level. Self-efficacy develops when we are presented with malformed problems and have to figure out how to bring some order to that chaos. They’re learning about how to find the important works on a topic they start off with very little knowledge on. They’re learning how to read a ton of primary material fast, looking for patterns. They’re learning how to link these patterns to broader cultural and theoretical contexts. And they’re learning how to frame all that work to be useful to all of us in a classroom setting.

I expect I’m going to have a LOT of meetings with students about this. That’s exciting: working one on one, or group on one, with students who have urgent and concrete scholarly problems they’re trying to solve, that have real stakes.

So far, I’m loving the results. Next week is when the plan fully launches. It might be a little bumpy until we all figure it out, but I am really looking forward to seeing how we all grow.

collaboration · community · feminist communities · grief · guest post

Guest Post: Why my feminist teenage daughter should not despair on the mornings after 8 November 2016.

This is a first in a series of posts about concrete actions we can post-US election take as feminists working in the Canadian academy. We need intersectional and intergenerational feminism now more than ever. 
_________________________________
 
My daughter turned 15 about a week ago, and she is a feminist. I love my daughter just for being, and I love her for many reasons, and I also love her for her integrity and her passion and her bravery.  My daughter’s world, High School, is largely closed to me much like her room. When the doors to that world open slightly, I get a whiff of the misogyny, racism, ableism, homophobia, ageism, and every other conceivable exclusionary sentiment that reeks in that hot bed and that structures the lives of teenagers in the western world today.  Into that world, my daughter walks every day and proudly declares herself a feminist. She wrote articles to the school paper on sexual harassment, sexism and violence against women. She joined a group advocating for the rights of LGBTQ people on campus. She joined an environmental club. She gets into regular confrontations with “racists” and “xenophobes” and refuses to allow them a free pass, ever. On weekends she volunteers with the public library youth advisory group and with Amnesty International. She is an advocate for social justice. Politically and socially, she is every progressive parent’s dream child.
When America entered this election cycle and my daughter took notice, she identified strongly and predictably as a Bernie supporter. She knew the figures and the positions, downloaded every John Oliver clip on the elections, pulled out a few hairs every time she saw or heard Donald Trump. But with a wisdom, or perhaps cynicism, beyond her years, she reflected on the irony of wishing for the loss of the first credible female nominee in the democratic presidential primary.  When Bernie lost the democratic nomination to Hillary, she was devastated. Then she did some soul searching and came out strongly in support of Hillary Clinton. She bought her autobiography. She became more and more frightened of Trump and of his America. But it was his misogyny, more than anything else he represented, that repelled her. She believed that Hillary must win.
Last night, like millions the world over, she went to bed defeated, broken, incredibly sad. In the coming days, my daughter will be forced to confront the aftermath and navigate her way through this historic slap in the face America has delivered. I can already taste her outrage: how could women, blacks, Hispanics, Muslims vote for Trump? But women especially—how could they?
I steel myself to field her questions and help her walk her way through the oncoming piles of discursive crap, with her passion and her commitment and her feminism intact. How do I acknowledge not only her outrage but more importantly her heartbreak? She is not only angry, she is hurt, betrayed by fellow humans and fellow women she trusted would know better, would choose differently. For she imagined her community: a community of well-informed even if not progressive voters, of committed even if not politicized women.
There is no doubt that the election results are frightening. Support for Donald Trump reflects an America that is comfortable with intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and other exclusionary phenomena. It also reflects an affinity for a brash irresponsible populism that is deeply worrying in the leadership of the most powerful country on earth. Hillary Clinton’s political history is troubling as well: ruthless and hawkish internationally, elitist and opportunistic nationally. Her career is sustained by incriminating ties to the military industrial complex  driving international conflict, and the banking and finance sectors and multinationals fueling rising inequality at home. But at the level of discourse, she presented a vision of America that was more conciliatory, less abrasive, discursively (if not economically or politically) more inclusive. There is value in that. And yes, it would have been a significant achievement for the United States to finally catch up with the many countries all over the world from India and Sri Lanka to Chile and Brazil who have known female leaders for decades now. For many girls and women in the US today, the disappointment must be crushing. In her concession speech, Clinton proved again that she could be articulate, wise, graceful and generous. Adjectives one would hardly extend to the president-elect.
Much will be said in the coming days about the need to reflect on the shortcomings of what stands—only in America perhaps—as the left, or more accurately the center right represented by Hillary Clinton’s democrats, and on the need to listen to the silenced majority in rural areas and non-coastal states. Experts will pontificate on Trump’s instinctual control of and affinity for the dynamics of reality television, and of the increasing tilt in American politics towards populism. As in the shocked and humbled voices that rose after Brexit, some will call for a deeper understanding of the roots of anger against a political system dominated by elites.
But what about the women of America? And what about feminism in America? Overall Clinton won among women by a margin of 54% to Trump’s 42%, a respectable margin but not exactly impressive. Among white women, however, Trump beat Clinton by 53% to 43%, and among white women with no college degree by 62% to 34%. Why did the white women of America not only reject one of their own, but give their votes to a man who openly and proudly denigrates women in almost all spheres of life?
Many commentators are thrown by the fact that Trump’s overt sexism did not repel women voters. Many women, many feminists, are today outraged, dumbfounded, unmoored, despairing. The results are mad, crazy, incomprehensible. I heard all three words over and over from friends as the results started coming in late last night. The words also dominated Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. The words dominate my daughter’s world today as she struggles to lift her head up and find her voice. I hope that the voice she finds in this cacophony of hurt indignation is not that of the enraged despairing feminist, but of the committed curious one.
The charge of madness is silencing and dehumanizing, and, as women especially have known for centuries, it is a handy patriarchal charge. The political act of those who voted for Donald Trump, but especially the political act of the women who chose Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, cannot be dismissed as mad or incomprehensible. If we find it so, it is because we are unable to comprehend, wedo not have the knowledge or the tools to read that act and recognize its context. It is because we, the ones whose feminism is fixated on breaking glass ceilings in Washington may well be unaware of who walks the grounds of the cities and towns beyond Washington’s radius, and the conditions that structure the reality and the imagination of those women who rejected Hillary Clinton.
And ultimately, it is because as feminists, some of us are unable or unwilling to concede that different women in different places and in different times have the right to comprehend their own reality and prioritize their own goals differently. It is because as feminists, some of us are still unwilling to accord respect to women who may code their struggles for justice in language other than that of educated middle class feminists. Women who may see their struggles against racism or neoliberalism or imperialism, for example, as constitutional of their feminism, but not to be subordinated in its name. Women who have the right and the awareness to strategize their engagement with the political spheres of their communities and country.
Many feel today that Hillary Clinton lost the election because she is a woman. We could note, and take comfort even, that 80% of black men voted for Hillary. 62% of Latino men voted for Hillary. I am not sure of the numbers but I would guess that the majority of Muslim men in the US also voted for Hillary. While gender may have certainly been a factor, for us to insist that Hillary lost because she is a woman is to reinstate a worldview bleached of race and possibly class as well. Only in a posited non-racial world would we discount the votes of the majority of non-white men and women in the US who voted for a woman. If we only see that Hillary lost because she is a woman, then we do not see those who voted for her regardless of her gender or because of it, and more importantly, we do not hear their voices, we do not consider their political act, we do not give credence to their fears.
I do not necessarily know what reasons the majority of white women who voted for Trump have for doing so. But I extend them the respect to recognize that they must have their reasons and that those reasons are varied. And those reasons may ultimately turn out to be regressive, or at the very least unsavory, even plain wrong. Perhaps. I do not know. And if I want to know, I should go find out. I hope my daughter tries to find out. Despair follows from incomprehension. We despair when we no longer know what is to be done, when every effort has been spent and yet no enlightenment has been reached, no change is forthcoming. We have not yet spent every effort to understand. In some cases we may not have even begun. This is not the day to despair. I hope that today of all days my daughter is filled not with a desire to drown out the madness of the crowds but the drive and determination to ask questions and listen and learn. For women, a lot of women, in the US, have spoken. As feminists, we need to listen.

 

Maisaa Youssef has a PhD from the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta. She works in international development and her research is in the areas of biopolitics and social justice.

collaboration · free time · grad school · phdchat · self care

Structure for Structureless Schedules

As many of you know, grad school can be frustratingly amorphous. Contra most of my cobloggers, it seems, my schedule isn’t jam-packed, and I have few daily structural commitments–though many responsibilities, some of them paralyzingly huge. While some people thrive without a pre-ordained schedule, I’m someone who needs it: I dwell more comfortably within the parameters of appointments, responsibilities, deadlines, and course slots. So as we enter into a new year and a new term, I thought I’d share a few tips I’ve developed for a) carving out my own structure; b) allowing myself some flexibility and compassion within this structure; and c) caring for myself as a human being who requires community and a life outside academia.

1. Maintaining a dissertation completion schedule: years ago, my supervisor made me create a schedule for writing my entire dissertation. From its home in GoogleDocs, that document has been repeatedly revised and updated, but since the diss is the most gargantuan yet nebulous component of the entire graduate experience, it’s nice to have a skeleton framework for the whole–and a reminder that it someday will end. 

2. Keeping a daily research journal: “Daily” is a bit of an exaggeration, let’s be honest, but when I do keep up with sketching out my accomplishments, however big or small, at the end of each day, it makes me feel like I’m moving forward. I prefer a physical journal, because it allows flexibility for doodling, noting down useful references, or writing out a research phrase that I want to keep at the forefront of my mind as I work. Or, er, screaming silently at myself. 

You could also choose to keep a running list of accomplishments and breaks throughout the day, as featured in this inspiring IG by @empathywarrior:

3. Keeping an agenda: Again, I like keeping a physical one, because I enjoy any chance not to look at a screen, but here I write down appointments, deadlines, and sketch out broad weekly goals. Week-at-a-glance type stuff.  

4. Creating an online boot camp:  Over the summer, I coordinated a collaborative online “Dissertation Boot Camp,” based on the Spring Break Dissertation Boot Camp my colleague Christy Pottroff blogged about here. We opted for a shared Google Doc, and the idea was to set macro-goals for the summer and the week and micro-goals for the day, posting and celebrating our accomplishments as we went along. The instructions recommended maintaining constant communication, and acting as cheerleaders for one another, developing healthy online accountability. While I found the exercise valuable overall, I’d have to say that it perhaps worked better as a Spring Break rather than an Entire Summer thing: out of nine of us, by end of August only….a few were still actively posting, and the document also became very long and unwieldy, extending to over 50 pages, making it difficult for us to keep up with one another’s progress. But I’m sure improvements in format/medium could be made, and I would certainly try this again.  

5. Creating an online hangout camp: Branching off of Boot Camp, fellow H&E-er Jana and I now use Wikispaces to keep an online goal-setter, where we update each other on a weekly or biweekly basis on intentions and progress. We have a longstanding rapport, so we can be perfectly comfortable with each other; generally, we tend to mix personal and professional, blabbing about our personal lives and venting about other challenges we’re facing even as we’re trying to crank out that chapter draft. 

Other possibilities for this point include: forming small Twitter groups who check in with each other spontaneously to see who is around and up for working for short sprints, Pomodoro-style (I was part of one such group for awhile, I think we sort of dissolved…); creating a secret or invite-only group Facebook page for people who want to track each other’s progress (ditto the last parentheses…). 

5. Finally, I highly recommend the good ol’ fashioned personal diary. Not as explicitly about goal-setting, I guess, but one of my major problems is distraction: I’m reading a book on Peter of Cornwall, but thinking about a particularly upsetting episode of Transparent, or a disagreement I had earlier with my friend. My diary helps me compartmentalize (much as I enjoy the intermixing of work/life stuff, as above), and to channel some of my daily interpersonal drama into a safe, private, nonjudgmental space. Occasionally work stuff creeps into my journal, of course, such as goals or reflections, but its primary purpose is the nonacademic, the things I can’t voice in my many other outlets of professional expression. Additionally, I think keeping a diary has helped me become a more fluid, expressive writer.

As you can tell, I’m a little goal-obsessed oriented. If I go through periods when I’m not listing, that probably corresponds with reduced mental health: I’m feeling unmoored and directionless, perhaps having trouble getting out of bed in the morning.

And how about you, dear readers? Any further tips you have for setting and maintaining goals?

Aaaand now I can go record in my research journal that I finished drafting up some thoughts and ideas for my next Hook & Eye post, five days early!

Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.

-from Joan Didion, “On Keeping a Notebook”
advice · chaos · collaboration · community · good attitudes about crappy possibilities · grad school · job market · PhD

Surviving the Job Market

I’ve been a bad blogger recently. I’ve missed a Tuesday or two, and I’m generally the blogger posting to our Facebook page but I’ve been inconsistent with that, too. Thankfully for my inadequacies, my cobloggers are patient and forgiving, and H&E has been blessed with a rich assortment of guest posts lately, from dealing with the death of one’s mother as a professor to formulating a “critical theory of breast cancer” to communing with the spirits of one’s literary mothers. I’m grateful for the women who volunteer to share their stories in the public space of the internet, still and always a risky and scary venture. From my outpost in the land of guns and Trumps and confederate flags, I continue to value this warm, badass, brilliant academic community based in the land that has been so formative for my identity (the Canadian jokes amongst friends persist, even after over five years of American residency). We’ve been talking a lot lately about making visible the many tacit modes of emotional labour that underpin our responsibilities as professionals, and in some ways this entire blog is an exercise in emotional labour, a means of bringing to the surface the injustices, the frustrations, the inspirations, the fraught sartorial choices that constitute and define our lives as academics.

This year, I’m on the job market for the first time (not deluding myself into thinking it will be the last). In some ways I am coping better than expected, and in other ways I’m coping worse–I find myself avoiding campus and shunning society a little bit more than I’m comfortable admitting, because it’s sometimes hard to face questions from academic peers regarding how the whole process is going. I am paranoid about almost everything I put on the Internet dot com (as my friend calls it): will my academia.edu or Chronicle Vitae profiles prove liabilities if I don’t ensure they’re constantly updated and consistent across all my other application materials? If I tweet something silly or overly personal, will that happen at the same moment a job committee is checking out my “professional” Twitter account? Will this post jeopardize me in some way, somehow?

In spite of these fears, I thought I’d open up a conversation about how I’m surviving this harrowing season, and I would love other seeds of advice in the comments. How are you surviving the job market, dear readers? Let’s fight against the tendency to be competitive and silent and paranoid about the process, and help each other through the process, to the limited extent that we can.

Here’s how I’ve been surviving: 

1. Seeking advice from those who have gone through the process. Perhaps an obvious point, but your department should have resources for this. My department’s Job Market Handbook has been an indispensable resource that breaks down each of the steps and materials involved in the application process. If your department doesn’t have something like this, as well as a professor charged with going through your materials, shoot someone an email asking why not! In the meantime, this roundup of advice from JM survivors which was posted on the medieval blog In the Middle a couple years ago is still immensely relevant and useful. Most of you probably know about the resources and columns provided by The Professor is In, and Vitae (part of The Chronicle of Higher Education but specifically geared toward emerging academics), publishes a number of useful advice columns every week, such as this with general advice, this on whether one should mention babies in app letters, and this on navigating the #alt-ac path. There’s a lot out there, and I don’t pay attention to all of it, and I don’t agree with all of it, and some of it I actively shun. Just as important as seeking advice from those who have weathered the process, of course, is knowing when not to expose oneself to the resources available, because they can prove overwhelming, inconsistent, and/or disheartening.

2. Fighting against the temptation not to talk about it. Something as consequential as going on the academic job market after 7+ years of graduate education is difficult, in many ways, to talk about. It’s difficult because it’s so personal, because the journey is fraught with disappointments, because conversations with other academics in similar situations can sometimes feel inherently competitive, as though you’re both constantly comparing each other’s suitability. This is not always the case, and while it’s important to identify people whose attitudes make you feel small or under constant scrutiny, it is also important to trust that most of us genuinely want others to succeed, too. I treasure the commiserative conversations I have with my comrades who are also facing the deep dark chasm of the market, and have found that opening up and chatting about frustrations along the way, even when we’re applying for the same jobs (“did you see that one guy’s faculty profile?? What was up with that poorly worded application?”) can prove therapeutic.

3. Fighting against the temptation to talk about it all the time. Yeahhhh, you also don’t want to be that person. That person who is so subsumed in the process that he/she can’t talk/tweet/status about anything else, and is constantly steamrolling conversations with the minutia of application problems (which are legion). There are going to be frustrations and sometimes the best strategy is to just laugh at them silently, or slap a good ol’ ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ onto the situation. Because the process is ridiculous, and often dehumanizing, and most of this is out of your control.

4. Learning to compartmentalize: I work out demanding but mostly realistic plans for each day, and I’ve discovered that committing myself to those goals means that I do not always have to respond to an email or message the second it arrives on my phone or in my inbox. This is a problem that we didn’t face as seriously 10 or 15 years ago: now that we can, with the touch of a few buttons on our smartphones, effectively insert ourselves into the cognitive space of anyone we want at any given moment, we as a society seem to have acquired new purchase over other people’s availability. And as women, we have the tendency to accommodate, to set aside our immediate problems and offer assistance to those who reach out to us. This is true on a personal level, but also a professional level: as Myra Green describes in a Chronicle article, female professors are approached more often than male professors for “confidential” conversations that largely deal with personal and emotional problems. Against my accommodating, social, and nurturing nature, I’ve been practicing prioritizing my own work and problems sometimes by saying “I’m dealing with a few issues at the moment, can I get back to you later?” (and then being sure to follow up later, of course). Schedule time to be with others, and cultivate relationships, but don’t feel you need to be available to other people all the time.

5. Learning not to compartmentalize my time (ok, now I might just be aiming for rhetorical effect with these list titles).  I have a handful of friends upon whom I rely quite heavily for emotional support, sometimes on a rather continual, running basis throughout the day through group iMessage threads. I like to think of these covert channels of communication as what Aimee has called “whisper networks,” characterized by sometimes gossipy, almost carnivalesque repartee combined with honestspeak regarding the difficulties we face on a quotidian basis. Having these outlets reminds me, further to #3 above, not to become wholly consumed in my own problems (even as they also offer me a safe space to express them). I recognize that this point pertains mostly to my own experience and might not be available to everyone, and this may just be a fancy academic way to characterize Having Friends and Being Able to Talk to Them. But I do think digital technology has allowed us to generate multiple, expanded networks of communication and commiseration, and perhaps if you’re feeling alone in your plight for whatever reason, you can touch base with a few friendly faces on Twitter who might be going through similar things. Twitter is great for this! 

6. Practicing the art of self-dating. Or, er, thinking about doing this more intentionally, to be more accurate. So far going on self-dates, for me, has been as simple as going for a solo walk along the river on a crisp autumn day, or “staying in tonight” and watching Difficult People on Hulu (sorry, Canada). I have aspirations to take a real self-date soon: going to a movie or the theatre by myself, or going vintage shopping. Dating oneself, rather than relying on others to fill out your schedule and your overall sense of self, can be a powerful notion.

7. Observing the whole process with compassion. I keep telling myself, “I am doing what I can in this present moment and in my present state as a scholar,” and sometimes that means, for instance, accidentally submitting the wrong version of a dissertation abstract that includes language duplicated across my application letter. As my veritable saint of a job placement professor, Vlasta Vranjes, expressed to me in a recent email, “it’s impossible not to fall into the trap of thinking that any little mistake will cost one a job–or, conversely, that one will get a job if one does everything perfectly.” On this point I will return to Amanda Walling’s comments in the In the Middle advice-post I linked to earlier: “It is not a meritocracy, or a referendum on your work as a scholar, and ‘fit’ is not code for that. It’s a bunch of flawed people making compromises with each other and with their administrators, and sometimes where you fit into that is just blind luck.”

I hope it helps to hear some of these things said out loud, and I welcome further comments, commiserative anecdotes, or advice.

#WhosFirst · collaboration · feminist digital humanities

#WhosFirst, or; why data matters

Can you describe the Facebook friend request icon? Try to call it to mind without immediately reaching for your phone. Can you do it? 

I couldn’t. So, earlier this week when the new “feminist revision” of the Facebook icon was making the rounds on social media I had to look to see what the heck was being referenced before I could even join the conversation about what these new feminist revisions were all about.
Here’s what the original icon looked like:
Does anything strike you about this image? 
Facebook employee Caitlin Winner noticed that there was a subtle gendered bias in this ubiquitous image: the female icon is smaller and in the shadow of the male icon. “She couldn’t lean in,” wrote Winner in her play-by-play account of how she updated the image. Rather than leave the gender bias in place Winner worked to carefully shift the icon to more equitably represent heteronormative gender representation:

 Good news, right? The Ms. Magazine blog certainly thought so; last Friday they covered the icon shift in a short piece entitled “We Heart: Facebook’s New Feminist Icon.” But is this new icon really feminist? I’m not so sure.

Whatever set of definitions you adhere to I’d wager that the common denominator in discerning whether a given action is feminist entails a combination of intent and consistent commitment. One cannot be a feminist some of the time, for example. Systemic inequity is pernicious and requires vigilant and sustained attention, right? So in the case of this Facebook icon, is it a feminist change if only women and women-identified Facebook users see the new updated image? I kinda don’t think so.

Feminist digital humanist Jaqueline Wernimont and her colleague @JenProf started wondering if in fact the new woman-in-front icon was visible for everyone. Guess what? It turns out it isn’t. The two put together a short and sweet survey called #WhosFirst that asks how people identify themselves to Facebook–ie. how do they gender identify when signing up– and asks what their friend-request icon looked like.

You can find the full survey — and participate! — on Jaqueline Wernimont’s blog here

The results are telling. As of July 12th a full 33% of respondents see the old man-in-front icon.

So what does this mean? Technically speaking, the new “feminist Facebook icon” in fact appears to be both device dependant and gender dependent. In other words, the shift is not universal, nor is it universally visible. It matters if you are on your personal computer or device versus a public computer at, say, the library or a school. It also matters what kind of information you’ve given to Facebook. Take a look at what I see on my Facebook page; this is a screen shot from my personal computer taken today:

Here’s the thing: systemic inequities are sustained in part through pernicious repetition, which normalizes them. Inequity is difficult to remedy because it requires consistent and tireless vigilance. It requires being the feminist killjoy at the table who says ‘sure, that’s great, but…’ when a job is only partly accomplished. A survey such as #WhosFirst picks up where the image shift left off. By gathering data from participants the survey starts to add critical information that allows us to think more carefully about how gender inequity, not to mention heteronormativity, is represented and how it is reinforced. Further, building a survey, gathering data, and translating that data into a comprehensible, publicly ingestible narrative is hard work. It is feminist labour. Indeed, it is feminist labour that in this case is giving more critical depth to an action that has been uncritically lauded as feminist.

And that’s the thing, isn’t it? We can’t just hit ‘like’ and move on. That’s not how social justice works, not in embodied life; not on the internet. Instead, we need to remain vigilant. We need to ask the follow-up questions. We need to collaborate and help each other do the small and big jobs of unearthing and presenting the text and the context. And we need to keep issues of inequity at the forefront of our research as well as our social media chatter and our daily lived experiences. That’s the work of feminism. That’s living a feminist life.

You can participate in the survey here and engage in conversations on Twitter using the hashtag #WhosFirst.

collaboration · gradgrind · PhD · productivity · social media

Ideas for the Break: Online Dissertation Boot Camp

Today, my brilliant Americanist colleague Christy Pottroff has graciously agreed to let me repost her piece (originally posted on the Fordham Graduate Digital Humanities Group blog) describing her experience with the online, collective dissertation writing group we formed over our Spring Break in March (I called it “Spring Break Dissertation Boot Camp,” but there was very little booting, only cheering). I know the semester is winding down for many folks in the great white north, and you should all, first and foremost, take an actual break after the hard work of the academic year–but once you’re ready to move back into working mode, consider forming an online writing group! I was very pleased with the way this Facebook post blossomed into a productive, collaborative community of motivated women hailing from various universities across the continent. Three H&E-ers–myself, Melissa, and Jana–took part in the group, so it seems only appropriate that it should be discussed here. Without further ado, here’s Christy:

___________________

For me, there’s nothing more appealing than an open week in my calendar. That blank iCal space means no lesson planning or grading for my Texts & Contexts course. I don’t have to ride the D-train to the Bronx for a meeting or lecture. It’s a week of sartorial freedom: basketball shorts over khakis, t-shirts over blazers. Most importantly, a break from my weekly routine means I can settle into my home workstation and immerse myself in late eighteenth century seduction fiction—as it relates to my dissertation, of course. As an advanced doctoral student, my expectations for this past spring break were writing-intensive. I had no travel plans and only a handful of social events for the week. I carved out this precious time to write and revise sections of my dissertation.

An open week—like a blank page—can be intimidating. The possibilities seem endless and dizzying. A few weeks ago, I found myself wondering: could I write fifteen pages on epistolary novels for my dissertation group? Would I be able to read Margaretta and The Hapless Orphan during the break? Is an annotated bibliography the best use of my time? Should I start writing that book review? Wait! How is this a “break,” exactly? Will I ever finish House of Cards?

A few days before the break, Fordham medievalist extraordinaire [*blush*], Boyda Johnstone, had a stroke of brilliance. Boyda organized a week-long online dissertation writing group for graduate students at Fordham and beyond. The purpose of the online dissertation group was simple: we wouldn’t critique one another’s writing; rather, we would focus on accountability in the writing process. Each group member was asked to set daily and cumulative goals for the week, then members would report on their daily and weekly progress. These goals were public, specific, and realistic (i.e. read and summarize 3 articles on notecards; write for 1.5 hours in the morning; notes toward response paper for Hapless Orphan). Throughout the week, we gave each other advice on the writing process, suggestions for professional development, and general motivation for the hard task of writing. In effect, each individual group member spent the week consciously and publicly organizing her time; as a community, we held one another accountable and supported one another.

The tool that facilitated our online writing group was a simple one. Boyda created a shared Google Doc with a template for each group member’s goals. Here’s our group’s template:

Within this template, our goals were specific, but informal. We used the comment function to engage with each other’s goals. The encouragement was consistent and inspiring. This kind of structured online engagement made me not only more purposeful in my use of time, but I also felt accountable in reporting back my accomplishments.

At the end of each day, I would set the next day’s goals. When I woke up in the morning, I put on my basketball shorts, fed my cat, drank my coffee, and had a clear plan of action for the rest of the day. I was purposeful and supported.

Even though I spent most of the week in academic solitude, I never felt alone. The group happened to be populated by eight graduate student women. Seeing other avatars in our shared Google Doc made me feel like part of a productive and collaborative community of academic women. We were from Fordham University, NYU, University of Alberta, and York University. Despite our geographical and institutional distance, I received daily encouragement from this community and I felt accountable to them. What is more, I encountered writing and research practices and professional development activities beyond the norms at Fordham thanks to the group’s institutional range. Even though our group never met face-to-face (and I don’t know what some of them look like at all), my online engagement with this community heightened my productivity throughout what would have otherwise been a very solitary week. While I certainly wouldn’t advocate for an all-digital academic community, this was a positive and productive experience enabled by a simple digital tool.

Time is the most precious commodity in graduate school. Time management is a difficult skill to learn—but it’s not something you need to learn alone. The next time you feel disoriented by an open calendar, take to the internet! Create an online group of like-minded friends. Make specific public goals for how you’ll use your time and hold one another accountable.

___
Christy Pottroff is a PhD Candidate in English at Fordham University in New York City where she specializes in nineteenth-century American literature, queer and feminist theory, and rural studies. Thank you, Christy!

collaboration · DIY · faster feminism · feminist win

Faster Feminism Spotlight: Talking to GUTS Canadian Feminist Magazine Co-Founder Cynthia Spring

Have you had the pleasure of discovering what, in my humble opinion, is currently Canada’s best feminist magazine? Yes, friends, I am talking about GUTS: A Canadian Feminist Magazine, which lives online and was started by two women in Edmonton, Alberta. (Yes, Edmonton, recently voted the worst city to live in if you are a woman. It is also a city in which women fight back using creative and effective tactics.) 

I first discovered GUTS when Cynthia posted the first issue on social media. I was thrilled. What was this new, sharp, sassy, and unapologetic periodical? How did the founders and writers–many of whom I had the pleasure of knowing when they were students in Halifax–find the time, energy, and creative and financial resources to get the thing going? How do they keep publishing cutting edge conversations, issue after issue? 



I decided that rather than speculate alone (whilst feeling pleasantly envious that I hadn’t come up with the idea myself, to be honest) I would contact co-founder Cynthia Spring and see if she’d be willing to talk with me. Lucky for us, she was. Here is how our conversation has started to unfold:

Erin: Tell our readers a bit about yourselfwhat is your field of study? When did you first encounter feminism? When did you first self-identify as a feminist?

Cynthia: I studied literature during my MA, and while feminist theory and practice wasnt a major focus in my research, many of the seminars I took touched on gender and queer theory, sexual politics, and feminist histories. In my own academic writing, I was drawn to literature that focused on girls and womens and mothers interior and domestic lives, not just those stories that were so accessible and familiar, but the ones that could capture the mutability of the self, the instability of gender, the gap between how women are supposed to be (i.e., caring, beautiful, good, generous, happy, etc.) and how they sometimes really feel (underappreciated, overworked, unhappy, ugly, etc.).

It wasnt until I participated in a Marxist feminist reading group in the summer of 2012, however, that I really started to think about how this ideal of womanhood and motherhoodmanifested in our contemporary society as the woman who has it all in terms of her career, her family, her economic independence, and her social lifewas so important to our economy, to neoliberal capitalism. When we aspire to the myth of the good woman, we actually help to conceal all the intersecting forms of injustices and oppression that women, trans, and queer people continue to face every day, and whos exploitation underlies the foundations of other peoples success both in the workforce and at home. This changed a lot for me. Although Ive identified as a feminist since my older sister first taught me to play Ani Difrancos Both Hands on the guitar, my understanding of this identity became so much more complicated when we started talking about how expansive and messy feminism really is.  


Erin: How did you get involved with GUTS?

Cynthia: My co-founder, Nadine Adelaar and I were talking about starting a magazine pretty much as soon as we finished our MAs in Edmonton. We wanted to keep thinking about some of the feminist ideas and writing we had encountered in school and elsewhere, but we wanted to do so in a more accessible, creative, and effective way. For us, feminism is about pointing out the everyday injustices folks experience and talking about ways to change those oppressive and alienating social relations we are so accustomed to. The work that we were producing in the academy didnt always leave room for ideas that are informed by personal experiences, and we were inspired by feminists who were talking about theory in the context of real political struggles. All that said, weve never wanted to do away with the theory and ideas that come out of the academy. We want to hold theory and practice together, and I guess thats part of our ongoing project.

Erin: How did GUTS move from idea to actuality?

Cynthia: During the winter after we finished our MAs, Nadine and I were both looking for full time work and had some time on our hands. So we decided to go for it. We started learning how to build a website, which took a number of months for us to do without any web development experience (Nadine took to this much more quickly and creatively than I did, and is now actually a web master!). We spoke with writers who were trying to get their work published. We had Jonathan Dyck, our art guy, make a logo. We had a pre-launch party with Edmonton art collective Lart. And then we did a call for submissions. The first issue featured writers and academics we already knew, people who wanted to share their experience or their ideas and were willing to do so without compensation. We decided to keep the content online and free for everyone to access, we worked on it during our spare time once we got jobs, and we were able to start producing a magazine without any financial support.

Erin: What are some of the challenges the editors of GUTS face?

Cynthia: I think our biggest,  most persistent challenge is that while we want to invest the time and energy that is necessary to broaden our publishing program, expand our audience, and improve our community engagement, we are quite limited because we have to divide our time between GUTS and our real paying jobs.

Erin: How do you balance academic work and the work of running an online feminist publication?

Cynthia: The short answer: I quit the academy! But I do still work full time in production at a small academic publisher, so there is a lot of work to balance. Involving more people who want to help with editing and promoting the magazine has made it possible for us to share our workloads while increasing the amount of content we can publish on the site. Having more people editing and acquiring content also means that we have more ideas circulating and more opportunities to work with new writers and artists, and thats really motivating.

Erin: We speak a lot on this blog of the tensions between vocation and remunerationdoing the work because you believe in it, and trying to keep afloat. How does GUTS function? How do you manage innovation and avoid burnout?

Cynthia: I think this conversation is so incredibly important! None of the editors at GUTS are paid for what we are doing. We are all driven to work this hard for free because its what we love and we believe it is important. And yet, so much of the feminist research and theory and activism we talk about in the magazine is very critical of this type of work. Were aware that its a bit of a contradiction to be a feminist project that survives on the unwaged labour of a group of precariously employed women who can afford to take this risk because of certain privileges. And while paying our editors and contributors fairly for their work might not be possible right now, its definitely a dream we are always looking towards. We recently started to pay writers and artists contributing to the magazine a small amount of money for their work with the funds we raised at parties.  Its not much, but we feel its an important step towards paying people for their work and attracting new contributors and collaborators. We have other plans to generate more funds, but its a learning process for us. Id love to talk more about this with you (and the H&E community!) 


Erin: What are, for you, some of the most pressing issues for feminists in Canada?

Cynthia: We have so many issues we need to deal with! Our conservative government has really done some damage in recent years. Some of the issues I find most frustrating and urgent right now include: accessible and affordable childcare models, adequate social supports and services (shelters, healthcare, affordable housing, counselling) available to women and trans people who need them, legislation that ensures sex workers rights, raising awareness about and preventing violence and sexual assault against women and trans people, inquiries into missing and murdered Indigenous women, raising the minimum wage, reproductive justice, support for independent feminist research, the list goes on.

Cynthia Spring edits and writes for GUTS magazine and is the acting production assistant at Canadian Scholars’ Press and Women’s Press. 

#alt-ac · academic reorganization · adjuncts · collaboration

After #NAWD What Do We Do?

Last Wednesday, February 25th, was the first National Adjunct Walkout Day. The initiative started in the United States and despite participation in Canada as well as other countries the majority of media attention was to American working conditions and American participation in the project. Inside Higher Education has a comprehensive piece on the emotional success of #NAWD, in a different genre, Gawker covered the walkout, and the warriors at Democracy Now! addressed the walkout and adjunct working conditions. In Canada, rabble.ca published a very smart piece by Aalya Ahmad, and there was some coverage elsewhere, including ongoing support from colleagues at ACCUTE who generously republished my love letter to Contract Academic Faculty. If you weren’t on a publicly active campus, Twitter was the place to really see action happening. Here’s a shot of the first two tweets that come up when you search #NAWD

On the campus where I am underemployed there was more teach-in action and education happening that public protest. Colleagues of mine–mostly tenured colleagues–at Dalhousie took time to speak to their students about what Contract Academic Faculty are (mostly PhD-ed colleagues who are as qualified as tenured professors), how they function in the university (in precarious teaching-heavy positions that are tenuous at best), and what they are paid (I can’t even).

But that was last week. What do we do now that #NAWD is in the past? The issues have hardly passed, and now teaching assistants at the University of Toronto are on strike. Like so many other dispersed issues-based actions it can be difficult to maintain public concern and collective momentum  on the Internet and in your daily life (think Idle No More, think Occupy, think anti-fracking protests like that in Elsipogtog, think, in a different context, the outrage over Ghomeshi, Dalhousie Dentistry’s ‘Gentlemen’s Club,’ and other serious issues that have responses constellate, for reasons of practicality, on social media).

Well, here’s a shocker: there are no easy solutions and all ideas take work. However, I do have some practical suggestions for maintaining momentum in your daily life, in your academic context, and in Canada. I’ll identify suggestions for tenured colleges, Contract Academic Faculty from sessionals to limited term folks on salary, and for interested students.

Contract Academic Faculty: 
Talk about your working conditions in a clear and factual way. Building support means building diverse communities of people from different working conditions. It is hard. It takes time and energy. Anger only gets us so far, so keep your anger, but refine it. Make it clear, cogent, and compelling. The facts, if you will, and the narrative needed to understand what it is to live those facts.

Talk with colleagues about your working conditions in a formal way–do you have access to photocopiers, letter head, a mailbox, an office, the library? If not, let them know formally and ask for their help. Many tenured colleagues simply don’t know the material conditions of CAF work.

Talk with the union you are affiliated with, or would like to be affiliated with, and do this in collaborations with other CAFs in your academic setting. Can the union help? Shift its membership parameters?

Build metro-allegiances with other CAFs in your city, if this is a possibility. Networking can mean sharing job resources (I know. Sharing is hard enough in the best of times, but I tell you, bridges are better built than burned).

Join national organizations and make your voice heard. Its not so difficult! For example, if you’re a teacher of English you can contact me. I’m the CAF representative for ACCUTE. I’d be more than happy to represent our collective suggestions to ACCUTE and to CAUT, but I need help. Email me, and I will collate the emails, work with ACCUTE, and reach out to CAUT.

Don’t internalize your material conditions as personal failure. This is, admittedly, the hardest. It is the one I struggle with on a daily (hourly?) basis. It requires vigilance, vulnerability, and radical attitude re-hauls. Doing something proactive helps. Consider following Melissa’s new #Alt-Ac 101 series here on Thursdays, or reading blogs such as From PhD to Life even if you don’t plan to leave the profession.

Tenured Colleagues

Recognize–really recognize–that CAF issues are your issues. They are issues of sustainability for the department and discipline to which you’ve dedicated your life. You have more power than you think.

Strategize hiring at the CAF and tenure-track levels with your tenured colleagues. Can your department pioneer and advocate radical job ads? I don’t mean such as this tom foolery, I mean something more in the realm of job sharing.

Think in terms of curriculum development at the undergraduate and graduate levels. If teaching is the bread and butter of your department’s budget, how can you keep the dollars in sight while also thinking about what other successful departments around the country are doing to meet the changing needs of students? You can find is a good example of one department’s innovation from Lisa Surridge’s ACCUTE report “Humanities in the Crisis Zone.”

Can your department not only adopt ACCUTE’s CAF best practice checklist, but also create a bespoke one that addresses the material conditions of your context? I bet it can.

Some of my incredible colleagues at Dalhousie go out of their way to directly address the Dean, VPs, President, and Senate about budget cuts to hiring. They give me hope. I see how time consuming and emotionally exhausting it is for them, and I want to give them a great big hug every time I see them. Why? Because they are using their tenure on behalf of their departments, their faculties, their students, and their precarious colleagues. Consider how you and your department might proactively address the powers that be in a way that benefits your community in the short and long term.

Students

You have more power than you think! The trick is to learn which questions to ask and to figure out why these issues matter for you.

Ask for the numbers: how many of your professors are precariously employed?

Think: If a professor whose teaching you love is precariously employed, will they be able to write letters of recommendation for you? In other words, will they be at your institution next semester or next year? Chances are, no.

Ask: how much of your tuition goes to paying teachers?

Ask: When did your department last hire a permanent faculty member?

Ask: How often is your department’s curriculum revised in relation to current trends in the discipline, in the job market? And how are faculty in your department engaged in continuing to learn about trends in these areas?

Think: What kinds of campus venues are there for discussing these issues? Is your student association engaged in real and meaningful conversations about sustainable teaching environments? Is your campus newspaper?
_____________________________

Alright, readers. I offer these as good faith and genuinely-positive suggestions. Many people and places do some or all of these things already, but I think we in Canada need a more centralized and cohesive foundation upon which to build specific scenarios for individual learning environments (ie. your university or college differs from mine).

What other ideas, suggestions, and success stories do you have?

academic work · advice · collaboration · global academy · research

How to: Manage a Distance Research Collaboration

Since the beginning of my PhD, I’ve worked on a number of long-term, long-distance research projects with people in France, India, Nova Scotia, British Columbia, and the UK. I’ve gotten pretty good at scheduling meetings across time zones and finding ways to share documents and ideas with people on opposite sides of the planet. Given the increasingly interdisciplinary and international focus of academic research, I’m betting that at some point you’ll find yourself wanting to collaborate with someone who is just getting up when you’re going to bed, and those collaborations function rather differently than those with the folks in the office down the hall. So you don’t have to figure out from scratch how to successfully pursue research or other projects with people from away, here’s what I’ve learned that can make your life easier:

  1. Figure out what blocks of time in each of your time zones conveniently overlap, and use those blocks as your default meeting times. I know my lunch hour in Toronto is the end of the work day in London, and so my UK-based collaborator and I tend to schedule our meetings then. It saves us from having to figure out a time that suits both of us every time we need to meet. I also keep this bookmarked: http://www.timeanddate.com/worldclock/converter.html
  2. Make use of free communication technology. Skype is your friend, as is Google chat. Email is useful, but I find that the best long-distance collaborations are nurtured with lots of less-formal conversation. If you can’t meet for coffee to talk shop, or pop into one another’s offices in the middle of the afternoon, try to replicate that experience online. I also advise using methods of communication that automatically capture a record of the conversation for you–Google chat does this, as does the SMS backup app I use to save all of my text messages to my email account, where they’re searchable. 
  3. Keep your documents somewhere central and easily accessible. I don’t know how I survived before the advent of Google Drive. I have a separate shared project folder for each of my current ongoing research collaborations, and everything lives there. We all appreciate being able to see who was the last to edit a file, precisely what edits those were, and exactly what collateral we have on hand at all times. I certainly appreciate not having my inbox clogged with huge attachments, and knowing that we’re all always working from the most up-to-date files. 
  4. Set deliverables and a follow-up plan at the end of every meeting. This is good practice for real-world meetings too, but it’s especially important in distance collaborations to make sure that everyone knows what needs to be done (and by when) at the end of every meeting, and when the next meeting will be (if one is necessary). If you know that your urgent 8:00 am email to your collaborator isn’t going to get read until she wakes up 10 hours later, it becomes extra important to ensure that expectations, deliverables, and timelines are clear when you already have her on the other end of the Skype call. 
  5. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Long-distance collaborations already have physical distance built in, and that physical distance can turn into mental distance and misunderstandings all too easily. Add the potential issues with cross-cultural communication–and this can be differences in institutional culture, not just broader regional or national culture–and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. It’s incredibly important to make sure that you’re all understanding terms in the same way, that your research goals and plans are clearly and regularly articulated, and that channels of communication are open. 
  6. Make plans to occasionally meet in person, if at all possible. Despite working with collaborators as far away as India, I’ve managed to meet up with my research partners at least once during each project, most often at a conference we were all attending. It is incredibly helpful, and incredibly invigorating, to spend some time talking and working together, even if just for a few hours.
  7. Let someone be in charge. It’s particularly important, when working remotely, to be clear about who is responsible for what, and to have someone taking the lead on the project (or certain aspects of it). Ensure that responsibility is clearly assigned, and that divisions of labour are clearly understood, or else you’ll spend your time worrying about if you were supposed to do that thing, or waiting for your collaborator (for whom it’s the middle of the night) to confirm that he’s doing whatever it is. 

What about you, dear readers? Any tips and tricks for successfully negotating long-distance research collaborations?

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?