academic work · book · research · Uncategorized · writing

Research Day

I had a research morning on Monday. This is what it looked like:

  • 8:00-8:30: Read chapter of book, make tic marks, add post-it flags
  • [take kid to bus stop, wait for bus, clomp home]
  • 9:00-9:30: free write my own ideas that flowed from reading
  • [get dressed, make coffee for Write Club, light tidying so they don’t think I’m a slob}
  • 10-10:30: answer invitation for short chapter with an abstract: this abstract is a lightly rejiggered 500 words cut and pasted from my grant application
  • [5 minute break; refresh coffee; celebrate writing with Write Club members]
  • 10:35-11:05: apply to a conference call with an abstract: this abstract is a moderately rejiggered 250 words cut and pasted from an article in progress
  • [long break! 15 minutes outside with Write Club and the dog]
  • 11:20-11:50: open three documents related to chapter 1 of my book; read them; try to cut and paste them into one document (“Chapter 1”) or into other more appropriate documents

A pretty good morning!

It’s a total goddamn mess, is what it is

However, what struck me about Monday’s research was how it felt like … cheating. Was  I really “working on Chapter 1 of my book” like I’m supposed to be? I don’t see the part where I’m really, actually, writing academically, for real. Look what I did: reading (active reading, but still), and then aimless free writing that was part notes on the book I read but mostly my reactions to it, and later, cutting and pasting from stuff I’d already written in a half-ass sort of way in a bunch of document stubs. I don’t have any formal notes on the thing that I read, and I don’t have any new good sentences for my chapter. I’m at this stage in Chapter 1 where it’s just all garbage: I’m right at the beginning, I hardly know what I’m talking about, I’m sure I’ll never produce intelligent, researched prose ever again. I feel like I’m rearranging the proverbial deck chairs on the proverbial doomed ocean liner. It feels, when I consider it, like I didn’t move anything at all forward in any way. Wwwwwwhhhhhhhhyyyyyyyyyyy.

And the conference “proposal” and the book chapter “proposal”! Those felt like cheating, too, because I wasn’t writing them from scratch, it was just more cutting and pasting, with some rejiggering. I don’t really feel like I’m allowed to say “I wrote 750 words today for a conference proposal and a book chapter pitch” because I don’t feel like I wrote them!

But this is how it gets done, I have to keep reminding myself. I’m never going to get to the “real” writing first if I don’t struggle with the secondary literature and chew it over pretty extensively. I’m never going to get the structure and content of the chapter if I don’t try to find some patterns and sense in my freewriting. I don’t have to make up brand new prose out of thin air for a conference or chapter proposal if I’ve already been doing some real writing on the topics in question. Rejiggering the prose is work, re-placing the emphasis or reframing the audience. That’s writing, in its way. I guess, though it doesn’t look like much, that this is the work. Indeed, it’s Wednesday morning, and I’m staring down more of the same: freewriting, active reading, trying to get a sense of what’s actually in all the notes and freewrites I’ve already produced over the last several months, taking formal notes on that book that is going to be so central for me. The slog. This is what it is sometimes. No brilliant insights, no pages of flowing text, no “thesis statement,” just building a beach, one grain of sand at a time.

If you’re in the slog too, bon courage. Let’s try today to remember that it ain’t pretty, but we’re getting it done. What does the slog look like for you, and how to convince yourself to keep going?


altac · careers · research

Settling In, Setting My Sights

pexels-photo-289327When I decided not to pursue the tenure-track career path, one reason was my exhaustion with upheaval and change. I’d moved a dozen times in five years, gotten married and then divorced, changed jobs and schools and houses and hairstyles and partners and was just ready to be a bit more settled. I was not interested in leaving the place I wanted to stay long-term to take a postdoc in goodness-knows-where in hopes of getting a job back home.

What can I say? I’m someone who craves routine and stability, and I love being in my 30s and able to give myself that.

And I finally have. This fall is the first since I started my Ph.D. that significant change is not on the horizon. No new degree. No dissertation defence. No personal upheaval. Just the same great job I’ve had for nearly three years, all things Ph.D. wrapped up and put away, a house and a partner and pets in a city I love, and most of my family and friends within an hour’s drive. One book (a biography of Jay Macpherson that started its life as my dissertation) under contract and another proposal (for a book on life and work after the Ph.D.) under review.

And so I’ve finally got the headspace, and the stability elsewhere in my life, to figure out what’s next. I’ve got a solid foundation on which to try new things, build new skills, branch out. I did a good job of figuring out how to be a professional and a graduate student, but I did that knowing that being a grad student had an expiry date. Now I have to figure out what a career as a researcher/writer and professional looks like, in the long term. Like Erin, I’m thinking about five and ten years plans.

I’m also thinking about the obligation of artists and writers–an umbrella that includes academics–to be political. What does that look like as a researcher who writes mostly about poets and poetry in the 1950s? What does that look like when I bring my feminism and allyship to work? What does that look like on Hook & Eye, where the personal has always been political? I have ideas, and plans, and I’m looking forward to seeing where they take me–take us.

So welcome to a new year of H&E, and to our beauty new site. We’ve got a new look, a ton of new voices, and some new projects up our sleeves. It’s good to be back.


advice · book · from dissertation to book · research · writing

From Dissertation to Book: Academic Book Publishing Resources

If you’re anything like me (and many of the PhDs I know), your first instinct when facing a problem–in this case it’s “how the hell do I get my dissertation published?”–is to research it. Me too. And I’ll save you a step! If you’re looking for helpful books, articles, and webinars on writing your book proposal and getting your manuscript published, you’ve come to the right place.





Know of any great resources that I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments!
random · research

On Being Published and Having No Idea

<!– /* Font Definitions */ @font-face {font-family:"MS 明朝"; panose-1:0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0; mso-font-charset:128; mso-generic-font-family:roman; mso-font-format:other; mso-font-pitch:fixed; mso-font-signature:1 134676480 16 0 131072 0;} @font-face {font-family:"MS 明朝"; panose-1:0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0; mso-font-charset:128; mso-generic-font-family:roman; mso-font-format:other; mso-font-pitch:fixed; mso-font-signature:1 134676480 16 0 131072 0;} /* Style Definitions */ p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal {mso-style-unhide:no; mso-style-qformat:yes; mso-style-parent:""; margin:0in; margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:12.0pt; font-family:"Times New Roman"; mso-fareast-font-family:"MS 明朝"; mso-fareast-theme-font:minor-fareast; mso-ansi-language:EN-US;} a:link, span.MsoHyperlink {mso-style-priority:99; color:blue; mso-themecolor:hyperlink; text-decoration:underline; text-underline:single;} a:visited, span.MsoHyperlinkFollowed {mso-style-noshow:yes; mso-style-priority:99; color:purple; mso-themecolor:followedhyperlink; text-decoration:underline; text-underline:single;} .MsoChpDefault {mso-style-type:export-only; mso-default-props:yes; mso-fareast-font-family:"MS 明朝"; mso-fareast-theme-font:minor-fareast; mso-ansi-language:EN-US;} @page WordSection1 {size:8.5in 11.0in; margin:1.0in 1.25in 1.0in 1.25in; mso-header-margin:35.4pt; mso-footer-margin:35.4pt; mso-paper-source:0;} div.WordSection1 {page:WordSection1;} Image via

 A few weeks ago, I couldn’t sleep. So I lay in the dark and started vanity googling myself. Now you know that I do this. I find looking at the search results for “lily cho” to be sort of vaguely interesting (how the internet sees me is not how I see me) and, mostly, stultifyingly boring. Usually, after a minutes, my eyelids are drooping (or I realize that I should just get up and make some toast).
But this latest search, in all its algorithmic idiosyncracy, turned up something I hadn’t seen before: an essay of mine published (re-published actually) in a book I did not know about. In Postcolonial Studies: An Anthology (Wiley-Blackwell, 2015), you will find my essay, “Asian Canadian Futures: Diasporic Passages and the Routes of Indenture.” This essaywas first published in Canadian Literature 199 (2008), a special issue on Asian Canadian Studies.
I blinked and thought, at first, wow, how unbelievably cool to be anthologized with so many of my postcolonial theory heroes. There I am, listed in the same table of contents as Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak (indulge me for a moment and let me be thrilled to the gills)! And then I thought, how did I miss this? I am very bad at keeping track of my own publications but this seemed like kind of a big thing to miss. But I do tend to read publishing agreements a little too quickly. I decided that I would look up the publishing agreement in the morning. It was late. I had probably just forgotten ever having any kind of conversation about this book.
I went through my inbox the next day and looked and couldn’t find anything. Of course, my inbox is messy and it was possible that there was something buried in there but I couldn’t find it even though I really tried. But I was already beginning to suspect that something kinda funny was going on. I wrote to the tirelessly awesome editor of Canadian Literature and asked if, when she had a moment, she could please poke around the journal’s files to see if anything was there. I also wrote to the editor of the anthology. I wanted to tell him how thrilled I was to be a part of the anthology and to ask if, ummm, he and I had talked about it and I had just forgotten?
The editor of the anthology wrote back right away to tell me that he agreed to edit the anthology on the condition that the publisher handle all the copyright and permissions. Fair enough. He is super lovely and we are now chatting about our projects and I am delighted to have had this chance to talk to him.
In the meantime, I told this story in a funny-ha-ha way to a friend, another postcolonialist, who wrote me right back and told me that this very thing, with this very publisher, had happened to him in 2004.
So what happened? A major international publisher invites an authority in the field to edit an anthology. This editor is brilliant (not least because he chose to include my essay!) and, rightfully, wants to focus his energies on editing and not managing the permissions process. The publisher was supposed to take care of this work. And yet, somehow, somewhere along the line, no one asked me for permission to use my essay. The anthology will be sold mainly in order to profit the publisher. And I get the genuine thrill of being in such serious company, but also a lingering sense of puzzlement about how this can happen and whether it really matters.
I also know that the process is not supposed to engender this kind of puzzlement. It’s not the first time that an essay of mine was republished. I am so proud and so completely ecstatic to be included in Roland Colama and Gordon Pon’s Asian Canadian Studies Reader (UTP, 2017). Another essay will be in the The Routledge Diaspora Studies Reader. In each of these cases, I have a clear file of correspondence where permissions were negotiated. In the case of the Routledge book, I didn’t even own the copyright but was looped into the conversation anyway.
It might be that permissions had been obtained and I have somehow missed it. Maybe all this happened between the Wiley-Blackwell and Canadian Literature. But I have a sinking feeling about that hope.
I’m so pleased and humbled to see that my work is circulating, that it is in such amazing company, and that it might help future readers sort through complex fields of study. But this experience of puzzlement leaves me with a lot of questions too. Of course, I benefit from being a part of these anthology projects. Of course, I also hope that these books will help future readers. When I was studying for my comps, anthologies like these were so useful for helping me to map the field, and for getting a sense of general trends and trajectories. But I also can’t help wondering  about a publication process where copyright and permissions are seemingly not relevant even though the finished product is not open access, not cheap, and, financially, benefits only the publisher. This experience of being unwittingly anthologized seems to be another potential part of our on-going conversations on the increasing enclosure of the intellectual commons by a handful of powerful international publishers. Or am I missing something here?
Update: This post has only been live for a few hours but I’ve already heard a lot of stories from other folks who have had this happen to them. I would love to hear more in order to write a post to follow up on this one. I promise to be discreet and respect your privacy. If my experience here is not unique, I think it’s important for us to track what’s happening and to think collectively about what to do. If you have had a similar experience and want to share please do drop me a line either in the comments or via lilycho [at] yorku [dot] ca.

Second update: Canadian Literature had a chance to check their records and it looks like they did give Wiley permission to re-publish my essay. Until now, it has not been the journal’s policy to inform the author when permission to reprint their essays are granted. Canadian Literature will be looking into changing this practice. So this is ALL good news. But the fact remains that, until we get a better system of permission in place, we will all be reduced to vanity googling in order to keep track of the circulation of our own work. 

administration · altac · careers · PhD · research

We’re Asking the Wrong Questions About PhDs – or Rather, We Aren’t Asking Them Any Questions at All

When I interviewed for my current job we got onto the topic of alumni data tracking. My program had an exit survey on their website, one that suggested they were collecting contact information and checking in with PhDs in the years after they’d left our institution to see how and what they were doing. (It turns out that no one knew the form was there, and it hadn’t been used in many years.) We then got to talking about program evaluation, one of my favourite subjects, and about how we could start assessing if the professional and career development work we were doing–if they hired me–was having any effect on the post-PhD lives of our graduate students and postdocs.
“What we don’t need to do,” I argued in the interview, “is worry about the percentage of our alumni who get jobs after they leave us. In Canada, PhDs have the highest employment rates of any educational level. We know that PhDs get jobs after they graduate. What we don’t know is how hard it is to find those jobs, how long it takes, if those jobs are fulfilling and pay well and use the skills we’ve worked to help them acquire. We don’t know if the work we do teaching people how to develop their careers and transition into new fields works. The success of our programs can only be measured by our success in helping with all of those other things, because we can’t take credit for PhD employment rates. They’re great without us.” 
That employment data wasn’t what we needed, that we had it already and it told us something promising but frustratingly incomplete, was a bit of a revelation to the people who would become my new team, just as it is to the conference panels and PhDs and graduate chairs with whom I often share this bit of information. It shouldn’t be a surprise–this is Statistics Canada data, after all, there for anyone to find and analyze (and, with the reinstatement of the long form census, being collected once again). But my organization is clearly not the only one to still think that employment data is the place we need to start in understanding the lives of our PhD alumni and the value of our programs, academic and otherwise. As Gary McDowell writes in Science this week, higher ed is still furiously mining for what he calls the fool’s gold of PhD employment data. And what they find is fool’s gold not only because it doesn’t have much value, but also because it looks shiny but is tarnished at heart. In the US, the Survey of Earned Doctorates and Survey of Doctorate Recipients stands in for the StatsCan data that we tend to use up here, and like the StatsCan data, it tells us only so much. It tells us that PhDs are employed, and roughly where. But it doesn’t tell us anything about the quality or nature of employment that PhDs are finding, and that is ultimately what we really need to know. 
As an alternative to census data, the other popular approach at the moment is the old “let’s Google it,” and that’s the approach taken by HEQCO,* the Chronicle Vitae Academic Job Tracker project, and the American Historical Association. It’s not a bad approach when done carefully and well, as it at least does allow us to see what specific jobs people in different disciplines are ending up and, if we have things like CV data, the path they took to get there. The better studies, like the AHA and Chronicle Vitae projects (both, not coincidentally, run by Lilli Research Group), limit their Googling to sources that are arguably accurate and verifiable.** But people lie on the internet all the time, or job titles are misleading (is that Assistant Professorship a visiting or a tenure-track one? No way to know from your vague university bio, and no one has bothered to ask you), or people just can’t be found (this is especially true for people who move into non-academic employment).
And these data-collection exercises for the most part still don’t tell us what we really need to know (or at least what I really want to know): What kind–in qualitative terms–of employment are PhDs finding? What was it like finding a job? How long did it take? How much did you make in that first job? Did it use the skills you gained in your PhD? How long did it take you to get your first raise? To get promoted? Did you do any career development workshops in your PhD? Did they make you feel more confident in embarking on your post-degree job search? What is your employer’s perspective on hiring PhDs? And for those of us who work in graduate careers, professional development, support, graduate program reform: is our work doing anything? Are we helping people minimize the transition time between PhD and enjoyable, valuable employment that makes use of their skills? Are we reducing the emotional whiplash of being thrust out of the academy and into the non-academic working world? Do people feel confident in their ability to identify and deploy the skills they’ve learned in the classroom and the lab, in our seminars and in their own work to broaden and deepen their skill-sets? Are we doing anything at all? The TRaCE project running out of McGill University is taking steps in this direction, but major issues have already been raised with the validity of its approach and the data that comes out of it.*** 
The problem with seeking answers to these questions is the difficulty of reaching those who can answer them, and then making sense of those answers. Googling someone is easy. Reaching them by email or phone to ask those questions we want answered is far harder. It takes person-power and time and more money than any of us as individual organizations have. It also takes the buy-in of our PhDs, sometimes long after they’ve left our organizations, and that’s the place where these exercises often fail. Figuring out a baseline against which to measure our efforts is perhaps just as difficult–how hard was it to find a good post-PhD job before we started offering graduate career development programs? Did our PhDs find good jobs faster after we launched that internship program? How do we qualify or quantify what “easier” or “better” or “better aligned to my skills” looks like? How do we adjust for the fact that PhDs and postdocs, who are underpaid and undervalued during their training, might think a first job a godsend that years later seems like ill-fitting, underpaid grunt-work?
We don’t need more employment data. Quantitative data is not what we need. Perhaps my humanist is showing, despite the fact that I now work almost exclusively with STEM researchers, but this is a qualitative research problem. What we do need is contact information and to talk to our PhD holders–actually talk to them, systematically and en masse so that our data is comprehensive and valid and comparable against that useful but incomplete quantitative data–and ask them those questions I noted above. I wish someone had called me up and asked me these a couple of years after I took my first post-PhD job. I could have told them a lot. Instead, I use my experience–and that of the PhDs I talk to, every day, at work and online–to try to do more, and do better. Still, that’s anecdote, not data. We’re never going to be able to do our best in helping PhDs to find well-paying, engaging places to put their knowledge and skills to work in the world if we don’t start asking a whole lot of people the right questions. And start figuring out how to do that in a way that’s sustainable.
I’m in the midst of scoping out just this kind of project to be undertaken by the centre in which I work, and we’re hopeful that, if we’re smart and careful, we can come up with a model for PhD data collection that goes beyond the quantitative, and that uses qualitative data and its analysis not just to inform the work we do locally, but also to inform real change in how we go about the business of graduate and postdoctoral training more broadly. It’s early days yet, but stay tuned.
* For a useful take on the major issues with the HEQCO report, see Melonie Fullick’s Speculative Diction post. Her post on the Conference Board of Canada report, which contains the most comprehensive analysis of PhD employment data collected via the Canadian census, is also interesting and illuminating. 
** Researchers at the University of Ottawa are also doing some interesting work with alumni records and tax data that looks promising in terms of answering the money part of these questions, but that again only gives us part of the picture. 
*** For a thorough critique of the TRaCE project, I direct you once again to Melonie Fullick
best laid plans · enter the confessional · research · writing

I need a dissertation supervisor

I am stuck on my writing. Stuck, stuck, stuck, full of despair and overwhelmed. It’s not getting my bum in the seat that’s the problem, it’s not finding the time. It’s not that I’m not writing, even. I’ve done a lot of research (and have the Zotero to prove it! And oodles of reading notes from teaching a grad class on the topic!) I have documents and documents of free writing, idea testing, blog posts, conference papers, and more on the topic, already filed in their own folder. There’s probably somewhere between 80-100 pages of writing and notes already committed to bits for what I imagine as a 40 page chapter. But I’m stuck. Every document I open, I stare at helplessly: I have both too much and too little and every thread I grab at just seems to snarl into a giant knot, or unravel the entire scholarly garment I’m trying so hard to knit together.

I have cut documents into pieces and taped them together. I have reverse outlined. I have done yet more freewriting. I have organized my references. I have tried to read what I already have. Stuck.

You know what I need? I need a dissertation supervisor. But I already have a PhD and I’m not sure what professors do in this situation.

I’ve spent much of the summer being the supervisor that I need, with two MA projects completed, two full dissertation drafts assessed and commented on, two dissertating students producing first drafts of chapters that I find myself perfectly well able to help them improve.

I actually really enjoy that. I enjoy reading big first drafts, I love finding the path hidden under the bushes, the one sentence that captures the whole thing, buried in the middle of a paragraph on page 12. I love giving people the feedback that helps them see the forest when they’re overwhelmed with trees. Just the other day, I suggested to one student that she might be writing a completely different dissertation than she planned and then we got so much done thinking about what she was actually doing that I had to go home after and have a nap.

But here I am, circling the drain in my writing. All trees, no forest. A bunch of great ideas and great examples and close reading and theoretical frames …. but no forward momentum, no aha moment, nothing.

I need a dissertation supervisor.

Long suffering excellent listener and person I’m married to suggested I trick myself into being my own supervisor. “Look,” he said, “If your student came to you with this ‘draft’, what would you tell them?” And I knew what to tell them, and so I told him what I would say, but it’s not the same.

My writing lately feels very lonely and overwhelming. I’m always telling my students that one of the reasons having a supervisor read early and many versions of their writing is so that another intelligent human being can tell them it’s going to be okay, that they have good ideas, that it will all sort itself out, and here’s a first step to take. I mean, I can’t really do that part of it for myself.

So my question is this: those of you who are professors, who have the PhD, who no longer have a dissertation supervisor, what do you do? Do you just not get stuck like this? Do you have friends you lean on to help you? Can I pay someone to help me with this? What do I do? It’s not good that I’m finding myself jealous of my own students, because they have someone to help them! I want to move forward with all this writing, but the book-length project is something I’m really finding I have trouble managing at scale. All trees, no forest.

#post-ac · administration · change · dissertation · flexible academic · grad school · PhD · possibility · research · research planning · September · writing

Firsts and Lasts

This post marks a big last and a significant first for me. While I’ve been Hook & Eye’s de-facto alt-ac voice for the last few years, I’ve also continued, along with Boyda and Jana, to write about the trials and tribulations of grad school. My last trial–the big one, the defense–is happening tomorrow, and so this is my last post as a graduate student.

It’s been a long road since my “I quit” post back in the fall of 2013, when I took my first full-time academic administrative job. I’m in a different job now, one that has given me the time and mental space I needed to finish my dissertation. After a long period of uncertainty about the value of finishing my PhD, I’m still having a hard time believing that I’ve done it. I’m nervous about tomorrow, despite the many reassurances of friends and committee members. I spend most of my time developing professional skills curriculum, administering research funding, and writing policy, not reading theory or publishing articles. In doing my job, I’ve learned how to explain my research to people far outside my field. I’ve learned to feel confident walking into a room and sharing what I know regardless of who is in it. I’ve learned to identify what my research can tell us about the persistent gendered inequalities of Canadian academic and literary communities and how we might address them. But I’m nervous about being questioned by a room full of people who are full-time academics, who swim in those intellectual currents in a way that I no longer do. I’m also looking forward to spending time talking about a project that I care deeply about with smart people who care about my work, and about me. Now that the day is almost here, that alone seems like a pretty great reason to have committed to finishing my dissertation. The added credibility I’ll have at work is a nice bonus.

My defense tomorrow also means that this fall is a first for me.  It’s the first fall since I was four years old that I’m not going back to school. If I wasn’t already three years down a career path that I anticipate staying on, I might find facing this new beginning scary. But I went through the difficult transition that many PhDs who move into alt-ac and post-ac careers face back when I took my first administrative job. I’m instead looking forward to this first fall, and the year that follows, as a time to experiment with what life as a scholar-administrator could look like now that I can shape my research trajectory however I please.

I’m not really a new breed of researcher, although it sometimes feels like I am. Ever since the academy began producing more PhDs than it could employ–since always, basically–there have been those of us who have moved outside of the professoriate and yet continued to pursue research. The increasing casualization of the professoriate means that there are fewer and fewer people whose job it is to research, and more and more people like me who pursue research but make our money in other ways. We have the desire, the expertise, and the time to remain active researchers while we work in other careers. There’s great freedom in that, for the quest for tenure and grant funding as often blights research creativity and experimentation as it enhances it. I’m going to be using the blog this year to write through the process of crafting a research practice outside of the professoriate. At the same time, I’ll be writing through the process of crafting a life that makes space for multiple identities as administrator, researcher, creative writer, consultant, editor, cook, partner, and more.

Later this month I’ll be starting a new series of posts on transforming my dissertation into a book and live-blogging the process of getting it published. I’ll be continuing the alt-ac 101 series for people who are looking to move into non-professorial jobs or who advise people who are. I’ll also be writing about equity issues in and out of the academy, especially those relating to graduate studies and postdoctoral work. I’m also going to practice what I preach to my students about working to share our research beyond the bounds of the academy by blogging about my dissertation, especially the parts that look at gender bias and rape culture in Canadian literary and academic communities in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.

If you’ve just found us, welcome! And if you’re an old friend, welcome back. It’s good to be back here with you.

family · grad school · PhD · research · role models · women · writing

Reading (Through) the Mothers

I do most of my writing in a room in my house we call the library, a room that used to hold something like five thousand books–on shelves, in piles on the floor, tucked under the yellow Danish chair that never got used. Very many of those books were written by, or about, the women I consider my literary mothers, poets and novelists and theorists. They were all bought, or written by, or gifted to one of my actual mothers, my husband’s mother, who was the Canadian academic-translator-editor Barbara Godard. Very many of those books were gifted a few years ago to the university to which we both belonged, but many others still line the walls as I write, or come down to share something with me when I need to hear a critical voice that’s not my own.

I’m currently reading and writing my way through the grouping of poems that Jay Macpherson wrote to submit to the E.J. Pratt Poetry Prize when she was in her Master’s degree, poems that she would turn into O Earth Return: A Speculum for Fallen Women, and then into her Governor General’s Award-winning collection The Boatman. Macpherson had been spending a lot of time in rooms very different from my library full of women–in Robert Graves’s studio, where women and women writers were relegated to the position of Muse, and in Northrop Frye’s office, where his library shelves were stocked with very male canon-fodder–and she began to wonder where in those rooms she fit, where she might find the missing mothers she needed as a young woman writer. So she went out to find them, which she did, as I do, through reading and writing them. She found one in Eve, “the mother of all living” (“Eve in Reflection”), and another in the Queen of Sheba. She found others in the myths of Sibylla, Eurynome, Andromeda. But what she also found was that her mothers were in a double bind. In the literature and myth she so loved, women were the object, always subsumed under the male gaze and secondary to the plot of the male story. They only became women in and of themselves after they had fallen, after they had transgressed and been cast off. Then, and only then, in developing a self-consciousness that set them apart from their male creators–as Eve with her apple did from God and Adam–did they have an identity of their own.

So, Macpherson let them fall. And found her mothers, who had been hidden in the canonical texts she loved all along. She also found herself as a writer, not as Graves’s Muse, or as Frye’s disciple, or as a writer bound by the strictures of the canon, but as someone who could freely play with the stories she loved, turning them inside out and upside down in order to see how they fit together, to see how she fit into them, and they into her, however uncomfortably: You fit into me/like a hook into an eye//a fish hook/an open eye. Her poems are full of mirrors and reflections, women drowned and women watching images of themselves wavering on the water. As Barbara wrote in an essay about one of Macpherson’s best friends and poetic daughters, Margaret Atwood, “in paradises of art, grounded in but limited by the issue of gender, we write/weave our mirror doubles, men or women as the case may be, into eternity.” In her early poems, Macpherson wrote to weave her mirror doubles–her fallen women, her personal goddesses–into eternity. Macpherson is one of my fallen women–fallen out of the canon, fallen from critical favour–and now I write to weave her back into the story of the creation of that thing we call Canadian literature. I write to give her a story of her own that isn’t a subplot in a narrative about the canonical men–Frye, Graves, George Johnston, Hans Jonas–who have been credited with shaping hers.

As I sit on my sofa reading words that “the mom,” as my husband Alexis calls her, wrote back in 1987, my reading is mirrored, doubled. I sit reading an article Barbara wrote in the space where the words I read were written. I am reading Macpherson through Atwood through Godard. I am sitting on the sofa with the man who was, in my imagination of one of those days in 1987, downstairs making himself an after-school snack while his mother sat upstairs writing the words I am reading, a hungry twelve year old who now often reminds me to eat because he knows hangry when he sees it. I am finishing a dissertation on Canadian literature in a house that used to be home to one of the people who made doing that possible, who forced English departments like the one we both called home to teach the literature of our country, to recognize it as a legitimate subject of inquiry, to put writers like Macpherson on the syllabus and the comprehensive exams. I think about what it must have been like to do this work–the writing, the reading, the advocacy–as a mostly single parent with a growing son, what sacrifices that must have required of both of them, what sacrifices I don’t have to make because Alexis is grown and because we don’t have children of our own and because Barbara and my other mothers made them before me. And I recognize that because of Barbara and Jay, the mothers who came before me, I don’t have to go looking for my academic and writerly mothers–they’re here, in the room, on the shelves, and with me as I write.

Photo credit: James Gillespie. 

#alt-ac · administration · banting · change · equity · research · scholarships

The Challenge of Challenging Unconscious Bias

I talk more about the professional and career development parts of my job here than I do the research funding part, mostly because the PD and careers stuff seems like it would be more useful to more readers. It also tends to be more political, and that’s what we often like to focus on. But research funding administration takes up a good chunk of my time at work, although less now than it used to, and it’s just as political as the state of the academic job market. Because I’m running fewer funding competitions now that I’m at a smaller institution, I’ve got more time to think about the issues with the way that research funding gets applied for and distributed, and to focus on improving our processes and documentation, both for the people applying for awards (graduate students and postdocs) and for the people supporting applicants (their current and former professors and supervisors).

A big chunk of the time I spend in every funding competition is reviewing applications–to make sure people are applying to the right Tri-Council agency, for completeness, to help the students and postdocs I work with to develop their applications and make them more competitive. In consequence, I read a lot of reference letters in a year–easily a couple of thousand. Given how necessary and ubiquitous reference letters are in academia–for funding and admission applications, for tenure and promotion, for job applications–I had never read any, at least of the ones written about me, before I started working in admin. That’s pretty normal, I should think, given that letters of reference are supposed to be confidential. It’s been enlightening to get to read not just a few, but a glut of them. Mostly, though, in terms of how bad some of them were. And not just bad, but so, so biased.

If you were to walk past my office during an intensive application review session, you’d hear a lot of groans and the occasional derisive shout. And those mostly come when I’m reading the letters written for women. If women scholarship, fellowship, and job applicants knew how biased their letters were, they’d be horrified. So too would the letter writers be, given that these letters are largely the result of unconscious bias. And it’s not that the referees are reluctantly writing so-so letters for so-so applicants. These are great applicants with mostly good letters that are completely undercut by unconscious bias–by noting that X manages to be an excellent researcher despite having three kids at home; that Y is nice, polite, and compassionate; that Z is very nurturing toward her supervisees. Want to know how referees tend to talk about these qualities in a man? A is an exceptional and innovative researcher. B’s collegiality allows him to set up and effectively manage productive research collaborations. C is an exceptional mentor whose support has allowed xx students to take up graduate positions at research-intensive universities. Men get more glowing adjectives too–superb versus good, outstanding versus competent–and are less likely to have their accomplishments undercut by hedging or faint praise.

Since I mostly work with grad students and postdocs, I see how unconscious bias works early in the pipeline to keep women from securing the research funding–or admission to a top-notch graduate program–they need to get their research careers off on the right foot. But the problem if anything gets worse as women progress through their careers. We all remember what happened with the CERC program (one of the impetuses behind the start of Hook & Eye)–not a single woman was awarded one in the first round of distributing these super Canada Research Chairs, and as of right now, only two of the twenty-four chairs are held by women. The CERC equity practices are mostly a joke, but the Canada Research Chairs program is doing a little better. They’ve gone so far as to add a big section to their “Letters of Reference” instructions to address the issue of unconscious bias, and to direct letter writers on how to avoid it.

I’ve adapted their language for application instructions attached to the scholarship and fellowship competitions I run, but I know very well that doing so is not nearly enough (not the least because it is very difficult to get faculty to read more than they absolutely have to, never mind act on it). I see unconscious bias at work every day, but how do I, as a research administrator, do something about it? How do I help my students and postdocs get themselves good letters, knowing that they’ll never get to see the letters and judge for themselves? How do I teach their referees how to overcome unconscious bias when they’re writing? How do I tell senior faculty and scientists that they’re exhibiting unconscious bias without pissing them off or making them feel defensive? Figuring out how to tackle these problems–to do what little I can to challenge systemic sexism with what little power I have–is so necessary and so hard. I do what I can–I call my students and postdocs attention to it, I put directions on how to avoid explicit bias in writing for referees and ask them to read it, I advocate to the Tri-Council funding agencies that they put anti-bias practices and guidelines in place (although the ones that already exist are mostly useless), I call the attention of the adjudication committees I work with to instances of unconscious bias when they’re assessing applications. It’s something, but the problem is enormous, especially considering that the unconscious bias that shows up in reference letters is the same unconscious bias that has infected the CERC program, is the same unconscious bias that skews teaching evaluations.

But I want to, and need to, do more. Because we all know that there are exceptional women who should have gotten that scholarship, should have gotten into that graduate program, should have gotten that job, should have gotten tenure, should have gotten that chairship, but didn’t because her smarts, capability, and excellence were undercut by unconscious bias. Any thoughts, dear readers, on what else I (and we) can do in the work we do every day?

academic work · advice · collaboration · global academy · research

How to: Manage a Distance Research Collaboration

Since the beginning of my PhD, I’ve worked on a number of long-term, long-distance research projects with people in France, India, Nova Scotia, British Columbia, and the UK. I’ve gotten pretty good at scheduling meetings across time zones and finding ways to share documents and ideas with people on opposite sides of the planet. Given the increasingly interdisciplinary and international focus of academic research, I’m betting that at some point you’ll find yourself wanting to collaborate with someone who is just getting up when you’re going to bed, and those collaborations function rather differently than those with the folks in the office down the hall. So you don’t have to figure out from scratch how to successfully pursue research or other projects with people from away, here’s what I’ve learned that can make your life easier:

  1. Figure out what blocks of time in each of your time zones conveniently overlap, and use those blocks as your default meeting times. I know my lunch hour in Toronto is the end of the work day in London, and so my UK-based collaborator and I tend to schedule our meetings then. It saves us from having to figure out a time that suits both of us every time we need to meet. I also keep this bookmarked:
  2. Make use of free communication technology. Skype is your friend, as is Google chat. Email is useful, but I find that the best long-distance collaborations are nurtured with lots of less-formal conversation. If you can’t meet for coffee to talk shop, or pop into one another’s offices in the middle of the afternoon, try to replicate that experience online. I also advise using methods of communication that automatically capture a record of the conversation for you–Google chat does this, as does the SMS backup app I use to save all of my text messages to my email account, where they’re searchable. 
  3. Keep your documents somewhere central and easily accessible. I don’t know how I survived before the advent of Google Drive. I have a separate shared project folder for each of my current ongoing research collaborations, and everything lives there. We all appreciate being able to see who was the last to edit a file, precisely what edits those were, and exactly what collateral we have on hand at all times. I certainly appreciate not having my inbox clogged with huge attachments, and knowing that we’re all always working from the most up-to-date files. 
  4. Set deliverables and a follow-up plan at the end of every meeting. This is good practice for real-world meetings too, but it’s especially important in distance collaborations to make sure that everyone knows what needs to be done (and by when) at the end of every meeting, and when the next meeting will be (if one is necessary). If you know that your urgent 8:00 am email to your collaborator isn’t going to get read until she wakes up 10 hours later, it becomes extra important to ensure that expectations, deliverables, and timelines are clear when you already have her on the other end of the Skype call. 
  5. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Long-distance collaborations already have physical distance built in, and that physical distance can turn into mental distance and misunderstandings all too easily. Add the potential issues with cross-cultural communication–and this can be differences in institutional culture, not just broader regional or national culture–and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. It’s incredibly important to make sure that you’re all understanding terms in the same way, that your research goals and plans are clearly and regularly articulated, and that channels of communication are open. 
  6. Make plans to occasionally meet in person, if at all possible. Despite working with collaborators as far away as India, I’ve managed to meet up with my research partners at least once during each project, most often at a conference we were all attending. It is incredibly helpful, and incredibly invigorating, to spend some time talking and working together, even if just for a few hours.
  7. Let someone be in charge. It’s particularly important, when working remotely, to be clear about who is responsible for what, and to have someone taking the lead on the project (or certain aspects of it). Ensure that responsibility is clearly assigned, and that divisions of labour are clearly understood, or else you’ll spend your time worrying about if you were supposed to do that thing, or waiting for your collaborator (for whom it’s the middle of the night) to confirm that he’s doing whatever it is. 

What about you, dear readers? Any tips and tricks for successfully negotating long-distance research collaborations?