#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).

academic reorganization · academy · altac · empowerment · ideas for change

Professionalization and the Skillz to Pay the Bills

My first email address, that I got at York in 1993, was this: yku01233@yorku.ca. I probably only remember it because it was my very first email address, and I only knew, like 10 other people with email addresses, pretty much my friends who were geeks and who were at university: queensu.ca, uoguelph.ca. We memorized each other’s weird handles and it all felt very computery and The Future. We were emailing with command line Lynx.

When I got to Guelph for my MA, I had a new address: amorri02@uoguelph.ca. The first thing I did was go into the settings of my mail program (Pegasus!) and configure the account so that the name “Aimee Morrison” attached to the email address amorri02@uoguelph.ca. That way, if you got an email from me, it would list my actual name in your inbox. And if you were on campus and typed part of my name, it would autocomplete the address from the directory. When I got to the University of Alberta (in 1998) I did the further trickery of registering an actual alias address: ahm@ualberta.ca worked, but so did aimee.morrison@ualberta.ca. People marvelled at my astonishing computer skills.

None of this was hard to do. And it was the professional thing to do. Last week, I was ranting on Facebook about the number of students who won’t check their emails at all (YOU ARE ALL GOING TO FLUNK OUT BECAUSE THAT’S WHERE WE SEND DEADLINES), who won’t use their university accounts (FORWARD TO YOUR GMAIL IF YOU WANT BUT THIS IS A WORKPLACE), or who just never attach their names to their emails so that everytime I want to email them, I have to actually look through the university directory. Or they email me, and I have to reverse lookup the email address to figure out the name of the student.

Honest to god. Stop this. This is why people think we’re useless.

It got me thinking about bigger issues, about a different kind of professionalization, and institutionalization. One of the ways, I fear, that graduate students become institutionalized to think that there is no good life for them outside of the university is that we both passively support and sometimes actively encourage a very high degree of practical uselessness in them. You’re 30 years old and wrote a book length treatise on cycle plays but didn’t get paid in September because you never told HR that you moved, and they still have your email address from high school? Yeah. You might not be ready to have a regular job.

My sister works in the private sector. She wears real pants to work every day, uses a corporate intranet, meets deadlines, writes professional emails, uses spreadsheets, runs meetings. She has no patience at all for the life of the mind I describe to her, where everyone habitually misses deadlines, no one is trained on the main parts of their jobs, no one knows the org chart or the policies or the paperwork. Use a spreadsheet. Add. Their. Names. To. Their. Emails. And it is ridiculous, really.

Perhaps when we claim that our careers must take place in universities, we are as much about the negative valuation as the positive: we literally cannot function in office environments, because we don’t even know how to do a hanging indent in Microsoft Word, let alone create a pivot table, or use Excel functions to sort a table along two axes. Maybe we are unemployable.

This is depressing. Yes, academics are eccentric. One of my dear dear colleagues (love you!) knows how to ride a horse, but not drive a car. This type of thing is endemic. But can’t we be both eccentric AND competent? Paleography AND touch typing? Multi-modal poetry AND hand your grades in on time?

It begins with training. You know, when I started as grad chair, I was handed a master key, and a password to an email account, and left at it. Unacceptable. This work is complex, collaborative, multi-departmental, deeply financially implicated, full of ethical pitfalls and legal duties. Not one minute of training. I didn’t have the knowledge to run a lemonade stand, and I found myself in charge of a whole graduate program. It doesn’t speak well of the professional standards of my profession, truly. Just this year, the university is beginning to offer formal training for these roles. Next week, two and a half years into my three year term, I’m going to a workshop on how to lead meetings. Thank god.

We can do better by our students. The number one thing would be to inculcate the idea of the university *as* a workplace, and all of us as professionals in it. And of course, many professors (me!) need a lot more training in the mechanics of the workplace than we ever get. The next, and much easier thing, would be to offer opportunities to acquire basic workplace technical skills: using software, running meetings, emailing like a grownup, navigating the org chart.

Somewhere between debauched bohemian and corporate drone, there’s got to be some kind of middle place, some kind of basic competence in workplace skills and behaviours, so that we have more opportunities open to us, rather than fewer?

What do you want training in?

#FergusonSyllabus · academic reorganization · classrooms · empowerment · pedagogy

The Shadow Syllabus

Do you ever find yourself revising your syllabus as you move through the semester? I don’t mean small things like shifting a due date or adding or subtracting a reading. I mean have you ever realized part way through the term that while you are technically teaching what you proposed in reality there is something else, something subversive, something exciting happening that is not on the syllabus? 
I have. In fact, I am experiencing this in a class right now.  
There is some context: I hadn’t really planned to teach this fall. When classes started our daughter was three months old. And so when the opportunity to teach two courses came up in late August (#precarity) I launched into syllabus writing mode so quickly I might well have looked like a superhero or a bedevilled scribe. As I scrambled to order texts and build online learning sites I also fiddled and fiddled and fiddled with my syllabi. One class in particular was brand new for me: writing in the digital age. After consulting with a number of digital humanities friends and colleagues, attending an online workshop on digital and collaborative teaching (thank you, FemTechNet), and reading an astonishing amount of material in an equally astonishingly short time, I built a syllabus I was proud of. And now I am subverting it. 
Here’s what I mean: the syllabus I built is strong. I feel good about it, colleagues who also work in the field were complimentary of it. But what I could’t have expected at the time was the need to work in contemporary issues on the fly. That’s the thing about teaching the contemporary field: things happen as the semester progresses. So, we have worked into our classroom opportunities to close read the performative politics of the election, for example, which in turn has had us thinking through the politics and poetics of the performance of self in everyday digital life, which in turn has become a conversation about the ethics and politics of power in our digital lives. 
What we are building, my students and I, is a shadow syllabus. 
I first heard the term when I came across Sonya Huber’s wonderful writing where she poetically outlines the intersectional politics and affects that structure any classroom. It was last week, though, that I came across the term again and thought about it in relation to my own present and future classrooms.

Last week I had the opportunity to listen to Dr. Marcia Chatelain–who is an incredible speaker– give a talk on teaching in the age of #BlackLivesMatter. Dr. Chatelain, who is the brains behind #FergusonSyllabus, spoke to the audience about how she used Twitter to develop a national and international teach-in. Our role in the university is to assess what is going on in the world, make it accessible, and mobilize discussions in communities, she told the audience. Creating the #FergusonSyllabus was a practical and politically engaged call to discuss the events of the shooting of Michael Brown by a white policeman in Ferguson, Missouri. Dr. Chatelain challenged colleagues to talk about the events–and the systemic inequity and racism that made them possible–in their classrooms on the first day of school. 

The shadow syllabus, she explained, emerged as a tactic for working in how to talk about meaningful and vital current events that may not meet institutional approval. For, as Dr. Chatelain related, in some elementary and high schools teachers were not allowed to talk to their students about the events. 
Enter the shadow syllabus.

A shadow syllabus is shrewd. It allows you to meet course and learning objectives while simultaneously working in the contemporary, the political, and, according to my students, the vital.  You want to teach students about systemic racism but can’t because you’re under a gag order? No problem. Teach them about housing policy in the municipality in question! You want to teach first year students about the corporatization of learning? Use the university’s mission statement and the twitter feeds of Provosts as texts for close reading. The shadow syllabus emerges as a practical application of Huber’s poetic thinking. And it is, I wager, both a means of working in what the institution does not recognize, and a way to work organically as a class. 
While my class and I are not developing a shadow syllabus as a means of working around a gag order, in the way that some of Dr. Chatelain’s colleagues were, we are working with the contemporary field as it happens, and that? That is exciting. It is hard and exciting. It is learning. 
academy · empowerment · enter the confessional · fast feminism · generational mentorship · heavy-handed metaphors · ideas for change · midcareer

Pivot Point: Mid Career Feminist Academic

Sometime between earning tenure and right now, something important shifted. Instead of asking for signatures, I began to provide them. Instead of putting my name on the ballot for the committee, I became its chair. Instead of asking for orientation and guides to processes, I am now providing them. Instead of standing up for my principles in someone else’s meeting, I am setting the agenda for everyone. Instead of paying to go to conferences, I am invited to present. Instead of responding to CFPs, I am responding to invitations. It has become the case that I am teaching grad courses where half the assigned readings are by people I know personally, and some of the pieces cite work of my own. It’s weird.

Sometimes I look in the mirror and I’m surprised to see my 42 year old face looking out at me. I feel like a fresh young upstart, a rookie. Like a grad student sometimes. I feel like I’m starting out, still trying to figure out how everything works. An outsider.

This is all bullshit, and terrible feminism, to boot. Such a perspective enables me to avoid acknowledging the actual privilege and power that have attached to me over time. It’s flattering to my self-image to see myself bravely storming the barricades around the Ivory Tower. The truth is that at some point, I became an inhabitant safely ensconced on the protected side of the moat. The truth is that I guard the gates now.

This is a pivot point. The point where I acknowledge that while I’m still reaching for greater heights, I’m kind of holding the brass ring, and while still reaching as ably and confidently as I can manage, I need to release my grip a little so that others can grab a little piece of it too.

I’m not sure how to do this. I’ve climbed the Ivory Tower to the position I currently occupy by some combination of luck, timing, doggedness, self-promotion, faked confidence, and an always upthrust hand waiting to grab the microphone. It has taken a certain amount of tenacity and single-mindedness. But now, I have some small measure of power and control not only over myself but over others. My core values have, if anything, become more radical, and my critiques more pointed–I’ve had a lot of time to get smarter. However, it needs acknowledging that my relations to others–to people, to structures, to institutions, has radically shifted over time. This will necessitate some changes in how I act. It will also necessitate some changes to how I understand my own academic subjectivity–I’ll tell you frankly that it’s ideologically expedient to see myself as a rebel outsider rather than an agent of the institution of power.

I do know I need to acknowledge my own power and position not so much to seize it more fully (I was always already leaning into it, from junior kindergarden forward) but to wield it more lightly. To fight less hard to take up space as a the dragon-slaying rebel, but learn instead to use my dragony fire breath to make the clearing a little larger for more rebels to set up larger and better camps, use my wings to shelter them. I’m kind of discovering what that means, in practice.

I would love to hear from other mid-career faculty: what are your pivot points? How do you cope? What are your strategies for wielding power and influence for the cause of equity, or justice, or change from the inside rather than the outside?

#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

balance · day in the life · empowerment · feminist communities · summer

The Summer Round-Up: Everything but the kitchen sink

Dear Readers,

It is JUNE! We made it! The snow? Gone. The grading? Done or now in spring-grading mode. The flowers? Out! Conference time? You’re in it! And the possibilities and promises of summer are rolling out before us like a wide open road. 

Here at Hook & Eye we have decided to take some of our own advice. We are taking a summer break from now until late August! We’ll be back as the school year begins again, but for now we have several things for you to read, think about, and, we hope, write to us about when the mood or the inspiration strikes. 

First, a call for guest posts and faster feminist spotlights. Do you have an idea or an issue swirling in your mind that you think is suitable for our blog? We would LOVE to have you write a post for us! We are looking for posts that take up a wide range of issues related to feminism, academia, and work/life balance. Posts tend to be 500 – 750 words, and if you’re not used to writing blog posts I would be happy to work with you to develop your idea and get your post in shape. I’ll be organizing the majority of the guest posts again this year so please send pitches to me at erin dot wunker at gmail dot com. 

We’re also looking to continually diversify our roster of regular writers, so please email me if you have a person you’d like to see write for us, or if there is someone you’d like to see profiled in a faster feminism spotlight. 

To get you inspired for your summer plans whatever they may be many of us regular writers have jotted down our plans for hitting work/life balance … with a major emphasis on living life. Here’s what some of us will be up to in the coming months:

MelissaThis summer is going to be spent settling into my new job, figuring out how to grow the Research Training Centre and my career, and doing things that push my boundaries a bit–speaking about the York strike at Congress, teaching my first course at DHSI, and taking a holiday where I’ll be speaking solely in French. The summer is also going to be spent settling even more firmly into my now well-embedded writing routines and getting much of the dissertation wrapped up and ready to go in anticipation of defending by the end of the year. It is also going to be spent thinking about how best to serve our H&E readership next year–I’ll definitely be continuing the #Altac 101 series, but I also want to think and write more about the gendered aspects of career choices (or lack thereof) for PhDs. I’m looking forward to a break and to seeing you all again, refreshed and ready to go, in September. 
Aimée: I’m looking forward to rounding out my first year as Associate Chair for Graduate Studies—things slow down a lot in the summer, at least until Orientation planning swings into gear in August. I’m saying “no” to most things this summer: I’m not traveling anywhere, I’m not doing any conferences, I’m not undertaking any big home projects (other than weeding). I’m saying “yes” to sitting on the porch and writing and reading (and getting my book finished), “yes” to long walks with the dog, “yes” to more unstructured time with my family, “yes” to mid-day yoga classes and hanging my laundry on the line.
MargritMy year has been packed, so I’m leaving my summer uncluttered to balance things out: there will be some international travel, some more local camping, and maybe an impromptu road trip or two. There will be reading, and there might even be some writing—which I found I cannot live without, not after structuring the last decade of my life around it—but it will be unstructured and aimless. Overall, however, I want a flimsy, balloon-light summer to even the scales. If you’d like to check in, I would love to hear from you, too: find me on Twitter @Dr_Margrit. I wish you have the summer of your dreams (nightmares not included).
Boyda: will be spending her summer soaking up the rays and the often unbearable heat of New York City, feeling generally like a wet sponge. She is aware, however, that this may be the last summer she has in this glorious metropolitan center, so will make the most of it by scoping out outdoor film festivals, fighting for beach space on Coney Island, and keeping a journal of rat spottings. She hopes to visit her people in the Great White North at least once, and she will join that art class she’s been meaning to join for years. In terms of professional goals: she plans to finish drafts of two chapters of her dissertation, and is crossing her fingers about an article that she’s already submitted. She will also be preparing her job market documents and fighting off the inevitable anxiety induced therein. Will miss her online H&E community!
LilyAlthough my admin work does not really slow down in the summer (hello, undergraduate program with its endless needs!) there’s no need for me to pull out my tiny violin at all because I get to represent York at the Institute for World Literature hosted by the University of Lisbon this year. It is going to be unbelievably cool to be sort of a student again. I am buying a new notebook and sharpening my pencils! I’m enrolled in Debjani Ganguly’s seminar on “The Contemporary World Novel: Hauntings and Mediations” and will be part of the affinity group on “Postcolonialism and World Literature.” Umm… so excited.

Erin: As I wrote ever so briefly last week one of the things I haven’t felt able to write about this winter is the fact that I was pregnant. Being on the job market and being pregnant? That’s a post I think I’ll be ready to write in the fall… I just had our daughter twelve days ago. In fact, as I type this she’s asleep on me. Hurrah multi-tasking! So this summer while I will be working on a non-fiction handbook about how to be a feminist killjoy (SO EXCITED ABOUT THIS BOOK!) I will also be spending the majority of my time getting to know my girl. My partner and I will take trips to the shore, visiting family and friends, walking the dog, and introducing the babe to East Coast summers. I’ll be thinking about career changes and writing projects and all the rest of it, but not right away. For now it is all about my partner, our new kiddo, the dog, and the salty air of here. 

Hi from me and the newest Hook & Eye kiddo!
Let us know what you’re up to, whether you have an idea for a post, or someone you’d like to see write for us. And please, above all, don’t forget to make time for yourself. September will come soon enough. The work will get done. Make taking care of you and yours part of your daily practice too, will ya? (& tell us about it, because we all need reminders for self care as well as reminders that self-care is part of a feminist praxis and pedagogy).

coping · empowerment · grad school · mental health · PhD · righteous feminist anger · systemic violence

Mental Health and the PhD (Part II)

I’m a fifth-year PhD student, finishing the seventh year of my graduate studies overall. I’ve been trained in pedagogy, in writing a thesis, in publishing articles, in archival research, in networking, in library research, in organizing conferences, professionalizing, in mastering a field of literature.

But never have I been trained in how to deal with the emotional and psychological stress of writing a dissertation.

It has been difficult, to say the least. My mind is constantly hovering around the exigencies of the imminent job market, and on where my academic partner and I might find ourselves the year after next. Will we find jobs? In the same place? In the same country? WHAT WILL HAPPEN?! Needless to say, these persistent thoughts and questions do not inspire passion or motivation to write about fourteenth-century apocalypse prologues written in Anglo-Norman. They do not push me to delve deeply into my dissertation material, or traipse gleefully through bibliography items. They make me question the point of it all, and they are deeply and profoundly unproductive.

And there are other things. At this advanced stage, many in my cohort have become isolated with our projects, rarely crossing paths and engaging in the fun, collegial decompression and emotional support that occurred frequently during coursework. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one gripped with fear and anxiety about The Future; we all develop our own coping strategies, sequestering ourselves with our work, pouring all free time into surfing listservs for networking and publishing opportunities, simply attempting to stay sane with television and other hobbies and relationships. (I frequently insist that we need to maintain lives outside academia, to enjoy these years as funded [hopefully, if insufficiently] graduate students, not because doing so will make us more productive as academics [though it will], but because “academic” is not the sum total of my identity, as much as the academic superstructure attempts to inculcate our identities differently.)

A little over a year ago, Jana reposted this article from The Guardian about the “culture of acceptance” in academia over mental health issues—not only is mental illness rampant in academic culture, but it becomes almost a marker of accomplishment, as though if you don’t push yourself to the brink of depression or alcoholism, you’re not doing it right (in the follow-up to this article, various PhD students suffering from mental illness share their stories as they battle the attitude of “if you can’t stand the heat, you shouldn’t be here”). A post on The Professor Is In assesses the paralyzing effects of academia’s uniform dependence on “the principle of external validation. You are good only if others in authority authorize that you are good. Your comps, your diss, your job docs, your job talk, your book, your article, your grant proposal, your tenure case…all live or die based on the judgment and approval of people ‘above’ you. And the properly socialized academic makes that approval the core of their identity.” I really do want to follower Dr. Karen’s [edgy] advice to “write like a motherfucker”—to “say no to the less-than status, the linking of your identity to others’ judgment, the servile dependence on others’ stamp of approval.” Sure….I’m all about empowerment and fierceness, but–barring leaving the profession (a perfectly viable choice, of course, but I’m still holding out hope here), how do we do that, exactly?

I wish I had more answers to such questions, but I guess I’ll just keep striving for a healthy work-life balance while fighting against the complacency fostered by the #DWYL neoliberal dictum, as Melissa has so eloquently blogged about. Despite my whining, I have some wonderful, brilliant, and supportive friends, both inside and outside the institution, and I’ve been part of productive academic communities, such as the online writing group that Christy Pottroff described a couple weeks ago. I have library buddies, yoga buddies, and cat buddies. I think I’ll be okay, but the point stands: there are some serious structural changes that need to happen in order to begin to reverse the endemic guilt and anxiety that thrives in precarious academic communities, and a simple bulleted list of coping mechanisms and facile individualized solutions just ain’t gonna cut it for me right now.

animals · chaos · empowerment · enter the confessional

Facing the wind

It’s mid-semester and the accumulated unfinished business of weeks 1 through 6 have piled up as the same time that the end-crush of anticipated grading for semester’s end looms. As graduate officer, right now is possibly the worst time of year, work-wise: I’ve got more than a hundred applications to review, as well as four or five separate funding competitions to adjudicate with the committee. I just went away to Michigan to give a talk and attend an incredibly exiting one day seminar squarely lined up with exactly what I’m working on. Then I took my daughter to Florida (for three days) to see my parents. I have another talk, in Pennsylvania, in less than three weeks. There’s a dissertation on my desk from a committee I’m on, and two of my students have proposals in front of me.

The weather is cold, and dark, and damp and, along with all the piles of work, cues “hibernation.”

This is the time of year I tend to panic, freak out, and go into denial. But I’m going to try something different this year. Check out this Royal Tern, which I snapped in Everglades National Park last week:

I have an awesome hairdo.

The guide on the tour told us that Royal Terns always face into the wind. And as we looked around we could see them all on posts, pointing their beaks right into the headwind.

Look, this storm I’m in now is just kind of situation normal in this job. Panicking, hiding, and hibernating are not going to solve my piles-of-work problem. I’m going to try pointing my beak into the wind and just braving it.
For me, that looks like writing down a to-do item every time I have a panicked thought, or a deadline I forgot bubbles up to the surface. I carry my notebook with me EVERYWHERE and jotting stuff down as I think of it both concretizes and organizes the work I have to do. Everywhere:
To-do list and Margarita scale distorted for comic effect

I’m making lists of things I need to grade. Lists of assessment criteria for admissions. Lists of committee meeting dates and times. Lists of travel arrangements that need making. Facing into the headwind of a rapidly advancing semester.

How do you keep from collapsing at mid-semester? Is some kind of hibernation strategy useful to you? (I put my pyjamas on the minute I get home from work: that helps.) Or do you face the wind straight on?