backlash · bad academics · copper-bottomed bitch · hiring · job market · professors · righteous feminist anger · structural solutions

The backhand side: stupid job ads and equity

I hate red tape. I hate that every time I travel for research, I have to ask for and then save the receipt I get for buying a $5 sandwich on the airplane, and that if I get breakfast in my hotel room because the conference starts at 8:30am, I have to make sure that my toast and eggs are itemized on the hotel invoice because “Room Service Charge” is not reimbursable. This feels petty and annoying to me.

But sometimes, the pettiness and rules of the bureaucracy are an equity-seeking device.

Last year when I taught our graduate professionalization class to the second-year PhD cohort, we had as a guest lecturer a departmental colleague who was chair for a long time, and was hired in the 1980s. He was talking about the academic job market now and then. Now, as we all know, it’s a paper-heavy bureacractic mess. But then, it was a phone call between two dudes, exchanging grad students and privilege. No application, just backchannel.

In this vein, Sydni Dunn in Chronicle Vitae just reported on Jonathan Goodwin’s work with vintage MLA job ads (building on prior work by Jim Ridolfo). Here’s an ad that really stuck with me:

This is a marvel of insider-clubbiness. There might be an opening, and it doesn’t matter what field you’re in, but we’d like your degree from somewhere good and you should be able to play tennis and engage in repartee about same. The vague requirements leave the position completely open to whim; the emphasis on the rank of the school tends to reproduce privilege. The only real metric you could use to distinguish among candidates is actually tennis: publications are “helpful” but not required, so you can’t compare candidates on research record. You can’t distinguish by specialization, because none is required. You could in fact not hire at all. I can just imagine the deliberations. Oh wait: there wouldn’t be any. Because this was before committee-based hiring. Shudder. I’ll take Interfolio any day, frankly.

In my Facebook feed, then, in 2015, I was surprised to see a link to this ad from MIT. It starts out okay, or at least standard:

The MIT Media Lab ( is seeking candidates to fill two tenure-track positions. Appointments will be within the Media Arts and Sciences academic program, principally at the Assistant Professor level. 

Successful candidates for either position will be expected to: establish and lead their own research group within the Media Lab; pursue creative work of the highest international standard; engage in collaborative projects with industrial sponsors and other Media Lab research groups; supervise master’s and doctoral students; and participate in the Media Arts and Sciences academic program. Send questions to faculty-search [at] 

MIT is committed to building a culturally diverse educational environment; women and minorities are strongly encouraged to apply. EOE.

Yes, that sounds like a job ad. Job type, job rank, job duties, number of jobs available, contact information, assessment criteria. Also, equity statement.

Good. Then the two available positions are listed out. One, in climate change and environment, is pretty standard, too. But then, this, in “undefined discipline”:

The Media Lab is a cross-disciplinary research organization focusing on the invention of new media technologies that radically improve the ways people live, learn, work, and play. 

We are seeking a new kind of early career faculty member, not defined by discipline, rather by his or her unique and iconoclastic experience, style, and points of view. You can be a designer, inventor, scientist, or scholar – any combination – as long as you make things that matter. Impact is key. 

This means somebody with at least these three sets of characteristics: 

  1. Being deeply versed in a minimum of two fields, preferably not ones normally juxtaposed;
  2. Being an orthogonal and counter-intuitive thinker, even a misfit within normal structures;
  3. Having a fearless personality, boundless optimism, and desire to change the world. 

Any disciplines apply as long as their confluence shows promise of solving big, difficult, and long-term problems. And, most importantly, candidates must explain why their work really can only be done at the Media Lab. We prefer candidates not be similar to our existing faculty. We welcome applicants who have never considered academic careers. If you fit into typical academia, this is probably not the job for you. 

Applications should consist of one URL—the web site can be designed in whatever manner best characterizes the candidate’s unique qualifications. Web site should include a CV or link to a CV.

So. Not a real application. Make a website, any kind of website, but unique, and submit that as your application! Also, there’s a personality-based assessment–be orthogonal as well as polymathic! We want you to be young (early career) and iconoclastic! This is a professor job, but if you fit into academia, you’re not the right fit. Except you’ll still need a PhD and do the work of a professor. The ad seems to be asking for a set of personal traits–and personal traits that seem to inhere in a very particular kind of applicant:

Venture-capital tech-dude types who skipped college and traveled to India (not to see family, but to experience life, man) and who have foregone the scholarly article in favor of something showier because they like attention and feel they deserve it and they have rebellious haircuts and gender-bending accessories.

Look. I regularly lobby to have my media appearances and blog work count on my CV. I get “iconoclastic”–and I get weird haircuts and gender-bending accessories. I wear My Little Pony swag to teach. But this kind of ad, in its emphasis on personality and attitude, feels insulting to all the hard, verifiable, assessable work that academics do to become trained and competitive for professorships. And it will lead to bad candidate assessment.

The ability to receive a serve on the backhand side is not named, but implied. Again, how on God’s Green Earth can you sensibly sort a candidate pool? I’ll tell you right now it’ll be like an American Idol open tryout, except many of the sensible people will just not even go.

Once more: in many ways, I’m all about thinking outside the academic box: I take Facebook seriously as life-writing and I refuse to call everyday social media users naive or thoughtless. I’m lobbying hard to change a lot about the PhD at my institution. What is killing me about this job ad is that it gets loosey-goosey about all the wrong things in ways that are going to disadvantage applicants who’ve just barely got a toe-hold into the academy. By removing assessable metrics and by opening the ad so widely, it’s nearly guaranteed that a very narrow set of possible winners is going to emerge.

You can bet your backhand on it.

#alt-ac · #post-ac · backlash · dissertation · hiring · negotiating · work

You Don’t Get What You Don’t Ask For

Why doesn’t it surprise me that all of the stock photos of people negotiating are of men? 

As of yesterday, I’m on an adjusted schedule at work that sees me coming in an hour later in the morning. It doesn’t sound like a big difference, starting at 9:30 rather than 8:30. It feels big, not working the same standard hours as everyone else in my highly unionized office. But it gives me a full two hours in the morning to write, two hours in which I can get a heck of a lot accomplished. And it represents one of my more successful attempts at workplace negotiation. I wanted, I asked, and I got.

Negotiating in the academy, especially for women, is a fraught activity. I think we all know the story of W., who had her tenure-track job offer at Nazareth College revoked after she tried to negotiate a higher salary and a few other amendments to the job offer. Karen Kelsky, the former faculty member behind The Professor is In, offers advice on how to stop negotiating like a girl. And it’s not just that women tend not to negotiate, although some studies show that only 7% of us do, as compared to 57% of men. It’s that the social cost of negotiating, of facing negative repercussions for being seen as pushy, grasping, not “nice,” is so high for us that we instinctively know (or are explicitly told) not to ask for more than is offered.

All of this chafes, a lot. And so I keep trying to figure out ways to meet what many, including Margaret Neale (professor of negotiation at Standford) and Sheryl Sandberg (CEO of Facebook), call the need for women to “think personally, act communally,” and still get what we want. Importantly, asking for what I want is always backed up by information and a persuasive argument, a key component Neale notes is missing from many women’s negotiation repertoires. So this time around, I found language in my collective agreement that would let me negotiate an adjusted schedule in collaboration with my manager. I ensured that the hours I chose wouldn’t negatively impact anyone I work closely with. I’ll admit that some people didn’t need much convincing–I work with lots of people with PhDs who can see the value of the degree beyond just the tenure track. But I had to get five people to sign off on my plan, and for to those who needed convincing, I made the case for the ways in which providing some accommodations so that I can finish my dissertation quickly was to everyone’s benefit, not just mine: that having the PhD in hand would increase my credibility among the graduate community (and therefore the work of our office), that it would enhance my ability to fill whatever role the Deacanal team needs filled, and that it would facilitate the deepening of the ways in which the Dean is linking the work we do about graduate reform and professional development to an active (and hopefully funded!) research practice that will bring the university money and a reputation as a leader. I made it not about me, but about the good of our Faculty.

This kind of low-stakes negotiation was great practice for the future, when I transition into a management role, am no longer bound to the terms of a collective agreement, and have some room to ask for something more, or something different. Is it frustrating not just be able to ask for a higher salary, no questions asked? Yes. Is it terrifying to think that those you’ve negotiated with now think worse of you, before you’ve even started the job? Yes. And we all know now that it’s possible for negotiations to backfire to the point that the job no longer exists. But you don’t get what you don’t ask for. Sometimes it does hurt to ask, but I’m going to keep doing it anyway. And on that note, back to dissertation writing.

hiring · history · research · teaching · turgid institution

Specialist? Or expert?

What makes a specialist?  What makes an expert? These are the questions that haunt me on Sunday afternoons, apparently.

If you were to look me up on my fancy new website you would see that I do most of my teaching in the contemporary period, and, if I’m lucky, in either Canadian poetry or Canadian literary and cultural topics more generally. If you were to look at my Dalhousie faculty page you can see a different presentation of my specializations. However, if you were to ask me whether I was an expert in something or other I wouldn’t immediately know what to say.

Take, for example, a typical Saturday: for me involves writing several of my lectures for the upcoming week. Though I have now been teaching more or less full time since I finished my PhD in 2008 it has only been in the last year or so that I have been able to teach a class for the second or third time. Inevitably, every semester I am teaching at least one new course. Now, while the courses I teach are in my areas of specialization–albeit sometimes broadly speaking–I certainly can’t profess to be an expert in Canadian Gothic Revival Architecture or Jeremy Bentham or Charles G.D. Roberts, for that matter. Can I lecture on these topics and figures? Of course I can, and I can say with some confidence that I do so fairly well. Indeed, two of the three topics I listed even fall under one or more of the categories of my  candidacy exams (which were 19th and 20th century women’s writing in English, contemporary critical theory, and contemporary Canadian poetry). However, expert I am not.

Certainly, part of my broad specialization comes from my extensive teaching experience. As a limited term appointment I teach between 6-9 courses a year (that’s including spring term). Though I am amused by the (fallacious) assumption that because I am an ‘expert in literature’ I am good at things like Scrabble, I am mostly happy with my specializations being broad and my interests being many. Further, I should say that while I have broad specializations I am categorizable when it comes to the terms set out by job advertisements. Nonetheless, I found myself wondering, are the pressures of the current job market as well as the increasing focus on graduate student professionalization changing scholars from experts to specialists? From specialists to experts? Or are experts endangered? Or is the difference between the two terms merely a difference in approach? Am I just creating false dichotomies? And, so long as the teaching and research is solid, does it matter?

When I asked two colleagues what they thought of my question about the difference between specialists and experts they were both of the general opinion that the difference between the two has always existed. One colleague related that she had seen a compelling talk by an expert in the music and culture of 1934. When asked what his next book would be, he replied ‘1935!’ I am awed by the ability to think, research, and write in such a systematic way. Such expertise and depth of knowledge reminds me of my first Romantic literature professor who could recite not only the Wordsworth’s poems, but also revisions, and letters referencing revisions. From memory! But I’m equally awed by the ability of a scholar who can pull together diverse references, time periods, and approaches to unpack a set of questions.

What do you think, readers? Is there a difference between an expert and a specialist? Do you call yourself one or the other?

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!

equity · feminist win · hiring · reform

Guest Post: Pink Flyer

March 2002: We invaded.

Okay, we didn’t “invade.” We, a group of feminist academics in Canada, attended a large Geography conference in the US, “armed” with pink flyers.

It took us a few weeks to make the flyers, which is surprising given that all we wanted to do was draw attention to the status of women in Geography. We decided to collect data on the number of women faculty in our discipline by scanning PhD-granting Geography departments in Canada and the US.

You might be wondering why this data wasn’t just readily available. It was, after all, 2002. Wasn’t there data out there? Well, no. The sciences always seem to be ahead of the social sciences in collecting these statistics. In 2002, universities surely were gathering data internally, but no one had published discipline-specific numbers, not for Geography.

From our data collection, we calculated some basic statistics on women faculty, breaking down data by rank. We wrote out some percentages re: rank and gender. We made some bar graphs. We printed them all out on bright pink paper. There was no mention of sexism or discrimination on the flyer. We merely presented the data that we had collected. We didn’t print our names or affiliations. In fact, until this blog post, no one has ever admitted in print to being involved with creating the pink flyers.

Now comes the fun part:

We distributed these flyers at the national conference. We placed them on empty seats in conference rooms. We handed them out to groups of geographers, chatting between conference sessions.

The response was overwhelmingly gendered. Approaching groups of older men was always a hit or miss activity. A warm smile and a “Pardon me. I just wanted to hand these out to you” was met with pleasant faces. Then, once they realized what had been handed over to them, often they became annoyed. If someone already knew what the flyer was, I would sometimes get a very hostile response of “I don’t want that.” As if I was handing over something covered in dog poo.

Okay, so right now this isn’t sounding like a feminist win, but it is! Even with some disgruntled recipients, it was a fantastic intervention. It got a lot of people talking at the conference. There were both men and women who were thrilled to see this data collected.

Conference gossip (usually salacious) is often the hot topic at dinner and drinks, but that year, much of the conference “gossip” was the paltry numbers of women faculty. People were abuzz. What were departments going to do when they were presented with these stats? What strategies did people have for changing things?

A few years ago, I came across an article from a geographer in the UK. He writes that in 2002 he attended a conference, and at some point a pink flyer ended up in his hands. He didn’t know who had created the flyer, but it contained some important stats about the low numbers of women in the discipline in the US and Canada. The flyer got him thinking about departments in the UK. His article then went on to present the data he collected and analyzed about gender and UK Geography.

None of us knew exactly what impact our pink flyer would have or where it would travel. Numbers, while significant, don’t indicate what systemic changes need to happen in the academy, but, still, the impact at that conference was awesome. For me, it’s a definite feminist win.

Bonnie Kaserman is an academic geographer and the author of (un)becoming academic, a blog featured on the Academic Matters magazine website (

hiring · sexist fail · skeptical feminist

Attachments: Letters of reference, CV, teaching philosophy…and a headshot

Periodically we’ve been thinking here about appearance in/and The Profession. And today is December 6th, a day that, as Nicole Brossard says elsewhere, is among the centuries. A day that in Canada is for remembering violence against women, remembering women who were killed simply for being women. Violence against women–all women–should be in the forefront of national concern, though as one of our commenters noted, “The most terrible and egregious act of sexism this month was the Harper government’s decision regarding the ‘renewal’ of funding for Sisters in Spirit, a Native Women’s Association of Canada initiative that has documented 582 missing and murdered aboriginal women and is developing policy recommendations on [how to deal with and stop] violence against aboriginal women. In true Harper style, the feds reduced funding by one third for the next five years and made ‘renewal’ subject to the following conditions: that the initiative be called Evidence in Action; that their well recognized Grandmother Moon logo not be used; that they cease doing ‘research’ on the missing and murdered women (to focus on ‘action’); and that they not maintain their database.”

I found myself thinking too about Polytechnique. I was ten years old on 6 December 1989 when a man with a gun walked into Montréal ’s L’École Polytechnique. He entered a classroom, demanded that the men go on one side and the women on the other. He told the men to leave the room, and they went. He called the women “une gang de féminists” and then he shot. Fourteen women were killed. I remember sitting on the living room floor in my parents’ house in Ottawa, reading the newspaper and feeling scared. It was night time; I was at home alone. My parents had just started letting me stay home without a babysitter; I was responsible and I liked having space to myself. But sitting on the living room floor on the new blue carpet I was scared. How far away was Montréal? Was this man really dead? Or had he come to Ottawa? I closed all of the curtains, sat in a corner and read and reread the reports. One of the policemen who came to the school found his daughter murdered. One male student said that when he saw the corpse of a woman in the photocopy room he thought it was a sick practical joke. Since when was a dead woman a joke? The sadistic violence acted out on these women was, I think now, the first time I truly recognized that I was a woman. It was, certainly, the first time I realized that women were sought out as victims based solely on their gender, though I do not imagine I had those words at the time. Alone in my parents’ house that night I just had my fear and a heavy sense of isolation.

With gendered and raced identity at the forefront of my mind, naturally I thought of this discursive space when, while catching up on my blog reading this weekend, I came across an article from the New York Times. Called “Beauty Discrimination During a Job Search” the article considers research from social scientists that suggests looks have something to do with whether or not you get a second interview. Here is a wee excerpt:

How much do looks matter during a job search? A new study suggests that while handsome men do better while looking for work, good looks can end up hurting a woman’s chances of scoring a job interview.

The gist of the research is that looking good is fine if you’re a man and bad (read: threatening) if you’re a woman.

After feeling whipsawed by the predictability of this article (and the more predictable commentary) I found myself thinking about how you readers would respond to this article. I also found myself thinking about my students.

I’ve just finished teaching a contemporary critical theory course. We spent the semester thinking about norms: gender, race, class, ethnicity, language, form. In short we engaged in consciousness-raising in a classroom. When these students were faced with a stunningly devastating binary they fought it. Fought to understand it, fought to unpack it, fought to think through alternative ways of being in the world that might upend extant inequities.

Did we get very far? In certain ways, no: we covered a huge amount of material in a semester. They may not all remember the difference of differ
ance, but some of them will. More of them might think about Peggy Phelan‘s work of the politics of visibility or Benedict Anderson‘s imagined communities.

I chose to organize the course in a rhizomatic structure. Modules, if you prefer. I was fascinated to find that when we reached the module on gender and sexuality–and read (among many others)
Rich, Cixous, and Mohanty. The students almost invariably gravitated to/were interested in Mohanty’s article on feminist scholarship and (post-) colonial discourse, while they found both Cixous and Rich prescriptive. Mainly, the concern was that the texts by Rich and Cixous showed their age. They weren’t prepared to say that there was no such thing as gender inequity, but they were resistant to the notion that it was so blatant, boring, and obvious.

So I find myself wondering what they would make of this article which, as it states, is based on social science research (you can link to the scholarly article informing the NYT one here).

And I find myself wondering what to make of it as well. Like my fellow blogger(s), I certainly think about my professor-y appearance. But this seems even more complicated than that. Certainly I’m not in a profession that is in the practice of asking for photographs to accompany applications (yet) but that seems beside the point. What does this say about “progress” for women gendered or made? What does it say about striving for ethnic and racial diversity?

Here’s (a teeny tiny top three list of ) what concerns me:
-what counts at “good looking” seems thinly veiled. This means ‘classic good looks,’ right? Which means heteronormative at the very least. And that, friends, is hugely problematic.
-as one commenter states, it seems that in any version of this scenario women are the most disenfranchised by this trend. This echoes my first concern: Are these women who look like, pass as, or choose to identify as women? Probably the former.
-in an attempt to “eliminate potential racial bias, the judges selected photos of individuals who appear to have a more ambiguous ethnic background.” So if you look too anything you’re out of luck? Wow.

What do you think readers?
grad school · hiring · ideas for change · job market · turgid institution

Toward a less laughable PhD in the Humanities

OK, it’s agreed: graduate students are not witless naives and deans are not brutal cynics. But what is it about the structure of graduate school that makes both of those roles recognizable? I want to pick up where Erin’s Monday post and its thoughtful comments leave off, and offer a few ideas for making our graduate programs better.

When you think about the kind of work we academics actually do (solving problems, organizing complex tasks, coaching and mentoring, reading, writing, teaching, learning), it sounds, as Erin points out, like a socially valuable kind of critical thinking. I don’t object to bringing people into a PhD program and telling them, up front, that the job market’s tough: it’s not my place to police other people’s passions, and the last thing I want is to sit on an admissions committee saying, “You want to know more? You’re not done ‘learning’? You have a curiosity that can’t be sated? No and again no: this program is for people with a well wrought, externally funded doctoral project!” Let a thousand flowers bloom, I say.

But I do find it unethical to bring people into a program that trains them in unnecessarily narrow ways for a job market that doesn’t exist.

When doctoral students in the humanities drop out of Canadian PhD programs (and, incidentally, they take on average eight years to quit – roughly the same length of time as it takes to complete the degree), funding is part of the story. But it’s one in a longish list of reasons, most of which are well within our power to change. According to the CAGS survey published in 2003 (old now, but still the most recent material published by CAGS and, to my knowledge, anyone else in Canada), students cite the following as their reasons for not finishing the PhD:

  1. insufficient funding
  2. lack of constructive supervision
  3. inappropriate program design
  4. academic isolation
  5. too extensive a scope for the thesis
  6. lack of readiness for graduate school.

Funding is tough, though it has improved markedly (and, yes, unevenly) in the last seven years. #6, lack of readiness, is similarly hard to remedy – grad students sometimes surprise themselves, their families and their admissions committees by discovering they’re not cut out for grad school after all. So I’d like to bracket those two factors in order to ask whether we can’t address the middle issues.

Lack of constructive supervisi0n/too big a scope for the thesis: It seems to me that these are part of the same issue, because a well supervised student should not be pursuing too big a thesis topic. What does that mean, “well supervised”? Should we pre-assign supervisors/advisors/mentors or let students find their own way? How often should we meet with students? for how long? What does it look like to work “together” on a grant proposal?: it’s normal in some disciplines for supervisors to essentially write the student’s proposal, and it’s not unheard of in others for supervisors to refuse to read a draft. Where do we draw our lines? What about reading a thesis: should we hold out for complete chapters or read “chunks” in draft form? When students don’t want to meet, should we push them? What about when they’re not writing (and don’t want to talk about it)? What’s the optimal use of a supervisory committee? Is our single-supervisor model the best one? Should a single supervisory model work for everyone? Should a single supervisory model work for the same student over time? I don’t necessarily have answers to these questions (though you know me, I have opinions): but I would like to hear frank conversations about them, conversations that include new and experienced supervisors, new, experienced and recently completed graduate students, and academic administrators.

Inappropriate program design: We say a PhD is four years long, we increasingly fund for three, and yet … and yet students take anywhere from five to nine years to finish most PhDs in the Humanities. Why? Is it possible that requirements have accreted? – that we added professional expectations like conference presentations and publishing without eliminating anything else (like coursework or language requirements)? Is it possible that something qualitative about doctoral work has changed (see next point)? Are exams the best way of marking milestones? Should we have coursework at all? Defenses? Theses? Is the way “we” did it, back in the twentieth century, the way students should pursue doctoral studies today? What about Erin’s suggestion of coop programs, pedagogical commons? Or what if we organized around skills instead of areas/documents? In short, how long should a PhD program be, and what, ideally, should it look like?

Academic isolation: “Go to your room, and don’t come out until you have a finished thesis!” Wait, no, that’s not what we say. We say, “Congratulations on passing your candidacy exam! Now you have time to think, time you’ll never have again, time I never have. Treasure these months: this is the best time of your life. Now, go to your room, and don’t come out until you have a finished thesis. Oh, incidentally: make it the first draft of a monograph.” And so we banish students to an utterly (well, often) structureless environment where they can watch each rent day come – and go – and come again, while they agonize in silence over a task they a) don’t necessarily understand, b) can’t simply think their way through, and c) haven’t been equipped for, what with our programs’ emphasis on short-term projects (coursework) and performances (exams). My question: is this the way to produce the kind of colleagues we want?

I don’t think these are simple issues, and I don’t think they have simple answers. Each has a material component I have glossed over too readily here (for instance: more office space = less isolation). I respect that some of my colleagues find the sole-authored disciplinary monograph a satisfying intellectual life. But I wonder about prescribing it for others, for everybody. If Deborah Rhode’s recent stat – and I’m sorry, I’m writing this post far away from my library and cannot look this up – that upwards of 90% of scholarly monographs are never even borrowed from the library, let alone cited, I just think we oughta ask whether the monograph-style dissertation is still the sine qua non of doctoral education. Above all I want to acknowledge here that we don’t really know how to change graduate education, and homo academicus hates not to know. Still, just because it’s not known doesn’t mean it can’t be known.

Should PhD programs in the Humanities be small? I’m not convinced they should. I’m not at all comfortable with a future that assumes all PhDs are in applied and medical sciences (’cause you can bet that Engineering is not closing the barn door anytime soon). More to the point, I’m not convinced that I want to give up on the vision of advanced study in the humanities – province, after all, of human life and the imagination, language, history, and our conceptual orientation to the world through time and across space. Call me crazy, but these things seem to me … what’s the word … indispensable.

So I’m for rethinking the doctoral degree in a way that makes it broad, rationalized, useful (to students, to society, to the profession) and complete-able in under four years. Who’s in?

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?
heartbreak · hiring · turgid institution

Guest Post: Spousal Hiring

In May 2010 I read an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about spousal hiring. The former dean of the faculty of arts and sciences at Johns Hopkins University made a convincing case about the need for administrators (not just faculty members and their unions) to care about spousal hiring. He writes:

My experience in the dean’s office confirmed my impressions as to the need for spousal hiring. Johns Hopkins simply could not have built its faculty without a willingness to create positions for spouses and partners.

In case after case, that willingness was, by far, the single most important factor in recruitment. We could increase a salary offer by tens of thousands of dollars a year; provide lavish research accounts; promise a scandalous number of sabbatical leaves—none of it mattered if it meant that a candidate still faced the prospect of a long-distance commute or a major professional sacrifice by a spouse.

Now to be clear here, this issue matters much to me, and likely rang true in many ways because I am one half of a dual-academic couple. In 2007 my husband began a tenure-track job in one city, and in 2009 I began one in another city. I even gave up the second year of a SSHRC postdoc for this job since everyone and their dog told me that I’d be stupid to pass it up. Again and again other academics – those in contract positions, those in administration, and fellow professors of every rank – told us just how lucky we were to land two tenure-track jobs within a 5 hour drive of each other. Heck, they said as they toasted us, at least you’re in the same time zone!

Ours is an academic “success story,” but I’d like to take a moment to articulate my experience of this so-called “success.” I won’t offer a list of things that don’t really work with a long-distance, dual-academic partnership in my experience, because I fear that it will just read as a long whinge, a litany of complaints. (“Is the husband a problem?,” is how the New York Times put it.)

What I do want to communicate, however, is the very real sense of helplessness and lack of agency that both myself and my partner have experienced with respect to academia as we have tried to remedy our long-distance situation. We are crushed by a monolithic and slow bureaucratic structure. Our hands are tied, as are those of our respective Chairs and Deans (for the most part). I thought universities would be places where smart people could come together to find creative solutions to any kind of problem, but I’m learning just how wrong I was in that notion. By and large, the advice that we get is: “just wait it out and eventually you’ll end up in the same place.”

Now while that advice may be true, there is no guarantee that it is true. We could just live out our professional lives split between two Ontario cities. But perhaps more importantly, when well-meaning friends and colleagues tell us that it will all “work out eventually,” what they neglect to realize is the price to be paid for that “eventual” timeline. Put simply: we can neither buy a house nor have children until we’re in the same place. And if “eventually” doesn’t happen soon enough, then the window on having kids will close, whether we like it or not. That, I have to admit, is a high price to pay for what is, at the end of the day, just a job.

Here’s where things stand for us right now: This year I was awarded a research grant and was able to convince my university to give me a one-year unpaid research leave (July 2010-July 2011). So I’m back in the same city as my spouse, working from home. What do I think will ultimately happen? I’m a realist. So what I think will happen is that I will end up leaving academia, and I will try to find work doing something else, and I will be one more female statistic who compromises her own academic and professional goals. So 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. But at the end of the day, I would rather have my marriage than my job. And I just wish that academia didn’t ask me to make that choice.

Lindy Ledohowski, Ph.D.