GenX women in higher ed from around the globe

Posts Tagged ‘Culture Change’

“Deep Thinking”: If Not At the University, Then Where?

In Guest Blogger on 2013/02/12 at 08:44
Guest blogger, Polina Kroik, writing from Eugene, Oregon in the US.

When I decided to enter graduate school, I was attracted by the prospect of studying topics deeply and having the time and the space in which to do so. I wanted to read Kant, Hegel, Joyce’s Ulysses, and develop a mature and independent understanding of literary and philosophical subjects, an understanding that is so different from the superficial comprehension college students are usually asked to demonstrate at the end of the term.

I have gone through two immigrations and my school and college years were marked by financial insecurity. I studied hard, but found it difficult to focus on humanistic projects that, for me, require sustained attention and some confidence in the future. Though I was reluctant to leave the city where I’d gone to college, a graduate education was the only way to remain on the path that I’d chosen, and to become a mature, independent thinker. Having very little financial support to fall back on, the alternative was a taxing full-time job in the city that would have left me very little time for intellectual pursuits.

During my first few years in graduate school, I was indeed able to read extensively in literature and philosophy, and to develop a deeper understanding of a few of these subjects. Even then, though, I felt that I was somehow going against the grain. Students and some faculty regarded me as too serious, too studious. While I was trying to understand the difference between Benjamin’s and Derrida’s concepts of temporality, more worldly students were already developing their brands of academic criticism and networking with faculty. It took me a while to catch on.

I held on to the idea of developing a serious research project, even as I was learning to play the academic game: to vie for senior faculty’s attention; write conference abstracts that sounded “sexy.” I was never great at it, but I plodded along, keeping pace with most of my peers. The problem was that with all these activities, in addition to the responsibilities of teaching, time was becoming scarce. I was left with only a few hours a week that I could dedicate to research, and those hours were also often consumed by e-mail correspondence or anxiety about an upcoming presentation or application for funding.

In my fourth year, I decided to take my dissertation fellowship and move to Oregon, where my sister lived. I wrote almost all of my dissertation during that year, and remained in Oregon for my protracted job search. I have been teaching at a local community college for the past two years, with working conditions that resemble those of my graduate instruction and of many adjunct instructors. I have been lucky to have health insurance and to maintain a relatively light teaching schedule, leaving some time for research.

I realize that different people enter the academy for different reasons: some love to teach; others might prefer collaborative projects to individual essays; another group welcomes the use of technology in the humanities. I respect all these modes of intellectual work and have enjoyed taking part in them. Yet as I explore alternatives to the mythical tenure-track job—where, so I’d been told, some of the time is dedicated to research and thinking—I find no true alternatives. Apart from (some) graduate programs, there is no institutional framework that supports sustained, independent thinking, thinking that is tied neither to economic nor political considerations.

I would like to emphasize this point in light of a 2010 post by Mary Churchill, suggesting that this type of thinking is the legacy of male privilege. While the association with masculinity unfortunately still exists, there is nothing essentially gendered about sustained, deep thinking. Some of our foremost feminist theorists were and are such thinkers. We would not have the work of Simone de Beauvoir, Luce Irigaray or Julia Kristeva had women summarily rejected deep thinking as a masculine activity.

While I support the struggle for better working conditions for non-tenure track faculty–recognizing also that the current conditions are often more onerous for women than men–I have begun to question my personal investment in an academic career. Despite some doubts, I often believed that one only had to work hard enough to be admitted into that privileged, hallowed space of academic research. Faculty still give me that sort of advice from time to time: publish more; apply for another post-doc; attend another conference. Yet I doubt now that after all the concessions and compromises, after all the competitive grasping, I will find support for anything that resembles the free and ethical academic research that I had hoped to undertake.

Polina Kroik received a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from UC Irvine in 2011. Her interests include gender and work in American literature, transnational literature, cultural studies, and critical theory. Kroik has guest-edited a special issue of WorkingUSA: The Journal of Labor and Society on the topic of “Contemporary Labor and Cultural Exchange.” She also teaches writing part-time at Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon. 

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Academic Abbey

In Elizabeth's Posts on 2013/02/06 at 11:14
Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe, writing from Evanston, Illinois in the US.

Earlier this month, the American Historical Association announced the anything-but-shocking discovery that tenured men benefit more from marriage than their female counterparts.  My female friends and I long ago noticed that women at the top of the academic hierarchy rarely have more than one child and a marriage in the present tense.  Scott Jaschik scrutinized the higher statistical propensity for academic women to form endogamous marriages with another Ph.D. Academic men pick partners more willing or better able to fulfill Ruth’s biblical pledge, “whither thou goest, I shall go.”

Such marital politics produce the stuff of domestic dramas played out in every sector and every age. Mr. Darcy tests the waters with Elizabeth Bennet when he asks if she thinks her newly married friend lives a suitable distance from her father’s estate. Ma Ingalls packed up Laura and Mary whenever Pa got the notion to move further afield. Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake captured the isolation centuries of new wives experienced when they set out to cross the Atlantic with husbands they barely knew.

Jaschik’s report appeared the day after Downton Abbey’s third season premier. Julian Fellowes’ reduction sauce of English stereotypes stirs American imaginations with matrimonial ephemera. The lord of the manor married American money but failed to breed profit or sons. The heiress must lower her expectations in order to keep her estate. The Irish chauffeur liberates his aristocratic lover from her hide-bound behaviors and stately home.

Academics, like aristocrats, need certain types of structures in order to survive. A tenured professor needs pupils like an aristocrat needs servants. They exist only in juxtaposition to one another. No stately home to house the servants or no university to engage the undergraduates and the top dog (to steal my tone from 1066 and All That) ceases to have anything to stand atop.

Academics drive their marital moves, but they can only manage chronic migrations if they have a doting partner to herd their progeny towards a new destination. If a tenured academic happens upon their intellectual equivalent of Downton, he (statistically more likely) digs in his heels with a fervor that would make Lady Mary blush. Two PhDs unable to share the same Downton face a marital fate scarier than the Dowager Countess’ disapproving scowl.

If the ‘trailing’ spouse has (as is more likely among trailing wives according to the AHA) a JD, an MD, an MBA, an MSW, an MAT, or anything other than a Ph.D., someone will hire her. If the partner holds a Ph.D. (more likely among trailing husbands), he confronts a choice of adjunct instructorships and administrative positions once held by the wives of the male professoriate in preceding generations. Just as those women railed against their second class citizenship as they held aloft copies of Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, no one should express surprise that the husbands of tenured wives fall short the Alan Alda ideal of household helpfulness and satisfied subordination.

We all dream of marital equality. I once cringed as a newly arrived, male administrator replied, “yes,” to the patronizing observation, “so you are the trailing spouse.” Back during my tenure-line days, my husband – while fully employed at many multiples of my salary – used to field questions from faculty wives as to his experience as a “stay-at-home dad.” I doubt he liked it any better than I did when a few years later an academic wife told me, “I thought you were just a mom.” My husband and I adore our boys. We wear our parental titles with pride. However, the queries possessed the same, internalized self-loathing that Mr. Carson exudes whenever the middling or lower classes imperil the Downton way. They indicated subordination in what we understand as a marriage of equals.

Academics devalue all other occupations in the way Fellowes’ fictional aristocrats struggle to acknowledge the worth of the world beyond the Abbey. When both partners live within such stilted walls, they can appear insurmountable barriers to professional and marital success.

For those who attempt to administer academic abbeys populated upstairs & down by peculiar personalities, we could have worse role models than the indefatigable Mrs. Hughes of Downton. She neither worships nor resents. Mrs. Hughes merely comprehends and coordinates with an admirable mix of affection and authority.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

A New Set of Questions

In Guest Blogger on 2013/01/29 at 04:21
Guest blogger, Natalie T. J. Tindall, writing from Atlanta, Georgia in the US.

In October, I went to see the Pearl Cleage play, What Happened in Paris. During one scene, Evie, the glamorous globetrotter asks Lena, the savvy political consultant if she had ever been to Paris. When Lena said that she had, Evie asked, “Looking for answers?” Lena, responded, “I don’t know about answers, but I sure was ready for a new set of questions.

At that moment, I felt a chill across my body. Those were the words I needed to hear, the words that explained how I felt about my life post-third year review and post-tenure packet submission.

I am ready for a new set of questions.

What Should I Do With My Life?

I did it the Friday before Labor Day: I turned in my tenure packet–two thick binders of paper and specially numbered dividers–to my department chair. I left the office, giddy. And then reality slapped me in the face. After seven years of scrambling to capture the brass ring, switching jobs and states, and building an impressive (according to others) track record, what was next?

I accomplished and was close to accomplishing what I always said I would do: become a professor and get tenured. I worked hard, so hard up to this point. And now what? And for what?

The quest for tenure sucked the marrow out of my bones. My academic friends called tenure “an emotional vampire”; others had some other choice names that I am too polite to mention. For a long time, I felt cloistered in the cell of my own making. Constrained by the tiny basement apartment that was dark and damp most days of the week. Condensed by my drab office space and my colleague’s expectations. Limited by the research that I believed my mentors, my professors, and my colleagues expected me to do. Cramped into corners that didn’t allow me to embrace some identities that may be seen as contradictory to being a professor. Restricted by the walls I built around myself so that no one was allowed in but my emotions were protected from harm, hurt, danger, and strife. Curbed by the limits I placed on my life of what I could and could not do. Reined in by all the things that other ascribed to my life and who I am.

I was burnt out by my job. I was taxed by the amounts of work I gobbled up for the sake of appearances and the lines they added on my vitae, an increasingly long resume that has charted the progress I made in my research, service, and scholastic endeavors. I was overwhelmed by the heavy investments I made into my career and underwhelmed by my lack of a personal life. As someone told me once at a dark period, you were given 1,000 dollars, and you invested 995 of that in your career.

In other words, I poured myself into my career to the detriment of a lot of other things that make life have meaning. After hearing that, something had to change. I tried shifting the external options in my life before to no avail. I fled from what I believed were toxic work environments, but the toxicity and bitterness remained in my life. I withdrew from the soul-sucking committees and positions that occupied my time and psychic energy, but I kept falling into the same ruts. My personal relationships, built on sand, sank and crumbled consistently. And that something was a person: me.

My academic research on black women and work-life conflict issues made me start thinking about the new questions. I was pulled into this project because the call for papers for a book project intrigued me. I never realized how much this research would alter the way that I think about my career and my life.

The term agency popped up multiple times from the respondents and within the literature.  Tindall and McWilliams (2011) defined agency as the

self-created, self-orchestrated, and intentional method of garnering the “power, will, and desire to create work contexts conducive to the development of their thought over time” (Neumann, Terosky, & Schell, 2006, p. 92-93).

Academics exist at the intersection of privileged existence and forced impositions. We have the privilege and ability to shape our lives and choices, yet we often fall into the expectations of what and who an academic should be, get trapped into believing that the guidelines of the tenure and promotion document define us. The life of a professor can become a “second skin” (p. 70), and the identity of being a professor can become the singular role we play and have in our lives. As a participant in my study said, “here we are in the academy because of the flexibility of time, and yet we so discipline ourselves that we blow it” (p. 70).

In  hoity-toity academic terms, agency is ” the capacity of an agent (a person or other entity) to act in a world.” In the plain-speak terminology that is required outside the ivory tower, agency is your efficacy to do you. Put even more simply, I had to ask the question: what the hell is stopping me from doing what I want, going after what I want, and getting what I need?

Those are all valid questions that never entered my conscious, waking life until I turned in the packet. Now, I have the task of figuring out the answers. Agency is all about choices, and I needed to re-evaluate my choices within the parameters of my work and my life. Luckily, I have some time to figure that out.

The Start of the Journey

This day is moving day. My life is condensed to a 10X10 storage facility. Everything I have accumulated between my lives in Florida, Maryland, Oklahoma, and Georgia is there. My academic books are in the discarded boxes from a local liquor store. My clothes are in haphazard piles stuffed into gray and purple storage bins. I’ve given away a lot in preparation for this day.

I have packed my life into little and big boxes (symbolically, literally, figuratively and realistically) for most of my life, so cramming my crap into actual boxes wasn’t a big deal.

I am taking off for the winter holidays. I have a few weeks where I am free to do some soul searching and engage in reflexive thought. This is not a taxpayer-funded Eat Pray Love expedition. But I need some time and shape to reconfigure my career and my life. Find something like balance. Figure out my research trajectory that is geared to my interests as opposed to the popular research trends, the research that is expedient and easy to place in journals,  the needs of a tenure committee or my department’s expectations. Figure out how to adjust my emotional and physical investment in my institution to match its investment in me.

This research leave is the start of something. It’s fitting that it starts today–the day with a new full moon and an eclipse. The full moon, according to several life coaches and new age thinkers, is the appropriate time to reset, cast new goals and start new projects.  This day, I am starting on a new and very large project that I have forgotten in pursuit of my degree, tenure, and titles: me.

Natalie T. J. Tindall is an assistant professor at Georgia State University, where she teaches courses in strategic communication and public relations. She is a fiction writer, knitter, community volunteer, and occasional half-marathoner between her academic writing, teaching, and service. She can be contacted via Twitter (@dr_tindall) and e-mail (

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

How am I doing? Reflections on What Teaching Entails

In Ponderings of a Peregrine Pinoy Professor on 2013/01/18 at 22:49
Rosalie Arcala Hall, writing from Iloilo, Philippines

At a General Education course training, I was disconcerted by a colleague’s presentation which showed carefully selected personal notes from students, which she made them write at the end of every session. I was equally perturbed by other news that one of my younger colleagues has been cooking(!) in his Southeast Asian History class; and another opted for a study tour in place of a written final exam.

I am not passing judgment on these creative or technologically-innovative ways of teaching, but this great pedagogical diversity is making me wonder whether as a University, we are losing sight of the nuts and bolts of our profession. Previous attempts at peer-to-peer teaching assessment, where another teacher sits through your class and offers suggestions for improvement have been rebuffed by worries of infringement on academic freedom.

With over twenty years in the business and with experience at a US institution for comparison, here is a summary of my own lessons on what works:

1. Focus on the takeaway.

Every class is about what students learn at the end of each encounter.  I take to heart a former professor’s wisdom of delivering 3 or 4 maximum points per session, to arrange, reiterate and sum up my lecture or activity around those points and those points alone. Students have busy lives; they have other matters to think about. What makes your lessons stand out are their portability and enduring character. Vocabulary building,  human stories–these are things that will stay with them longer.

2. One size does not fit all when it comes to class materials.

There is a need to customize reading selections with the type of students/nature of class (i.e. level? homogenous versus mixed majors? undergraduates or graduate level?). In the US, this is solved by the instructor’s choice of a textbook or a custom-made reading packet that meets the minimum criteria of (a) readability and (b) content match with syllabus themes. There is no merit in inducing undergrad student “nose bleed” by assigning them materials you were given as a PhD student (no matter how brilliant you think the material is).

3. Keep students busy with short and easily-done assignments.

I routinely have my students handwrite (an anti-plagiarism measure) reflection papers from audio files and deliver news reports for sharing. In one GE class on gender, I had them keep a diary based on themes I pre-assign. It’s a lot of work marking assignments for 20-30 students but well worth the effort of making sure some “internal” learning process have occurred.

4. There is no substitute for face time.

I insist on actual make-up classes for sessions I miss due to official travel for meetings or research. I pre-schedule individual consultations for reports, papers and thesis; 10-15 minute minimum face time turning my office into a never-ending queue of waiting students. Students I find, place value on those encounters. It’s also a foolproof way of flagging under performers and absentees, as well as giving positive feedback to those who do their job well.

5. Do not assume that students know.

My classes come with Lego toy-esque instructions. I spend time walking students through the rubrics of writing essays, the format of scholarly papers with correct citations, how to deliver good oral reports (do NOT read from your notes; limit slides to 10 and use parsimonious text; use summary tables), speaking and writing English properly (I correct grammar and punctuation), and how NOT to plagiarize. More than content, students need to know what and whether they’re doing things right.

6. Treat students with respect.  

Contractual obligations in the syllabi run BOTH ways. If students get marked down for absences, tardiness and delay in turning in exams and papers, then the same holds true for the teacher. Scolding students for shortcomings in front of their peers or dismissing their responses as inconsequential show insensitivity. In my class, there is no wrong response when asked, but affirmation of how their answers link to the matter at hand.

There may be a thousand and one ways to be the best teacher one can be. To me, putting the student’s interest first, not your ego or your convenience, is key. That and remembering to always put yourself in their 16-18 year old shoes.

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

Various Shades of Digital Literacy: The New Digital Divides

In Ernesto's Posts on 2013/01/17 at 01:03
Ernesto Priego, writing from London, England in the UK.

An initial version of this post was originally published on HASTAC 10/22/2012. 

I’d like to thank my colleague Melonie Fullick for the conversation that led to this post.

As a researcher interested in the digital humanities and as a blogger, editor and academic blogging and social media workshop facilitator, I have observed different shades of digital literacy levels. I have witnessed it not between groups from different countries, disciplines or institutions, but within self-contained groups or communities that are often assumed to have the same skill sets or more or less similar degrees of access to infrastructure, financial means, education, and connectivity amongst others since these groups’ members belong to the same organisation, faculty or department. That members of the same organisation should not be assumed to necessarily have the same digital skills or level of access to said skills, education or resources is precisely one of the motivations for this post.

At the time of writing this, the current “Global Digital Divide” Wikipedia entry reads:

“The global digital divide is a special case of the digital divide, the focus is set on the fact that “Internet has developed unevenly throughout the world”  causing some countries to fall behind in technology, education, labor, democracy, and tourism. The concept of the digital divide was originally popularized in regard to the disparity in Internet access between rural and urban areas of the United States of America; the global digital divide mirrors this disparity on an international scale.The global digital divide also contributes to the inequality of access to goods and services available through technology. Computers and the Internet provide users with improved education, which can lead to higher wages; the people living in nations with limited access are therefore disadvantaged.

This global divide is often characterized as falling along what is sometimes called the north-south divide of “northern” wealthier nations and “southern” poorer ones.”

In this case, I would like to suggest there are other types of digital divides that are not necessarily between those with access and those without. As Howard Besser pointed out,

“Much of the promise of the digital ages is an increase in democratic values and of broadening public participation in the various aspects of society and culture. In order for this promise to be realized, we need to take concerted action to narrow a host of different digital divides and allow everyone an equal opportunity to partake in this democratic promise.”

Besser is right to point out that “The digital divide also includes a gap between those who can be active creators and distributors of information, and those who can only be consumers.” Nevertheless, the other types of digital divides I have been thinking about take place within those who can be both active creators and distributors of information, as well as consumers of that information.

The group I am talking about is graduate students, postdocs and academic staff in higher education institutions, and specifically within the arts and humanities and in developed nations such as the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States. The sometimes exceedingly high standard expected from candidates as specifically detailed in some digital humanities job descriptions announces a new digital divide, between those who can build the digital platforms and those who would only consume them.  Importantly, it may also announce a time in which there might only be funding available for large institutional projects that already involve a great deal of infrastructural support and, very importantly, qualified human resources with advanced levels of humanities resource building –as in coding– and not for those that “only” involve advanced levels of engagement –as in, interpretation and teaching– with those humanities resources.

But there are various shades of complexity before we even get to that divide between those who “build” and those who don’t. New digital divides created by the great diversity of digital skill sets amongst most arts and humanities scholars. The recent popularity of the digital humanities (or rather, of the term “digital humanities”) has meant that many propose that in the near future everyone in the humanities will be a digital humanist, and that the adjective “digital’ will have to be dropped soon. It is more and more common to see job adverts seeking scholars with PhDs in very specialised arts and humanities themes who can also code (for example, PhP, Python, whatever). In general, these are skills that are not formally included in most postgraduate humanities degrees. As an educated guess one might be able to generalise that many if not most humanities scholars who possess some level of coding skills often acquired them through alternative methods, taught themselves or have backgrounds in disciplines that until very recently were not part of the humanities curricula.

The job descriptions out there seem to tell a different story. It is as if suddenly, in some section of the academic world, we were witnessing the rise of a super-humanist, who is not only an expert in Aramean manuscripts but can also develop XML schemas, tweak APIs, design WordPress templates, who is a master of custom CSS design for ebooks and blogs, tweets, curates data sets and visualises online networks and quantifies her open access journal articles webometrics and altmetrics. This prototype scholar seems to be some kind of mutant 21st century super-powered being who simultaneously designs and maintains algorithmic architectures and deconstructs the history of literary theory and textual scholarship by heart.

On the other hand, we have what I think is a more immediate scenario, that of the scholar (please humour me for the sake of argument) who mainly communicates over emails and listservs, who, say, struggles to save a PDF, only recently figured out what a hashtag is and has never used a shared Google Drive document. This scholar knows her/his stuff very well indeed, hates Microsoft, resents having to use a Moodle or PowerPoint (or absolutely loves them), but is not really comfortable with this whole Web 2.0, scholarship-in-the-cloud malarkey.

There’s also an in-between group if you wish, confirmed by scholars who are very fluent (or think of themselves as very fluent) in off-the-shelf Web 2.0 tools, they blog, share what they do, keep track of  who reads them and engages with them, who might know what a MOOC is and might even have facilitated or participated in one, who know what tags and attributes are, who learned what they know in different ways, who may know a lot or who may struggle with some aspects of it but just about manage to get along.

And, of course, there’s always those who will belong to all of the above, to just a couple of them or to neither of them, or any other combination you can possibly imagine. The thing is, all these categories are destined to be caricaturesque generalisations, precisely because there are so many shades of fluency and engagement with technical digital skills, expertise and tools.

Therefore these new digital “disparities” in digital fluency are not necessarily about access (or privilege, or wealth, or technology, or connectivity, or language, etc.)  as it used to be discussed (between the rich and the poor, the north and the south) but about actual varying degrees of skills within the same groups. These disparities have allowed a technically savvy elite to sometimes get hold of a position that depends on a big group not possessing the skills they have, so rarely there are situations in which they are encouraged to teach others. Sometimes those others will not think they have anything to learn, or will resent being told that perhaps it would be a good idea to sit down and learn how to do something. Sometimes those others wish they had the institutional support to count with the time and space and access to training necessary to acquire new digital skills, no matter how “basic” or “advanced” they may seem to others.

Moreover there is the assumption that commercial off-the-shelf web services are simply picked up by intuition and trial and error. This is true in some cases. It’s come to the point though in which the web is not something that only interests technically-minded people, but the platform on which and with which, for better or worse, a great percentage of human communication is increasingly taking place, and as such it is worth considering if it would not be a good idea to stop taking for granted that academics (of any age) do not need structured learning opportunities to master the nuances of the web (in this case not as coders, but as skilled users). Perhaps tool-based learning is doomed to failure as these are likely to change or disappear, but core critical and practical skills applicable to a wide variety of web tool scenarios would be a great thing to have a structured, recognised framework for.

Arguably, as web platforms become the mainstream rather than the underground, not only do those platforms become more complex: their users also cannot be expected to always-already have a great degree of proficiency in their management or use. (It can be argued that unlike mainstream scenarios,  underground scenes are more or used to be more likely to engage in Do It Yourself and self-taught activities and processes). For instance, some knowledge that some social media users might take for granted, such as logging in, updating profiles, uploading files, making hyperlinks, etc. might be unknown to even the most apparently prolific of social media users, as sometimes things happen “as if by magic” without users necessarily understanding the processes behind them or without being able to replicate them when contexts or circumstances change. We must stop taking these skills for granted, and reconsider how we might be contributing to new digital divides amongst groups of peers by assuming everyone has (or even should have!) the same digital skill sets, when perhaps they don’t.

These are just some quick notes seeking to suggest that before all arts and humanities scholars become that mutant 21st century super-powered being we need to first recognise the existence of the great diversity of levels of digital literacy, and second that academia needs to figure out how to ensure that, for example, everyone feels comfortable using a search engine before asking them to code one from scratch.



This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Learning Disabilities and Academia: The Untold Story

In Guest Blogger on 2013/01/15 at 23:06
Guest blogger, Anna CohenMiller, writing from San Antonio, Texas in the US.

I have been wanting to write about this for a long time but have not known if it was a safe topic in academia.

I have a learning disability and it is something that is generally (almost never) spoken about. I have chosen to keep it a secret because I have had bad experiences growing up sharing this part of myself. A couple of years ago, I thought I was ready to share this information and had even considered focusing my dissertation on students with learning disabilities in academia, but ended up not feeling ready.

Today, it is taken for granted that I can have a learning disability and be a good student. Yet life has not always been smooth sailing, such as in high school when my AP English teacher yelled at me in public about how learning disabilities do not exist, and how I was “making it all up!” People did not understand how I could be a “straight A” student and have a learning disability. It just did not make sense to them. Aside from teachers not understanding, even my best friend did not get it, and eventually our friendship ended.

Fortunately two decades have now passed and some things have changed. I am now ready to share my story.

After high school, I moved a thousand miles away to go to college, and found an incredibly welcoming academic environment. No more teachers who yelled at me for telling them about my learning disability. Instead, most professors were incredibly thoughtful and happy to accommodate me. (As a side note, although it is the law to accommodate students with documented learning disabilities, it does not have to be done happily.) On campus, there was a center for learning disability services staffed with graduate students trained to work with each registered student. Each undergraduate was assigned a graduate student who was our personal support system and advisor. The graduate students received credit for working with us, as well as hands on practice, and we met regularly throughout the semester to see if there was anything they could do for us.  I felt good. I felt like I was a responsible student (which I was), who was capable of doing my work (which I could).

In a nutshell, I was treated with respect. In general being treated with respect is a non-experience. Respectful behavior often goes unnoticed; it is the essence of unremarkable, until it disappears. At least for me, that is what happened.

Fast forward to today. The university I attend as a doctoral student has a disability services center, however it varies drastically from the one I experienced in my undergraduate days. My experiences have included ones that were okay, such as being listened to when I called or came into the office.  However, my experiences have also included being ignored, talked down to, and having my water bottle removed during a testing session because “you might spill it on your test paper and you are allowed only one paper” (this was told to me in a slow, measured voice which in the best scenario was condescending).

Being treated in this – disrespectful – manner, has left me uninterested in dealing with the disability office and reminded me of my negative experiences sharing with others that I have a learning disability. The fears of being yelled at, ignored, or treated like a child feel exceptionally fresh in my mind.

Yet I know today that this topic of learning disabilities and academia is significant. I believe that it is important to write these words and have others read them. I once saw a documentary that included people who had become famous talking about their learning disabilities and struggles growing up. Their willingness to share and make themselves vulnerable was important for me to see, and I hope this piece will help someone else in a similar way. In talking about my own struggles to gain and maintain respect as a doctoral student with a learning disability, I hope to provide voice for an unvoiced student and perhaps help university policy evolve to a constant level of respect when addressing everyone, including those with learning disabilities.

Although I have had some difficulties with disability services at my university, it should be noted that overall the office has an excellent mission and all of my professors have been exceptional in their support of me and my learning disability.

Anna CohenMiller is a doctoral student in the department of Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching studying adult education at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She has a background in anthropology, education, and Spanish and is focusing her dissertation on the institutional obstacles to motherhood in academia for graduate students and junior faculty. Anna is an avid artist and examples of her photography can be found at You can follow her on Twitter @annaramona or contact her via email at

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Turning a Corner

In Lee's Posts on 2012/11/10 at 02:51
Lee Elaine Skallerup, writing from Morehead, Kentucky in the US.

I was outside yesterday, enjoying some early fall weather after dinner with my son. I was pushing him on the swing, doing exaggerated “karate” moves and noises whenever I pushed him. He loved it and was giggling uncontrollably. The more he laughed, the more ridiculous I tried to make my moves. And in that moment, I realized something: I’m having fun, too.

This realization came as an immense relief to me. Since having the curtain pulled down around me towards the end of last semester (and probably earlier), I haven’t really enjoyed spending time with my kids. This sounds like a horrible admission, but it’s not that I didn’t want to spend time with them, it’s that I derived no real pleasure from it. In fact, it became a source of real anxiety; I forced the time, forced the fun, and spent the whole time worrying that I was somehow scarring my children from my lack of authentic pleasure.

But just as things got imperceptibly heavier and heavier until I could barely lift my head, things have gotten gradually lighter and lighter. The good days outnumber the bad days. My mind is clearer now, making it easier to make decisions and feel good about them. I’m not as tired, even with a heavy teaching schedule and a busy life. I am looking forward to things (like teaching), things that I had to look forward to before, but instead were sources of dread and gloom.

I have been working hard to try and get through and past and over my depression. I started eating better (ok, my body decided that eating fast food would cause me to get sick, so I stopped), I started swimming again, I got help, improved my sleep habits, took a vacation, etc. I read for pleasure again and bought music, discovering new (for me) artists that I liked. And it still took more than six months. Given that I’ve spent more than a year in phases like this, back when I was in denial about being depressed, I know that I am doing ok and progressing well. And I can’t tell you how rewarding it is to know that the hard work is finally paying off.

I worry about sustaining this effort over the course of the entire semester and academic year. Already, my Kindle sits unused, and there are more and more weeks where I only get to the pool once. Teaching a 5/4 course load of writing-intensive classes, coupled with my research agenda, does not leave much time for self-care. Right now, I am enjoying teaching again, while my research is as intellectually stimulating and fulfilling as ever. But as I pour more and more of myself into these parts of my life, I dread the day that they will once again end up being a source of darkness rather than light.

Finally, I worry about passing this to my children, genetically or otherwise. I worry that one day I will slip underneath the darkness and not be able to pull myself out (or be pulled out). On the bad days, these worries consume me with guilt and grief for my family. But if this latest bout has taught me anything, it’s that I am not alone, and neither will they ever be alone in this. If they inherited this from me, then they hopefully also inherited the strength to get through it.

I might not be able to change their genes, but I can change how we deal with them. Silence is not the answer. Their strength, our strength comes from being in this together. For those of you who were in this with me, offering me strength and support, I thank you. Someday, my kids will thank you, too.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Who do you think you are?

In Sarah's Posts on 2012/11/08 at 03:19
Sarah Emily Duff, writing from Stellenbosch, South Africa.


When I graduated in March last year, I expected to enjoy the pomp of the ceremony, the sumptuous and faintly ridiculous robes and hat of formal academic dress, and the joy of receiving my doctoral degree with my parents in the audience.

And I did enjoy all of this, but what surprised me was my pleasure at being able to call myself Dr Duff. I have a title which is absolutely gender neutral, and it reflects the decade’s worth of hard work which went into my university education. But I never expected to insist that others use my title, and I still feel slightly odd calling myself Dr Duff.

During my Ph.D. studies, I taught at two universities in London. At both of these institutions, academic staff and students were on first-name terms. This came as something of a surprise to me. I had completed my undergraduate and MA degrees at – what was then – a conservative and largely Afrikaans university in South Africa. There, nearly all students addressed staff by their titles, with only doctoral candidates – possibly – calling their supervisors by their first names.

When I lectured and tutored in South Africa, I was always Ms. Duff, which amused me considering that I was only a few years older than my students. But while working in Britain, everyone – from the most senior Professor to the very newest first year – was called by his or her first name. I really liked this. Not only did it make tutorials and seminars less formal, but I felt less intimidated by my colleagues. I hope that my students found me more approachable too.

Admittedly, the two universities which employed me are both fairly unusual: one has a very high proportion of mature, part-time students, and the other is a small institution which focuses exclusively on the arts, humanities, and social sciences. Partly as a result of this, I taught students who were particularly receptive to more egalitarian and less hierarchical learning environments.

Crucially, my students understood that even though they could call me by my first name, they still had to respect my authority in the classroom, as well as my expertise on the subjects I was teaching.

Yet since returning to my old university in South Africa, I have, increasingly, begun to insist that students call me by my title. This is largely because it remains the norm at the university for all academic staff to be called by their titles, even if it is a considerably more liberal place than it was when I left it six years ago. I do, though, have two other, equally significant, reasons for insisting on being Dr Duff, rather than Sarah.

The first is connected to the fact that many undergraduates do not seem to understand the role and purpose of the university. When I commented to a group of final-year undergraduates that my main role at the university is to produce research, they were shocked. They believed that I was primarily a teacher. This accounts, I think, for many students’ confusion and, occasionally, anger when I am not always in my office, or when I cannot to assist them with administrative or computing snarl-ups.

At the beginning of every course, I make a point of explaining to students my research interests and qualifications. As petty as it may seem, insisting that academic staff are called by their proper titles is one way of demonstrating to students how university systems work: that in South Africa, Britain, Australia, and elsewhere, the title ‘Professor’ is bestowed only on those academics deemed to be exceptionally talented by their peers. Even if they intend to leave university after three years, undergraduates are part of this academic system, and should understand where they stand in relation to other members of academia.

Secondly, I insist upon being called ‘Dr’ because students consistently assume that my male colleagues are better qualified than I am. Students are quick to promote all my male colleagues to the rank of Professor, while I and other women are usually called ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs’. Male colleagues have little trouble keeping order in class, and their expertise is never questioned.

In this environment, I use my rank to impress upon students that am equally – if not better – qualified than many male lecturers, and am as deserving of their respect and good behaviour in lectures.

When I began my Ph.D. degree five years ago, I had very little idea of how much these two letters before my name would come to mean.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed