best laid plans · Uncategorized · work · writing

Book Projects Are Hard…and fun

I’m working on a new project and it is both exciting and terrifying!

While I have complete other writing projects before, including one creative non-fiction monograph, when I finish writing anything I tend to feel as though I will, surely, never write again. Something similar happens when I get page proofs back for articles. I read, sometimes I nod in agreement or surprise. Sometimes I am impressed with myself. Always–and I mean always–I wonder whether I wrote the thing in a fugue state. Who was that person who made this sentence? Who found that salient bit of research to support a close reading? Who was she and where has she gone?

Who was it that wrote “anyone who says they enjoy the writing process is a liar”? It isn’t that I dislike the writing process. Once I am writing I love it. It feels euphoric at best, or at the very least, it feels rhythmic, like the way I was taught to breathe while doing front crawl: stroke, stroke, stroke, breath. Repeat for an hour or so and emerge tired and accomplished. Stretch, shower, carry on with your day. I am a dilettante who is a little in love with routine and a little enamoured with a good challenge, so yes, I suppose liking writing makes sense. It is the project planning that has me in knots.

I remember preparing to writing my dissertation proposal. It was a bit of a nightmare. I had all these wonderful ideas–I practically could dream the whole project–but when I sat down to put pen to paper and plan it out? Nothing. Nada. Zilch save for the slow trickle of dread that starts at the back of my neck and creeps up into my mind and then yells you can’t do this!

It turns out that I could do it, of course. I wrote the dissertation, and sometimes had fun doing it. But gosh, I sure wish I had learned how to project plan a bit. There is, I think, a happy medium place between launching yourself into the writerly unknown and crafting a research project that needs to be a scholarly monograph when it is finished.

So, this new project I am working on is a chance to shift my writerly and research habits. I’m going to try and share with you what I learn, what I bump up against, and what is (I hope) also delightful. Here goes:

It turns out that while I have edited a few collections and written that creative non-fiction monograph I mentioned, writing a scholarly monograph feels a lot like writing a dissertation so far. I need to survey the field, figure out what I can add to it, and learn through writing and revising how to be generative in a field that has so much richness in it already.

However, unlike a dissertation, this book project has already had its first encounter with peer review. When I was approached to write the book proposal I learned that I would submit the proposal to peer review. What? Wow! Wonderful and intimidating (though intimidating only insofar as it is nerve-racking to have peers assess your work). I am so grateful for the anonymous commentary I received on the proposal. Three different people took the time to read it, comment on it, and make generous and useful suggestions. When I get stuck and worry about whether I should be writing this, I return to the peer review commentary and remind myself that no book is ever the last word. What I am aiming for, always, is contributing to on going discussion. The peer reviewers remind me of that, too.

I quite like what Donald Barthelme has to say: “the writer is that person who, embarking upon her task, does not know what to do.” Whereas in the past I would have read this and taken it as permission to flail around in a bit of a froth until I churned out several thousand words, I find myself approaching Barthelme’s observation a bit differently. Instead, I am working towards an end-goal inside a project plan with the knowledge that the project will shift as it needs to shift. Happily, the heart-pounding unknowing of writing is there, too.

Wish me luck! And please, feel free to share your long-project tactics and tips!

enter the confessional · parenting · work

When should I have a baby?

Melissa’s post (yay! Melissa!) last week made me think about babies and work and, specifically, a very clear moment when I realized that there was no “good time” to have a baby.

First, let me say that I don’t mean to imply that any one, or you or me specifically, should have a baby. That is a different, and also very personal question. Maybe the best answer to that so far is in this excellent Dear Sugar column, “The Ghost Ship That Didn’t Carry Us,” which I still re-read every once in a while because I love what she says, and I want to remember that I need to salute the sister life that I did not choose, the one where maybe I didn’t become a mother, and know that this other life is also important and beautiful.



Hello there, other life! You rock! Sending you love!

But, in this life, I get to do work that I love and also have this totally awesome kid who has completely redefined the whole idea of love for me. For me, there is this whole universe of love I didn’t know about and then, poof, there it was in this tidy 6.9 pound package of non-stop sweetness.

I didn’t know that I wanted a baby. I was not one of those people who “just knew.” Even right up until especially at the moment when I was about to give birth, I was really not convinced that this whole having-a-baby thing was such a good idea.

I did know, and I had known for quite a while, that there didn’t ever seem to be a good time to have a baby. This realization hit me on New Year’s Eve some time during the end of grad school. I was  in LA and had just broken up with a boyfriend who lived there, and my beloved friend Emily told me that I could join her in San Francisco where she would be meeting up with her girlfriend. I was sad and lonely and I will never forget the generosity of these two great people letting me crash their romantic getaway so that I would not have to bring in the new year being sad and lonely (which, sadly, I did anyways but I have only myself to blame). Anyways, the three of us were having dinner somewhere cool. It was a place where there were lots of fancy cocktails and no kids. And we somehow got to talking about when, if we wanted to do it, we would have children. This was a purely hypothetical conversation. Emily was in law school. I was finishing my dissertation. We had no intention of actually doing anything about this baby thing any time soon. It was just a conversation about what might be good time for that to happen, if it was ever going to happen.

Emily and I have been friends since high school so I would sometimes have these kinds of “life-plan” conversations with her. The hubris of these conversations are now amusing. The conversation went something like this:

Me: Well, even if I did find someone to have a baby with me, I can’t do it until I finish my diss.

Em: No, that doesn’t make sense.

Me: If I got a postdoc, that would not be a good time. I probably wouldn’t even be in Canada since I want to do my postdoc in the states.

Em: Nope, that would definitely be a bad time.

Me: And if I got a job after the postdoc, that would be the worst time because I’ll have to work my butt off to get tenure.

Em: Nope, I guess you definitely can’t have a baby then.

Me: So, maybe after tenure…

Here, I stop to count how old I would be then. And then I stop and realize that I would be old (sorry, current self, but the person I am now seems totally old to that girl who sat around in that cool restaurant in SF back then). Em, her girlfriend, and I look at each other, blinked, shrugged our shoulders and said to each other, I guess there’s no good time! I remember this didn’t seem all that terrible to me. I just thought that it was a puzzle and I hadn’t figured it out yet. Like, there was some secret code and, once I was in the right place in my life, someone would give it to me and it would all work itself out.

We ordered more drinks.

In my late-twenties and thirties, I had boyfriends, I lost boyfriends, I found new boyfriends. The baby question seemed even more impossible. I mean, it was hard enough to just figure out if these relationships would still be a thing in my life from one month to the next. One of my long-term boyfriends told me that dates with women in their thirties were like “husband interviews.” Since we had made it past those early dates where I (maybe?) played it cool, I gathered that it was desirable to never treat any date like a potential husband interview. So any question about any future beyond what band we should get tickets to see, or what restaurant we should go to, or what cool trip we should take, was off the table. At the time, I didn’t know that I necessarily wanted to be married, or have a baby, so this all seemed fair enough. Or, as Jess Zimmerman put it so beautifully in “Hunger makes me,” it was too hard to even acknowledge that there were things I could want. Now, I see the imbalance of a relationship where one person declares talk of real futures super-uncool and the other then just suppresses any thought of such futures.

All through this time of forestalling futures I didn’t know I could want, I kept seeing news articles about the precipitous drop in fertility that women experience after a certain age. I became really angry about such news items and was secretly convinced that they were part of an anti-feminist conspiracy anxious to get women out of their jobs and back in the home making babies. It seemed to me that it was no accident that there were suddenly so many of these articles everywhere at precisely the same historical moment (in the first world) when more and more women had decided to put off marriage and babies in the interest of being rock stars at their jobs.

But I was secretly also a little anxious. I felt like I had done something wrong, like I had planned badly, like I had somehow failed. And I still really truly wasn’t even sure that I wanted to have a baby.

Fast forward and I meet this amazing person and he is fabulous in every possible way and now we are parents and it is amazing and fabulous. Still, when I was pregnant, I learned that mine was technically considered a “geriatric pregnancy” and that I was of “advanced maternal age” because I was older than 35. I was directed to genetic counseling that, because I was not prepared for it, left me feeling like big jerk for trying to have a baby as an old lady and thus subjecting my poor unborn child to elevated risks for all kinds of bad things. I’m sure that was not the intention but that was the effect on me and I felt awful about it.

There wasn’t any plan. I did end up getting tenure before I had a baby. I did end up getting a job in the same city where my husband lives. Even though I didn’t get pregnant at the exact moment when I decided I wanted to have a baby, it did happen. And those first years of being in a job and being a mother were bananas and bananas-exhausting. How we laugh now when people who don’t have children tell us that they are “so busy.” Mostly though, nothing bad happened. It was all fine. I couldn’t have known any of that then.

Here’s the thing. I keep referring to a “good time” to have a baby as though such a thing existed. That was and is a fantasy. Not least because you can only plan so much. Becoming a parent taught me humility in nine thousand different ways, but one of them involved learning that parenting is about surrendering a lot agency about timing because your kid will have their own ideas about when it will be a “good time” to do anything — that includes everything from putting on snow pants to when they will emerge into the world.

I probably don’t need to rehearse the somewhat depressing stats on the “motherhood penalty,” or why women who have children generally take more hits in their career trajectory than men. This graph sums up some of the latest research (yep, it deserves a whole special post of its own):


Source [link to pdf]: “Children and Gender Inequality,” Working paper for National Bureau of Economic Research, January 2018

It is now widely recognized that “family formation negatively affects women’s—but not men’s—academic careers. For men, having children can be a slight career advantage and, for women, it is often a career killer” and “that men with young children are 35 percent more likely to get tenure-track jobs and 20 percent more likely to earn tenure than women in the same boat.” On top of all that, this penalty can begin even before there is a baby in what Jessica Winegar calls the “miscarriage penalty.”

Or, coming at the question differently, there is Rivka Galchen whose book Little Labors includes a tally of great women writers who have opted out of motherhood including: Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Hilary Mantel, Janet Frame, Willa Cather, Jane Bowles, Elizabeth Bishop, Hannah Arendt, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Mavis Gallant, and Simone de Beauvoir.

For these women, there was no good time.

But, to be honest, I don’t think there is a good time for anyone. I know that this can sound like a useless platitude and there are others who offer more concrete advice. It leans towards the idea that the ideal time might be when you are in grad school. I can see that argument but I can say that it would not have worked for me.

It will never be a good time AND, if this is the sister life you choose, it is always the right time. I know that my younger self would find this frustrating. I wish I could tell her, and you, that there is a secret code, a magical time, when it will all be perfect and easy. But she (and you) would see right through me and call me out on that anyways.

Looking back, I will say that I wish I had been able to talk more honestly and more openly about this question — even just with myself.

Whatever happens, whatever you decide or have decided, let’s keep standing tall and saluting these great feminist lives that we are making.

Hello there, other life! You rock! Sending you love!










administration · advice · work

Campus visit mystery: interview with the dean


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It’s job interview season in the academy and this post is about what was, for me, the most enigmatic part of the campus visit: the interview with the dean.

BUT, let me first say of the wave after wave after wave of sorrow and grief and anger coming out of the courage of the women who have come forward, privately, semi-privately, and publicly — not least, Julie McIsaac yesterday — to tell the stories that are passwords: I am listening and reading and listening some more and I am here in grief and sorry and anger with all of you and  all of this rumbles like subterranean thunder all through my days and my thinking and will continue to as we keep working through how “we might wield the power we already have.”

It also occurred to me that posting about the campus visit, a thing that only a vanishingly small proportion of the people who apply for jobs will actually do, might not be especially useful, especially given the unrelentingly bleak number of jobs available. And then I realized this post isn’t just for the five people out there who might end up doing a campus visit interview this season.

This post is really about decanal power.

When I have interviewed for jobs, the most mystifying part of the campus visit was the interview/meeting with the dean. I understood, more or less, the function of the job talk, the interview with the hiring committee, the meeting with the graduate students, the meeting with the undergraduate students, and even, albeit much more fuzzily, the lunches and dinners. But I really didn’t understand what was supposed to happen in the 15 to 75 minutes (some meetings were really brief and some didn’t seem to end) where I would sit down, one on one, with the dean. There may or may not have been an interview with a dean that went for over an hour and wherein we talked only about a book, not in my field, that the dean wrote a couple decades ago that I did not read. It is entirely possible that many of you know way more than I did. If so, just feel sorry for me and for all the poor deans who watched me fumble through that part of their day because I really had no idea what I was doing.

I knew that this meeting was important. In my experience as a job candidate these were always meetings and not exactly interviews. Questions were not fired off at me. There was an off-the-cuff feel to the whole thing. I’m not even sure that there were any questions asked at some of the meetings I’ve sat through. They were the least standardized part of the day. It was obvious that these meetings mattered since there are no extraneous elements to the jam-packed campus visit schedule. But I did not know really know why.

Now, after having served at two different universities and on multiple hiring committees over the fourteen years that I have worked as a professor, I have some idea.

Deans have a LOT of power over the final outcome of a job search in their faculty. Without being too specific, I have seen one or the other dean make decisions that are entirely contrary to the explicit wishes of the hiring committee and the department. I have seen one or the other dean kill a search before it begins. I have seen one or the other dean veto one or another shortlisted candidate even though the department was enthusiastic about that person. Sometimes this happens at the long list stage. Sometimes this happens after the campus visit. I have seen one or the other dean kill a search after the search has been completed. So, even after the department (or at least the departmental hiring committee) has gone through the whole entire hiring process (reading all the applications, developing a long list, developing a shortlist, going through all the trouble and expense of the campus visit for the shortlisted candidates), the dean can still say no to the hire. And even when the dean and the department are in agreement about the hire, the hire might still fall apart because the dean is in charge of the negotiations and the dean and the candidate may not remotely agree on the many, many parts of a contract that are up for negotiation.

Deans can and do make these decisions alone. At this level, the decisions are not made by committee. The dean usually consults with the department (via the chair or the chair of the search) and their own associate deans, but they really don’t have to. In my experience, there is nothing in the governance docs that require a dean to make these decisions in consultation with anybody. I’m not even saying that this kind of executive power is a problem. Maybe it is but that is a separate conversation. I can see how, sometimes, not every decision can be made by committee.

Mainly, I want to point out that one person has enormous power over the hiring process. That person is not answerable to the department. I have definitely participated in searches where I had no clue what happened after we made the recommendation to hire someone and sent that decision “upstairs.” Even though I understood that I wasn’t  owed an email or a memo about what happened, especially given that pretty much everything that happens in a search is confidential, it was still really weird to be on a hiring committee and learn more about the outcome of that search from twitter or rumour (granted, sometimes they are the same thing) than I did from my own university.

Don’t even get me started on how I wanted to weep whenever a dean decided something that was contrary to the wishes of the departmental committee and department. I think of all that lost time, all those hours reading files and interviewing, and all of the smashed hopes of the candidates, and I still want to weep. But again, I am genuinely not questioning the actual decisions themselves. That is a whole different conversation. I just want to draw attention to the fact that may seem obvious but was not obvious to me: a job candidate can have the enthusiastic support of a department and still not get hired because the dean decides against the hire.

So. If you are a job candidate, what to do? Unlike prepping for the hiring committee interview, where your supervisor and grad programme are likely in a great position to advise you on probable questions and strategies, the interview/meeting with the dean can feel like a total crap shoot. The questions they might ask are not so obviously routinized. They might not even ask any questions.

Still, here are a few things you can do:

  • read the job ad! I know this is obvious but, honestly, I have seen more than one search fail because the candidate, even after we brought them for a campus visit, did not understand the language of the ad and what the department and the university are looking for.
  • read the job ad in relation to other relevant docs about the university such as the university’s strategic plan or the university academic plan; every university has one and your job is to figure out how you fit in it even though it will likely read like alien-corporate-speak and seem to have little connection to your research.
  • talk to people in your network to get a sense of what challenges the department’s home faculty (remember, the dean has to deal with a bigger picture than the dept) is struggling with including all the obvious things like: overall enrollment; recruiting and retaining stellar undergrad and grad students; curriculum development; and relationships with the communities that the university serves
  • remember that the dean will still have to make the case for your hire to a bunch of other people higher up on the decision-making chain and you have to make that part of their job as easy as possible

There are likely lots of other things that I haven’t thought of (please, tell me!).

As for the bigger picture on decanal power, I want to emphasize, as if you didn’t already know, how crucial it is for those of us in the university system, at any level (student, adjunct and TT faculty) to take part in the decision-making processes at the decanal level that we have access to including (advance warning, this will seem boring): attending faculty council and voting on things; and asking lots of hard questions during the decanal search process including questions about “collegial governance,” a phrase that gets tossed around a lot but which often doesn’t connect to clear processes for good governance or collegiality. Collegiality is a term that we use to cover a series of almost unnameable things like “fit” and there are a lot of reasons why we need to be way less subtle about what that means.

#alt-ac · #post-ac · backlash · dissertation · hiring · negotiating · work

You Don’t Get What You Don’t Ask For

Why doesn’t it surprise me that all of the stock photos of people negotiating are of men? 

As of yesterday, I’m on an adjusted schedule at work that sees me coming in an hour later in the morning. It doesn’t sound like a big difference, starting at 9:30 rather than 8:30. It feels big, not working the same standard hours as everyone else in my highly unionized office. But it gives me a full two hours in the morning to write, two hours in which I can get a heck of a lot accomplished. And it represents one of my more successful attempts at workplace negotiation. I wanted, I asked, and I got.

Negotiating in the academy, especially for women, is a fraught activity. I think we all know the story of W., who had her tenure-track job offer at Nazareth College revoked after she tried to negotiate a higher salary and a few other amendments to the job offer. Karen Kelsky, the former faculty member behind The Professor is In, offers advice on how to stop negotiating like a girl. And it’s not just that women tend not to negotiate, although some studies show that only 7% of us do, as compared to 57% of men. It’s that the social cost of negotiating, of facing negative repercussions for being seen as pushy, grasping, not “nice,” is so high for us that we instinctively know (or are explicitly told) not to ask for more than is offered.

All of this chafes, a lot. And so I keep trying to figure out ways to meet what many, including Margaret Neale (professor of negotiation at Standford) and Sheryl Sandberg (CEO of Facebook), call the need for women to “think personally, act communally,” and still get what we want. Importantly, asking for what I want is always backed up by information and a persuasive argument, a key component Neale notes is missing from many women’s negotiation repertoires. So this time around, I found language in my collective agreement that would let me negotiate an adjusted schedule in collaboration with my manager. I ensured that the hours I chose wouldn’t negatively impact anyone I work closely with. I’ll admit that some people didn’t need much convincing–I work with lots of people with PhDs who can see the value of the degree beyond just the tenure track. But I had to get five people to sign off on my plan, and for to those who needed convincing, I made the case for the ways in which providing some accommodations so that I can finish my dissertation quickly was to everyone’s benefit, not just mine: that having the PhD in hand would increase my credibility among the graduate community (and therefore the work of our office), that it would enhance my ability to fill whatever role the Deacanal team needs filled, and that it would facilitate the deepening of the ways in which the Dean is linking the work we do about graduate reform and professional development to an active (and hopefully funded!) research practice that will bring the university money and a reputation as a leader. I made it not about me, but about the good of our Faculty.

This kind of low-stakes negotiation was great practice for the future, when I transition into a management role, am no longer bound to the terms of a collective agreement, and have some room to ask for something more, or something different. Is it frustrating not just be able to ask for a higher salary, no questions asked? Yes. Is it terrifying to think that those you’ve negotiated with now think worse of you, before you’ve even started the job? Yes. And we all know now that it’s possible for negotiations to backfire to the point that the job no longer exists. But you don’t get what you don’t ask for. Sometimes it does hurt to ask, but I’m going to keep doing it anyway. And on that note, back to dissertation writing.

balance · day in the life · jobs · organization · productivity · time crunch · transition · work · yoga

Relearning How to Get Things Done

For the year between my Master’s and PhD, I worked as a sales and marketing coordinator for the Canadian branch of an international academic publisher. As a coordinator, a lot of what I did was, well, coordinate–organize meetings, provide people with support, do marketing and outreach and answer customer emails. There was always a lot going on, a dozen voicemails to be responded to, and I got used to juggling All The Things and making sure that none of the balls got dropped.

And then I went to back to grad school. And instead of All The Priorities, my workload shifted to just about five: reading and writing for each of the three classes I was taking, teaching, and my service commitment (which was often, pleasingly, party planning). Instead of focusing on how to juggle an ever shifting and constantly growing list of things to get done, I was trying to reclaim the focus and concentration I had worked so hard to develop during my Master’s. Fast forward to the dissertation writing phase, and my major priorities narrowed even more: writing and teaching. Life seems pretty simple when your to-do list, on many days, says “work on Chapter Three.”

Fast forward to now, and I’m back where I was when I started my PhD, but in reverse. I’m so used to working on a few large projects, ones with not terribly many moving parts (or with far more people to share the load), that juggling the myriad priorities and tasks of my very busy job can often be overwhelming. And I’m not good at overwhelmed. Overwhelmèdness tends to turn into anxiety, which turns into procrastination, which turns into guilt and more anxiety, which…you get the picture. And can’t afford to be overwhelmed, or anxious, or behind, or guilty–there’s too much to do! And for those of you who are old hat at juggling All The Things as a matter of course (I’m looking at you, parents), and are smiling wryly at my fledgling attempts to seriously Get Things Done–I salute you.

It’s taken me a fair bit of trial and error over the last five months, but I’ve finally figured out a few things that can help take my 9-5 from crazed to calm(ish). Being a bit of an app junkie, some of these solutions are technological, but some are about as low-tech as you can get:

  • I do yoga and/or meditate as soon as I get up in the morning. A friend posted this image on Facebook the other day, and that’s precisely the effect I’m going for with my daily mindfulness practice–less mental clutter to wade through, less anxiety, less distraction. If I also want to do some meditation practice while I’m in transit, I quite like the Buddhify guided meditations that are designed specifically for commuting. 
  • Anything that needs to get done goes in Remember The Milk the very moment that I think of it or someone asks me to do it. It is the only to-do list program/app that works for me. Everything gets tagged by which area of my life it belongs to (Work, Academic, Personal), which project it belongs to, what priority it is, and when it needs to get done. Life is so much lower stress when half my brain isn’t taken up with trying to remember the things I think I’ve forgotten. I subscribe to the Pro version (about $20/year), which means that I can easily view and add tasks on my phone and tablet and they’ll automatically sync to my web and desktop to-do lists. 
  • I keep my desk clean, and I close all my files and turn my computer off at the end of the night. Arriving to a messy desk and a messy desktop makes me feel behind before I’ve even started, whereas a lack of visual clutter (and a pretty desktop background) lets me start the day with a fresh mind and fresh eyes.
  • I check my calendar and my to-do list as soon as I turn on my computer, but I don’t check my email. I’m a morning person, which means that I have to be careful to protect the early part of the day for serious thinking and/or writing work. I try not to schedule meetings in the morning for the same reason. The world is not going to end if I don’t check my email until 10:30 (emergencies are what phones are for), and so I often don’t. I’ve also turned off all of my email notifications, which means that I pay attention to my email only when I choose to.
  • I don’t send emails to people in my office. Ever. Unless they’re working from home, or I need to send them a file. One of the things I love best about my Faculty is the culture of in-person communication. From the Dean down, if someone needs something, they come see you to get it. My Associate Dean and I can often be heard carrying on conversations to each other from our respective sides of the hallway (I like to think everyone else in the office thinks it’s charming). But it helps cut down on inbox clutter, it gives us a chance to connect on a personal level every day, and the walk down the hall is a great change of scenery and of pace (literally).
  • Coffitivity + Songza form the soundtrack of my days. Coffitivity plays coffee shop white noise (which is phenomenal for both creativity and concentration) in the background, while Songza plays whatever I want over top. I work in a traditional-concept office (i.e. my office has a door), but we all always leave our doors open and it’s nice to be able to block distracting chatter (or my colleague’s 70s rock radio station).
  • I take an actual lunch break at the same time every day. Sometimes I spend it chatting with my colleagues in the kitchen, sometimes reading, sometimes going for a walk, but I never eat at my desk, and I never work through lunch.
  • I use the Pomodoro technique, especially when I’m trying to power through a whole bunch of little things that are swarming around my to-do list like a cloud of mosquitoes I’m desperate to escape. It’s amazing how many one-paragraph emails you can send in 25 minutes, and how blessedly uncluttered my to-do list and mind suddenly become.

I imagine that my Get Things Done routine and techniques will shift and change as I continue to more fully inhabit my new role, and as I discover things that work better for me (or stop working). But for now, this combination of tools and strategies leaves me feeling competent, calm, and in control at the end of the day. Or most of them, which is the best I can ask for.

Have any productivity and time management tips and tricks you’d like to share? What keeps you from feeling like someone put your brain through a blender? 

academic work · community · work

What’s your work pattern? Choose your (sports) metaphor

Last month, due to my parents’ being around, and thus benefiting from free baby-sitting, I went back to playing tennis. Playing tennis might be a bit of an overstatement in my case, which brings me to the point of today’s post. First, please indulge me in a little longer preamble. I went back to playing tennis after a gap of around five-and-a-half years. Last time I held a racquet I was taking lessons while 3-6 months pregnant with my oldest. So I thought it would take me a long time to pick up my long-lost skills, let alone be able to play tennis. Surprise, surprise: thanks to muscle memory, my tennis shots were somewhat better even than when I had left them off, a while ago. My game though, not so much. And this realization finally brings me back to the point of this post: while I had really good shots (my backhand is a thing to behold), I actually had no game. As I was rallying on the tennis court, it dawned on me that my tennis game, or, rather, its near-absence, is a metaphor for my academic life: all the elements are there (publications, teaching, service, awards, etc.) but, to elevate it into a fully-blown career, I need something more. An ace-yielding serve.

I learned to play (at) tennis as an adult, when my partner, an accomplished tennis player, gave me a racquet and free lessons (what can I tell you, I’m all about freebies) for a birthday. I will not, I repeat, *not*, reveal which birthday under any kind of threat or for any treats in the world. So I accepted his gift with a mix of emotions: yes, I was excited, but also a bit tentative (could I really learn a new sport at this–albeit still tender–age?), and somewhat pissed (who does he think he is trying to teach me stuff? men!). But learn I did, begrudging my partner’s patience (if he wants to act all superior and teacherly, the least I can do is become a difficult student, so I can teach him a lesson about trying that s*&@ again). Unfortunately for me and my subversive (or are they passive-aggressive?) intentions, I had a powerful shot both on the fore- and on the backhand, which was as exciting (on the rare occasions when they actually landed on the court) as a runner’s high. With practice, those shots found their target more and more often, and I was hooked.

My tennis career took a break, right after I was taking those lessons to bring the elements of my game together into a consistent whole. All I needed was a dependable serve and some practice in playing for points with someone of my own level. As most soon-to-be-parents for the first time, I thought I’d be able to go right back to all aspects of my life postpartum. Maybe not the next day after, but surely within two months, no? Well, I was no Kim Clijsters, and I lived in Edmonton, where the window for playing tennis extends for all of five months, if we’re lucky (and, yes, I can and will blame Edmonton for its weather). Long story short, here we are in 2013, and I’m discovering that while my tennis shots have improved during the pause, I still got no whole thing I can call a game.

How does that relate to my academic life? We’ve talked before on Hook and Eye about how parenthood makes one more focused during work hours (paying for child care sure gives you perspective), so I’ve been quite good at getting publications. I love teaching, and my department shows its generosity in giving me varied teaching assignments, while my evaluations show I’m doing a great job at it. I value academic community and strive to make it come about in various ways, so that ticks the service box, too. However, I still feel like something vital absents itself in a way that makes the totality of these elements add up to less than an academic career. I know my case stands hardly as an exception.

Now that I’ve gotten to the point of identifying the issue, I’m going to try to understand it, in order to remedy it. There’s probably not cut-and-dried answer to it, so am looking for my own answer to it, for my own version of the dependable serve or the ace. I’m tired of hearing “it’s not you, it’s the job market,” especially since that consolation voids any individual agency. So: I’m on a mission of finding my game, and I’m open to its taking me to unexpected places. I’ll keep you posted.

Et tu? Aimée and Melissa have already confessed to running metaphors for their writing, so here’s an invitation for you, reader: do you have a (sports) metaphor that (even partly) characterizes your work or career? How do athletic endeavours (yoga, pilates, pick-up basketball, hockey, softball, soccer, etc.) make you understand yourself and your idiosyncrasies better? I’m dying to know and learn from your stories.

after the LTA · job notes · work

Articulating academic work experience in a non-academic world

Since I completed my PhD last year, I’ve been thinking a lot about non-academic work opportunities for people like me. I’ve discussed the kinds of work I might be interested in with a range of successful, gainfully employed friends and colleagues. When I describe the work that I did as part of my PhD with friends who work in the private sector, they are usually optimistic that my skills and knowledge sets would serve me well on the job market. And yet, in speaking with my post-doctoral colleagues, many of us have struggled to find appropriate non-academic job opportunities. When we do find something to apply for, it seems our resumes simply drift out into the abyss, never to be heard from again.

There is a very clear disconnection between how we articulate our academic skills and the kinds of work experience that are privileged in the private sector workforce. Yet, rationally, it seems that we should be qualified for many jobs. Indeed, when I have participated on committees and special contracts in the private and public sector, I felt that my academic training allowed me to excel in these positions.

The problem, I believe, is one that Aimée Morrison cleverly touched upon a couple of years ago. Her post “The degree is the job: a modest proposal for the PhD” really struck me when I read it. To summarize, Morrison argues that the PhD should be treated as a job, not as a path that leads to a job. The PhD is too long a distraction from life and career building if we use it as a time-out, rather than a career stage. This is important advice (seriously, go back and read her article!).

If we take the degree as a job, then we need to learn how to articulate our time in the degree as time spent working at a job. (We also need to change the way the private sector perceives time spent in graduate school – I’ve started working on this little problem here).

But let’s talk about our skills shall we? Where do all of those little jobs that we have been doing go on a normal resume? The thing about a resume is it is short and to the point. The list of skills that we provide at the top needs to somehow be reinforced by our work experience, which takes up the bulk of the resume. The problem is, a list of TA-ships and sessional positions doesn’t really account for the design, management and completion of a major research project, the dissemination of multiple, peer-reviewed research papers, the mentoring of undergraduates, the committee work, the grant applications, the EVERYTHING that we have done over the past 5-10 years of our lives.

How do we translate academic into non-academic? Here are a list of things that I recommend doing. It is incomplete. I don’t profess to be an expert, but I have done some research… 😉

1) Find a way to incorporate all of the things that you have accomplished over your graduate career into the Work Experience section of your CV. Employers want to see evidence of your skills. Listing “research design” as a skill, then showing an exclusively teaching-based work experience does not convince anyone of this skill. Key terms for describing the dissertation as a job include: researched and wrote; identified research problem; developed evaluation criteria; developed a timeline; public dissemination; public speaking.

2) Frame your experience according to skills, rather than knowledge. What did you actually do? Also, in describing teaching experience, focus less on what you taught and more on skills such as training, scheduling, mentoring, coaching. Get your private sector speak on. Other terms include: delegate; coordinate; manage groups; provide performance feedback; supervision of research team; professional communication; writing; editing.

3) Give it a name! Every research contract or project that you worked on needs to read on your resume like a job. Jobs have titles, duration, responsibilities, employers and supervisors. Research assistant for some professor they’ve never heard of is not a sufficient description. The project needs a tittle, it needs to be compelling, and the actual work you did (not the knowledge that you helped create) must be described in detail.

4) Translate your skills. Read the non-academic job posting carefully and repeat key terms from it in your application (you know, like the way that undergrads repeat the exam question in their answers on final exams). This is especially important for electronic applications which are increasingly fed through a software application which searches for these keywords. If your resume and cover letter do not have them, they will be trashed without over being seen by an actual human. Also, a resume is only two pages (max) and a cover letter is one.

Look, I’m as angry as everyone else is about the corporatization of the university and the steady neo-liberal creep that is deteriorating independent scholarship and forcing precarious labour conditions on ever greater numbers of teaching faculty. I’m not saying go do public relations for an oil company intent on destroying a vital ecosystem. But for what you get paid as a sessional, couldn’t you offer your superior research, communication, and mentoring skills to a non-profit or local company whose mandate or product you happen to agree with? Not only that, but if your job actually involves research, you may actually continue publishing in academic journals – something that sessionals and LTAs often don’t have time to do which then almost guarantees they will never be back on the tenure-track.

You know that if that small business, non-profit, government department, big tech company, etc hired you with your many years of carefully honed skills – your advanced research, writing, and editing abilities – that that organization would benefit profoundly. But you need to get in the door to prove it. Getting them to give you a chance means making sure that your education, the greatest investment you have ever made in yourself, doesn’t count against you. This means communicating your wealth of skills and experience in a language that they actually value and understand. It may be obvious to us why someone with our skill set would be a valuable addition to their company, but this is big picture stuff. The manager interviewing applicants probably doesn’t have that kind of long-term, strategic plan in mind. They’re just looking to check off boxes in a list of required skills and previous work experience, then make sure you aren’t unbearable to work with during your interview. So, don’t be argumentative – outside of the academy, most people find this to be anti-social behaviour. Don’t expect your obvious intelligence to be the key to getting a job. Skills, work experience, and your ability to play well with others are what most organizations are really looking for.

Here are a few of resources I found for translating your academic work experience for the private-sector:

Any readers have experience going from the academic to the non-academic track? How did you articulate your skills?

job market · possibility · work

It’s spring (and job hunting season)

Yesterday marked the first day of spring. As the snow continues to pile up around southern Ontario, and many other parts of the country are still experiencing winter storms, it probably isn’t that obvious to most observers that spring is indeed upon us. Fortunately, I don’t need flowers, or rain showers, or even calendars to know that spring is here. I know it, most of all, because the spring round of job postings are starting to seep out onto the listservs.

While the norm still seems to be for schools to post in the fall, the schools where I would most like to work tend to post jobs in the spring. I already know this, and so I have been watching carefully, waiting for the perfect job to pop up. They’re like daffodils. Terrifying, anxiety inspiring daffodils. Okay, they aren’t anything like daffodils.

This spring, there are jobs. There are even a few jobs in my research area. My intent was to work on an application this week, but somehow I wasn’t able to bring myself to start writing. As much as I have been looking forward to this round of job postings, it is also a very anxious time. Co-blogger Margrit Talpalaru very eloquently wrote about this issue in her post last november, The cruelty of job applications. Job applications are indeed cruel. I remember the first perfect job I ever applied for. I spent countless hours looking over my application, the department webpage, the city map, the MLS listings, the jogging trails…everything. I believed that I could live and work in that place. As Margrit said last fall, “I simply have to be excited for a job that I apply for, not only for the mercenary reason of conveying it in a letter, but for the reality of having to move my family to a new location. I have to be able to imagine my kids growing up in that place, and I have to love it for this possibility.”

Which brings me to this season’s job applications. You see, I have gone and done something that is pretty much impossible to reconcile with academic life. It goes against every recommendation I have ever received and radically diminishes the likelihood that I will end up with one of those very few, very special, tenure track jobs. I’ve decided where I am going to live. I live here now. My partner has a good job. We’re buying a house (a real fixer-upper). My employment status (and employability) may be precarious, but my daily existence will not. I refuse. I’m drawing a line in the sand. Well, actually, it’s an imaginary line around a region on a map where I think I could work. The thing is, the “will go anywhere for work” model might be reasonable if you finish your PhD super young, have no partner or children, and get a job immediately upon completion, but if you’re a straggler or, god forbid, actually have a family and responsibilities that can’t just be moved across the country, or can’t stand the thought of wandering from teaching contract to teaching contract – well what then?

I will apply for those jobs. I will try as hard as I can to make myself appear relevant, interesting, and above all else, the best candidate for the position. It really would be wonderful to get the job, but I know the odds are stacked firmly against me. Sometimes, job or no job, you have to just keep on living your life.

Here’s to another job hunting season. May your applications be electronic more often than not, your reference letters glowing and on time, and your “perfect fit” just around the corner.

work · writing · you're awesome

A few good things for a Monday

It is Monday. Moreover, it is the first Monday in December. Sure, there’s an onslaught of marking coming my way (& yours, I suspect). Sure, there’s the to-do list of things I have been putting off since October that is now teetering and threatening to fall on my head. Yes, it has been an unusually difficult and emotional term, for me, at any rate. But guess what? I’m not writing a post about any of that today. Nope. Today I am writing a list of accomplishments and a list of neat discoveries. Today, I’m offering you a little bit of perk to zip you through your Monday and towards the celebratory rush that is the end-of-term and all of the various celebrations it brings your way.

First, accomplishments:

1. I set a goal in September, and I stuck to it! I have written one or two pages of my manuscript EVERY DAY THIS TERM. I could not have done this without my writing partner in crime. Thanks, K.

2. I co-organized a conference, it went well, and now we have landed a book contract for an edited collection of articles! About poetry! Poetry!

3. Last year in December my partner and I adopted a wild, damaged, lovely dog. We thought having a second dog would be Super Easy. After all, Felix the Wunder Hund is, well, easy. Calm, serious, thoughtful… Were we ever wrong. Little Mar has been anything but easy. He was abandoned, abused, and has serious anxiety issues. He has been a really, really challenging dog. He was way more effort than we wanted, and, frankly, he needed more time than we actually have. But you know what? Working with him has taught us an immense amount about patience and kindness. And it is paying off, for all of us.

                                           Felix is camera-shy. They hold paws. Cute, eh?

Now, neat discoveries:

1. Do you know this website? Brain Pickings is curated by Maria Popova, and it is described as a “human-powered discovery engine for interestingness.” How amazing is that? Maria explains that creativity is, in her view, a combinational force. Wow! Yes! What could we come up with here at Hook & Eye that worked even more with the power of our combinational forces? I’m inspired…!

2. Not so much a neat discovery as a hey-looky-don’t-miss-this! Lemon Hound, which began as a solo-authored blog by Sina Queyras, is now a monthly literary journal. I think it is curating some of the most exciting sets of voices on the interwebs. Oh yeah, and I get to write for it from time to time.

3. CWILA‘s critic-in-residence is going to be announced in the coming months! Women are in the news! There’s going to be more blogging, tweeting, and general discussion about women in the literary arts because we are making it happen. Email me if you’re interested in writing a blog post about a woman — contemporary or historical — who excited you and inspires your imagination.

Hang in y’all. Respite is coming. In the meantime, what neat discoveries have you made? What have you done — large, small, or in-between — that you want to brag about?

academy · advice · going public · outreach · work · writing

It would be an honour

Here’s an awkward conversation I had last week:

Him: “Yes, the talk you’ve outlined sounds perfect, and of course we’re looking forward to hearing it. But I’m calling to settle another matter with you. What’s your usual speaking fee?”

Me, after picking myself up off the floor from a dead faint: “Um, err, oh, it’s, I goes … zero? I’m an academic. I’m usually just glad someone has asked me to talk.”

Him: “Okay. No. How about $250?”

Me: “Of course. That sounds great. Thank you.”

Yes, it’s a post about honoraria. Honorariums? I don’t know. The money people pay you to talk about your research, money that’s not your salary. Money that’s not your travel or food expenses. Ideas money.

It’s all very awkward. No one ever told me about honoraria when I was a grad student, just like they never told me about negotiating for royalty payments for a textbook. And here I am with both issues somehow having become current in my life. The only thing I ever remember hearing about “speaking fees” was of a Famous Postmodernist who extorted a very large speaking fee from a university I attended, and then read to the eager crowd an excerpt from a book he’d published ten years earlier. The idea I gained from that anecdote and others was twofold. First, superstars get fees, and they’re big. Like prohibitively, we can’t afford her, four digits big. Second, there’s a whiff of jackassery and arrogance about the whole notion of charging money for talking about your research.

Okay, I guess it was threefold, because I also picked up the idea that writing and speaking that paid was not real research. You know that’s true: textbooks bring their authors lots of money and monographs are often subsidized by money the author somehow finds to give to the press. Which book earns the author a gold star at review time?

Last year, I was invited to another university to give a talk in a lecture series. They told me up front that they would pay all my travel and subsistence expenses. And they said there would be a modest honorarium, but they didn’t say how much. This year, I gave a plenary address to nearly 200 high school students at a symposium, and I had written the paper before I found out that there was going to be an honorarium, and how much. I gave a keynote to a small gathering of scholars and found out after the event was finished that there was going to be an honorarium. I won’t know how much until it arrives, I guess.

I have written about social media and the professoriate for a Reader’s Forum in a scholarly journal, gratis. I have written about collaboration and the humanities for University Affairs, with Heather and Erin, for a fee. It’s all a mystery, frankly. I am making, I discover, a gagillion dollars a year from the Canadian edition of the textbook I work on, but the American author makes several gagillion more, but exactly how much is a mystery to me.

We don’t, I guess I’m saying, talk in very clear or explicit ways about money in this business. Should we? Myself, I do a lot of knowledge dissemination work, which is to say, media and public talks and such. Some of it is paid and some of it isn’t, but we never talk about it beforehand. I have been recompensed along a sliding scale from nothing (local TV, talks at the library, most academic gigs), through logo-emblazoned coffee cups (The Current), to cash money plus a bottle of wine (private high school).

I am always honoured to be asked. The honorarium is never top of mind. Should it be? Or middle of mind? What do you think about the issue? I find it all terribly awkward and perplexing, but it is nice to be paid for things, sometimes at least. I don’t know, seriously, I just don’t know what I think about the issue. You?