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Monday, March 2, 2015

After #NAWD What Do We Do?

Last Wednesday, February 25th, was the first National Adjunct Walkout Day. The initiative started in the United States and despite participation in Canada as well as other countries the majority of media attention was to American working conditions and American participation in the project. Inside Higher Education has a comprehensive piece on the emotional success of #NAWD, in a different genre, Gawker covered the walkout, and the warriors at Democracy Now! addressed the walkout and adjunct working conditions. In Canada, rabble.ca published a very smart piece by Aalya Ahmad, and there was some coverage elsewhere, including ongoing support from colleagues at ACCUTE who generously republished my love letter to Contract Academic Faculty. If you weren't on a publicly active campus, Twitter was the place to really see action happening. Here's a shot of the first two tweets that come up when you search #NAWD

On the campus where I am underemployed there was more teach-in action and education happening that public protest. Colleagues of mine--mostly tenured colleagues--at Dalhousie took time to speak to their students about what Contract Academic Faculty are (mostly PhD-ed colleagues who are as qualified as tenured professors), how they function in the university (in precarious teaching-heavy positions that are tenuous at best), and what they are paid (I can't even).

But that was last week. What do we do now that #NAWD is in the past? The issues have hardly passed, and now teaching assistants at the University of Toronto are on strike. Like so many other dispersed issues-based actions it can be difficult to maintain public concern and collective momentum  on the Internet and in your daily life (think Idle No More, think Occupy, think anti-fracking protests like that in Elsipogtog, think, in a different context, the outrage over Ghomeshi, Dalhousie Dentistry's 'Gentlemen's Club,' and other serious issues that have responses constellate, for reasons of practicality, on social media).

Well, here's a shocker: there are no easy solutions and all ideas take work. However, I do have some practical suggestions for maintaining momentum in your daily life, in your academic context, and in Canada. I'll identify suggestions for tenured colleges, Contract Academic Faculty from sessionals to limited term folks on salary, and for interested students.

Contract Academic Faculty: 
Talk about your working conditions in a clear and factual way. Building support means building diverse communities of people from different working conditions. It is hard. It takes time and energy. Anger only gets us so far, so keep your anger, but refine it. Make it clear, cogent, and compelling. The facts, if you will, and the narrative needed to understand what it is to live those facts.

Talk with colleagues about your working conditions in a formal way--do you have access to photocopiers, letter head, a mailbox, an office, the library? If not, let them know formally and ask for their help. Many tenured colleagues simply don't know the material conditions of CAF work.

Talk with the union you are affiliated with, or would like to be affiliated with, and do this in collaborations with other CAFs in your academic setting. Can the union help? Shift its membership parameters?

Build metro-allegiances with other CAFs in your city, if this is a possibility. Networking can mean sharing job resources (I know. Sharing is hard enough in the best of times, but I tell you, bridges are better built than burned).

Join national organizations and make your voice heard. Its not so difficult! For example, if you're a teacher of English you can contact me. I'm the CAF representative for ACCUTE. I'd be more than happy to represent our collective suggestions to ACCUTE and to CAUT, but I need help. Email me, and I will collate the emails, work with ACCUTE, and reach out to CAUT.

Don't internalize your material conditions as personal failure. This is, admittedly, the hardest. It is the one I struggle with on a daily (hourly?) basis. It requires vigilance, vulnerability, and radical attitude re-hauls. Doing something proactive helps. Consider following Melissa's new #Alt-Ac 101 series here on Thursdays, or reading blogs such as From PhD to Life even if you don't plan to leave the profession.

Tenured Colleagues

Recognize--really recognize--that CAF issues are your issues. They are issues of sustainability for the department and discipline to which you've dedicated your life. You have more power than you think.

Strategize hiring at the CAF and tenure-track levels with your tenured colleagues. Can your department pioneer and advocate radical job ads? I don't mean such as this tom foolery, I mean something more in the realm of job sharing.

Think in terms of curriculum development at the undergraduate and graduate levels. If teaching is the bread and butter of your department's budget, how can you keep the dollars in sight while also thinking about what other successful departments around the country are doing to meet the changing needs of students? You can find is a good example of one department's innovation from Lisa Surridge's ACCUTE report "Humanities in the Crisis Zone."

Can your department not only adopt ACCUTE's CAF best practice checklist, but also create a bespoke one that addresses the material conditions of your context? I bet it can.

Some of my incredible colleagues at Dalhousie go out of their way to directly address the Dean, VPs, President, and Senate about budget cuts to hiring. They give me hope. I see how time consuming and emotionally exhausting it is for them, and I want to give them a great big hug every time I see them. Why? Because they are using their tenure on behalf of their departments, their faculties, their students, and their precarious colleagues. Consider how you and your department might proactively address the powers that be in a way that benefits your community in the short and long term.


You have more power than you think! The trick is to learn which questions to ask and to figure out why these issues matter for you.

Ask for the numbers: how many of your professors are precariously employed?

Think: If a professor whose teaching you love is precariously employed, will they be able to write letters of recommendation for you? In other words, will they be at your institution next semester or next year? Chances are, no.

Ask: how much of your tuition goes to paying teachers?

Ask: When did your department last hire a permanent faculty member?

Ask: How often is your department's curriculum revised in relation to current trends in the discipline, in the job market? And how are faculty in your department engaged in continuing to learn about trends in these areas?

Think: What kinds of campus venues are there for discussing these issues? Is your student association engaged in real and meaningful conversations about sustainable teaching environments? Is your campus newspaper?

Alright, readers. I offer these as good faith and genuinely-positive suggestions. Many people and places do some or all of these things already, but I think we in Canada need a more centralized and cohesive foundation upon which to build specific scenarios for individual learning environments (ie. your university or college differs from mine).

What other ideas, suggestions, and success stories do you have?

Friday, February 27, 2015

Things that keep me warm

Today is the 15th consecutive day that this city I moved to in order to escape from the frozen tundra has been under an "extreme cold weather alert." This month has been the coldest on record. Well, the joke may be on me, but at least I'm well equipped by my long residence in the northernmost North-American city with over 1 million inhabitants to deal with cold, and keep myself healthy and sane. So here's a list of things that I do (or aim to, or think of doing, or flatter myself I'll be doing when more time will be on hand):

- browse food blogs for cold-weather recipes
- yoga (this is the most aspirational part of the list, really)
- use my SAD lamp regularly
- surf style websites and blogs to vicariously enjoy living in cities where street style is actually possible
- read or listen to multiple books concurrently, according to mood
- read reviews of CanLit books, or of great books generally, so I can make lists like this one for the future
- watch Downton Abbey
- plan my spring wardrobe
- go for runs every Sunday (and promise myself religiously I will find at least another day in the week for a run)
- make lunch dates with friends
- knit (I'm almost done the sweater I started in September)

Knitting as procrastination

All the while, I also alternate at despairing of and completely ignoring the pile of marking that seems to spawn newly every hour. Whenever that happens, I just go and pick the easiest element on the list and have at it until guilt overcomes me. At that point, I decide to be responsible, and pick another line from the list for variation. I am a master procrastinator.

And you? What are your (extreme) cold-weather recipes for survival? Please share your food-/style-/cartoon-/[insert favourite procrastination method here] blogs or sources, so we can all refresh our bookmarks.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Hack the field: Anthologies and Textbooks

This is a post about how to use anthologies and textbooks to jump into a new field, or make better sense of one you're in.

I had my bi-weekly meeting with one of my PhD supervisees, Phil, yesterday. He had a question about reading for his area exams, to wit: read the anthologies first or last? and how?

My answer: textbooks and anthologies are incredibly useful orientation materials, that can get you from zero to expert awfully fast, and you should read them first. These materials are very useful when you are a grad student moving from taking courses to settling into field. They are also very useful when you are an instructor being assigned courses that are not in that one field you're an expert in (which is to say, every instructor, ever). They are also very useful to more seasoned researchers, who are bracing out into new fields.

Here's the analogy I worked on yesterday. My house is currently being renovated and we're living in the house of sabbaticant friends. So it's a moving metaphor.

Your scholarly understanding of a given field (say, in this case, new media studies) is a new house that you're moving into. But you're moving in sight unseen: you're standing in the front hall, and while you can see some stairs, and maybe a closet, you kind of don't know much else. The materials of the field--the prior research, the theories, the methods--are packed boxes sitting outside in a big truck whose size is obscured: it's backed up right to the door and all you can see is the ramp to drag the boxes out from.

This is where you start from: a lot of unknowns, and a lot of mess. This is pretty overwhelming, but you chose to move here, so you're at least motivated.

It gets worse. You start dragging boxes out of the car / van / truck and into the entryway. They're not labelled, so you start opening them randomly: kitchen stuff, more kitchen stuff, yet more kitchen stuff, a box of underwear, and one box that has Christmas decorations and tax receipts from 1995. And a garbage back of ripped pants. You have to start guessing: are all the boxes going to have this same type / ratio of stuff? Where should I put it all? The kitchen stuff should go in the kitchen, but whose underwear is this, and where should it go? Are the Christmas decorations and tax receipts meant to stay together, or was this the Box of Leftover Stuff? Are those pants actually garbage? Or are they moving clothes?

This is where we all get when we start reading in a new field / prepping a course in a new area: we collect a bunch of resources but have trouble making sense of how they fit together and how they're meant to be used. The boxes are monographs and scholarly articles: so many complete statements that we imagine somehow relate to each other but we're not sure how. We just keep on reading in a straight line and hope we figure it out before entryway fills up with torn open boxes. This is completely overwhelming, and where many of us get stuck and open the case of beer (moving) or the case of red wine (studying / prepping). You just keep opening boxes with no sense of scale or purpose and you have nowhere to put them once they're open.

Here's the thing: anthologies and textbooks are like the blueprints to the house, or the packing list for the moving truck--they are maps and systems of organization that allow you to get a sense of the whole before you even really know much about the individual parts.

When you don't know how to get where you're going, you get a map. When you want to know if the queen-sized bed will fit in your new bedroom, you look at the real estate spec sheet. When you want to know about how science fiction studies works, get an anthology, or a textbook.

I've just pulled the Companion to Science Fiction (Steed, ed.) off my shelf. It's from a big academic publisher (Blackwell) that puts out very well regarded field-spanning anthologies. So it's trustworthy. It's got five parts: one a survey of the field, one on topics and debates, one on genres and movements, one on international (non-US, it looks like) science fiction, one on key writers, one with interpretive essays dealing with key science fiction texts. Just browsing the table of contents, I can get a pretty good idea of how the field organizes itself. Better, the essays are written by a huge number of prominent scholars, so I'll know who to look for in my further research. The eight page introduction chapter summarizes the book and the field at a breathtaking pace and at a high altitude.

The idea is that by browsing these summary or collection texts at the start of your research projects, you can begin the process of integration of new material a lot more smoothly: once I open three more kitchen boxes, I can expect that eventually I'll find some boxes of clothes, and some books, and bathroom things--it's probably not going to be all Christmas decorations and tax receipts. I might even learn that tax receipts can be thrown out after seven years and just discard those out of hand. I'll know there's three bedrooms in the house, and to be thus on the lookout for three mattresses as I unpack.

I'm really pushing all my students to glean what they can from the pretext, from my first years to my senior grad students: what can you learn from the TOC, from the author's affiliations, from the issuing press, etc. All this information helps make the real content more graspable and more easily categorized and made useful.

So now I'm sharing that with you. This needs some refining, but I wanted to share it while it was still fresh.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Slowing Down

It's mid-semester. We're all a little tired, cold, and overworked. Today, as I race against yet another dissertation deadline and feverishly inscribe as many mid-semester tasks as possible into my dayplanner, I want to take a moment and remind us all to......:

Here's some Rothko for ya. Click on the image. It'll help.

I used to be such a daydreamer, and those moments of thinking and reflecting and just sitting on the couch, staring into space, or going for long walks in the neighborhood, allowed my mind to wander and explore in a way that is becoming increasingly unavailable now that I'm constantly scrolling through my iPhone, oh that accursed piece of wondrous technology.

The Bored and Brilliant project begun by New Tech City has been asking listeners to think hard about our relationship to our devices, now that 58% of American adults own a smartphone. Our smartphones make us connected and entertained, NTC observes, but also dependent and addicted. (I write this as someone who has, on multiple occasions, worried that probably this person is really very angry with me--or, worse, annoyed or indifferent--because he/she has not responded to my text from three hours ago. AND I SAW THE BUBBLES.) At the risk of sounding like a crotchety luddite, I'd suggest that in this digital world, we are losing the capability of being idle; and "idle minds lead to reflective, creative thoughts," according to this project and the research behind it. How often, during a spare moment, do you fill your mental space by grabbing your phone and scrolling through Facebook or Twitter? When was the last time you let your mind wander? When was the last time you got lost in a work of art, or just freewrote for a few minutes--about anything? Or just sat with your eyes closed, headphones in? (Spotify has some great mood playlists; I'm partial to "Deep Focus").

I want to emphasize that I'm not advocating for slowing down primarily because it will, ultimately, increase your productivity when you speed up again. Such mentality feeds into a neoliberal need to produce, and to serve the all-consuming academic system to which we are hopelessly bound. You should slow down for you, because you are awesome and have cool, creative, independent thoughts that don't always need to overlap with academia or the primary work you do. Because "academic" is not the sum-total of your identity. Because this is not about productivity, this is about self-care.

Related to the power of boredom is the "power of patience" (article of the same title here), and decelerating can constitute part of our classroom practices as well. Harvard art historian Jennifer L. Roberts believes that educators should "take a more active role in shaping the temporal experiences" of students, learning to guide practices of "deceleration, patience, and immersive attention."* Exercises that require students to slow down, to meditate on the material at-hand and allow it to open up to them in its singularity, counter that which in the eyes of some critics has become a modern impulse toward distraction, shallow reflection, and superficial thinking. Roberts in particular requires her students to position themselves in a museum and gaze at a work of art for a veeery long period of time (though I have to say that three hours seems a little excessive...), reflecting on their experience afterwards. Colleagues of mine have had success with this exercise, and I look forward to trying it with my students in March. Do you have any other thoughts on how to guide the temporal experiences of our students, and encourage them to practice creative idleness?

So, feminist friends, let this be a reminder to you to slow down today, even just for 10 minutes. And the night-owl in me is going to practice what I'm preaching right this moment and head to bed.

*For this article, as well as the "slow looking" exercise that accompanies it, I am thoroughly indebted to Julie Orlemanski; thanks, Julie, for a particularly generative--and generous--Facebook post!

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The #Alt-Ac Job Search 101: Figuring Out What Else to Do

In the spirit of Aimee's academic how-to series, I'm consolidating past posts and generating new ones that will form a complementary how-to series on the #alt-ac job search and career. It should be noted that I'm not a career services professional, and you should seek those out at your institution, but my advice is informed both by my own experience and by the work I do with people in career services and coaching for graduate students.

Today, we're starting from the beginning: once you decide not to go on the tenure-track (or not to finish the PhD, or to look for both academic and non-academic jobs), how do you figure out what the heck to do next?

The data on academics in non-academic careers is very clear: we don't have a hard time getting into them. Despite the very limited amount of non-academic career support currently built into graduate studies, PhDs do very well at finding jobs outside of academia. With only 18.6% of us in full-time academic teaching jobs (and that includes contract work), the other 81.4% of us are finding our way into something else. And we're doing it well--PhD holders have the lowest unemployment rate of any group of Canadians. But if you've been told, over and over, that you're developing the skills to do precisely one thing--become a professor--and you stop thinking about other careers, it can be difficult, even intimidating, to start figuring out what other things you can and would like to do. Where do you start?

Whenever someone asks me this question, I refer them to So What Are You Going to Do With That?: Finding Careers Outside Academia, which is now in its third edition. (My university carries So What as an e-book, and many career centres also have copies to borrow.) Written by Susan Balsalla and Maggie Debelius, PhDs themselves who now work inside and outside academia, So What covers a host of the topics to which new PhD job seekers might need an introduction: translating skills gained in academia into terms that employers can understand and value, career counselling, interview etiquette, etc. All of So What is highly useful, but of particular value are the self-assessment exercises that ask you to figure out what it is you really like about academia--the skills you like exercising, the activities you like doing--and then help you see other industries and positions that would allow you to do the things you like doing more. In my case, I figured out that what I really liked was non-academic/theoretical writing, mentorship, research that had use-value, and work that was aimed at helping others rather than myself. Perhaps my favourite thing about So What is the way it helps PhDs realize that there are a number of careers that might suit their strengths and interests better than being a professor, and the way it helps them identify what those careers are. For me, it helped me see that I might like to be a grant writer, or a counsellor, or what I am now, which is a graduate professional skills coordinator and research administrator--which suits me and my strengths better than being a tenured professor likely would have.

Another resource I recommend for people doing the fundamental work of figuring out what they could do next is Strengthsfinder 2.0. (My university library also has this one as an ebook, and yours might too.) Although not aimed at an academic audience, Strengthsfinder offers a more robust sf diagnostic and analytic tools than So What that are aimed at helping you figure out what you're good at doing and what jobs would let you do those things. The book is complemented by online testing that generates reports about talents and strengths you might want to explore in more depth, testing I found both accurate and helpful. One of the many challenging (and awesome) things about moving into an #altac career is the flexibility and openness of the non-tenure career path; the challenging part is keeping an eye on where you are and where you're headed, and assessing if those two things still match up with what you want from a career. Occasionally redoing the tests from Strengthsfinder (and So What) is a useful way to see how my skill set has changed as I've learned and developed on the job, and to assess where I'm at in my career development.

The last thing I'd suggest for people trying to figure out what to do after they're done is finding the unit at your university that keeps track of what PhDs are doing after they graduate. Some graduate programs--more and more of them--are tracking the post-degree placement of everyone who graduates from their program with a PhD, whether they're going into a tenure-track job or not. Alumni or advancement offices also often keep track of what PhD alumni are doing, and can often provide you with that information, or put you in touch with people in your field. Many universities, through graduate programs, the Career Centre, or the Faculty of Graduate Studies, put on regular career panels featuring PhD alumni in non-academic jobs. However you find the information, see if you can figure out what people with your degree, in your field, are doing now. PhD transition stories, like those that Jennifer Polk collects in her blog From PhD to Life, are also a good resource. It can be difficult to find out what PhDs in non-academic jobs are doing, simply because universities have tended to track only t-t placement rates, although universities are realizing the necessity of collecting this kind of data and large-scale post-PhD tracking projects are getting underway. But it's a lot easier to figure out what you might want to do, what you could do with your degree, if you know what others who were once in the same boat are doing.

Next up, we'll talk about what to do once you've figured out a job or industry (or a few) that you might be interested in and that might suit you: the informational interview, also known as research.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015


So here's something you may not know about me: I suffer periodically from insomnia--and by that I mean that I suffer pretty dramatically, sometimes for days, sometimes for weeks, sometimes for months. This is an affliction linked, in my case, to anxiety, and it's pretty common among academics.

The miserable thing about being insomniac is that you are in fact bone tired--but you can't sleep. You wake up at 3am and can't get back to sleep, so you turn on the light, and try to read, but you're so exhausted your eyes cross and you're not retaining any information. So you turn off the light and curl up: but you can't stop your mind from racing. So you turn on the light and try to read ...

I took up yoga to deal with this. And meditation. I cut out caffeine after 1pm. I make before bed to-do lists to rid my mind of its calendaring demons. I restrict my academic writing and research to daylight hours so I don't get too excited before bed. I dim the lights, I drink herbal tea, I take prescribed sleeping meds and off-label pharmaceuticals on an as-needed basis. Sometimes I self-medicate with Forty Creek Copper Barrel Reserve, 1 oz. Or a dry martini, right before bed.

But sleep often eludes me, still.

Insomnia is an invisible disability. I find it impossible to do creative or scholarly work when I'm sleep-deprived. I can grade (slowly, inefficiently) and I can go to meetings (groggily) and write emails (proofreading twice). Then I feel terrible about not working, which leads to more insomnia, and even more not working.

Insomnia is incredibly humbling. Neither brute force, nor will power, nor good intentions, nor even some pretty good drugs can make sleep happen--the links between mind and body are powerful and intense and won't be denied. This is a good lesson to remember.

I suspect many of you suffer from insomnia as well. What do you do to manage? Right now I'm trying to be kind to my insomnia, to ask it what it is trying to tell me, what part of my life is not fitting well right now, and how I might be kinder to myself to resolve it. I'm trying to eat better and not drink too much, to get enough exercise, and ask my family to let me nap when I need it.

But it's important to note that one of the reasons I have insomnia is because of this job, this life of the mind: sometimes my ideas scare me so much that I can't let them go, for fear of losing them. Sometimes, the deadlines pile up and I worry I won't meet them. Sometimes before talks I worry for weeks not about not being ready but about not being good enough. Since I've taken up my administrative role in my department I worry about the drip drip drip of forms to sign, things to check up on, meetings to remember to attend, deliverables I've forgotten I've promised, hard cases, tough decisions, all the emails. The work is not bounded by location or time; it is never done, and it could always be done better, or more or faster. My insomniac periods peaked when I was on the job market, the year I came up for tenure, and the year I began my administrative job. The academy always wants more, and we A+ students will always try to give more, even if we don't have it, and feel like we're failing.

And so it goes. Until I figure it out again, for now, how to fall asleep and stay asleep, if I pass you in the halls or on the internet and don't say hi, it's because I'm concentrating so hard on staying upright I probably just can't see you.

Sweet dreams.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Mid-winter, mid-semester

Today is one of those days. You know them, I'm sure. One of those days in which all the things that used to work clamour in your head to be tried out, "me! me! me!", insisting on their past efficacy. One of those days in which you read your friends' brilliant posts on standing strong, and rejoicing in winter attire, and the wafts of healthy comfort food, and think to yourself: that! But that requires action, and somehow the will has dissipated, failing to be revived even by the shining sun. One of those days in which theory, lists, possibilities, all remain abstract, even idealistic. Because life. Because mid-winter. Because mid-semester.

And you also know that these days have to be, needling at you, nagging ceaselessly to parade your failure to walk the talk. But you only feel frozen, incapable to act on the what you know with your brain, and your heart, and your muscles. Days like today require no advice, no lists, no self-improvement attempts. They want acknowledgement, acquiescence. These days have to be, because they're part of being, of winter, of life. They need not be banished, but experienced. You breathe through them, you let them wash over you. You be.