good things · job notes · learning · running · teaching · tenured life

Yelling, and other things I’ve forgotten in ten years

Last Wednesday, I shouted myself hoarse. Or, more specifically, I talked so much and so loudly for so much of the day that I gave myself a pounding headache and my braces tore up the inside of my mouth. I told myself it was because the “Faculty Speed Dating” orientation session was really loud, and since I was the one that had to get people to move tables every five minutes, it was the yelling that did it (note to self for next year: buy a bell, or a gong). But then Thursday: headache again. And all I had done was a presentation to 20 continuing PhD students, for an hour. Perhaps I was coming down with something?

Friday found me standing in the graduate coordinator’s office, clutching my throat and my head, moaning. J is a singer, with a degree in music. She knows about throats, and yelling, and of course, about managing grad chairs. She offered me a headache pill and then some advice.

She said I should stop yelling and start speaking loudly, from the diaphragm. Pfft, I said, I know how to do that, I’ve done theater! And singing (very very poorly)! And public speaking! She told me, then, ¬†kindly, that her own speech therapist noted that every September, she was besieged by … teachers. Experienced ones.

July marked the 10th anniversary of my hiring at Waterloo. I’ve been a professor for ten years. Ten! Tenured now for three. The “new carpet” I brag about my office having is now ten years old. Some of the books I bought new with my first grant now have sun-scorched spines. I’ve taught somewhere in the vicinity of 35 classes, ranging from 10 to 200 students, and given what feel like countless presentations and papers.

But here I was, like a rookie, squelching up my throat and squeezing my vocal cords and pinching my voice and yelling. Like a rookie.

Ten years in the same office, with the same departments, many of the same colleagues, and surprisingly many of the same classes. This stability is, of course, one of the great privileges of tenured and tenure-track appointments, but in the midst of all this incremental moving from one September to the next, it’s easy to forget that I am changing, still learning, forgetting things. This year, over the summer, somehow I’ve started yelling instead of projecting. So my project is to remember how to be loud without giving myself a headache.

My career here attains the rhythm of a long, slow, Sunday run. I’m focused on endurance, and maybe enjoying the view, listening to the birds. Ten years behind me and at least another 25 in front of me, in the same office with the same carpet, and many of the same colleagues. I’m not racing to put together enough work for the fall. Not sending applications out wildly into a future I can’t see. Not packing or unpacking for or from a major move. In ten years? I’ll still be here, most likely, doing much what I’m doing now.

Yet, things change. To keep to the running metaphor, if the job hunt is like racing for the bus in heels while dragging a laptop and 50 student papers behind you, and tenure is a long, slow training run, you might say that I’ve got time to work more carefully on my form. And so I am. This term it’s my own voice, as well as using informal daily writing in my first year class. Last year it was shifting my fourth year design course to a fully major-project focus. I’m learning about anti-racist feminism and how to integrate this better in my teaching. I’m trying to figure out how to help graduate students train as writers rather than just as subject-area experts. I’m writing my first book. Since I finally understand how the courses fit together in our degree programs, I’m starting to think of new and old courses in terms of their fit in the curriculum. I’m taking on bigger administrative roles.

Ten years ago, I was having trouble imagining how I could do one thing for 35 years. I was used to running pell-mell from one milestone to the next, waiting for my real life to start. Ten years in, I can say it’s started. It turns out I’m still feeling just as challenged as ever, and even if I’m in some ways developing new and more advanced skills, sometimes I’m learning the same lessons over again. Like how to project my voice into a big room.

I’ve been catching up with my departmental colleagues this past week, and like they do–like I do–every year, they report the same dream we all started having as children: it’s the first day of class, and I’m not wearing anything; I’m in the wrong room; I’m meant to be teaching in Japanese; the books didn’t arrive on time. Ten years in, I’m still as excited and nervous–nervouscited?–about the new school year as I ever was.

Once I get this headache under control, that’s going to be really cheering to think about.

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

New Associate Chair Grad Studies: Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s the squishy stuff, so far.

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

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

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

academic reorganization · academic work · appreciation · empowerment · job notes · solidarity

Who’s your role model?

I’ve been thinking about role models lately. In our graduate professionalization seminar this week, we were talking about issues related to teaching: practical issues like classroom management, broader issues like different pedagogical theories relating to the teaching of writing, but also bigger, structural questions of “What does a career teaching in the academy look like, going forward?”

You probably know from your own experience that most university teachers are passively trained: we pick up a teaching style from being taught, mostly. We then model ourselves consciously or unconsciously to resemble teachers we admired: these are, literally, our role models. This applies to our research and service work as well: we learn how to do library research in a pretty programmatic way, perhaps, but the practices relating to books versus articles, how many submissions per year, what kinds of conferences, how to select and do university service (or avoid doing it), how to comport ourselves in meetings, all of that we kind of … make up as we go along, deliberately or accidentally modeling our behavior on what we’ve seen from others, usually senior to us.

The academy is changing. Fast, and a lot. Bigger classes, more diverse students, online teaching, greater research expectations, expectations related to seeking and securing outside funding, collaborative service work, higher stakes administrative work, politicization and austerity, and globalized classrooms.

It’s possible that some of those more senior scholars we most admire actually work in a version of the academy that doesn’t exist for junior scholars. An academy where teaching loads keep going down, to promote a research agenda. Where all the students speak English as a first language, or you can let someone else deal with that. Where SSHRC actually funds non-targeted research. Where teaching online is a hobby, or something you can do for extra money. Where you can ignore, mostly, the external climate of anti-intellectualism and academy-bashing, because you’ve still got lots of majors and enough government money. Where mentoring PhDs involves writing them reference letters for academic jobs.

Life on the ground in the profession looks different now even than when I started here, almost ten years ago. It’s worlds different from when I started as a student at York, in a first year English seminar, with a cap of 12 students and taught by a senior professor.

I like the academic social media space in part because it allows us to find role models among academics of our own generation: a kind of lateral modelling where we can figure out the structural realities together, as they operate today. We can become colleagues in arms, building horizontal relationships to give context and nuance, maybe, to the vision of the life of the mind we pick up from our traditional role models or mentors, who tend to be senior to us.

Who are your role models? IRL, when I was a grad student, and of course since then as well, my role models have included Heather Zwicker (my dissertation supervisor) and Susan Brown (my MA supervisor). Heather showed me that you can be assertive and sassy and smart and get ahead on your own terms. Susan showed me how to be a feminist and a digital humanist at the same time, in a literature department. And what it might be like to start a family on the tenure track.

I have some new and different role models now. Erin Wunker is teaching me about what it means to be an academic in the new world of LTAs and increasing contingency: a teacher and researcher with incisive smarts and grace, clear-eyed and articulate. Lee Skallerup Bessette is teaching me about loud and proud contingency, about changing research areas without real institutional support, about building community through networking and public writing. Adeline Koh is teaching me about weaving a thorough interrogation of race and gender into digital humanities work, about building alliances and calling bullshit and being thoroughly engaged across scholarly and para-scholarly platforms: this is what integrity looks like. I hope to be learning more from Melissa Dalgleish about post-academic careers and what a new kind of life of the mind might look like.

I’m trying to cultivate mentors and models from across the ranks, and across the wide range of academic lives: I feel the richer for it, humbled by the various kinds of excellence I am lucky enough to witness. I feel empowered from these examples to continue to learn to be the kind of academic that I can become.

What about you? Can you share some of your role models? We’d love to hear about them.

after the LTA · job notes · work

Articulating academic work experience in a non-academic world

Since I completed my PhD last year, I’ve been thinking a lot about non-academic¬†work opportunities for people like me. I’ve discussed the kinds of work I might be interested in with a range of successful, gainfully employed friends and colleagues. When I describe the work that I did as part of my PhD with friends who work in the private sector, they are usually optimistic that my skills and knowledge sets would serve me well on the job market. And yet, in speaking with my post-doctoral colleagues, many of us have struggled to find appropriate non-academic¬†job opportunities. When we do find something to apply for, it seems our resumes simply drift out into the abyss, never to be heard from again.

There is a very clear disconnection between how we articulate our academic skills and the kinds of work experience that are privileged in the private sector workforce. Yet, rationally, it seems that we should be qualified for many jobs. Indeed, when I have participated on committees and special contracts in the private and public sector, I felt that my academic training allowed me to excel in these positions.

The problem, I believe, is one that Aim√©e¬†Morrison cleverly touched upon a couple of years ago. Her post “The degree is the job: a modest proposal for the PhD” really struck me when I read it. To summarize, Morrison argues that the PhD should be treated as a job, not as a path that leads to a job. The PhD is too long a distraction from life and career building if we use it as a time-out, rather than a career stage. This is important advice (seriously, go back and read her article!).

If we take the degree as a job, then we need to learn how to articulate our time in the degree as time spent working at a job. (We also need to change the way the private sector perceives time spent in graduate school – I’ve started working on this little problem here).

But let’s talk about our skills shall we? Where do all of those little jobs that we have been doing go on a normal resume? The thing about a resume is it is short and to the point. The list of skills that we provide at the top needs to somehow be reinforced by our work experience, which takes up the bulk of the resume. The problem is, a list of TA-ships and sessional positions doesn’t really account for the design, management and completion of a major research project, the dissemination of multiple, peer-reviewed research papers, the mentoring of undergraduates, the committee work, the grant applications, the EVERYTHING that we have done over the past 5-10 years of our lives.

How do we translate academic into non-academic? Here are a list of things that I recommend doing. It is incomplete. I don’t profess to be an expert, but I have done some research… ūüėČ

1) Find a way to incorporate all of the things that you have accomplished over your graduate career into the Work Experience section of your CV. Employers want to see evidence¬†of your skills. Listing “research¬†design”¬†as a skill, then showing an exclusively teaching-based work experience does not convince anyone of this skill. Key terms for describing the dissertation as a job include: researched and wrote; identified research problem; developed evaluation criteria; developed a timeline; public dissemination; public speaking.

2) Frame your experience according to skills, rather than knowledge. What did you actually do? Also, in describing teaching experience, focus less on what you taught and more on skills such as training, scheduling, mentoring, coaching. Get your private sector speak on. Other terms include: delegate; coordinate; manage groups; provide performance feedback; supervision of research team; professional communication; writing; editing.

3) Give it a name! Every research contract or project that you worked on needs to read on your resume like a¬†job. Jobs have titles,¬†duration, responsibilities, employers and supervisors. Research¬†assistant¬†for some professor they’ve¬†never¬†heard of is not¬†a sufficient description. The project needs a tittle, it needs to be compelling, and the actual work you did (not the knowledge that you helped create) must be described in detail.

4) Translate your skills. Read the non-academic job posting carefully and repeat key terms from it in your application (you know, like the way that undergrads repeat the exam question in their answers on final exams). This is especially important for electronic applications which are increasingly fed through a software application which searches for these keywords. If your resume and cover letter do not have them, they will be trashed without over being seen by an actual human. Also, a resume is only two pages (max) and a cover letter is one.

Look, I’m as angry as everyone else is about the corporatization of the university and the steady neo-liberal creep that is deteriorating¬†independent¬†scholarship and forcing precarious labour conditions on ever greater numbers of teaching faculty. I’m not saying go do public¬†relations¬†for an oil company intent on¬†destroying¬†a vital ecosystem. But for what you get paid as a sessional, couldn’t you offer your superior research, communication, and mentoring skills to a non-profit or local company whose mandate or product you happen to agree with? Not only that, but if your job actually involves research, you may actually continue publishing in academic journals – something that sessionals and LTAs often don’t have time to do which then almost guarantees they will never be back on the tenure-track.

You know that if that small business, non-profit, government department, big tech¬†company, etc hired you¬†with your many years of carefully honed skills – your advanced research, writing, and editing abilities – that that organization would benefit profoundly. But you need to get in the door to prove it. Getting them to give you a chance means making sure that your education, the greatest investment you have ever made in yourself, doesn’t count against you. This means communicating your wealth of skills and experience in a language that they actually value and understand. It may be obvious to us¬†why someone with our skill set would be a valuable addition to their company, but this is big picture stuff. The manager interviewing applicants probably doesn’t have that kind of long-term, strategic plan in mind. They’re just looking to check off boxes in a list of required skills and previous work experience, then make sure you aren’t unbearable to work with during your interview. So, don’t be argumentative – outside of the academy, most people find this to be anti-social behaviour. Don’t expect your obvious intelligence to be the key to getting a job. Skills, work experience, and your ability to play well with others are what most organizations are really looking for.

Here are a few of resources I found for translating your academic work experience for the private-sector:

Any readers have experience going from the academic to the non-academic track? How did you articulate your skills?

day in the life · job notes

A day at the office: uptime and productivity

Last week, I wrote about how very much work I get done–peacefully! in comfy pants! snuggling the animals!–when I work at home. I made some noises about how it was certainly important to be on campus, and that I was on campus an awful lot, but I did some complaining, really, about how working on campus compares unfavorably to working at home.

That was a little disingenuous, especially the part where I talked about getting interrupted for impromptu 20 minute meetings. The fact of the matter is, it’s usually me interrupting other people for impromptu 20 minute meetings. Or chit-chat. And, if we’re being perfectly honest, that ‘work’ is incredibly valuable to me, and I actually think we should all do more of it.

So this post is about the amazing work that gets done on my days in the office. I can break this into three main categories: chance meetings with colleagues; chance meetings with students; and stuff in my office. I’m leaving out the stuff that needs to get done: the scheduled meetings, the teaching. Everybody goes to campus for those things. I’m trying to think about reasons to stay on campus beyond those times, or go in when there’s nothing compelling it.

Chance meetings with colleagues: There really is something to be said for the wisdom of the hallway. Since January, I’ve had chance encounters with colleagues that resulted in me:

  • learning salient facts about our grad program rules
  • figuring out why I’m stalling on developing my online course
  • getting the skinny, off-the-record, on a big initiative on campus
  • giving advice to someone on a classroom management issue
  • informing someone about new copyright rules and making her life easier
  • generally gossiping about our department, the profession, the institution in ways that make me feel connected and informed.
This is all very valuable. These encounters were all very informal and unplanned, but incredibly useful to me in pragmatic as well as psychological ways: I have more information now, and I also feel part of a community in ways I don’t when I’m on sabbatical, say. I also feel like a good department citizen when I can help someone out with a bit of information or advice of my own.
Chance meetings with students: Some students just don’t come to office hours–they teach or take class during that time, they don’t come to campus that day, they just don’t think to make the effort. These students are often roaming the halls, or in shared office spaces that front onto the main hallway. When I’m out bringing a form to the office or picking up my printing or grabbing a coffee, I often see these students. And I can initiate an interaction that’s useful to both of us–did you find that book? do you need help rewriting that proposal? hey, don’t you owe me a chapter? Sometimes the students wander past my open office door and just drop in. I like that. We get things done that might not otherwise get done. Again, because these are informal, unscheduled interactions, they’re often perceived as lower stakes by the students, and thus make it easier for me to reach out to everyone in a class. I mostly run into graduate students this way, but I do encounter undergrads as well, particularly the undergrads who don’t understand that most profs don’t work in their campus offices, and who thus just take a flyer on dropping by. I’m glad when they do.
Stuff in my office: At home, my work gear is contained to one decorative rattan basket that tucks under my Ikea Poang chair. At the office, I’ve got probably about 50 linear feet of shelving, chock full of books and gear, and three filing cabinets with all my teaching notes, all my receipts, all my article printouts. I’ve got a printer and two network printers. The forms for travel claims are there. Letterhead. A photocopier. My mail. I also really use the floor of my office, to spread out the pages of a baggy draft, or to make giant piles of sorted research materials, or to collate student papers, or to organize the readings for one class for the entire term. The door locks. I can leave it in half-done disarray if I’m working on something big. Or I can keep it monastically tidy, an oasis with no dishwasher, no dog that needs walking, a Work Zone. (Also, my office has a humongous south-facing window that looks out over a bunch of trees. That’s nice, too. Don’t dismiss the importance of daylight and green stuff.)
So. There’s a lot to be said for working in the office. I guess what makes the office or the house better or worse, finally, is the sense of agency I feel in where my time gets spent: it’s about how scheduled I am, ultimately, not really about where I am working.¬†
This week, for example, I have exactly zero days where I can work at home, and it’s making me angry and itchy: Monday is 3 hour grad class; Tuesday is two back to back meetings in my department that ran a little longer than three hours; Wednesday is one meeting, one recruiting event, one student visit; Thursday is office hours and a faculty association meeting; Friday is a job candidate visit. At least on a couple of those days, I have the morning I can keep to myself where I want to work and what I want to do, but most of those days are just bouncing from obligation to obligation. And that, at the end of the day, is the hard part.
balance · busy · commute · day in the life · enter the confessional · job notes · mental health

A day at home: downtime as worktime

Greetings, internauts! I write to you from my white leather IKEA Poang chair, be-Croc’ed feet up on the footstool, cosy in my Waterloo track pants, my Lululemon thinking hoodie, and a big mug of tea. It’s 5pm as I write this; I’ve been sitting here pretty much all day, except for that chunk of time I was reading on the couch so the dog could warm my feet up.

I’ve had just the most amazing day, frankly, and I wanted to share it:

  • 6:45-8:20: shower, get dressed, eat breakfast, roust child and animals
  • 8:20-9:05: take kid to bus, take dog for walk
  • 9:05-10:30: write conference proposal, reorganize 30 open Safari windows
  • 10:30-10:50: dancing break (Violent Femmes), empty dishwasher, call husband
  • 10:50-12:00: read intensely and rapidly through materials for summer workshop
  • 12:00-12:20: lunch, make latte
  • 12:20-2:00: read opening two chapters of new book in my exact area
  • 2:00-2:20: play piano
  • 2:20-4:00: intense blitz of organizing research notes and web clippings for project
  • 4:00-4:30: goof around with the dog, eat apple, make tea
  • 4:30-5:00: write research blog post for other blog
  • 5:00-now : work on this blog post
What’s amazing is the kind of sustained focus I’ve been able to bring to a variety of important but awful tasks: reading, writing, databasing, etc. And how even though I’ve worked way hard on these really intense tasks, I don’t feel burnt out. I am looking forward to my family coming home. I’m ready to talk to people again.
There’s something really important about these days where I don’t have to go to campus, that many of you probably feel, too. This is probably only the second or third day since new year’s where I have not had at least one on-campus obligation to attend to. Being on campus every day, day in and day out, can be very productive in a lot of ways, but it’s really unproductive in others. You know I hate the getting dressed and putting makeup on and doing the commute and trying to pack a lunch or find something edible on campus. And people see me and suddenly I have students lined up at my door, or someone pops in with something that wasn’t urgent but since I’m around do I have twenty minutes? Then I have to commute home again. The clothes are itchy. I don’t have a good reading chair.
I hear that it sounds whiny. But believe me, I am on campus a lot and for a lot more meetings than many people–I am a VP on our Faculty Association, and there’s a LOT of meetings associated with that. I’m not complaining about that. What I want to do is stress the importance of the at-home days.
It’s not really down time. It’s a different, essential kind of work time.
My sister jokes about me working in my pyjamas. And essentially, I am. But it doesn’t mean I’m not working hard. Arguably, the kinds of work I got done in my pyjamas are much more efficiently and competently accomplished in that attire and in this location than they would be at the office in my heels.
I guess that’s what I want to say. In this era of professor accountability, and “room optimization” scheduling software that sees non-teaching days as a kind of luxury professors ought to count themselves lucky to have any of during the week, I strike out a blow for home work. Working at home means that I can intersperse really intense, exhausting brain work with a bit of downtime I really enjoy. I am physically comfortable, and I am psychically comfortable. I have my fridge and my dog and my cat. My latte machine. There are no students here, and no administrators. I have the freedom to give it 110% for 45 or 90 minutes at a time, then lie down on the floor with my feet up on the couch doing yoga breathing.
It matters. Without intense kinds of downtime there is no intense kind of worktime. Without my track pants, there is no book project. 
academic reorganization · job notes · slow academy · turgid institution

The social scholar

How much of the life of the mind is solitary, and how much is social?

I got incensed yesterday by an article by William Pannapacker in the Chronicle of Higher Education on introversion and extraversion and the contemporary university. I admire Pannapacker: he’s a great writer, and pulls no punches, and it’s been interesting to watch him describe what’s happening in one of my fields, digital humanities, in which he’s an interested beginner. I have, in fact, written him fan emails years ago when he was still writing under a pseudonym there. So I was dismayed to see this particular piece, and the comments it engendered: it’s introverts versus extraverts, with some name calling.

I said my piece in the comments there, and even I got derailed into some essentialist arguments. What I want to think about today is a little different, distinct from who has what personality and such. I want to think structurally.

We refer, often, to the profession of professor as dedicated to the life of the mind. But what exactly does that mean? What picture does that call up in your mind? For me, I usually see some American looking Ivy League style library, or a well-appointed faculty office lit by an incandescent bulb ensconced in a tasteful table lamp, and sitting there is a man in a tweed jacket, reading a book. (Really, I am a professor, but my mental image of the idealized case of the life of the mind is some dude from the cliché). If I stretch, I see someone leading a small seminar with a dozen students, or lecturing to a big hall.

So the life of the mind in my imagination doesn’t actually match my experience or my own ideals, really.

Most of our reward structures in higher education are geared toward rewarding the fruits of solitary endeavour: peer-reviewed articles and scholarly monographs are the primary currency of faculty assessment from “R1” universities and increasingly on down to community colleges. Plaques and pats on the head are awarded for good or excellent teaching, and teaching ostensibly constitutes 40% of what we are assessed on at year end. But it’s telling that there’s no prescribed format on a CV for documenting teaching, but Victorianesque gradations and hierarchies of research output and its documentation. And when’s the last time anyone but a student evaluated your teaching, by actually witnessing it? And it is significant to note that when a university wants to be taken more seriously on the world stage one way it does so is by reducing the number of courses that faculty members have to teach. Service work, I think we can all agree, is something that matters–in the assessment sense, which is where the rubber hits the road–barely at all, unless one takes on a major administrative post where suits and regular business hours are required.

So the life of the mind that the university promotes and rewards looks pretty solitary, too: most important is solo-authored writing projects, less teaching is better for everyone, and being good at meetings matters hardly at all.

Let me reframe: in the way the university generally rewards (and thus seeks to shape) faculty behaviour, it pushes us away from the collective or the interpersonal and towards isolation and solitary work.

Is that how universities actually best function? I would put teaching at the centre of what a university is for, and teaching is among the least solitary activities I can imagine. Teaching, for me, is trying to win the hearts and minds of 40 individuals, while pushing them hard to conquer difficult material. Teaching is about figuring out the audience and plotting how to get them where I need to know: I have the knowledge, but if they don’t get on board, the ship of knowledge I’m trying to pilot is a ghost vessel. And service work. I don’t want to talk about meetings (much less go to them) but it’s hard to overstate how much the conditions of our work are debated and set in committees: curriculum, policy, new programs, new buildings, discipline. Pretty much all of it.

And this work is all social. You need to work with other people to get it done.

What I really wanted to write about today is the sociality of scholarship and the opportunities presented by social media. But just reading my (really long) setup above, I begin to see why many, many in the profession look askance at professorial blogging and tweeting and even conference-going or workshop attending. It’s of a piece with the more general elevation of solitary scholarly production and the deprecation of anything taking place in rooms (virtual or otherwise) with more than one person in them.

Hm. Maybe I’ll have to come back to this. But for now, I mostly think the idea that the institution discriminates in some meaningful way against solitary practices is bunkus: it looks like there’s a lot of teaching and meetings and events that we’re all supposed to go to, but at base these are all secondary or tertiary to the main thing.

academic reorganization · administration · bad academics · change · community · equity · faster feminism · good attitudes about crappy possibilities · job market · job notes · solidarity

The sweet spot to be cranky

Erin’s most recent post, on the gamble that is the leap off the cliff from graduate student to … whatever … comes … after … is compelling for several reasons. The awkwardness of the situation–of being neither here nor there, one of us or one of them, or the question of how to become member of a tribe as yet undetermined, the looming unknowns of money of travel of location, of permanence and impermanence or lock-in versus flexibility–stresses the body, the soul, the wallet. It hampers the vision of the future; it colours the present, usually in greyish tones. The gamble has high stakes; it plays out over years.

But I’m struck most forcefully by the bind that Erin articulates in the comments: how can she write honestly about any of this when she’s still in between? How to be anything but positive, a good team player, before all the teams are chosen and you’re still hoping to be picked? How to talk about teaching when your experience is thin enough that generalizations don’t protect the innocent or the guilty? How to take yet more risks when standing on the knife-edge between in and out?


I don’t know. She can’t, I guess is the short answer. Nor can many of you, those of you who are contingent or temporary or contractually limited, or who are students, and thus have very little weight to throw around. Maybe Heather can’t either: she’s Vice Dean now and her words have, maybe, too much weight. Maybe she’s bigger than herself, in the ways that those of us who lift up the institutional mantle to carry it forward necessarily become first person plural.

Who’s left, then?

Me, probably. Tenured, but still young. Wising up to the way the institution and the profession works, without yet having been sucked up into actually making the machinery operate as an administrator. I’ve often heard of the particular and heavy burden that the mid-career (that is, tenured) associate professor faces: a ton of committee work, some administration, a lot of peer review and evaluation. But I think it’s less a weight right now than a power. Can you even imagine? With tenure part of my responsibility is to promote those ideas I think are the absolute best ones, damn the torpedoes. And I’ll still have a job if I do draw enemy fire. Academic freedom protects the process and products of my research from any kind of interference, but the model of collegial governance under which universities are organized extends this privileged capacity to speak–this responsibility–to more mundane and consequential questions of how the work we do gets done, and by whom, and under what conditions or circumstances.

I’m in the sweet spot. Tenured and in full possession of my academic freedom, without the weight of all the necessary balancing of interests that a chair or a dean or administrator might have to deal with. I already serve on committees where I get to advocate for graduate students, for our curriculum, for what kinds of computers the labs should get, for whom we should hire. The trick now is to expand my view, to try to take in the interests of all those members of my department, my institution, who can’t express their needs with as full-throated a job-protected, academic-freedom granted volume as I can muster. And I can muster it, believe me, effective or not.

So. The job falls to the associates now: it’s our job to call bullshit, our job to notice when the emperor has no clothes, or when those clothes have been created from skinned graduate students and sessional labourers (figuratively, of course). We’ve got the biggest, least fractured, best protected voices on campus, and we should use ’em. We must use ’em.

Are you an associate professor? How do you see your role in speaking up for those without your privileges or access? Not an associate professor? What gaps in my knowledge should I address to better serve the interests of all the members of the university?

I’m in the sweet spot. And I’m willing to be cranky on your behalf. Bring it.

heavy-handed metaphors · job notes · research · sabbatical · writing

Writing on spec

In a fit of deadline-produced procrastination, I was looking up the word ‘spec’ yesterday. Interestingly, it has some conflicting meanings in idiomatic use. “Spec” sometimes means “to specification,” as in “the contractor built the new porch to spec.” This meaning describes something planned and agreed in advance, contractual. Another meaning, though, arises in common usage: to do work “on spec” means, “on speculation”–to produce something complete and for a particular purpose without being contracted to do so, and hope to be paid. Both kinds of spec apply to academic research writing, I think.


Here’s a question for you: which of the two following scenarios prompts your best work? Please circle your answer below:

A) To specification: You commit in advance to a project / abstract / topic / argument / idea to be submitted in advance of a real deadline for inclusion in a conference / proceedings / special issue / book / collection.

B) On spec: An idea somehow comes to you, unprompted, and you follow it up with research and writing until such time (whenever such time might eventually come) you decide it’s well and truly Done, and you seek out a venue to which to submit it, and hope someone will take it.

This is really a vexed question for me. Like all undergraduates, I used to think I did my best work under very heavy deadline pressure: after all, all my essays were prepared the night before they were due, and I got A+ on everything, so that means it was the right way, right? That I need strong deadlines? Err, maybe not. Often, I was three-quarters through something (at 3am) and realized my main idea was wrong. I was, of course, unable to go back and start over, seeing as the paper would be at that point mostly written and due very soon. And the library would be closed. So I’d make the sentences nicer around a stinker of an idea.

The funny thing is, I have often thought as a tenure-review-fearing faculty member that deadlines might produce my best work. I would tell myself that if I committed to a conference paper on Topic X, I would surely be motivated to create something awesome. Or at least get my literature review done. But it turns out the same thing would happen as in my undergrad: I would back-end load a lot of the work, particularly during a teaching term. And worse, if I’d submitted a really detailed proposal or abstract, outlining my conclusions in advance, I was sort of committed to those conclusions, even if the research, as it advanced, was pulling me in a different, sometimes contrary direction. So … B?

Then again, in the year or so before I went up for tenure, those deadlines, some sought out by me and some being the result of direct invitations, actually lit a kind of productive fire under my rear end. I produced more and better work than I had managed before. So maybe those obligations, those firm external deadlines, made me do more than I would have made myself do otherwise. And maybe I thrived. Like how sometimes a yoga teacher can make you do a one-minute plank, or 15 sun salutations in a row, that you would never push yourself to do at home, and you discover your own strength? Hm. Maybe … A?

When I finally handed in my dissertation, I swore I was going to let my research breathe, give it air, let it take the time it took, until it was fully cooked. My discretion, my meandering scholarly path, my digressions and side projects, my integrity. I would let the ideas lead me. It would be great, organic, natural. Except my productivity slowed, and I procrastinated a lot, usually out of terror either that my ideas were terrible or that they were good. Yeah. Definitely … A.

Only, sometimes when I commit to something in advance, I change my mind on the whole fundamental idea, or the topic, or the theory, or my conclusion contradicts my initial aims. Sometimes, I just can’t get it done on time, and the guilt and panic prompt sleeplessness for months. Or maybe I can get it done but I really think it needs six more months and a different venue. I send it off and see it in print and think … no, that’s not quite right yet … so, B?

I think maybe that this last couple of years, with all of its B-prompted writing, I have seen how much I can get done when I apply myself. I’ve maybe learned not to be so afraid of my own ideas or my own inadequacies: with application, the work gets done and it’s usually pretty good. So maybe, left to the whims of A-prompts, I might not procrastinate so endlessly, revealing in the potential of something rather than the execution or completion of it.

Do I need hard deadlines to make me work to potential? I’m not sure. Do you? Do you write best on spec? Or to specification? Do tell.

advice · balance · job notes · new year new plan · reflection · sabbatical

Sabbatical: wide, open space

The desktop dictionary* on my Mac defines sabbatical as “a period of paid leave granted to a college teacher for study or travel, traditionally every seventh year:¬†she’s away¬†on sabbatical.” That’s nice they used a lady professor for their example, but isn’t it funny, the idea–the very definition!–that a sabbatical is for study or for travel? I absorbed through my thin academic skin very early that the sabbatical is the time that FEVERISH WRITING FOR PUBLICATION happens. If those professors on sabbaticals were often spotted in flip-flops and muumuus wandering dazed through the ValuMart, it wasn’t because they were just back from (an exploratory trip to an archive in) Hawaii, but rather that they didn’t have time to shower, so frantic were their intellectual labours. Study! Travel! Isn’t it really all about “getting the book finished and out to the publisher,” or “slamming all those research notes into several articles, pronto”?

And I like the leadoff phrase: “a period of paid leave,” again, as though one is absent from ‘work’ and getting paid for it. But that’s not quite right, is it? Usually, a sabbatical involves a pay reduction and a replacement of teaching work with other work.

So my definition, if I were to rewrite this, would be: “sabbatical (noun): a period free from teaching or internal service obligations, at reduced salary, granted to a college teacher to generate publishable research, traditionally for 12 months after six years of teaching, or for 6 months after three years of teaching.”

Still. A sabbatical is a pretty sweet thing, a shift in the routine, a break from what can sometimes feel like an unceasing hamster wheel of prep / teach / grade / meetings / more meetings / email / rinse / repeat. I’m on sabbatical, as of January 1st, and until June 30th.



You know what? On my last half-sabbatical, I actually did go to Hawaii (International Auto/Biography Association biennial conference, can I get a what-what?!), but it seems funnier to both acknowledge it here and leave it in the text above. It struck me at the time as funny enough that I took this photo on the beach at Waikiki:


Everyone here was back in class, as of 8:30 Tuesday morning. I’m in … limbo. I’m wearing my writing clothes, but since my daughter is still on Christmas vacation until Monday of next week, I’m doing the stay-at-home mom thing until then. Which is a kind of neither/nor situation. It was jarring, driving to campus to pick up my husband after work on Tuesday, and to suddenly realize, hey, it’s on, and I’m not in it. But I’m not yet out of it either, in that all-research-all-the-time zone that the sabbatical is supposed to foster. Next week.


During my last sabbatical, my husband and I were forced from our home by condo developers, selling and buying in a frantic sort of way. He was between jobs. Then we moved, right when he was starting a new job. Two new jobs, actually. Our daughter was about a year-and-a-half old, in that first year of catch-absolutely-everything germiness at daycare. She got pneumonia. I got four sinus infections, and was pretty sure my eardrums were going to explode on one research trip that involved flying to California with three hops along the way. I gripped my armrests and howled silently, willing my ears to stay intact, and wondering how I could talk to my real estate agent on the phone if I was deaf. I was terrified about everything: my house situation, our jobs situation (would I get tenure? would hubby get established in his new career?), my daughter in daycare, being sick sick sick for months on end, moving, all of it.

So I guess my Pavlovian reaction to thinking about the sabbatical is this: panic.


What does a sabbatical mean now, now that I have tenure, and a research grant, never mind a stable housing situation and everyone in much better health?

What can drive me forward now, if not the panic of the last sabbatical, of the whole pre-tenure time generally? What do I want to do: to think about, to write, to read?

So far, I have no commitments. I want to find out what I can get done, when I’m at liberty to do it, but not driven by the lashings of someone else’s (book, conference, public talk) deadline snapping me in the ass.

I’ll let you know.

And of course, I both welcome and solicit any advice or stories about sabbaticals that you can share.

* it’s funny to me to start out this essay like so many of our undergrads do, by recourse to the dictionary. It’s funny because, I suspect, I’m not teaching this semester and so won’t have to read any of those essays … does the sabbatical then have it’s own special brand of humour? I’ll keep you posted, dear readers.