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?

academic reorganization · community · guest post · research

Guest Post: Nowheretown

I remember the day I ran into my PhD advisor from York University at a conference and told her how much I had loved my first year at Mount Allison University. She wrinkled her nose and said “really?” before looking away and changing the topic. I felt pretty small in that moment, and maybe even a little ashamed for so enthusiastically endorsing my time at a tiny, teaching-focused undergraduate institution in a small Maritime town. I had, it seemed, ungratefully discarded the promise (my promise!) of a PhD in cutting-edge urban theory in the centre of the known universe.
Four years and a series of contracts later, I’m now on the tenure track at Mount A and looking at spending the rest of my academic career as a feminist urban geographer in a town of 6000.* This irony is remarked upon regularly by colleagues, and I see the scepticism in the eyes of those who squint in confusion at the institution on my conference name tags. And there is something to this: not only am I far from my research sites, I’m a long way from the acknowledged hotspots of contemporary urban research and theory making. I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when I was asked to review a proposal for a new collection of Canadian urban scholarship. It had clearly been put together by folks I knew well in just such a powerful hotspot, but I was not an invited contributor. Ouch. I decided to blow my honorarium on a nice bottle of scotch.
Luckily, neither the feeling of smallness nor the sting of exclusion lasted long. There was work to do, and refreshingly, it had very little to do with reading or citing or responding to the so-called cutting edge. Instead, I collaborated with feminist colleagues on two conference CFPs that push my thinking in new directions. I worked on a paper I’ve nicknamed the “Dr. Who” article for its oddball references to time travel and timespaces. I analyzed the data from a collective project on joy. And I started the second iteration of a seminar on ecofeminism with an amazing group of enthusiastic undergrads. In short, I had a lot of fun while doing nothing that fit the mould set for me by my graduate training.
So this is my ode to the edges, to working from a place that everybody knows is nowhere.** There is a lot of freedom here to pursue wacky, “queer,” unexpected ideas and projects – in other words, to be genuinely curious. No one is policing my choice of theory, frowning at my teaching topics, or telling me which journals to publish in. This is a rarely acknowledged benefit of being beyond the gravitational pull of the theory-stars in one’s discipline. I realize that it’s easier to take advantage of this freedom if you have secure(ish) employment, and that actually living in a place like Sackville is more comfortable when you have certain privileges. Despite those caveats, it might still be possible to meander over to the intellectual edges from time to time without sinking your career. Go to that slightly-odd sounding conference panel instead of the “big name” talk. Find out what people are working on at smaller universities. Read and cite the work of emerging academics (and non-academics). And whenever possible, let curiosity chart the course.

Mount Allison University
* My PhD advisor is, for the record, very happy for me now.

** “Everybody knows this is nowhere” was the slogan for Sappyfest 7 (2012), an annual indie music festival in Sackville, New Brunswick.
dissertation · grad school · PhD · reflection · research

Research (i.e. Exploring the Unknown)

Over the last week I’ve been rewriting my proposal, which was approved a little less than a year ago. I’m updating it for a fellowship application, and I find that the more I work on it, the more there is to do. It’s almost guaranteed that I won’t receive this very prestigious fellowship, so on the one hand,  this is a massive time-suck that is dragging me away from my second chapter; but on the other, it’s been a hugely valuable exercise in regaining perspective of the whole, strengthening my overall argument, and recognizing how much my project has changed for the better.

The work we do, the papers we write, the talks we give, are living things; or at least they should be. As such we should allow them to shift and evolve over time, speaking to us as we speak to them, engaging us in conversation. I was always told my actual dissertation would not match my proposal, but I was skeptical; my proposal took me about six months to write because my mentor wanted very detailed chapter summaries. Once all that was done, I thought, perhaps, things were set <!– /* Font Definitions */ @font-face {font-family:Cambria; panose-1:2 4 5 3 5 4 6 3 2 4; mso-font-charset:0; mso-generic-font-family:auto; mso-font-pitch:variable; mso-font-signature:3 0 0 0 1 0;} @font-face {font-family:"MS ??"; panose-1:0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0; mso-font-alt:"MS Mincho"; mso-font-charset:128; mso-generic-font-family:auto; mso-font-format:other; mso-font-pitch:variable; 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:Cambria; mso-fareast-font-family:"MS ??"; mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";} .MsoChpDefault {mso-style-type:export-only; mso-default-props:yes; font-size:10.0pt; mso-ansi-font-size:10.0pt; mso-bidi-font-size:10.0pt; mso-fareast-font-family:"MS ??";} @page WordSection1 {size:8.5in 11.0in; margin:1.0in 1.25in 1.0in 1.25in; mso-header-margin:.5in; mso-footer-margin:.5in; mso-paper-source:0;} div.WordSection1 {page:WordSection1;} —more time spent on the proposal means less time on the dissertation, right? Maybe not. In the months following the proposal, as I came to realize how understudied these strange medieval dream interpretation texts are, a small subsection of what was meant to be my Introduction sprouted out into my first chapter. And then, a few months later, one subsection of that chapter suddenly emerged and asserted itself as chapter two. So my first and second chapters originally comprised only one small section of my Introduction. Chapter three was originally going to be chapter one, chapter four was chapter two, chapter five was chapter three, and I had a fourth chapter that no longer exists. Also, if you look at the word chapter for long enough, it becomes really weird.

None of these changes, all of which have strengthened and enriched my project, would have happened if I hadn’t given myself room to explore the unknown, if I hadn’t been patient with myself and approached my material with humility and curiosity even after I had conducted so much research for the proposal. I don’t think I will ever be confident in my understanding of the Middle Ages. But in one paradoxically empowering sense, I don’t think I should be, or I may lose the ability to allow the texts to speak to me, to reach forward and touch me in sometimes startling ways from the vast unknown that is the past. My friend Zach Hines has written a wonderful post * about the slow scholarship movement in academia (which takes its cue from the slow food movement): slow scholarship, he writes, is “about being aware of the ways in which the layers of meaning associated with objects and texts change as we re-curate and re-translate the past for new and different audiences.” It is about observing and listening to what the objects we study say to us at different points in our lives before we form our own opinions, and it is, as one scholar Zach cites puts it, about “unlearn[ing] things thought of as certainties.” It’s about letting our projects grow and evolve as they speak back to us, as they engage us in conversation.

In fact, in my work I argue that this kind of humble, receptive attitude is exactly what the literary dream visions I’m studying demand of me: in Geoffrey Chaucer’s House of Fame, for example, the dreamer (Geffrey), whose narration guides the reader along, travels through the bizarre, kaleidoscopic landscape of his dream with an attitude of wonder and questioning causing some scholars to view him as dense or dull, but I think this attitude overlooks his crucial role as a model for the reader’s own engagement with the text. There’s a reason the first part of my (new, of course) dissertation title is “Immersive Reading.”

This humble and receptive treatment of the past is also how I approach my classroom: I don’t work out a full semester reading syllabus for my Composition course at the beginning, because I believe in feeling out the class and listening for the students’ particular needs, strengths, and weaknesses (but of course I am sure to distribute the reading schedule for each unit well ahead of time).** Near the beginning of the semester, I employ Kenneth Burke’s well-known “parlor” metaphor for life as a touchstone for how we approach texts and in-class discussions. If you are unfamiliar with this metaphor, here’s a selection:

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about….You listen for awhile, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar.

(The Philosophy of Literary Form

While I must say that the other people engaged in conversation do seem a tad rude, and if you continue reading, the metaphor takes a turn for the bleak (“the discussion is interminable”), in my class this metaphor becomes a model for how we engage with the world and the texts around us. For example, when we do peer review workshops of paper drafts, I have the students write out a full summary of the paper they’re reviewing, immersing themselves in the ideas presented to them, before they activate their own critical thinking machinery and ‘put in their oars.’

So I will continue to assume Geffrey’s bewildered but fascinated attitude as I reach toward the past and engage with the present, and I will continue to allow myself and my ideas and projects to evolve organically (I didn’t even really know what I wanted to say when I started writing this! How’s that for meta.). Within a reasonable amount of time, of course, and recognizing that there are certain finite limitations on how drastically one’s work can change. Like, at some point I just need to get this chapter draft sent off.


*I wrote this before Part II came out, which you can find here.
**I’m aware this is a luxury afforded to Comp classes in particular; I doubt I could/should exercise such flexibility with a literature course.

best laid plans · research · research planning · saving my sanity · writing

Your Five Year Research Plan: Guest Post

This is a guest post from frequent Hook and Eye commenter, prolific scholar, and all round awesome person Julie Rak, Professor, Dept. of English and Film Studies, University of Alberta. Thanks so much to Julie for sharing her insight with us, and also (urp) for her tremendous patience as I dilly-dallied getting this posted. This post really resonated with me, and while it’s pitched to the professoriate, there’s something useful in thinking through a graduate degree as a five year plan, too.

And so on to Julie …

As a reader of Hook and Eye, I am interested in how people newer to the profession than I am think about their work lives. A quick scan of the keywords for different Hook and Eye entries recently showed me something interesting in this regard. There are no keywords for “research planning.” There’s a post about “planners” and quite a few about work-life balance (see “best-laid plans” and the popular “saving my sanity”). There’s a few more about conference papers and writing. But there’s not so much about research life or about planning it for the long term. So, I thought that I’d write something about adapting that time-honoured radical socialist approach to facilitating change, the five year plan as imagined by Trotsky, for your research.

Having a plan is a good plan 

No matter whether you are a graduate student or a full professor in the postsecondary system, you should have a long-term plan for your research career. It’s a central aspect to becoming a professional, and it’s something that we should keep on doing, throughout our careers. Otherwise, we live in a state of anxiety (omiGOD how am I going to get this essay/conference paper/grant/thesis/book/ANYTHING done) and we become reactive with regards to our careers, rather than proactive. We start responding to what others want (or what we imagine they want) and not to what we actually need or can reasonably achieve. I would say that this is particularly true for female academics, who often are asked to take up tasks for the good of a group or community. In short, we are asked to give to others because we are women, and because we are women, it can be hard to say no to the requests or demands of others. Planning is essential as you move through each stage of your research career arc so that you are not just reacting to what others want.

Since many of us came into the academy because we love research, planning for what we love can give us a measure of power and autonomy in our lives. It can help us make informed decisions about our careers. When you’re a student, other people make plans for you, and you respond to them. But when you stop being a student and start being a scholar, you’re in the driver’s seat of your research life and the course you set is your own. This can be intimidating, particularly as you move from one stage of your career to another.

I am a bit of a magpie as a scholar. I get interested in a lot of shiny objects (or ideas) and I want to pursue all of them. But realistically, I can’t. It also turns out that as you become more senior in academic life, you are asked to do more. It’s hard not to say “yes” just because you are asked. This past year, I did say “yes” to too much, and I ran out of steam. So in March 2014, I sat down and did a five year research plan to see where I was at and what I should do.

A five year plan 

Here’s what I did for my recent plan. I listed these areas:

  • Research Goals 
  • Current Projects 
  • Results (Books, Edited Books, Conferences, essays, conference papers, grants, public talks) 
  • Timeline, by year (2014-2019) 

My research goals are all the things I want to do by 2019. They range from the immediate (finish a conference paper), to the extended (write an article per year) to the long-term (run a kickass international research project). Then I listed all my current projects, whether they are large or small. That was an eye-opener. Some projects have nothing to do with my goals. What the heck am I doing them for? No wonder I am overwhelmed! I assigned priorities for my projects in light of what my goals are.

Then I made a Results list and keyed it to my Projects. That was interesting too: I could see that my work tends to cluster at certain times, probably because I say “yes” to too much. I could see too that I am prone to agreeing to do some things which, given my larger goals, maybe I shouldn’t. If I do agree to something, I should make sure that it’s in line with my goals and current projects.

I keyed that projects list to my timeline. I have a lot of things wrapping up in 2014, as it turns out. By 2017, I don’t have a lot there. I could tell from the timeline that I tend to react to opportunities and not plan for them. And I am very optimistic about how long it takes to do a project.

As I moved things around to make my life look less hectic, I thought about the latter years of the plan. What long-term things do I really want to do? What do I need to have in place in order to realize my goals? When I started listing what my desires really were and keying in how to plan for them, I learned a lot about what kind of research I want to do at this stage in my career. And, for the first time in awhile, I didn’t feel overwhelmed. I could see what I should prioritize, and what I should just let go. I realized that I don’t have to do everything all at once. For a type-A person like me, that’s a big relief.

Doing a plan like this shouldn’t be another occasion for guilt. We are all going to be surprised by opportunities in our work lives, so it’s a good idea to go back and review goals, shuffle priorities and revise the plan from time to time. In a few months, I’ll look at my plan again and see where I’m at with it.

Control what you can control 

Whether we have permanent academic jobs or want them, one of the features of academic life is that we have a lot of control over what we decide to do as researchers and how we’re going to do it (this is what we really learn to do in graduate school). But one of the trickiest things about working in the postsecondary system is that aspects of that control are in fact given to others. We can propose a research goal, create a plan and apply to SSHRC, NEH or NSERC for the money, but we don’t have control over whether we get the funding or not. We can submit a paper to the best journal in our field, but we can’t control how long it takes to receive a decision, or what the decision will be.

Having a research plan means that we do get control over what it is possible to control. When we are successful, it feels great. When we’re not, at least planning means that we can choose another path and learn from what happened. Our sense of self-worth does not have to be keyed to how successful we are, but to how we are working to realize our goals. And no matter what, the decisions we make can be in line with what our values are, and what kind of people we want to be, at work and in the other parts of our lives.

advice · research · saving my sanity · writing

20 Minute Workout: Keep writing, and the ideas will come

I’m giving the opening keynote at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute on June 2. I’ve been working on it for a year. It’s not done yet. And by “not done,” I mean, I have in the document titled DHSI_Keynote about 5000 words of fuzzy non-sequiturs and wild claims. I also have a bunch (like 10 or 11) 200-300 word document stubs with evocative titles and one snappy paragraph. And that’s it. Don’t believe me? Allow me to excerpt the draft in progress. Sample wild claim: “Is DH like bronies? Trampling the 8 year old girls in the name of spurious revolution?” Sample non sequitur: “I’m more the engineering model. More the know your history model. Rules help us all enjoy the game more, if you know what I mean. But now, I’ve changed my mind. Because fan studies.”

It’s a mess, and I’ve got three weeks to get it done.

Now, this morning, it occurs to me, in a blaze of clarity, that I’ve been barking (and writing) up the wrong tree for about a month. And I need to chuck 90% of what I’ve got (bronies? WTH?) and reframe the entire thing.

It’s okay. I can write my way out, and I know how. It’s going to be okay because I write every single day, even when I don’t want to. In fact, in this case, it was because I sat down not wanting to, but did it anyways, that both the Major Problem and the Clever Solution presented themselves to me. Or rather, that I diagnosed my problem and created my solution.

Here’s what happened. I set my 20 minute time, and plunked my cursor into the keynote document, which I was starting to dread, and on which I was getting kind of stuck, and so I wrote about my stuckness and my resistance, because I had to write about something, and all of a sudden (POOF!) I knew what was wrong and why and how, and I had a little idea of how I could fix it. So I shifted over into a new document and wrote to myself some little threads exploring the new frame and the new idea and I can see that it’s going to work and that I’ve already got a bunch of pieces that will tie into this nicely.

I didn’t used to write like this. This way is better. You should do it, too, if you don’t.

To flag what’s important here:

  1. If you set a timer for 20 minutes, and make yourself sit there writing the whole time, you will wind up having an idea. It has never been the case that I’ve just circled the drain that whole time. The fact is that we’re all pretty smart and pretty well read and it necessarily follows that at some moment in that 20 minutes, despite ourselves, we’ll have an idea, just because we’re typing out words. The idea might be big (“Omigod, someone needs to do qualitative research on the child fans of MLP: FiM“) or it might just be footnote-worthy (“Hey, that’s a visual pun on Dr. Who and Rose there, in those background ponies, and I wonder if that’s to amuse the writers, the animators, or the bronies … maybe see where else that happens in cartoons?”)
  2. If you just write every day, even just 20 or 30 minutes, you’ll always have so much half-assed writing lying around that you’ll never be in a panic to just hit the right word count for the deadline. Because writing while panicking is waaaaay less efficient than writing while not suffering from whooshing ear noises and tunnel vision and shakily glugging triple lattes and engaging in subvocalized self-loathing. By the time you really need to get serious about producing 25 superb pages, you’ll already have 50 shitty but intriguing ones–you’ll already be in the admirable position of needing to prune and fine-tune rather than produce out of sheer nothingness.
  3. This giant stack of half-baked pages is comforting even in just its giant stackness. My “book” “typescript” is about 330 pages long now. The other day, I threw out 30 pages in disgust, because they were wrong wrong wrong. But that was easy for me to do because the thing is already 330 (now 300) pages long and I’m not done writing yet. Easy to make the right decision, because sooooo much writing already.
  4. If you write every day your brain is conditioned to Always Be Thinking and Always Be Writing. This means I can just plunk my rear end in the chair and start. At Canadian Tire waiting for the snow tires to get taken off. In my office in the 20 minutes before a meeting. On my front porch after I drop my kid off at the bus. I don’t need a major warmup ritual. I’m already limber, and my brain just knows what to do without much conscious effort to start. So twenty minutes of writing is now preceded by 15 seconds of setting my timer, or 30 seconds of shooing the cat off my lap, rather than by two hours of procrastination and the ritual sacrifice of my sense of self and happiness.
  5. You train your gut. Every day that I write, I’m also sifting out my ideas–good, bad, better, best, in this category, in that category, original, example, digression, important, funny, trivial. They’re whizzing past my critical thinking apparatus all the time. So I’m getting pretty good and pretty efficient at cutting something loose when it’s time to let it go, pretty good at knowing something is underdeveloped but really important, pretty good at figuring out when it needs another pair of eyes, or when it’s ready to submit for peer review. I’m not so tortured about these decisions anymore because I make them all the time.

This is what I’m learning from my daily writing habit. I’m more productive and less stressed. I’m producing higher quality work, and more of it, with less anguish.


community · grad school · mental health · reform · research · solitude · travel

Reflections on Solitary Scholardom

Last week, Melissa shared with us an excellent summary of the things she wishes she’d been told during her PhD–a post that has become one of the most read in the history of Hook & Eye. Then, on Friday, Magrit asked us to consider our virtuosity as female academics, and challenged us to make a list of our own skills, something I think we grad students should be doing on a more frequent basis as we, as per Melissa’s advice, expand the scope of our own professional identity and adjust to the notion that we may not be safely ensconced in the folds of academia forever.

I’ve been traveling for over four weeks now, and I’ve had a lot of time to think–about myself, about my mission or goals as a young academic in my late-twenties, about my place within an English department that, with its incomparable network of like-minded people, can also be a little bit stifling and inevitably competitive, as we constantly look over each other’s shoulders (at Fordham, where teaching fellows have shared office space in open cubicles, this is often literally the case). I don’t think I realized before I left the States just how much this tight-knit academic community was affecting my mental well-being–I was constantly comparing my progress with those around me, fearing I was falling behind, and feeling inadequate. During this blessed research trip, I’ve been reading and transcribing and searching and thinking and memorizing and seeing and absorbing. I’ve been doing all these academic things while remaining both geographically and mentally remote from the quotidian demands of academia. I haven’t been keeping up with the current academic debates on Twitter, I’ve fallen behind on email, I haven’t been teaching or grading, I’ve had very few interactions with anyone on my committee, and I’ve spent many long days in the library alone. Facebook and email keep me peripherally aware of the kinds of issues that are facing my department, but overall I’ve enjoyed somewhat of a solitary existence over here–a culture-filled, charmed scholarly existence (even despite my multitude of fears that I haven’t accomplished nearly enough). It has been good to distance myself from departmental gossip, reevaluate what I love about the study of the Middle Ages, and contemplate my own strengths as a scholar, thinker, and person. I’ve encountered a number of people working in professions outside academia, thought more about what I might like to do if I weren’t an academic. Hell, I even started drawing again–something I loved to do for years, and out of which I at one point thought I would make a career.  I’d like to think that overall, this trip has helped me listen to the advice that Melissa wishes she had heard a little sooner.

Yet I do miss community. In fact, while I’ve been very well trained as a paleographer and researcher, something my advisers never prepared me for as a single female traveler is the paralyzing loneliness and alienation that can sometimes descend when arriving in new places, alienation that has caused me considerable despair and many panicked Skype-calls to my partner. In reaction against this alienation, I become deeply attached to the places I frequent, people I meet, even food I eat while I’m over here–sort of carving out my own mobile sense of home, I guess–but those attachments make leaving these places even harder, and then I have to repeat the cycle of mourning, alienation, and attachment every time I move around. Research trips are hard, yo! I miss sympathetic interactions with colleagues in the department, I miss regular Monday lunches with a dear friend, I miss workshopping syllabi and works-in-progress over wine and cheese, I miss bitchingdiscussing the pros and cons of academia in pubs after hours. I miss students, I miss my cat, I miss my apartment, I miss being fully fluent in reading and understanding the place I’m in.

When I return to New York, then, I want to preserve and treasure my solitary hours in the library, getting up and out of the apartment early and regulating my access to social media and social ties a bit more, but also embracing the unique opportunity of working in a university department and trying to maintain balanced, supportive, generative relationships. I also want to remember that everyone works in different ways, and refuse the temptation to compare my work habits with those of my peers. I want to hold close the people who build me up, and distance myself from the people who cause me undue anxiety or ignite paralyzing feelings of competitiveness.

As the recent debates over trigger warnings on syllabi have reminded us*, academia may not and should not be a safe space but it must be an accountable one, though we shouldn’t let that accountability mutate into a culture of competitiveness or the student-customer model that the trigger-warned syllabus seems to uphold. We need to embrace our own virtues and sensitivities while welcoming those of others, acknowledging that we are all in various states of becoming and unrest. Ideally I will be ready after this trip to face these kind of challenges in the classroom, invigorated and recharged by my solitary experiences but eager to maintain productive relationships and accountable spaces in the academic circles I’ve already built up. Here’s hopin,’ anyway.

*a serious and sensitive issue that I hope we can broach again in the future; for now I’d recommend this round-up post on The Nation, and would welcome any initial thoughts.

academy · research

Clarity for interdisciplinarity

Do you know anyone who doesn’t do interdisciplinary research? I don’t, but my acquaintance may be self-selective. As the buzz-word of at least the last decade, interdisciplinarity should be not only supported, but built-in at every level. If that’s the truth of your situation, I envy you, because in my world, I have to pragmatically acknowledge the barriers every single day, and take strategic decisions. Far from an idealized goal, interdisciplinarity constitutes many academics’ lived reality, yet research infrastructure still clings to the old disciplinary boundaries. For better or for worse. I think we should do more to explain our disciplinary assumptions, and to bring down those boundaries through clarity. You know, not in a “but I do important work, too,” defensive manner, but by doing what we know best: education.

The Better: Publication Expectations
Sometimes those boundaries are put in place to protect, rather than hinder academics. Case in point: publication output when it comes to funding. We all know that nowadays, *cough, cough* quantity rules. However, expectations regarding quantity differ wildly from one discipline to another. I follow people on Twitter who seem to be submitting another article every fortnight. In English, publishing the equivalent of one peer-reviewed article a year is the unspoken norm or median. Sure, there are exceptionally productive people whose output makes everyone else wonder about that person’s brush with divinity or his/her sleeping allotment. There are also people who publish less. And even though I’ve put this topic under the header of the “better,” there is a problem with the secrecy and disavowal of actual “expectations.” I’ve gone out on a limb to say this is the expectation, but it is a tacit one that I’ve heard of spoken in hushed tones in the hallways. No one, in my experience, puts it in the English Graduate Studies manual, unfortunately. This lack of transparency contributes to the culture of anxiety and fear, that ultimately works in favour of the neoliberal system by pitting us against one another. Clarity, people, clarity!

The Better: Methodologies
You do what? And you call it research? Well, fortunately, nobody has said anything like that to my face, but, especially for the humanities, our methodologies may seem rather murky to outsiders, and, dare I say it, even to ourselves. I don’t want to generalize, but I do wish we’d be more clear on what methodologies we work with, and how and why they are as rigorous as empirical studies. For our benefit as well as of people unfamiliar with scholarly practice, this is the best time to explain ourselves in a clear way. Start from scratch and lay out assumptions. You know, like we do in our introductory courses. If politicians or the general public seem to be at a loss as to what we research and how we do it, why don’t we educate them? Strike two for clarity.

For Worse: Lack of mobility
We can view these categories used to create benchmarks and standards as a pharmakon or, to make correct gramatical agreement, pharmaka. The same criteria that make one’s fellow discipline-dwellers acknowledge one’s research profile hinders others from conferring the validating nod. In the absence of clarity and education, someone from the social sciences would read even a prolific English Literature researcher’s CV as a study in slackerdom. You’ve published how much? And you’re still employed? By a university?

I know we *know* these issues. They’re part of the mythology of the university, right? The problem is with who “we” are. Academics become enraged, and with good reason, when political posturing targets them, with dire material results–as in stringent budget cuts–or when bureaucrats decide how research “excellence” is to be judged, more often quantitatively than not. So, can we find a way to educate the general public on what our standards are? Can we do more outreach? Can we bridge the gap that “inter-” leaves? What do you think?

What are your personal experience with interdisciplinarity and what do you think should be done about the obstacles?

deadlines · enter the confessional · grading · research · writing

The road to hell is paved with deadlines

Margrit has perspective! Serenity! A new resolve! Go read her post: I tried to breathe it right off the screen and into my soul. Tonight, Tuesday, five days after she published it because that’s how long it took me to get around to reading it.

I am burning in the fires of hell. Because I am late with everything.

Late: getting SSHRC Insight Development Grant application assessments to Program Chair. Late: getting my DHSI coursepack done. Late: getting my graduate class grades finalized. Late: making Congress travel and hotel arrangements. Late: answering probably 20 urgent and important emails. Late: one supervisee’s latest writing languishing unread in my inbox. Late: dealing with some design milestone on some pilot materials for my online course. Late: RSVP’ing to some committee meetings with dodgy schedules. Late: getting PhD area exam masters to the graduate committee for their approval. Late: making my conference paper slides on the airplane, printing my paper at the hotel.

It might look like I’m running downhill–wind at my back, hair flying, arms outstretched in full embrace of the momentum of life! Actually, I’m falling, but with my legs moving–trying to dig my heels into something solid, looking for a safe place to just fall over, or something to grab to arrest my pitching headlong forward. It’s all moving too fast; it’s out of control.

Extra miserable? The terrible hypocrisy! I preach the gospel of peer review just doesn’t take that long. Of making the most of every 30 minute chunk of time. Of the importance of an active, high-contact relationship with graduate students. Of how I want to get my email under control. Of how conference papers need to be done so much earlier so that they can be practiced and perfected.

So what happened? How did I get into this state?

1. I say yes to too many things. I shouldn’t have gone to that conference in mid-April, which coincided with SSHRC assessment season, and grading time, and my DHSI deadline. I had to prepare new work for it, and it took a long time. Or maybe I should’ve said no to doing the SSHRC assessments. That was easily 40 or 50 hours of work at the worst possible time of year.

2. I’m scared. My grad class this year was awesome, but I did some wild and crazy things with the participation component, and I’m scared to find out if it all worked or not. (It worked. Procrastination on dealing with it, though, didn’t help.) I’m scared of my brand new DHSI course: I’ve never taught this topic before, and putting together the coursepack might expose me for a fool. (So far, no. Should’ve not put off starting that either.) I’m scared to write my book proposal. Scared means don’t start. Don’t start + deadline = no sleeping.

3. Life. You know how they say when you do a big renovation, of your kitchen, say, and you want to spend $30,000 on it–we’re imagining, so let’s pretend we live on HGTV, okay?–you should have a 10-15% contingency fund? Because of the inevitable Dodgy Plumbing Behind the Walls, or Sudden Need to Upgrade to Viking Range? I think the academic life is like that. Perhaps if everything ran absolutely perfectly, I might’ve managed it. But we had two snow days in April, then I got stuck in the FAA sequester nonsense, and then my daughter got a stomach bug and missed two more days of school, then the furnace conked out, and then the car had to go in for emergency detailing owing to the gastro bug and projectile car vomiting. I don’t think anyone in my house has put in a five day week at the office in the last six weeks.

Ugh. The self-loathing is strong in me this week. I did this to myself by overcommitting! Then I did it to myself again by under performing! Then I made everything worse by having a terribly messy personal life! And compounded the problem further by hiding in a hole and not letting anyone know what a crunch I’m in.

So, internet, let me confess. I’ll need another week to dig myself out of this mess. Forgiving myself will take longer. And finding some balance in what I say yes to–challenging and scary enough to help me create new ideas and connections, but not so much or so hard that I make it nearly impossible for myself to succeed–is going to take longer still, I imagine.

Do any of you suffer similar problems? Or am I terrible, terrible outlier? If the latter, can you tell me how you do it? Because I obviously need the help.

At least I got my blog post done on time.

research · writing

The obviousness problem

Have you ever worked on a research project long enough and hard enough and deeply enough that you began to lose all perspective on it? It can happen with coursework papers, but normally most of us first experience the full weight of Research Vertigo when we write our dissertations. Research Vertigo can take several forms, but the one I’m thinking of right now is what I call “the obviousness problem.”

What happens, usually, is this: you become the world’s leading expert on (let’s just use my own case) personal computer advertisements from the period 1981-1986. You spend a couple of years tracking down the canon of texts, and reading every scholarly book even minimally related to personal computing, or computing, or the 1980s. You hone the knife-edge of your critical capacity by reviewing all of postmodern and most of poststructuralist theory, with a special eye to feminist materialism. If you’re like me, you probably put off writing the actual dissertation text in favor of excruciatingly detailed notes. When you get to the actual writing, you get stuck, because by this point it all seems … sooooo …. obviouuuuussssss.

When I finally sat down to write the Real Dissertation, I pretty easily produced a couple of hundred pages, then nearly a hundred more. It was drafty and prolix, sure, but that’s the way of all drafts, I think. I had so many ideas I wanted to disseminate. But then I started to edit.

It was about that time that I was struck by the obviousness problem. So immersed was I in the research, that everything I was writing began to seem … obvious to me. It was naive. Unsophisticated. Not interesting. And then, like a late-stage hypothermia patient who in the very throes of freezing to death begins to take her clothes off because she feels too hot, I started cutting. Ugh–this insight is just obvious. Cut! This whole reading of Short Circuit is just so evident in the movie itself. Cut! Yuck–this bit about kitchen settings for personal computer ads is not even worth reminding people about. Cut!

I was in despair, and my dissertation was shrinking at an alarming rate. Luckily, my supervisor is the kind who will read many chapter drafts–Heather (Zwicker! Founding editrix and 3M Teaching Fellow!), to my amazement and consternation, kept telling me I was going too fast, that I needed to explain.

“But that’s all so obvious!” I replied, doubtful, “I don’t want to bore anyone by rehashing all that stuff that everyone already knows.”

Eventually she brought me around to this: Just because it’s obvious to me, doesn’t mean it’s obvious to anyone else.

Researching involves becoming the expert in what you want to write about. At the end you will probably know more about the topic than anyone. Since that’s the case, you have to, as they say in Grade 1 math homework, “show your work.”

So in this month of looming coursework deadlines and end-of-term dissertation writing milestones and the time of the making of detailed summer plans of research, let’s take a pause to chant quietly to ourselves;

  • Just because it’s obvious to me, doesn’t mean it’s obvious to anyone else
  • Remember to show my work.

Good? Have you ever fallen prey to the obviousness problem?

academic work · best laid plans · enter the confessional · research · writing

Dealing with deadlines

Why, yes, I do have a deadline coming up quite soon. How did you know? Was the title of this post a dead giveaway? So, can you then help me think through dealing with impending deadlines? I’ll lay out what I do, and you can share your habits, yes? Let’s imagine we’re dealing with an article. For publication. Moreover, it’s not even from scratch, but you’re actually transforming a conference presentation you’ve made before. So you’ve basically got half of it written, or at least structured in some way (more power to you if you can just ad-lib the whole thing at a conference, but see how there’s a downside when it comes to re-working it? Yeah, we’re not perfect. We can’t all be.)

6 months before: I got *all* the time in the world. This is going to be the best article in the history of all articles. It’s basically already written.

4 months before: Oh, yeah, that deadline is coming up. So is the term. But the latter is closer, and I have syllabi to prep. And assignments. Ooooh, something’s up on Twitter. Better get to that. I’ll start research soon. Right after the grant applications.

2 months before: Ok, time to get down to work. MLA search. More extended search. Get books from the library. Now I’ve got reading material, I better start replying to CFPs. How else am I going to write other articles? That one looks interesting. And this conference is in Europe. Yes, but it’s Portugal in July. What was I working on again? Oh, yes, the essay topics for tomorrow. Right, no time like the present!

1.5 months before: I’m screwed! I basically found this other article which has the exact same argument I’m making, except it’s more cogent, *and* it’s already published. What to do? Did I mention how screwed I was? Is it too late to change my argument? Primary text? Topic? Why does this have to happen to me? This is the worst article in the history of all articles!

1 month before: Actually, that article I was moaning about a couple of weeks before? The one that derailed me? Totally not menacing. Not the same argument, not the same paradigm, not the same theory. In fact, no theory at all. Bonus! My take is still valid. And new! I better get to writing. But first, there’s this stack of other articles I have to get through. One cannot be thorough enough in one’s research. One cannot approach writing without having read everything there is to read on the topic. Isn’t new research supposed to bring something new? How am I going to judge whether what I’m bringing is new if I haven’t read Every. Single. Publication?

3 weeks before: I think I’m ready to start writing. Better make a list of all tasks still associated with this article first. That way, I can track my progress better, and give myself credit for all the work that goes into research. Because, really, we academics don’t give ourselves enough credit, and then we fall into the same neoliberal trap of productivity, in which we measure our accomplishments only by the number of publications, words in a document, etc. Yes, a list should come first. Maybe right after my lesson plans for tomorrow. That way, I can have the whole rest of the day to work on the article. Oh, what’s that? Time to get the kids? Already? Oh, well, tomorrow’s another day. (Yes, platitudes will definitely get my article written!)

2 weeks before: Should I ask for an extension?

1.5 weeks before: Wow! 10 whole days to get this thing finished! A lifetime, practically! Multiple ones, if you’re an ephemeral. What would it be like, to live just for one day? No articles to write, no papers to mark. Bliss. Except for the living for just one day part. Yeah, maybe not.

I totally did not procrasti-bake this vegan chocolate cake

1 week before: Ok, at this point, maybe this article will *not* be the best article in the history of all articles. You know what would is a more realistic wish? An article that is finished. To a certain extent. I mean, articles never feel like they’re totally finished, right? But, at some point, you have to let go. It’s not unlike a baby. Speaking of which, or whom…

1 day before: Ok, this thing still needs a conclusion. And maybe a better intro. And my thesis is still too wordy. Plus, the Works Cited is still incomplete. Ok, an all-nighter it is! I’m sure I’ll be able to be completely lucid at 5 am when it comes time to proof-read. I mean, I’m a parent, so I’m trained to be lucid at all hours.

1 hour before: Of course I can read 6,000 words in one hour. Who couldn’t? Especially of my own writing. I basically know this stuff by heart! Damn, I’m good! That turn of phrase! That elegant argumentation. Maybe not the best article in the history of *all* articles, but still: a contender! Actually, you know what? Strike that: the best article ever is the finished article you can submit on time! And… drumroll… send!


Of course, that never happened to me. Ever. After all, I write every day. Yes, I do. And if it should have happened, it was never funny. Nope. And I always learned from it. So it never happened again. Like, ever. You know?