One of the scariest parts of choosing to pursue a non-faculty career was the idea of leaving behind my academic communities. I spent my PhD immersed in engaged, supportive, and mind-opening communities, ones that formed on the picket line at York, in my long-running writing group, and through a national digital humanities consortium that brought together Canadianists from all over the country. Those people made me and my work better, and even as I knew that some of the friendships engendered by those academic working relationships would change when I stopped being a full-time academic, I really hoped that my existing communities would continue to sustain me even as I moved into a new career.
Inevitably, what I’d hoped would happen both has and hasn’t. The people who meant the most to me in my academic communities are still in my life in meaningful ways, and I love how our relationships have deepened and changed. But now that I’m in my fourth year of my academic administrative career, and especially now that I’m done my PhD, those communities aren’t sustaining me professionally the way they once did. Networking with other humanities academics isn’t going to help me further my career goals in the way I need to, and these aren’t the people any more with whom I need to talk and share about current research, trends, and best practices.
Happily, however, I’ve managed to find and build a new professional community that meets my new needs as someone who works in graduate professional development and research administration. It took a little work, a little digging, and a little waiting for the community to build itself up around a fairly new career path, but I’ve now got an awesome group of people in my corner, and my inbox, who make me feel supported in my work, who help me be better at my job, and with whom I’m excited to collaborate. If you’re also embarking on a non-faculty career, or you’re someone considering it but fearful of giving up the kind of community you found and built as an academic, I’ve got some advice:
1) If there’s a career, there is probably a professional society for it, although figuring out which one is the best fit for your need and goals can take a bit of work. In my case, it took asking colleagues, talking to people in similar positions, and keeping an eye in the agendas of upcoming events. In the end, I figured out that if I need to talk graduate funding administration, I go to the Ontario Universities Graduate Awards Forum. If I want to connect with my fellow postdoc coordinators, I go to the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Administrators conference. Grad professional development? That happens at the annual meetings of the Graduate Career Consortium and the Canadian Consortium of Graduate Student Professional Development Administrators (CCGSPDA). These are the places where my people are now, and those people and places are awesome.
2) If there isn’t a professional society, you can make one happen. The CCGSPDA used to be just a small group of people who did graduate and postdoctoral professional development and had a LinkedIn group and semi-regular web calls. But then we got a name, and a Listserv, and an annual meeting, and official recognition by the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies, and an official mandate, and a whole bunch of new members. We’re a proper professional association now, and the CCGSPDA has become the primary place where I network, share ideas, learn about what’s new and find collaborators.
3) Find the people like you outside of formal contexts. I run a centre called the Research Training Centre within a hospital-based research institute, at which about 1,200 graduate students and postdocs work, and there are at least a half-dozen research institutes in Toronto alone. And guess what? Almost all of them have some version of my Centre, and some version of me. We’ve all recently connected for the first time, and we’re going to start meeting in the new year to collaborate, share ideas, and trade war stories.
4) Don’t forget about Twitter, and find your hashtags. If you can find the accounts and hashtags people in your profession use, you’ve tapped into a broad and useful professional community that extends beyond the walls of your organization. Via hashtags like #altac, #postac, #withaphd, I can tap into a North America-wide community of people interested in graduate professional and career development in all kinds of contexts, and that diversity of ideas and perspectives makes me so much better at my job.
Students have more to say than we realize. And we do them a disservice when we don’t give them an opportunity to contribute their wit, critiques, and independent inquiries to the course.
That’s what using Twitter as a teaching tool does for me. Of course, classroom time allows for critical and creative discussion, and I design many exercises that encourage the voicing of student opinions and perspectives. But invariably, some voices become heard over others, and some quieter students relax under the comfortable knowledge that other, more confident, and louder students will speak up if they don’t. For the two sections of Composition & Rhetoric that I’m teaching this term, each student must tweet four times per week. I state on my syllabus that “tweets may be creative, inquisitive, analogical, humorous, playful, critical, and/or informative,” offering suggestions for questions that could be asked or YouTube links that could be given (you can view my full syllabus on academia.edu. I must confess my indebtedness to Megan Cook of Colby College for her generosity in sharing her syllabi, upon which some of my Twitter guidelines are based). Tweeting makes extra-sense for this class because we spend our first month discussing the communicative advantages of social media, so in a very real way we’re performing what we’re theorizing. In case some of you are wondering how on earth I keep track of everyone’s individual tweets, I don’t–I require that they keep a personal log of their required 4/week, which they will submit at the end of the term. It’s pass-fail.
Even though I don’t monitor and record every tweet, I do follow along using columns on Tweetdeck, “liking” posts, responding to particularly thoughtful or provocative points, and often integrating the content and material of the tweets into classroom discussions. It’s a perfect enactment of the decentered classroom that I describe in my Teaching Philosophy Statement: students learn to exercise their own voices and actively contribute to the evolving dialogue of the course as it unfolds.
Last week, for example, I had assigned the second of three episodes in Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast dealing with higher education, on the relationship between dining facilities and financial aid for low-income students at Vassar and Bowdoin Colleges (both elite liberal arts schools on the East Coast). Leading up to the class, I could identify a few problems with his narrative but in general found it convincingly and effectively told, offering some important commentary on the amenities war currently inflating university budgets at the expense of better funding for students’ education and faculty salaries. The night before, one of my students posted an article in Inside Higher Ed that essentially blows apart the logic of Gladwell’s approach, showing that the correlation between enhanced dining services and low-income students is not as direct as Gladwell indicates, and outlining the lopsided nature of his investigations. In class, then, we were able to establish the admirable qualities of the podcast and then I pulled out the article the student had tweeted as a contrasting critique. This made for an effective classroom discussion of the pros and cons of Gladwell’s storytelling approach, and it was almost entirely student-driven. Twitter thereby serves both to keep students engaged outside of class, and can also repopulate classroom discussion.
I am of course not the only one who has used Twitter in (but more properly outside of) the classroom. Others within my field of medieval literature set the social media platform to various creative uses. Reading through these posts, I realize I am still very much a Twitter novice. Just as a sample: Kisha Tracy (@kosho22) has created a great video account of her experience, complete with student feedback; Sjoerd Levelt (@Slevelt) had students write out tweets as different characters of The Iliad, and Laura Varnam (@lauravarnam) did something similar for Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. A number of scholars have translated medieval texts into tweets, beginning with Elaine Treharne’s translation of Beowulf. Twitter offers ample opportunities to reveal the continued relevance of centuries-old texts in the present, help students feel more confident articulating their own perspectives, and counter the condescension that, in my opinion, is rampant toward undergraduates amongst professors and instructors (the sense that they can’t comprehend complex issues, that quietness is a reflection of ignorance, that the teacher naturally has a better grasp of course material).
Students, as Tracy’s video shows, are inspired and further motivated when reading their peers’ tweets, producing an enhanced and more cohesive learning community. In my class, inside jokes have formed, such as a photo of ice cream my student posted with the tag #relatable, which makes an ironic play on our in-class discussion about “relatability” as a distinctively modern and generally narcissistic phenomenon that encourages passive thinking. Twitter also aids memory retention and helps students become more active thinkers and readers; even something as simple as posting a line from an article that resonates with you involves critical processes of selection and amplification.
Admittedly, my students’ tweets do not always contribute productively to classroom content. I had to give a gentle reminder in class the other day that posts like “I’m so excited for my presentation tomorrow!” or “off to the museum to complete my assignment!” don’t really count toward the required four, even as they might be fine posts on their own. There is a difference between normative social media use and classroom use, and we are learning to distinguish between these different rhetorical situations while also discussing the meaning of rhetorical situations in-class. I also need to find ways to encourage students to respond to each other more, as I’m not always sure they’re reviewing the course hashtag. Finally, it’s a little bit personally stifling to have my own Twitter account so exposed amongst my classes. But after a bad experience last year with a tweet gone awry, I decided that it’s better to embrace the openness of social media and accept the fact that students read what I post, though this inevitably means fewer angry political rants or off-handed comments about my own work-related exhaustion. Since I’m on the job market, though, maybe this increased self-censure is necessary.
Sometimes students’ off-handed banter does express a sophisticated understanding of issues we discuss in class, such as this tweet (reproduced with permission; thanks Vera!):
it’s moments like these i know for sure that my business is not self-imposed. #TheBusyTrap #2essays #3midterms #ENGL1102R19
— Vera (@vera_d123) October 5, 2016
Vera refers to a NYT article we read, “The Busy Trap,” that argues against rampant busyness* in modern society, basically suggesting that we should all be hermits in the woods rather than privileging productivity and industry over relationships or creative downtime. While I love the core argument here that we need to set aside time and space for activities that don’t build into some productivist superstructure, we all agreed as a class that being overworked is not necessarily self-imposed, and there are unavoidable limitations to setting aside time for self-care. In other words, Kreider’s argument is essentially privileged, and students at a place like Fordham face very different challenges and pressures. This builds into my broader sense that we need to be compassionate toward and receptive to our students, and open to hearing their grievances and perspectives. I truly believe, and see all the time, that students at Fordham are beset with anxiety and a pervasive pressure to succeed, mostly because the cost of attending Fordham hovers around $65 000/year (uhh……you heard that right, Canada.). And so, yes, students (and their parents) want to make their tuition dollars “worth it” in the form of future gainful employment employment. In her tweet, Vera’s hashtags give further context for her case against Kreider, and voice her personal frustration with her heavy college workload while responding in an intelligent way to course content. In this sense, Twitter can also encourage students to engage with course material on a personal level, integrating the messages of readings into their everyday life.
I guess what I’m saying is–I still really like Twitter! It helps me get to know my students better and generally enhances our classroom experience by generating continuities and cohesions. I hope to expand its use in my future literature courses as well.
And what about you, readers? How has Twitter worked/not worked for you in your courses?
Last weekend, I had the opportunity to co-facilitate a workshop on how to address and combat misogyny in the academy. The conference, Consent Culture: A National Forum to End Sexual Violence on Campus, was organized by the Nova Scotia chapter of the Canadian Federation of Students. I was excited by the invitation, and I was also nervous. And so I did what I tend to do: I said yes and then sought out collaborators.
My co-facilitators–Fazeela Jiwa and Kaarina Mikalson–are brilliant, generous, and incredibly expansive in their thinking. When we sat down to plan the workshop I started by saying “Fazeela, meet Kaarina. Kaarina, meet Fazeela.”
You see, these two people were willing (immediately, I might add) to work with each other despite the fact they had never met. Work together! On a workshop! About combatting misogyny! Phenomenal, right?
As we sat at a tiny table in the busy cafe close to the university, figuring out how to talk with one another about practical things (how much time do we have? How many people are expected at this workshop? How will we make it feel like a safe enough space to talk about practical tactics for combating misogyny) we were also navigating new relationships. Questions such as “How long have you lived here?” and “What do you like to do in your spare time–wait, what do you do?” interspersed our mapping, planning, and defining of terms such as micro aggression and intersectionality. We each had a different approach to how to think through the material. Each person listened carefully when the others spoke, and then chimed in adding ideas or information, or questioning a suggestion generatively.
To organize our allotted hour and fifteen minute workshop (and to address my anxious need to have a fairly specific roadmap for any class, even if that map gets thrown out in the first five minutes) we drew on our own experiences of facilitation. We also had a veritable archive of material I had gathered when I reached out to half a dozen other women and women-identified people who work, or have worked, or are working in academic settings. When I asked this group of people for suggestions of material, approaches, or best practices, they took time out of their incredibly busy, diverse, demand-filled lives and responded with suggestions. The suggestions included making sure to do our pronouns and let the participants do theirs, if they choose, to not simply make acknowledgement of the Indigenous traditional territory where we were guests, but also to think through how to activate those acknowledgements (Chelsea Vowel has an amazing piece on this), to not just cite terms but to historicize them (for example, remind participants that ‘intersectionality” is a methodology that comes from Black feminist thought), to make the space trans inclusive immediately, and to try spatial mapping as a way of doing a lot of conceptual work in a short period of time.
I mean, really. Pretty wonderful and thoughtful, right?
Between the invitation to combat misogyny in a practical way, the willingness of two amazing people to co-facilitate, the wealth of generosity and information from a group of people who also don’t all know one another… well, it all felt pretty amazing. And the experience of organizing, asking for help, and then facilitating the workshop (which went well, by the way), got me thinking bout how grateful I am to know all these smart, caring people. It got me thinking about how grateful I am for the thinking that can, and sometimes does, happen in academic places.
We know that the University–as an institution, as a business, and, at its best, as a site of resistance and knowledge-generation–is built on heteronormativity, White supremacy, and class exclusion. We know that in Canada universities sit on Indigenous lands, and that there is so much work to be done in the projects of both reconciliation and resurgence. We know that misogyny takes the form of micro aggressions and violent assaults every day. And we know that racism is harnessed as so-called “humour” and that spaces of higher learning are violent towards people of colour. We know that precarity is damaging to the education mission as well as to individual lives lived in a constant state of crisis. We know this.
Yet, on this day that we take to pause and be grateful for the people and things in our lives, I find myself being grateful for academe. Not as some totemic bastion of knowing, but because all the people I encountered in this one workshop–the conference organizers (all students!), my co-facilitators, the friends and acquaintances and colleagues who shared their own hard-earned knowledge, the participants, the keynote speakers (who were Indigenous women and women of colour) who preceded us and spoke of the complex and viscerally raw project of decolonization–I encountered them all through academe, in one way or another.
And so I am grateful for the possibility, the fortitude, the resilience, the resolve, and the hope of people working in academe, or against it, in the service of a more equitable world. I am grateful for books, for the expansiveness that I see in my students’ faces when they read certain writers. I am grateful for my new colleagues. I am grateful for my old colleagues. I am grateful for people calling out and calling to question all the hard questions. And I am grateful for Hook & Eye, for the voice this space has given me, and for you, readers, who bear witness and work, too, from your own subjectivities and situations. In another week of horrifically violent, sexist, homophobic and transphobic, and racist news, I am grateful for you, readers.
Let’s take pause, and then, let’s get back to work.
If you’re in Canada you will know that today marks the start of the trial of former CBC darling Jian Ghomeshi, who is being accused of four counts of sexual assault and one count of overcoming resistance by choking.
We have been thinking about how to have mindful, generative, public discussions about rape culture for a long while here at Hook and Eye, and our thinking is built on our identification as feminist academics.
If you’re looking to think with us I have pulled some of our writing on the subject from the archives, as well as one brilliant piece by Lucia Lorenzi which was originally published at rabble.ca
Lucia Lorenzi at rabble.ca on how the burden of healing is still placed on women.
Erin, a year later, on the how the Ghomeshi scandal changed her.
Erin, asking what it is going to take to have sustained and generative public discourse about rape culture.
Jana, on reading the comments.
Erin, on healthy communities and mentorship in the wake of public revelations of misogyny in Canadian literary circles.
And Erin again on restorative justice, social media, and why it is important that #BeenRapedNeverReported hashtag went viral.
And Erin once more, with an open letter to Rex Murphy about why language matters when we are talking about rape culture, racism, and systemic violence.
The end of the fiscal year is looming, and we’ve just wrapped up budgeting for 2016/17. And as always, the push is to do more for our graduate students and postdocs with less. Some things are just never going to be free–the fee for a really great workshop facilitator, catering for our annual Career Night, paying the professor who teaches our teaching development course, our salaries–but we’re getting creative about finding ideas for new supports and services that don’t cost much in time, labour, or hard cash.
One of the things I did when I was still at York University was start up a Shut Up and Write! group for our grad students and postdocs, and it is may be my favourite example of a meaningful and useful support for early career researchers that doesn’t cost a dime. Your campus might already have a graduate Shut Up and Write! group, often coordinated by students themselves, but if you don’t, here’s the lowdown:
- a room
- a timer
- someone willing to facilitate discussion and run the timer (This person can also be doing their writing during the session; I use it as an opportunity to get in some quiet, distraction-free work on my normal day-job stuff)
Each Shut up and Write! session, at least the way I run it, includes:
- 10 minutes for introductions and chat
- 2-3 rounds of writing Pomodoros (each Pomodoro includes 25 minutes of intensive writing plus a 5 minute break)
- Time to discuss writing, trade writing and productivity tips, and get to know each other. On occasion, a more senior researcher or someone from the writing centre will come in to address a specific writing topic, take questions, or provide one-on-one consultation.
Attrition, particularly in the PhD, tends to happen most at the point when students transition from the relative structure of coursework, qualifying exams and (for my students, at least) collecting data to the nebulous and very self-directed period of writing the dissertation. Community and the motivation of progressing alongside others helps stop that from happening. It also helps postdocs feel like members of a community–an important shift for a group that often feels disconnected from their institution because they’re neither students nor faculty, and often are poorly served because they exist in that liminal space.
What about you, dear readers? Any brilliant ideas for low-cost and low-effort ways to create community- and skill-building opportunities for grad students and postdocs you’d like to share?
Late last week I was chatting with a friend of mine and we asked one another, “how are you?” And then we both giggled. Okay, actually we sent one another ellipses and exclamation points, because we were chatting on Facebook. The hilarity and lack of verbal articulation came from the fact that my friend, who is a single parent, is teaching four classes this term, and I, a co-parent to a six month old, am teaching two classes while my partner teaches three. We have no child care. My friend was up grading papers after teaching three classes, running tutorials, and making sure her own kids were well and fed and getting what they needed. I was awake working on a job application after having driven with my partner two-thirds of the way to New England for a conference at which he was to give a paper the next day. My partner was working on a paper after having taught a class and driving for six hours. Our kiddo, generous being that she is, was asleep in her portable crib in the middle of the hotel room.
How are you?
Our wordless pause came from this, then: we are both in it up to our eyeballs, my friend and I. We are running from the moment we wake to the moment we drop into bed. We are, neither of us, in stable work, so there’s the usual scramble to keep it all afloat. And yet. And yet as my friend and I agreed, the things that keep us grounded–the mornings, when my girl wakes us up singing in her tiny infant voice, the afternoons when my friend steals a moment to write–these things are good. There are roots in our lives, we agreed.
But let’s not deny it is hard. Let us not deny the feeling of being eaten alive by bureaucracy, Brazil-like. Let’s not ignore the data that suggests that nearly half the people working in higher education exhibit symptoms of psychological distress.
I want a word that means more than “surviving” without losing that hard-scrabble fact of what is really going on. I want a word that defies the isolation that comes with working in the academy, because my work–the job I go and do–can and does bring me joy, even if the conditions of that work cannot. I want a word that acknowledges the emotional labour, the sheer physical labour (you should see how quick I am on my bicycle, zipping to campus and class as soon as my partner gets home from his class to take bébé).
“I hope survival turns to thrival,” I wrote to my friend, in an attempt to name our own daily work of making our lives good despite, or in spite, or just in the midst of the long, hard work.
“Here’s to surTHRIVEal!” she wrote back, proving once again (let us acknowledge it here) that poets are indeed the legislators of the world.
So here’s to surthriving. To the precariate, doing your jobs and keeping your head and your spirits above water: surthrive. Find what lifts you. To the graduate students, filled with fear and anxiety about what is next and what is now: surthrive. You are smart. To the assistant professors, finishing their first terms and finding that the dream is still a f*ckload of work: surthrive. You deserve your job, we need you there. To the associate professors, keeping it all going despite the oft-unacknowledged workload: surthrive. You are in positions of power, don’t forget that. To the full professors, wondering, perhaps, what happened to the university you came to at the beginning of your career: surthrive. We need you. To the undergraduate students, facing student debt, facing final exams, trying to keep a social life and likely a job, too: surthrive. Find what lifts you up and hold onto that shining thing and let it light your way. To the administrative staff, keeping us all organized, and keepers of our quiet and not-so-quiet sorrows: surthrive. You keep this whole boat level and moving forward with the band playing.
Here is to surthrival. Here is to refusing to lose the light while acknowledging that the darkness is coming earlier these days. Here is to remembering that there are good moments in each day if we look for them. And here is to refuelling our resolve to make more of the day good, generative, and generous.