administration · faster feminism · hope · perpetual crush · popular culture

Cho on Oh: thoughts on The Chair

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Left: me, as Chair of English, on the threshold of my future office

Right: Sandra Oh, future Chair of English as seen in The Chronicle

(same difference, right?)

This week, we learned that there will be a flashy new mini-series starring my forever Asian Canadian Kween, Sandra Oh, as the Chair of English at a major university. Like all of you, I had a lot of thoughts. And feels.

As a former Chair of English at a major university, here are a few of mine.

The GoT Connection [with apologies to those who haven’t watched and don’t care]

Let’s get this one out of the way. Knowing that the show will be produced by the same people who gave us Game of Thrones, it is impossible to resist re-mapping university hierarchy with the landscape of the Seven Kingdoms even though I know this show will not be a David Lodge-George RR Martin mash-up. But still, I imagine:

  • The Iron Throne is clearly the Dean’s Office (because the White Walkers have to be all the folks with the power of fast ice zombies — and I mean this with much respect since the Night King is one of my fave characters — the Provost, President, Board of Governors)
  • The English Department is Winterfell (doomed but noble despite a few bad seeds);    Casterly Rock is the School of Business (obvs)
  • The Red Wedding in this series will be when the English department and Media/Film Studies celebrate a successful merger only to discover that both units will be swallowed by the Business School resulting in the majority of the English, Media, and Film faculty specialists re-purposed into teaching courses on Business Communication; a few English profs will survive the merger/massacre and will spend the rest of their careers trying to re-establish English as an independent department

If you like, please insert your variations on this theme in the comments. I might be totally wrong about Tywin Lannister and the Dean of your Business School.

Departmental minutes as plot lines

Read over the last set of minutes. Rewrite with Kween Oh talking about hiring and the crisis of adjunctification. Consider going to department meetings again.

This show will do for undergraduate enrollment in English what CSI did for Criminology

It’s a fantasy. Let me have it.

This show will make being a feminist academic look good totally glamorous and real

It’s a fantasy. Let me have it.

But, seriously, my time as Chair (and especially a Chair who was also a woman of colour who was also the second-most junior faculty member in her dept at the time) taught me that chairing while feminist is an elaborate exercise of perceived power enmeshed with a surprising lack of structural power.

The real surprise: how often male colleagues who, by virtue of the accident of age and gender, were the most privileged people in the whole of academia, persistently insisted upon their victimization, powerlessness, and entitlement to more privilege at precisely the moment when more women are being promoted to academic leadership. The real drama/trauma: how many male colleagues were feminists until I made decisions they didn’t like.

I love that The Chronicle ran the story of this new show with an image of the future Chair in sequins and feathers. But I know that feminist chairs past, present, and future, have stood on the threshold of power with hard hats and steel-toed boots in hand because chairing while feminist is still work that is very much in progress.





good things · perpetual crush · self care · style matters · you're awesome

Jump in!


Image via

(with huge thanks to Leigh and Michele for agreeing to let me write about our conversation)

Last week, I went to an amazing conference and I admit that one of the many, many highlights was a moment of sartorial sisterhood between one of my totally fabulous co-panelists, Leigh, and me. The panel was done and we stood up, looked at each other, and she said something like, “Nice jumpsuit.” I don’t really know exactly what she said because I had been so busy admiring her jumpsuit. We were in on the same not-so-secret secret: jumpsuits are awesome.

Hers was blue. Mine was black. Hers was more structured. Mine was a little more flowy. Hers didn’t have a belt. Mine did. But, really, it was the ways in which they were the same that mattered. The top was attached to the bottom. Somewhere (in a place usually apparent only to the wearer) there is a zipper. It’s never all that obvious how one gets into one of these things and that, I think, is just one of their many advantages.

More on the advantages in a sec. Let me first get right into what you – if you are not already a jumpsuit convert – are probably already thinking. What about when you need to go the bathroom? Isn’t it a huge bother?

I know. I thought that too. It was the main reason why I resisted for so long. But here’s the thing. It’s not a bad thing to be forced to think ahead a little about when you might need to go. I know you’ve been there. You’re in office hours and the students are lined up down the hall and all of a sudden you have to run to teach or go to a meeting, or you’re writing and you don’t want to stop, or you’re at a conference and listening to mind-blowing papers and you can’t imagine slipping out of the room and missing anything you think you’ll just wait till the break but then the break comes and you end up talking to people you really like and then it’s time for the plenary…  and you remember, too late, that you actually really needed two, three, four, heck maybe even five minutes for yourself somewhere in all of that rushing around. Leigh described actually hopping on one foot by the time she got home at the end of the day because what had been discomfort had verged into crisis. She tells me her husband says, Why do you do this to yourself?

How many days have you had where you were so busy that you didn’t have time to find a bathroom? Let’s not do this to ourselves.

Leigh put it perfectly when she told me that the jumpsuit has taught her a kind of self-care. It forces her to stop and check in with herself about some pretty basic needs. It forces her not to wait until discomfort becomes crisis. It forces her not to do this to herself.

Michele, another conference attendee, overheard this conversation and immediately pulled out her phone to show us a picture of a jumpsuit that her partner bought for her at the very same moment that she had liked it on insta. We paused to celebrate how all these jumpsuit-stars were aligning and Michele pointed out that she likes jumpsuits because they reminded her of a kind of futurism (think: astronauts, star trek). Okay, yes!

Here’s my vote for the jumpsuit as the uniform of feminist futurism. Jump on in. The future is fine.


perpetual crush · solidarity

I Heart Academic Administrative Staff

Some things that my (yes, I think of her as mine even though I know she isn’t mine at all, but I can’t help feeling a little possessive) Research Officer has said to me over the course of assisting me as I lurched towards clicking the “submit” button for my SSHRC grant application:

“Naughty, naughty for trying!”
I tried, twice, to sneak something into my budget that is not permitted.
“sigh, ‘hope’ appears again.”
One may anticipate or expect to do things, but, really, there is no hope.
“You didn’t sleep last night, did you?”
When I couldn’t remember my password and was two attempts away from being locked out with only hours to go before the submission deadline.
“We were worried about you.”
For a while there, every budget document turned to magical mush in my hands.
It is no exaggeration to say that, without the support of my RO, and the coordinator of the research unit that hosts my application, I would not have submitted this application. Aside from little old me, no one cared more about my application than Janet and Alicia aka Goddesses of Research Support. I cannot think of the last time anyone read anything I wrote line by painstaking line and edited it with so much care, again and again and again and again and again.
They also insisted that I sing my own praises more fully. It seems so obvious now, but it never occurred to me to include positive quotes from reviews of my book when I was asked to think about the impact of my research. It wasn’t even modesty, false or otherwise, that made my first draft of the attachment that talks about my record as researcher so lame. I honestly just didn’t know that one could include reviews. I needed someone who had seen a lot of applications to tell me.
In the days before the deadline, I got more emails (each one action-packed with stuff that helped me along) from them than I got from my husband in the heady, early days of our courtship. The day before the deadline, when I showed up at their offices clutching my laptop with that quiet air of desperation that only SSRHC can engender in me, they asked me how I was feeling and I was so grateful that they thought to ask, that they knew exactly where I was at – right down to the number of characters I still had to cut on one of my attachments – that I almost cried. The night before the application was due, they emailed me to let me know when they would be stepping out for a few hours, and when they would be back on email to help me through any last minute crises that would erupt. They were totally there for me. They had my back.
Yesterday, Aimée wrote about the pivoting that is part of being a midcareer feminist academic. In the quiet hum of panic that preceded the hours before I submitted my grant application (I blame that feeling almost entirely on the countdown clock on the website which made me feel like I am in a boring academic version of 24 where the logic of the ticking clock leads me to moments of intensifying absurdity), I was thinking about her post and how incredible it is to be in a career where there are unbelievably brilliant and competent people whose whole job is about making me look good, or at least less of the dope that I would be if left to my own devices.
Hook & Eye has known about the power of academic administrative staff for a long time. We are lucky to count among our crew someone who is, among many other things, an outrageously awesome Research Officer. When Melissa wrote recently about the challenge of unconscious bias in reference letters, I was reminded all over again about the kind of crucial behind-the-scenes work that academic administrative staff do every single day. In a lot of ways, they know the stakes better than most of us because they see so much that academics just don’t see. Melissa reads thousands of reference letters a year. She lobbies funding agencies on our behalf for anti-bias practices and guidelines. She is totally there for us. She has our back.
We are a long way from Administrative Professionals’ Day (April 27, 2016 – put it in your calendar to buy some chocolate) but, in the hazy glow of my post-application submission moment, I want to remember how much we owe to the people who are at work every day making our jobs easier and better, who actually make our universities run, who make us look good because they are so freaking good.
And, of course, this is a feminist issue. It has not escaped my attention that the people who had my back with my latest research hurdle are women. Overwhelmingly, academic administrative staff members are women. There are vulnerabilities and actual silences for academic administrative staff in general. But, because we are really talking about a group largely made up of women, we have to attend to how these vulnerabilities are gendered too.
Of course, we also know that you cannot separate gender from class. Last week, I was at a Faculty Council meeting where the Provost and Vice-President of Finance for my university presented a new budget model. But it was also a presentation of our many budgetary crises and a general narrative of the need for more austerity. At one point, it was pointed out that “there was a lot of duplication” in the ranks of academic administrative staff. I thought about that comment, and how any of the staff members I work with would feel about the view that there wasn’t enough work for them. So, we as tenured academics, were being told that we were spending more money than we had, and that we had more staff (who have significantly few protections than tenured profs) than we need. We talk a lot about precarity on this blog, but it tends to be in the context of Contract Academic Faculty. Let’s also remember that academic staff live with precarities too.
Last spring, when the strikes by CUPE 3903 were over but still fresh in the minds of everyone on my campus, almost no one I knew was aware that the academic staff association was also in bargaining and that the bargaining had been going very badly. They were going to a strike vote. No one I knew who was not a staff member seemed to be aware of it. I remember talking with a staff member about what might happen, about how hard it was for them to communicate to the public, and to students in particular for whom staff are often the face of university administration, their position. Thankfully, it never came to a strike and an agreement was signed. But the shadow of that near-miss, and the realization of the way in which staff are so often caught between competing institutional agendas, remains with me.
So. Let’s be there for them.
free time · peer review · perpetual crush · you're awesome

A Love Letter to Peer Reviewers Everywhere

Dearest, loveliest, most gorgeous,
Are you surprised that I am beginning with terms of endearment even though we hardly know each other? But you and I know that you really are gorgeous. Oh yes, you. Don’t blush. This is not the time for bashfulness. It is true that I hardly know you. Indeed, chances are, if I walked past you in the street, I would not even know to say hi. But you should know that I am tipping my hat to you, even if I don’t really know you. Indeed, the crazy thing about our relationship is that it is almost completely dependent upon not really knowing you. Our relationship is at its best when I admire you from something of a distance – or at least from arm’s length. Anyways, enough was enough and it is high time I tell you how I feel.
             I need you. Sorry to sound a bit clingy. But I really need you. I’m not even sure that ours is one of those healthy co-dependent relationships. Where would I be without you? Where would any of us (the tenured prof whose book is out with a university press, the precariat worker whose article is now happily out with that sweet little journal you never say on to, the graduate student with that first pub under her belt, the mid-career academic whose grant just bought her a little space and time to get that project together, the mildly totally desperate academic journal editor who is trying to usher through that one last piece so that the next issue can come out) be without you?
             Did you come back from the winter break to an inbox full of “gentle reminders” for things that you had promised in a haze of exhaustion and a rush of nobility? Did you scramble to get all those grant apps assessed, those articles reviewed, that book manuscript evaluated? All while teaching your courses, writing reference letters, maybe pulling together a job app, or (in a slightly different version of peer review) reading lots of job apps files and so on, and so on, and so on. You did it, didn’t you? I know, you were pretty late with some of those. I know you felt bad. But the point is, you got that report in. You totally came through.
              I know, sometimes it hurts.
               Like when your words are referred to as fecal matter and perhaps taken out of context.
               Or when you are depicted as a vicious sharp-toothed sea monster.
               I get it. Our relationship would be nowhere without your brutal and unflinching honesty. Indeed, along with that arm’s length business, this brutal honesty is foundational to our relationship.
               And I know, sometimes you just don’t feel seen, as though you are totally being taken for granted.
              Like, when no one, not even the editor (you’ve given up expecting anything from the actual author because you realize, having been there, that it does feel a bit weird to acknowledge “the anonymous reviewers whose comments were so helpful yaddy, yaddy, ya”) who asked you for this thing in the first place, remembers to thank you.
             Or when you write a ten-page, single-spaced review of a manuscript with detailed notes for revision, and then you see the thing come out in print and the author seems to have ignored everything you said.
              Or when you told the editors that the ms was truly awful and should not be published only to see it out, with nary a comma moved, months later.
              At times like these, you wonder why you bother with this relationship. It’s not for the money (hullo, unpaid and invisible labour? Sign you up!). You wonder if it makes you happy. You wonder why you can’t say no more. You wonder why the relationship feels so one-sided. You put out all this brilliance, and, at best, you get a pre-scripted thank you spit out from some OJS robot. You wonder how it is possible to feel so under-appreciated and so unloved. It’s not like anyone asks you how many pages of peer review reports you wrote this year as part of how they assess your “performance.” Certainly, your dean doesn’t pat you on the back and say, Those peer reviews you did were really great! Good job!
              So maybe you wonder if you should say yes the next time. You wonder if they could at least treat you to a milk shake for once.
              And then you remember that arm’s length thing. I couldn’t hug you even if I wanted to.
               And okay, I know that we are not “exclusive.” Yes, I admit, there are a lot of you in my life. And, even weirder, sometimes I am you. (Woah, mind twister!) You know that this relationship wouldn’t work at all if you were the only one. Think of the pressure!
              And you remember that other people have sometimes done this for you. Or they might. You never know. And mostly, you remember that the profession would be nowhere, really and truly nowhere, without you.
               If you walked out on me tomorrow, the world as I know it would pretty much collapse. I’m not exaggerating. There would be no publications, no grants, no academic books.
               But there’s more. I want you to know that I think about you all the time. Sorry if that sounds a bit stalkerish. Don’t worry. Remember that part about not knowing you if I passed you on the street? But I do think about you. I think about how great you are. I think about how you always come through even though you must brace yourself for potential ingratitude and disregard every time. Not to mention the nagging (hello, “gentle reminders”).  I think about how you are the one who says yes after that poor, desperate journal editor (sometimes me) has been fully rejected by a string of others. You can’t imagine how grateful I am when you say yes. When you say yes, I do a little happy dance. I know you can’t see it. But it’s pretty cute. Trust me.
              So, dear anonymous peer reviewer, I just wanted you to know that I would bring you flowers and buy you chocolates if I could.
               You are marvelous. You step up. You come through. You shine quietly, brilliantly, in that space of anonymity that is the condition of our relationship. Some people might think that I should simply be writing a letter of gratitude. A love letter can be a bit weird given the nature of our relationship (yes, yes, arm’s length!). But I’m not just thankful and grateful. I am, but there’s more.
               I sit at my desk and look around and I see you everywhere – in that book that changed the course of my dissertation, in that first article of mine that saw the light of printed day, in that other article that I taught in my grad seminar that re-oriented the entire discussion for the better, in all these journals that I read when I get a chance, marveling at all this marvelous work out there. You make all that happen.
               You make my world smarter, brighter, and just plain better.
               You rock.