academic reorganization · ideas for change · job notes · reform · saving my sanity · wish list

The email, oh I’ve had enough of it

My email is killing me. My work account currently has 263 unread emails in it. How is that even possible? The whole first screen of 30 emails only has two unread emails–one from a digest listserv I mostly delete (guiltily) unread every day, and one a Twitter notification. Where are the rest of them? Who are they from? They are hidden among the 1487 other emails sitting there in my inbox. That’s a crazy, unreasonable number of emails to have hanging around, read or unread, in an inbox.

Then my other account. There’s another 162 unread missives sprinkled amidst the 575 total messages there. A lot of those should have come and gone through my work account, but didn’t because there was a week there where my email wasn’t working at the office and so …

Oh hell. It’s 6:30 in the morning and I’m feeling exhausted and defeated already.

This email lunacy has to stop.

A lot of this I’ve done inadvertently to myself. The Facebook and Twitter notifications. Marketing emails from Apple and Hootsuite and The Gap and Old Navy and Lululemon and Barefoot Yoga. I signed up for most of that, I guess, but now I’m drowning. Why am I still getting email from the makers of EndNote? I don’t even use EndNote. Other software vendors keep bugging me to upgrade, and I just want to hide under my bed. Stop sending me email, Adobe! And I’m looking at you, too, Screenflow!!

I have a lot of text-messagy emails from my husband and my sister that I never seem to delete. That clogs stuff up, too. Oh, and a million HuffPo and NYT and Globe and Mail articles I email to myself from my phone late at night, so I’ll remember to add them to my online bookmarking service from my computer. I just checked and there are 83 messages from myself sitting in my inboxes. Oh God, *I* am the problem.

But there are other problems.

Student emails. I’m teaching a total of 40 first years and 16 grads right now, and I’m on the committees of or supervising another 7 graduate students. It’s paper-writing, grant application reference letter, proposal-writing, thesis drafting time. These emails require my attention, and then my action, and many of them have lots of links or documents in them I need to keep. Meetings I need to schedule. Things I have to keep thinking about and things I have to do. I’m not sure how to make this any better. It’s obviously much better to hear frequently from my grad students than to never hear from them. And some of my graduate assignments require students to meet with me. I really push my first years to send me messages through the LMS, but since that software’s email is so awkward and awful, I get them all forwarded to my university account and often reply from there as well, so it’s not much help. Except at least they have a uniform subject line so I can find them later if they fall through the cracks now.

University emails. If I get one more cryptic memo written for the pleasure of the sending department rather than to meet the needs of the intended recipient, I’m gonna punch somebody, I swear. Noon hour concerts. Talks on medieval political science. Internal marketing about our vision our logo our new revenue generating graduate programs. Memos about plagiarism, about copyright, about religious accommodation for exams. Emails about software updates for machines I don’t use; emails about machine downtime for software I don’t use. Emails warning about email viruses. Emails announcing hirings and retirements and deaths and births. Imprecations to read all these emails more carefully. Reply-alls to the entire faculty of arts, then reply-all apologies to the entire faculty of arts. Some of this (a vanishingly small amount) is important but the sheer volume of completely irrelevant and uninteresting stuff is killing my will to live. Would the institution ever have sent me this many paper memos? Never. And what’s worse? Colleagues who receive these mass mailouts AND FORWARD THEM TO ME AGAIN. Now I’ve received an irrelevant email twice. Awesome.

The one-offs. These I feel the worst about, because they are important. But they are also unique and require thought and so I put off dealing with them, and because they are unique, I then forget about them. They get buried in the avalanche and by lunchtime tomorrow? Three screens down, utterly neglected. Cold-call networking emails from fascinating people. Calls to review. Conference calls sent to me especially. Potential students currently at other institutions. Blog readers with questions. These all keep me awake at night–because that’s when I suddenly remember them, at 3am, when I have to pee.

I easily spend over an hour every day–sometimes significantly more–just dealing with my email and the stuff in it. And then every couple of months I have to spend most of a day mucking it out. It’s awful. This feels like a terrible waste and a terrible burden and just generally inefficient and wrong.

I’m subscribing to the email charter. Have you read it? You should. There’s some pretty sensible stuff in there. Do you think it could work, in a university context? Are you overwhelmed by your email?

Just please don’t ask me how many web browser windows I have open on my desktop right now. Or when I turned into Andy Rooney.

academy · appreciation · balance · change · equity · good things · having it all · ideas for change · kid stuff · making friends · reform

Something special, an ordinary party

Did you see that episode of the Simpsons, where Bart joins a football team, and Lisa makes this big dramatic entrance to the field, all suited-up, ready to fight the feminist fight against gender discrimination in sport? And there’s already some girls on the team? And she’s kinda like, “Oh, right then, okay, carry on.”

That happened to me this week.

I was invited to attend the welcoming supper for new faculty members, because I’m on the faculty association board. The invitation didn’t specify, so I wrote to ask if I could bring my husband and daughter, you know, to fight the feminist fight against the erasure of real-live-families from academic life? Well. We got there, and not only is there a nametag for my daughter (in cheery Comic Sans, no less), but a whole tablefull of kid name tags. And a giant, well-stocked craft table at the front of the hall, where a mass of small children are excitedly making glittery foam stars and flowers, collaboratively filling out colouring pages. My daughter made friends! And a pink door-hanger with unicorns on it!


I made a point of moving through the room, introducing myself to faculty families–faculty moms and faculty dads and their ‘civilian’ spouses and their toddlers, their newborns, their twins, their tweens. The spouses got nametags, too. There is nothing more heartwarming for a crusty old tenured faculty mom than to see a new professor mom, burping a name-tagged four-month old, while her husband fetches strained carrots out of the diaper bag. We talked schools and daycares, and while I was fully prepared to to staunchly defend our rights to reproduce and research in the same lifetime, no one really needed convincing.

I actually found it very moving.

As the crusty old tenured mom, I have to interrupt myself to bring you back to the olden days, when I started here. I went to the same party. There were no children, let alone a child’s play area. And I would have noticed that, because I was BABY CRAZY but feeling like I had to maybe keep a lid on it.

Things change, even at universities. They even sometimes change for the better, for the more inclusive, and the more humane.

Best. New Faculty. Orientation. Dinner. Ever.*

* full disclosure: I won a cheese tray in the draw. I NEVER win stuff in draws. This possibly colours my interpretation of events 😉

academy · change · faculty evaluation · ideas for change · promotion · reform

Mostly, I just like saying the word ‘dumbass’

“I really thought your talk was excellent,” she told me. “I think people really connected with what you were saying.” She paused. Then, “I have never heard a professor say ‘dumbass’ in a lecture before.” Apparently, lighthearted swearing, employed judiciously, appeals to general audiences, and diminishes the perceived unapproachability of the Sage on the Stage. Or at the coffee bar’s jerry-rigged lectern. Or at the public library’s classroom podium.
I give a lot of public talks. I love to do them, at staff brownbags, in the library, in bookstores with espresso machines, in classrooms opened up in the evening to the general public, to auditoriums full of high school seniors and their parents. Because I keep getting asked to do more and more of these, and because everyone is always so enthusiastic in talking to me afterwards, I flatter myself that I’m pretty good at this sort of thing–I like to think I’m getting more exposure for my research findings, doing public service with my how-tos, drawing students into the major, creating goodwill for the department and university, and drawing good press for everyone.
Does it matter?
Heather wrote this week about a new kind of Full Professor, someone who gains promotion on the basis of teaching excellence. We are learning, I hope her post indicates, how to broaden our understanding of what a valuable, effective, and dare I say, excellent professor looks like. Fantastic! I am really cheered by this development, in part because, as studies show, women so very disproportionately aggregate in the teaching-heavy parts of the profession, and to have a research university promote on the basis of what has become feminised labour? Is pretty damn cool.
Can I push that door open a little wider? I’d like us to think more about what outreach means. I’d like to revisit that buzzphrase a few years back (um, 13 years) to “go public or perish“: we were supposed to focus more on that, SSHRC prez Marc Renaud indicated, instead of the usual academic target to “publish or perish”?
I take going public pretty seriously. But I don’t take it anywhere near as seriously as publishing: I calculated as a junior professor that my odds of perishing were still very much higher for failing to publish than for failing to go public. I never, not once, woke up in a cold midnight sweat counting out on my fingertips my number of Lunch and Learn talks delivered, desperate to know if it was enough to make the cut. So maybe, actually, I don’t take it seriously. Maybe no one takes it seriously in the humanities, where we’re not usually developing global smoking cessation strategies from empirical research, or, you know, curing cancer and such. 
Anyhow, I’ve been parking all my outreach activities in the service section of my annual reports: you know, the part that’s worth the least, that puny “20” dwarfed by the “40/40” of teaching and research. But is outreach not, in many ways, teaching, research, and service all at once? Especially if it draws explicitly on your research expertise? 
[Note! Let me be clear! I’m not griping about my annual reports or my raises or anything particular to my own situation. Everything is pretty awesome, frankly, and I by no means wish you to think otherwise. But. I’m trying to think more abstractly.]
So I ask you: Does outreach–going public–really matter? Do you think outreach is ‘real’ academic work? Do you do it? Do you want to? And does being really good or really poor at it matter? How does going public promote excellence, or detract from it? 
community · emotional labour · making friends · reform · righteous feminist anger · slow academy

Feeeeeelings, Nothing More than Feeeelings

You know I write about mommy blogs, right? I’ve just handed in a paper to Biography on the intimate public of mommy blogging, wherein I argue that that genre’s emphasis on sharing personal details about private lives both separates this blogging community from the broader, rational public sphere, and cements deep emotional connections between participants.

This seems important to me to consider more broadly, this week, following Shannon Dea’s fantastic guest post on the situation at UW, and how women’s feelings of (in)security are deemed irrational and overwrought. I’m thinking about the emotional labour of activating the classroom, about making lists to supplement our memories. I’m thinking about how those of my posts that get the most responses are the ones that relate personal details from my private life.

I’m thinking again about how to blend the personal and the professional, and in the context of my own feminism. Feelings, I think, might be a feminist issue.

I’d like to direct your attention to ‘Another Mother’s’ blog– how can you not be favorably predisposed to a blog that puns in its very title as cleverly as Breast for the Weary? Montreal resident Shannon Smith started this blog after being kicked out of a children’s clothing store for breastfeeding her infant. Go away and read her post on the incident, and then come back, okay?

[hums, taps foot, gets a glass of water …]

How brave do you have to be to write this?

“I knew the law. I knew my rights. But I was still upset. And not the angry, self-important, righteous kind of upset. The teary, scared, “they’re going to kick me out of the store”, “I’m here with my kids” type of upset. It was clear I was about to be thrown out, and I was pretty sure that if I was going to be forced to justify feeding my baby, I was going to cry. And I felt truly alone.”

Smith’s blog is remarkable for the way it combines a personal narrative recounted in deeply emotional terms with a call to public action, citing and linking to case law, public policy documents, and activist organizations in articulating purely rational arguments against her banishment from the store.

Lauren Berlant claims “that the gender-marked texts of women’s popular culture cultivate fantasies of vague belonging as an alleviation of what is hard to manage in the lived real—social antagonisms, exploitation, compromised intimacies, the attrition of life” (5). I think being a woman in the academy has some characteristics that are hard to manage in the lived real. For me, this blog (and other blogs I’ve written) help me cultivate a real sense of belonging, a place where I can share my feelings … where I can feel better in ways that perhaps empower me to act in more concrete ways in the sometimes hostile public spheres where I have learned to never show those feelings.

I want to be more like Shannon Smith. I want to be able to pull together a kick-ass, well-cited, rational, legal case to support whatever it is I’m proposing; and I want to be able to talk about my feelings at the same time.

Easy enough (for various reasons on which I can expound at great length, and with citations, even) to do on a blog. Harder to do where it matters: in the classroom, in our published research, in our committee meetings, with our colleagues and advisees, with administrators and public agencies.

How to transform the longstanding dismissal of feelings from public discourse, without either evacuating this public discourse of its rationality? Any ideas?

bad academics · good attitudes about crappy possibilities · reform


So I’m sitting around enjoying my last salary-free furlough day when all of a sudden it hits me: I have to get a blog post together! Already! (Already??)

Time-off time always disorients me (though I adapt to it with startling ease). There’s a different pace: the pace of the unemployed, I call it. If you’ve ever been jobless, or written a dissertation, you know what I’m talking about. You set yourself a clear and manageable task du jour: say, to mail a letter. You get up full of resolve: today’s the day I’ma mail that letter! You seal the envelope, find the address. And then you pause. You could just dash down the address, but wouldn’t it be so much more professional to word process it? in fact, wouldn’t this be a good time to learn to use labels? Absolutely: you’ve put off learning that 1980s task for long enough! Oh, the chewy satisfaction of that moment when you think you’re going to accomplish twice as much as you’d imagined…

Of course, you have no labels. Should you buy some? Maybe, but will that leave you time to mail the letter? Maybe not. Indecision, indecision, indecision. You come tentatively back to Plan A, only you’re thrown off your game, so you decide maybe today’s not the day to mail that letter after all. It’ll keep.

Next day, same resolve – only, having wasted the first letter-mailing day, you’re determined to get a jump on it. But first, a shower. And you should have a nutritious breakfast. (Wasn’t that one of last year’s resolutions?) Then you realize there’s probably a line-up at the post office, so you’d be better to wait until after lunch. But after lunch – well, how can you justify leaving the house if you haven’t accomplished anything yet?

The letter sits … and sits ….. and sits ……. and before you know it, the longest semester break in recorded history is over and you have nothing to show for it except a new PB in Angry Birds.

Novels read: 0
Papers written: 0
Moonlit skating dates: 0

Did I see the Natalie Portman movie? Oops. Did I lay in some food for the coming semester? Nope, didn’t do that either. Start an exercise regime? clean my desk? crack that grant application? No, no and no.

To be honest, readers, I have no idea what happened to the last two weeks, and for that reason alone – but if you call me on this, I will deny it – I am not unhappy to be heading back to work tomorrow, full of resolve: this year, I will own my time!

PS That letter I promised you? On its way tomorrow. Most definitely. Almost certainly.

equity · feminist win · hiring · reform

Guest Post: Pink Flyer

March 2002: We invaded.

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

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

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

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

Now comes the fun part:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

canada · faculty evaluation · openness · reform · slow academy

Thinking about what I need: Notes on the concept of ‘Slow Academy’

About a week ago we as an editorial collective wondered to one another whether or not we should worry about the slowing number of comments. Is this a dark portents? we asked each other, Or is it October? My vote was for October. (Though I did think, lord, just wait for February, that “month with rue at its heart,” as an old mentor of mine once wrote).

On Friday Aimée asked readers to think about what we need now that we’re here in the “trough of the semester” (awesome phrase! I’m co-opting it).

No one answered. Too busy? Too Friday? Too difficult, wishful, naive, hopeful, fearful, to write a list of needs?

So today I find myself reflecting on what I need, and especially what I need from this blog.

When Heather and I first spoke about her idea for a feminist academic blog based in the Canadian context she mentioned ‘slow academy.’
“As in Carlo Petrini?!” I exclaimed
Now I have to admit that my memory for exact details starts to falter here, but I’m fairly certain her reply was in the affirmative.

If you’re not familiar with Petrini, your might be familiar with his Slow Food movement. Here’s an excerpt from the book:
“Slow food seeks to catalyze a broad cultural shift away from the destructive efforts of an industrial food system and fast life; toward the regenerative cultural, ecological, social, and economic benefits of a sustainable food system, regional food traditions, the pleasures of the table, and a slower and more harmonious rhythm of life.”

When my co-conspirator mentioned slow academy I immediately started to imagine what that might mean, and I have to admit, I didn’t really get very far. But as I return to Petrini’s book in an attempt at nighttime reading that has nothing to do with last minute lecture prep (the result of which, for me, is almost always anxiety dreams involving missing class or showing up without some item of clothing or some equally transparent-yet-unnerving scenario) I find myself reinvigorated by the movement’s aim.

Notice that while the lynchpin is food, the aim is cultural change. While I would like to believe that those of us working in the academy at all levels are doing so because we want to effect some kind of positive cultural change, the fact is that is really, really difficult to feel, see, and…maybe…accomplish. You’ll notice that one of the most oft-used tags in our posts is ‘turgid institution.’ Le sigh.

So, using Petrini’s text as inspiration, here’s my attempt to start imagining what a slow academy might be trying to do; I’ve replaced ‘food’ (& a few others) with ‘academy’ (or the like):

Slow Academy seeks to catalyze a broad cultural shift away from the destructive effects of an industrial education system and fast life; toward a regenerative cultural, ecological, social, and economic benefits of a sustainable education system, regional education traditions, the pleasures of the university environment, and a slower and more harmonious rhythm of discourse.

Hmm. Not bad. What would ‘sustainable education systems’ that are built on both ‘regional education traditions’ and the ‘pleasures of the university environment’ (which I read as a site of potential multiplicitous engagement) look like?

They would certainly need reflect the people that make up this country. To do this they would also need to take into account various kinds of epistemologies, languages, learning practices, and traditions. Sustainable education systems would need to think through how the classroom is constructed, how work is evaluated, how labour is valued and remunerated. They would have to rethink hiring practices and curriculum…

In case you’re wondering, here’s how my musing about Slow Academy fits into my opening observations: despite being busy and in spite of the potential of being branded a Pollyanna writing for this blog has become a way of opening space, of creating the possibility of engaged encounter without expecting that invitation will be accepted (or, if accepted, that it will be accepted in good spirit).

Which is to say: I need the possibility of change, and a place to imagine how to effect that change (however slow, however wishful).

I need the possibility of a Slow Academy.
faculty evaluation · reform · turgid institution

Guest Post: Annual Faculty Evaluation

In addition to being the time of new school-year resolutions, September is also the time for preparing the materials relevant to our evaluation by our department and faculty. I work at a University where faculty members are evaluated on a yearly basis; the result of the evaluation process is the award of a merit increment, which translates to some monetary increment to one’s salary.

During my tenure at my University, I have had a range of feelings for this process. Sometimes it was dread, resulting from uncertainty about whether I have been “good enough” to deserve the merit increment award that would place me, at least, in the “you are doing OK” category. Yet other times, it was hope and excitement, when after a particularly good (in my opinion) year, I was confident that I deserved to be recognized as “above OK” or even, in days of particular optimism, “excellent”. And sometimes, especially after tenure and promotion, it was just bored with the process, when the toil of remembering every “contribution bit” seemed disproportionate to the meaning of the anticipated merit award and much more so to the corresponding monetary award it would imply.

So I have tried to think about how this process might be rehabilitated to be constructive and productive as opposed to a waste of time for the faculty members, who feel like they have to pad their reports with every possible “good deed” that might place them above the bar to the next increment, and for the evaluation committee, who have to pore over these materials in an effort to fairly recognize their colleagues’ contributions, as they divide the pie and doll out the necessarily meager increments.

It seems to me that this process has potentially the opportunity to do two things.

The first is to give faculty members the impetus to reflect on their agenda and to consolidate the past year’s work in an overall coherent vision. Personally, I have found this process to be “cathartic” every time I had to go through it, namely at tenure and promotion and when I had to write a substantial proposal. After each of these times, I felt a new sense of purpose in my research activities as they all were more weighty, building on a longer past work and laying the foundation for a longer term contribution, which, goes without saying, should have a higher impact potential. I think, as faculty members, we all need to believe that our work matters in that it actually contributes to our collective knowledge and it is hard to hold on to that belief if we cannot see a long line of contribution from our past, through the present, towards a future. Academy is a long-term process, not so much slow, but rather “for the long haul,” an endurance race with some sprints intertwined.

The other objective of the faculty-evaluation process should be to give the University administration the opportunity to communicate to the faculty the values for which the University stands. This is the time to recognize the contributions that the University has identified as desirable in its vision and mission statements. I do not think that there is any University that stands for “the most number of publications” and “the best teaching-evaluation scores.” Instead, most Universities profess a vision of high-impact research, high-quality productive teaching and learning, involvement with the scientific community at large, and civic engagement.

The evaluation process and its products, including any associated awards of merit increments, should be intelligent, broad and flexible enough to somehow believably reflect these values. When the process degenerates to a zero-sum game, where a money pile has to be divided in a way that corresponds to each individual faculty contributions, it becomes easier to simply come up with a quantitative formula translating the numerical entries in the individual’s submitted report (papers, grants, money, students, course evaluations) into a merit increment. But there is no vision worth envisioning simply involving the maximization of these numbers. And this oversimplification of the process leaves faculty (especially more senior ones who have invested themselves in the institution and have bought into this vision) feeling cheated when during the year they attempt to make the vision happen and, at evaluation time, what matters boils down to a few numbers.

I wish I had some practical proposal on how the process should work. I don’t. However, it seems to me that part of any reform should consider stripping the process from most (all?) numbers (that lead into oversimplification temptation), infusing it with more memory (looking at a longer time span than a year) and leaving room for more reflection (looking at the faculty members’ perceptions of their contributions).

(The writer of this post wishes to remain anonymous.)