#shinetheory · academic reorganization · DIY · empowerment · guest post · Uncategorized

Gap Riot Guest Post: How to Start Your Own Small Press, From People Who are Still Learning

Thinking of starting your own small press? There is lots of PEE YOUR PANTS EXCITEMENT AND ANXIETY, plus material, financial, and good business issues to think about when starting out. The ladies of Gap Riot Press are here with some helpful tips, some loving caution, and some gentle reminders to keep us all woke.

Aside from learning the craft of the chapbook, learning the business side of publishing has been a twisting and winding ride. Other small presses, poets, and printers have been very generous and super helpful, and have created an integrated community thinktank that has been invaluable. These fabulous people include Will and Nicole at words(on)pages, Catriona at Desert Pets Press, Cameron at Apt. 9 Press, the very patient and understanding Sebastian Frye at Swimmer’s Group, and the excellent members of the Meet the Presses collective. But for some things, we’ve been on our own trying to figure out the lay of the land.

Among the things we’ve never asked ourselves before now: How does one register a business name to accept grant monies? And, do we even have to do that? What the hell is a master page in InDesign? How do we begin to think about royalties? Since we are academics ourselves, we know well the culture of unpaid labour that runs rampant in cultural circles, so we made it a mandate to pay our authors. But how much? How much do we need to pay our designers? And what does that leave for us?

But please remember: we are not the experts; we are the adventurers. We’re learning every day, and we’re failing too. We’d love to share some of our story, but you’ve got to clear your own path. And for cat’s sake, please be kind to yourself throughout your journey. Ask for help when you need it. And hike up your knickers – you’re in for a wild one.

To encourage other riotous word-lovers to do it themselves, we’ve worked with Hook & Eye to put together this helpful (hopefully) how-to guide to start you off, inspired by the collective that continues to inspire us, the incomparable New Kids on the Block.   

Step 1: We can have lots of fun

One of the first things Dani was asked when she sat down for coffee with Will and Nicole from words(on)pages was, “So, why chapbooks?” It was a fun question, and although we thought we had an answer, it was something we had to think about for a while. We realized that we needed to spend more time at the beginning conceptualizing our press and our mandate. So, our first piece of advice is that before you start up your small or micro-press, you need to take some real time, right off the bat, to conceptualize a larger poetics, mandate, or vision for your project. Remember, your press should be fun for you and for others, and it should highlight the kind of work you want to amplify.

This process starts with deciding on a name, logo, and general design theme or concept that conveys the message you have decided on. In our case, we developed the name Gap Riot Press for a few reasons, first and foremost because both founding editors have gaps in their front teeth, and we live this truth everyday. We also wanted to convey an acknowledgment of gaps in publishing standards, in the gender and race of editors, in the voices heard in the avant-garde and in visual poetics, and in the persistent gendered wage gap in the Western world. The riot came next, a clear homage to our Riot Grrrl predecessors, and a reminder that resistance is always a collective space, a physical and a psychic space, and a volatile space. Gap Riot is in flux.

For logos, we enlisted our friend, local artist and graphic designer Stace Schmidt to develop a logo that brought gap teeth to the forefront, making beautiful our “imperfections” and channeling our femme power. Stace developed a set of beautiful graphic logos that we use on all our print and digital media. We did our own website design to start, but as we grow we are working with local web designer and IT professional Jordan Doucet to create a dynamic website that has room to grow and expand with us.

Having a clear vision for your small press is important, but it’s also good to keep reminding yourself that a vision does not have to be a limitation. Kate is always reminding us that while we want to prioritize femme, queer, and PoC voices in our press, we also don’t want to cut off conversations or limit participation in our collective vision. We have had to be very careful about our language, always being clear that what we seek is focus and not another form of tokenism, exploitation, or exclusivity.

Having fun with your press also means carefully considering what your role in the press entails, and who else is on your team. The both of us wanted to share, as equally as possible, the requirements of a small press editor. Stace handles all the visuals, including book cover and illustrations, and helps with general book design. Different small presses organize this work differently. You need to figure out what works for you based on your print runs, your finances, and your abilities. Some small presses bring in a copyeditor or proofreader for the final stages. Some editors do all the design work themselves. Some presses solicit photographs or illustrations. Some presses contract out their PR and marketing.

The moral of this story is that this is absolutely too much work to take on as one person, particularly because as much as we love small press publishing, it’s not likely to become your full-time job, and certainly not from the beginning. Kate has a full-time job with a company. Dani works as a sessional instructor at two post-secondary institutions with typist work on the side. Stace works as a freelance graphic designer. None of us can put off paid labour to do Gap Riot work. It’s a really important thing that you need to remember: at best, you can hope with the start of a small press to break even. Do not try to do it all yourself, unless you are independently wealthy and have decided to spend all your time spreading the good literary word. If that’s you, power to you. But, I’m guessing it’s not, which brings us to the issue of funding.


Step 2: There’s so much we can do (once we have some funds)

Getting initial funding for a small (especially niche) literary press in Canada can be really difficult. That said, we were really lucky. Some full disclosure: Kate’s work, the fabulous Ian Martin Group, supported our press from the start with a donation, and continues to emotionally support our work. It’s fabulous that they helped us, but it’s also pretty rare and carries some hefty privilege. We don’t point this out to discourage others starting out, but to point to the fact that to start off our press, we looked in a pretty unconventional place. In other words, don’t just limit yourself to major funding bodies (Toronto Arts Council [TAC], Ontario Arts Council [OAC], Canada Council [CC]). First of all, it can be limiting to have to abide by the rules that come with using government monies to support your press. Second of all, most of those funding agencies don’t even support purely publishing projects anyway (see step four). But, there are funding opportunities there if you look. There are plenty of guides to getting funding, so we won’t spend too long on that. What we found we needed most guidance on was what to do after you have some cash flow (from grants, donations, a crowdfunding campaign, sales [from books, tickets, drinks at events, or PWYC at the door], or whatever method or combination you choose).

If you are accepting grant or donation monies for your organization, you’re going to need a business bank account. This is where the most confusion came up for us. Most other small presses in Toronto have a business account, but have not incorporated, enlisted as a partnership, or registered as a non-profit.

For tax purposes (blame it on the man), both major banks we consulted required that we actually BE a business before we registered for a business account. So, we registered as a 50/50 partnership and chose an account with low fees if we do most of our banking online. Whatever you choose to do in this situation is largely dependent on what kind of runs you’re doing, how well you think you’ll be selling, how much money you’re dealing with, and so on. Alongside this, it’s worth noting that you don’t need an HST number for your press right off the bat. According to the wonderful woman who set up our account at the bank, this is really only necessary if you’re going to be making over $30,000 per year with your press. But, if you’re there already, you’re likely not reading this.

This is also a good opportunity to add a quick note on paying your authors/artists: try to! Please! Have guidelines for royalties, speakers’ fees, honorariums, or whatever you decide, outlined clearly in your author contract. Not only is this good practice (in business and in ethics), but many larger funding bodies require that you pay your authors/artists (and that those authors/artists have receipts for their income) so having good documentation is useful. Royalty payment for authors varies greatly between presses: most offer a certain number of comped copies of the book to the author alongside a percentage of sales; most offer the author discounted copies above the comped copies; some offer the percentage of sales after a certain amount to ensure they cover costs, while others offer a smaller percentage off in-person sales and a larger percentage off online ones. Your author contract/royalties plan might change depending on the size of the run (and if it goes into more than one run), size of the book, cost to produce, notoriety of the author, and other factors. It’s important to craft a clearly defined author contract, but remember that the Press is a fluid business; don’t be afraid to talk about payment with your authors/artists and negotiate the contract together.


Step 3: It’s just you and me (and that’s it?)

One of the most important things to remember when you’re running a small press is that you’re not making books in a vacuum. LISTEN, THINK, REPEAT. This means three things:


  1.         Listen to and Think about your authors: engage them on whatever level they feel comfortable and consult them about design, run, and so on. Also, don’t be SHADY. In our opinion, a Press should never be a Best Friends Club – this is one of the ways in which Press culture becomes self-replicating and impenetrable. Support your community, but be generous – open your eyes and ears, and consider submissions (and even solicitations) of works outside of your circle, and your comfort zone. And, again, if you can, PAY THEM for cat’s sake.


  1.         Listen to and Think about your readers: make books they want to read at prices they can afford; offer some samples for free online; make it easy to purchase online and have a clear digital presence while at the same time having launches, readings, events, and attending markets to make yourself physically accessible.


  1.         Listen to and Think about your community: as we have said over and over, the community of small press publishers, DIY collectives and spaces, and so on, has been invaluable. We learned A LOT from simply listening to our peers, and hearing their concerns about publishing and how to make this process better. This works both ways. Other presses can, and will, help you, but you need to also support them. Go to other events for other presses. Buy other chapbooks. Support other presses and others through hyperlinks, sharing on social media, and promoting other works. You may consider doing this through the Meet the Presses Literary Market, happening this year on November 18, 2017. Meet the Presses is a collective that works to actively support small press publishing in Canada. Other organizations, like the League of Canadian Poets & Diaspora Dialogues are also places to look to join, build, and support the small press literary community in Toronto, and other versions of these organizations are all over the country.


Step 4: I can give you more (than just a few books)

As we mentioned in Step 2, most funding bodies do not offer funding opportunities for presses who just make books. This is absolutely true of TAC and OAC grants for literary organizations. But, that’s not the only reason to expand your literary praxis beyond making books. The truth is, we have tons of poetry by white people, and not nearly enough from others. But beyond poetry, what we need is more active conversation, more inclusive communities, and more opportunities for writers, readers, artists, editors, and other people involved in literary communities to come together, to share, teach, and learn.


Alongside your small press, you might consider the role of a reading series or other type of reading/gathering to complement the work you publish. Not only will this make it possible to apply for other funding you wouldn’t be eligible for otherwise, but it also provides space to sell your books, meet new potential authors, and engage physically with your community. Gap Riot is in the process of organizing a reading series which we aim to begin in the fall. You might also want to consider having your organization run workshops (writing, bookbinding or design, printmaking, &c). You can also, once you have some real funding supporting you (never stop dreaming), envision your collective as a space where you invite others in the literary scene to come in as apprentice editors, as curators of a series or an anthology, etc.


Step 5: Don’t you know that the time has arrived (to make a book)

When you get to the point where you have all your ducks in a row and you’re reading to make a book, our best advice is to jump right in. The best way to get started is by trial and error. We typeset and design our chapbooks in InDesign. Other people were really helpful when we started to figure that out (Nicole, Sebastian, and Stace in particular). One thing Nicole pointed out to us that I think bears repeating is that you can find SO MANY fonts available for free online that you can use to make your book cover and design unique. But, you should be careful that you’re not stealing someone else’s font design. Be sure that any font you download and use for your books is free for all uses, and not simply free for personal use. That is, if you care about paying artists and designers, you’ll keep in mind that a font is their art product. When/if you have enough money, donate to a font designer or buy a fancy font. There are a lot of free tutorials on YouTube and elsewhere about using InDesign and we recommend using all those resources, as well as just playing around, to get you started.

Also, don’t forget that the best way to make your chapbook more serious is to get an ISBN for each book. This will help your authors when they try to get writers’ grants, and it will help preserve your work for posterity (if that’s a thing you care about). When you get an ISBN, which is hella easy, you need to remember to save copies of your chapbook to send to the Library of Congress.


Once you’ve created your masterpiece, you need to think about how you are going to print your books. The way we see it, you have three options:


  1.         Get all the materials and print it yo’ damn self: expensive to start but will save money in the long run; much more time-consuming; you have complete creative control; there’s a real learning-curve here, unless you already know what you’re doing. You will need a quality printer, a guillotine or excellent exact-o knife, a large stapler and/or awl, needle, and binding thread (I have been advised that embroidery cotton also works well and is cheaper). You may want to invest in a paper folder. You can get adventurous about paper.


  1.         Go to a chain store (like Staples, FedEx, TPH): obviously the cheapest option, and usually the fastest; very limited control/engagement; supporting big bad industries who do not care about small presses, or poetry, or art, or…people.


  1.         Go to a small printing studio (we use Swimmer’s Group and they are amazing, but there are others): the most beautiful end-products; smaller studios will engage you in the printing process and advise you about design issues, paper and binding options, and ways to experiment with the book; plus, you are supporting a small, local company.

Don’t forget that one of the bonuses of small press is that you’re not stuck with the boring standards of popular/mainstream publication, so for cat’s sake have fun with the material components of your books. Make something beautiful, weird, fascinating, or terrifying. But, make a statement for real.

So, that’s our advice, for now. Take it with a heaping spoonful of salt. If you’d like to ask us questions, give us feedback, or see copies of our contracts, etc., please feel free to reach out to us at gapriotpress@gmail.com.  

Sashay, Shanté, and don’t forget to WERK IT, gurrrl.


dani & kate xo

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Kate Siklosi lives, writes, and thinks in Toronto. She holds a PhD in English Literature and has defenestrated from the academic ivory tower in search of warmer climes. She is a writer by day and a poet by night. She is the cofounding editor of Gap Riot Press and is currently working on a manuscript of experimental petro-poetry, Love Songs for Hibernia.

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Dani Spinosa is a poet of digital and print media, an on-again-off-again precarious professor, and the Managing Editor of the Electronic Literature Directory. Her first chapbook, Glosas for Tired Eyes, was published in 2017 with No Press and her first scholarly manuscript, Anarchists in the Academy: Machines and Free Readers in Experimental Poetry is forthcoming from University of Alberta Press (Spring 2018).

#shinetheory · DIY · fast feminism · guest post · Uncategorized

“This book is an action”: Notes on Creating a Feminist Small Press

For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.

– Audre Lorde

Gap Riot Press is a Toronto-based, women-run chapbook press cofounded by Dani Spinosa and Kate Siklosi. Our mission is to engage a wider literary community through the publication of formally innovative and experimental poetic works, with a priority on unrepresented and marginalized voices.

There’s no ifs ands or buts about it: the textual object is an expression of privilege. As women, we know this well. It’s 2017, and if you want to publish experimental poetry today, chances are, you have to go to a white man to do it. So, we asked ourselves – how, with embers of the CanLit dumpster fire still glowing (see here, here, here, and everywhere), can we enter the space of publication and open a communal space to listen to and engage with writers we so desperately need to hear from?

Gap Riot is the fruit of conversations between women – it is infused with the night heat of summer, the breath of whiskey, the lament of hearts outpouring. It is also the result of our classical anarchist training (thanks, Robert Duncan!). We believe that artists and writers have a communal responsibility to respond creatively to the world – to approach its conditions with a spirit of action, intervention, and love.

A great deal of this responsibility lies with literary publishers and editors, who have a huge role to play in shattering the canon and opposing the very foundations of canon-formation. “By editing with empathy and a wider eye to the readership,” Jacqueline Valencia has recently written in “How Do We Fix the Canlit Canon,” “we can start to form a dialogue conducive to openness and understanding.” Gap Riot Press is our little way of minding the gap in these conversations. If the canon is to change, we don’t need more words – we need dialogue, coproduction, and exchange.

We’ve gotten a lot of questions so far about what makes feminist publishing, well, “feminist.” Do we only publish works by and for women? Does all of our writing have to pertain to gender issues as a theme? Do we hate men? For us, the feminist press is not about exclusion or cutting off conversations between men and women, or people of different races, sexualities, or abilities. It goes beyond having a diversified masthead and roster and our work is just one way of looking at how to move beyond “diversification.” As we will explore in our second installment with Hook & Eye, there are many ways of doing this editorial and cultural work. Gap Riot is also a way for us, as women, to get our hands dirty in the poetic craft as a form of activism: or, poetic craftivism, to use Betsy Greer’s term that grew out of Riot Grrrl. Purposeful acts of gentle anarchy to keep the patriarchal, academic, and corporate worlds woke.  

That’s why we at Gap Riot are so devoted to the craft and the material of small press book production. As poets ourselves, we have always had our eye on the visual poetic which refuses to withdraw the materiality of language from its meaning-making capacities. This materiality, countless poets reminds us, is central to the politics of poetic production. At Gap Riot, we translate this interest in the materiality of poetry to the production of small runs of books that are crafted by women working collaboratively across disciplines and printed at the Toronto-based art printing house Swimmer’s Group. Of course, along with material production and craft comes the issue of finances; we speak more specifically to that issue in our second installment with Hook and Eye on the practical issues of starting a small press and the politics that goes alongside that. As we continue to design and publish these books, we will work collaboratively with designers, artists, printers, and poets to produce books that challenge the traditional structures of book publishing. Chapbooks have always done this work. Craft has always done this work. Feminists have always done this work. We are still learning.

We desire an active and responsive readership. Too often, literary publication practices ignore crucial opportunities for engagement beyond the page. We not only want to take up space in the material production of texts, but we want to open spaces for women and marginalized writers to become their works, try them on, experiment with them. So, beginning in the fall of 2017, we will be starting a reading series that fosters inclusivity and interaction. These events will create reading spaces that are inclusive, supportive, and antagonistic to the traditions of canonicity and exclusivity that so frequently accompany experimental writing.

It is a well-known and widely discussed fact that marginalized writers are severely underrepresented in what we read and critique; it is also well-known, but seldom engaged-with, that the labour of literary production – the work of editors, publishers, agents, and reviewers who wield so much capacity for changing the industry – is work that is controlled and undertaken by white liberal sentinels. Why are there so few marginalized people in influential gatekeeping roles? What barriers to access need to be torn down? These and other questions need to be asked of our literary peers in arms. But we need to start doing more than just asking these questions. As white women, we’re aware that we have a lot of work to do beyond the privilege of setting up a press, and we know how great of a privilege it is to get to do this work. Sure, we can model the editorial practices we wish to see in the world; but mimicking praxis is not enough to destabilize the accumulated cultural capital wielded by the literary establishment. This is an establishment whose kingdoms are universities, whose loudspeakers are mainstream media, and whose coffers are filled by corporations. The establishment is as powerful as it is steadfast; it is a black hole that hungrily absorbs and consumes that which comes near to it. We need strategies other than those practices used by the establishment to feign change, assume diversity, and then reabsorb any glimmers of progression back into its flat, self-serving agenda. It is not enough to simply ask questions about why writers are continually sidestepped. It is not enough to pledge quotas or insert a few texts by recognizably “diverse” writers. We need to begin to open conversations, and open spaces to collective presents at the limits of and outside the establishment. We need to imagine and reimagine together, revise and revision together, and create and recreate – together.

Part of this work involves seeing intersectionality as more than just tokenizing Indigenous, Queer, PoC writers and their work. We want to get further to the roots of access not only in terms of who gets read, but who gets to produce and therefore interrogate and intervene on the canon. We don’t need more words about inclusivity, we need action. We need to mind the gap. So, once we are a little more established, we plan to establish a sponsorship program that will offer funding to add an editor who has traditionally been denied opportunity and representation to the Gap Riot collective. Such funding will also allow that editor to take editing workshop classes and to curate a series of chapbooks, magazines, readings, or perhaps even an anthology for our press. It’s a small way of creating some space for necessary hands in the literary production of what we read. It is a way of constructing shared creative futures based on reciprocal mentorship and exchange. In this way, Gap Riot becomes more than a press – it becomes a moving project, a tremoring constellation of diverse voices, radical ideas, and dissonant discussions.

As they exist and govern today, the larger structures of literary production (their institutions and their gatekeepers) do not foster this type of movement. Most literary powerhouses – commercial houses and university presses – protect whiteness, and in particular, male whiteness. These institutions also foster a culture of self-absorbed elitism and careerism. We need to counteract these entrenched narratives by using community to combat the institutions and practices that render innovative writers tokenized or invisible. Part of the solution is to increase exposure by getting on the ground with our works – selling them at book fairs, in parking lots, at kitchen tables. We need to actively identify those writers who are doing innovative work but aren’t receiving acknowledgement and invite them to publish and to edit the work alongside us. We have to move beyond the desire to just sell a few books, and work instead towards getting people talking, performing, and creating alongside each other.

Gap Riot Press takes influence from our literary forebears and Riot Grrrls. We know we are following in a long lineage of women, PoCs, queer and trans folk, and allies who have done, and continue to do, the work of supporting and amplifying marginal voices of all kinds. We’re also in good company. Bolstered by the continued work by organizations like CWILA, literary awards like the Emerging Indigenous Voices Fund, and publishing and editorial support initiatives like Vivek Shraya’s new imprint, VS Books, with Arsenal Pulp. We’re here to embody the unexpected and question expectations. We’re here to challenge the view of marginalized as always “emerging” when they have simply been unacknowledged. We’re here for collectivity, protest, and resistance channeled through creative energy. We’re here to work together towards shared, intersectional futures. We’re here to kick down the doors of the privileged canon, and take some names.

Of course, we’re only just getting started. Our first chapbook, the beautiful and moving What Linda Said by Toronto-based poet, novelist, and playwright Priscila Uppal, soft launched as a part of the premiere of her play by the same name at this summer’s SummerWorks Theatre Festival in Toronto. Our next release is already being finalized as we write this—an innovative, visually striking, and generally badass look at Salomé from feminist poet Adeena Karasick. And we have more on the way.

For more information, please visit us online at www.gapriotpress.com, follow us on Twitter @gapriotpress, or shoot us a quick email at gapriotpress@gmail.com.

#post-ac · advice · DIY · empowerment · guest post

Guest Post: My #postac Life: From #tenuretrack to #essayjack

5 years ago I wrote a guest post for Hook and Eye about my difficulties with what we in the academy glibly refer to as “the two body problem,” or what to do when academics dare to have personal lives that might include spouses with academic jobs. 

What I grappled with back then was a desire for bureaucracies and universities to be able to provide solutions; I focused on spousal hiring as one potential solution, but there could be many others, not limited to but including increased salaries, housing allowances, or travel costs, all common in industries that acknowledge travel as an adverse condition of work.
Since then, my journey has been an interesting and winding one, and I have a hard time remembering that woman who wrote with such pain the following words: “if I were a betting woman, I’d bet that my days in academia are numbered. And that makes me very sad. In fact, it breaks my heart just a little bit.”
I guess the good news is that my broken heart is so fully mended that I forgot it even broke. The professional academy is now like an ex who I look back on with fondness and affection, but I can’t really evoke or fully recall those feelings of love anymore.
A few months after I wrote those broken hearted words I submitted my resignation to the University of Waterloo and jumped off the tenure track. I didn’t know exactly what things would look like, but I had a research grant to get me through that first exit, which allowed me to continue on with some of my academic work (including hosting a symposium in the spring of 2011 and co-editing a book that is coming out with the University of Toronto Press in 2016).
That freedom to jump into the unknown and start figuring out what my #postac life might look like allowed me to do many interesting projects between 2011 and 2014. For instance:

More important than what I actually did during those few years was how those years allowed me to see the world differently. I reclaimed both my courage and my confidence, and I began to see life’s possibilities rather than its limitations.

It was liberating, freeing, and exhilarating.
Why didn’t I know that? Why didn’t anyone tell me that leaving the tenure track could feel so good? Why did I believe that I was making a sacrifice? Why did I think anything other than being an English professor was somehow a failure on my part?
I have a number of potential answers to these questions (and the many other related ones), but I think one response can be summed up with the following oft-repeated bit of advice that I was told as I grappled with my own decision-making process, and that advice is some version of: “it could be worse.”

“Most academics never get a full time job; be happy; it could be worse.”  “You and your spouse both landed jobs; it could be worse.” “You are both in the same country/time zone/province; it could be worse.” “You landed at a good university; it could be worse.” “Your job is in Canada; it could be worse.” Etc. etc.
And, well, yes, things most certainly “could be worse.” But by that same logic, things most certainly “could be better” too. And that was a truth I discovered and allowed to be my lodestone, guiding me forward on my own journey into the #postac unknown, seeking something “better.”

So back to my story…after three years as an independent consultant (where I literally gave my business card to everyone I knew; went to every single “wine & cheese” event I could, and shamelessly slogged my services as a “brain for hire” to anyone and everyone), I made enough money for the seed capital to start my own business. As of July 2014 I became the full-time co-founder and CEO of EssayJack. 

EssayJack is a web app that prestructures student essays and allows for educator customization and feedback. We did pilot testing at the University of Toronto, and our first paid institutional license for this coming semester is the University of Toronto Schools.


Basically, students struggle with the form and structure of academic essay writing, and I wanted to use technology to help. EssayJack is the result of those efforts.

Students can sign on as of this September for monthly and/or annual subscriptions, and educators can get in touch to unlock the educator functionality that allows for customization of the essay template as well as an integrated feedback system to speed up the essay-marking process. 

The 2015-2016 academic year is our beta year as we make sure the technology is sound, that we can meet (or exceed!) our targets, and that we respond to what educators and students want out of essay-structuring help of the sort that we are able to provide.
I never could have possibly guessed when I left the tenure track that I’d find myself as the CEO of an educational tech start up. Never. Not in a million years. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
I find that things I’ve long cared about from my past professional life as an academic do, in fact, transition into my #postac life, and while I have no pat and easy answers for anyone else considering a transition out, I simply ask you to ask yourself: can it be any better? If the answer is “yes,” then go for it; you deserve it!
Dr. Lindy Ledohowski, OCT
(B.A. hons., B.Ed., M.A., Ph.D.)
Co-Founder & CEO, EssayJack Inc.

coping · DIY · emotional labour · empowerment · grad school · teaching · writing

#tacitphd: On Letting it Go (when it’s not perfect)

Last week, Aimée wrote an important post about graduate education and the tacit knowledge that is required to achieve success in the PhD. She wrote: 

“Graduate education is a complex social universe with a lot of moving parts, and the heavy and numerous explicit obligations disguise the substantial amount of tacit knowledge and cultural competence required to succeed at it. We know the what of grad school: coursework, TAs and independent teaching, area exams, dissertation proposal, dissertation, and some professional activities like publishing and conference-going. Applying for grants. Applying for jobs. But the how and sometimes even the why is mystifying.”

Aimée’s post asked readers to join the conversation and make the implicit explicit using the #tacitphd hashtag, and several people took to Twitter to comment, in addition to commenting on her post. Both the tweets and comments are great, ranging from simple protocol, to deeper discussions on how to think about your thesis proposal, exams, and work/life balance. You can see the Storify here:

As several people pointed out, the how of the dissertation-writing process is one of the more difficult things to understand. Part of this is a normal not-knowing, in the sense that you can’t really understand how to do something like write your own original work until you start to do it. But part of this knowledge is, for whatever reason, little taught and infrequently discussed. I had furtive conversations about writing the dissertation with newly-minted PhDs, and occasionally my colleagues, and then, happily, I took a grad course from the Writing Studies department, which helped me think and write about the writing process, and pointed me to some great resources (How to Write A Lot is one of those essential books.) 
This summer, coincidentally, I’ve spent nearly all my time (aside from a few conferences/courses) writing writing writing writing the dissertation. And, as is normal, the Writing has been Hard. It is hard to piece together hundreds of different historical, literary and theoretical sources, and build an argument based on the evidence you discover. It is hard to shift your argument when it doesn’t seem to match what you thought when you first read the source two years previously. It is hard to revisit an author you read in your first graduate degree, and rethink what you thought then. It is difficult to make sure all the ideas you have cohere, and that they flow logically over hundreds of pages. It is hard to know where a section of writing should go: this chapter, the next, the introduction? It is also very hard to pass on that writing for someone else to read, especially when you feel it still has some major problems to be worked out.
There are, of course, the easy writing weeks, where the words seemed to fly out of your head and onto the page, where every morning you get a thrill opening up the computer, because you know exactly what you want to say next. These weeks are amazing, and exciting, and will make you remember why you started this PhD in the first place.
But the easy parts of dissertation-writing are not necessarily the parts that need the implicit made explicit. So, with that in mind, I’m offering one bit of advice with regards to dissertation writing, probably what I’ve found to be the most difficult: letting it go (when it’s not perfect).
One of the things we tend to think about the dissertation is that is has to be perfect. And, it seems, the longer we take working on something, the better it must be. Contrary to what you may think, however, the Dissertation is not the final product, the book ready-to-be-published. The dissertation-as-publishable-book-model is not a particularly useful one. Instead, it’s better to think of the dissertation as a first draft, something to return to later, a hoop to jump through to finish the degree. And get in the practice of being okay with your draft-y work being seen by many before it is as “perfect” as you think it needs to be. 
So, how do you get in the practice of letting go of your writing?
1. Join a writing group: meet up with a couple of colleagues/friends to exchange draft-y writing. If you don’t have a writing group, ask someone in your PhD cohort if she would be interested in exchanging her work with yours and commenting on it. One of the best experiences I’ve had in the PhD was exchanging writing with a friend while we worked together to write papers for a workshop. It helped keep me on track for the workshop, months in advance.
2. Send your stuff to your supervisor before you think it is “perfect”: If you’re anything like me, you would rather be stuck for weeks trying to fix a problem section of writing rather than sending it to your supervisor for comments when it is a mess. Don’t be like me. You will waste days, or perhaps even weeks, of your life. If your supervisor is willing to look at draft-y work (and most are, or should be), send it away. Don’t tinker for ages trying to make something perfect when what it really needs is another set of eyes, and some sage advice.
3. Trust your supervisor when she says it is ready to go to your committee: If your supervisor says it is ready to go, it is ready to go. Don’t wait for days to press send on that chapter. Your committee will thank you for giving them the extra time to read it, and your time to completion will be reduced.
How have you learned to let go of your writing? Do you have other dissertation-writing advice? Leave a comment, or add to the Twitter hashtag #tacitphd.
coping · DIY · emotional labour · empowerment · grad school · teaching

Tacit knowledge and graduate education

I suspect one of the reasons I became an English major is that I’m so terrible at reading social cues.

Oh, the gaffes I have gaffed in my life! I was a very awkward child, considered weird by others, and I never managed to fit it. I was pedantic when lightness was required. I mistook flirtations for competition and fought too hard. I approached interactions from my own raw needs rather than consideration for others or the social contract. I lurched from one failed interaction to another, from misread cue to inappropriate behaviour to puzzled ostracism, for years and years.

Books helped me figure out the tacit rules of social life. Books showed me patterns. Books offered models of behavior. Now, a lot of this was implied or inferred, but at least a reader was not directly acting within those social worlds, but could observe and assess. Determine patterns. Slow down the scene. Reread. Figure it out. Literature was the textbook through which I was taught all those social cues and processes I had no natural knack for.

Eventually, I learned how to act like a high-functioning social being (even if I sometimes have to ask myself directly, in the middle of some interaction or another, “What would a human do at this point?”) and I’ve learned a couple of other things as well.

First. How things happen is sometimes more important than what happens. Many social situations are governed not explicitly by the content addressed, but by tone and turn-taking, and carefully deployed deference, or smiles. In Canada we spend a lot of time talking to friends and family and strangers and acquaintances about the weather, and it’s not reallllllly about the weather, is it? It’s more a ritual of attention, or a sort of “I see you,” or “I would like to say something pleasant to engage you while we stand in this hallway waiting for the maintenance worker to find the extra key for the door.

Second. Good intentions do not always equal good outcomes. I spent many years in pretty grim social isolation, never sure when I would alienate my one remaining friend, and feeling lonely and nervous pretty much all the time. I wanted to fit in more than anything, but I just couldn’t. It was pretty awful, the mismatch between effort and outcome, but working harder when you don’t know what you’re doing wrong is never going to yield different results.

Now, this is an academic blog, not therapy, and I’m going somewhere. Where I’m going is this: graduate education is a complex social universe with a lot of moving parts, and the heavy and numerous explicit obligations disguise the substantial amount of tacit knowledge and cultural competence required to succeed at it. We know the what of grad school: coursework, TAs and independent teaching, area exams, dissertation proposal, dissertation, and some professional activities like publishing and conference-going. Applying for grants. Applying for jobs. But the how and sometimes even the why is mystifying: can I just email a professor about being my supervisor? If this work is about my solitary writing labour, why do I have to go to all these department events? Am I supposed to be a good teacher, or is that a bad thing? Am I allowed to talk to my professors if I see them at the grocery store? Isn’t it a better idea to ditch that first year teaching gig for a better class at the local college?

This stuff can tank people. The hidden curriculum–networking, professional communication, how to spend each day, which tasks and relationships to prioritize, and how–supports the overt one. Tacit knowledge greases the wheels, and in its absence, the wheels grind and spark and fail. Good intentions aren’t the problem.

I would say this is my main work as Associate Chair for Graduate Studies in my department. I make explicit the tacit. This can be jarring–in polite society we prefer some things to remain unsaid. Things like: when you email me a question you could look up in 10 seconds, I get angry because you don’t value my time and I think less of you. Things like: it is not better to burn all your bridges in the department for nominally “better” teaching gig somewhere else. Things like: you need to take the lead in gently reminding your dissertation supervisor you exist, because you need her a lot more than she needs you.

For me, this is an equity seeking gesture. Those of us not to the library born are at a significant disadvantage, navigating new social worlds and trying to figure them out at the same time as the explicit curriculum bears down so hard on us.

I think I’m breaking some rules by being so forthright about some of these things. Maybe I haven’t totally outgrown my awkwardness and maybe I still don’t fit all the way in. But it is very rewarding to see a lightbulb go off for a student when I can reveal the inner workings of some mysterious process so that he understand it.

And now I ask you: can you share a piece of tacit knowledge, hard won, so someone else can win it a little more easily? Please leave a comment, or share on Twitter with the hashtag #tacitPhD

day in the life · DIY · gradgrind · guest post

Guest Post: Why We Work

How much of graduate students’ time is truly their own? This post confronts this question by focusing on grad students working outside of their department or the university, and thus outside of their departmental funding. The authors of this post, one MA student and one PhD candidate, have each held/continue to hold such positions, and have been actively involved in an ongoing conversation in their department about whether these forms of work are appropriate and/or necessary.
While the piece is presented as a dialogue, both authors wish to emphasize the fact that this post is building upon numerous discussions each of us have had with other graduate students, faculty members, family and friends. This blog is therefore not intended as a definitive account of the matter, but is instead an attempt to highlight and work through some of the issues of importance surrounding this debate, as well as what we see as a broader disconnect between faculty vision and student realities.
K: Graduate student employment has become a point of discussion in our department. To simplify it, some faculty members were surprised at the number of grad students working in other departments and outside the university, and expressed a desire to limit our work hours in various ways. I became concerned about the assumptions that were being made about grad students and our needs, and I wanted to extend this conversation further. The way I understand it is there is this model English grad student, with certain desires and needs and practices, that is being supported through these guidelines. But there are many ways in which this model is outdated or wholly unrealistic.

M: Kaarina, I think you’re absolutely right that what seems to be at stake here is not just existing regulations and whether they are enforced, but a broader conception of who contemporary graduate students in the humanities are, and what they want or need to work successfully.

One of the ways concern about external work has been expressed, for example, is fear about time to degree completion. And it’s not that this isn’t an issue in academics, or that most graduate students aren’t crushinglyaware of the possible consequences of not completing their projects in a ‘timely’ fashion. But why, when there are so many studies out there demonstrating that completion times are rising across the board because of the uncertainties of the academic job market and other aspects of post-degree life, should non-departmental work be singled out as a cause in this way?

And, to get back to that ideal grad student again, this suggestion that extra-departmental work can only slow us down really seems to reduce us all to one type of worker. Many of us, I think, really value our time spent working on stuff that isn’t our own project, and find that getting some distance actually makes our work easier to return to and focus on. And we know this about ourselves, because we’re competent, professional adults who have, by this point, spent a long time in school. This doesn’t mean we’re beyond the need for guidance or support, but it does mean that the idea of being told how we can or should work best is more than a bit troubling.

The department we work in also emphasizes its interdisciplinarity quite a lot. It was definitely stressed to me during recruitment, and it’s all over the department website. Many of the students in my cohort identify their work as interdisciplinary. So I would think that gaining experience in other departments and beyond the university itself, would be considered not just permissible, but…necessary, even? Maybe that’s too strong a word, but my time teaching in Writing Studies, for example, has been incredibly valuable to my project. Not to mention that experience focusing on writing instruction makes me a better teacher within my home department! It sorta feels like everyone wins, here.

There also seems to me to be a broader connection to make here between the need for interdisciplinarity and the need for departments to really come to terms with the fact that the graduate students of today are not the graduate students of yesteryear. We don’t (and can’t!) identify primarily or exclusively as researchers. And from Day 1 in graduate school, many of us have been told that this is healthy, that we can’t get attached to the idea of a tenure-track job in a context where such positions are rapidly disappearing. If the Ideal Grad Student (™), is a trope that needs to be used at all, then, it should at least be updated to account for this context. And our department is making strides in these areas in several respects; we recently hosted a series of events related to alt-ac preparation, for example. But there seems to be a disjunction between the department accepting that a broader conceptualization of professionalization is important and necessary, and the ways in which these attempts to limit graduate students’ abilities to work outside the department necessarily contradict that awareness.

K: And obviously, money is a major factor. Even when funding is good, it’s only so good, and there can be a lot of unspoken discrepancies in funding between different students or different institutions. The rhetoric of adequate funding is totally bewildering–it does not account for the different needs of students who are supporting others, paying off debts, travelling to see loved ones, or simply saving for an unpredictable future.

M: YES! The language of adequacy really tends to treat graduate school as if it exists in this completely contained vacuum. This ignores not only the areas of life that fall outside of research during the course of the degree, but also the fact that we have lives that will go on after that degree is completed, and which cannot simply be put on hold.

K: For my part, one way I managed my stress this year was by taking on a second job to eliminate financial stress altogether. I don’t have to worry about making ends meet, and that has been a huge relief. Otherwise, my relatively excellent funding would put me below the poverty line.[1]

M + K: To move beyond the level of our department, this seems to be fundamentally an issue of transparency. There is so little transparency around funding, and this manifests in all kinds of ways. In discussions with other students, for instance, we’ve noticed a recurring theme of surprising ignorance (willful or otherwise) among some faculty about how and how much their students are funded. There have also been serious issues of over- and under-payment in our department, and these mistakes are indicators that the administration does not fully understand or care how our finances function. And ultimately, these ambiguities have real, material effects here and beyond. As Zane Schwartz explains, the U of T’s strategic deployment of the language of ‘wage increase’ deliberately relied on a similar lack of transparency, and used it against its students and employees.

Put simply, our struggles over graduate student labour here are necessarily part of the dysfunctional labour scene at most universities. We hope this post can function as an invitation broaden the conversation beyond both our institution and graduate studies itself. There are, for instance, important continuities and contradictions between attitudes toward graduate student labour and approaches to contract adjunct labour.
Kaarina Mikalson is completing her MA, and she is about to defend her thesis on Canadian fiction from the Great Depression. She is the project manager for Canada and the Spanish Civil War, and a research assistant for CWRC.
Megan Farnel is a SSHRC-funded doctoral candidate working in the fields of new media, affect, and materialist studies. She is blogging her dissertation over on HASTAC, and blogging some more over the summer for UAEM Alberta.

[1]According to info from Statistics Canada.
Low income cut-offs before and after tax by community and family size, 2011 constant dollars.” Statistics Canada. Government of Canada, 27 Jun. 2013. Web. 9 Apr. 2015.

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. 

academic reorganization · adjuncts · after the LTA · DIY · solidarity

Dear Contract Academic Faculty,

I see you.

No no, don’t worry, I’m precariously employed too, so my seeing you won’t change your employment.   I can’t do anything for you, though I would if I could. You don’t need to look like you’re working any harder than you already are just because I am looking in your direction. But know this: I see you. And you matter.

I see you, prepping for your classes every night until midnight (or later). I know you’re teaching more than regular faculty, because that’s how contracts work at your institution. I know you have six or more classes per year and that not a one of them is a repeat. And I know you’re working to make the lectures good, the material innovative and inspiring, and the discussions life-altering even though you’re struggling to get the reading done and the assignments graded.

I see you, teaching a class at this campus, and getting in your car or on public transit or in a carpool to make it across town/ across the city/ into the valley/ into another city/ to the next campus in time to teach the next group of students. And I see you try and smile when you do it.

I see you, trying to jam research into the corners of your life that aren’t filled with prep for class.

I see you, not producing research, because there’s no time, or no money, or the very real understanding that maybe, just maybe, there’s no point.

I see you, taking on the book reviews, the peer reviews, the jury duties. And yes, I get it. I do it too, because it feels good to be asked. Because it feels good to participate in the profession. Because it can go on the CV. Because it means someone else sees you too. And yes, I know that you likely kick yourself for saying yes at least some of the time, because isn’t that feeding the imbalanced system? But I see you, because you care about the material. Because community. Because CV.

I see you, carrying your students’s assignments in your bag because you have no office/ share an office/ would rather meet in the library than try to schedule time at your shared desk.

I see your students call you “Miss” or by your first name even though you’ve asked to be called by your professional title.

I see those teaching evaluations–the quiet devastation they can bring–either by being better than the department average, or worse.

I see you, writing reference letters for students applying to for study abroad programs, to be residence dons, to get into graduate programs, for colleagues going up for tenure and promotion, and I know: it might be hard to figure out where to print the letters, because I know you don’t have access to photocopiers, scanners, printers, or, heck, hard copy letter head. Not all the time. Likely not after hours when you can do this work.

I see you, meeting with students on your own time or in office hours to talk about their plans for graduate school. I see you waffle, because you still care, because you believe in the work you do even though you’re being shut out, made provisional, living precariously. I see you do it anyway, and do it well.

I see you say no. I know what it costs you, that small action of agency, that protection of your time. I know that “no” is meant to be a proactive word for you, and I know the second-third-and-fourth guessing that accompanies every decision to use it.

I see you, applying for your own position. And I see you not get it, sometimes.

I see you, applying for postdoctoral fellowships, for grants, and asking for adjunct status if that grant is successful. I see you working extra, because the grant means you can do the work you love, and because the grant would mean that maybe, just maybe, you’ve got some leverage (but not a living wage). I see you wobble, because a successful grant may not end up meaning shit.

I see you, competing against your peers, your friends, your acquaintances for the one or two jobs in your area. I see you, writing those letters of application cringing at the lack of research, or, conversely, wondering if this time your well-rounded application will make it to the top. Or, if it matters, because maybe there is another contract academic faculty member who is the inside candidate, and it doesn’t matter. I see your frustration, and I want to say: it’s ok. We all want to be the inside candidate, even though we know that doesn’t always work out either.

I see the unfairness in the labyrinthine system in which we labour–or try to labour.

I see that you’re tired. I see that you’re trying. I see you, working so hard to be able to work.

You have more agency than you think, though its hard to think when you’re so busy or heartsick.

I see that these thoughts break your heart, and I see you wonder if it shows, if other people notice that you do still carry that little spark of hope that things will change.

Things will change, though they may not look they way you thought they would. We need to leave. And we need to stay, but under different working conditions. We need to organize ourselves, despite the extra work that requires. We can do it. We’re resourceful. We care. We can draw on the will and support of tenured colleagues and on organizations such as ACCUTE and CAUT and we can do something, though it won’t happen quickly. And, we can choose not to, we can choose to leave. And that is not a failure either.

But for now, dear CAF, know this: I see you. I care about you. I can’t fix anything for you by myself, but know that you’re not alone.



Ps. Thanks to Lily for the love letter inspiration.

after the LTA · DIY · moving

Avoiding the Empathy Trap 2: Frank Talk About Moving

Today, I’m packing up my office. Soon, we’ll have to start packing up our home. My partner and I have calculated that if we combine our individual moves since finishing high school this will be move number fifty-one for us. FIFTY-ONE. I have spent the last forty-five minutes culling books from my collection, because this time I am moving without a moving allowance (though luckily my partner has one with his new position). I have taken all the art off my office walls and piled it up on a filing cabinet. I can’t even begin to tackle the paper that has accumulated over the last twelve months. Despite my best efforts at organization and downsizing it can’t be denied: I have a lot of work-related stuff. And it has to go in boxes. All of it. Again.

Packing makes me angry. Moving makes me tired. What does any of this have to do with avoiding the empathy trap? Plenty. If you are an early career scholar, or a contract academic faculty member the imperative–both to pay the bills and to keep a foot in the door of academia–you probably have to move for work. You definitely have to think about moving and weigh whether or not you will move.

Let’s not mince words: moving is hard work. It takes physical energy (are there boxes? Can we actually lift this thing? How do we tell the anxious dog it will be ok? Where the hell is the modem return place?) Moving also takes emotional energy, and that’s the part people tend to forget when addressing work-related moves. There is a real desire to pass over the hard parts of moving and focus on new beginnings. And new beginnings are great, but newness doesn’t always go hand in hand with ease and excitement and a clear path into what’s next. Academics–especially early career academics– aren’t the only ones who move, but as Lee Skallerup Bessette writes, perpetual movement is the modern academic condition. That, friends, is worth pausing to think about for a moment.

One of the many things that I have written about over the years is moving. Four years ago, fresh off my move from Alberta to Nova Scotia, I wrote this post about the implicit imperative for graduate students to move for each degree. I realize now that when I wrote it I was writing from a position of a kind of myopia. I moved for all three of my degrees, and I did so because I wanted to move. I was able to move between countries, provinces, and landscapes with relative ease. Yes, it meant building new communities each time, yes, it meant haunting the liquor store for packing boxes over and over again. Ultimately, though, it was my choice and my privilege to move. I wasn’t tied to a place, I am an only child, my parents were willing and able to visit me wherever. Was I privileged? Sure. Has moving a zillion times taught me some things? Yes. I know I can make a life wherever I go. I know I can pack a house in three days flat. I know how to forge routines until they feel like home. But the imperative to move, move, move has cost me too. I wasn’t tied — rooted — to a place. I wager it has cost a lot of us, and I suspect it costs communities and universities a lot more that the institutions realize.

Over the last few years I have become more and more grounded in a particular place, a particular region of Canada. I have also met more and more people for whom place is sacred. I mean really, truly sacred. Moving from a place means severing daily ties to family (both blood and chosen), community, and the land. It means having to leave your home. It means having to leave your home.

Take a minute and think about the implications of that statement. Be careful not to misread it.

The imperative of moving for work is not a new one. I won’t forget the first time I flew from Alberta to Atlantic Canada. It was a red eye flight and it stopped in Halifax before heading on to St. John’s. It was full of people who were going home on furlough after working in Fort MacMurray on the rigs or on the Tar Sands. The woman next to me asked where I was from and when I hedged she asked why I was going to Nova Scotia. “For work,” I said. I won’t forget what she said next: you’re lucky, she said. We’re all working out west so that we can come home. There are a million different versions and experiences of people having to move for work. There are many ways in which moving can be good, can be positive, can be exciting, and, more simply, can be a way of paying the bills. But in academia–and especially in my disciplines that are in the Humanities–I wonder how well we are doing in thinking through what it means to reproduce a move-for-subsistence model.

So what’s the take-away in this second post on avoiding the empty trap? It is this: on the quotidian level let’s acknowledge that the nomadic imperative in academia means different things at different stages of the career. Moving as a guest lecturer or visiting professor does not mean the same thing as moving for a sustainable paycheque. Is it hard to change a system? Sure. But it won’t happen if we don’t talk about full range of issues.

Now, who wants to come over and help me pack?

DIY · empowerment

Avoiding the Empathy Trap 1: I Do Research

Two weeks ago I wrote about the empathy trap and it was the most read post I have ever written. If you missed it you can read it here. It was a hard post to write, and it is a hard post to follow up. I have been thinking about how to productively respond to my own public thinking. This is what I have come up with: In the next few weeks I aim to write a few posts on how to avoid the empathy trap. Some posts will be in conversation towards those who are in positions of relative power, by which I mean jobbed positions–be they tenured or un- — and some will be directed towards people who find themselves to be unemployed. It is important to note that I think I have been in both positions, if marginally. As a person who has held multiple contract academic faculty positions I have been in relative positions of power. As someone who is unemployed despite my best efforts, and who still has research projects on the go, I am most definitely outside the academy in some ways. In other ways, though, I am positioned to be more inside the research track than I ever could have been as a teaching-heavy contract academic faculty member.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying I am thrilled, happy, or even used to being unemployed. What I am trying to track here in the next few weeks are the ways in which I will maintain my research identity as a trained scholar of Canadian literature and culture while shifting into the first summer … and then fall…in which I am not prepping classes and ordering books and writing lectures.

Here goes nothing.

I do research. This is a fact that is easily forgotten when one is teaching an overload and constantly refashioning the old CV in an attempt to shift it towards one job advertisement or another. Or, if not forgotten, it is a fact that can be left unexplored and under-discussed. (Side note: I know that it is difficult to fit a research agenda into a tenure-track and even tenured position, but theoretically these positions are paid to do that work. At they very least, these positions get paid over the summer months) So here is my question for myself and others who don’t identify as employed: how and how often do you talk about your research? I mean how often do you talk about the research work you do? If I really tried to be honest the answer would be not that often.

My research interests have always focussed on the ways in which women and people of colour have used textual and performance art to intervene in the hegemonic narratives of gender, race, and nation. One of my favourite ways of thinking about these generative and subversive interventions came from my friend and colleague Stephen Collis‘s writing about the commons. In an incredible essay Stephen talks about the blackberry (fruit, not phone) as a model of subversive intervention. You should read it.  Collis’s idea is inspiring to me because it is one voice among many (though you have to search for them) that articulates a means of working within what is in the service of what might be. I have been thinking and writing–in my MA thesis, my doctoral dissertation, and the articles I have published thus far–about the ways in which archives work to silo experimental writing as much as they work to preserve it. In my more recent work I am trying to bring together my public writing and organization work with my literary and cultural analysis.

Here are the projects I have on the go. This is some of the research I am going to try to do over the next year as I work to find work. I’m excited, because theoretically I have time. I am nervous, of course, because that time is unpaid time.

I am working on articles about Sachiko Murakami‘s work, Gail Scott’s novel The Obituary, and Sina Queyrays‘s lyric conceptualism. I also have two articles that have been sitting on the back burner for a while. I’m going to return to these and think about whether they are worth the time and effort to substantially revise.

I have two manuscripts under contract. One of them is about the poetics of collapse, which considers the ways in which contemporary Canadian cultural producers are working to create generative if ephemeral texts out of narratives of utter devastation. The other is an edited collection of poetry by a contemporary Canadian poet.

I am also the chair of the board of CWILA, and we are working towards our third annual launch of the Count. I see this work as research, writing, and public discourse. We’re working to make this our biggest launch yet (and believe me, in terms of the numbers of reviews our volunteers have counted it is the biggest!). Look for it in mid-September when we launch the numbers and essays along with a funding and membership drive.

I am also presenting papers at Discourse & Dynamics: Canadian Women as Public Intellectuals (where I am also on the organizing committee), Avant Canada: Artists, Prophets, Revolutionaries, and the MLA.

That is a lot of stuff, isn’t it? My aim for this week is to use Julie Rak‘s brilliant five-year research plan to map out what I have to do…and then try and adapt that for the fact that, without a contract position or a tenure-track position that five-year plan may well be a ten-to-twelve month plan that also involves career transitioning.

What about y’all? How do those of you who are under or un-epmployed manage, articulate, and conceive of your research?