Monday, August 22, 2011

Moving "House": Follow the Link to Bloggy Goodness!

Hello there, readers! It's time for a short update about the status of Speculative Diction, the blog. The bad news is that shortly, there will be no more new entries posted to this site. The good news, however, is that Speculative Diction will now be hosted by University Affairs, the Canadian national postsecondary news publication. Please follow this link for regular updates containing my usual commentary and crankiness on the subject of higher education policy, pedagogy, the academic profession and more!


Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Shameful self-promotion vs. Meritocracy

On August 4th, an article called "How not to get left on the shelf" by Dale Sawak was posted on the Times Higher Education web site. In it, the author argued that if academic authors want their books to be read by a wider audience (or at all), they'll need to engage in some self-promotion.

The article produced an incensed response from some readers. In order to understand why, we need to translate its thesis into Stereotypical Academic Logic. Once translated, the argument looks something like this: Sawak tells researchers who already see themselves as successful (i.e., they have written and published books), that their success is actually limited (by audience, no less; practically an accusation of elitism). He also suggests that in order to achieve "real" success, authors should engage in an activity that's disdained in academe--advertising oneself.

A disclaimer here: part of my research is about the spread of entrepreneurialism and promotionalism in university governance and practice; I wrote my MA thesis in sociolinguistics, and it was a critique of internal public relations at a university. I'm not particularly keen on the idea of having to be a competitive, "marketable" academic, or that we should be forced to participate in phoney promotional activities (I don't think they work anyway) or in the kinds of performance assessments that measure "impact" with a variety of suspect statistics. But as with so many issues, there are elements of self-promotion that relate positively to doing a good job as an academic, rather than buying in to neo-liberal market-oriented self-reformation.

In all fairness there's an underlying critical point in Sawak's article, which is that self-promotion is something that all very successful academics engage in--whether or not they acknowledge it. No-one can argue that Judith Butler, Slavoj Žižek and Noam Chomsky don't "put themselves out there" (though usually the term public intellectual is applied). The suspicion of self-promotion is also part of the reason that blogging and other social media activities are often dismissed by academic colleagues and peers.

Not only are self-promoters more successful, but so are graduate students whose supervisors "push" their students' work actively. Ever wonder how so-and-so managed to get that article published in a good journal, or a helpful research assistant job, or an item that showcases their work on the faculty web page? Committee members and supervisors can help with this too, behind the scenes, and it's in their interests because your success reflects back upon them.

While the necessity of at least some degree of self-promotion may seem obvious, given the academic fear and loathing of public relations (where PR is often conflated with advertising and/or marketing or even lying and propaganda) it's actually a tough admission for professors to make.

The admission needs to be made, though, because it further disrupts the assumption made by many that meritocracy is the (only) engine powering the university. Passing on advice about appropriate networking and promotional skills should be a part of mentoring undergraduate and graduate students: one needs to know how to put one's best foot forward, simply because it opens up opportunities. As frustrating as this may seem, it's true that ideas don't tend to be recognised due to "merit" and nothing else, just as great scholarly partnerships and collaborations don't develop out of thin air. You need to meet people and they need to see your work.

Female academics, in particular, are vulnerable to the trap in which they remain silent about their own work and its value--as Lee Skallerup Bessette writes in her blog post, "Shameless self promotion". Women in general are less likely to claim expertise, which can be a detriment when it comes to succeeding in an academic career and a public profile. Female graduate students are more likely to suffer from "Imposter Syndrome" and to lack the sense of self-value that helps them develop crucial professional networks.

Granted, there's definitely some promotion-related career advice I would consider to be cynical and unproductive. For example in this article the authors assert that early-career academics must cite important scholars in the field even when their work is only "tangentially" related. I doubt this is necessary for every paper, and I'd agree with some commenters that most authors can see through a meaningless reference and many will dismiss it. Then again it's also true that we don't live in an academic utopia; some scholars do want their egos stroked. If you're willing to engage in that, then take the advice.

If you still find distasteful the idea of engaging in some form of self-promotion, think of it this way: no-one can assess the "merit" of your work unless they have some exposure to it and to you.

Another reason is that you're already producing PR about yourself. You re-write your own CV and cover letters, send copies of your papers for review and revision, organise and/or participate in conferences; you're concerned about your reputation and the impression you make on peers because it affects your work prospects. There's nothing wrong with all this--it's not "beneath you" to consider and engage in these things and and there's no professional penalty for it (quite the opposite). Expand your idea of "public relations" to focus on the broader idea of "relations", relationships, and it's clear that much of our communication is a part of that process; stop assuming that PR is "evil", and you'll realise it's necessary (as well as omnipresent).

As a final note, I'll talk a little bit about this blog. Did I set out to "self-promote" by writing it? Frankly, no, that wasn't the goal; I didn't start blogging because I thought it would be "good for my career". I wanted the other benefits of blogging such as dialogue with peers, sharing of thoughts and commentary, and a space to "mess around" with ideas that haven't yet made it into my formal academic writing.

The blog has led to many great conversations and connections, but it's also had a much wider readership than I ever imagined (though still fairly narrow-!). Blogging here led to guests post at University of Venus on the Inside Higher Ed site (I'm now a regular contributing writer there); it led to one of my posts appearing in the Guardian UK online, and to another post receiving attention in the Times Higher Education. While those aren't the peer-reviewed academic publications that are required for a career as a professor, they're valuable for me especially in that they relate directly to my field of research, and will reach much broader audiences than my own blog.

Let's try to avoid allowing self-promotion to be one of the "dirty secrets" of the academy, something to be sneered at or reserved for the egotistical and vainglorious, something that "real" academics don't do; after all, what's a book launch for?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Tutorial Time: Fun with Gender & Media

Last year I was a teaching assistant for a course called "Sexuality, gender and society". Since I scored the same assignment again this year, I've already started planning for the kinds of activities and discussions we might be able to have in tutorial.

I wanted to make sure I had a solid list of interesting resources for the class, the kind of stuff that students might "get into" more as it provides examples and context for them and connects more to familiar experiences--shorter commentaries, videos and other media, blog posts, web discussions and so on. I'm thinking about emailing the class once a week with these additional links.

Here's a list of some of the resources I may end up using, depending on the syllabus. Most of these could be fitted into more than on category, so they could be used in various contexts for the course.

Gender essentialism and norms...
..."Women, know your limits" from British comedy show Harry Enfield & Friends skewers ideals of feminine decorum and passivity (and the assumption of superior male intelligence!).
..From the blog Sociological Images, a nice piece on performing masculinity, and one on "McCoy Crisps: Men are stupid, shallow, sexist sport-o-holics." Advertising at its least flattering!
...An episode of This American Life about testosterone. What's it like when your body stops producing testosterone, or when your T levels increase suddenly?
...The "nurture" side of the debate, research showing that gender differences are due to socialisation.
...A relatively recent article about Toronto parents who decided to keep their child's gender secret.
...My Body Gallery blog highlights "what real women look like" by displaying users' photos of themselves.
..Malika's Indian Trangender Blog, and a documentary called Middlesexes about trans experiences and issues; a news piece about how Australia is the first country to recognise a "non-specified" gender.

Pop culture...
...The real reasons why guys should hate on Twilight.
...The Celluloid Closet, a fantastic documentary about the history of queer representation in film.
...Buffy vs. Edward Cullen: guess who clobbers whom in this little encounter? A classic face-off between stereotype-busting Buffy and Mr. Sullen Cullen!
...A threaded discussion about female characters in the Harry Potter series; and a blog post on "The women of the Harry Potter universe". For good measure, here's a video of Hermione Granger, another atypical female character, telling Draco Malfoy what's what.
...Music videos: last year in one tutorial we had an interesting discussion about this, so I'd like to bring it back and ask students to bring in their own examples. The one I used before was Janelle Monae's "Tightrope" in which she draws on the aesthetics of 60's Motown and 50's rocker Little Richard.
...A discussion by a group of Black intellectuals and artists, about misogyny in Hip-Hop.

Gender & work...
...A chart (made from a report from Georgetown University) showing that women need a PhD to make as much as men who have a BA.
...At the same time, here's a contrasting article about Canadian women making more money than their husbands.
...From The Atlantic magazine, "The end of men" looks at a "reversal" in women's fortunes that could lead to female dominance in powerful positions in the workforce.
...In Sweden, more men are taking paternity leave; and in Japan, male "Herbivores" eschew high-stress lifestyle choices of their parents.
...Mary Churchill explains why her colleague feels like she "needs a wife", a great discussion of privilege and gender in the academic workplace, where gender disparities persist.

Women in science & technology...
...Women in science don't have as many children as they'd like.
..."Why Female Science Professor?" in which the author describes her experiences as a female scientist. I brought this to class last year and it was well-received.
...Womens' continuing under-representation in science and exclusion from pay parity in STEM and technology-related fields.
...Articles about the gender gap in Wikipedia contributions.
...The Guardian UK reports on the "lost women scientists" of The Royal Society, including Caroline Herschel.

Gender & violence...
...Fulbright Scholar Rumana Manzur of Bangladesh was attacked and blinded by her husband in June, 2011.
...Article from the BBC: the United Nations has classified rape as a war tactic; and a post from Scarleteen on how men can help prevent rape.
...Homophobic violence: Tyler Clementi committed suicide "after his sexual encounter with a man in his dorm room was video streamed over the Internet without Clementi's knowledge" by his room-mate. This was one of the suicides by queer youth that prompted the "It Gets Better" project.

Experiences of sexism...
...The blog Microaggressions documents readers' everyday experiences of sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination.
...From Hook and Eye blog, "This month in sexism" provides some examples of sexism in academe.

Gender & history...
..."Songs of the Suffragettes": I was given digital copies of these fabulous old songs, which were "rescued" from vinyl by a friend in Toronto. I think in tutorial we could have a discussion about the songs' lyrics, style, and political context.
...Episode "The Damsel" from documentary series Terry Jones' Medieval Lives. This is an excellent little piece on women in Medieval Europe.
...An article about Clemence Royer, the female economist who translated Darwin's Origin of Species into French.
...An account of 19th century photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, in "Victoria and her Sisters", an episode of Simon Schama's History of Britain.
...A short piece on Nancy Wake, who was a spy in World War II; at great personal risk, "Wake committed herself to fighting Nazis after she interviewed Adolf Hitler in Vienna in 1933."

Gender & education...
...A blog post from Macleans has a discussion of the animosity towards Women's Studies in Canada.
...In the US, the UK and Canada, women have outpaced men in university enrollments and achievement. This had fed into a more general concern about boys' literacy and the "success" of males in the education system (and in life in general).
...A male author dismisses critiques of Canada's funding for international researchers, an interesting example of the discourse of meritocracy.

I hope you enjoyed the list (which is really just a brainstorm); if you have anything to add, please leave suggestions in the comments! In particular I'm looking for more resources on gender and race--especially indigenous issues--and masculinities/examples involving men (students requested this last year).