ideas for change · productivity

Feeling anxious? Try safe mode!

I’d like to break my silence on this thing to introduce you to a small productivity concept that has resonated strongly with me. 

Do you sometimes wake up feeling anxious? Depressed? Rundown, disoriented, and nondirectional? Do you poop out of parties?



Or, did you have a little too much fun last night, and can’t afford to take the day off? Feeling overwhelmed about all your myriad projects, big & small?


Why not try putting yourself into what my good friend Allison calls “safe mode”? 

“Safe mode” is a diagnostic state in computer operating systems in which the computer runs tasks and completes operations at a slower, less efficient rate. This is because something is wrong with the system and it cannot fully function, so it runs basic functionality including only the essentials until the larger problem is addressed. It is perhaps akin to low battery mode on iPhone, when background refresh, automatic downloads, and certain visual effects are deactivated. You can still text, check apps, make calls–but nothing fancy, important, or overly taxing.

When I wake up feeling anxious or otherwise, I go into safe mode. I make a list of small, easily executed tasks that perhaps I have been putting off. Emails, stray response papers that need grading, an online training course I’ve been avoiding, scanning PDFs for my class, updating the format of my CV, setting up Grade Center on Blackboard, ordering books for next semester. (Did I mention emails?) Nothing that involves too much active energy or engagement, nothing that deals in high stakes. These are arranged in a sequential order such that the small feat of completing one task enables you to pass onto the next one – like passing on to the next level in a video game. 

I prioritize things that will make me feel better about myself, reinforce my competency, and translate the nebulous work of much of academia into itemized tangibles–or, dare I use the language of assessment, deliverables. I end the day with a sense of satisfaction that I honored my need for some distance from my major, stress-inducing responsibilities, while having crossed a number of items off a list, clearing space for greater focus once I feel well enough to reenter normal mode. 

Leave the big tasks for a different day, when your desk is free of the small stuff. Try safe mode! It acts not only as a symptom of anxiety, but also serves as an antidote, for the accumulated little things can contribute to overwhelm in ways that we might not even recognize.

Source: mytherapistsays on IG

Safe mode is sometimes useful to switch on even when you aren’t feeling anxious or overwhelmed, because it is so easy to let the small things pile up, and before you know it you’ve missed a deadline or disappointed a friend or colleague. I guess in that instance, you might be in safe mode and you don’t even know it, sloughing off on the tasks that don’t present themselves to you as immediately pressing. But at any rate, you might want to try blocking out a section of time on your calendar for safe mode tasks. With safe mode, you can spoon your way to better mental health!


ideas for change · mental health

Campus suicide: we need to talk

My campus has suffered two suicides this term alone, in the very same student residence. This is a tragedy, twice over, and beyond measure.

I’m working on this post watching over my 38 first year students as they quietly read and edit one another’s research papers. It could have been any one of them.  Indeed this student was a colleague to many of my own. I cannot bear that.

We can none of us bear this. Something has got to change. All of us can do something, and it feels really urgent to me that we start right now.

First this: first year university is incredibly hard. It’s lonely, it can be very isolating, our egos take substantial hits from the massive change in pedagogy and expectation and cohort. Early adulthood is massively challenging as we figure out who we are. New romantic and sexual relationships. Breakups. Difficulties functioning in the much less structured university environment. Imposter syndrome. Regrets. A discovery of our own intellectual limits. There’s nothing easy about any of this, and it is abundantly clear that students aren’t getting what they need as they transition to adulthood, to independence, to university study, to changing ideas of who they are and what they want and what their capacities are. My school is known for the incredibly competitive nature of some of its most famous programs of study, and that only increases the pressure on those lucky enough to get in.

Mental health, mental illness, and suicidality are serious ongoing structural risks to university study. We need something more than ‘campus wellness days’ and a 1-in-5 that only has happy people in the video. We need more than working groups and statements of support. We need concrete counseling supports diffused across campus, and in the residences. We need training for staff in spotting and supporting students in crisis. We need faculty training in how to design curriculum and pedagogy that is less structurally likely to push people over the edge. We need programs that work to ensure that all students are supported toward graduation, rather than celebrating toughness by measuring drop out rates. We need universities that don’t, structurally, haze students with sink-or-swim social, institutional, or academic models.

The brother of the student who committed suicide this week posted a heartfelt plea to Reddit this week, full of despair and sadness and anger. The thread extends for pages, an honest and brutal conversation that we are just not seeing anywhere else on campus. Have I received official notification of this? I have not. I teach first year students in the same program. I found out from reddit. Unacceptable. That’s several days of Daily Bulletins with nothing. No memos. Nothing. For shame. The student newspaper has something, which I found after a colleague posted the Reddit thread on Facebook.

Silence is violence.

The Reddit post shows a grieving teenager adrift, but reaching out. We need to reach back. We need to extend our collective arms to support all our students. So many more of them are struggling than we are willing to acknowledge. We need to acknowledge the loss. To work towards mitigating the conditions that led us here. To do better. We can get through this together: suicide is preventable; suicidality is often momentary, but in that moment it can be fatal. Let’s get through those moments, together.

If you are Waterloo and you need help:
https://uwaterloo.ca/health-services/mental-health-services

Kids Help Phone:
https://www.kidshelpphone.ca/Teens/InfoBooth/Emotional-Health/Suicide.aspx?gclid=CNjli6X39tICFca3wAod-0IDiQ

How to support a friend who may be suicidal:
https://www.helpguide.org/articles/suicide-prevention/suicide-prevention-helping-someone-who-is-suicidal.htm

#heforshe · administration · equity · ideas for change · modest proposal · role models

What can I ask for? A modest proposal

Academic women are often confounded when presented with the opportunity, obligation, or occasion to ask someone for something: money, teaching release, academic accommodation, etc. This confounding almost invariably results in women structurally under-asking and under-receiving, relative to male peers. And I know how to fix it.

What am I talking about?

Let’s say you are applying for a grant that requires matching funds. (Matching funds: some combination of you, your institution, partners or sponsor kicks in some money, and the granting agency matches it.) Let’s say you are asking your research office or some other funds-holding body on campus for these funds. My dearest spouse has been the receiver of such requests, for a variety of programs, for the last ten years, from hundreds of researchers. Here are the two far ends of the spectrum of requests, composites and only slightly exaggerated.

Professor A: “I need the research office to give me $50,000 in matching funds for this big important grant because I am big and important and if I get this grant the university will look bigger and more important.”

My spouse: “Well, no. We don’t even have $50,000 in that entire fund, and we must serve multiple researcher requests.”

Professor A, ten seconds later: “How much is in the fund?”

My spouse: “$10,000.”

Professor A, five seconds later: “That’s not very much! I need that $10,000 and who can I write to to ask for more? Is it the VP Research? What’s his email address?”

Professor B: “I’m so sorry, but I think I have to ask you for some matching funds for my grant? It’s a funder requirement. Otherwise I wouldn’t ask.”

My spouse: “Of course! How much do you want?”

Professor B, after delay of three days: “I don’t know, is maybe $1000 too much?”

My spouse: “Don’t you need more than that? How much do you need?”

Professor B, after a further delay of three days: “I don’t want to be a bother! I’m so sorry I’m doing this wrong! What can I ask for? Maybe I shouldn’t submit this grant, I obviously don’t know what I’m doing.”

—-

Guess who gets the most money here? These are composite cases, but the gist of it is incredibly common. Professor A asks for the moon, and when shut down proceeds in a completely unembarrassed way to find out what the maximum is, and then to ask for that. Professor B is cringingly embarrassed to have to ask for anything, tries to ask for the absolute minimum, and upon receiving a followup suggesting the ask be altered, assumes they themselves are incompetent and withdraws from competition.

I leave you to guess the gender distribution into A and B categories.

I leave you to guess who wins the most grants, get the most matching funds, gets better funding, thus puts themselves in line for accolades and further prestige. Guess.

Me, there are a bunch of opportunities I don’t pursue because I would have to ask for resources. My first year as grad chair, I missed out on some recruitment funds because I wasn’t sure if I was entitled to ask, if my asks were reasonable, who I was being compared against, what the priorities were, and how much money I could ask for and for what. There was a “cookie jar” of unallocated funds. All the grad chairs could ask for funds from it, as needed. Well, shit, I don’t perform well under those conditions. No rules, no criteria, no guidelines on what and how much and how often and when. I’m getting nervous just thinking about it. I also hate it when people ask me my fee for talks: shit, I don’t know. How much are you paying the other speakers? What’s your budget? What would be reasonable? Just the other week I was on the verge of a clinical breakdown and my plan was to complain on the internet instead of asking for help that would cost someone money–like a good girl I waited for it to be offered to me. I know people, by contrast, who legit fight to get their teaching all arranged on ONE day of the week so they never have to be on campus.

People who aggressively ask, get more stuff. Aptitude for such aggression is often gendered. Institutional acceptance of aggression is often also gendered: you know, “God, she’s so pushy and demanding, who does she think she is?” versus “He really has no tact, but what a genius!”

A modest proposal 

In the spirit of He for She, I’m going to ask the mostly dudes who are in charge around here to do something pretty simple to make the soft-money and informal-arrangements a little fairer to the shy people as well as the bold. The team players as well as the out-for-themselfers.

Lay. Out. Some. Fucking. Parameters. Make them clear, specific, visible, and enforced.

For matching funds, why not have a page describing the process, something like this:

For X Award, researchers must secure matching funds from private and public sector partners, and from their institutions. Normally, the Office of Research can offer between $2500 and $7500 in matching funds in support of applications to this program. We are happy to work with you to determine your needs and to help you fulfill them. In some cases, extra funds may be deemed necessary, and such requests will be considered by the Important People Committee. 

Me, if I knew the parameters of the possible, I would feel WAY more comfortable making an ask. If I knew that the whole thing is negotiable and contingent, I would feel WAY more comfortable with a fuzzy rather than perfect ask.

I think the Powers that Be also need to note that many women are going to be more Professor B than Professor A. And even with clear parameters, are probably going to ask for less. I know it is tempting to let the shy and accommodating people just take less money, so you can get the aggressive and self-aggrandizing Professor B some more money so that he will leave you alone. But maybe that’s not, actually, fair. Maybe that’s not, actually, about whose proposal or whose research is actually better or more worthy, but about who is the squeaky wheel, and who is not. It’s resource allocation based on noise, not quality, frankly.

We can figure out new ways to be transparent about teaching allocation, and informal accommodations, and all the other “soft” requests that we always resist formalizing because of a desire to maintain “wiggle room.” I suggest to you, though, that some people are wiggling a lot harder than others, and tend to jostle the rest of us right off the bench and onto the floor. Wiggle room is often an excuse for the arbitrary distribution of resources, even if we like to frame it as room for empathetic discretion.

A modest suggestion

Many Hook and Eye readers, I am sure, identify way more with Professor B than Professor A. And that’s fine. So do I. But it’s worth learning a little bit about how the other side lives. I have learned, for example, that it’s not necessary to be embarrassed by asking for too much or not enough. Someone will tell you “no,” but it’s not “NO BECAUSE YOU ARE A FLAMING IDIOT OMIGOD I CAN’T BELIEVE WE HIRED YOU.” It’s more, “no, can’t do it — reframe the request and I’ll consider it again.” Or sometimes it’s just, “no, sorry, ran out of money, oh well.” Seriously. I just learned that, like, this year.

It’s admirable to want to be a good team player. But not to the point of total effacement of your own needs and desires. I deal with enough Professor A types to never want to be that person. But I have been Professor B enough times to know that I’m never going to reach my potential that way either.

So if you are a B type, see if you can push yourself a tiny little bit out of your comfort zone. Maybe you have book deadline in a teaching term — maybe ask if you can do some repeat courses instead of new preps in that one term. Maybe you have taken on a big admin role — maybe you can ask to have your courses compressed into fewer days to buy yourself some breathing space. Maybe your one course consistently overenrolls way higher than other similar courses — maybe you can ask for TA or grader support. Just ask; maybe it will be no, and that’s ok. But maybe it will be yes.

fast feminism · generational mentorship · guest post · ideas for change

Guest post: An Anti-Elite Manifesto for Canadian Public Intellectuals

Last winter, I took graduate level seminar Public Intellectuals in Canada: Their Essays, Talks, and with Dr. Joel Deshaye at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador, and it got me all riled up.
Considering the academy is churning out so-called intellectuals without even recognizing the status, or implications of the term, I wrote “Anti-Elite Manifesto for Canadian Public Intellectuals.”
Why? Because manifestos harness imaginative power.
Manifestos intervene. Manifestos are excessive. Manifestos are relentless. Manifestos interrupt. Manifestos persuade. At their core, manifestos are public declarations, often pushing political, social or artistic motion.
While elitism is defined as a select part of a group that is superior to rest in terms of ability or qualities, to truly be successful as a Canadian Public Intellectual one needs to speak to an audience, and appeal to a broad range of voices. One voice can’t speak for the whole, but many voices can create a chorus. A manifesto is a critical poetic choir of sorts.
As a poet and journalist, I’ve written several manifestos. In my opinion, the manifesto acts as a conversation between private and public thought. In my tenure as Canadian Women In Literary Arts critic-in-residence, I wrote “An Incomplete Manifestofor Canadian Women In Literary Arts,” in 2014, though it wasn’t the first time I was drawn to the manifesto as a genre. I’ve also written a “Modern Day Riot Grrrl Manifesta,” in 2011 for International Girl Gang Underground zine, and “A Fragmented Manifesto,” for GULCH: An Assemblage of Poetry and Prose published in 2009.
I am drawn to manifestos. They exist somewhere between poetry and criticism.
According to Mary Ann Caw, who edited Manifesto: A Century of Isms, “Originally, a manifesto was a piece of evidence in a court of law, or put on a show to catch the eye. The manifesto is: “a public declaration by a sovereign prince or state, or by an individual or body of individuals whose proceedings are of public importance, making past actions announced as a forthcoming.”
Manifestos articulate specific plans for action, and can discuss the intersections of feminism and social justice. Unlike the essay, which is quieter, more textual, manifestos are loud. Manifestos are messy. Manifestos elicit. Manifestos ignite. Caw notes, “The manifesto is an act of the démesure, going past what is thought of as proper, sane and literary.”
I didn’t intend to write to convince or convert, only to consider. This “Anti-Elite Manifesto for Canadian Public Intellectuals” is an invitation, an offering.  Hopefully, I’m not coming across as a one trick pony. I’m only taking Atwood’s advice to “think pink, and pack black.”
________________________________
 
An Anti-Elite Manifesto for Canadian Public Intellectuals
By Shannon Webb-Campbell

BECAUSE we need to acknowledge the land where we gather
BECAUSE this is unceded and unsurrendered Mi’kmaq and Beothuk territory
BECAUSE Indigenous communities of Newfoundland and Labrador have always existed despite what was declared in 1949
BECAUSE we relate to the characteristics of this country now called “Canada”
BECAUSE private actions can have public impact
BECAUSE public is a relationship among strangers
BECAUSE we have a responsibility as publics
BECAUSE we are involved in the affairs of a community
BECAUSE not all communities are recognized as publics
BECAUSE we must examine
BECAUSE we want to discuss poetry’s potential in public
BECAUSE Michael Warner notes, the diary can’t have an imagined public
BECAUSE public sphere is purely imaginary
BECAUSE publics are internalized as humanity
BECAUSE an image of writing should be the ghost of freedom
BECAUSE there are all kinds of knowledge transfers
BECAUSE public language addresses a public as a social entity
BECAUSE Daniel Rigney believes capitalist ideology is the main type of anti-intellectualism
BECAUSE paradox is the elitism of intellect and progressive ideals
BECAUSE mass media is a manufactured product
BECAUSE we are of the public, by the public, and for the public
BECAUSE of Marshall McLuhan, the medium is the message
BECAUSE personal and social consequences of any medium is an extension of ourselves
BECAUSE new technology eliminates jobs
BECAUSE fragmentation is the essence of machine technology
BECAUSE electric light is pure information
BECAUSE it’s a medium without a message
BECAUSE Glenn Gould reminds us, you can’t forget to pay homage to the source where all creative ideas come
BECAUSE we don’t have to duplicate the eccentricity of experience
BECAUSE we must discover how high our tolerance is for the questions we ask of ourselves
BECAUSE questions extend the vision of our world
BECAUSE this is a performance of the self
BECAUSE self-reflection means you always question yourself
BECAUSE questions paralyze the imagination
BECAUSE there is a new kind of listener
BECAUSE there was two hundred thousand “so-called” Indians in what became Canada
BECAUSE most of Canada clings to the attitude of a dominion
BECAUSE we’ve been watching from a ring seat, waiting for our time
BECAUSE Conrad Black deliberately had absolutely no contact, direct or indirect with anyone
BECAUSE in the past he’s known the prime minister
BECAUSE like Phyllis Webb, all our desire goes out to the impossibly beautiful
BECAUSE the glass castle is an image for the mind
BECAUSE we claim the five gods of reality to bless and keep us sane
BECAUSE a place of solitude is not where I choose to live
BECAUSE I prefer a suite of lies
BECAUSE Thomas King knows the truth about stories
BECAUSE stories is all we are
BECAUSE I’m not the Indian you had in mind
BECAUSE you are beginning to wonder if there is a point to this
BECAUSE you can’t say you would have lived differently years down the road if only you’d heard this story
BECAUSE we’ve heard it
BECAUSE George Eliot Clarke is parliamentary poet laureate
BECAUSE journalists turn facts into jazz
BECAUSE we have all the public fun
BECAUSE revolution is the orgasm of history
BECAUSE you really want to be prime minister
BECAUSE we have the privilege of academic freedom
BECAUSE poetry begins where lying ends
BECAUSE when I tweeted that last Clarke quote, Sina Queyras responded: if only
BECAUSE publicness can’t be underestimated (especially for women)
BECAUSE to think publically takes great risk and vulnerability
BECAUSE women’s work and criticism is still under-represented
BECAUSE we’re taught not to take up space
BECAUSE we are rarely invited to speak
BECAUSE there isn’t one way to write or think about anything
BECAUSE women are prevented from evolving in public
BECAUSE poetry makes its own mouth
BECAUSE the public doesn’t read
BECAUSE poetry repeatedly enacts its own construction and deconstruction
BECAUSE David Suzuki doesn’t have to kiss anybody’s ass
BECAUSE he doesn’t have to mask truth that comes from his heart

BECAUSE if you want everyone to like you, you are not gonna stand for anything
BECAUSE there will always be people that object
BECAUSE the greatest need we have is for clean air
BECAUSE we owe it to mother earth to take care of her
BECAUSE Margaret Atwood knows she is omnipresent and omniscient 
BECAUSE those are two attributes of the divine
BECAUSE the issues of responsibility are legal, moral and societal
BECAUSE intimacy builds worlds
BECAUSE we need to run the marathon
BECAUSE speaking in public still makes me sick
BECAUSE we must think pink, pack black
BECAUSE Atwood’s done her job
BECAUSE we’ve yet to do ours
Shannon Webb-Campbellis a Mi’kmaq poet, writer, and critic. Still No Word (Breakwater, 2015), recipient of Egale Canada’s Out In Print Award, is her first collection of poems. She was Canadian Women In Literary Arts critic-in-residence 2014, and is a board member.
Shannon holds a MFA in Creative Writing from University of British Columbia, a BA from Dalhousie University, and currently studies and teaches English Literature at Memorial University. Her work is anthologized in IMPACT: Colonialism in Canada (Manitoba First Nation Education Resource, 2017), Where the Nights Are Twice As Long: Love Letters of Canadian Poets (Goose Lane, 2015), This Place A Stranger: Canadian Women Travelling Alone (Caitlin Press, 2015), and others.
She curated “Screening the Offshore” at The Rooms Provincial Museum, Art Gallery and Archives, and worked as a curatorial assistant at Eastern Edge Gallery. Shannon is poetry editor at Plenitude Magazine.
Her play Neither Love Letters Nor Moonlight, premieres at the Arts and Culture Centre in St. John’s, Newfoundland February 2017. She is a member of Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation.

academic reorganization · academy · altac · empowerment · ideas for change

Professionalization and the Skillz to Pay the Bills

My first email address, that I got at York in 1993, was this: yku01233@yorku.ca. I probably only remember it because it was my very first email address, and I only knew, like 10 other people with email addresses, pretty much my friends who were geeks and who were at university: queensu.ca, uoguelph.ca. We memorized each other’s weird handles and it all felt very computery and The Future. We were emailing with command line Lynx.

When I got to Guelph for my MA, I had a new address: amorri02@uoguelph.ca. The first thing I did was go into the settings of my mail program (Pegasus!) and configure the account so that the name “Aimee Morrison” attached to the email address amorri02@uoguelph.ca. That way, if you got an email from me, it would list my actual name in your inbox. And if you were on campus and typed part of my name, it would autocomplete the address from the directory. When I got to the University of Alberta (in 1998) I did the further trickery of registering an actual alias address: ahm@ualberta.ca worked, but so did aimee.morrison@ualberta.ca. People marvelled at my astonishing computer skills.

None of this was hard to do. And it was the professional thing to do. Last week, I was ranting on Facebook about the number of students who won’t check their emails at all (YOU ARE ALL GOING TO FLUNK OUT BECAUSE THAT’S WHERE WE SEND DEADLINES), who won’t use their university accounts (FORWARD TO YOUR GMAIL IF YOU WANT BUT THIS IS A WORKPLACE), or who just never attach their names to their emails so that everytime I want to email them, I have to actually look through the university directory. Or they email me, and I have to reverse lookup the email address to figure out the name of the student.

Honest to god. Stop this. This is why people think we’re useless.

It got me thinking about bigger issues, about a different kind of professionalization, and institutionalization. One of the ways, I fear, that graduate students become institutionalized to think that there is no good life for them outside of the university is that we both passively support and sometimes actively encourage a very high degree of practical uselessness in them. You’re 30 years old and wrote a book length treatise on cycle plays but didn’t get paid in September because you never told HR that you moved, and they still have your email address from high school? Yeah. You might not be ready to have a regular job.

My sister works in the private sector. She wears real pants to work every day, uses a corporate intranet, meets deadlines, writes professional emails, uses spreadsheets, runs meetings. She has no patience at all for the life of the mind I describe to her, where everyone habitually misses deadlines, no one is trained on the main parts of their jobs, no one knows the org chart or the policies or the paperwork. Use a spreadsheet. Add. Their. Names. To. Their. Emails. And it is ridiculous, really.

Perhaps when we claim that our careers must take place in universities, we are as much about the negative valuation as the positive: we literally cannot function in office environments, because we don’t even know how to do a hanging indent in Microsoft Word, let alone create a pivot table, or use Excel functions to sort a table along two axes. Maybe we are unemployable.

This is depressing. Yes, academics are eccentric. One of my dear dear colleagues (love you!) knows how to ride a horse, but not drive a car. This type of thing is endemic. But can’t we be both eccentric AND competent? Paleography AND touch typing? Multi-modal poetry AND hand your grades in on time?

It begins with training. You know, when I started as grad chair, I was handed a master key, and a password to an email account, and left at it. Unacceptable. This work is complex, collaborative, multi-departmental, deeply financially implicated, full of ethical pitfalls and legal duties. Not one minute of training. I didn’t have the knowledge to run a lemonade stand, and I found myself in charge of a whole graduate program. It doesn’t speak well of the professional standards of my profession, truly. Just this year, the university is beginning to offer formal training for these roles. Next week, two and a half years into my three year term, I’m going to a workshop on how to lead meetings. Thank god.

We can do better by our students. The number one thing would be to inculcate the idea of the university *as* a workplace, and all of us as professionals in it. And of course, many professors (me!) need a lot more training in the mechanics of the workplace than we ever get. The next, and much easier thing, would be to offer opportunities to acquire basic workplace technical skills: using software, running meetings, emailing like a grownup, navigating the org chart.

Somewhere between debauched bohemian and corporate drone, there’s got to be some kind of middle place, some kind of basic competence in workplace skills and behaviours, so that we have more opportunities open to us, rather than fewer?

What do you want training in?

#alt-ac · #post-ac · careers · grad school · ideas for change · modest proposal

Professionalization when "the profession" isn’t (only) what we’re aiming for

Like many, my graduate program has long had a mandatory professionalization workshop series–PWPs, as we call them–that all PhD candidates must complete before we’re allowed to graduate. Rachel Cayley wrote a useful blog post last week that distinguishes nicely between professionalization and professional development, and PWPs are very much about professionalization as Cayley defines it: they happen at the department level, are targeted at preparing grad students to work within, and eventually become tenured members of, our discipline, and are run by faculty. (My job at SickKids, in contrast, is about professional development as Cayley defines it, which happens at the institutional level, is generally aimed at less discipline-specific or narrowly academic professional skills, is often explicitly about non-academic career preparation, and is run by people like me). As professionalization, my department’s PWP series covers the usual stuff that one needs to succeed as a graduate student who is aiming to become a faculty member: conference papers and journal articles, job applications and interviews, teaching, writing the dissertation proposal, applying for scholarships, etc.

I somehow managed to miss out on one of our PWPs–“Professional Resources and Strategies,” run by our own Lily Cho, who also happens to be my supervisor–and squeaked it in on Tuesday, just in time to defend. Because I’ve been at York since 2008, I’ve been able to watch with interest the shifts in how it understands and addresses what it sees as the fundamental purpose of graduate education. I started out as a new PhD student in a graduate department that spoke of “the profession” as though there were actually just the one, in 2012 became a graduate assistant in the Faculty of Graduate Studies whose job it was to research professional and career development programs on campus and across the country, then in 2013 took a full-time job in administration and launched the Faculty’s university-wide graduate professional skills program. Back in 2008, the PWPs I attended didn’t acknowledge, never mind confront, the idea that we were training to become anything but tenured professors at R1 institutions. In her PWP, however, Lily spent quite a bit of time acknowledging that a workshop on strategies for professionalizing within academia occupied a fraught position given the awareness that only about 20% of us would ever enter that profession. It made for a useful and realistic but strange sort of workshop, and it made me wonder:

What does professionalization look like when “the profession” isn’t, or isn’t only, what we’re aiming for? And how do we balance the need to prepare all of the graduate students who are interested in that route for the academic job market and a future academic job in case they do end up in one, while recognizing that we’re professionalizing 80% of them for a profession they’ll never enter?

The other grad students who were in Lily’s PWP with me wondered this too, and they seemed to find her very considered attempt to do both things–acknowledge the realities of the job market while preparing people for that market–disorienting. A couple of them suggested dispensing with a discussion of those realities altogether, which certainly would simplify things. That’s essentially what we do at SickKids, in some very specific contexts. We do a lot of transferable-skills type professional development, but I also coordinate a thing called PI Prep School, which is a very comprehensive career development program designed to get people jobs as academic scientists (or principal investigators, i.e. PIs). It covers everything from preparing job documents to establishing your first lab, and includes a full day mock campus interview (awkward lunch with the hiring committee included). At the PI Prep School intro session, we talk very little about the job market for academic scientists, which is just about as bad as any other. Mostly, we just proceed as though everyone in the room who wants an academic job may very well get one, and work from that premise. It’s straightforward, and while it might be unrealistic, it does away with the uneasiness that the mismatch between purpose and reality seemed to create for some of the people who attended Lily’s PWP.

But PI Prep School is aimed at preparing people only for the very last part of being professionalized–the point at which you move into being a professional–and only those people who are interested in and committed to going that route participate. The people interested in learning how to do a good job talk either know what the job market is like and have decided that they don’t care, or don’t know and don’t care to know. A discussion of the realities of the job market they’re professionalizing toward could, and largely has been, dispensed with. But what about a mandatory workshop on publishing journal articles, or giving conference presentations, or teaching? To a certain extent, those workshops could be considered useful to all grad students because those activities are arguably a part of the graduate degree, although you could absolutely–if you had no intention of becoming an academic–never publish a journal article or give a conference presentation as a PhD candidate. But how do we–or do we need to–address the fact that these professional competencies, when framed in specifically academic terms, are attending to the professional futures of so few?

Some of the other participants in Tuesday’s PWP seemed to think that we don’t, but I’m not sure I agree. I was, like many people who began their PhDs alongside me, woefully unaware of the academic job market when I started, and only became aware as the market in my field–Canadian literature, never a very robust one to begin with–tanked very loudly after the economic downturn. My program made no effort (at least that I was aware of) to make its students aware of its academic placement rates, or of the other kinds of jobs its graduates were taking up after their degrees. PWPs talked about “the profession” without the scare quotes, as if there were only one, and contextualized the professionalization we were doing only as preparing us for that singular career path. I found the culture that approach promoted very damaging when it came time to figure out my own non-academic career path, and I’m certainly not alone in that. The old approach served very few, and my graduate program seems to have realized it. Lily’s workshop is evidence of that, and so too is the new #altac workshop the department is bringing me in to run as part of the PWP series starting in the fall.

I’d suggest that there’s a third way to approach this–not to professionalize as though entering academia is inevitable and the only option, or to get caught up in the seeming strangeness of professionalizing 100% of graduate students for a job 20% of them will have, but making professionalization a little more like professional development. One of the things that professional development for graduate students works to do is to make clear to PhDs the transferability of their skills to a fields and jobs in and out of the university environment. And while professionalization as Cayley defines it is about preparing people to be professors and academic scientists, what we teach in professionalization workshops and courses isn’t applicable to just that profession. Yes, the PWP on writing articles and giving conference presentations is aimed at helping us build our C.V.s, but it is also–and could, perhaps should, be explicitly framed as–preparing us to be effective writers and public speakers wherever we end up. Writing grants is a key part of being a faculty member in most fields, and a major topic in professionalization programs, but guess what? A major proportion of the non-professor PhDs I know work in research funding administration, writing, developing and administering grants (me included). Let’s talk about that in our PWPs. The same goes for Lily’s professional resources and strategies workshop: the same strategies that she suggested as useful for becoming an academic professional (making connections with people in your field, reading blogs by people who write about higher ed, keeping up on major trends, figuring out the dress code, going to the most useful conferences) are the very same ones that help you become a professional in whatever field you choose.

It isn’t a major change, and it doesn’t require much of professors–not much more than figuring out where else academic skills could be useful and then talking about it–but it might solve the problem of professionalization when “the profession” isn’t (only) what we’re aiming for.

administration · community · grad school · ideas for change · postdocs · writing

How to: support graduate writers without spending any money

The end of the fiscal year is looming, and we’ve just wrapped up budgeting for 2016/17. And as always, the push is to do more for our graduate students and postdocs with less. Some things are just never going to be free–the fee for a really great workshop facilitator, catering for our annual Career Night, paying the professor who teaches our teaching development course, our salaries–but we’re getting creative about finding ideas for new supports and services that don’t cost much in time, labour, or hard cash.

One of the things I did when I was still at York University was start up a Shut Up and Write! group for our grad students and postdocs, and it is may be my favourite example of a meaningful and useful support for early career researchers that doesn’t cost a dime. Your campus might already have a graduate Shut Up and Write! group, often coordinated by students themselves, but if you don’t, here’s the lowdown:

Shut Up and Write! began as meet-up in San Francisco designed to help creative writers build community, alleviate the loneliness of writing, and do some serious churning out of words. It has since expanded into academia, especially for graduate students and postdocs, who often feel isolated when they transition from coursework to working on their theses, dissertations, and publications. In a Shut Up and Write! session you prioritize writing over everything else (e.g. no email, no Instagram, no texting) and ideally use it as an opportunity to establish a writing routine, do some intensive work, and break through blocks in a supportive atmosphere using the Pomodoro Technique. All you need to run a Shut Up and Write Group! is:
  • a room
  • a timer
  • someone willing to facilitate discussion and run the timer (This person can also be doing their writing during the session; I use it as an opportunity to get in some quiet, distraction-free work on my normal day-job stuff)

Each Shut up and Write! session, at least the way I run it, includes:

  • 10 minutes for introductions and chat
  • 2-3 rounds of writing Pomodoros (each Pomodoro includes 25 minutes of intensive writing plus a 5 minute break)
  • Time to discuss writing, trade writing and productivity tips, and get to know each other. On occasion, a more senior researcher or someone from the writing centre will come in to address a specific writing topic, take questions, or provide one-on-one consultation.

Attrition, particularly in the PhD, tends to happen most at the point when students transition from the relative structure of coursework, qualifying exams and (for my students, at least) collecting data to the nebulous and very self-directed period of writing the dissertation. Community and the motivation of progressing alongside others helps stop that from happening. It also helps postdocs feel like members of a community–an important shift for a group that often feels disconnected from their institution because they’re neither students nor faculty, and often are poorly served because they exist in that liminal space.

A weekly Shut Up and Write! group provides opportunity for community building, peer support, building positive relationships with academic administrators, increased productivity, and the comfort of routine–and it costs nothing. (Sometimes it costs me a little bit, but only because I can’t resist an opportunity to bake for more than my little two person family.) I only wish that there were more easy fixes like it.

What about you, dear readers? Any brilliant ideas for low-cost and low-effort ways to create community- and skill-building opportunities for grad students and postdocs you’d like to share?

community · ideas for change

Conference Papers are the Worst: An Unfair and Biased Diatribe

I’m recently back from my fourth or fifth Modern Language Association Conference, and one of the best that I’ve ever attended. Partly that was due the fact that I purposefully spent my time (and shared a room) with some of my favourite academic women, and we’re going to talk more about that aspect of the conference (and its relationship to radical feminist self-care) next week. Partly it was because Austin is amazing, and I had the chance to eat delicious vegan tacos twice a day, take long walks along the Colorado River in the sunshine, and drink some really excellent local beer. And partly it was because I largely avoided going to panels of conference papers.

My MLA looks rather different than it once did. I mostly teach, rather than talk–this year, I co-facilitated a breakout session on DH in/and the Dissertation as part of the joint DHSI@MLA pre-conference workshop, and later in the conference taught graduate students and administrators how to start identifying, and taking action on, the reproducible parts of all those PhD transition stories that seem so idiosyncratic. The Canadian representation at the MLA has shrunk in the last few years, so there’s rarely a panel squarely in my field in which I’m interested, and I mostly attend panels on which my friends are speaking. I find conference presentations a singularly bad way for me to learn anything–despite the fact that the idea of learning styles has been quite thoroughly debunked, I simply do not process complex arguments well when they’re spoken rather than written. And nearly every post-panel debrief amongst my friends had the same complaints: the papers were too long, they were often badly written and/or presented, the chairs were weak in their attempts to keep to time, there was never enough time for questions, those questions that did arise were more often quomments (what I like to call comments, often self-aggrandizing, disguised as questions), and issues with gender and power abounded (from the classic “congratulations! you have an all male panel,” to if the panelists allowed the chair to have the power to properly moderate, to who sucked up all the little Q&A time that existed). Perhaps I feel the freedom to finally say it because my career success does not hinge on giving conference papers, but I have decided that it is time to declare that conference papers are the worst.

The MLA seems to agree with me, at least a little. They already recognize three kinds of standard conference session formats–formal-presentation sessions, roundtable sessions (which may be interactive electronic demonstrations), and workshops–and are advocating for people to propose alternative, innovative sessions for MLA 2017.

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I’ve been in some of these sessions, at the MLA and its regional conferences, and they can be really fantastic. A group of us interested in innovative dissertations did a pecha kucha/ignite-style session at MLA 2014, and perhaps the most interesting (and valuable) aspect of that format was how much time it left–because there’s no way to go over, when your slides advance automatically–for genuine discussion and questions, which then informed Sydni Dunn’s article on the panel. The other great thing about pecha kucha sessions is the way they–because you only have six minutes–force you to distill your ideas down to their most important core. The MLA regional conferences are seemingly more willing to do seminar panels than the main conference, which are very common in other disciplines and subfields, and the chance to read (rather than listen to) papers and then have a genuine discussion is a valuable one, for presenters and the audience. But we can go even further than that, and if you’re looking for some ideas for innovative panels, I’ve curated three for you:

Chain-Reaction Panel

Panelists are responsible for reading each other’s papers in advance, and on the day of, each panelist spends ten to fifteen minutes interviewing the panelist directly to his/her left about the research and argument contained in his/her paper. The moderator begins by interviewing the first panelist, and ends by making connections, thanking the panelists, and setting the stage for an engaging q&a. People are required to succinctly and clearly explain their research and thinking, not just read half an article disguised as a conference paper, and this format has the advantage of providing plenty of time for questions and collaborative thinking between the panel and audience.

Research Speed Dating

Speakers are seated at smaller tables scattered around the room. Participants select the table (and paper) in which they’re interested, and after a very brief intro and contextualization by the moderator, speakers are given thirty minutes to present their research and then discuss it with participants. Participants then switch tables and do it all over again, and the session ends with a summary and large-group Q&A that makes connections across papers. The advantage for both speakers and panelists is that everyone at the table is interested in that specific topic, and will hopefully enter into a discussion that is informative (and perhaps transformative) for everyone. For those who are worried about missing some of the speakers, paper summaries can be shared at the end of the session or online.

Table Talk

This format might not work terribly well for a traditional research presentation panel, but the MLA does all kinds of other things, and there are many panels–especially the ones that I tend to belong to–that are about problem solving rather than just presenting ideas. Table talk panels are great for that. (That said, so much of the way we frame our research is about solving problems, even if that problem is just a gap in knowledge, so this format could work for more kinds of topics than I perhaps think it might.) The panel begins with a brief 10-15 minute presentation from the moderator that sets out the topic and problem of the panel–how do we understand the role and form of the dissertation in the 21st century? how can we create more useful and engaging conference sessions for non-academic job seekers? how can we best edit unruly objects? what can theory do for the Victorians?–and then each speaker takes a table along with participants. Speakers are responsible for coming up with, and guiding the discussion of, a specific question and/or discussion cue at their table. After the discussion concludes, the moderator invites some or of all of the groups to share the major insights or answers generated during the discussion. And now that the MLA Commons is in fairly wide use, notes from each discussion could easily be shared online so that participants have access to the entirety of the conversation, not just the one that happened at their own table.

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I’m taking the MLA up on their call. After participating in far too many panels that are just four people with non-professorial jobs sharing transition stories, I’m thinking of proposing a meta table-talk panel for MLA 2017 on how we can create more useful and engaging conference sessions for non-academic job seekers and the faculty who serve them.

What about you, dear readers? Do you share my opinion that conference paper panels are often quite terrible? What innovative formats have you proposed or been part of? And if you like conference paper panels, what aspects of them are valuable to you, and how can we do them better?

feminist health · guest post · ideas for change

Guest Post: Towards a Critical Theory of Breast Cancer

My sister and I share a lot of things: a love of reading; a room until she was a teenager; when my sister got her first bra, she made me wear it (I was 7); we geek out over queer theory; and we both have the ability to produce lots and lots of estrogen.
But I’m the only estrogen maker days while Emily’s hormones are being blocked by not one but two inhibitors. And, after my 31 year-old sister’s double mastectomy, the bras are all mine, too. Emily made the decision to remain what she calls “a flattopper,” which means that she didn’t want breast implants. In doing so, she joined the 58% of patients who choose not to reconstruct. Post-mastectomy bodies underscore what we’ve been taught all along in Women’s Studies classes: gender and biology are not correlative.
photo cred. Chloe Wicks

Ever since Emily lost her breasts she gained a mission: to make bodies like hers less taboo, to proudly display images of breastless chests. I think of my sister’s body as an essay on performative gender roles come to life, a breast cancer theory from inside the body and out.
After my sister’s breast cancer diagnosis, during my first year as a PhD student, I was often frustrated with academia. I imagine I’m not the only one who’s felt that graduate seminars are useless when someone you love is facing a life-or-death situation. But, for Emily, being in university was part of the healing process. In fact, she chose to go back to school after finishing treatment to find theoretical frameworks to incorporate the felt experiences of breast cancer, gender, and queer identity.
During treatment, Emily felt like she had signed her body over to a team of doctors. Now she can name it: the medical gaze. When her visible signs of cancer are met with stares when out in public, Emily can name that, too: panopticism. More than anything else she learned in university, Emily says Lauren Berlant’s affect theory “resonates with every other aspect of my life, and it changed the way I went about my campaigning.” If chemo and surgery took away a sense of control over her body, knowing how to use her affective body to elicit change is a way of taking it back.
There were limits to what school could do for Emily, however: “Going back to school was really empowering, but it was also difficult because I had chemo brain,” she explains, “I was not capable of engaging with my brain in the same way.” Limited memory, along with other lingering post-cancer effects form what Emily calls “an invisible disability,” which made schoolwork difficult. There were restrictions within the university, too. Even though Emily praises her program, the Comparative History of Ideas at the University of Washington, she found both rigid disciplinarity and the inaccessibility of academic writing to be challenging to her ultimate goal of sharing her scars and her ideas with the public.
Ultimately, Emily used what she learned in the classroom as platform to launch flattopperpride.org, a website of resources and first-person essays. The term “flattopper” is a way of naming the decision not to undergo breast reconstruction post-mastectomy. It is an identity. Choosing to have implants or not is an act of agency, an individual choice that shouldn’t be contested—yet it is. My sister tells me stories of women who adamantly wanted flat chests but who woke up from surgery with extra skin still attached (to make space for implants). The surgeons, in these cases, taking away their patient’s agency along with their breasts. Facing the loss of body parts is a grim enough choice as it is, and having a medical professional question your choice only makes it worse. But, more than that, a surgeon dismissing that choice carries these patriarchal undertones that women’s bodies are not their own.
photo cred. Kat Chambers
In the idea of a flattopper alone there are infinite possibilities to work through theories about bodies, identity, and agency. I’ve read the awful and amazing comments on websites where Emily’s topless images are posted and I have learned this: we need a flattopper praxis. We need to challenge the equation of breasts and womanhood.
As breast cancer and gender theory intersect more and more, we can look to what Emily calls the productive potential of “what bodies like mine, post-cancer bodies, can do in terms of adjusting the way we think about gender.” When I ask my sister who should develop these critical theories of breast cancer, she reminds me that most people’s lives are affected by cancer. For me, Emily’s struggles show that there’s more work to be done both inside and outside the academy. And while I don’t share my sister’s disease, I can certainly share her ideas.  

Sarah Jensen
PhD Candidate, York University