Academic Life, Alt-ac

Where are we now?

Since the last blog *cringes* posted in April, a whirlwind of things, life events, career changes, and all of the other things happened in the second half of 2019. Why did this blog go quiet? Because a lot happened and any breathing room I had was dedicated to sleep mostly. Let’s start start what happened academically and then move on to the other big things:

Academically, after RCADE I attended ACH. There, I co-organized with Aimée Morrison a panel on doing ethical social media research, and it was awesome. The papers from our panelists, Arun Jacob and Stormy Sweitzer, presented fantastic approaches to ethically engaging with social media subjects and digital tools to perform social media research. I loved ACH overall, and I look forward to attending the next conference! And in September, Biography published my essay, “Playing a Life in Nina Freeman’s Cibele.” The paper focuses on the semi-autobiographical game by Freeman to establish a framework for studying automedia games. This essay marks my first foray into games studies and is the first of many papers/projects I have in mind for automedia games. Additionally, in the fall, I received an R&R for another games-related publication and attended two other conferences, one of which was MSA in Toronto to show Everybody’s Everybody’s Autobiography.

Okay, but here’s the big life event:

Finn

Our son was born in June! I love this Little Wonder so damn much. For the first two months of his life, I was unemployed (and had been since May) because I decided that I no longer wanted to do sessional teaching and started looking for non- and alt-ac work. It was a hard period because of financial stress and depression related to that, but I don’t regret the amount of time I had to spend with him in those full 2 months. And we’re lucky because he’s been a good sleeper, so all those conferences and revisions and other academic stuff that happened in the fall was only done in half-hour to an hour chunks in the early morning (because he woke up usually between 7-8am…I KNOW!) or I would do work at my new job during my lunch hour. Which brings me to my next update:

As of August of this year, I have started a one year contract as a Graduate Career Advisor at the Centre for Career Action at the University of Waterloo. In this role, I am advising students on academic, non-academic, alt-ac, and government jobs through one-on-one appointments, workshops, conferences we organize, and programs. The short answer is that I love it. As much as I miss teaching, the advising here recalls some of my favourite aspects of teaching: the one-on-one meetings, seeing students grow in their profession, engaging in interactive workshop presentation. Bonus: I don’t have to grade. And I also get to do research: I am given a budget to buy new books related to graduate-focused careers; I have adapted and integrated my social media research for workshops and appointments; and I am recently finding my research on digital ethics to be useful for discussions around AI used in hiring practices and how best to prepare students for overcoming the barriers that these practices create. One way of looking at it is that I have not abandoned my research, but rather my research has informed my practices and engagements and the materials I create in this new job; it has both served as practical applications to specific situations and theoretical approaches to larger problems.

And here’s a shocker: I’ve been enjoying the role so much that I turned down an interview for a post-doc position that had too early of a start date. (Aside: the hiring committee on the other end was super understanding and supportive – more of that, please). While the post-doc was not a for sure thing, it was the hardest decision I’ve had to make in a while and eventually led to my decision to not apply to any academic positions this Fall term. I felt (and still feel) foolish, dumb, that I was making an ill-advised career decision (me, a career advisor! not taking my own advice!), that I had betrayed my PhD and my dissertation committee despite having received their enthusiastic support. Every now and then a well-meaning colleague or friend would send a job ad, and I’d just get anxious and re-think my decision, wonder if I really should apply. My parents would say to me, “Oh, but this career advisor thing is only temporary right? Like you’ll become a professor eventually, soon right?” Other people have said “Oh, I thought you’d be great for an academic position!” All of this made me feel like crap because the PhD is still seen externally and internally (both in terms of self and of institution) as only producing academic jobs, and that anything not academic is a failure or a disservice to the work of the PhD. So, every now and then, the feeling of being a failure emerges, but then I quickly bat it away…with a lot of tears in between.

I didn’t apply to any academic jobs in the fall. I’m glad for it. Deep breath.

And I’m not going to apply at least for the next little while, if at all. But this does not mean I’m out of academia. Being in an alt-ac position, I’m still in it. I still have access to the library and the databases. I’m still doing research and attending conferences and publishing. I like doing these things. And, surprisingly (but also not?) I feel more supported doing these things as a career advisor than I did as a sessional. I feel like part of a department, now. I have colleagues that I regularly see. Sessional work seemed too isolating for me. It works for others, but it wasn’t working for me.

I’m doing my best everyday to feel confident in my decisions. I am lucky to have supportive friends, colleagues, and immediate family that have said, “no you’re not an idiot for saying no to academic jobs.” Without them, I would be self-sabotaging my decisions or be upset with myself. Thank you, friends.

So what’s next? All of the above life events have provided me with a clearer focus of what I can do and how I can best continue doing what I enjoy in an environment that best supports those values and goals. At this point in time, while I have had near-opportunities with industry, I feel I have one foot in alt-ac and one foot in academic work when it comes to what’s next for my career. Rather than being unsure or focusing on one career goal, I’m currently planning for both. I haven’t ruled out academic work but I have also been planning for extending my opportunities in Career Advising. All the while continue researching and doing my best to publish (sidenote: being less concerned with academic positions has put less strain on “publish or perish” and makes slow scholarship much more doable…).

Until whatever comes next, I’m using this year to spend with my son as much as I can. I want to be able to come home and not have to worry about work. I want to be able to spend time with my partner when the little wonder is asleep, while also carving out time for extracurriculars and creative writing. A lot of changes has happened in the last six months, and I need time to figure out how to move through life now.

And I feel like I have that time. So I don’t want it to go to waste.

Blog post tune: “Where are we now?” by David Bowie

The Dissertation

What? I took a vacation!?

I took some time off. A full 2 weeks. I did nothing. Well, I did things but completely non-academic things. It felt so scary, and during those whole two weeks I had moments of “maybe I’ll just do an hour or two of work.” My supervisor had to all-caps at me to take the time off for chrissakes. I thanked her for that. But the prompt to take the vacation (and what I had to keep telling myself throughout the two weeks): I submitted my dissertation!

Yup, dissertation is submitted and my defence is scheduled. Wednesday September 19th. I’m so excited and terrified all at the same time. I’m excited to complete the PhD, to reach this final milestone, but also terrified of what comes after.

And part of the reason of why it was so hard to take a break was because of being scared of what comes after. If I want to pursue an academic career (which I do), the publish or perish model haunts every minute that I take off. I have uncompleted essays, books to read, future research to plot out, courses to teach in the Fall, and like a dozen other things on my mind. Shouldn’t I be doing those things? was the question that haunted my mind when I found myself just figuring out what to do for the day or the afternoon.

But instead, I played Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and binged the fantastic podcast #SecretFeministAgenda. It was more of a Stay-cation, but still as effective. The podcast by Hannah McGregor was really crucial in reaffirming my choice to lay on the couch and do things for my self care. Although I recommend the whole podcast, these two episodes were great reminders for me during my vacation: Hufflepuff Self Care with Kaarina Mikalson and Slow Down!

I’ve returned to work this week, but it’s been going slow. And instead of panicking about it, I’m okay with it. I feel less worried about it, although I never stop worrying. I’m also trying to make more time for creative things (which I haven’t done in over a year, I think…) and for friends/family. Everything seems manageable. Those projects I have in mind still have hypothetical deadlines, but they no longer seem as urgent.

And on that note, I’m off. Here’s a picture of my dog, Bilbo, doing what he does best: enjoying the summer:

IMG_0105

 

 

The Dissertation

Weeding out the Theory Dump to Make a Garden U & I Can Move Thru: Figuring Out My Diss Introduction

At first, I thought dissertation introductions were a theory dumping ground, a heaping pile of “here’s all my theory so you don’t have to deal with it later on in the other chapters” served with a “this is what my dissertation is about, in a nutshell, but also here’s the theory of my dissertation.”

And at first, that’s what I wrote. It was only until last week, 4-6, revisions later (and these revisions were all pretty major), that I finally figured out what my introduction is supposed to be and does. Last week was also when my supervisor and I were both happy with the introduction. So, I thought to reflect on and share this process because dissertations are a strange thing that, typically, only get written once, and dissertation introductions are an even stranger thing (see Stranger Things 7) for this very reason.

The First Draft is the Worstest (but goes a long way). Despite all of my advice to undergrads, I wrote my introduction first before all other chapters (there are 4, not including the Conclusion). Despite this introduction being absolutely horrid and an absolute garbage dump of theory, it was actually kinda necessary for me to get a handle of the theory and be comfortable with it.

This first draft of the introduction is full of jargon, but I wrote it so I wouldn’t have to deal with the jargon later on and in the final edits of the new and final-ish introduction. From what I remember of this draft, it is largely organized into “Community Theory,” “Affect Theory,” and this weird category of “media studies and auto/biography theory” (perhaps it was the “automedia” category). In short, it was all show off-y theory ramblings. These were introduced with some context for my project, taken from my proposal introduction, and had the chapter summaries, also taken from my proposal.

So, basically, this first draft was my proposal as the buns, and the theory as my hamburger patties + ALL OF THE CONDIMENTS AND TOPPINGS + MORE PATTIES. Yeah, it was mess. But then, I just shoved it to the side and wrote comfortably about affect and community without worrying about explaining everything. The weight of “I have to explain x + y+ z of this theory and include all 10 theorists debating A” was off my shoulders, and I was getting an idea of what I found the most important aspects about whichever theory as I was working through the dissertation.

3rd times a charm…for a better direction. By the second or third draft, my supervisor made a list of all of the theoretical jargon or jargony words/key terms in my introduction.

I had over 30.

My task: define each of these words/key terms and argue why they are relevant to my dissertation. Then, remove the ones that aren’t important. Draw connections between certain terms, group related terms together, and figure out a way to introduce these terms up front and not near the end of the introduction or in a constant stream of never-ending new key terms.

My other task: Be more clear about your dissertation: Why this radio and internet comparison, why Stein and Wallace? Why these research creation projects? Is it research creation? Critical media projects? etc.

For my “other task,” I used a recent New Yorker article that was a comparative think piece on radio and recent internet controversies, especially around their so-called “democratic revolution” of the internet,  which was perfect for introducing my dissertation that narrows in on these debates. Yet, I half-committed to this, and despite having other sources that made the comparison between radio and the internet, those stayed in my notebook. And I still had trouble with my first task. Granted, it was great to get rid of some key terms, and to try introducing these earlier. But I struggled with making these two tasks work in concert: to define key terms alongside describing my dissertation.

But what was important for this draft was identifying the key terms of my dissertation, and to start really thinking of these terms in conjunction with my dissertation and the arguments of my dissertation. Basically, I was clearing out the rubble of the theory dump and started to see the introduction as part of my dissertation. Did I make all of the charts and tree graphs and define all of those thirty terms? Er, not entirely. I gave up midway through the process, but that’s because going through with this process immediately pointed to where I needed to go.

The 5th Element.  By the 5th or 6th revision, I think I figured it out. But I took major editorial risks that had me anxious AF when handing it over.  While the previous draft was in better shape, a shape that could’ve been “acceptable,” my supervisor pushed me to address the main problems of the previous drafts. By this draft, I no longer was thinking of the introduction as a theory dump. In fact, I didn’t really have theory in mind. I stripped away a lot of theory. I just wanted to introduce my dissertation.

The idea that drove these revisions was thinking of the introduction as setting up the context and being clear of situating the argument within that context. The theory was more contextual to my arguments and/or contextualized by my arguments; the key terms were more or less whittled down to under 10, and they were introduced within the 10 pages of my introduction by being pulled out from that New Yorker article I used to set up my introduction as a hook; the New Yorker article wasn’t alone, but was now joined by a bunch of articles that compare the internet and radio and similar rhetoric from early radio and early internet days; and I defined my approach as media archeological to justify my juggling of media, critical media projects, literature, and rhetoric. Here’s a snippet from introduction:

In my dissertation, I compare Modernist imaginations and applications of early radio with Late Postmodernist imaginations and applications of the early internet. My inclusion of literature is both a techno-cultural barometer and an intervention in debates about these media to ask questions of democratic participation, community, and identity formation. My method is media archeological, as my juxtapositions are archeological “cuts” to critique techno-determinist notions of technological progress and interrogate the shared protocols (cultural and technological) of radio and the internet (See Zielinski 7; Emerson xiii).

I quite enjoyed writing that sentence. And a whole lot of other sentences I enjoyed writing because my mindset is “I’m not explaining theory, I’m explaining my dissertation.” The major key terms driving the introduction is “democratic participation, community, and identity formation,” and I stuck closely to those throughout, these being mentioned right from the get-go. Affect comes in, but is importantly linked to community, the affect of community, and is less about affect theory. Auto/biography is there, but is connected to Stein’s and Wallace’s concepts of “democratic participation” and “identity formation” (and “community”). In short, if I threw in any other key terms that needed to be mentioned, they looped back to either all three of these terms or at least one of them.

Out of the dump, and into the garden. The first 9 pages introduces all of the key terms, and defines them in context of the dissertation’s topics. The remaining pages afterwards is expanding upon those terms and giving some further context, followed by the chapter summaries, which remained more or less untouched (yes, nearly untouched since the proposal days!). There’s still theory in there, but as noted above, it’s contextualized by my dissertation and its arguments.

Here’s my garden, now let’s move through it at a leisurely pace and take a closer look.

Or something like that.

By the end of writing this, I had a better sense of how to articulate my dissertation; I understood my dissertation in a different light. I know that is weird (“shouldn’t you know what your dissertation is?”), but it’s true: I understood my dissertation better. It’s a “oh, I was doing this all along!” Writing something for 2+ years, you can kinda lose focus of the whole dissertation – you understand the parts you worked on so closely throughout those years, but when you have to step back and introduce the whole thing, you have to really think of how all those parts work together.

And, to quote Ziggy Stardust, “it ain’t easy.”

But I had some help from my supervisor, who gave me her dissertation introduction to read. I don’t know if this will work for everyone because, eerily enough, our dissertation introductions do similar stuff, but looking at dissertation intros is a huge help. And a good place to start may be your supervisor’s!

So, now the dissertation is all in one document. I’ve sent it off to the committee to have them look it over one more time. The end is in sight. And I am confident that the re-writing of the introduction over and over again will better prepare me for the defence.

Fingers crossed!