academic reorganization · feminist health · gradgrind · guest post

Women, Academia, Sport: “Pink It and Shrink It,” the Tomboy Running Experience

Until the early 1990s the running industry’s philosophy towards women and running could be summed up by the phrase “pink it and shrink it.” This phrase was used in reference to women’s running shoes implying that they were the shrunken version of men’s and “feminized” by colouring them pink. Thankfully, largely owing to Nike and their recognition that women’s gait and biomechanics differ from that of men, this philosophy has since changed.
I grew up being that girl with untamed hair, ripped jeans, stealing my dad’s hats, and avoiding at nearly any cost the colour pink.  In short, I was a tomboy.  On entering the world of running I was overjoyed to discover that the industry had moved beyond the need to make all women’s running shoes pink.  Nike had set a new and forward thinking trend and not only adjusted the shoes to fit a women’s gait, but also had decided to give women the choice about the colour of their running shoes.
Nearly five years later, with still not-pink running shoes laced, I am heading to run club on Sunday morning much like almost every Sunday for the last five years.  When I first started going to run club I expected to find an all-boys club with only a few women – I was wrong. The room was packed and majority were women. Since moving beyond “pink it and shrink it,” more and more women have taken up running. I’ve really noticed the increase of women participating, as my running clinics are usually all women with one or two men. I usually start my new clinics with the opening remark: “running is more of relationship than a sport, and one that is sixty percent psychological and forty percent physical.” Running is more often a game of convincing yourself that you can do it and then pushing your body to do so. In this way, running is also the most freeing sport relationship. You decide how far, how fast, and how long you go. You set your own goals and if you stick to the training program you can achieve your goal. I wish I could say the same for academia.
Academia is the other major relationship in my life. Unlike running, there is no training program that I can follow to succeed as an academic. While my relationship with running has not always been straightforward due to injury or inclement weather conditions, there is always a sense of security because of the degree of control I have.  My success in academia, however, I only partly control. I can pour over books, jump through all the program hoops, and meet all the deadlines with no guarantee that I will be able to advance to the next phase of my academic career. While both academia and running operate on a schedule, the biggest difference between them is bureaucracy.
Academia has become more about jumping through bureaucratic hoops than actually participating in scholarly exploration. When I started graduate school I was under the impression that part of the reward of succeeding beyond the undergraduate level was the freedom to research and study what interests me, but like my expectations for run club, I was wrong, and this time it wasn’t a pleasant surprise. The higher up the academic ladder you climb the more bureaucratic and unpredictable it becomes. I wish academia were more like running where if you set a goal and stick to a training schedule you have the security of knowing that you could succeed on your own merit rather than your success being determined by the subjective and often conflicting nature of academic bureaucracy.

While my love letter to running is ongoing, my letter to academia has become a little bitter sweet.  It’s difficult to succeed in a discipline when the goals keep changing; when you’re cheering section and equipment are ill-fitting and change daily from “you can do it!” to “you’re just not good enough”.  I am sad to say I am only partially in control of my academic career.  The other part is controlled by the bureaucrats still making equipment that is a simple reduction and recolouring of the same flaws academia had a hundred years ago.  In short, I love you academia, but you are still in the “pink it and shrink it” phase and make it hard for minds like me to show you what I can do.


Liz Tetzlaff is an MA candidate in English at Dalhousie University, and running coach for Running Room, where in addition to coaching, I give outreach talks around the city encouraging others to get involved in the running community.  My research interests mainly focus on poetry of the female Great War poets and their engagement with radical pacifist movement. In addition to running and war poetry, I enjoy playing with puppies, listening to Sarah McLachlan, and watching BBC mini series.

day in the life · DIY · gradgrind · guest post

Guest Post: Why We Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

collaboration · gradgrind · PhD · productivity · social media

Ideas for the Break: Online Dissertation Boot Camp

Today, my brilliant Americanist colleague Christy Pottroff has graciously agreed to let me repost her piece (originally posted on the Fordham Graduate Digital Humanities Group blog) describing her experience with the online, collective dissertation writing group we formed over our Spring Break in March (I called it “Spring Break Dissertation Boot Camp,” but there was very little booting, only cheering). I know the semester is winding down for many folks in the great white north, and you should all, first and foremost, take an actual break after the hard work of the academic year–but once you’re ready to move back into working mode, consider forming an online writing group! I was very pleased with the way this Facebook post blossomed into a productive, collaborative community of motivated women hailing from various universities across the continent. Three H&E-ers–myself, Melissa, and Jana–took part in the group, so it seems only appropriate that it should be discussed here. Without further ado, here’s Christy:


For me, there’s nothing more appealing than an open week in my calendar. That blank iCal space means no lesson planning or grading for my Texts & Contexts course. I don’t have to ride the D-train to the Bronx for a meeting or lecture. It’s a week of sartorial freedom: basketball shorts over khakis, t-shirts over blazers. Most importantly, a break from my weekly routine means I can settle into my home workstation and immerse myself in late eighteenth century seduction fiction—as it relates to my dissertation, of course. As an advanced doctoral student, my expectations for this past spring break were writing-intensive. I had no travel plans and only a handful of social events for the week. I carved out this precious time to write and revise sections of my dissertation.

An open week—like a blank page—can be intimidating. The possibilities seem endless and dizzying. A few weeks ago, I found myself wondering: could I write fifteen pages on epistolary novels for my dissertation group? Would I be able to read Margaretta and The Hapless Orphan during the break? Is an annotated bibliography the best use of my time? Should I start writing that book review? Wait! How is this a “break,” exactly? Will I ever finish House of Cards?

A few days before the break, Fordham medievalist extraordinaire [*blush*], Boyda Johnstone, had a stroke of brilliance. Boyda organized a week-long online dissertation writing group for graduate students at Fordham and beyond. The purpose of the online dissertation group was simple: we wouldn’t critique one another’s writing; rather, we would focus on accountability in the writing process. Each group member was asked to set daily and cumulative goals for the week, then members would report on their daily and weekly progress. These goals were public, specific, and realistic (i.e. read and summarize 3 articles on notecards; write for 1.5 hours in the morning; notes toward response paper for Hapless Orphan). Throughout the week, we gave each other advice on the writing process, suggestions for professional development, and general motivation for the hard task of writing. In effect, each individual group member spent the week consciously and publicly organizing her time; as a community, we held one another accountable and supported one another.

The tool that facilitated our online writing group was a simple one. Boyda created a shared Google Doc with a template for each group member’s goals. Here’s our group’s template:

Within this template, our goals were specific, but informal. We used the comment function to engage with each other’s goals. The encouragement was consistent and inspiring. This kind of structured online engagement made me not only more purposeful in my use of time, but I also felt accountable in reporting back my accomplishments.

At the end of each day, I would set the next day’s goals. When I woke up in the morning, I put on my basketball shorts, fed my cat, drank my coffee, and had a clear plan of action for the rest of the day. I was purposeful and supported.

Even though I spent most of the week in academic solitude, I never felt alone. The group happened to be populated by eight graduate student women. Seeing other avatars in our shared Google Doc made me feel like part of a productive and collaborative community of academic women. We were from Fordham University, NYU, University of Alberta, and York University. Despite our geographical and institutional distance, I received daily encouragement from this community and I felt accountable to them. What is more, I encountered writing and research practices and professional development activities beyond the norms at Fordham thanks to the group’s institutional range. Even though our group never met face-to-face (and I don’t know what some of them look like at all), my online engagement with this community heightened my productivity throughout what would have otherwise been a very solitary week. While I certainly wouldn’t advocate for an all-digital academic community, this was a positive and productive experience enabled by a simple digital tool.

Time is the most precious commodity in graduate school. Time management is a difficult skill to learn—but it’s not something you need to learn alone. The next time you feel disoriented by an open calendar, take to the internet! Create an online group of like-minded friends. Make specific public goals for how you’ll use your time and hold one another accountable.

Christy Pottroff is a PhD Candidate in English at Fordham University in New York City where she specializes in nineteenth-century American literature, queer and feminist theory, and rural studies. Thank you, Christy!

best laid plans · gradgrind · grading · PhD · productivity

Grading Strategies (…I need ’em)

(read Erin’s post from yesterday first, if you haven’t already!)

It’s that time of year, to invoke the old academic cliche (when is it not that time of year?). I have a stack of grading that I’ve barely touched: 31 4-page papers, plus 30 journals that span roughly the last month of weekly journal entries. Plus I have to teach those courses, sometimes be observed by my superiors teaching those courses (twice in the last week, including this morning, which is why this blog is late, apologies), and I’m supposed to have written two chapters of my dissertation by the end of this semester.

Oh, and the venerable holiday of Halloween happened.

 My partner and I, as “American Goths”

So yeah, that was important to make time for too (…I’m serious!). To some of you, this schedule–basically juggling two things, teaching and dissertation–may seem pretty tame. Some of you have hundreds of students, hundreds of papers to grade, you’re writing three books, some of you teach at multiple institutions, some of you have families and kids and administrative responsibilities and…overall, I know I should be thankful that my schedule is relatively simplified, but to be perfectly honest,  I’ve never taught more than one course at a time before and so am finding managing two plus general dissertation workload quite difficult. You have my permission to scoff.

So, I think it’s time to consolidate some grading tips! We haven’t talked about that too much on this thing, it seems; Aime discussed clumping her papers in a 2011 post, generating a useful discussion in the comments with such strategies as recording rather than writing your comments, and giving detailed feedback only on the first page. I clump, but I can’t see myself recording, and I am constantly plagued with guilt when I don’t comment on every page or paragraph so I’m not really sure about that last one either. Here are some other strategies I’ve thought about, discussed, learned, attempted to put into practice (key word: attempted):

1. First things first, establish reasonable expectations. I have heard of first-year Composition & Rhetoric courses requiring something like 4-page papers every week. I think we can all agree that that’s too much for all parties involved, engendering writing produced under exhaustion and duress, and stressed-out and overworked professors. Immersive, high-pressure learning environments work, arguably, for language acquisition, but not for writing, when the goals are more geared around precision, nuance, attention to detail, personal expression. So, teachers, if it is within your power, don’t construct an unreasonable syllabus! Remember that the demands of the academy and the pervasive DWYL dictum within academia ask too much of us to justify spending every waking moment grading; we simply aren’t paid enough, aren’t compensated for our labor enough, to sacrifice personal or research time for written feedback to students, who generally care more about the letter grade anyway.

2. Structure peer review into the writing process. Jana talked about this a little bit last year. At the very least, forcing them to write and print out a rough draft gets them thinking about and wrestling with their projects early on, and instills in them a sense of writing as a process, not an isolated event.  I’ve found, however, that my in-class peer reviews yield mixed results, as my students are often too nice to one another to provide useful critical feedback, or they get caught up in (important, but still) local problems such as formatting the Works Cited page rather than global issues. I always distribute a handout, but have adopted different formats;  on the one hand I don’t want to set them loose on each others’ papers with no guidance, but on the other I want to leave room for personal engagement and independent critical thinking. For my last essay, I had them read each other’s drafts over the weekend and write neutral summaries of them; then, in class, I gave them a handout with guiding questions for their conversations. The authors were supposed to chronicle on this handout the feedback they received, but I think they got too caught up in conversations to be able to complete that fully. I want to keep experimenting with formats that keep them responsible to each other as well as sparking independent thinking.
The point is: peer review and sequenced assignments should help produce better quality work in the end, allowing for an easier grading process.

3. Make sure the assignments are carefully scaffolded so that they can be as prepared as possible to write. Relating to #2, but there are lots of things you can do besides peer review: devote time in class to having them pair up and talk through thesis statements/outlines, brainstorm research possibilities together, have them write out intro paragraphs in class and then ask for volunteers to read and discuss them. (N.b: if you’re teaching Comp, you can turn this into a fun exercise in tone–pass out slips of paper that provide individual instructions for rewriting their introductions from different perspectives, eg. “Write an intro paragraph to your paper as though you are a strongly right-wing critic,” “Write an intro paragraph to your paper as though you are writing the introduction to a children’s book,” “Write an intro paragraph to your paper as though you are writing the beginning of a manifesto,” etc. Learning to approach the material from different perspectives will help them nuance and master their material, and it’s always a fun exercise to have them read out their paragraphs to one another, having them guess what persona they’ve adopted.)

4. Maintain a routine. Set the timer, keep to it. I aim for 20 minutes per 4-page paper. Sometimes I (still) take longer than this, but having the timer go off as I’m still reading through the last page will give me added urgency to speed things up and get to the end comment as quickly as possible. I also always grade with the same blue pen, play music that peps me up, keeps me cheerful, or calms me down as necessary, and (of course) take short breaks to minimize my own crankiness.

5. Experiment with oral forms of presentation/grading. Someone in a recent Facebook discussion noted that she actually grades in concentrated one-on-one settings, which seems to me to be a little too high pressure (for both me and the student; I know I often have a hard time concentrating with someone [who has a vested interest in what I’m doing] just sitting and watching me!). But perhaps you could transform a written assignment into an oral presentation to the class. Explain to your students that this is an opportunity for them to hone their oral delivery skills, cater their arguments to a broader audience, and experiment with different kinds of electronic media, such as Prezi.

6. Skim through all the papers and stack them according to what you initially perceive as A, B, and C-worthy papers. I actually don’t do this much anymore, because when I did I often couldn’t help but engage with the work the first-time around, and then it ended up taking approximately twice as much time if I had to go through them all twice.

7. Quality over quantity; fewer assignments, higher stakes. I recently decided it was unreasonable of me to give written feedback on every single weekly journal entry (and my students probably weren’t reading/absorbing everything either), so I adjusted my policies so that students choose one out of four or so entries to submit as a hard copy for written feedback; the others, I just skim through online, keep a log of what I anticipate their grade to be, and leave short comments, briefly observing what worked in the entry and what didn’t.

Those are what I’ve come up with so far; now I really need to go put these suggestions into practice! Maybe I just need to continue to channel the austere, hardworking spirit of the American Gothic couple. More tips welcome!