GenX women in higher ed from around the globe

Author Archive

Mental Health and the Role of the Campus

In Uncategorized on 2014/06/01 at 21:16

recently asked my fellow University of Venus writers what resources they had on campus to support students in terms of their mental well-being.  It seems that all I’ve been reading about lately is how mental illness is on the rise in Academia, along with discussions on how to take care of yourself and how, when and where to ask for help.

My question in this post focuses on the “where.” I recently read an article discussing a student at Yale University who was threatened with expulsion because of her weight – her slight physique signalled an eating disorder, and their “concern” resulted in what sounded like a form of harassment, and their advice and monitoring of her food intake almost resulted in the disorder they were so afraid of. My own institution was also recently in the news due to our low student-to-counsellor ratio. Increasingly, institutions are implementing “student at risk” protocols to address behaviours and warning signs of students with the potential to cause harm to others or themselves. There are somestrong views on what the roles and responsibilities of the University should be to address this growing concern.

As someone who struggled with anxiety while completing my master’s degree, as well as simultaneously acting in an administrative role for students and programs, I can appreciate the complexities from both perspectives. I found completing my degree to be exhausting, isolating and damaging to my ego and spirit. It also opened up a myriad of opportunities for me, enriched my life, and profoundly changed my world view.

But what exactly was the role of my professors, administrators and the Student Services Department in terms of monitoring how I was actually coping with my program? Student-at-risk protocols, Counselling Services, Department Program Committees and even the Provincial Government all intersect to provide an environment that regulates the amount of work, evaluation structures, tuition fees and support resources provided to, and imposed on students.

During the course of my degree, I began to see a therapist, was prescribed anxiety medication and was consistently applying for tuition supplements from the institution after each course. I battled my depression, occasionally had financial concerns, and of course struggled to find the time to complete my assignments while working full-time and doing mundane tasks like laundry, seeing family and trying to sustain a relationship.

The expectation in some of the programs and protocols that Universities are launching is that someone is going to *notice* that students are in crisis. Now at the graduate level, I was fortunate to have an advisor, and the classes were very small. However, in an undergraduate course of 100+ students, will a faculty member necessarily notice that a student is struggling? And will they necessarily know what to do about it if they do? These programs require training on multiple levels; is it useful to have a number of counsellors equipped with strategies and policies at their fingertips if faculty members or administrators at my level don’t know what to look for in their brief student interactions?

I have had students crying in my office, as I imagine many faculty and staff members have. However, I can’t always discern whether I am witnessing a moment of frustration, or a deep-rooted cause for concern. And therein lay the gap. We are expected to look after our students, students who are independent adults. The line between showing concern and appearing punitive is a fine one. Yale was demonstrating some laudable care with the student mentioned above, and if she was genuinely ill, they likely would have felt the ramifications of ignoring the warning signs.  I guarantee though, not one of my instructors knew that I was in crisis during my degree, as I certainly didn’t feel I was in a position to demonstrate what I feared would be construed as “weakness” to people who were both my instructors and co-workers. How many other students find themselves disguising their struggles due to a still existing stigma?

Universities often try to be one-stop-shops. I’ve seen campuses with hairdressers, banks, doctors, lawyers, grocery stores and more. But the mandate of a University is to educate, and I would argue that one is not only there to learn how to cure White Nose Syndrome, but also to become  more resourceful individuals – and if our sorely overtaxed Counselling Services are only able to offer a referral, then perhaps that is the wiser path. But where does that leave the students who need our help?


Do I Stay or Do I Go?

In Uncategorized on 2014/02/02 at 04:34

Earlier I wrote about my dilemma about applying for Doctoral programs, and you’ve all been waiting with bated breath to hear how it all turned out. I eventually applied to three Ph.D. programs in Women’s Studies – just to see if I could get in.

And then? I was accepted to 2 out of 3 programs and was suddenly faced with an entirely different dilemma – what do I do now? I had spent remarkably little time considering what to do if I were actually offered a position in these programs; as I was fairly certain it was inevitable that I would simply receive 3 rejections.

This belief didn’t stem from a false sense of self-modesty, I was merely being pragmatic. My position at as Graduate Studies Officer meant that I saw the grades of all graduate students, as I performed their final degree audits. I saw the students in my own program receive much higher grades than I did, and while a final GPA equating to an A- was still acceptable – it was certainly not outstanding in comparison.

So while my grades were acceptable, I certainly didn’t approach my applications with an overwhelming sense of confidence. However, I really enjoyed the process. Researching potential programs, preparing research proposals, receiving the advice and support of my referees was really interesting and gratifying. But then I received my acceptances and had some hard and unexpected decisions to make.

But it all seemed to come together with surprising ease. There was a clause in my contract that allowed me to request a leave from my job for the two-year residency period of the program, and more importantly, the Vice-President was willing to approve the request. I consulted with my realtor who was confident that I would have no problem either selling or renting my condo, and I had friends willing to let me live with them during my residency.

Administratively, it seemed I would have no trouble accepting the offer(s). But I had other, more personal and emotional, concerns that gave me pause. And it was while I was trying to sort those out that I experienced some unexpected side-effects to what I had believed was an individual choice. It seems that other people were just as invested in my decision as I was.

When speaking with one individual about my quandary, she attempted to be helpful and lay out the pros and cons. (The situation would have been laughable if I hadn’t found it to be so distressing at the time). She hypothesized all the reasons I would decide to actually go, and what it would mean, and the ramifications etc. This went on for a couple of minutes and it all made good sense. And then she turned to “and if you decide not to go, it will be because…”

Insert long pause and crickets chirping.

She couldn’t come up with anything. And while she tried to gracefully cover this up, the point had been made. She couldn’t figure out any reason why I *wouldn’t* go. And why should she? She had her Ph.D., she had made the decision to pursue this life, and couldn’t fathom why I wouldn’t follow the same path. And this was essentially the same response I received from everyone I spoke to within the academy. Whether they had their Ph.D.’s or not, everyone either implied or outright stated that I should; nay that I would go.

The conflict for me came from the fact that there was no right or wrong decision. There was nothing bad either way. If I went, I would have a plethora of challenging and rewarding experiences, and eventually a new credential. However, if I stayed, I would be continuing with a job I loved, supporting an aging Father who was concerned about my potential departure, and not leaving a partner I adored, and the rest of my support system.

In the end? I decided to turn the opportunities down. If you’re curious why – it’s essentially because I realized that I didn’t want to immerse myself in professorship for the rest of my life. I recognize both the difficulties and prestige inherent in the position, and it wasn’t compelling enough to make me want to embrace that as a career.

And while I recognize that this was the right decision, I am still grieving the loss. I enjoy being a student, and having the opportunity to immerse myself in study for a few years would have been really fantastic.  But I’m still hopeful that I can find other ways to challenge myself academically, without having to study for comps on top of it.

Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada

Deanna England is a member of the editorial collective at University of Venus.

Expert? Or Just Opinionated?

In Graduate Studies & Students on 2013/06/12 at 09:18
Deanna England, writing from Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada. 

I have a friend who has been teaching and training for more than twenty years. He has a website where he’s a prolific writer on his area, is a frequent participant in online forums and debates, and is considered a valuable resource by his client list, which includes national organizations and various police/military personnel. We are both involved in the SlutWalk movement and he’s been instrumental in helping me understand social attitudes around rape culture, victim-blaming, self defence and the legal system. His influence has resulted in papers I’ve written, media interviews I’ve done around SlutWalk and my doctoral application research proposals.

Much of my knowledge comes from the Academy, whereas his experience is more of a balance between the theoretical and practical. However, because of graduate school, while trusting his knowledge implicitly, I occasionally find myself demanding  him to “cite your source!” mid-conversation.  And often he provides me with Stats Canada reports and media articles and a variety of other resources to reference. But in other instances, his knowledge comes from his own experience and observations, which is where I struggle.

I am so accustomed to having journal articles and textbooks and media sources to refer to, that for some reason, I am shaken when asked to simply trust that his knowledge is valid without having a piece of paper waved in my face as proof. Am I (once again) an academic snob? Because he doesn’t have a Ph.D. and spend his days within the hallowed hallways of a University, do I think his information is somehow less valid?

Perhaps not. I understand that there are different types of training and credentials in the world. If I want to learn to dance, I will see a dance instructor that most likely has not earned a Doctorate, nor has necessarily written articles about her art. If I want to know about what it’s like to be an Eastern European spy, I will consult with a spy; regardless of whether she has ever taught in a post-secondary institution (which suddenly sounds like a fascinating conversation; if anyone knows any spies, please send them my way).

But so many conversations with this friend have made me question just what it means to be an “expert” in one’s field. How many years of practical experience? What kind of training? Since it cannot merely equate to hours in the library or publishing a particular number of journal articles, how can it be quantified? Am I an expert on SlutWalk because I’ve organized two, going-on-three marches, written papers and presented on it? It seems to me, I would be one of several people who can claim those credentials. How many experts can there be in the world before the word is diminished?

My University’s website has a list of “experts” available for media consultation. My former boss would be on the phone constantly if any kind of sexual abuse issue cropped up in the sport world. Does that make her an expert? Or does she just have an interesting opinion? Where’s the line between expertise, informed opinion and interested party?

My friend has been teaching and training for most of his life, and his critical analysis skills are phenomenal. He has taught me more about breaking down cultural biases and questioning belief structures than my MA ever did. His particular combination of training, experience, and skills would indeed qualify him as an expert in my mind. But who makes that appraisal? It suddenly strikes me as much more of a subjective label than I would have previously thought. Would academics not trust him because of his lack of dissertation? Are letters after a name the only trustworthy identifier? I am reminded of witness testimony in court. Iis the job of the other side not to pick apart the credibility of the expert? Are there not a myriad of charlatans and frauds in the world?

So based on this discussion, the conclusion I am forced to come to is perhaps this: expertise is an evolving title. One has to earn it, but one also has to continue learning in order to maintain it. Anyone who claims to have a complete understanding of any subject area must be suspect. It seems to me that a true expert recognizes that their knowledge must always be limited and there is always room for growth.

Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada

Deanna England is a member of the editorial collective at University of Venus. in C Major

In Graduate Studies & Students on 2013/03/12 at 11:26
Deanna England, writing from Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada. 

One of the scholarship fund-raising activities my University hosts is an event called “Class Acts.” It’s a talent night where faculty and staff put on an evening of entertainment, and all proceeds from the ticket sales go towards Entrance Scholarships. It’s a fantastic evening, often resulting in many surprises – who knew that our registrar was an Opera singer, or that one of our librarians participates in poetry slams?

The first year I went, I was surprised to see a guitar-playing, singing duo on the program with members from the both the Biology and the Women and Gender Studies departments. I struggled to figure out how such a pairing would have happened, before remembering that sometimes the Arts and the Sciences CAN make beautiful music together.

What was particularly memorable though, was the topic of their performance; it was a hilarious song talking about I had never heard of such a thing, and as they harmonized about the nerve-wracking trauma of chili rankings and student commentary, I weighed the pros and cons of the existence and functionality of such a site.

At the time, I had just begun a pre-master’s course, and was waiting to find out if I would be accepted into the graduate program. Would I use a site like that? And if so, would I offer rankings, or simply check out the commentary? And who cares about how “hot” they are, anyway? I’m not sure I wouldn’t find a faculty member’s hotness to be a deterrent really.

I found navigating the relationships with my instructors to be fairly smooth for the most part. At one point, I was taking a course with the woman who was Chair of a committee I support. Another time, I was taking two courses at once with my Advisor. I had preconceived notions, opinions and relationships with all but two of the professors who taught me..  So honestly, what would checking out really do for me anyhow? But I was curious, so mid-way through my program, I checked out some of the rankings to see if popular opinion meshed with my own.


What I saw on the site was so utterly incongruent from my experiences that I had a hard time reading through most of it. They struck me as so completely immature and ridiculous that I couldn’t even find them laughable. The instructor that I found to be terrible, everyone thought was “hot,” “awesome” and “cool” while the woman that I adored got raked over the coals.

But I had a nagging doubt in the back of my mind. Yes, I found the “cool” instructor to be completely irresponsible (not hot) and awful. And yes, I found the so-called “terrible” instructor to be delightful, but who’s right really? Opinions are subjective of course, but I wonder if I might actually be so completely biased that I can’t judge properly.

That is a part of it, of course, but I realize there’s another layer to consider. The “cool” instructor taught material I loved, and I walked into the class already really liking her. She converted me to the negative end of the spectrum via her teaching style, while maintaining my interest in the course. It was neither dislike of the topic nor predisposition that made me dislike her instruction.

More importantly, I came to understand that it was my job that impacted my lack of faith in those rankings. I take part in discussions on program proposals, curricular development and research. I know what kind of time and effort does (and should) go into teaching courses, and my evaluation of the professor is influenced by that background.

I eventually concluded that the rankings might have meaning, but they just weren’t useful for me; there were too many factors against it. They did however force me to acknowledge the attitudes I held prior to walking into each class. And while there’s little I can do about them, I hope that acknowledging their existence was useful for something. And on reflection – perhaps they ARE useful for students in their decision-making process, as long as they remember to take those rankings with several grains of salt. Maybe I should perform my own song about it at the next scholarship fundraiser

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

The Vanity of Graduate Applications

In Graduate Studies & Students on 2013/01/18 at 22:44
Deanna England, writing from Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada

A few weeks ago, I graduated with my MA, and I’m now confronted with the question of “what next?”

I didn’t go to graduate school to carry on to Doctoral work; I just thought the program looked interesting and that it would be a good idea to have a graduate degree if I was going to advise graduate students. I love my job.  I have no interest in leaving it, but I also absolutely love academic scholarship. To be honest, I find the idea of getting a Ph.D. positively decadent. To have all that time devoted to an area of research I’ve discovered a passion for? What an unimaginable luxury. Particularly to be able to do such a thing full-time, to not have to feel guilty for either not putting in overtime at work in September, or to doing laundry or grocery shopping instead of polishing another essay draft evenings and weekends.

There are countless numbers of people who do not do a Ph.D. on a “straight” trajectory: age eighteen graduate high school, age twenty-two graduate with Bachelors, age twenty-three or twenty-four, graduate with an MA, by age thirty complete a Doctorate. In fact, I imagine people who do that are in the distinct minority. I am thirty-seven. I have a mortgage, and an aging Father, a full-time job and a partner that could not come with me to another city.

But I also want to know. Could I get in? Could I be accepted into a Doctoral program? Could I find someone interested in working with me on a research project that I propose? Someone who has never heard of me before, but is impressed with my writing and ideas and achievement-to-date? Am I worthy of receiving a portion of their hard-earned research funding.

This is a slippery slope: putting in the time to apply when I don’t know if I could actually accept it. Because once you apply, your mindset switches. Suddenly, I will really want it. And what if they reject me? What if no one wants to work with me? Or even more alarming: what if they accept me? Then what would I do?

Sell my condo? Quit my job? Trust my brother to look in on my father? Expect my partner to wait for me?

Or perhaps I will decline. Perhaps I will simply be gratified that I was accepted. My ego will be placated, yet I’ll be unable to leave the province to pursue this vanity. Will I find peace merely with the acceptance? Or will I look back on my decision with regret, angry with myself for not seizing the opportunity when it happened?

I fear the guilt of simply applying will overwhelm me, because, full disclosure: I have in fact started the process. I have asked some wonderfully supportive faculty members to provide me with references. I have written a research proposal, and already received feedback from one of my referees on how to improve it, and advice on where else I should consider applying. I have contacted potential supervisors at other institutions and asked for guidance on the application process from program coordinators.

No woman is an island. Applying for graduate school takes a team, and all three of my referees have offered assistance beyond simply writing me a letter. Is it fair to do this to them if I am not even certain I can take up a potential offer? Is it fair to force graduate program committees to evaluate an application that might not even be serious?

I know just how much work is involved in the evaluation of a potential applicant, the time it takes to review credentials, and consider funding, and commit to supervision, the consideration that is taken away from another applicant who is applying unreservedly. Is this a selfish endeavour?

Yes, I can only conclude that it is indeed selfish. However, I am not sure if selfish necessarily equates to “bad.” Do I have the right to know what all my options are? Do I owe it to myself to figure out just how important this really is to me? Or am I just wasting a lot of people’s time and energy; two very precious resources that shouldn’t be taken advantage of? I honestly don’t know how to answer these questions. I could argue it either way. In between though, I‘ll be updating my research proposal.

Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada

Deanna England is a member of the editorial collective at University of Venus.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Is That a B or a C?

In Graduate Studies & Students on 2012/10/21 at 21:55
Deanna England, writing from Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada.

I Will Now Stop Resenting the B+ I Earned Last Fall Quite So Much…

I was offered a position as a marking assistant in the Women and Gender Studies department, and offer that made my day/week/month.  I felt like I had finally “arrived” to be tapped on the shoulder like that. In my undergrad years I always envied the students who were asked to RA or TA for faculty members. They always seemed somehow smarter, or more together than I was. So to be asked now brought me back to my twenty-one year old self, validating my worthiness as a student. Silly, I know.

The course is Intro to Women and Gender Studies. A course I have never taken myself, though the Doctoral programs I have been tentatively exploring are in that area. I received my first batch of papers to mark this week, and I realized I was taking the course along with the students. I read the entire batch of reading responses, absorbing the summaries without making a mark. It was fascinating to experience the chapter from so many perspectives. Each of those students had read the same words, but not one of them repeated what another had to say about it.

Throughout the course of my education I, more than once, have been concerned that I would propose the same paper topic as another student. That we would write the same paper, but inevitably *they* would write it better. But reading those papers, I realized that such a thing would most likely never happen. One’s life experiences, culture, employment history, family, and a multiplicity of other factors would make that a virtual impossibility.

When I initially met with my Professor about marking for her, she asked me a series of questions about how I would handle the job. The more she asked, the more I realized just how much consideration went into every grade I have ever received. How *would* I handle marking for someone whose first language was clearly not English? I was not in the Math department where there is a universal language and only one right answer.  Perhaps this was going to be more challenging than anticipated.

And so I dove into the marking, with a mixture of both excitement and terror. These are GRADES.  These grades MATTER. They will be reflected on student transcripts, and permanent academic records, and what if they want to apply for scholarships and graduate school and jobs? I haven’t even taken this course! What right do I have to grade a paper when I haven’t done the reading myself?! What if they all hate me? What if I’m too harsh? Too lenient? What impact will my decisions have on their ultimate feelings of accomplishment or entitlement or future scholarly plans? Why did I take this job? This is WAY too much pressure! How do faculty handle this?


The professor and I had decided earlier that I would mark 10 – 15 and then meet to review how I handled it. I dove in, wrote comments, assigned a letter grade and attached a grading rubric scale to the papers. That rubric killed me. As I was checking off boxes that meant C or B I felt constrained. I found myself giving lower scores than my intuition told me was warranted.

And when we met yesterday, my Professor agreed. She, too, was dismayed at the number of C’s I was giving. We had a talk about not discouraging first year students before they have found their bearings in both the course, and often in University as a whole. While we had to be fair, we also wanted to guide them, and offer them the opportunity to grow into themselves as scholars. We decided that the attached scoring rubric had to go. I would be more gentle, encouraging and numerous with my commentary and hopefully instill a love of the subject in them.

It’s a big task. My sense of weightiness and responsibility was not diminished after that meeting. But I also have shifted my own attitudes. Grading offers an opportunity to act as an indirect mentor to students. With each check mark, and “good point!” I could be inspiring them to continue on in an area that was completely unknown to them a mere month ago. I got a C in my Intro to Sociology course and I never looked at the subject again.  Where would I be now if that initial professor had taken a less standoffish approach?

I think I could learn to love this job, once the terror subsides a bit.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Once Upon an Elitist SlutWalk

In Graduate Studies & Students on 2012/09/02 at 23:59
Deanna England, writing from Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada. 

I recently attended a seminar hosted by Jack Zipes on fairy tale film research. It was an informal meeting where he showed us several obscure film clips on fairy tale interpretations and invited us to give our responses. It was a wonderful event offering interesting perspectives on familiar tales such as Cinderella and Blue Beard, and new insights into Red Riding Hood that I would love to work into my ongoing SlutWalk narrative.

The event was open to the public and there were students and faculty there, but the group also included teachers from outside the University, staff members and a surprising number of story-tellers. Story-tellers, what a wonderful sounding label – it wasn’t anything I had really heard of before, although I’m certain that title has existed for hundreds of years. I immediately wanted to go over and quiz them on the minutiae of that occupation.

Throughout the course of the session, however, I was struck anew with how immersion in the Academy has completely shifted my manner of thinking. And while it is an unforgivable and gross generalization to imply that those outside of academia never engage in critical analysis of the media, popular culture and the like, I have to admit, I rarely did so prior to beginning this degree.

While discussing some of the subversive aspects of the films –  for example applauding the feminist interpretation of Red Riding Hood baiting the wolf by innocently skipping through the woods, then turning and confidently killing him with her machete –  it is easy to forget that not everyone necessarily appreciates these alternate interpretations. One of the storytellers openly rebelled at the cold-heartedness of BlueBeard’s new wife Medusa casually discarding his former wives bodies out the window and threatening him with her stone-turning gaze.

Zipes discussed a village in England that is systematically filming classic fairy tales such as Rapunzel and posting them on the Internet. He queried whether such projects should be obligated to consult in some way; and while I pondered the notion of creative freedom versus the perpetuation of culturally oppressive standards, a lively discussion ensued regarding the logistics and politics around the project.  Suddenly one of the storytellers proclaimed that she was really disturbed with the general assertion in the room that fairy tales should be adapted through a contemporary lens; as she would far prefer telling her daughter the “original” or “traditional” versions of the tales.

At this point, I had an internal debate with myself. She is a guest to the University, and not necessarily an academic (however, the logical response here is: how do we define “academic” and just how important is that distinction anyhow?) and may not have the same background in critical theory and folklore that many other members of the audience do. However, should I not point out that if we’re not going to “update” the tales, then I think we have an obligation to contextualize these “traditional” narratives to our children so they understand that these are not the values that modern-day society embraces?

This internal dialogue led me to question my own attitudes as a so-called Academic. Am I right in feeling that I should correct her thinking?  (Emphatically no.) Am I right in thinking that I should be treating a “guest” with more consideration? (Not sure.) Either way, I felt pretty condescending.  I mentioned to the woman next to me (a faculty member from the Languages Department) that I found it challenging to “shut off” my critical analysis when I wasn’t with other members of the Academy, and she looked surprised and asked me why I would want to.

However, I struggle with how to balance my own experiences within Western society versus that of many other people around me. I’m accused of taking things too seriously, of not having a sense of humour, or taking away their fun.  Am I? I don’t always know how to balance that – I feel that I am occasionally speaking a completely other language, leaving people slowly blinking up at me perched on my soapbox. I can appreciate that most people won’t share my adoration of Kristeva or Weedon or Bordo, but while I can pretty easily refrain from waxing poetic about semiotics at the dinner table, I don’t know how to read a book like 50 Shades of Grey without ranting about the re-entrenchment of heteronormative privilege and the violence such a text does to alternative sexual lifestyles.

Truth be told? I’m feeling pretty elitist even just writing this piece.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Students vs. Academics

In Graduate Studies & Students on 2012/06/28 at 09:02

Deanna England, writing from Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada

Often in class or informal discussions my classmates and I would gleefully make up words, justifying the practice by saying “we’re academics – we’re just creating new vocabulary to expand the discourse.” Of course this is all just rationalizing the bastardization of the English language, but we amused ourselves with it nonetheless. In some ways, it was a kind of dreaming ahead – one day we would be “real” academics. Our made up words would subsequently be cited and we would go down in the annals of scholarship as being the source for an absolutely integral concept or phrase. It could happen right?

Last year I found myself purchasing books on Amazon strictly because the subject area interested me beginning with Susan Bordo’s “Unbearable Weight.” This was followed up by several others: The Beauty Myth, The Female Body in Western Culture, Generation Me – I was unstoppable! Then I found myself reading chapters in texts OTHER than what I’d strictly been assigned for my courses. Out of INTEREST. What was happening to me? Had I finally made the transition? Was I an academic?!

What is an academic anyhow? According to an academic (noun) is:
8. a student or teacher at a college or university.

9. a person who is academic in background, attitudes, methods, etc.: [sh]e was by temperament an academic, concerned with books and the arts.

10. ( initial capital letter ) a person who supports or advocates the Platonic school of philosophy.


Huh. I guess I already am. I suspect I already was before I started this degree. It seemed like such a faraway, glowy title – something that was only achieved after being published, or getting a PhD or teaching. Who knew?

I started out this degree merely out of interest. I attended a committee meeting, and the courses the faculty described sounded so interesting I wanted to check it out. This was exacerbated by the fact that I was also dreading the day that some angry Masters student would come into my office railing at me (for some reason) and exclaiming that I had no idea what they were going through. Who was I to deny them anything since I couldn’t possibly understand the graduate school experience? I found myself daunted at the idea of arguing with that logic. Who WAS I to claim to understand? Now, to this day, not one student has ever come close to doing that to me. They’ve all been genuinely interested in my experience, and have graciously shared theirs, but a couple years back, I wasn’t quite so secure.

But now? It’s like a drug. I want to publish. And present. And collaborate. And be CITED somewhere. I can’t imagine what an intoxicating experience that would be. I want to receive unsolicited emails from unknown scholars who are interested in work I’m doing.  I want to have a TV show based on my research like Kathy Reichs!

However, at the moment I am simply struggling to come up with a firm idea for my Jane Austen adaptation study. Suddenly the sexual exploits of Willoughby in the Andrew Davies versus Emma Thompson versions of Sense and Sensibility don’t seem like an interesting paper.

And that’s when reality comes crashing down on me. Being an academic is even harder than being a student. Teaching. Committee work. Research.  Publishing. Advising. Conferences. Grant writing. Evaluations. As I sit at home, dreaming about PhD programs, debating about whether I would want to pursue Cultural Studies or Women and Gender Studies, I falter. Academia has its share of glamour and pride and collaboration and admiration; but it’s also a lot of work, and I imagine, a lot of effort to stay positive.

I have the comfort of knowing that when I am done with this degree, a challenge I took on for fun, I still have a job that I love. A job in the Academy that allows me the occasional opportunity to work on scholarly projects and hear about exciting new research yet is safe. There is no risk in simply completing my degree and staying with the status quo. But how long will it be before I lose the ability to critically analyze the world around me, and the opportunities to work on projects in my field stop being offered? How long before I become stagnant?

It’s a decision I have to make relatively soon. I am done in two months, and then what?

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Occasionally the Awkward Has its Perks

In Graduate Studies & Students on 2012/04/25 at 01:05

Deanna England, writing from Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada

I have now completed the last actual class of my degree. I have one Special Studies course to complete this Spring (Jane Austen and Adaptation, woo!) and then I graduate. And while I’m not yet breathing a sigh of relief and soliciting congratulations, I feel that I’m now in a position to reflect back over the course of this program a little, particularly at how I’ve experienced the dual-role I currently straddle.

I’ve worked at the University for four years, and spent half of that time enrolled in this degree.  When I first began, I had oh-so-many pre-conceived notions of how my program would look and function based on the myriad of planning discussions I had previously participated in. A bit of a laughable expectation in retrospect really, as when does the theory ever truly represent the practice?  Like most of us, a large part of my job requires sitting in on meetings, and many of them focused around the construction of graduate programs: curriculum, policies, student issues, scholarships, promotion, recruitment…

One of the topics I always found the most interesting in those committee meetings were the discussions around the construction of courses.  I find it fascinating that at this level of study, a faculty member has the opportunity to take their area of research and construct an entire syllabus around it. Not only does it allow them the chance to share their passion, but it also grants them the occasion to explore the area further, and learn new perspectives on the topic as a result of student engagement.

On the other hand, wearing my student hat grants me the opportunity to experience those same courses from the other side. However, it’s an odd experience, and I find it impossible to simply flip a switch from one identity (Graduate Studies Officer) to the other (graduate student).  For example, I try to patiently listen when my fellow students informally complain (to me or around me) about the program, faculty, administrative details, fees and so many other frustrating facets of the student experience. Often I feel genuine sympathy and understanding of where they are coming from, but occasionally it’s challenging. I know just how much work goes into the running of these programs and how many hours of debate go into every decision. However, I have to admit: being a student has actually been quite beneficial to understanding just how it feels to be a recipient of those decisions. Because I know, if something doesn’t make sense to me, then there’s certainly no way that the average student will have much more clarity.

Now the two particular courses I’ve taken this year have been masters-honours splits. This is a phenomenon I’d been hearing about since I started at the University, but had yet to experience. And of course I was totally unprepared for what that would be like. I had  (arrogantly) assumed that the undergraduate students would be so much less knowledgeable and articulate than the graduate students in those courses that I was completely taken aback when I realized the exact opposite was true.

Cultural Studies is a multi-disciplinary program and these two courses were taught out of the Women and Gender Studies department.  Now, I have some background in feminist discourse, but it’s only one area of critical theory amongst many others I’ve been exposed to in this degree. But these honours students? It’s what they’ve been living for the past several years – their knowledge of the vocabulary and concepts around what we’re learning far surpasses that of the graduate students. I found myself so utterly humbled by those honours students for their patient guidance, particularly regarding how to handle some of the sensitive issues that the class was discussing. One student’s declaration that “this is a safe space,” reassuring us that we didn’t have to be so concerned about saying the “wrong” thing was absolutely invaluable.

This was something that never came up in committee meetings – the actual dynamic between the two levels of students. I had heard many discussions around the necessity for an increased number of pure master’s classes, countered with the practical use of resources in the split classes. Once again, the theory did not adequately describe the practice. I cannot explain just how valuable both perspectives have been to me in both roles. I think the only thing left for me to do now is to get my PhD and start teaching in these programs – the University really doesn’t have enough classes on porn!

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Scrabble, Tea, and Superheroes

In Graduate Studies & Students on 2012/03/15 at 03:43

Deanna England, writing from Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada

I really like Facebook Scrabble – I spend far too much time on there, with only a vague justification that it “increases my vocabulary.” Over my Christmas holidays, I spent the vast majority of my 10 days off napping and finding new Scrabble opponents. All my grandiose plans of completing my Special Studies proposal (Sex and Jane Austen – woo!), preparing my section of the introduction for the book I’m working on, editing chapters for said book, submitting papers to journals and/or conferences – yeah, none of that happened. Well, the barest minimum of it happened anyhow.

In between naps I found time to email the ever-so-wonderful Mary Churchill, my editor here at the University of Venus to tell her that I was simply incapable of doing a post every month. I was beginning to have anxiety attacks over it. After sending that email, but before my tenth nap of the holidays I began to berate myself. Am I lazy? Unmotivated? Do I deserve to be here? I was convinced that I was about to get my first B+ in a course towards my degree, had no idea how to contribute to a book, and just generally felt like a pile of exhausted goo.

Fast forward a few weeks, and I found myself editing my share of the chapters for the book. As I wrote in my notes that this sentence was awkward, or she really should have considered that primary source, I was suddenly struck by the seeming absurdity of it all. I am a Master’s student. Who am *I* to be telling tenured faculty that they neglected to consider Freud when constructing their paper? Surely they had already thought of that themselves and had positively brilliant reasons for not including him.  I fell back into my gooey state of self-doubt.

I expressed my concerns about my seeming laziness to a trusted confidante and was greeted with (somewhat comforting) jaw-dropping shock. She first attempted to talk me down off the ledge over the B+ (Will it ultimately matter if I didn’t get straight A’s in this program? Will I still get the degree? Who is judging me other than myself?) and then started deconstructing this laziness fallacy.

Are you working full-time? Yes. Are you doing a graduate degree at the same time? Yes. Do you have extra-curricular activities? Yes. What? Well, there’s the book, and writing for the University of Venus and assisting with the coordination of the Winnipeg SlutWalk and my new involvement in a sexual empowerment and education group on events and writing and… OK, do you have a family? Yes. Friends? Yes. Romantic relationship? Yes. Laundry? Groceries? Housecleaning? Bills to pay? Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.

Honestly? I had to go through the entire exercise before I got the point. I genuinely interpreted my sleep and lack of accomplishments over the holidays as a sign of failure. Confession: it’s sometimes a challenge to work for Senior Administration at a University. I see everything they do – committee work, supervising staff, teaching, publications, meetings upon meetings upon meetings, travel, research….How dare I aspire to anything less than that? Doesn’t it mean that I’m a lesser person? Weaker somehow? How do they accomplish such superhuman feats of productivity and still remain…pleasant?

I don’t actually know the answer to that question. But it does reinforce the importance of this mental health initiative that the University is constructing. And while the details of the large initiative are still being sorted out, I am on a sub-committee that is becoming increasingly important to me, as I wade through my own journey of exhaustion, potential over-achievement disguised as laziness, and self-doubt.

“Take 5” is the name of the event. It will be a week-long program of activities on campus that provides free yoga, dodge ball tournaments, massages, prizes, tea breaks and so much more. Last year when working on this, I viewed it as something “for the students.” This year it struck me that I am one of those students. And I could certainly benefit from taking a 5 minute break for some tea.  It’s a simple enough concept, take a breather, appreciate what’s going on around you, and take care of yourself without feeling guilty for doing so. It’s funny how much easier it is to give advice than to take it.

This year though, I think I really want to throw a dodge ball at someone – it sounds deliciously C-A-T-H-A-R-T-I-C.
This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed.