#alt-ac · dissertation · from dissertation to book · writing

Why I Want to Publish My Dissertation (Even Though I’ll Never Be a Professor)

When I decided in 2012 that I’d never go on the faculty job market, progress on my dissertation stalled for, oh, three years. Sure, I took a demanding job in research administration not long after, which made dissertation writing harder in practical terms. But my real issue with dissertation writing was psychological. Without a good reason to finish this proto-book I was pretty sure no one was ever going to read, I couldn’t find the motivation to make progress on it. Sitting down to write was mental torture.

After I’d been in research administration for a couple of years, I came to the conclusion that while I didn’t care all that much about finishing my dissertation for its own sake, having the PhD as a credential was going to be necessary for the career path I was envisioning for myself. I moved into a similar but less overwhelming job with a walking commute (which helped a ton), and over the course of the next year I finished writing the last two thirds of my dissertation. All told, it took me almost exactly eight years to get my PhD: I started the program the day after Labour Day in 2008 and I defended four days after Labour Day in 2016.

It’s been six months since I defended, and after a long period of waffling, I’m actively pursuing the publication of my dissertation. One press is awaiting my proposal with interest, and I’ve got conversations in progress with another. The proposal will go out by the end of the month (I’m writing both it and this post on a little DIY writing retreat I put together in mid-March), and we’ll see what happens from there. I’m a little surprised that this is a path I’m going down, because like finishing my dissertation, I was resistant to the idea of publishing it for a long time.

It’s not the idea of holding a book I’ve written in my hands that I don’t like. In fact, I like the idea quite a lot–I got to do it recently with this beauty, and it feels awfully nice. It’s the idea of reentering the dysfunctional and exploitative academic systems that I purposefully removed myself from when I decided not to become a professor. I will perform a frankly offensive amount of unpaid labour to get this book out, labour that won’t even be compensated by academic capital that I can use on the job market. (I’ll have it, but I have no need or place to use it.) The press and editors I work with will be underpaid for all of their work. The book, if it does really well, might sell 500 copies. It will be too expensive for most people to buy, and the university librarians I so respect and love will have to balance purchasing it against their shrinking budgets and the demand to buy ever more expensive science journals. It might come out in paperback eventually, which will help make it more accessible, but people will likely have forgotten all about it by the time it does.

So why am I doing it, given all of these good reasons not to?

It turns out that I care enough about this research–this person, really, as I write about one woman, poet, publisher, and professor Jay Macpherson–to make all of that not matter. Macpherson came to Canada as a refugee in 1940. She was part of what we now know as the ‘war guest’ program, the one that placed British children who were in danger of being killed or injured by German bombs in Canadian foster homes. Separated from her family, not well treated by her foster family, terribly lonely, and terrified about the fate of a world that seemed on the verge of apocalypse (is this sounding familiar?), she started to write. And her poems helped her–and can help us–think through how we deal with living under the threat of annihilation, our culpability as members of a society that ignores and abuses children, what happens when we don’t see ourselves in the books we read, what its like to navigate one’s own queer desire in a heteronormative and patriarchal society. Perhaps most importantly, Macpherson wrote her way to a place where her poems became a gateway to a better imagined world, one where finding the common roots of our stories, myths, languages, and loves could break down the barriers that lead to violence, war, alienation, death.

Macpherson’s poems weren’t always so hopeful. After the loss of a great love (which I think was a combination of a total loss of poetic inspiration and the end of her relationship with Northrop Frye), she went silent for nearly twenty years. Her second (and last) major collection, Welcoming Disaster, calls upon her old myths and some new ones to think through how to rebuild one’s world after a personal sort of apocalypse. And yet, despite everything she suffered–being abandoned, abused, marginalized as a woman scholar and poet, cut off from her gifts–she never became wholly disillusioned. If anything, Macpherson turned her energies even more strongly toward using her verse to make the world better, to helping those with less love or power or hope than she had. She spent the latter part of her career mostly writing political poetry and protest songs aim at righting the wrongs she saw in the world.

It was the fifth anniversary of Macpherson’s death yesterday, and it’s time for more people to know these stories than me, to absorb them into their own personal mythologies and use them, as Macpherson did, to remake the world in new and better forms. That might not be very many people, given the reach of an academic monograph, but I want it to be more people than just my committee and me.

And that’s why, despite the fact that I’ll never be a tenure-track professor and there are all sorts of reasons not to, I want to publish my dissertation.

(Thanks to Lisa Munro, who is also doing the same kinds of thinking, for inspiring this post.)

advice · book · dissertation · self care · writing

From Dissertation to Book – Part I: The Break

It’s been about a month since I submitted the final, revised version of my dissertation, and I haven’t looked at it since. My committee and I talked a lot about what my plans were for the dissertation prior to the defence: what presses I should think about pitching it to, if I should go trade or academic, who we know at the various presses and how that might be an advantage in crafting a proposal. But since submission? Nada. My cursor hasn’t even strayed toward the file.

I’ve done plenty else in the meantime. As Catherine Ayres notes, at the bottom of the PhD cliff lies all the stuff you’ve been putting off in the dash to submission, and oh man is that true. I’ve submitted the manuscript for a book of poetry I’m editing, started laying the groundwork for a new advice column series for another publication, ordered new business cards with my new title on them, and registered for CAGS. I’ve taken off the dissertation blinders and made a looooong list of all of the projects I’ve been putting off that are going to keep me busy this winter around our very old and very high-maintenance house.

After five years of thinking and writing about a single project every day, purposefully ignoring my dissertation feels wrong. It is, however, precisely the right thing to do right now. I have zero chill when it comes to my dissertation. I am both its biggest cheerleader and its biggest critic. Neither of those perspectives are conducive to frankly and honestly assessing its flaws and strengths with an aim to revision, nor are they useful for doing the kind of strategic assessment that is necessary in order to convince a press that this is a book they want to publish because it fills a market need, might make them some money, and will help burnish their reputation.

But because not doing something I feel like I should be doing is the surest road to amping up my anxiety levels, I’ve made “take a productive break” the official first step in my dissertation-to-book process. I’ve also tried to plan a break that is purposeful, productive, and prescribed in length. I’m giving myself a full term, until the end of 2016, and then I’m back at it. I’m also doing things in the meantime to help me move forward in the monograph publishing process even as I don’t properly start it, things like:

  • getting to work on another long writing project (fiction this time!) so that I’m maintaining my writing schedule, continuing to refine my style, practicing my ability to write engaging and accessible prose, and continually reinforcing those hard-won pathways in my brain that connect writing and revising with feeling good and accomplished
  • doing some preliminary market research — what presses are publishing work similar to mine? what professors are teaching books like mine? Is there a significant non-academic audience? Who do I know who has a BookNet account and can run me sales reports on similar titles?
  • starting to collect resources on the dissertation-to-book process so that I have a trove of advice at my fingertips whenever I need it
  • pulling together a bunch of successful book proposals that I’ve either worked on in my freelance life or have solicited from friends and colleagues so that I have a model to work from when it comes time to write my own
  • reading and rereading books that are similar to what mine will become–Sandra Djwa’s Journey with No Maps, Rosemary Sullivan’s Stalin’s Daughter, Frank Davey’s aka bpNichol–so that I can start teasing apart what makes them work and what ideas I can borrow when it comes time to craft a plan for revisions
But mostly I’m doing other things–cooking, running, spending time with my people–in an effort to relax, reset, and get some perspective. It feels good. I’m hopeful that if nothing else, by the end of the year it will have sunk in that I did indeed finish, defend, and submit a dissertation. That would be a good start!
academy · dissertation · faster feminism · grad school · parenting · PhD · productivity · reform · women

Parenting in the PhD: Round II

It was with mixed feelings that I welcomed September and the onset of autumn this semester. Most years, with the yellow-tinged leaves and the crisp morning dew, I find myself back in the classroom, gearing up for a semester of teaching, welcoming new students, or training incoming RAs.

This year, I’m gearing up for a different kind of semester. I began the term filling out Employment Insurance (EI) forms instead of post-doctoral applications. Instead of stacks of papers mid-semester, I’ll be dealing with stacks of diapers. Instead of scheduled student hours, I’ll be at the beck and call of unscheduled infant cries: my second child is due to arrive at the end of October.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how different my experience of pregnancy, parental leave, and the academy has been on the second go-around.

Although both my children will be born during my PhD, the first arrived at the end of my first year, while I was funded through SSHRC. The second comes at the tail end of my program, as I submit my final chapter, re-write my introduction, and finish my conclusion. My funding has shifted from scholarship-based to teaching-based, and with that shift comes a complete alteration in how (and whether) I qualify for paid maternity and parental leave.

As it turns out, there are vastly different parental benefits available to graduate students at the University of Alberta depending on the source of their academic funding. Although every graduate student is permitted to take up to three years of unpaid parental leave, qualifying for paid leave depends on precisely how you are paid: 1) by scholarship, 2) as a Graduate Student Research/Teaching Assistant, or 3) as a Contract Academic Employee. Each of these options has various benefits and drawbacks, but most graduate students don’t actively chose which one they happen to qualify for. Much depends on how a particular department happens to be able to fund its graduate students, or the scholarships those graduate students themselves happen to win.

1) If you are paid by scholarship, paid parental leave depends on the scholarship itself. If you hold an external SSHRC doctoral award, you qualify for up to six months of paid parental leave at 100% of your stipend. If you hold other awards, it depends on that award. Surprisingly (to me, at least), many of these awards, both external to the university (like the prestigious Killam) or internal (like the now-defunct Dissertation Fellowship) offer no paid parental leave at all, meaning you would qualify for nothing if you happened to need parental or maternity leave while holding these awards.

2) If you are paid as an Research or Teaching Assistant (either full or part-time), you are permitted to take either: parental leave, which allows for 16 weeks of leave at 75% of your current stipend; or maternity leave at 100% of your stipend for six weeks, followed by 75% of your stipend for the remaining 10 weeks. (For more, see the Graduate Student Assistantship Collective Agreement).

3) If you are paid as a Contract Academic Employee, you *may* qualify for leave through Employment Insurance as long as you meet the requirements (you must have worked 600 insured hours as a Contract Academic Employee in the previous 52 weeks, which is not typical for most graduate students). This would permit you to take a full year of paid leave, at 55% percent of your salary.

These, of course, are just the policies at my own university–the University of Alberta. While other Canadian universities operate on similar lines (ie: whether you qualify for leave depends on how you are paid), many actually don’t offer any paid leave at all for students supported through the university (ie: as a research or teaching assistant).

In my particular case, in this second pregnancy, I managed to qualify for a full year of leave through EI by working as a Contract Academic Employee. I got a bit lucky because I was offered an extra course through another department at my university, and a spring course through my own department (which I was not guaranteed with my particular funding package). This meant I was able to work the amount of insurable hours I needed to qualify, and it means that this time I will be taking a full year of paid leave, versus four months last time–which I felt was insufficient (in fact, I wasn’t able to find full-time childcare until well after my four months of official leave). There was, of course, a trade-off: I almost certainly slowed my progress to completion by taking on the additional teaching work.

How, then, might universities better support graduate students who become parents during the course of their degrees?

What I’d really love to see is a full year of paid parental leave for all graduate students, regardless of how they are paid. This would go a very long way in helping women to succeed in academia. However, given that even the best leave (SSHRC) only pays six months of leave (albeit at 100%), I feel like this is a good second choice. So, I’d love to see all graduate students qualify for six months of leave at 100%, regardless of their funding sources. It would also be great to see the qualifying period simply be based on the student’s previous four months of pay. This would negate the need for students to undertake more work (and thus slow their time to completion) simply in order to qualify.

Both these things would help reduce the academic opacity that seems to surround the decision to have a family, and make it more fair for students who happen to be on scholarships or funding packages that mean they don’t qualify. Really, all graduate students should be entitled to paid leave, regardless of the source of their funding.

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

Firsts and Lasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

advice · dissertation · grad school · reflection · writing

On Revising: Some Tips

There is a whole lot of writing studies research that suggests how very difficult it is for students to learn how to revise their writing. Most students tend to initially approach revision as proofreading, changing a comma here, a word there, tinkering with a sentence. They don’t typically understand what it means to develop or discover ideas, which takes engagement with opposing views, a complex multi-layered conversation, and a new, contributing idea.

This certainly was true of me as an undergraduate, and even as a graduate student. My writing practice in most of my undergraduate and graduate coursework was fairly straightforward: think about the paper topic (attend class, read critical articles), write some notes/an outline/select quotes, then whip up a 10-20 page paper in relatively little time. After I’d written the paper, proofreading/tinkering as I went, that was basically it. I’d occasionally read the paper aloud to catch stray grammatical errors, or ask a friend to proofread. But once it was written it was usually done. Only once or twice did I substantially revised a paper I’d already written in full, and it didn’t substantially shift my typical writing practice.
For a long time it worked out just fine. And some of these practices were good ones to develop, practices I still undertake, when I’m thinking about and discovering new ideas. But as an undergraduate and new graduate student, I was a pretty novice writer and thinker. Since the end of my MA and into my PhD, I’ve had to radically shift the way I think about what it means to write, and a big part of that has been learning to revise. After I’ve finished drafting papers, I’ve drafted them again (for conferences), and again (for submission-ready publications), and again (for revise-and-resubmits), and again (for dissertation chapters). I’m finally starting to gain a lived sense of what it means to genuinely revise, particularly for long and complex writing (ie: the dissertation). 
As I’ve begun to approach revising my first bit of really complex revising–the first section of my dissertation, a chapter of about 60 pages–I’ve learned, through trial and error, what really seems to work for me. 
Here are the steps I take when revising a longer piece of work: 
1. Print: Produce a (double-sided) paper copy of the draft. I’m not quite sure why exactly it took me so long to realize this simple but very important element of the revision process. For a long time I tried to do all my editing on my computer, but eventually I realized it just wasn’t working. It was difficult to scroll between pages, I could only see a narrow window of text, and I was finding it hard to conceptualized how all my ideas connected. Once I printed out a paper copy, the process became MUCH easier. Perhaps in part because it is hard to be distracted by social media when staring at a piece of paper.

2. Highlight: Once I printed out a paper copy, I went through and highlighted all the big points I was trying to make in my chapter. Thesis sentence, topic sentences, any central idea that I knew was important to carry through the chapter. This helped me focus on the main points, and make sure I was drawing my ideas through to a conclusion.

3. Write in the Margins: After highlighting the important bits, I went through and basically marked up my entire draft, fixing typos, adding sentences, filling in extra info where my supervisor had asked for more background information or explanation, and making sure my central idea and contribution was carried through my various points. I added transition sentences, did background research on the history of a particular society, and did some significant thinking, but all on physical paper.

4. New Word Docs: I usually work in Scrivener at the beginning of a project (and sometimes all the way through), but this time I found it easier to work with a blank Word screen, probably because I was overwhelmed by the amounts of writing I’d already produced. Opening a blank Word doc worked to help me produce those extra paragraphs and sections I wanted to add without being distracted by the whole.
5. Combine paper and Word drafts into a single whole: this is the fun part! It doesn’t take too much time either. Compile all the changes you’ve made into a single draft. It’s enormously satisfying.
A Final Tip: 
6. Realize IT TAKES TIME: Genuine revision of ideas takes an enormous amount of thinking time, and it doesn’t really work to push it to go faster. Recognize that this kind of hard thinking and writing can be exhausting, and don’t try to push yourself beyond what you can do. I realized I had to say no to writing in the evenings after a long day of writing, even though I felt like I shouldn’t. Pushing yourself like this doesn’t actually work: it makes that work of thinking harder in the long run. You need to give yourself the time and space to do this hard work of thinking, and then the time to recover. Give your brain a well-deserved break, so you can approach the work with fresh eyes again the next day.
community · dissertation · grad school · PhD · saving my sanity · writing

When you just don’t want to write

It’s mid-March. The days are longer, warmed by sun, but frost lingers in the morning, and piles of snow creep into the shadows, refusing to melt. The semester is furiously racing to its end, our energy reserves are depleting, and while we can see the close of the term, we’re all wondering if we’re going to end before it does.

I’ve been working on a substantially revising a long section of my dissertation, but on some days my brain is foggy, or I feel a lack of confidence, afraid I don’t know what I’m doing. As the term winds to a close and writing deadlines approach, I’ve found a few tried and true methods for getting the work of writing done, even if it feels near impossible.

1. The Pomodoro Method: We’ve talked about this a lot on Hook and Eye before, but the Pomodoro technique really does help to give focus to a writing task. If I’m stuck in the endless chasm of research and can’t seem to get my way out of it, I turn off the internet, set the timer for 25 minutes, and then dedicate my full attention to the task of writing. It’s really helpful when I’m not feeling motivated because 25 minutes is such a manageable length of time: anyone can do it. After the timer rings, if I’m really vigilant, I’ll only take a 5 minute break, which I also use the timer to structure. After four cycles, I give myself a 15 minute break.

2. Take Real Breaks: Boyda talked a couple weeks ago about slowing down and unplugging, and I highly recommend it. Even if you can only take a 3-5 minute break, don’t spend it surfing the internet, or checking your phone, or staring at some kind of a screen. If you can, stand up, move around, stretch, or just close your computer and stare out a window or into space. It’s enormously beneficial to do something different so the break feels like a real break and not just the same old.

3. Get Moving: If you have a bit more time, go for a walk with a friend. Get outside for the fresh air and vitamin D, or just go get coffee. Even if you don’t drink coffee, just go for the walk. If you can’t spare the time, spend five minutes doing jumping jacks or running in place, or have a personal dance party. If you only have a few seconds, my three-year-old would probably recommend the Crazy Shake.

4. Make Lists: At the beginning of each day, make yourself a to-do list of what you need to accomplish, and decide what to prioritize for that day. On Mondays, it can be really beneficial to write down your goals for the week, and then break it down into daily chunks. It can also be useful to work back from any impending deadlines in order to help structure your time on a month-or-semester-long basis. Sometimes these goals aren’t met in the way we think we will meet them, but having them in the first place means they can be revisited or that we can make new priorities when the unexpected occurs.

5. Meet up with Friends: One of the most important things for me personally is having people around me to keep me accountable to my writing goals. Whether I meet up with them in person, like for my weekly writing club where we do community pomodoros (if you’re at the U of A, join us!), or to an online googledocs spreadsheet to write out my weekly and daily goals, when someone else knows what I commit to, it becomes much easier to do it. The extra accountability means I’m far more likely to get stuff done. Also, it’s harder to putz around on the internet when someone is hovering over your shoulder.

6. Just do it: Even if your brain doesn’t want to cooperate, just force yourself to focus. Turn off the internet, gather every spec of willpower, and focus on the writing task at hand. Sometimes just writing the first couple of words on the blank page can be the key to gaining momentum.

balance · dissertation · grad school

On Playing the Long Game

I’m at the point in the PhD program that they like to call “the writing phase”: I’ve completed my coursework, met my language requirement, passed my candidacy, and all I have left to do is that one bit of work called “the dissertation”. So . . . lots of days staring into the distance, thinking, drinking coffee, and writing, right? Um, not so much.

Over the last year in particular, I’ve had to juggle dissertation writing with teaching, a research position, publishing, archive trips, and conferencing, amongst a myriad of other demands. But in the process I’ve learned a couple things about finding rhythms, discipline, and carving time from a busy schedule. One thing I’m finding is particularly crucial about writing the dissertation is the importance of consistency, regularity, and routine, or what a good friend of mine likes to call “playing the long game”.

Most English graduate programs are set up in such a way as to push students really hard for short periods of time. In Canada, in my graduate program, PhD and MA students must take three courses each term, with heavy reading loads. Most of these courses require students to write one lengthy term paper (18-25 pages) and give (at least) one oral presentation (8-10 pages of less formal writing). If you’re lucky, you can spread the presentations throughout the term so they don’t overlap (and occasionally, these presentations can roll into the final paper). But the final papers usually all converge within a few weeks of each other. Unless students are extremely well-organized and on top of things, this usually means an intense period of suffering writing at the end of term. The pay-off, of course, is great: at least sixty pages of writing in a month-long period. But the trade-off is that students don’t necessarily learn how to approach the long-game writing that makes up the dissertation.

I’ve been at this for a year and a half now and it’s just now that I’m realizing how committed I’ve been to the “short bursts of energy” model. To give just one example, I wrote my first chapter in four weeks after I returned from a research trip to the UK. It’s not just me, academia in general tends to push people towards models of this kind simply because of its cyclical nature. The two semester: teaching; one semester: research/writing idea is, of course, build into the semester system. But the increasing pressures to undertake more activities throughout the teaching year can sometimes mean that writing takes a back burner until the summer. The results are sometimes a little bit like this: Have a conference abroad next week? Frantically finish the paper on the plane! Article revision deadline? Don’t touch the paper until the week before!

Not all of this is bad, of course. Sometimes pressure has the glorious effect of making efficiency machines out of all of us. But the kind of pressure that makes us efficient with articles and conference papers doesn’t necessarily help for the lengthy work of the dissertation. 

Boyda wrote a great post last week about the slow scholarship movement, and what it means to “let our projects grow and evolve as they speak back to us, as they engage us in conversation.” And we’ve written a lot here in the past about the need to approach writing in a sustainable fashion. What I’m trying to suggest in this post is that in order to do the kind of work required for the dissertation, a fundamental shift is needed: we have to approach our projects with consistency and regularity over a long period of time. It’s not just enough to pound out a chapter in a month. It’s necessary to give our work enough time to percolate, to breathe. We need to write, and then return to our writings, and let our research speak for itself. Part of this involves what Adrienne Rich calls “re-vision”: looking again at what we’ve written, and seeing things with new eyes, arriving at it from “a new critical direction”. Rather than giving the dissertation periodic bursts of energy, we have to approach it with consistency and regularity, we have to return to it frequently, and let it speak to us.

 What I’m trying to commit to over the course of this semester is simple: one unit of dissertation-related writing, minimum, every day (35 to 45 minutes). I’m hoping this minimum requirement will be surpassed, of course, and there are days that I will certainly devote much more time to my writing. But by committing myself to this minimum, daily writing, I hope I can let my project speak for itself. 

#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.

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.