change · enter the confessional · first-name managerialism

Listening, or something I’m learning to do

I’m an extravert: I gain energy from being around people, and normally that means talking. I love writing blog posts because it has a real audience, real “someones” that my words will reach. When I get stuck in a bog of conflicting research sources, I collar someone and explain my problem to them, as a way out. Or I write a pretend email to a Good Listener. When my ideas are at a tipping point, but not quite tipped, I cancel my evening 30 Rock episode on the couch with my husband and make him listen to me explain how I’m almost almost there and sometimes that will tip me over. I think out loud at meetings–that is, by talking–as though the process of putting things into sentences turns nothingness into plans.

I’m a talker. It’s how I learn. It’s how I generate ideas. It’s how I formulate and consolidate plans.

You know what, historically, I’m not super good at? Listening. I’m working on it.

I like to tell myself that I’m an “active listener”–I’m interrupting you to show how interested I am! I’m restating what you said so you’ll know I hear you! I’m grabbing the kernel of what you just said and moving it forward to the next idea, or the solution, or the resolution. I like to tell myself all those things, but really, it’s all just rationalization for my talking habit.

In my new grad chair role, my listening deficits must be addressed. I’m meeting with a lot of graduate students, to discuss the particularities of their projects and degree progress. I’m meeting with professors to talk about any and all issues related to our grad programs, and other things. I’m meeting with our departmental staff to learn how things work; I’m meeting with other grad chairs to find out what they do. This has required a tremendous amount not just of shutting up (which, honestly, I’m really not good at, I know) but also listening, really listening.

Shutting up is staying silent and letting other people have the floor. Brute force lip clamping can achieve this. But listening is something different, harder, more profound. Listening, I find, means being radically open to the possibility that what someone else is saying might just shift everything. These conversations are not a scene from a play, where once I hear my cue I know what I’m going to say next. These conversations should be radically interactive: that is to say, they ought to be engaged with as though they will produce unknown outcomes. Listening entails a tacit acknowledgment of a pretty fundamental kind of “I don’t know.”

Really listening, that is, is an act of humility and vulnerability, when in my heart of hearts I prefer to be invincible and always right–a benevolent dictator who has all the right ideas, already. When I’m really listening, it’s ontologically as well as practically terrifying: who will I be if I learn something new in the next 30 second? Who knows what might happen next? I might have to change what I think, change what I do. Admit that I didn’t know something and just learned it right now.

I had a meeting this week where I made a conscious effort to listen. It was hard, but it was incredibly rewarding. I let the other person talk until she went silent on her own. I thought about what she said. And then I had to reframe what I thought I knew, and change my mind about something I was pretty confident about. And then it kept happening, with each conversational turn! Wow.

It’s easier to already know all the right answers, even if they’re just the “right answers,” for me at least. Easier to craft diatribes and pronouncements with pauses to allow for murmurs of approval and applause. Much harder to not know, to make mistakes, to ask for actual advice–and then to take it–rather than a rubber stamp on a course of action already decided on.

Listening. I’m going to keep practicing. It’s humbling and it’s difficult, but I’m really learning things. I think this might be good.

administration · first-name managerialism · grad school · job notes

New Associate Chair Grad Studies: Me

Did I tell you guys I’m going to be the new Associate Chair for Graduate Studies in my department, as of July 1?

It’s a pretty big administrative role for me, and I’m excited, and nervous. I asked to be appointed–and apparently, I’m the first one to ever do so, which I actually found a little surprising. Grad studies questions are near and dear to my heart, as you know, since I’ve written extensively here (as have Heather, and Erin, and Melissa, and Margrit, and Janna, and Boyda) about grad student issues (just look at our keywords in the sidebar, and you’ll see a compendium of writing on the subject–32 posts tagged “grad school”).

I’m pretty proud of the intervention that Hook and Eye has made in the practice of grad studies in Canada. Just this week, I saw our blog name-checked and linked in the excellent and ambitious White Paper on the Future of the PhD in the Humanities, put together by a group of academics under the umbrella of the SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis project on the Future of Graduate Training in the Humanities. The blog was noted for its participation in 21st century practices of open sharing and graduate professionalization. The report is pretty impressive: go get the pdf, right now. I’m hoping that as I take on this new role in grad studies in my department, I can put my money where my mouth has been on this front, in more programmatic ways. It’s exciting, and it’s daunting.

But since this is also a blog about being a professor as much as about being grad students, I thought I’d share some of this position with you, as I figure out how to do it. Like Heather before me, I’m wary about what it means to be an administrator of whatever level and still keep a public blogging platform active. But I think I can do it.

My excellent colleague currently in the position is starting to pass some duties on to me, like some of the planning around graduate orientation in the fall. I think I did about two hours of work on that yesterday, which really got me to thinking: boy, things are really going to change for me at work pretty soon. I’ve been asking for advice far and wide. Some of what I’ve been told is:

  • be careful how much you drink
  • listen, listen, listen
  • don’t try to change everything
  • there are more meetings than you can imagine
  • be kind to administrative staff
  • don’t miss deadlines
  • block of time in your calendar for writing, or you will never write
  • use fewer words
  • put limits on evening and weekend work
  • book vacation time in advance and tell everyone you’ll be gone

I fear the meetings and emails and busywork will spiral out of control. I fear that my plans for making more evident and programmatic the excellence of our programs are going to be too much to get done, but I fear not getting enough done. I’m worried I’ll never write. I’m worried that I’ll make mistakes in discipline cases, or admissions, or conflict situations. I’m worried my insomnia will come back. I’m worried I won’t be good at this. I’m a little more worried that I will be good at this.

That’s the squishy stuff, so far.

Here are some of the pragmatics, if you don’t know them, or, if is likely, it’s different at your institution. It’s a three year term. I’ll get a stipend every year for doing it, in addition to a two course reduction in my teaching load (so I’ll be 1:1). I can change my assessment ratio for my merit review to weight more heavily towards service, so instead of 40 teaching, 40 research, 20 service, I can pitch a proportion of 40 service, 30 teaching, and 30 research, or maybe 40 service, 40 research, and 20 teaching, or even 40 service, 40 teaching, and 20 research. That’s a good option to have, and it reflects how the kind of things I’ll be able to get done will shift during this time.

That chunk of my day yesterday thinking about orientation, and then getting led down a paperwork / policy rabbit hole for a couple of hours has made the impending new position that much more real for me. So it felt like a good time to share it with you.

I’m still collecting advice: have you held this kind of position, or been subject to it? Any words of wisdom or warning for me? I’m listen, listen, listen-ing 🙂

administration · first-name managerialism · ideas for change

Meeting minutes

I am on an unceasing quest to pare the inefficiencies from my work day. I’ve been thinking about what 30 minutes means in concrete terms. I’ve been cursing the chaos email brings into my life. I’ve been thinking about how the discipline and sheer word count required for blogging makes me a leaner, meaner writing machine.

Now I’m thinking about meetings, and minutes.

Last week, I turned to the cursed email to spend five minutes crafting a meeting call sent to a representative from every department on campus. That five minutes, I began to marvel, was generating a minimum of 75 potential hours of work. If you consider that I was asking 50 people to give me 90 minutes of their time? If they all come, that’s nearly two full weeks of full time work. It’s happening concurrently, but it’s still 75 hours of faculty member labour. Never mind the time spent by any of those people dealing with the email, and the calendaring, or whatever. And never mind the administrative support I get to book the room, get some coffee and donuts, manage the RSVP list, send out reminder emails.

This gave me pause. I’ve been to a lot of giant meetings, many quite poorly run and diffuse, and thought, “Oh well, that’s an hour of my life I’ll never get back.” But multiply that hour by all the attendees and it’s a pretty significant work-time investment! And yet, the biggest meetings are the ones that usually seem the least useful, right?

I’m heading a different committee–this one has three of us on it, and we recently met for an hour and a half. Holy smokes we got a lot covered! But one thing we did settle on was that between us we would conduct individual interviews with every faculty member in the department. Again, without really factoring in all the emails and cat herding this involves, for a twenty minute interview with about twenty people, with two faculty members per meeting, that’s … 800 minutes, or about 13 hours of people time. I’ve done five interviews already, and they’ve all been really useful. So my second observation is that smaller meetings tend to get more done.

In general, then, the big meetings use up acres and acres of faculty time, and generally don’t get much done (in my experience) while the smaller meetings, even if labour intensive, are far less so, and often much more useful.

So when I’m requesting meetings, in future, I’m going to do two things. First, I’m going remember the above law. Let’s call it Morrison’s Law of Meetings. Second, I’m going to calculate the actual number of hours of work my meeting generates for others, and to try to be mindful of making good use of that time.

There are other ways to calculate the value of a meeting: like, if I’m thinking about my time, I might prefer to meet with 50 people at once to get across what I want to convey. But that’s more a lecture, actually than a meeting. If I think about meetings as interactive activities where each participant has something valuable to contribute, this particular calculus is less compelling than the one I describe above.

I don’t really like meetings. Who does? But I think we can make them more useful and less wasteful by really thinking hard about what we’re trying to accomplish, and what the real cost is. Now that I’m in a position that puts me in charge of creating meetings that others are supposed to attend, I need to really keep that in mind.

classrooms · first-name managerialism · reflection

"Best wishes, AM"

I go by a lot of different names: I’m mommy and mama and maman and sometimes ‘mapu’ to my daughter; to some of my friends from high school I’m Aim or Cuppy; to my biological dad I was Hopey (while my sister called me Hopeless or Hopey-dopey); my dad and (rarely) my mom call me Hopers; I have a whole set of friends who know me only as Mimi (a different childhood nickname from my elementary years); my university friends from my days at York (and a lot of digital humanists, for historical reasons) call me aimeefreak; my parents sometimes distinguish me (sarcastically) from my sister with the appellation “The Good One”; at my daughter’s school and on parent council I’m Madame Morrison; to some francophones I’m AimĂ©e (pr. “emmm-AY); my husband calls me shmoopah or my love or (exasperatedly) A-i-m-e-e-e-e-e-e when I’ve forgotten to bring his computer in to the shop. On Twitter I’m digiwonk (people call me this when I meet them).

I have nearly as many names as I have roles–even within individual relationships my name shifts from context to context: from breakfast table to date night, from pet name to introduction, from speaking in English to speaking in French, from feeling friendly to feeling angry.
And so at work I have different names, too.
I prefer my undergraduates to call me Dr. Morrison, or Prof. Morrison. I explain that we are in a professional relationship in a particular context that makes this name appropriate. I also explain to them how doctorates and job titles work, and about who is who and what is what in this setting. For me, it comes down to this: my doctorate is what authorizes me to be at the front of the classroom, to push them so hard with reading and testing and talking, to correct their work. My doctorate and my job title indicate what it is I do with my time: the kinds of research, the depth of teaching, the commitment to service to the department, university, profession, and the public. 
It marks, also, my expertise, and I believe in expertise and its recognition: this is perhaps where I become activist, but for me the idea that everyone’s ‘opinion’ is, because authentically representing its author’s intent, valuable or right. It’s not. I have worked hard to know a lot of about digital media, literature, literary methods, and such: my credentials indicate this hard work, and this achievement. It means my opinions on materials in my field are not just ‘opinions’ but scholarly judgments. That’s important for me, sure, but it’s a teaching goal of mine to have my students learn to value expertise–the effort and time and care it takes to really master something. It’s not easy to be an expert. Being an expert, or becoming one, is valuable.
(I have to add, too, that my classroom persona is generally very, very silly and from-the-hip; the more formal name counterbalances my levity with some gravitas.)
My graduate students largely seem to have this under control: so I leave it to them what to call me. Some opt for Prof. Morrison (I like that) and some opt for AimĂ©e. I’m fine with that too. 
To my direct colleagues, I’m AimĂ©e. From the dean, I sometimes get letters addressed to “Dr. Morrison” with that name crossed out in pen, and “AimĂ©e” written in above by hand–that’s a great compromise between the formality of a letter marking a tenure process milestone, and friendly relationship between colleagues: this salutation has its cake and eats it too. It’s a target I’m forever trying to hit.
To colleagues I don’t know? Well, I mostly interact with them over email: article submissions, queries about conferences, requests for supervision, administrative stuff like grant proposals. Who am I in those intereactions? I’ve spent a truly ridiculous amount of time obsessing over how to sign off my emails. Here’s what I’ve come up with.
Best wishes,
AM [more familiar] / Aimée Morrison [less familiar]
Aimée Morrison
Assistant Professor
Dept. of English Language and Literature
University of Waterloo
Generally, I’m aiming for friendly, but with a context for you to know who I am and where I’m coming from. If I know my correspondent *at all* I’m usually AM in early writings, and very soon thereafter AimĂ©e. That’s when I omit the sig file stuff about my rank and institution.
But when I email students, I’m always “Best wishes, AM”: it seems like such a great way to be both human and a little removed; friendly, but with critical distance. Again, the balance.
I’m not too fussed about being ‘inconsistent’ in what kinds of name options I offer to the different people in my life: so long as there is a reason for a preference, I’m happy to hew to everyone’s desired practice. My identity is mutable and context-sensitive; my relationships with others are marked by differing degrees of formality, closeness, power imbalance. I try to find a way for people to address me–and me them–that meets all of our needs for clarity and ease and comfort. It seems reasonable to me that, with respect to what we ask our student to call us, we might easily develop very different practices from one another, that are each valuable and appropriate.
You can call me AimĂ©e, btw–just don’t call me late for cocktails.
academy · classrooms · first-name managerialism · teaching

Me, I’ll Answer to Anything

Talk about self-conscious: I walked into day 1 of a class with our blog conversation  still ringing in my ears. I was curious to see whether it would change my practice, but it didn’t. I told my students, as I do every year, “Address me using whatever makes you comfortable. I will answer to Dr Zwicker, Professor Zwicker, Heather, or even the time-honored . What doesn’t work so well is Mrs Zwacky.” (It’s funnier if you say it out loud.)

I am not a casual person, but I am very casual about this. I think it’s partly because I have always found institutions, and the academy more than most, mysterious places navigable only by a deep local knowledge that I never seem to possess. It’s like I’m stuck on Level One of the big university video game, desperately trying to find the golden key that will unlock all the mysteries. For instance, I am not actually very clear on the distinction between Dr and Professor as modes of address, in spite of scrutinizing Lindy’s and Weathering’s comments (aha! clues!), which I’m pretty sure is not how I’ve heard this explained to me before. I do not understand the British academic system At All, and I’m hopeless with titles in Germany. True story: I have only recently figured out the Assistant (nonacademic) and Associate (academic) distinction in named administrative positions. And what did I learn the week after cracking that code?: sometimes Assistant Deans/Provosts/etc can be doctorate-toting academics too. So how are you supposed to know, especially in the context of first-name managerialism?

By first-name managerialism I mean administration with a friendly face, the new-world roll-up-your-shirtsleeves we’re-all-in-this-togetherness that makes you feel like you could text yr prez (“Dude! What up with the cuts?”), which is good, but at the same time produces baffling advice like “Oh, you should ask Lois.” Um, Lois who? Where does she work? Who is she when she’s on email? Yeah, that’s right, I’m so dumb I don’t know who the hell you mean.

That’s one way first-name-ism works, whether consciously or not (and I suspect mostly not): it establishes and enforces power relations. That’s not to say it doesn’t also work in other ways. In Monday’s comments SC refers to the first-name ethos as a democratic impulse, which I agree is one of the things I find among teachers – sorry, instructors: a genuine commitment to leveling the playing field in the name of acquiring knowledge together. I love that.

And it’s in fact in keeping with that democratic commitment that I have to say I am not comfortable expecting students to call me either Firstname or Dr/Professor Lastname exclusively. I am sensitive to the issues about authority and I take the points about being proud of your doctorate. But students come to the academy from all over, and in my experience they are mostly doing their best to navigate a mystifying institution where the rules always seem to be in flux. More to the point, I have an allergic reaction to asking students to do what we do not (see “expository essay” vs “critical theory”). Using first names is no shortcut to equality. Likewise, asking students to use academic honorifics when my bosses don’t makes me feel uneasily like we are playing at Seventeenth-Century Academy. I can’t help thinking we’d be better off texting the prez about the budget.