adjuncts · grad school · notes from the non-tenured-stream · politics · professors

Repost of "The Teaching Class"

Hey all. It’s been a really long time since I’ve posted. I know you’ve missed me dearly.

Life post-research trip has been fairly hectic and social-filled, in really very good ways, and I have been making strong progress on chapter one and heading back to the UK very soon (spoiled this year!) and feeling pretty okay about everything. Yet in the tumult of summer I have struggled to brew up a post, and even today the ingredients are looking a little scarce. I hope you’ve all been following Erin’s excellent Empathy Trap entries, and who knows what lies in store over the next few weeks.

Today I just want to repost an excellent, important, smart, compelling article on, yes, the rising phenomenon of the adjunct, or adjunctivitis (a name which to me still sounds pretty silly but oh well), that just came out in the fantastic Guernica Magazine (thanks to my pal Ali for drawing my attention to this!). Perhaps you’ve already seen it. Here CUNY adjunct Rachel Riederer discusses the contradictions inherent in being an underpaid and undersupported worker in the still ostensibly middle-class and even, in some senses, “sacred” job of university teaching. Some instructors have been facing backlash for including statements regarding the material realities of adjuncting in their syllabi; a common approach is to urge students not to call them “professor,” since the term remains hallowed and obscures the actual conditions of labor that the human beings responsible for educating future generations often face. Riederer cites a fellow adjunct:

“The conditions of labor must always be obscured,” she said. “Work is good, work is noble, work is disciplining, work is what gives you social meaning in your life, so you can’t say, ‘Oh, this job is killing me.’ And they certainly don’t ever want you to talk to other people and realize this is structural, this is planned, we are the effects of other people’s choices and perhaps we should have a bigger voice here.”

‘How can we complain about our work?,’ some may ask. Adjuncts may get paid less than managers at McDonald’s, but that does not mean they are not more fulfilled. Our jobs as educators on pleasant university campuses are by many accounts very good, no matter the material conditions of being there. But, as Riederer claims, “of course it’s possible to love what one does, be good at it, and still be exploited.” (or, I love this: “A professor should not be so vulgar as to talk about the material reality of her life.”)

There’s so much more to this article, but I’ll leave you to experience it on your own, and I’ll get back to conference-paper-drafting. Oh, and here’s a video of a parrot talking with a stuffed rabbit, which if you can get past the awful clickbaity title, is pretty great. Because animals.

emotional labour · notes from the non-tenured-stream · solidarity

13 – 5

Semesters are short here in Canada. Usually, the winter term clocks in around thirteen weeks if you count reading week. When you think about it that is not a lot of classroom time. This semester I was teaching the lightest load I have ever had: two classes with a total of about fifty students. I also had an independent study course with one honours student which met once a week for two hours. Still, compared to the times I have taught four classes and had a few hundred students this workload was a breeze… Sort of.

The 13-5 that makes up the title reflects the actual time I had with my students this semester. Thirteen weeks minus three weeks on strike, minus another week for a long-scheduled trip, minus a fifth for reading week, which was not cancelled at Mount Allison. Now I’m no math genius, but 13-5= not a whole lot of time. Eight weeks, to be exact. Eight weeks to teach one second year class their required literary periods course (Romantic, Victorian, Modernism, Post-Modernism), and the same eight weeks to teach a third year course on literature by women in English in the 20th and 21st centuries. Throw into the mix some unavoidable mid-semester travel (read: interviews) and that makes for one truncated term.

It’s an unofficial tradition here at Hook & Eye to reflect on the end of the semester, and especially the end of the teaching year. Look back through the archives and you’ll find posts on the post-semester tristesse that engulfs many of us, you’ll see best laid plans for summer research and renewal, and you’ll find that many of us are getting ready for the spate of conferences that come at the end of May. This year I find myself in a reflective mood, and one that is markedly different than previous years. For one thing, I’ve been on strike before. Without going into the particularities of negotiations which are ongoing I can say this: it was much harder than I expected. It was hard because the tensions did rise. It was hard because Sackville is a wee town, and there is no where to escape from something that consumes those affiliated with the university. It was hard because the students were stressed and I care about them. It was hard because my colleagues and I were stressed and standing up for something we felt was vital and necessary (hint: our was not a strike about pay raises, it was a strike over the core values of the academic mission). It was also hard because at the end of the job action–we are still in interest arbitration and will be for months–we all went back into the classrooms and tried to deliver the strongest classes possible.

It was a challenge to regain the momentum, but it wasn’t impossible. In both my classes the students and I made a pact be be kind to one another. This meant I revoked the syllabus to drop some assignments, give them the chance to weigh in on the evaluation process, and everyone got more time to do the work that remained. Translation: I’m usually draconian about deadlines (unless there is a legitimate issue, obviously) and that went out the window. It wasn’t useful for me or the classes to have strict deadlines when the students were cramming ten weeks of class into five. We made a deal to communicate about when things would come in on an individual basis, and we stuck to it. I will be grading until the last days of the month, and that’s fine. The smallness of my classes allowed me to keep tabs on every student’s process, and they, in turn, we’re kind to me when I kept getting confused about deadlines as well. We laughed, and we are getting through it.

My reflections on the semester are these: things happen that are out of your control. Communication and being human with my students really worked for me as a means of managing my stress and expectations as well as theirs. For instance, for the first time I told students I was missing class (and they were having a guest lecture) because I had to go to a campus interview. I needed them to know why I was absent after the huge gap from the strike and reading week. They were understanding, and in turn forthright about their own challenges and constraints. We were able, too, to use the strike and the material conditions of my contract to talk about university governance and structures of labour in the academy. And yes, we did some amazing with with literature as well.

It feels strange to be at the end of another school year. I am as tired, but in different ways. I am as unclear about future work, but again, in different ways. The constant thing is this: I am as grateful for the privilege of being in the front of the classroom as ever. In the midst of grading, or the inevitable student apathy I am reminded of the incredible responsibility and privilege to stand in a room of people and teach and think together. We may have lost five weeks, but I know we got real and important work accomplished.

academy · good attitudes about crappy possibilities · grad school · ideas for change · job market · notes from the non-tenured-stream

On the trauma of the dissertation and making academic work "count"

My facebook feed is filling up with friends and colleagues bemoaning their choice to do a PhD and status updates that express hatred and anger about their dissertations. I felt this way too during my very long revision process. I think most people have moments of deep regret at some point on the road to completed dissertation. Moments of doubt and loathing seem more the norm than the exception.

In discussing the emotional impact of the PhD with one of my colleagues – also a recent graduate – we noted the difference in attitude post-PhD and post-MA. We left our MAs believing in ourselves. We carried an arrogant confidence that we knew everything and could do anything. Getting a job after my MA was no problem. I was bold. I spoke with authority. I’ve watched friends complete MAs and hit the ground running filled with a sense of immense accomplishment.

I contrast, at the end of the PhD, everything seems to be thrown into question. A PhD teaches you that maybe you don’t really know that much at all, that all of your knowledge can and will be rigorously questioned at every turn. PhDs self-deprecate too easily. We say things like, “I don’t have any work experience,” or “being a grad student sure beats getting a job.” We characterize ourselves as being outside of the real economy. But the truth is, no one gets a PhD without working. Be it for pay or not, we have experienced real work. Research, writing, deadlines, teaching, all-nighters, life-balance negotiations, alienated friends and family –  our PhD work lives have had their toll and have allowed us to develop a number of crucial skills, both academic and non-academic.

Now, I know I’m generalizing here. Not all MAs leave their degrees to happily land a dream job, and not all PhDs struggle to come to terms with the inadequacies of their dissertations. Some people write awesome dissertations and land awesome jobs. But for many PhDs, there seems to be a prevailing negativity about their work, their life choices, and their prospects. We are our own worst enemies. In discussing my degree with a group of acquaintances, I joked that I was struggling to find work because I have “no work experience.” Now one of those acquaintances mentions the fact that I have “never worked” each time we meet. Because I made a self-deprecating joke, there are now people in my life that believe I have never worked and somehow, because of my fancy education, expect to get a good job without ever having to “work” for it. Of course I have worked and I continue to work, very hard in fact. The point is, we are too quick to characterize our PhD lives as non-work. By self-deprecating, we feed the stereotype of grad-school as a bad life choice. This reinforces anti-intellectualism and makes it harder for us to articulate our skills in relation to the job market, which is admittedly bleak these days.

In part, we could solve this problem with better professional training. Not all PhDs will land academic jobs. This is a fact that grad programmes need to come to terms with. Knowing how to compile an umpteen page CV will not get us a non-academic job. We need a system in place that allows us to articulate things like academic publications and major research projects as “real work” that counts for something in the private sector.

How do we make academic work “count”?

enter the confessional · notes from the non-tenured-stream · openness

On Doubt

Last Monday I didn’t write a post. I couldn’t. The tank was empty. The well was dry. I had less than nothing to say, and so I said nothing. No big deal, I told myself. It is March. Everyone is busy. Readers will understand a missed post here and there. Your co-bloggers will get it. It is fine. And it is fine. The world doesn’t stop if I — or anyone else — misses a post from time to time. But here is the thing: I missed a post not because I was tired for the first time. Goodness knows I have been tired for approximately the past five years. No, I missed a post because I am struggling with doubt. And despite my reticence to do so, I want to think through the function of doubt here.

Struggling with doubt over what? You may well ask.

I have written before — and often — about the affective bind of precarious employment. Most recently both Margrit and I have framed this feeling of inertia through Lauren Berlant‘s concept of cruel optimism. Berlant describes cruel optimism as one of the non-purgative affects that gets in the way of one’s ability to move forward in a positive and fulfilling manner. It is a state of suspended agency. Indeed, I came to Berlant’s notion of cruel optimism after having written a short piece on the importance of hope. My argument in that paper was that hope was crucial for the kinds of perseverance needed to survive precarious academic work.

More recently I wrote a companion piece to the hopeful paper that reframed the necessity for a particular kind of cynicism. Two years after the hopeful paper I found that the naivete of that earlier me had made room for a more critically-minded, still tenacious point of view. Moreover, though I still routinely struggle with the sense that being frank is risky when you’re precariously employed, I found I was less swayed by the inner voice that whispered ‘just smile and charge ahead.’ And so it would make sense that my doubt stems from the impossibility of predicting the job market and my own place in it. And while I am certain that precarity influences my own recent experiences of doubt, I am less certain that it is the central cause.

No, I fear my sense of doubt comes from the larger and more esoteric worry: what if none of this work in the Academy matters? What if? What if?

Doubt is one of those wobbly feelings that can keep your feeling stuck. It sneaks up on you when you least expect it. It chips away at the foundation of your sense of self until you’re left standing on a latticework of lace. Consider one of the final scenes in the 2008 film version of Doubt:

Look at the way Meryl Streep’s character collapses under the weight of unknowing. There is a pulling in and away from the context of her work that reminds me of images of controlled demolition: when doubt takes hold the subject implodes, folds in on herself.

Yet, doubt also offers a critical position from which to question the status quo. It is a place from which to strategically position yourself against dominant discourses that flatten over the kinds of work that can — and often does — happen in engaged classrooms, ethical and urgent research projects, acts of academic magical thinking, and those gorgeous moments of collaboration. So I suppose I find myself wondering how to reframe the potentially paralyzing experience of doubt (of self doubt, of doubt about the academy and on and on) in a productive and potentially empowering position of careful unknowing. In other words, in a month that has seen (more) massive cuts to education (courage, my Albertan comrades!) and seen the status of women in Canada stagnate to name but a few instances of doubt-inducing events, how can we harness the productive questioning power of doubt without becoming over-wrought, apathetic, or withdrawn?

Strangely enough, as I was thinking about how to answer my own question I thought of Ndidi Onukwulu’s version of “Maybe the Last Time.” Do you know it? In her pacing, her gestural performance, and her whimsical completion of the song Onukwulu embodies the kind of critical unknowing and questioning that I’m thinking towards:

Thoughts? How do you think through your own experiences of professional doubt?

best laid plans · emotional labour · health · notes from the non-tenured-stream · work

What I Have in Common with Conan O’Brien

My teaching semester ended on Thursday at 2:30. After I gave my final lecture I packed up my belongings and walked back to my office. While I was walking I ran into a student I know, a lovely, smart, kind student who asked me how I was. “I’ve just finished my last lecture of the term, and I am feeling a little lost” I replied. Poor fellow, sometimes I’m too honest.

But the truth is that I seem to have a pattern every spring: finish an intense teaching semester and crash. Hard. This past term was the most difficult one I’ve had in my relatively short teaching career. I was teaching four courses (all different, no repeats), I was teaching my first graduate course, I submitted a large grant application, I travelled to two conferences, and I had a job interview. Our faculty nearly went on strike, and for the weeks leading up to what seemed an unavoidable strike action I, like others, spent extra time meeting with stressed students, grading papers much more quickly than usual in an attempt to prepare students for working on their own should faculty have to walk off the job. All in all it felt like an especially trying term.

I know I should feel justified–even entitled–to take a bit of a break before the grading begins (not to mention the fact that I am teaching a new course in May…) Indeed I’ve encouraged friends and colleagues to take a break. “You need to recharge!” I tell others. So why is it so difficult for me to take my own advice? This weekend I had brilliant plans for a mix of work and relaxation. I planned to grade a few papers each day, to spend a little time doing cursory research for a new article, and to spend the evenings cooking and hanging out with my partner in crime. Instead I took three hour naps each day, woke up feeling groggy and disoriented, and then felt horrible for not grading any papers. What gives?

I got a bit of a hint on Saturday evening when my partner and I watched two movies in a row. I didn’t even feel I had the mental capacity for a complex narrative, so we watched an action film and then we watched Conan O’Brien’s documentary about his post-NBC-firing stand-up show. As I am an early-to-bed-early-to-riser I didn’t really know much about the Leno-Coco debacle, so I went into watching the film with what began as cool detachment. Cool detachment quickly changed to concern and frustration: O’Brian appeared stressed, angry, high-strung, and exhausted. But what bothered me most was not his increasingly dark circles, what bothered me was that he was getting it done. Clearly the emotional toll of being fired as well as the emotional and physical toll of performing were getting to him, but ultimately he was killing it. The show was good.

I didn’t get to see how the documentary ended because the DVD we had was scratched. He had just been asked what he would do if he didn’t have his work. I didn’t get to hear his answer because the screen froze on close-up on O’Brien’s face: tired, frantic, and, as he’d said a number of times in the documentary, unable to stop.

Now I’m no fool, I’m not Conan O’Brien, and while there might be some similarities to be drawn, my classes are not really anything like late night television. I’m struck though by the ways in which I feel like that frantic, frenetic version of O’Brien that makes up the majority of the documentary: unable to stop because stopping means the unknown. Stopping means dealing with all the other parts of life that have been put on hold to get the job done. Friends, that is a scary thought.

I offer this little confessional not (only) as navel-gazing wallowing, but rather as a conversation opener: how do your recover from an emotionally and physically exhausting term without completely shutting down?

after the LTA · faster feminism · notes from the non-tenured-stream

Taking Time To Read the Fine Print

On Sunday in addition to the usual flurry of preparation-for-the-week I was also waiting on tenterhooks with the rest of my colleagues. Faculty was waiting to see if we would indeed go on strike today. I had signed up for picket duty already, I knew where I would be walking the line Monday-Friday of this week if conciliation between our union and the Board’s negotiation team failed again. 
Rather than write about strike action, the importance of strong union leadership, and the ongoing war against higher education that is being waged on all sides I am want to think about the importance of reading the fine print. 
When I was offered my limited term appointment at Dalhousie it was a magical day. Literally. I had just finished my first year of sessional teaching (alright, actually I had just survived, and barely). My divorce was finalized. The house that I owned, which had been sitting on the market after three years of Money Pit-like disasters had finally had an offer. It was even sunny, and I am pretty sure that there were birds singing and little animals running about doing choreographed movements. I met my friend and mentor for a cup of coffee and a discussion; she had been contacted by the hiring committee and wanted to talk to me about what I would do if I was offered this ten-month position thousands of kilometers across the country. After our coffee I walked to my realtor’s office to sign the final papers on the sale of my house. Just as I was getting into my now partner’s car my cell phone rang: I got the job. I immediately called my mentor and she gave me one of the best pieces of advice I have ever received. She said, “Erin, read the collective agreement. Sit down with a pot of tea and read the whole thing. It will be tedious, but you’ll thank yourself later. Use a highlighter, take some notes, and write down any questions you have. When it comes time for you to negotiate for a full-time position be sure to call me. Women need to be better at negotiation and at reading the fine print.”
Readers, I followed her advice. Sure, I forgot or didn’t understand or simply skimmed a great deal of the information, but reading through this huge document gave me a sense of the sheer amount of fine print associated with this profession. When the DFA entered into pension negotiations I knew where to look in the collective agreement, but more importantly I knew that even as a junior contract faculty member this stuff mattered immensely for me.
The job market is so tight right now that it feels like winning the lottery even making it through to a campus interview (in fact, given the super-saturated market of strong candidates, I think it is a kind of lottery). However, it is crucial to remember that you are in a position of power as well. You must read the fine print. You must find someone to mentor you in contract negotiations. You must realize that even though on the inside you are thrilled to pieces you have been selected for an interview you still need to look at all the paperwork and know what you are signing on for.
The question is: where and how have you learned to read the fine print? Who has taught you how to negotiate for yourself? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warmth to you all and apologies for the bleary prose.

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

notes from the non-tenured-stream · positive thoughts as I fill out grant applications

Being frank feels risky: Notes from the non-tenured stream

It is mid-afternoon on the last Sunday in September and I have been sitting in front of my computer for about five hours already. This has been my schedule for the last two weeks. Not because I haven’t got my lectures ready, amazingly I have (ok, mostly). Nope, this ennui is all about grant-writing season. Tomorrow is the internal deadline at a university where I will be submitting a postdoctoral application, and Friday was my institution’s internal deadline for faculty research grants. I’m throwing my hat in both rings because a) I want to think about new research projects amidst all the teaching I am doing and b) I am feeling the (constant) pressure of covering my bases for next year. Of course there is no guarantee I’ll receive any funding, or any jobs or renewal for that matter, but that’s the way this game goes. As I sit here trying to conjure something witty-yet-insightful-and-provocative to post (or at least witty and insightful) while I stare at the labyrinthine system for inputting my life onto the Canadian Common CV I find myself reminded of Aimée’s post on Friday: the personal is professional.

So here’s the truth: I’m exhausted.

I find I don’t often want to admit that to my colleagues, much less to an unknown number of readers on the interwebs. After all: I’m a contract worker. But behold how I can time manage! Behold my powers of teaching 3/3 and ability to research as well! Stand amazed at my stamina for filling out grant applications while hosting a visiting speaker! In other words, I don’t want to admit I’m tired because I don’t want to appear incapable of handling it all. I don’t want you to think you shouldn’t hire me, in other words.

I don’t like typing any of this, because frankly I’m concerned about navel-gazing. But the fact is that I am a contract worker who is—like so many—staring down the barrel of another year of applying for everything while maintaining a research profile and writing competent and exciting lectures (& welcoming my students in to my rather chaotic office). But the fact is that I don’t have anything funny or witty or particularly optimistic to say today. All I’ve got is honesty. Oh yeah, and about five more lectures to write.