academic reorganization · after the LTA · good attitudes about crappy possibilities · hiring

After the PhD job and before the next job: An LTA’s response to a modest proposal for the PhD

Let me begin by thanking my co-blogger: Aimée’s post has garnered more hits and more conversation than any of our posts in the last year! We average between one to three hundred views per post, yet as I write this “A Modest Proposal for the PhD” has almost 2,500 views. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say this post struck a chord!
I have spent the last few days thinking about how to respond to this post in a way that both acknowledges the limitations my friend has set for herself  opens the conversation further. As I see it, this is a post predominantly about current or soon-to-be PhD students, which is also addressed to the faculty-administrators shaping, mentoring, and managing graduate programs. Excellent! These are issues that need to be addressed, and they are clearly ones people want to talk about. However, as a limited term appointee, I don’t fit into either of those categories despite being connected to them both. 
I’m entering the conversation with a ‘Yes, and’ frame of mind. As a limited term appointee who looks like a faculty member, acts like a faculty member, and yet is decidedly not a faculty member, I feel compelled to say in response to the very sound advice offered to PhD students and faculty ‘yes, reform how you run graduate programs; yes, treat the PhD like a job, and don’t forget about those of us who did all of those things and remain in tenuous positions.’ In other words, what follows are some of the thoughts I’ve had in response to  Aimée’s post.
The Funding Conundrum:
Is funding important? Yes. Is it problematic? Definitely.
I had the very good fortune of winning a SSHRC doctoral fellowship in the second year of my PhD. It wasn’t a huge amount of money, as we all know, but it was enough for me to live on. I also received small scholarships from my university and, as was the case in Alberta (though not as far as I know in Nova Scotia where I now teach), I was the recipient of what were called Graduate Teaching Stipends. This meant that, as a PhD Candidate, I was paid substantially more than a sessional lecturer with a PhD in hand. Was I aware that this was problematic? Sure, but I happily took the money because I knew it allowed me to teach less and write more. And write I did. I wrote—or worked on writing (researching, reading, editing, fretting)—between 8-9 hours a day six days a week. And when I finished my dissertation and taught as a sessional for several thousand dollars less than I made when I was a student, I was prepared for the shift in pay scale. The extra stipend helped me finish my dissertation, just as it was meant to do.
But funding alone doesn’t guarantee timely completion. Indeed, I was one of the students with the lowest funding in my incoming cohort of PhD students. Having little to no funding for my first year was a huge motivating factor for me (read: I was terrified). For some students, having a massive amount of funding relieves the pressure of a timely completion, while for others it ensures timely completion. So, while I certainly think it is crucial to consider funding very carefully for all the reasons Aimée suggests (no guarantee of a job, crushing debt load), having funding in hand is only part of the equation. Faculty need to continue to make funding agencies and the government accountable for deciding what projects get funded and why. 
What happens after the PhD? Or, when should I jump ship?
As Aimée writes and as others echo in the commentary, if you want a PhD you should do one, and you should go into it with open eyes. Yes, people change jobs all  the time, and the PhD is just one discrete part of your life…
But! For those of us who have completed the PhD and are in  sessional or LTA positions, the situation becomes a little more complicated. Again, I’ll use myself as an example. I did not receive postdoctoral funding despite submitting every year I was eligible. Should I, or any PhD, have quit at that point? Maybe. But I didn’t, and neither did many of my peers. And now I’m in a position where I live contract-to-contract and work to compete for the few jobs that come up. Do I think about transitioning out of academia? You bet I do. Have I found the time to come up with a viable plan B? Not yet.
I have the great good fortune—and I mean that genuinely—to have landed in a department where my colleagues treat me as, well, their colleague. I go to department meetings, I teach courses, I supervise honours students, and this year I will be teaching a graduate course as well as supervising graduate students. All of these things are wonderful for my CV, and I want to do them because I love this job. However, I work approximately 90 hours/week. I work on weekends. I work this much because in addition to teaching 3-4 courses per semester I am also trying to keep my CV competitive. I’m competing against those folks who did are coming right out of their PhD, I’m competing with peers who have done one (or more) postdoctoral fellowships, and in this climate I’m also competing against faculty who are already on the tenure track and want to change universities. I’m not complaining here, but I do know that unless I keep up this breakneck pace I’m going to fall behind. As is every other sessional and LTA instructor who is still applying for long-term work.
My point is this: as several of you have noted in the comments section, these conversations about restructuring the PhD are necessary starting points. As we continue in our crucial dialogue, let’s please not forget to include those people who have made the choice to complete a PhD and, in some cases, to treat it like a job, yet remain on the margins of the profession.
Let’s keep this conversation going. Administrators, PhD students, MA students, undergrads, send us your thoughts in a post. We’d be happy to publish continued commentary!

boast post · good attitudes about crappy possibilities · good things · saving my sanity

What’s your passion? And what are you good at?

I think we need a boast post–well, I think I might need one, because this week, it feels like the voices in my head are doing nothing but complaining and pointing out my flaws (“I hate grading! I’m an idiot for assigning all this writing! I’m actively getting stupid because I never get to read anything! I’m a terrible researcher! I’m inherently unserious and immature! Why is the office 18 degrees? Where’s my scarf and fingerless gloves? Wah!”).

Instead of getting lost in awful minutiae of the end of term, I thought I’d come back to first principles. I’m thinking about the passion that brought me here, and the skills that allow me to shine, in my own way at least. Because that’s what keeps me going.

I’m passionate about reading. All the time. I think, at this point, I’ve got all the ads on the bus memorized, for example. This morning, I read all the text on the box from which I removed a new bar of soap. So I should be happy, and I guess I am, that I have so much in front of me to read. I really am excited to read my students’ papers (but not to grade them). I’m excited to read the textbook (but not to prep my class). I am always excited to read material in my field in a new book, or an article. My biggest passion, beyond just simply reading all the time, is for my field: honestly, I just keep finding more and more to be fascinated with in computing culture. When I started, the world wide web had just been invented, and I wanted to understand how people came to understand computers as personal machines. Ha! And now there’s so, so very much more to think about and I get so excited I start to talk really fast when I even consider it.

So my passions still drive me as much as they ever did.

And what am I good at? It’s hard to remember now when I feel so beaten down by meetings I don’t feel well-enough prepared for, by grading piles that don’t ever get any smaller, by research that is so completely not writing itself now. Hm. Well, I’m funny. My students in their evaluation always seem to remark on how I can make even boring stuff kind of fun and I think that should count for something, shouldn’t it? A spoonful of sugar, and all that? Man, my prep might not be as thorough in late November as it was in September, but, dammit, at least I’ve got the personality and the wit to really sell it. So. I’m good at being funny.

Here’s something funny, a little gift from me to you: my husband and I were walking in from Amazingly Distant Parking Lot when we came upon this. There’s something very late-November-y about it, which might resonate with many of you. Enjoy:

Huh. Okay. Now I’m feeling a little better about life. I’m chuckling out loud right now, just like in the video, at that poor stuck squirrel.


Maybe a little pause to consider what you’re passionate about, and what you’re really good at can help you get through term, too: maybe slam poetry rocks your universe; maybe your skill is giving compassionate extensions to stressed out students; maybe you can’t get enough of literature in translation and have an uncanny ability to plan meetings that have solid agendas and always end early. I’d LOVE to hear about it.

Please! Tell me the passion that keeps you going through this November slog, and one thing you’re good at that makes it all a little easier. Let’s all cheer each other, and cheer each other up.

bad academics · good attitudes about crappy possibilities · reform


So I’m sitting around enjoying my last salary-free furlough day when all of a sudden it hits me: I have to get a blog post together! Already! (Already??)

Time-off time always disorients me (though I adapt to it with startling ease). There’s a different pace: the pace of the unemployed, I call it. If you’ve ever been jobless, or written a dissertation, you know what I’m talking about. You set yourself a clear and manageable task du jour: say, to mail a letter. You get up full of resolve: today’s the day I’ma mail that letter! You seal the envelope, find the address. And then you pause. You could just dash down the address, but wouldn’t it be so much more professional to word process it? in fact, wouldn’t this be a good time to learn to use labels? Absolutely: you’ve put off learning that 1980s task for long enough! Oh, the chewy satisfaction of that moment when you think you’re going to accomplish twice as much as you’d imagined…

Of course, you have no labels. Should you buy some? Maybe, but will that leave you time to mail the letter? Maybe not. Indecision, indecision, indecision. You come tentatively back to Plan A, only you’re thrown off your game, so you decide maybe today’s not the day to mail that letter after all. It’ll keep.

Next day, same resolve – only, having wasted the first letter-mailing day, you’re determined to get a jump on it. But first, a shower. And you should have a nutritious breakfast. (Wasn’t that one of last year’s resolutions?) Then you realize there’s probably a line-up at the post office, so you’d be better to wait until after lunch. But after lunch – well, how can you justify leaving the house if you haven’t accomplished anything yet?

The letter sits … and sits ….. and sits ……. and before you know it, the longest semester break in recorded history is over and you have nothing to show for it except a new PB in Angry Birds.

Novels read: 0
Papers written: 0
Moonlit skating dates: 0

Did I see the Natalie Portman movie? Oops. Did I lay in some food for the coming semester? Nope, didn’t do that either. Start an exercise regime? clean my desk? crack that grant application? No, no and no.

To be honest, readers, I have no idea what happened to the last two weeks, and for that reason alone – but if you call me on this, I will deny it – I am not unhappy to be heading back to work tomorrow, full of resolve: this year, I will own my time!

PS That letter I promised you? On its way tomorrow. Most definitely. Almost certainly.

DIY · emotional labour · good attitudes about crappy possibilities · notes from the non-tenured-stream

Due to arctic weather conditions this blog post was almost delayed. Or, what do botched travel plans have in common with an academic profession?

As you know from last week’s post I’ve been on vacation…. And now my partner and I are two of the thousands and thousands of people who are trying desperately to get out of London’s Heathrow airport. We’re not traveling with children, we’re not sick, and though we don’t really have a whole ton of cash (& certainly not so much that we budgeted for this) we’re ok.

Great, right? So what am I all uptight about?

I mean, don’t get me started on the inanity of the fact that we’re grounded (for days or maybe a week) over 4 inches of snow. Or the frustration over the fact that even though we’re in a neat and fancy spot we’re not actually able to enjoy it because we’re with everyone else trying to find a place to pop our bags while we look for Internet and queue for customer service.

All this stress over travel plans is uncanny: the feeling of no control, the slow realization that we’re on our own, the realization that there might be ways to make things work if we’re willing to be flexible* and a little scrappy. Truth be told this stress has reminded me of the stresses I’ve written about on this blog. But this travel stress also has me thinking about the skills we have, hone, or forge as academic women. I fancy myself a semi-worldly and adaptable sort. For example, you’ve read my musing on the pros and cons of moving for the profession (mostly I like it) as well as my thoughts on the DIY Academic career.

Indeed, professing in the profession seems to require a certain kind of worldliness. Or awareness. Or self-reflexivity. Call it what you like, working in the academy means meeting such a wide variety of people with diverse backgrounds, beliefs, and, yes, holiday greetings. In fact, call me Pollyanna because I (usually) love what this requires of me. Mindfulness. Openness. And what I’m coming to understand as a kind of careful compassion. After all, we’re all in this hotel/terminal/concourse/classroom/job hunt together, right?

What I mean by this is not that working in the academy means being a push over (hah!) but rather that this kind of compassion is the stuff that travels, that discerns. It is an (unpaid, granted) emotion that is often for students, regularly for colleagues, and sometimes, increasingly, for me.

Compassion is often among the feminized emotions, and certainly would fall under the unpaid emotional work that needs further discussion and radical rethinking. But I think one of my resolutions is to pay it forward, carefully.

So while I’ll be saying happy holidays to the other stranded people I meet and keeping my eyes peeled for vegetarian food in the airports (even if it means another meal of bagels) I’ll be practicing compassion with my fellow travelers and myself…because I’m going to need it in January when a new term, a new year, and a new batch of fantastically and astoundingly diverse students show up in my classrooms.

Warmth to you all and apologies for the bleary prose.

*the willingness to be flexible may forever remind me of the infamous meme… even though I know being flexible doesn’t equal moving to nowheresville Canada/USA/UK I can’t help but hear that automated Dean’s voice…

good attitudes about crappy possibilities · ideas for change · saving my sanity

Plan B

& no, I’m not talking about the morning after pill (Pill?)

I’m talking about Plan B: What to do next. What to do in case. What to do if the job market doesn’t work out/plans change/you don’t want to move/don’t want to work in academe after all/can’t/shouldn’t/whatever. I’m talking about the barrel that I (& many of my friends, peers, and colleagues) am looking down again. And it is a harmful barrel, it is.

OK stop. I can feel you shuddering. And no, dear graduate student readers, this isn’t a(nother) person telling you you’ve made a terrible mistake pursuing your dreams. Moreover, despite the veracity of what seems to me a staggeringly problematic open secret–(PhDs from US schools are more likely to be hired on in Canadian institutions. Sshhh!)–I’m not so interested in going down that road. I love the school where I did my PhD, I received stellar training. Hiring committees may or may not take a second look at me based on where I did my schooling. But it is done, and I have very few regrets. Sure, I’ve felt the doom & gloom. And yes, maybe I’m feeling some of it now. I’m moody and mercurial that way. But I’m tired of feeling helpless, and I’m not prepared to give up on my career of choice.

Actually, despite the unpaid emotional work (or, heck, the two unpaid month a year that are part of my current contract) I love the job. I love teaching. I love Canadian literature. I love thinking about the Giller Prize winning novel (you ROCK, Johanna!) and the importance of small presses. I love thinking critically with my students about the small press just down the road from us that is receiving so much pressure (& during our unit on the forces of global capitalism, no less!) And I love writing because it keeps me engaged with the discipline. Heck, I even like committee work and collaboration despite the fact that apparently that’s harmful to my dossier)

But for the last year or so I’ve been toying with my Plan B.

Why? A few reasons (many of which I’ve already alluded to). But most of all I need to feel in control in a situation where quite frankly I don’t have very much control at all.

There have been many, many posts about PhD’s needing to diversify their work experience (with what extra time, I wonder?), several about PhD programs needing to diversify their training, and some about co-opts and placement officers (though–and correct me if I’m wrong–there seem to be less placement officers in Canada than there do in the States. Why?) I take what I can from these posts, but find myself more interested in cultivating a Plan B not as a sense of failure, but for empowerment. What else can I do with my training? What has my time in the classroom and behind a desk taught me about what I am good (and less good) at?

It seems to me that talking positively and frankly about multiple uses for the PhD is a healthy way of brainstorming and creating a healthy conversation that might just generate enough hype that it creates some waves of change. But then, I’m a sucker for collaborative thinking.

And speaking of thinking, lately just letting myself think about Plan B has been my plan b. I’ve dabbled with thoughts of law school, social work, and policy writing. I’ve thought about living in a yurt. I’ve thought about going to study yoga in Mysore. I’ve thought about looking into PR. These are all just thoughts right now, and let me tell you, it feels good to have them.

It feels good to have them because they remind me that my first choice, my vocation, is this profession.

But just in case I might take the LSAT…

academy · classrooms · good attitudes about crappy possibilities · heartbreak · hiring · job market · solidarity

So You’ve Got a PhD in the Humanities…

As usual I’ve been spending a (good) portion of my Sunday working, and one of my tasks for the weekend is to write this post. After soliciting suggestions from friends and colleagues (thank you!) and thinking about that humorous little video that made the rounds last week I’ve decided to weigh in on making fun of the profession.

I’m not the first to do this, nor is it the first time I’ve done so. The first time I was given an opportunity to think about the ups and downs (to put it mildly) of the profession was on a panel hosted by the Professional Concerns Committee at ACCUTE this spring. Likewise, many of the commenters here have been thinking gamely about the pros and cons of “So You Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities” and the responses have been varied. The reason I’m wading in again though has directly to do with a conversation I had with a graduate student friend of mine last week. “After I finished watching that video and laughing I felt kind of ill,” she admitted.
Before I get there though, let me recap in case you’ve been living under a wi-fi-free rock or don’t feel like spending four minutes of your life watching this: is a site where you can type in dialogue and make your own film. In this particular little gem a young woman (blonde, with vaguely hipster glasses) comes in and speaks to a female Dean about getting a letter of reference for graduate school. What follows is a hilarious–if uncomfortable–exchange. The student blithely asks for references because she has “brilliant thoughts about death in literature” while the Dean attempts (with increasing acerbity) to alert the student to the, ahem, difficulties of attaining a permanent job in the profession.
Ok, it IS funny. And often bang-on. But there are several things that give me cause for concern. I’m going to skip over the fact that this is a conversation between two women (unpaid emotional work?), the fact that it conflates the position of a (female) Dean with the office-sharing, salary-realities of an adjunct, and instead think about dissing the profession versus restructuring the profession. And yes, this is both blue-sky thinking (defiantly so, as it is cold and rainy in Halifax today), and devastatingly earnest. That’s just how I roll.
While I am reluctant to advocate honing business-like skills such as PR (possibly because I desire to live a life of the mind? Sigh.) one of the dangers of simply trotting out the admittedly myriads of inequities and labour abuses that can and do happen in this profession is that they become the central focus. I wasn’t a cheerleader, but it seems that there is something in celebrating what we do well. I teach in an English department. Among many, many other crucial skills, we do a heck of a job teaching students about critical thinking. How might we productively celebrate (ok, and advertise) what it is that our specific disciplines do well? I realize that I’m focussing on the Humanities and Social Sciences here, but I’m sure this can be shifted to be a useful thought exercise across disciplinary lines.
Here’s another issue: I noticed that the people who were predominantly most reluctant to laugh at this video were not the folks on the Dean’s side of the desk. They were folks like me (contract workers) or graduate students or undergraduates. What kind of message are we sending to ourselves and to the future if we don’t also start thinking about how to repackage–and I mean fundamentally repackage–what we do (or at least how we explain what we do, because I hold to the belief that there is much that is being done very well indeed).
And so back, obliquely, to the conversation that I had with my graduate student friend, who was concerned that there was no point and felt ill after watching the video.
Why did she feel sick? Because she’s in the profession–or at least trying to be–and so am I. We’re both pretty acutely aware of how difficult it is to get a permanent job, and I at least am viscerally aware of what that job looks like if you ever get to the other side of the desk (however temporarily) so my question is this: How might we think and act positively about the game without getting inextricably mired in its increasingly corporate structure?
For starters, give yourself a pat on the back for reading this blog: we’re engaging in community building here.
Here’s another thought, what about (more) co-op programmes in the Humanities?
Perhaps a commons for the exchange of pedagogical strategies?
Other thoughts?
after the LTA · DIY · good attitudes about crappy possibilities · stockpiling letterhead

DIY Academia?

I ran into an acquaintance of mine outside the library today. I met her last year at the new faculty orientation (aside: DO NOT SKIP THIS. It is one of those rare chances to meet people outside your department and it is also really heartening to meet a bunch of other folks who are new to the city/school/teaching/research gig. Seriously, you should go to this.)

Anyhow, she is on a limited term appointment much like mine, meaning that as of May 2011 we’re both out of work. Unless, of course we get jobs which is, yes, what we both would like.

As we chatted in the sun, relishing the last few days of on-campus quiet, conversation inevitably turned to what-ifs. What if you don’t get a job? We asked each other. What if you don’t get a postdoctoral fellowship or some other similar research-based position?

I was surprised to hear the answers that came out of both our mouths.

My friend intends to return to the Southern United States where her partner is situated. She’ll take some time to write articles and flesh out the publications section of her CV. My answer was similar: I’ll stay where I am. My partner has a great career going, we both like the city, and there’s no reason to uproot us both if we’re not moving for a great job. So yes, I’ll also work to cobble together some sessional teaching while I write and try to publish.

It struck me then that both my friend and I are planning for life as DIY academics. Given time, but not money, institutions, but no institutional support, we’ll each work away at getting in to this profession we love. Not the best case scenario, obviously, but one that needs to be thought out and planned and discussed more openly. What happens when—if—you move from being an Assistant Professor on an LTA to an unaffiliated DIY academic?