GenX women in higher ed from around the globe

Posts Tagged ‘Canada’

Re-evaluating My Relationship With Student Evaluations

In Janni's Posts on 2013/04/23 at 01:17
Janni Aragon, writing from Victoria, British Columbia in Canada. 

Most universities use student evaluation forms as a means of measuring student satisfaction and teaching effectiveness of the instructors. What many do not know is that most instructors have a like and dislike relationship with the official student evaluations. For contingent faculty, the evaluations are crucial to keeping their jobs. The evaluations are an easy means for a department to let you go, noting, “Well, your student evaluation numbers are really low.” Furthermore, we all know that there is such a large pool of adjunct faculty ready to get a class or pick up an additional class in the quest to attempt to make ends meet. This is an important issue and I recall feeling that the student evaluations gave me that opportunity where I had to prove that the department made a good choice in offering me some courses, when I worked part-time at two to three college campuses or departments.

Anecdotally, I have heard from many faculty that they never read their student evaluations and others note that they wait until the end of the year to review them. I scan the statistics at the term’s end or the end of the year. If I have time, I might read the qualitative comments. You see, I get the statistics emailed to me, but I have to request to get access to the folder of qualitative comments, which means that I do not look at them often. When I started a new team-taught course, I read the qualitative evaluations immediately to assess what the students were thinking. But, usually I review the qualitative comments as I prepare my dossier for a review or some other official process. And, I usually dread reading them, as the one negative comment will stay with me for the next hour or day.

As part of a recent nomination for a Teaching Award, I had to update my teaching dossier, and I just reviewed 18 months of statistics and qualitative comments and I have to say that my relationship with the student evaluations has changed. I cannot even believe that I am typing this, but I found that the both the statistics and qualitative comments tells me exactly what I already knew: I am an effective instructor. From the qualitative comments, I read that some students really like me and a few students do not like me or the assignments. Some comments brought tears to my eyes: students deciding to major based on my course or that my help in office hours made them not drop out of the program or university. I read that I was making a difference in and outside of the classroom—that I should have clones; it was a validating experience to read pages of these comments. Sure, some noted that I require too much reading or writing and I always expect some to make those comments. The statistics also noted that across the board 82-100% of my students enjoy the courses, assignments, my availability, and the overall course. Those are statistics that I can happily live with and add to this the great, hilarious or constructive comments and I feel satisfied with my teaching.

Now, we all are aware of the websites that comment about instructors and I will not name them. Those websites really find the fans and haters making comments and possibly doling out a chili pepper to an instructor.  I do not visit those sites anymore, but going forward, I will make a point of asking for my qualitative comments the same day that I get my statistics.

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

Mentoring and Coaching Reflections

In Janni's Posts on 2012/07/26 at 21:04
Janni Aragon, writing from Victoria, British Columbia in Canada.

Earlier this school year I wrote about mentoring as part of my mandate for the year, and now that my school year is ending I have time to reflect on how this worked for me and my students. I work with lots of students. In previous years the number was close to 1200 students per year. This last year, I had a teaching release and taught more than 900 students. I am also an Undergraduate Advisor, which means that students can potentially get lots of face time with me.

I did a few things differently this year. Some students I mentored, and mentored actively, while others I tried to coach. Let me first talk about the active mentoring. These are the students who were strongly encouraged to submit a paper to an undergraduate journal or to another publishing opportunity. I also was hands on with my honors student and think that we worked together well. I had another honors student who I was the second reader for and I decided that I would not do him any favors if I did not conduct a close reading of his thesis. I consequently had more than 45 comments on his 100 page document. None of this was meant to put any of the students through the gears, but rather to help them submit their best work.

I even signed up one mentee for Social Media Camp, so that she could have another venue to present some of her research about SlutWalk. This opportunity will expand her network. I am also emailing colleagues around town and trying to connect my students to them. These connections have led to some ad hoc work opportunities and more. I continue to write letters of reference and help students assess graduate school or other post-graduation opportunities much like any other advisor.

The students that I coached were typically of a few varieties—new students who were trying to figure out how to maneuver the classroom and university experience and more advanced undergraduate students who needed less direction. In a similar way, I treated the graduate students in more of a coaching capacity as I continued to let go and give most of them more autonomy with the tutorials that they lead and the workshops that they ran. It is hardest for me to wrap my head around letting go, as I feel such a sense of responsibility for a great learning environment for the first year students. Some of the Teaching Assistants really want the opportunity to do more, but others really are not interested in doing anything new or different. Then, there are others who are not really ready to do this sort of work and these graduate students can cause the most work for an instructor. The graduate students who appear less than eager to facilitate, learn, and offer some semblance of flexibility are definitely the ones who I do not want to work with again. This might sound harsh, but I take my coaching seriously and I also realize that the Teaching Assistants are an integral part of the first year teaching team.

My mandate in the department is to work closely with undergraduate students, and I consequently spend more time with them by virtue of teaching only first through fourth year courses. I get to see the students straight out of high school through their graduation and I find that their mentoring or coaching needs vary. I try to remember this and offer my particular skills when they need or want them. I cannot mentor or coach half of them, but the ones who seek me out or take courses with me really is the pool of potential mentees. While mentoring was my mandate for the last year, I have come to realize that it will continue as something that I do.

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

Love the Teaching, Hate the Grading, and Other Institutional Paradoxes

In Melonie's Posts on 2012/05/26 at 02:31

Melonie Fullick, writing from Hamilton, Ontario in Canada

April is the cruellest month in (Anglo-North American) universities, given that the yearly academic cycle reaches its peak with final exams, which are in turn preceded by the crushing weight of major end-of-term assignments. Some students, worn out by the demands of the season, lapse into a state of caffeine-fuelled zombie-like vacancy. For those of us on the receiving end of their work, there is the prospect of a mountain of marking that forms the final obstacle to a brief breather before the summer term begins.

Based on the feelings expressed regularly by many professors and graduate students, I don’t think grading is something many people see as a form of genuine and enjoyable engagement with students–unless it is a case where the course director has been creative with the assignments and/or most of the students are motivated to work hard.

Instead, professors and teaching assistants tend to experience grading as a chore (or in some cases, an ordeal) that must be completed so that marks can be submitted–a technocratic necessity rather than a pedagogical one.

This makes sense for a few reasons. Grading is not an inherently meaningful activity, but more a function of a massified hierarchised institution. A letter or number grade assigns a relative value to a student’s performance, which is then used as a measure of his/her value within the educational system overall. Outside of this system, assigned marks have little relevance.

As such, in an increasingly competitive environment students may see grades more as tokens of exchange than signifiers of acquired skill or learning. That’s partly because it’s so hard to assess those things and link them to an objective “standard”. Students may (rightly) see grades as flexible, and act on this assumption, possibly encouraged by the consumerist tendency that comes with attaching a price tag to education–conflating payment for access with payment for an outcome.

Another issue is that we’ve institutionalised the way in which grading is un-enjoyable. The process and schedule of the academic year ensures this: grading tends to happen all at the same time, there’s usually quite a lot of it–and because students are fatigued and under pressure, what we see might not be representative of their potential.

In the past I’ve also felt as if I have little influence over the outcomes I see when I’m grading assignments. I remember this was among the first issues that alerted me to “something rotten” in the state of academe, years ago when I started working as an undergraduate teaching assistant. It wasn’t that I didn’t care–I cared a lot; I wanted then, and still want now, to help students to learn and write well and earn the marks they desired. But I didn’t have the time and energy (and skill) to provide the level of help they seemed to require. Later, it was both relieving and distressing to realise I was working with all their past and present educational (and life) experiences, not just my own inadequacies.

Grading is just one of the experiences I’ve had, inside the classroom and out of it, that’s led me to look at the institutional frame in which university teaching takes place. To make the larger connections, why would excellent professors be limping along on contracts without job security? Why did undergraduate TAs make only half as much as the graduate students who did the same work–who, in turn, would later make less as contract workers than on the coveted tenure track? It was clear from early on that teaching in the university could be downloaded with impunity on to those with little or no experience or training (or control), and who were willing to work for lower wages.

Can these problems be addressed in a context where more and more people are being told to get a postsecondary education? Not only do we have more students now, but the students themselves must juggle their involvement with education with other demands on their time and energy. We must also find ways of engaging with, and helping, students from more varied educational backgrounds, without making unreasonable demands on those doing the teaching (and grading). And somehow, as teachers in this system we must become more “efficient” given the perpetual economic tightening in the context of managerialist governance of education.

This is where governance meets (and clashes with) pedagogy in the institutional context of the massified university; it is why the conditions of postsecondary teaching demand attention at the level of the egg timer often used to ration each minute of essay marking. Grading and the feelings and problems associated with it show us only a few of the ways in which the long-term devaluing of teaching in the academic economy is both experienced and perpetuated in our everyday lives.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Massive Open Online Courses: How “The Social” Alters the Relationship Between Learners and Facilitators

In Bonnie's Posts on 2012/05/10 at 08:34

Bonnie Stewart, writing from Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island in Canada.

We’re getting close to the tail end of the 36-week-long experiment called #change11, or “the mother of all MOOCs.”

How can I tell?

First, I’m getting ready to facilitate my week, exploring Digital Identities. I’m second-last in the lineup, so the fact that I’m on deck means the whole undertaking is drawing to a close.

But it’s also clear we’re winding down because the #change11 conversation hubs have begun to resemble, uh, ghost-towns.  Once there were lively debates and intense exchanges. As the winter wore into the spring of the year, though, the tumbleweeds began to tickle.

Note to self: next time you facilitate a MOOC module, pick Week #2, not Week #35.

Any course that runs from September through May requires stamina. When that course is voluntary on the part of both learners and facilitators, and runs as a series of totally separate modules, the drop-off can be fairly significant. Erm, even my own participation as a student has crawled to a stop over the last month or two.

I find myself wondering if the other learners will be keener than I’ve been? Am I going to throw a MOOC and have nobody show up?

I suppose it doesn’t matter. I’m a teacher at heart. I’ll put the work into developing my one-week course whether there are going to be 3 students or 300. But as I’m preparing, I’m thinking about what it means to facilitate in a truly social, networked, voluntary environment like #change11.

Or the internet.

As the awareness of the MOOC experiment grows, the term is being increasingly applied to grand-scale enterprises like the Stanford AI course and MITx. While heady, this blurs some very important distinctions.

The MOOC model from which #change11 originates was built on the connectivist learning theory of George Siemens and Stephen Downes. Highly social in format, these courses tend to be experimental, non-linear, and deeply dialogic and participatory. Contributions from participants frequently direct the course of discussion, and the connections and ideas built between learners can be considered as valuable as the knowledge expounded by the facilitator.

On the other hand, the MOOC models offered by the big universities tend towards formalized curricula, content delivery, and verification of completed learning objectives.

Far more embedded in traditional paradigms of knowledge and teaching, these courses only harness the connectivity of social media insofar as they enable masses of people to link themselves to the prestige of a big-name institution. They offer discussion boards, but their purpose is content-focused, not connection-focused.

If I were teaching in an MITx-style course, I’d have a very different module ahead of me, one far more familiar to me as a higher ed instructor.

I’ve been teaching for eighteen years. I profess to be in favour of learner-centered classrooms. But until this MOOC module, every single course I’ve taught has on some level obliged the students to be there. I am accustomed to having the institutional powers of status, credentialism, and grading backing me in the classroom.

In the connectivist MOOC model, I don’t.

There is no bonus for learners who participate in my week of #change11. They won’t get a badge at the end, and there is no certification announcing they completed anything. There’s nothing specific for them to complete, unless I design an exit goal as part of the week’s activities. But that would be MY exit goal: not theirs. They don’t get to put the word MIT on their CV. And while some weeks of the #change11 MOOC have allowed participants to connect with leaders in the learning and technologies field – Howard Rheingold, Pierre Levy – I’m among the less well-known of the 30-plus facilitators in the year’s lineup. They won’t even get the relational perk of engaging with somebody famous.

Nope. But what they will get – in addition to what I hope will be a fascinating exploration of the idea of  Digital Identity – is hands-on practice in what it means to learn and connect and simply be in this networked, distributed age.

And I will get the opportunity to practice what it means to lead in the age of the internet: to share what one knows in a way that invites others to engage, to contribute, to participate.

Both models of the MOOC serve a purpose, but it is the connectivist one – for all it is less massive and far less a traditional course – that teaches both teachers and learners new ways of coming together to explore ideas.

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

Do You Manage Technology or Does Technology Manage You?

In Janni's Posts on 2012/04/04 at 00:12

Janni Aragon, writing from Victoria, British Columbia in Canada

I have prided myself on the early adoption of new technologies in my work and personal life. A good majority of my research has examined women and technology. From a practical point of view technology allows me to connect almost immediately with friends, colleagues, family, and students. This is a mixed blessing.  I know that we all lament how, thanks to email, we have expanded this notion of work and working hours. I thought about managing technology when I read Liana Silva’s blog post about work and guilt. I looked in the mirror and thought that her thoughtful commentary was about me, too. Managing time and technology surely adds to the guilt discussion. Is technology making me a workaholic? I managing technology or is it managing me? Am I saving time by my use of my smart phone and my tablet?

I certainly use my host of technology in the classroom, for office hours, and beyond. But, the weight of this electronic umbilicus is at times more of an electronic manacle. I have taken to scheduling writing or grading time in my Outlook calendar, as this allows me work time, and I manage getting scheduled into meetings. The good news is that I love my job and my career, but I know that it is not everything. I’ve been thinking a lot about Heather Menzies and Janice Newson’s article “No Time to Think” and No Time by Heather Menzies. I know that we have all heard about how academics’ work practices have changed a lot, thanks to technology. The Menzies and Newson article speaks to this and made me uncomfortable as I read it. They were definitely talking about my work life. I have also heard  a colleague or two refer to smart phones as the tool of neoliberalism rebranding the university landscape. Academics are prone to wax poetic, no?

I read work-related emails during the evenings and weekends. I do not want to walk into work to a hundred or more emails. This might surprise many, but I do think it works for me. One issue though, in this smart phone world is that students have gotten to expect this. It is not uncommon for me to get emails an hour or two apart with a student inquiring if I got the previous email. They might know my schedule and assume that since I’m not teaching I can effortlessly reply to their important query immediately. This last holiday I noted that I was getting more advising emails from students on Christmas Eve. I made a point of not responding for a few days—as it was a statutory holiday that I was celebrating.

And, yes, I am known for often responding to emails within minutes or hours. But, it does not always happen. Have I unleashed a beast? Perhaps this explains why my partner is asking me to unplug more. One thing that I started last Fall was not working late on campus 2-3 days, instead I do this 1-2 days a week. The upshot is that I’m home more this school year. This means more family dinners together, which is a great end to the day with my family. The cost is that I often work for a few hours in the evening and like most academics, I still work for a few hours during the weekend.

Gen X scholars remember the good old days of doing research in the library and scouring for books in the stacks, and feeling a sense of discovery when you found a really good book next to the book that you were really looking for initially. What were the good old days of technology? Have we increased the work day with our efficient smart phones? I ask this as my smart phone plays music and my tablet is open with Twitter streaming. I rely too much on either to get rid of them, but maybe I need to willingly unplug more.

Menzies, Heather and Janice Newson. “No Time to Think.” Our Schools, Our Selves, v16, n3 Spring 2007: 99-104.

Menzies, Heather. 2005. No Time: Stress and the Crisis of Modern Life. Toronto, Douglas & McIntyre.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed.

Living in Liminal Space

In Melonie's Posts on 2012/03/29 at 00:06

Melonie Fullick, writing from Hamilton, Ontario in Canada.

In teaching and in research I’ve been taught to pay close attention to the assumptions I bring to the contexts in which we create and re-create knowledge, and one aspect of my own perspective that I often take for granted is the fact that I’m more often present and comfortable in spaces that lie between one particular “position” and another. The term that comes to mind is liminality, a word associated with limits and “intermediate stages” and deriving from the Latin limen for  “threshold.

The sense of being somehow outside and inside simultaneously has been with me for much of my life. I’m a blend of, and in a zone between, cultures and continents. Born in New Zealand to English parents and having now lived in Canada for over half my life, I’ve often had the sense that no matter where I am, I’m peering in at something (a social world) that isn’t “me” but is something I’ve adopted and adapted to through exposure over time.

The geo-cultural ambivalence extends to language, too, since my accent has morphed into an odd amalgam recognizable as multiple things and no-thing; Kiwis and Brits wonder if I’m from Anglo-America, and Canadians guess at Australia, England and South Africa, or occasionally even Boston or New York (covering almost all bases but the right one!). I still sometimes joke that I did a linguistics degree so I could understand why people perceive my accent the way they do.

I feel like I was born at a liminal historical moment, as well—at the tail end of “Generation X”, which is itself a kind of transitional generation coming as it does after the Baby Boomers and before the (supposedly radically different) “Millennials”. Our group seems sandwiched in between great demographic revolutions, a transition point, when the global economy tipped from post-war Keynesianism into neo-liberalism even as it became more tightly connected by new information technologies.

Aside from time, and physical and cultural space, I’m also living between socioeconomic classes. This is technically acceptable in a culture that encourages (and expects) us to be engaged in the long-term process of “climbing” to a better point in the economic hierarchy. But the actual process of the climb is not seen in its messy detail. For those of us outside the bubble of academic and/or economic privilege, education comes well before economic success, not alongside it; often we’re in the position of having multiple degrees, yet struggling to pay the costs of day-to-day living.

In the academic sphere, I’ve found that my interests lie at the crossroads of a number of different disciplines, including education, sociology, economics, communication studies, linguistics, and political science. I try not to be a dilettante dipping my toes into the various disciplinary deeps to add a splash of this or that to my work, but it’s hard not to create that impression when I haven’t formed the kind of strong connection to one definable area of study above all others that is considered desirable in academe.

Lastly, I know the “space” I take up at the moment is one between the position of an academic and that of student, one that PhD candidates know well, wherein we are expected to assume a high degree of professional autonomy even as we’re still considered incomplete as scholars and “knowledge workers”. As for what follows the PhD, it’s becoming more and more difficult to predict what we’ll “become” —or what will become of us—if and when we embark upon academic careers. More and more of us from all academic backgrounds may be finding ourselves between jobs or professions, trying to make sense of the shifting ground beneath us.

One of the positive effects of this bias of mine is that I’m usually not content to understand something from one angle only. I feel a need to inform myself about the “other side” of every argument. Thus being in “no place” has its strategic advantages, and I find I often act as a connector, a curator, and a translator between and among multiple groups or domains.

For most of the examples I’ve provided, I don’t know if I’ll ever find a “place” for myself that’s already named and recognizable. After all, these locations are in some ways just imagined—they are expectations we hold, but perhaps states that we never really reach—because there’s “no there, there”. All of this is about perpetual learning, and it’s usually when we don’t fit the categories provided to us that their limited nature becomes clear.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed.