The Humanities Crisis Industry

Lady English Professor:

My wonderful former doctoral supervisor, Stephen Slemon, continues to lead and inspire.

Originally posted on ACCUTE:

The following is an edited version of my opening comments, given as ACCUTE President, to a panel on the “Humanities: Past, Present, Future,” at Ryerson University on March 6th,  2014.  The panel was sponsored by the Ryerson Department of English and organized by its interim chair Nima Naghibi,  with the support of Dean of Arts Jean-Paul Boudreau, Arts and Contemporary Studies; Languages, Literatures and Cultures; History; and Philosophy.  My fellow panellists were Marianne Hirsch, Immediate Past President of the Modern Languages Association, and John Ralston Saul, President of PEN International, and Distinguished Visiting Professor at Ryerson University.


We meet tonight in the darkening shadow of a humanities crisis industry, and here are just a few of the recent headlines. “Humanities Fall From Favour.” “Prestige of Humanities at All-Time Low.”  “Oh, the humanities.  Big trouble, but there’s still some hope.”

Big trouble.  Some hope.  I’m about to argue…

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Here it is the end of November and I haven’t written anything for ages. No blog posts. No conference proposals. No revisions to in-the-works articles and chapters. Nope. The only things I have been writing are emails and memos and the odd reference letter for a student. I have, however, been reading a lot. A student’s full draft of her dissertation but mainly lots and lots of scholarship applications. It’s scholarship season around here. In their wisdom the two main granting agencies–the “tri-council” scholarship programs (SSHRC, NSERC and CIHR) and the Ontario Graduate Scholarship program have downloaded a lot of the work of reviewing and awarding of scholarships to universities. This means that highly paid administrators–associate deans and associate chairs–are spending hours reading and adjudicating scholarship applications. While I don’t mind doing the work, I do mind the amount of time it takes away from other tasks. Things like properly designing the graduate course I will teach next term, reading edited book chapters for a collection I’m working on, but mostly writing, writing, writing. I am stalled. Today I have a day of no meetings and I could be writing conference and teaching abstracts. But I’m stalled. No words come to me.

Or maybe it’s just late November.

By the end of today I will have written more than this blog post. I promise! But how? How? Any advice on how to get un-stalled when it comes to writing would be very welcome.

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#PostAc, #AltAc, #NonAc: this is what I’m doing.

Enough of the talk: do something! I am into my second year as Associate Dean and now it’s time to deliver on things that I have been talking about. (I almost wrote “operationalize” the “action item,” which just shows how stealthily administrator language has entered my brain.) Clearly, one of my responsibilities is to Make. Stuff. Happen. And I’d like to get one project up and running by the end of this year.

Job training for Arts graduate students.

It is abundantly clear that there are more PhDs graduating in Arts and Humanities programs than there are academic jobs available for them. In my view (and it is shared by many others) it is unethical NOT to make this clear to potential doctoral students from the very beginning. Further, it is our responsibility as their mentors (by “our” I mean all faculty) to help them develop—and be able to articulate and demonstrate—a range of skills and competencies (there’s that admispeak again) that will make them suitable for a variety of careers. We want them to succeed in life, and we want them to have fulfilling, well-remunerated occupations. We do not want them condemned to life as exploited, underpaid, benefit-less sessional or adjunct instructors with limited term contracts, possibly at several universities. Although lots of recently graduate PhDs go that route, I haven’t met anyone who would choose it.

Some people say that there has always been a shortage of academic jobs in Arts. Indeed, when I was a doctoral student in the early 1990’s it was all gloom and doom talk about there being no jobs for us. But, ya know, there were. I was interviewed several times, and within a relatively short time period (one year, during which I held a postdoctoral fellowship) I got a tenure-track position. I am not that smart or exceptional. Maybe I was lucky, but the fact is that I (and several of my friends from grad school) got the academic jobs that we wanted. To be sure, there was already talk back then about how we needed to think more broadly about what students graduating with a PhD in English could do with their degrees if they didn’t get an academic job. But there was no clear vision of what that might be. If I had been asked what I was planning to do if I didn’t become a professor, I would have answered: “um, dunno.” I remember attending one workshop where a guest speaker advised us to hide the fact that we had a PhD if we were applying for jobs outside of academia. Right. I spent all that time, effort, energy, and money to NOT celebrate and use my doctoral degree?

It’s almost twenty years later and things are different this time. Worse. There is more appetite for universities to cut costs (because their budgets are being cut by governments) by not investing in long-term tenure-track professors. We are expensive. There is already a two-tier teaching system in place with more and more graduate students and sessionals doing more and more of the undergraduate teaching. There is pressure to do more teaching online because once the professor has designed the course someone else can run it. Senior level professors are retiring (sometimes prompted to do so with buy outs) and not being replaced. Whole programs are being shut down or consolidated elsewhere. What is happening to the professors who were teaching in those programs? Here at Waterloo things haven’t been as bad as they have been in other places—we’ve been hiring tenure-track faculty over the last couple of years in Arts. But there’s no confidence that we’ll be able to continue to do so.

So, what are all of our Arts PhD students going to do when they complete their degrees? I don’t want them to give the same answer—“um, dunno”—that I would have given in the 90’s. I want them to be confident in and proud of what they know, what they have to offer, and what they can do right now. And I want them to be able to earn adult, middle-class salaries because they are highly educated adults. They have worked hard. They are smart. They are our next generation. They are our hope. Okay, enough of the preaching.

Where is the practical stuff?

It’s in development. I began with doing the research. I read many a report and survey that confirmed that not only do graduate students need more formal job training they demand it. Next, it was time to work on faculty who supervise graduate students, because the research showed that students look to their supervisors first and most consistently for career mentorship. So I prepared a presentation, which I have been taking to departments that have graduate programs. My aim is to get departments talking about the issue of graduate student training. It seems to me that there needs to be a culture shift in our departments and programs. Students need to be more realistic (many of them think they will beat the odds and get that dream tenure-track job). And they need to be thinking about what they would also like to do with their lives and what they need to do to get there. Supervisors need to be more open-minded. Too often professors in Arts are disappointed when students leave academia and pursue other career options, as if somehow the student has “failed.” Failed whom? When is getting a good job ever a failure? Sometimes professors can be disdainful of other careers, especially if there is business or profit involved (as if we aren’t highly paid professionals and also middle-class consumers). No more negative messaging, either explicitly or implicitly.

I have worked with our career services folks on developing workshops, info sessions, and other events especially for Arts graduate students. Sadly, one event (a “living library” where alumni come to campus for one-on-one chats with students about how they found their jobs) was so undersubscribed it had to be cancelled. Eight out of 600+ Arts graduate students signed up. See need to change student expectations and attitudes above.

I championed and led the organizing team for the 3-Minute Thesis competition; it too was a professionalizing activity. I heard faculty members pooh pooh the idea of a competition because they felt it “dumbed down” research. No, it makes research exciting and  accessible to more people. And it makes students work hard on their presentation skills, skills that they will need in almost any job. Certainly in any job interview. And, trust me, students who competed last year loved it. We’re doing it again!

To my mind, the issue of graduate student career training requires a multi-pronged strategy. What happens at the university level (Career services) needs to be augmented at the Faculty level (my office) and reinforced in the departments.

So what am I doing? I just struck a committee to develop an Arts graduate student careers training program. What will that look like? Well, I’m not entirely sure yet, but one project already in the works is a website that will function as a hub of resources and information. It will have a live calendar, to which anyone can add an event, announcing things like alumni panels focused on jobs and careers, workshops on topics such as how to write a resume, how to network, how to use social media in building your career, how to x, y, and z.

What do I hope departments will do? Design professionalization courses that take into account non-academic job options. Build co-op or other paid experiential learning opportunities into their programs. Bring their alumni back to campus to talk to their current students. Use their own networks (after all, we all have family members, friends, and acquaintances who are not academics) to bring students and jobs together. Help students figure out how to create their own networks. I’m a big advocate of Twitter and LinkedIn and other social media tools that enable the distribution of information and encourage people to talk to others whom they may never meet in RL (that’s Real Life for you newbs).

Wait! What if a student does want an academic career? What are we going to do for her? Well, we’re already doing a fine job of mentoring her for those careers. We’ve been doing that really well for a long time. Other career options? Not so much.

Others are talking and doing too. Just one example is the blog Hook and Eye.

Over the next few months I’ll report on how we’re doing. Watch this space!

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Work, Life and Kitchens

Lady English Professor has been a bit distracted lately and I’ve neglected the blog. It’s not so much that I’ve been unusually busy with the job. Although now that Fall term has begun there are the regular rounds of meetings. I added all the regularly scheduled meetings to my calendar the other day; then I counted them up. Eighty-two. 82! Between now and June 2014—and that’s just the weekly, bi-weekly, and monthly regulars. No, the reason for my distraction is that we’ve been living through kitchen renovations.

Now, you’d think this wouldn’t be much of a problem, that we’d just eat out and order food in. We have great food close by, including at Vincenzo’s where you can buy all sorts of ready-made meals. Just microwave and enjoy. But that’s not what we did.

We both like to come home after a long day of work and be HOME. And one of the things that makes this house our home is the fact that we cook dinner and eat together: sitting across the table, with wine, before we descend to the TV room. Enjoying the food we have made. Talking. Somehow the whole business of deciding what we’ll have for dinner during the day, shopping for what we need on the way home, making dinner, and eating it together is an important part of our life. It’s when we share. It’s when we experience the sensory pleasures of food. It’s when we talk about the good and the bad of the day. So even though our kitchen lived in boxes in the dining room, and even though the only cooking machines we had for the past month were a microwave, a BBQ, and a toaster oven, we made delicious home made food for dinner.

At work I eat my packed lunch at my desk (sandwich, veggies & yogurt or last night’s dinner leftovers), play Scrabble for fifteen minutes, and that’s it. Back to work. Breakfast is usually a smoothie (yogurt, fruit, juice all wooshed up in the blender) or a slice of toast and, crucially, always, tea. That too is consumed rather quickly (again while playing Scrabble). Arelquino and I don’t talk much because I’m not a morning person. He reads the newspapers online. He drinks his espresso and sometimes eats. We’re up, showered, dressed, breakfasted, and out the door in just over an hour.

At the end of the day, cooking and eating dinner is our together time. And even though we’ve had to improvise and the food prep conditions were far from optimal, we found (without consciously realizing it) that we couldn’t do without making dinner. It’s part of who and how we are together.

The new kitchen is almost finished. We’ve gradually been able to take stuff out of boxes and put it back in cupboards and drawers. We have a functioning stove and a gorgeous fridge (is it possible to have a crush on a fridge? I think I have a crush on the fridge). Counter top went in on Friday and sink and dishwasher will be installed on Monday. Last thing to do then will be the backsplash (Mexican terra cotta tiles! From Mexico!) and paint the trim (Mediterranean blue, we’re thinking).

And then this lady professor’s life will be even better.

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How good it feels

Every academic reading this post will know this feeling. You get an idea for an article that you want to write. It might be part of an ongoing research project or a new one. You do the research (which to me is the fun part). You spend hours working through your research material trying to put it in some sort of logical order. You begin writing. You hate writing (or at least I do). You force yourself to write. Then you have to edit and revise until you can’t change one more sentence. Then you give your essay to someone (maybe) who will say nice things about it (maybe) but will also (hopefully) suggest how you can make it better, clearer. You revise again. You finally send it off to a journal. You wait. And wait. And wait. Then the happy day comes when you get an email from the journal in your inbox. There are butterflies in your stomach as you open it. Relief! They like it! BUT there are three readers who have written reports and want you to revise again. You go back into the essay and painfully rewrite. You send it back to the journal. They’ve accepted it! it will appear in at least a year . . . which gives you plenty of time to acquire permissions to reproduce images, get digital copies of them, fiddle with abstract, keywords, and author bio.

Then, one magic day, the issue that contains your essay is published. Yay! Celebration! But also immediate (if minor) trepidation, because now that it’s out there you have made yourself vulnerable.

Dear readers, if you are interested in “Flucht und Vertreibung and the Difficult Work of Memory” (aka “my mother’s story”), you can read it here, if you have a U Waterloo login. If not, it’s in volume 10 issue 3.


By the way, Life Writing was an awesome journal to work with. Just wonderful

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In praise of public libraries

Again today I am working in the Waterloo public library.


I come here when the work I have to do is research or teaching related and when my administrative job is quiet–meaning that I don’t have to be on campus for any particular reason. The work I want to accomplish today is editing. I want to be finalizing the comments to authors that CR and I compiled during our working weekend in Montreal, writing letters to authors, and doing line edits of the chapters themselves. I’ll admit that it’s taking me a while to get my head into gear. Being away for two weeks is one factor;  trying to pick up work and make sense of notes done several weeks ago is another. And then there’s the question of the tone of one’s editorial comments. We want to be rigorous but also affirmative in our requests and suggestions. We want the authors to do their best work. But we also have to respect that these are professional academics who have their own sense of the “finishedness” of their chapters.

So while I mull these matters over I also think about how much I like working in this library. There is just enough ambient noise to be soothing and not distracting. There are comfy chairs and big tables for writing. There are plugs for computers. A strict no cellphones rule. Coffee downstairs. And people coming and going. I really  like being in a place where my visual field is crowded with books. Paper things.

One of the best aspects of  public libraries is that they are really PUBLIC. There are no barriers (that I can think of anyway) to anyone’s entry into a public library. You can be anyone and use this space. Even a young person in existential crisis as I suspect is the case with the teenager who is at the table beside me–what better place for such a person to be? You don’t even have to be a card-carrying member to come in here. This feels like a very democratic space. Where we are alone and together at the same time.

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Slow time

After the “Autobiography Across the Americas” conference Arlequino and I picked up a rental car and headed north west to Villa Tropical near Aguadilla, Puerto Rico. This is our one week of absolute holiday. Yes, we have wifi and yes we have been monitoring email, but mostly we’ve been doing not much at all. We listen to the sounds of the waves. We walk along the beach. We swim in the ocean. We prepare and enjoy drinks and meals. We read and read and read. We are aware that others would be doing more touristy things. Snorkelling, for instance, though there’s not much point for me without custom goggles with corrective lenses. Horseback riding, which is available. Renting a boat perhaps and going fishing. There are excursions to be had, if one wanted to do them. And perhaps we will, eventually. But for now we’re happy to be doing very little. this is what we have needed. Rest. Quiet. Space. And Kobos loaded up with novels.


It is truly remarkable how slowly time moves when one has nothing in particular to do. The hours stretch. We do not check our watches. We are languid. We are fulfilled. I’m sure there’s a life lesson in there somewhere.

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