academic work · community · day in the life · emotional labour · fast feminism

Surthrival

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.

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.

community · PhD · writing

Still Writing, Still Eating, Still Together

Every third Saturday, we gather around someone’s kitchen table. Brunch gets served, coffee gets poured, and we settle into our chairs and share stories about our weeks and plans for the weekend ahead. We talk about cooking, and travel, and books, and movies, and gossip, and babies, and partners, and jobs. And then, when we’ve caught up, we talk work. Structure. Application of theory. Voice. Organization. Negotiating our committees. Publication. Productivity tools. Grammar. Turning conference papers into articles into chapters. Syntax. Analysis. We’ve been doing this for years.

Each session, two of us send around a 25-ish page chunk of writing for the others to read, and the rest of the group responds with comments that we then discuss in person. Despite writing on sometimes wildly different topics—nineteenth century novels, Canadian modernist poetry, contemporary anarchist poetry, the picturesque, modern drama—we’ve come to know each others’ work well over the many years we’ve been working together. We prize that familiarity, that ability to see how the work is changing and developing as it progresses, but we also prize fresh eyes that can see what our own myopic perspectives cannot. We’re kind, but we’re also critical. We want to help each other get better, and we want to see each other succeed. And not just in our academic writing. Most of us are now finished or nearly finished our dissertations, and doing some combination of teaching/working/writing/preparing for the future. We trade tips and horror stories about job applications, book proposals, writing resumes, finding jobs, figuring out what comes next. And we’re still doing it together.

I don’t know how common this kind of arrangement is. Narratives of competition, of isolation, of backstabbing and loneliness and alienation, are all too common when we talk about doing a PhD, especially the years we spend writing a dissertation. Our PhD program is quite large—my cohort had nine people in it, and that’s about average for the English program at York—but I know others whose isolation is exacerbated by being the sole doctoral student in their year, or one of only two. As a writing group—indeed, as a graduate program—we’ve rejected narratives of conflict, mistrust, and isolation. Instead, we work hard to foster a sense of community, a culture of collegiality, and a genuine caring. We like each other–a lot. And while competition and backstabbing are presumably intended to help you get ahead, research shows that those of us who form writerly communities actually do more, and better, writing. Few of us are intending to stay in academia, but our writing skills are crucial to our success wherever we end up, and being together–writing a lot, and writing well–will serve us well wherever we end up. Indeed, it has already. I’m testament to that.

I can’t say how grateful I am for our little group, one that is filled with people who make me a better scholar, a better friend, a better person. It’s no coincidence that on the same day as our last writing group session, our host Sam also held a meeting for the group of couples we both joined to sponsor a refugee family from Syria–that’s the kind of people my writing group is. I’m privileged to be able to write about the “we” that is my immediate scholarly community, one that is invested in my success, as I am in theirs. These folks are very necessary to my health and happiness as a person and a writer, and in ways I couldn’t have imagined back in the days when we all thought we were headed for the tenure track. That our group has continued and adapted as our plans and goals and lives have changed is a wonderful thing.

So tell me: what version of academic or creative community do you have in your life? What role does it play? And how can we foster these kinds of supportive and collaborative communities across the academy, particularly in graduate programs?

community · dissertation · grad school · PhD · saving my sanity · writing

When you just don’t want to write

It’s mid-March. The days are longer, warmed by sun, but frost lingers in the morning, and piles of snow creep into the shadows, refusing to melt. The semester is furiously racing to its end, our energy reserves are depleting, and while we can see the close of the term, we’re all wondering if we’re going to end before it does.

I’ve been working on a substantially revising a long section of my dissertation, but on some days my brain is foggy, or I feel a lack of confidence, afraid I don’t know what I’m doing. As the term winds to a close and writing deadlines approach, I’ve found a few tried and true methods for getting the work of writing done, even if it feels near impossible.

1. The Pomodoro Method: We’ve talked about this a lot on Hook and Eye before, but the Pomodoro technique really does help to give focus to a writing task. If I’m stuck in the endless chasm of research and can’t seem to get my way out of it, I turn off the internet, set the timer for 25 minutes, and then dedicate my full attention to the task of writing. It’s really helpful when I’m not feeling motivated because 25 minutes is such a manageable length of time: anyone can do it. After the timer rings, if I’m really vigilant, I’ll only take a 5 minute break, which I also use the timer to structure. After four cycles, I give myself a 15 minute break.

2. Take Real Breaks: Boyda talked a couple weeks ago about slowing down and unplugging, and I highly recommend it. Even if you can only take a 3-5 minute break, don’t spend it surfing the internet, or checking your phone, or staring at some kind of a screen. If you can, stand up, move around, stretch, or just close your computer and stare out a window or into space. It’s enormously beneficial to do something different so the break feels like a real break and not just the same old.

3. Get Moving: If you have a bit more time, go for a walk with a friend. Get outside for the fresh air and vitamin D, or just go get coffee. Even if you don’t drink coffee, just go for the walk. If you can’t spare the time, spend five minutes doing jumping jacks or running in place, or have a personal dance party. If you only have a few seconds, my three-year-old would probably recommend the Crazy Shake.

4. Make Lists: At the beginning of each day, make yourself a to-do list of what you need to accomplish, and decide what to prioritize for that day. On Mondays, it can be really beneficial to write down your goals for the week, and then break it down into daily chunks. It can also be useful to work back from any impending deadlines in order to help structure your time on a month-or-semester-long basis. Sometimes these goals aren’t met in the way we think we will meet them, but having them in the first place means they can be revisited or that we can make new priorities when the unexpected occurs.

5. Meet up with Friends: One of the most important things for me personally is having people around me to keep me accountable to my writing goals. Whether I meet up with them in person, like for my weekly writing club where we do community pomodoros (if you’re at the U of A, join us!), or to an online googledocs spreadsheet to write out my weekly and daily goals, when someone else knows what I commit to, it becomes much easier to do it. The extra accountability means I’m far more likely to get stuff done. Also, it’s harder to putz around on the internet when someone is hovering over your shoulder.

6. Just do it: Even if your brain doesn’t want to cooperate, just force yourself to focus. Turn off the internet, gather every spec of willpower, and focus on the writing task at hand. Sometimes just writing the first couple of words on the blank page can be the key to gaining momentum.

#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

community · contract work · faster feminism

Solitary or Solidarity?

I don’t know about you, but many of the events over the last few months have left me thinking about feeling solitary. Not loneliness, per se, but a sense of separateness, of needing to take time to think and process while feeling a little isolated in the process. I am talking about disparate events—stories like Emma Healey’s piece in Hairpin, of course the on going revelations of Jian Ghomeshi’s actions and the complicity (is that what we call and open secret in this case?) of so many, but also the Dalhousie Dentistry “Gentlemen’s Club,” not to mention the ways in which the administration has missed an incredible opportunity to take a swift and proactive stand on misogyny and gendered violence on this campus and across the city. I don’t want to rehearse these events, even though I feel compelled to write about the one unfolding on my own campus right now. What I want to think through are the ways in which events like these open up space for solidarity. Events such as these are also isolating. They create the need for reflection, self-care, and, if you’re anything like me, they elicit an almost inarticulable need for solitude.
And yet.
And yet, these events alsoelicit an urgent sense that I need to act. Now! Five minutes ago! All the time! These kinds of events also remind me of the need for solidarity, organization, and collective action. That word needalso reminds me that so often the collective action and solidarity require grassroots and ground-up work. People need to be rallied, priorities need to be identified and articulated, and actions need to be delegated. This kind of work is hard and only possible with a dedicated group of people. Those people are out there, certainly, but they are usually over extended. Take a moment and jot down the names of people you wanted to talk with when you heard about the Ghomeshi scandal. Or, jot down the names of people and organizations you think of when you want to address job scarcity and precarity in academia. How many do you come up with? Why do you gravitate to those names? And how many of the names appear on both lists?
Strangely, I found myself thinking about solitariness and solidarity this past weekend. I was at the MLA in Vancouver where I was representing ACCUTE as their Contract Academic Faculty member on the executive. The paper I gave was entitled “Making ‘Solidarity’ Real: Campus Labour Movements and the Precarious Worker,” which, with some theorizing and discussion of the Canadian context versus the American one, was a narrativization of my own experience of being on strike while precariously employed. The panel was about contingent labour and campus labour movements; I was the only Canadian. Indeed, 80% of the audience was American. So, while everyone in the room was concerned with the same issues, the means for addressing them were radically different. We spent the bulk of the question and answer session trying to hammer out the possibilities of cross-border collaboration on issues of precarity. Practiacally speaking, there aren’t very many.
It was an empowering panel, most especially because it was the first time I have publicly presented on my own experiences. My experience on the panel also reminded me of the sometimes-tense poles of solitariness. On the one hand, I need solitude to process. On the other hand, solitude can be incredibly isolating. It can, I think, at times compound the issues that evoke the feeling in the first place.

My question for you, readers, is this: how do you balance the need for solitary reflection with your own need for urgent and sustainable solidarity? Really?
classrooms · community · learning · reflection · teaching · thank you

Teaching and Learning

On Thursday last week I sat in my office all day and waited for my first-year students to pick up their graded papers. As they filtered in and then out my door, a few of them paused, smiled, and thanked me for the semester.

I think I forgot to say “you’re welcome” for at least half of them. I know I always smile, sometimes a little awkwardly, but genuinely. But occasionally I find myself at a loss for words. “You’re welcome”, I suppose, somehow just doesn’t quite seem to cut it. 
Perhaps it’s because those students who have paused to thank me are often those ones to whom I am also grateful: grateful for their commitment to learning, their effort, for their essay re-writes, the way they’ve taken my feedback and pushed themselves, how they’ve made their papers convincing, persuasive, and drawn stronger links to textual evidence. I’m grateful for their genuine searching questions, their involvement in class discussions, and their respectful comments. I’m grateful for their their earnest fastidiousness, their engagement, and perhaps most of all, their deep concern for each other. 
My students this semester have been all this and more, all the more remarkable because for the vast majority this is their first semester of post-secondary education. For some, my class was their introduction to city-living, the cold dark of Northern Novembers, being far away from family and old friends. For most, this semester was their first experience of the university classroom space; their first lesson in self-directed time management, in living life without direct supervision, in juggling financial obligations with academic ones. 
For any first-year student, the experience of university can be challenging, difficult, and overwhelming. For the students that started out at my university this term, they also had to deal with two “non-criminal student deaths” on campus. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to experience the loss of a fellow student, a classmate, a friend. What I do know is that this first semester is hard for most students, and that without contact from caring, compassionate people, students can feel nothing but alienation and loneliness as they begin university life.
Earlier this semester I had two of my students approach me to explain their tardiness to class. They had been trying to get ahold of their friend, also in my class, who had been missing classes for a week. The reason they were late was because they’d decided to track down this friend at her house. Waking up early in the morning, they’d to travelled off-campus to their friend’s home, to see if she was going to make it to class. She didn’t answer the door.
When they told me this story, I was prompted to pass along resources–contact info for the chaplain’s office, peer-support centre, and others–to pass along to their friend, if she needed it. While I don’t know if they were used, I do know that the student did return to my class a few days later.
I’ve always implicitly seen teaching as collaborative, reciprocal learning, but this semester my students have pushed me to consider how to care beyond the classroom space. My students’ concern for their classmate and friend prompted the realization that perhaps other students in my class needed these resources, too. Following the lead of other instructors at my University, I ended up talking to my students towards the end of term about on- and off-campus support. I acknowledged that this is a difficult time of year, a challenging term. But mostly I just wanted them to know that people do care, and that what they may be feeling is important and valid, and that there are people who can help. And it was brought home to me by the demonstrative concern of my students.
I think the next time once of my students drops by to thank me for the semester, I’ll know what to say. A simple “thank you” in response will probably suffice.
Have your students taught you something valuable this term?
academic reorganization · community · guest post · research

Guest Post: Nowheretown

I remember the day I ran into my PhD advisor from York University at a conference and told her how much I had loved my first year at Mount Allison University. She wrinkled her nose and said “really?” before looking away and changing the topic. I felt pretty small in that moment, and maybe even a little ashamed for so enthusiastically endorsing my time at a tiny, teaching-focused undergraduate institution in a small Maritime town. I had, it seemed, ungratefully discarded the promise (my promise!) of a PhD in cutting-edge urban theory in the centre of the known universe.
Four years and a series of contracts later, I’m now on the tenure track at Mount A and looking at spending the rest of my academic career as a feminist urban geographer in a town of 6000.* This irony is remarked upon regularly by colleagues, and I see the scepticism in the eyes of those who squint in confusion at the institution on my conference name tags. And there is something to this: not only am I far from my research sites, I’m a long way from the acknowledged hotspots of contemporary urban research and theory making. I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when I was asked to review a proposal for a new collection of Canadian urban scholarship. It had clearly been put together by folks I knew well in just such a powerful hotspot, but I was not an invited contributor. Ouch. I decided to blow my honorarium on a nice bottle of scotch.
Luckily, neither the feeling of smallness nor the sting of exclusion lasted long. There was work to do, and refreshingly, it had very little to do with reading or citing or responding to the so-called cutting edge. Instead, I collaborated with feminist colleagues on two conference CFPs that push my thinking in new directions. I worked on a paper I’ve nicknamed the “Dr. Who” article for its oddball references to time travel and timespaces. I analyzed the data from a collective project on joy. And I started the second iteration of a seminar on ecofeminism with an amazing group of enthusiastic undergrads. In short, I had a lot of fun while doing nothing that fit the mould set for me by my graduate training.
So this is my ode to the edges, to working from a place that everybody knows is nowhere.** There is a lot of freedom here to pursue wacky, “queer,” unexpected ideas and projects – in other words, to be genuinely curious. No one is policing my choice of theory, frowning at my teaching topics, or telling me which journals to publish in. This is a rarely acknowledged benefit of being beyond the gravitational pull of the theory-stars in one’s discipline. I realize that it’s easier to take advantage of this freedom if you have secure(ish) employment, and that actually living in a place like Sackville is more comfortable when you have certain privileges. Despite those caveats, it might still be possible to meander over to the intellectual edges from time to time without sinking your career. Go to that slightly-odd sounding conference panel instead of the “big name” talk. Find out what people are working on at smaller universities. Read and cite the work of emerging academics (and non-academics). And whenever possible, let curiosity chart the course.


Mount Allison University
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* My PhD advisor is, for the record, very happy for me now.

** “Everybody knows this is nowhere” was the slogan for Sappyfest 7 (2012), an annual indie music festival in Sackville, New Brunswick.
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!!
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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
community · grad school · mental health · reform · research · solitude · travel

Reflections on Solitary Scholardom

Last week, Melissa shared with us an excellent summary of the things she wishes she’d been told during her PhD–a post that has become one of the most read in the history of Hook & Eye. Then, on Friday, Magrit asked us to consider our virtuosity as female academics, and challenged us to make a list of our own skills, something I think we grad students should be doing on a more frequent basis as we, as per Melissa’s advice, expand the scope of our own professional identity and adjust to the notion that we may not be safely ensconced in the folds of academia forever.

I’ve been traveling for over four weeks now, and I’ve had a lot of time to think–about myself, about my mission or goals as a young academic in my late-twenties, about my place within an English department that, with its incomparable network of like-minded people, can also be a little bit stifling and inevitably competitive, as we constantly look over each other’s shoulders (at Fordham, where teaching fellows have shared office space in open cubicles, this is often literally the case). I don’t think I realized before I left the States just how much this tight-knit academic community was affecting my mental well-being–I was constantly comparing my progress with those around me, fearing I was falling behind, and feeling inadequate. During this blessed research trip, I’ve been reading and transcribing and searching and thinking and memorizing and seeing and absorbing. I’ve been doing all these academic things while remaining both geographically and mentally remote from the quotidian demands of academia. I haven’t been keeping up with the current academic debates on Twitter, I’ve fallen behind on email, I haven’t been teaching or grading, I’ve had very few interactions with anyone on my committee, and I’ve spent many long days in the library alone. Facebook and email keep me peripherally aware of the kinds of issues that are facing my department, but overall I’ve enjoyed somewhat of a solitary existence over here–a culture-filled, charmed scholarly existence (even despite my multitude of fears that I haven’t accomplished nearly enough). It has been good to distance myself from departmental gossip, reevaluate what I love about the study of the Middle Ages, and contemplate my own strengths as a scholar, thinker, and person. I’ve encountered a number of people working in professions outside academia, thought more about what I might like to do if I weren’t an academic. Hell, I even started drawing again–something I loved to do for years, and out of which I at one point thought I would make a career.  I’d like to think that overall, this trip has helped me listen to the advice that Melissa wishes she had heard a little sooner.

Yet I do miss community. In fact, while I’ve been very well trained as a paleographer and researcher, something my advisers never prepared me for as a single female traveler is the paralyzing loneliness and alienation that can sometimes descend when arriving in new places, alienation that has caused me considerable despair and many panicked Skype-calls to my partner. In reaction against this alienation, I become deeply attached to the places I frequent, people I meet, even food I eat while I’m over here–sort of carving out my own mobile sense of home, I guess–but those attachments make leaving these places even harder, and then I have to repeat the cycle of mourning, alienation, and attachment every time I move around. Research trips are hard, yo! I miss sympathetic interactions with colleagues in the department, I miss regular Monday lunches with a dear friend, I miss workshopping syllabi and works-in-progress over wine and cheese, I miss bitchingdiscussing the pros and cons of academia in pubs after hours. I miss students, I miss my cat, I miss my apartment, I miss being fully fluent in reading and understanding the place I’m in.

When I return to New York, then, I want to preserve and treasure my solitary hours in the library, getting up and out of the apartment early and regulating my access to social media and social ties a bit more, but also embracing the unique opportunity of working in a university department and trying to maintain balanced, supportive, generative relationships. I also want to remember that everyone works in different ways, and refuse the temptation to compare my work habits with those of my peers. I want to hold close the people who build me up, and distance myself from the people who cause me undue anxiety or ignite paralyzing feelings of competitiveness.

As the recent debates over trigger warnings on syllabi have reminded us*, academia may not and should not be a safe space but it must be an accountable one, though we shouldn’t let that accountability mutate into a culture of competitiveness or the student-customer model that the trigger-warned syllabus seems to uphold. We need to embrace our own virtues and sensitivities while welcoming those of others, acknowledging that we are all in various states of becoming and unrest. Ideally I will be ready after this trip to face these kind of challenges in the classroom, invigorated and recharged by my solitary experiences but eager to maintain productive relationships and accountable spaces in the academic circles I’ve already built up. Here’s hopin,’ anyway.

*a serious and sensitive issue that I hope we can broach again in the future; for now I’d recommend this round-up post on The Nation, and would welcome any initial thoughts.