advice · positive thoughts as I fill out grant applications · Uncategorized

Working on my grant application…

I’m about 80% done my SSHRC Insight Grant application, the 80% where I made a serious go at getting all the moving pieces drafted and formatted and collated and sent it in for feedback. When it came the feedback was detailed, useful, and totally overwhelming and I pushed the whole thing away for a week or so to regroup. I did not regroup. I had to call in reinforcements, actually: my dear love who used to be the guy that did the feedback. He sat down with me and went over it step by step, while I tried not to lash out and/or cry.

Hilariously, the issue with my SSHRC Insight Grant application is the issue that I raise with all the grad students whose SSHRC Doctoral Fellowship applications I see. The issue is threefold:

  • Give the main point first
  • Be less tentative
  • Be more specific

The reason it’s hard to do these things is that it requires a kind of assertive confidence that is, understandably, hard to muster at the start of a project. This hesitation is natural and useful and keeps the mind open to the possibilities of the research as it proceeds. Good. That is, I dare see, the right way to feel. However, the grant application rewards confidence and straight-aheadness–literally rewards it, you are asking for money, remember–so the correct way to write the app requires bald directness, confidence, and the impression of mastery of time and space. Fake it if you have to.


Give the main point first: If you ask my grad students what editorial suggestion I make most frequently on their writing they will probably say, “Take this thing at the end and put it at the beginning.” I say that a lot. Quite right. Most of us discover what we’re thinking once we see what we’re writing and often that means that we really get the point of the whole thing right at the end of the application / chapter / article,/ dissertation. That’s fine as a process. But then literally ask yourself every time: what would happen if I took my last paragraph and made it first. I will tell you: 9 times out of 10 your thing will get better, and clearer, and more fundable.

Be less tentative: I know that I’m not sure where my research is going to end up, but I sure as hell have to sound like I do. I’ve been tentative in my writing, saying things like, “this project aims to address” when I should say “this project addresses” or even “this project argues.” Tentativeness manifests mostly in the verbs, and the verbs hedge in two ways: they describe actions the author is going to do instead of what the research will prove, and they downplay the thesis animating the research. Here is a list of weasel words you should mostly cut almost completely from your grant application: understand, examine, explore, investigate, consider, aim, compare. Mostly, these words are about what you are going to do. But the grant app is not a biography, it is a statement of research. Better verbs: argue, prove, show, demonstrate, produce, craft. These verbs have the benefit of being much more active, and of being focused on the value of the research, rather than the process of the researcher.

Be more specific: It is frustrating to have to write very specifically about something you’re going to be doing three years from now, that you may not have properly even started yet. But it is also very frustrating to read things like, “over the course of the grant, I will examine the secondary literature and compare pertinent examples from among possible primary texts.” There’s nothing I can actually picture there. I would rather read “In the first year, I will perform a literature review of sources in social media practices (Jenkins, Ito, and Boyd; Noble and Tynes; Thumin; van Dijck) and begin to select primary texts for the case studies, beginning with social justice selfies (eg, #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, #StayMadAbby)” Being specific is hard. You have to make decisions and go to the library. I hate it, myself, particularly when I’m trying to write about the second half of the third year of the grant. However. That’s what people want to read, myself included.

It’s pretty funny that this is the exact advice that I give grad students and yet it is very hard for me to follow it, too — I need my own reader to make exactly the same editorial comments I make to others. I guess we all need editors!

Anyhow, this is my day today. Changing my verbs, beefing up the details, getting to the point. If you’re still working on your Insight Grant, or your doctoral fellowship app, well, bon courage. I’m right there with you.

advice · positive thoughts as I fill out grant applications

From the archive: How to ask for reference letters

This is a repost of a timely how-to. Just this morning I noticed it zip across my Twitter mentions again. It’s reference letter season, and once more I’m coaching students on The Ask. This post is one of the most-read pieces in the archives, with nearly 18,000 page views as of this morning.

Refinements always welcome, so add your advice in the comments, and please share!


I’m writing/rewriting/polishing five different SSHRC reference letters today (hi there, my PhD students!) I’ve obviously been asked for letters by all of them, and in my position as Grad Chair, as well, I’ve talked to a LOT of other students about the “ask.”

It seems that many of us do not know how to ask for reference letters.

I understand. It’s awkward: “Dear Professor? Can you write a glowing report attesting my awesomeness, if you’re not too busy, but I know you’re busy and I’m not sure I’m awesome anyways?” Or, worse, in your first semester at a new school, add to end “And you have never met me but I read something about you on the internet?”

I thought I would put in a post what I’m repeating to everyone who comes to meet me. Maybe next year, I’ll just link the post so people can check it out in their pyjamas instead of trying to summon the nerve to admit a lack and ask for help in person.

The ask

Do not feel awkward about asking for a letter. Use a form letter. This is a routine academic transaction. Get good at it. The letter (usually an email) should:

  • clearly state what you want,
  • graciously ask for it,
  • note why you’re asking this person and who you are
  • indicate all relevant deadlines and include all relevant paperwork,
  • offer enough context for the potential assessor to make a reasoned judgment

The form letter

Dear Prof. [insert name here

I am writing to ask if you would be willing and able to write me a positive reference for [specific job / specific scholarship / specific award]. I am asking you for this reference because [I took XXX class with you and got XXX grade or received XXX comment / I am new here and hope we might eventually work together, and your work in XXX intersects with my interests / you are my supervisor and know my work the best / I did an RA/TA for you and I hope you can speak to XXX parts of my work for you]. 

The letter is due on [specify date, and it had better not be the day after tomorrow]. It is to be [submitted electronically / mailed directly to the sponsor / returned to me so that I can submit it in my package]. I have [attached a PDF / linked to the online reference form] at the bottom of this email, should you agree to provide the reference.

I have also attached my [abstract / proposal summary / PDF of the job ad / link to the award criteria] as well as my CV. I am happy to send you any further documents, such as my unofficial transcripts, or [a longer writing sample/ a copy of the feedback you gave on my final paper / my other application materials] should you wish to see them. 

Please let me know whether or not you can provide the reference. Thank you in advance for your time and your consideration of this request. 

Best wishes,
[Your full, legal name, plus a nickname if useful,some context like 2nd year MA student, BA English XXXX, etc]

Some key points:

  • Note that this is a little formal: you are asking for a favour
  • Note that this puts all the relevant info in front of the prof to both write the letter and to determine if she wants to
  • It is often the case we can’t remember you: giving this info reminds us
  • Give your reference plenty of lead time: minimum two weeks
  • This does not assume or demand; it asks and it offers
  • Do not send giant oodles of writing; this is incredibly off-putting
Please, take this form letter and use it. If all the requests I got were filled-in versions of this template, I would be very happy. Also, can I be honest here? The letters would get written a lot sooner. You would not believe some of the requests I get, that are framed as ransom letters (“I MUST HAVE THIS LETTER BY THE END OF THE DAY”). Or that give me so little context I have to expend serious effort to figure out what’s happening (“Hey! Remember me from that class I took sometime in the last ten years? I won’t tell you which one, but can you write me a super specific letter about how great I am, based on what you remember from that? Sincerely, Katie” [no last name whose email is][whose legal name is actually something like Caitlyn, so I can’t figure out who she is or when in the last ten years I might have taught her, or in what class]). Or the weird grandiose ones (“Hi, I’ve attached my 125 page MA thesis, so if you could look it over and tell everyone what an honour it is that I’ve joined your program that would be great.”) If you make it hard for me to like you because you’re so cavalier with my time, or you make it hard for me to help you because you don’t give me enough information, it’s going to be really hard to get a good letter out of me.
My feelings of frustration evidenced in the slightly (but not much) exaggerated characterizations of the last paragraph are understandable but not fair: maybe you don’t know how to ask for a letter the right way. Believe when I tell you other professors have exactly the same reactions that I do. So that’s why I wrote this today.
Hook & Eye hive mind: if you are the writer of the letters, can you suggest any alterations or edits to what I’ve suggested? What’s your experience? And if you are an asker for letters, can you offer any comments on the process? And are there other academic letter genres you’d like me to do a post on?
best laid plans · contract work · good things · january blues · positive thoughts as I fill out grant applications · women

Generous Thinking

If you ask me, Mondays sort of beg for some kind of genuine inspiration. Especially Mondays in January. Mondays are, in a micro-manner, a day to ever so slightly return to and reset your larger best laid plans. Sure, it is very easy to slip into Blue Monday mode, but let’s not today.

Why the optimism? Well, this weekend I have found myself thinking time and again about generosity. I thought about it on Friday evening when my partner and I went out for dinner with colleagues. Amidst the genuine anguish about what is happening on our campus here was such an undercurrent of real, palpable care for the spaces in which we work and especially for the students we teach in our classes. We talked about what’s wrong, got angry–righteously so!–about the many systemic injustices, and throughout it all I kept thinking ‘what luck, to be engaged in such generous thinking.’ Generosity was the electric current of the conversation. It kept us coming back from rage or frustration to a refrain of how much we care.

And then, on Saturday morning at oh-my-lord-o’clock I met a former student for coffee before she joined her badminton team for 8:30am game preparations. She took a bus from where the team was staying on the outskirts of the city to meet me. (I’ll admit, all I did was clean off the truck and drive, but it was c-o-l-d!!! and e-a-r-l-y!). There we sat, the only people in the coffee shop, and talked about her classes, my research, her plans for grad school, my intention to shake off fretfulness, the Taylor Swift channel on Songza, strategies for self-care in Canadian winter, how badminton differs from tennis (a lot!), and books we wanted to read.

Later that day, as I worked on a SSHRC application, I was grateful for my colleague’s generosity. As a contract academic faculty member I am not on the research services email list, yet she has continually made sure I get the information and support I need. I thought again with gratitude of the people who have read and edited the proposal on their own time. And I thought about my colleagues across the country who are joining the application. These people are completing the Canadian Common CV for me. How unspeakably generous! Seriously.

Some basic definitions of generosity include “a liberalness in sharing or giving,” and “willingness to give value to others.” In addition to some of the lovely conversations I have had this weekend, I have also come across that liberalness in sharing or giving on the web. Specifically, I have had the pleasure of coming across Ayelet Tsabari’s blog post outlining her reading intentions for last year. Tsabari writes that in 2014 she intended to read only writers of colour. In her post outlining her intent she is candid about her reasons and her reservations:

I thought of VIDA and CWILA and their yearly counts, which often spring an offshoot discussion about the lack of writers of colour in reviews and magazines. And I remembered that the brilliant Madeleine Thien recently spoke about the underrepresentation of writers of colour in literary awards. And then, I thought I should dedicate 2014 to only reading writers of colour. And immediately dismissed it as a silly idea and went to bed.

But I kept thinking about it. When I woke up that night to feed my baby, I thought of books by writers of colour I can’t wait to read and got excited. In 2011, when I only read short story collectionsI discovered many incredible writers I’d never heard of because I was always on the hunt for new collections, and I read more, simply because I made a public pledge to do so. It wasn’t a burden, but a blessing. I imagined this would be a similar experience; by imposing ‘restrictions’ on my reading list I would be reading more widely, not narrowly, the same way that writing under constraints may sometimes result in better writing. And I knew I’d have many great writers to choose from. Last year, Roxane Gay of The Rumpus had conveniently compiled a long list of writers of colour (a list in which I’m proud to be mentioned) in response to the argument that there are simply not enough writers of colour. That list would be a good place to start.
But the idea made me nervous.  Unlike reading books of short stories, this choice felt political. And coming from Israel, politics tend to scare the shit out of me. I shouldn’t be choosing books by authors’ ethnicity, should I? It’s so arbitrary, so random. But then again, what’s wrong with that? People choose to read books because they’re on the Giller list, or on Canada Reads, or on the staff picks at their local bookstore. People choose books based on covers and blurbs and titles and gut feelings. So why not this?
But I was still hesitant. Ethnicity is a complicated thing, and identities can be layered and shifting and blurry. Where do I draw the line? What about writers of mixed heritage? Or writers of colour who write about white people, or choose (stubbornly!) not to write about their heritage? (I loved this article which speaks about the expectation from writers of colour to write about their heritage and their heritage only, or to write novels that—as a dear friend of mine, an Indian-Canadian writer, has put it—“have mango trees.”)  And what about other minorities? LGBT writers? Writers from other cultures who aren’t ‘of colour’? And really, should we be even talking about race? It makes people so uncomfortable. (Read Tsabari’s whole post here)
How generous is this thinking? This willingness to be public, vulnerable, adamant, dedicated, and nervous? Tsabari, it seems to me, gives her readers something of value, and she does it for free. And then, just recently, she returns to give again by returning to her original intent and telling us about her experiences, about her thinking. You can read her post, “My Year of Reading Only Writers of Colour” here
Tsabari isn’t the only person out there thinking meaningful, challenging thoughts in public forums, but as I came across her writing this weekend I was grateful for her. For her generosity and for the generosity of others, like this blogger, who share their thinking, work, and resources. 
What kind of generosity have you come across in the academy or its vicinity,  readers? I’d love to have some more examples to buoy me through this January Monday and maybe, just maybe, right through until spring. 
best laid plans · positive thoughts as I fill out grant applications · saving my sanity

Tuned in

Last week I optimistically told you that I am aiming for 2012 to be a year of quality: quality of life, of work, of attention, and of efforts. Guess what? I’m a few weeks in and finding it pretty difficult to put my idealism into practice. It is possible that writing a grant application may have something to do with my strained mood… Lately, in an effort to at least gesture towards my goal of a quality-filled year, I have been listening to music while I work.

Music and work have a long history in my life. Do you remember when everyone claimed that Mozart would enhance your brainpower? I sure do. It was 1995 and I was not excelling in math. I know, cliched, huh? In addition to trying tutors and study sessions I clung to the belief that listening to classical music would help me through my math tests. It didn’t, but I did develop a genuine love of listening to music while I worked. When I was in high school it was Tori Amos, Tom Waits, and PJ Harvey. I would sit in my room working on my model United Nations project or writing a term paper and imagine Life Beyond High School. While I was in university I worked at the campus radio station and began to develop a love of jazz and blues: Freddie Hubbard, Etta James, Nina Simone, Archie Shepp, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, Sun Ra. You name it, I devoured it. I still recall the first English paper I wrote in university every time I listen to Alice Coltrane’s Ptah, the El Daoud. God, I love jazz harp!

A funny thing happened when I began my Masters, however. Suddenly, I couldn’t listen to music while I wrote anymore. It was as though my mind was too full, trying to wrap itself around new concepts, new routines, new modes of being, and, let’s be frank, new presentations of self. I have worked in relative silence for the last number of years, until very recently. Just as suddenly, I have returned to my voracious listening/working ways. I have even taken to playing music quietly in my office at school, which always seems to take visitors by surprise. This week, I think I will return to one of my favorites: the great, and now late Etta James.

So what about you readers? In the spirit of quality, will you share your playlists with me (work or otherwise)?

academic reorganization · faster feminism · grad school · job market · positive thoughts as I fill out grant applications

Meme Revisited: I want My PhD in the Humanities

Last year a pesky little meme made its way around the Internet.* First it circulated through the Facebook pages of my friends, then my acquaintances, and then those people whom I’ve befriended because they know me and I don’t know them but feel guilty that I can’t place them and thus haven’t deleted them. Then it came up in conversation with colleagues in the hallway. A mentor of mine texted me from across the country to make sure I’d seen it (don’t forget, I’m still a bit of a luddite). Finally I heard my students talking about it. I’d laugh about different things depending on who I was chatting with. Colleagues? We’d laugh about the inanity of having ‘deep and meaningful things to say about death and literature.’ Fellow contract workers? We’d laugh about the fact that we’re fighting tooth and nail to gain access to a profession that depicts a (note: female) Dean in impossibly tiny shared office. But when it came time to laughing with my students I started to feel a little uneasy. Did I really want to laugh–and by laughing acknowledge–and by acknowledging condone such a bleak representation of studying the humanities? Not really, but readers, I’ll admit: I laughed anyway.

In the last year I’ve found myself returning to those moments of uncomfortable laughter again and again, especially since the beginning of this fall. Perhaps it is the ailing economy, the onslaught (decades old, really) of dire news, or me projecting my own conflicted desire to be honest about traditionally conceived tenure-track job prospects while encouraging my students to follow their interests but I’ve sensed a heaviness in these hallowed halls, and it has me thinking that it is time to reevaluate my discourse in the classroom and in this blog. Put simply I’m worried that we’re at risk of devaluing study of the humanities by spending too much time and energy on negative discourses.** Sure, times are tough, but they will be much much tougher if we educate a generation of students to see the humanities as a lovely but ineffectual discipline. Sure the system needs to be fixed/reimagined/retooled.  But me? I’d do it again. 

I think, in short, it is time to re-up hope.  

To a certain extent I’m taking my cue from the Occupy/DecolonizeWS movements. I really believe that positive momentum can create lasting positive change. So while I wont hide the fact that like so many others I occupy a tenuous and decidedly un-tenured position I will be encouraging anyone who will listen to engage with, and yes study the humanities. This semester I am teaching a course that asks an age-old question: can cultural production create moments of genuine civic engagement? Put another way my students and I are asking whether poetry can change the world. Lofty questions? Sure, but this is the fall for lofty idealism to morph into collective action and maybe, just maybe, make a little change in this world.

We have just finished working out way through Erin Mouré‘s fine collection O Cidadán. In a section that my students and I have come to call the preface Mouré states that she will inhabit gendered language through a move in discourse. We spent a great deal of time discussing what it might mean to deterritorialize language through a move in language, in discourse. They offered brilliant interpretation, grappled with unfamiliar language and form, got frustrated, and kept talking. By the end of a week’s worth of discussion we hadn’t come to a finite conclusion or changed the world in massive and perceptible ways, but we had talked about visible and invisible borders, the (im)possibilities of gender and genre, the gross human rights violations that occur right at the level of language. I don’t know about you, but I find that pretty darn hopeful. 

* I know we’re not all in the Humanities, dear Readers, but I am, and I make my feminist and pedagogical stands most often in this context. 
**Diana Brydon has a wonderful essay called “Do the Humanities Need a New Humanism” which you can read in Retooling the Humanities: The Culture of Research in Canadian Universities edited by Smaro Kamboureli and Daniel Coleman.

academy · job notes · positive thoughts as I fill out grant applications · research · students · writing

What to do with an RA?

I was at a conference this summer, catching up with a colleague and admiring her new iPad, on which she was studiously taking notes. “Thanks,” she said, “I just bought it with my grant!” It turns out we both won our very first SSHRC SRGs this year and were wrapping our heads around what it meant to do this research, with tens of new thousands of dollars. We were at something of a loss.


I know at my institution we are vigorously prodded, as soon as we arrive, to secure “external funding” for our research. And in the humanities, particularly, we are sometimes skeptical: I myself have asked, “What the hell do I need $50,000 for? I read books and then write articles about them, in my pajamas.” But external funding must be sought, for the good of the institution and its reputation. We are also told it is for the good of our students: a SSHRC-funded RA goes for about $15,000 a year, good money and at the disposal of the funding department, amazing! Funding for grad students is often the biggest line item in a humanities SSHRC. 78% of my own SSHRC grant, for example, is straight RA funding.

Now, the problem, fairly common if I am to judge from my hallway conversations in institutions near and far, is “What the hell do I do with a grad student?”

No one teaches us this. As a PhD student, your job is to get it all done, all by yourself, bothering as few people as possible, and on a shoestring budget. And now you have staff? Many of us draw on our own experience of being RAs to cobble something together: photocopying? re-typing someone’s book? avoiding hallway run-ins for 8 months and just cashing the cheques? SSHRC stipulates that the work a grad student does shouldn’t be simply clerical or menial, but if you’re in the humanities it can be really hard to imagine what elements of your research you can offload onto an RA.

I have some ideas, having had three RAs over the past four years. (And let me just thank them right now, for their wonderful work and great patience with my figuring all this out: thanks RC, DM, and LB).

Straight up research:

  • I have my RAs build Zotero databases of research materials, in my general area. They organize all the citations into categories I leave them free to devise. They create keywords and folders, they attach PDFs where they can, snapshots where they can’t. I pay them to learn Zotero, and to consult with librarians about where and how to find sources. I could teach them this, but isn’t the point to free up my time? We both win from this: they get research training in bibliographic software, and in advanced library work, and hopefully the subject matter is in their area.
  • I have them try to solve specific questions: “I am writing,” (I say) “something about the rural/urban digital divide, which I know exists but I need some good, recent sources to back me up.” And they find it. So I very rarely now ever go check my own facts while I’m drafting stuff. I’m not making stuff up, I’m just failing to be scrupulously precise while I’m freewriting, and my RAs help me move to the next stage of more careful writing.


  • There is sometimes some filing and photocopying. Not much, though. Some physical bringing stuff to and from the library, ordering interlibrary loans, etc.


  • I have regular (bi-weekly, usually) meetings with my RAs. We talk about the kinds of tasks involved in scholarly work: journal publication, original research, conference presentation or conference organization, grant applications. By describing as well as modelling the rhythms and processes of scholarship, I hope to demystify them for my RA, as well as get someone to help me.
  • My RA reads my grant applications, both to know what our project is about, and to know what a grant application looks like.
  • Sometimes, I give my RA an early draft of an article or chapter to read: this both helps them know what kind of research I need them to do, and it shows them that first drafts by professional writers are in fact pretty awful misspelled misbegotten poorly conceived simplistic and half-assed things. 
  • At these meetings I also encourage my RA to bring to me any questions they have about their own conferences or research process or journal submission. 

Document preparation:

  • I work in an interdisciplinary field: this is great but one side effect is every goddamned journal has a different referencing system. My RA cleans up / regularizes all my in-text citations/footnotes and reference lists. Untold hours are saved by me this way, and the RA learns that details matter as well as how to do all the systems and how each journal usually has its own style rules and how to find them. 
  • Lately, I’ve been having my RA be a pair of eyes on my pre-submission work: he or she reads my manuscript and leaves me comments. I explicitly ask to have repetitive phrases flagged, or other quirks pointed out. My RA doesn’t change my prose, ever, but does comments in the margins, and then I change stuff.
  • Sometimes, my RA helps with the page-proofs stage: I pretty much have my articles memorized by this point in the process and can very easily miss the kinds of simple typos and errors that the proof-reading stage is meant to check for.

Disciplinary service:

  • My current RA just helped one of my colleagues with a major conference running here, doing up the program and working the registration desk … and going to talks and meeting people.
  • We’re hosting Congress this year, so I imagine there’ll be more of that kind of work.

That’s pretty much what I’ve got. Honestly, sometimes I feel like I have to work harder on my research just to generate enough stuff to keep my RA busy, but that’s okay. And I really, really like offloading citations, library work, and documents preparation: I always hated that stuff, and now I actually write more because I don’t have to do it. I really like getting to know these junior scholars, and collaborating with them: they bring me great stuff, and I hope that some of this work is valuable to them, and that seeing my own scholarship “behind the scenes” is in a way valuable as they become scholars in their own right.

So. It’s weird to suddenly have an RA and be a ‘boss’, but it can be really really helpful to advance the research, and a benefit to the student too.

What do you do with your RA, if you have one? If you were an RA, what did you do? I’d love to hear more about how this arrangement is managed by others.

appreciation · paying it forward · positive thoughts as I fill out grant applications

Sharing; or, I Get By with a Little Help from My Friends

Much of the frustration, work, and anxiety of the trough of the J Curve relates to paperwork.

Induction into the Great Paperwork Nightmare arrives with the crafting of The Job Letter, which is unlike anything you’ve ever written before and for which the only instruction seems to be “make sure it’s perfect.” If one of your (hundreds? of) letters is, in fact, somehow perfect, you will have to fill out more bureaucratic forms than you knew existed, because you will become a faculty member.

Let’s see: there’s internal funding applications, annual activity reports, applications for different internal funds, SSHRC Standard Research Grants (if you’re in the social sciences or humanities … oh wait! They’ve changed all the programs and now the forms, too!), a variety of other SSHRC grants, sabbatical applications, convert-your-salary-to-research-funds forms, research ethics forms, graduate dissertation / research project/ Master’s thesis / reading course forms, reference letters, reports to journal editors on revisions attempted or rejected, and the mother of all of them (at least from where I’m sitting), the tenure application.

Mostly, you stare at these form-fillable but not saveable PDF, these table-based Word docs with crazy formatting, these spreadsheets that won’t run on your Mac, slack-jawed, writing and creativity alike locked up. Cue the  whining, complaining, defeatism, procrastination, and, if you’re me, drinking.

Well. Thank God for my friends, I say.

When I went on the job market, Heather vetted my letters for me, giving me concrete feedback and advice like “this is too timid,” or “you need a longer paragraph saying what your dissertation is about.” The research office here collects winning SSHRC apps from researcher volunteers, and puts them in a binder for us to consult. When I was trying to write my tenure dossier, three colleagues who’d come up in the three years before me sent me all their material to use as examples. Immeasurably helpful. This week, I sent my tenure dossier to a friend in the US who wondered how to write up her technical work in new media. I sent an internal award application to a friend here who’s junior to me and has never yet applied for one. I sent my salary-conversion application to a colleague in my department who wanted a model of what kinds of things she might budget for and how to justify them.

Of course, when I send you that stuff, you’ll see what my research is. You’ll see my reference lists. My CV and all the things I’ve done or not done so far in my career. You’ll see my budgets, my five year research plan, how I allot work to graduate students, where I’ve applied for jobs, what kind of funding I had in grad school. You might see my big idea, even. But that’s okay: I don’t think you intend me any harm, and I don’t know why that information has to be so closely guarded. Are you going to steal my ideas? Judge my career? Decide you want to apply for the same fellowship as me?

Okay–once in grad school I was in this seminar where we had to workshop our annotated bibliographies, and the next day a classmate RECALLED ALL MY BOOKS. But that’s the only bad thing I’ve ever had happen. I guess it comes with the digital media research area: I’m all about transparency and disclosure, baby.

So to everyone who has ever sent me their own material to save me some stress preparing mine, I thank you from the very deepest part of my heart. I will never recall your books, I promise.

And to anyone who might like to have a look at something I’ve written, to use as a model (or a terrible warning; I don’t know), you’re welcome to it. Just ask.

What about you? Do you share? Have others shared with you? Why? Why not? What are we hiding?

body · day in the life · grad school · health · positive thoughts as I fill out grant applications · possibility

Guest Post: A Day in the Life of a Grad Student

Let me start by saying that I am thoroughly delighted to be doing a guest post for Hook & Eye. I am a first year grad student in Concordia’s Creative Writing program and am finding the transition from student to teacher quite challenging but thoroughly fascinating. I am exactly where I want to be: I will graduate next year with a Master’s in Creative Writing and a written novel, my thesis. I will be twenty-six. I am excited to be approaching a life in the academy and was thrilled when my professor assigned the Hook & Eye blog for our “Pedagogy in and of Canadian Literature” course. As a result of my research over the last month, my rose-tinted glasses have slipped down my nose a little and I have glimpsed the realities that await me as a woman entering the academy. I have been compiling my musings in a blog I created for the project which you are all welcome to read here if you like. For the moment, however, I offer you a glimpse into my life as a first year grad student.

Friday 18th February 2011
I wake to my cellphone’s horrifying alarm (the phone vaguely resembles a car and therefore my alarm resembles race track sounds) at 7:00am. I am still riding the high of pride and pleasant surprise from last night. I had a symposium presentation that went very well, a poetry/fiction reading with most of Concordia’s English department immediately after that was a total delight and an e-mail from Heather Zwicker in my inbox upon arriving home filled with such lovely compliments that I went to sleep smiling. This morning, it’s back to business. I have to write my letter of intent for my TA application, which is due later on today. I’ve done everything else for it: my letters of reference were sent directly, the English admin takes care of our transcripts and all we have to do is explain why we want to teach, what our areas of interest are, a brief word on any awards, publications or relevant experience we have with teaching, any ideas for classes etc.

Now, I should interject here. No one tells us what precisely the letter should include. I asked my classmates and friends in second year and the answers I received were varied: “it’s a formality”, “it’s a summary of you”, “it’s an advertisement”, “an elaboration on your resume” and so on. Cover letters are bloody hard: I hate promoting myself. It makes me feel sick if I do it in a way that comes off as arrogant or desperate. So, I find that if I can now write a letter of intent without sounding saccharine, self-aggrandizing or cocky, and make it somehow filled with personality instead, then I’m happy, or at least a little more comfortable with it. And I would like to think that is what might get me the grants and jobs that will prove necessary this new academic life of mine: personality and honesty.

I am out of bed by 7:30 and in work-mode by 8:00 with a mug of jasmine green tea and toast at hand. My little downtown apartment is quiet in the mornings and being on the ninth floor means it is flooded with sunlight. I spend twenty minutes responding to e-mails about Headlight, the magazine I am an editor for, about my sister’s wedding and about my potential summer job. That done, I open my application Word document and spend the next hour and fifteen minutes letting my tea go cold and the page fill up with my reasons for applying. Influential teachers, my love of communication and creative exploration. It comes slowly.

I would love an extra day or two to work on this. I turned twenty-five on Valentine’s Day and the weekend prior was thoroughly unproductive. Today is going to be busy for a Friday; no classes but we have a meeting for the Colloquium I am helping to organize and my boyfriend has to have an X-ray done. I recently started writing what is turning into a novella about voodoo and the secret lives of names and I would love to work on it at some point today, but I am not optimistic. My boyfriend wakes and joins me at 9: 20, makes more tea and struggles with his own application for a while. We eat granola and brood. Neither of us has teaching experience or much that we feel is relevant to a Teaching Assistantship and we contemplate our CVs of summer jobs and slender editing positions. He leaves for his X-ray at 10:00, in pain and annoyed. This has been a year of unprecedented medical drama for us. Long story short: damaged tongue, excruciating sciatica and issues with scoliosis for him while I have been having recurring back and hip issues from the two car accidents I was in a few years ago. I also may or may not have Crohn’s Disease. Eight pills a day and more visits to the hospital than I care for, no alcohol or coffee and frequent nausea and pain. Not how I wanted to enter grad school.

While my boyfriend is at the doctor’s office I eat a cold slice of vegan pizza from the night before as I complete my application. The pizza is succulent. My application isn’t. I’m not thrilled with the results but before I know it, my boyfriend arrives and brings 2:30 with him. I want tea but there isn’t time. We head to the Library building and spend the next few hours narrowing the Colloquium abstracts down from thirty-three to eighteen. The program lineup is going to be awesome but many of the choices are brutal and I can’t help but notice that things are going to get very busy, very soon. We manage to whittle it down to twenty-one and agree to read them over at home and decide on panels and line-up and such over the weekend. I meet with one of the Colloquium’s head organizers after the meeting has adjourned to discuss the poetry/fiction reading that I am co-planning that will be the conference’s big finish. I am blown away with how much I am responsible for and I feel a twinge of panic. I add that to-do list to my other ones.

It is 5:30 by the time we get back home, and I’m starving and sleepy. Our applications are in. We make a delicious pesto-pasta-tofu-swiss-chard dish and write for a while, me checking and writing email in regard to my job this summer, both of us picking away at essays-in-progress and drafts of our theses. I have yet to meet with my adviser this semester and I’m worried. I’ve barely managed to get submissions that I’m not ashamed of in on time for my fiction workshop, much less add to and work on the lone chapter that is my thesis project. Two friends of mine from the CW undergrad have been boasting via Facebook statuses that they’re half-way done of their novels so far. Christ. HOW? I close my windows and work for another hour or so.

I have to remind myself that I have written a few stories this year that I’m quite proud of and I’ve been published in two different Concordia publications. I’ve celebrated two and a half years with a man that I am more in love with than I ever thought possible, I’ve got a 3.8 GPA and still manage to see friends and maintain relationships. I’m getting my disease under control. This, I think, is massively important: to put the effort into making a life out of what you love, but also not treating every occurrence of pleasure as an indulgence, something to feel guilty for. For these reasons I let my boyfriend convince me to watch “Back to the Future” instead of delving into my “Reading Week To Do” list that will dominate the upcoming seven class-free days. Life is too short not to cuddle with the man you love and count how many times Michael J. Fox says “That’s heavy” or runs his hand through his hair. At 1:15 I curl up with the only book I am reading for pleasure this semester. I started it over Christmas and am only half way through, averaging two or three pages a week, if I’m lucky. I get through two before I feel the book slip through my hands and I give in to the compelling arguments of sleep. My alarm is set for 7:00. I’ll tackle those to do lists tomorrow.

Kathryn Pobjoy
Montreal, Quebec

classrooms · grad school · positive thoughts as I fill out grant applications · saving my sanity

I’m giving thanks for my students

I’d like to give thanks–as we roll on into the Thanksgiving weekend like so many wheelie bags dragged out to the Greyhound stop on campus, bumping along inexorably toward turkey, family, a long weekend, a keg-tapping ceremony, a chance to catch our breath or catch up on our work or catch some zzzs–for my students.

This semester is a little weird for me because I’m teaching two courses on essentially the same topic at the opposite ends of the higher education journey–one is a first year course and one is a graduate course. I’m excited to teach these courses as part of two new digital media curricular initiatives in my department. I love the challenge of creating new courses in my area of research, and it’s pretty cool how the courses overlap with one another into a seamless digital media dork-out, but what’s really making the semester so rewarding … is the students.
So. I’m giving thanks to my students for:
  • using internet anonymizers to send me reading material related to the course, for fun
  • admitting they don’t know what they’re doing, and cheerfully asking for help to get better
  • challenging me when they think I’m wrong
  • measuring what we learn in class against what happens in the world
  • showing up to a draft workshop even when their drafts aren’t done, because they don’t want to miss class
  • coming to my office during office hours, just to talk to me
  • volunteering answers even when they’re not sure 
  • doing such damn good presentations
  • taking it seriously
  • taking it lightly
  • laughing at my jokes
  • being open to whatever class brings
  • taking their scribbled-over first drafts home and writing kick-ass second drafts
  • sharing a little bit of the story of their lives with me
I’m giving thanks to other peoples students for:
  • talking about class in the hallway
  • sitting in the sun declaiming poetry
  • hunching together over a textbook solving equations together
  • reading on the bus, while walking, in lineups, sitting on steps
Sometimes we see this student / teacher relationship as antagonistic. They complain about us, we complain about them, someone creates a crasher-squirrel / exam book mashup, and someone compiles a so-awful-it’s-hilarious list of exam-answer howlers. There are reasons for all of this, of course. But I’m just really struck this week by how much energy, how much fun, how much smarts, how much talent, how much vulnerability, just how much students bring with them onto campus. Students, I like you guys. I don’t want to be friends with you, necessarily, but working with you on this shared project of advancing our personal and collective knowledge? It is the Zippo that sparks my best jokes, my clearest explanations, my most careful editing, my most intriguing ideas. And for that, I thank you.

Still, crasher squirrel thinks you need to work on your penmanship!
[How about you, dear reader? If you are a student, please bask in the glow of the thanks; if you teach, do you have any inspiring story about why you too might give thanks for students?]
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.