Wilderness Group Tour: PhD dissertations and writing/support/accountablity groups

I was recently asked to make a brief presentation about dissertation writing/support groups. I was one of four presenters at a workshop hosted by the University of Toronto’s School of Graduate Studies. I had a few thoughts about these writing groups, why there is such a hunger for them among PhD candidates, and why they usually seem to be of limited success. What follows is a modified script of my presentation. It speaks primarily to my experiences at the University of Toronto, but may be of broader interest and use.

I’ve been a member of at least three writing or accountability groups since beginning work on my dissertation, and I’ve been invited to join more.

One group met (still meets) weekly (usually), at a café on campus, to set goals for the week ahead and to review how each member did (or did not) meet goals set at the previous week’s meeting – to hold each other accountable (thus, “accountability group”). This group became more of a coffee klatch, a welcome chance for casual face-time with friend-colleagues – a chance to talk shop and to catch up on departmental gossip. This is very valuable, psychologically and socially – writing a dissertation is often very isolating and depressing. But, as a means of ensuring I got my crap done, week to week, it didn’t work well for me.

A second group met only a few times before melting away. This was more of a ‘writing lock-in’ than an ‘accountability’ group. A fellow candidate in my department emailed a wide range of her peers (myself included), asking if we’d be interested in booking a room in our department for the purposes of a group writing session – no conversation, no distractions, just three hours of fingers going click-clack on keyboards, followed by a decompression session at a nearby pub for any interested. This was brilliant – I responded very well to this format. However, it almost immediately began to come apart at the seams – the group was large, and the question “when shall we meet again?” became an unmanageable one. Person A can’t do this day, Person B can’t do that time, and so on. Two more sessions happened, as far as I’m aware, each one with fewer attendees. The last one I went to, I showed up about 20 minutes after it was meant to have started, and there was no one there. Scheduling conflicts and the demands of labour outside of/beyond the dissertation (labour necessary for survival) torpedoed this group.

A third group is still extant, and is more of a writing workshop. There are five members, and we try to meet every 6-8 weeks or so. A few days before a meeting, two or three pre-selected people circulate a chapter draft, article draft, or some other lengthy piece of academic writing; the meeting begins with social time (again, this has a great value in and of itself) before moving on to fairly intense and detail-oriented workshopping. This was also very useful, but, again, holding regular, timely meetings became a challenge. All members of this group are no longer funded, and so have pieced together incomes through multiple low-paying jobs, academic or otherwise. Further, the recent strike of TAs and Course Instructors at the University of Toronto drew all of our time and energy as we fought a bitter battle to bring our income at least a little closer to the poverty line it currently falls shamefully short of. As such, we have yet to hold a meeting in 2015, although plans are in the works.

All of these experiences tell me two things. First, there is a great hunger for these groups. They are a locus of hope for PhD candidates who are feeling desperate and adrift. Second, these groups are not particularly effective and are often short-lived.

I have some theories as to why both things are so.

Think about a gradate student’s training — the upper-year undergraduate seminar, the course-based Masters degree (and it is almost always course-based; at this point, the Masters thesis, where it still exists, is something of an antediluvian survival), the PhD coursework, studying for a set of comprehensive or qualifying exams. These are all highly structured and hierarchical, but none of them bear resemblance to dissertation writing. My point: graduate students are trained to work well within structures. Graduate school is mostly (only?) accessible to people who thrive in structures. It self-selects for that sort of person — but the institution’s hope is that, upon candidacy, the grad student will become a very different kind of person, a person who thrives in a vast open unstructured plane. I suppose the theory is that, from the moment of candidacy, the aspirant PhD will be self-structuring, having existed within structures for so long. But it’s pretty clear: For most of us, when the mould is removed, we slop everywhere, distressingly amorphous; we attempt to attain a structure, but most of us do not have the ability or resources to maintain those attempts. Tightly controlled panic begins to creep in.

The writing or accountability group is one attempt to create and maintain structure. It’s an attempt to reintroduce the structure of coursework to the dissertation. A set group of people have regular meetings, with deadlines for producing work. But, as Eric Hayot points out in his straightforward and sensible The Elements of Academic Style, the practice of professional academic writing bears only a passing resemblance to the kind of writing taught and modeled in graduate courses.

No one I know writes publishable essays in three weeks, much less when simultaneously working on one or two other essays over the same time period. . . . The way things work now, a visitor from Mars might reasonably guess that the purpose of the first two or three years of graduate work is to train students in a writing practice designed to generate 75 pages or so over three or four weeks.

As Hayot rightly says, the kind of research and writing experience received up until the moment of candidacy does not train students to a writing practice where months of research lead into months of writing lead into months of revision — where a good, finished, ‘in the bag’ chapter will reasonably take two semesters to complete, if not more. The structure of the system has set us up to fail — it has taught us to work and write in one way, and then a switch is flipped and we are expected to write and work in a radically different way, one we have had no preparation for, no training in, no familiarity with. Most new candidates don’t even have a clear idea of what a dissertation looks like, how it’s structured, how it’s built.

This is one reason why accountability groups fail — they are attempts to reassert the structure of a graduate course, but everyone is  fumbling novice, and, in any case, courses, as we knew and experienced them, are not useful models for dissertation writing.

The other reason these groups fail is also structural. In short: it’s the money. Gradate students live a precarious existence well below the poverty line; in order to pay rent and buy groceries, most have to take on extra work, have to piece together a livable income. I can’t tell you the number of times an accountability group has melted away because scheduling meetings became impossible due to multiple jobs, academic or not.

The solutions to both of these problems seem obvious to me. The training that graduate students receive, prior to candidacy, needs to be retooled so that it inculcates habits and rhythms of professional academic writing. Graduate students need to be familiarized with how a large intellectual project moves from first idea through to finished scholarly monograph. Perhaps, once upon a time, the Masters thesis was useful training in this, but this is no longer the case, as Masters degrees have become pure course work at most institutions.

Without such changes, promoting “writing groups” and “accountability groups” is merely the institution passing its educational responsibility on to the graduate students who are the same students in need of that education. It is like expecting a first year ‘Great Books’ literature survey to be self-taught by the undergraduates who have enrolled in it.

Perhaps PhD coursework needs to be radically reimagined to teach how professional academic writing — public, publishable scholarly writing — is done. Perhaps dissertation writing groups should have faculty shepherds who attend meetings and set or create appropriate structures and goals. Perhaps this is a role that dissertation supervisors can take on — in which case, such duties need to be formally laid out as part of the terms of faculty member’s employment. Or, my department, English, has mandatory Pedagogy and Professionalization classes in the second and fourth years of the PhD, respectively — perhaps a “dissertation writing” class in the third year is in order, where at the end of the semester, ideally, each student will have written a chapter draft through a structure of escalating class assignments. Academic writing courses exist, but, at least in the Humanities, they seem poorly attended. There is a sense (perhaps incorrect) that they teach more basic writing skills students (primarily in STEM fields) who may be deficient in them, the kind of skills a literary scholar, philosopher, or historian mastered some time ago. Do any of these classes teach the writing practices of Humanities and Social Sciences professors as they embark on book projects? If not: why not? If so: how can we improve their marketing to reflect their utility?

Second, institutional support needs to be radically reimagined. Writing a dissertation is meant to be a full time job. It needs to be paid like one. There is no mystery here. PhD candidates do not have the time an energy to complete dissertations on time because they are distracted by extreme financial and material challenges. I can’t stress this enough. We are demoralized and exhausted. Fix that, and dissertations will get written.


Research Roundtable: Newfoundland’s Queer Challenge to Canada and the Linguistic Turn

What follows is a modification of a presentation I gave last fall to the Research Roundtable, an annual event at the University of Toronto’s Graduate English program, where upper-year PhD candidates and faculty give twenty-minute presentations about their work. I’ve adapted that presentation into this blog post. While my thinking has changed over the last year, what follows more or less accurately reflects my main scholarly project at the moment: the disruptive and sometimes queer ways that Newfoundland’s literature is positioned within Canada.

I’m from Newfoundland (a great help in my work), and one of the origin points of my project was the realization that I’m the first person in my direct family line to be born in Canada. Yet my family isn’t a recent arrival in North America — I’m an eighth-generation Newfoundlander; my family has been here for so long that it’s not clear where in Europe we even came from (although Southeast Ireland and/or Southwest England is a safe enough bet). This realization—that I was the first in my family to be born Canadian—troubled the neat categories I’d been trained since childhood to use when thinking of the broad categories or ‘types’ of Canadians: ‘old Canadians’ (the English/French ‘two solitudes’ sorts), ‘new Canadians’ (recent or ‘recent’ immigrants), and Native Canadians (First Nations and Inuit). My family, and other Newfoundland families like it, fit none of these categories.

Many communities fall through the cracks between these three broad and overly-simplified categories: African-Canadian descendants of Black Loyalists and Jewish Canadians, to name just two examples. But my family were – are – Newfoundlanders, and that goes beyond the standard model of regionalism and into some strange territory: my family came to Canada in the mid-20th century from a foreign country, but that foreign country doesn’t exist anymore. They arrived in Canada on April 1 1949, but they traveled nowhere. They immigrated without moving. A diaspora without moving? A displacement that yet retains place? In one sense, I felt that I had stumbled on an utter conundrum, a conundrum no one had yet unpacked.

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Critical Distance and Minor Literatures

I spent the beautiful last weekend in May at the annual Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities, this year held at Brock University (it moves annually). My contribution to the yearly thought-deluge was a paper I gave to ACCUTE about Lisa Moore’s Alligator (a novel I’ve written about on this blog, here and here). In this paper, I talked about how Alligator is both a Newfoundland novel and an urban novel, and how this challenges Newfoundland’s place as “region” within the Canadian national imaginary, where Newfoundland is thought of as a resolutely rural heterotopic space, a romantic fantasy of an ‘authentic’ nineteenth century Anglo-European territory. I ended the paper by trying to conceptualize St. John’s (and urban Newfoundland more generally) using the metaphorical model of the port. It’s my contention that Alligator forces readers to encounter Newfoundland as a node within multiple and overlapping transnational networks.

There were only two people on my panel, myself and my U of T colleague and friend Joanne Leow, which left almost 50 minutes for questions, answers, and discussion. Happily, there was a sizeable, attentive, generous audience. I’m not at my best during question and answer periods – I ramble, I lose track of the question I’m meant to be answering, and, most frustratingly, I think of things I could or should have said days or weeks after it’s over. So this blog post will be an attempt to put that esprit de l’escalier to some productive use.

Halfway through the Q&A, Professor Nicholas Bradley from the University of Victoria asked me a huge question. To paraphrase, he asked how I feel about critical distance and objectivity when working on something so close to my heart, or to my home.

I did a poor job answering because he’d put his finger on something enormous, something tied up not just with critical thought but also with deep emotions, something I’m still struggling with.

My immediate instinct, when giving my answer, was to praise the value and worth of “objectivity” and “critical distance.” This instinct was not the result of careful examination. I did not come to the independent conclusion that ‘distance’ is good and necessary. Instead, my answer came out almost unbidden, like a knee tapped by a little rubber hammer, or maybe like genuflection. I wanted to reassure everyone in earshot that I wasn’t some myopic crank, but that I was a “legitimate scholar,” whatever that means.

Clearly there is some unpacking to do.

When you work on small, minoritarian, unrecognized or under-recognized literatures, especially literatures that are marked as somehow different (queer, racialized, otherwise ‘ethnic’ texts, etc), the anxiety that people won’t take your work seriously is very real. And of course, when I say “you” in the previous sentence, I mean “I.” And when I say “people,” I mean anyone and everyone, other academics included – this goes beyond the awkward Thanksgiving dinner where you try to explain your work to uncomprehending family members. Small moments of deep learning burble up in my memory – being laughed at for knowing a number of Newfoundland folk songs, for example, or people screwing up their faces in confusion and asking “does Newfoundland even have a literature?” when I tell them what I work on. There are people who are only familiar with the “goofy Newfie” stereotype, who are thus trained to find laughable or ridiculous any attempt to take the place and its culture seriously. Then there are other people who can’t or won’t differentiate “Newfoundland” from “East Coast” or “Atlantic” literatures, even after that grouping, while convenient, is not particularly useful (see Corey Slumkoski’s Inventing Atlantic Canada or Jennifer Bowering Delisle’s The Newfoundland Diaspora).

Even structural things within the academy contribute in their way: I did my undergraduate degree at Memorial University of Newfoundland, where Newfoundland Studies is a legitimate field. However, I was in the English honours program, which had a long list of canon-reinforcing course requirements. A course in Newfoundland literature wasn’t one of those requirements, and so I did not take a course in Newfoundland literature – no time, no space in my schedule; I did Chaucer instead. In fact, I have never studied a Newfoundland text in a course at any level of post-secondary education: BA, MA, or PhD. At the MA and PhD levels it was an impossibility, in fact – none of the courses had any Newfoundland content, and at neither institution was there an interdisciplinary Centre for Newfoundland Studies through which specialized courses might be offered, as is sometimes the case with other minority literatures. So why wouldn’t people look confused and ask “does Newfoundland even have a literature?” if it’s seldom taught and rarely, if ever, the focus of a course?

These experiences tell you (tell me) that you (I) can’t take certain things for granted, concerns I suspect other scholars of literature don’t have, at least not within the sanctuary walls of the English department. There is a nagging and pervasive anxiety that people will not value the subject of your critical inquiry or intervention. Do Shakespeare or Milton or Dickens scholars have to concern themselves with these feelings, I wonder? No one laughs at them, and no one doubts the existence or worth of the texts they study. There are always courses focusing on them; they are always on someone’s syllabus.

One way I have of trying to soothe that anxiety is to invoke objectivity, critical distance, what have you. But why does the anxiety I’ve detailed above provoke that kind of reflexive response?

Of course, it’s a completely counter-productive move. I might summarize my academic mission like so:  “I’m doing this work because I’m intimately familiar with my culture, its history and its working. Because of that familiarity, I have insights that I do not see reflected in existing criticism; I believe these are useful insights which would enrich critical discourse. Worse, I sometimes see the differences and challenges to orthodoxy that are thrown up by my culture and its difference being wall-papered over, knowingly or unknowingly. I want to use my familiarity, my closeness, to tear away that wallpaper before it sticks.”

Which is kind of the opposite of critical distance, isn’t it? It’s critical closeness. The lack of distance is exactly what allows me to do the work I do, and I’m sure the same is true of many scholars, thinkers, writers, and artists from atypical cultural backgrounds.  Closeness isn’t a liability, when what you’re close to isn’t part of the canon; it’s a tool, and a good tool, too.

So why this reflex to cast that aside and adopt the guise of the body-less scholar, the floating brain in a jar that has no ties to the world, no existence in the world beyond the grounds of the University? The idea that the critic of culture should be without culture him-or-herself? And of course, “without culture” is entirely impossible; what is meant by “without culture” is “part of the University culture that has developed in Europe and North America over the last few centuries.” Or, in other words, is critical distance perhaps merely critical closeness that conforms with the expectations of hegemony?

That’s the big question I’ve taken away from what Professor Bradley asked me (nb: we spoke afterwards, and he indicated that my instinct as to what was expected in answer to his question was actually contrary to what he was was pressing for – yet more evidence that this instinct of mine is a trained one growing out of old fear, and not necessarily prompted by the situation to hand). Is it possible that this unthinking reflex, bowing at the altar of critical distance in a rote, unthinking fashion, may be a way of not angering or irritating the orthodoxy? If you feel like your place in the discussion is already tenuous, you don’t want to do anything that might place it in peril. But I’ve always been prone to a certain cowardice, too. I don’t like making people feel uncomfortable, even when they should feel uncomfortable (and when they will be better for having felt uncomfortable, will appreciate it once the discomfort has passed). When I uttered empty platitudes about critical distance, was that my way of rushing in to say “No one needs to get upset! The way we do things is fine, just fine; I don’t want to wreck anything, I just want a little seat at the table and a few crumbs from the feast”?

If the answer is yes, then what follows is the realization that growing a backbone and being courageous are necessary work for any critic of any minor literature, and that I’m still doing that work.


Newfoundland Urbanism in Lisa Moore’s Alligator

A second post in a row about Lisa Moore’s first novel, Alligator. Earlier, I extolled Alligator’s virtues as part of my ongoing primer to the Newfoundland novel. Today, I’ll be going a little bit further indepth. This is partly for selfish reasons. In a few weeks I’ll be presenting a paper on Alligator at the 2014 Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities (happening this year at Brock). ACCUTE (Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English) is running a special panel on the urban turn in contemporary Canadian literature, and my paper on Alligator will be part of this panel.

Moore has routinely been described as belonging to a cohort of Newfoundland writers who have turned from a vision of Newfoundland as a rural and homogenous society to one of Newfoundland as urban and cosmopolitan. I have no qualms with this characterization – it’s an accurate one, to my thinking. However, my paper argues that the urbanism in texts like Alligator is not linked to a recent demographic shift, but is rather an elaboration on a cultural and economic situation that was already the case, and had been the case for some time. Newfoundland, we understand through Moore’s writing, “was always already cosmopolitan and international.” [1]

This is, perhaps, an unexpected conclusion. The idea of Newfoundland as only recently, incompletely, and uncomfortably urban is a powerful and pervasive one. Often, St. John’s is depicted in both homegrown and mainland media with a picture of the Battery or Quidi Vidi in isolation, out of context; both look quaint and appear village-like, as if the ‘true’ St John’s were a handful of colourful saltbox houses sprinkled along cliffs and in-between weather-worn boulders. There is no sense that the dense core of St. John’s is a space “as urban as lower Manhattan,” as Wayne Johnston puts it in his recent The Son of a Certain Woman. And yet, according to Statistics Canada, Newfoundland is the most urban of the four Atlantic provinces, and a majority of Newfoundlanders have lived in ‘urban’ rather than ‘rural’ environments since 1961.

Water Street before Confederation.  http://www.heritage.nf.ca/society/tradecns3.html

Water Street (St. John’s) before Confederation. http://www.heritage.nf.ca/society/tradecns3.html

Recent Canadian literature is often understood as dealing with Canada’s process of “citification”, of becoming urban. Within literary studies, the classic metaphor for euro-diasporic Canadian society has been the garrison: ‘classic’ Canadian literature is imagined as a small-town literature, depicting insular and mostly-homogeneous communities engaged in the ongoing process of building walls between themselves and a threatening outside world–both the potentially lethal nature world and the chaotic shifting mixture of peoples and cultures that are ‘other’ to the imagined-as-homogeneous society that’s found within the garrison’s walls. Canada’s 21st century urban spaces are conceived as being in opposition to this garrison mentality; the shifting spaces and permeable boundaries of cosmopolitan and transnational urban space disrupts and destabilizes the garrison, removes it from its position of prominence as the metaphor that structures an understanding of Canadian literature.

But if Moore’s Urban Newfoundland style reveals an “always already” urbanity, rather than a recent trend or demographic shift, then does her work, and Alligator in particular, fit into this perceived process of “citification” in Canadian literature? Well, it doesn’t. It’s my contention that, instead, in novels like Alligator, we encounter a deep and, crucially, pre-Canadian history of cosmopolitan urbanism, offered to the reader through an entirely different structural metaphor: not the garrison but the port.

Alligator is, at its core, the portrait of a port city. A port city is an inherently globalized environment, necessarily a space characterized by transient and trans-national people who live in it or pass through it. It is, by its very nature, a ‘mixed’ environment. What better port city to set up as a counter-example to the Canadian garrison than St. John’s? St. John’s is already the site of one failed national project (the Newfoundland one), and it is one of the (contentiously, perhaps the) oldest European-founded city in Canada–yet it only became a Canadian city within living memory; it is a city that has at its core an impossible-to-resolve pair of superlatives: both the newest and the oldest.

Alligator deploys St. John’s long history as a port city in a self-aware, post-modern fashion, where history and heritage are narrative and aesthetic creations of the present moment. It models in St John’s an urbanism that is about flux and the “give” that exists within a system like a city. Alligator also employs gothic tropes–most notably, the ghost of 19th century Newfoundland nationalist Archbishop Fleming and a city-wide infestation of an invasive species of larval worm–to suggest that such urbanism has a long history in St. John’s, and is also inscrutable, transformative, in flux. In short, the urbanism of Alligator is, primarily, a gothic urbanism. The ghost of romantic Newfoundland nationalism returns not to reassert its validity, but to reveal both its inauthentic and unstable nature. In doing so, it can’t help but likewise reveal the inauthentic and unstable nature of the Canadian nationalism that has overwritten it. At the same time, the larval worms, the alien presence of unknown origin, an uncanny presence beyond comprehension, are munching away on the fabric of the historic city. In the novel’s last sentence the worms emerge from their cocoons to erase the now-incomprehensible nationalist rantings of the ghost of the 19th century Archbishop with wings that are pointedly reminiscent of blank pages.

If Newfoundland is depicted in literature as rural, provincial, anchored in the past, resolutely English or Anglo-Irish in character, then it can be absorbed into the traditional structural narratives of the Canadian nation state despite its belated and ambivalent entry into Canadian Confederation – it becomes a cluster of yet more garrisons that reinforce, rather than complicate or contradict, the dominant national narrative. But if Newfoundland, through its port city of St. John’s, asserts a cosmopolitan, transnational history that runs older and deeper than Canada’s, asserts itself as bridging a pre-national past with a post-national future, then teleological master narratives about garrisons versus cities no longer square so neatly. This is, I argue, precisely what Alligator does.

[1]  Herb Wyile paraphrasing an argument made by Susanne Marshall in a 2008 special issue of Studies in Canadian Literature that focused on Atlantic Canadian writing.