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Archive for the ‘professional development’ Category

I find myself caught quite often in a war of words between my academic colleagues and all my friends/neighbors/family who live and work in the ‘real world’ far outside the university walls. What university colleagues consider ‘well-written and accessible for a broad audience’ my Mom will put down in frustration as academic gobbledegook, not worth her time.

Sometimes, in the silences of the night when I’m trying to bridge this gap with my own work, I have a vision of the ‘ivory tower’ of the university campus complete with moat, drawbridge, and scary crocodiles in the water, waiting to rip my flesh from my bones, should I decide to take a swim on a hot summer’s day. The walls are high, and I cannot climb over the top. I must pass over the drawbridge and through the door to enter.

There are passwords to get into this ivory tower. And they are complicated, scary, and change every few hours, depending on who might be the gatekeeper.

The other day, it was a doctor, and the password was ‘myocardial infarction.’

You don’t want to know what I said. But I’ll bet you can guess. It didn’t work, so I tried again. ‘HEART ATTACK’ I cried, my eyes on the eyes in the water, slipping closer to the edge.

Well, it worked, but the welcome was grudging, at best. He saw my desperation, but clearly my translation left much to be desired.

Another day, there was an English professor at the door. She was reading a book in one hand, and working on her laptop on the other. Aha, I thought. I am in luck. In the dusty bottom of a drawer, I have a certified English degree. This will be easy! I tried: ‘Jane Austen!’ No luck. Well, I’m Canadian. So I’ll try: ‘Lucy Maud Montgomery!’ Nothing. She looked up and said, “It is ‘Constructive post-postmodern psychocritical phenomenological narratology,'” you dunce!

First, my apologies to anyone who studies what I just wrote. I honestly thought I was making it up. I took out an old copy of Modern Criticism and Theory from my said university English days, and looked up random words.

Second, I’m sure there are readers who will say, ‘Merle, are you the pot, or the kettle? Because the last time I checked, you are an academic. Black, I tell you. Black!’

True enough. I am. I hold a nice, fresh PhD that my History supervisor assured me did not get handed to me wrapped with bubble gum. I worked for it. That’s true. But I am unwilling to shake years of writing for public audiences — newspaper articles, newsletters, corporate books,  magazine stories. It is a different dynamic, and a powerful one.

I’m married to a smart, successful, well-educated scientific farmer. But if it starts with the word ‘post’, and I can’t pound it into the ground, it just isn’t useful.

So, I was grateful and happy to see the Dean of Arts and Science at the University of Saskatchewan recently declare that he would ideally like to see U of S faculty “consider communicating their research to the public.” Superb! I agree! (For his post, see http://artsandscience.usask.ca/blog/archives/148).

With those thoughts in mind, I was pleased to attend a recent workshop on Communications with Meagan Hinther, word scribe of the School of Environment and Sustainability. My own workshop, Hooked: Writing for a Public Audience stands firm within a movement, almost an insistence, that as prestigious as peer-reviewed academic publications are, there is another audience out there who deserves attention. I was delighted with the uptake for the workshop. We discussed audience, active voice, opening lines, planning with vision, and working with media relations. I have a number of ideas of things we can do better and differently when I offer the workshops again — practical, hands-on writing work. A messy, ugly, trial-by-fire approach. I’ll be the first to get burned, I’m sure. I need several drafts of each email and I still end up with typos and wordy paragraphs. Like this one.

The thrust to work toward greater public communication is, I believe, soaking the ground underneath the battlements of the ‘ivory tower.’ The walls shouldn’t crumble, and I really don’t want them to. But I would like to see the doors at least open to the courtyard. Smiles of welcome and recognizable passwords (heart attack, thank you) will be a part of the process. Invite people in, by being inviting. As I said to those who attended the writing workshop, what is more important: sounding smart, or having people understand what you say?

Am I knocking academic scholarship? No. There are amazing people and intricate, excellent, technical, and immensely important research problems being studied at every university. Some of that research is complicated, difficult, and best discussed among an intimate group of people who communicate using acutely sensitive and particular words that carry specific and crafted meaning. If it’s necessary to solve world peace or find a cure for cancer or develop policies around safe drinking water, then we need it. And I support it.

But I think that it is time for the university community at large to recognize its place as a public institution, serving the public. I’m not asking anyone to ride two horses with one ass, as the old Southern saying goes. I would just like to see more space and support, and recognition, for writers and academics who would like to write for a public audience. Recognition during tenure review or hiring processes, for example. I find it incredibly disheartening when I hear about graduate students and young faculty, excited to write for a public audience, being sternly warned: ‘you’re wasting your time. It won’t help your tenure review. It’s not peer-reviewed.’

True. But then again, it is peer-reviewed. If it gets read — and that is easily tracked — it is reviewed by your public peers. Comments, questions, concerns, re-tweets, links… connectivity and sharing are the new way to pass notes down the aisle.

That public audience carries enormous power, both in what it can do and what it can say. Endowments, trusts, chairs. Research funding. Partnerships. Community engagement. These are actions, not words, and they are words that every university sits up and pays attention to. I think that in our new era of blogs, Twitter, and ever-increasing connection (Open Source!), it is critical that academics are encouraged, supported, and promoted in their public writing.

Because otherwise, like I saw in a post on Twitter this morning, it is a ‘nerd loop’ where we academics only speak to each other.

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I admit it: I am an odd academic. When I have a great idea for a story or some new research to share, my first instinct is to find a way to craft it for a public audience. Colleagues somtimes raise their eyebrows — public writing, no matter how much you do or if it is successful, will not help you achieve tenure. Only peer-reviewed chapters or articles in books or journals will help you achieve tenure.

Fair enough. I do some of that, too. And it has its own satisfactions. But my first love will always be public writing. Short. Snappy. With a heartbeat, a story arc, maybe a villain and a hero and a damsel (or a reasonable facsimile thereof), some narrative tension and a sweeping conclusion. (Heads up: I’m still working on the sweeping conclusions. Mine tend to slink into a corner, confused…)

But help is at hand. Following a rather cataclysmic shift in the ivory tower (take a look — I’m sure it moved several feet closer to the ‘public’!), I feel a sea change. Academic writers are looking to make their work more accessible to a public audience. What’s more, universities are starting to realize that fewer and fewer university students will spend their careers working in universities. So, teaching students to write ten page papers, complete with footnotes and a bibliography may be a good starting place, but it does not prepare them for ‘real life.’ Reports. Public presentations. Media releases. Newsletters. Memos.

To capture that energy, I have organized a one-day symposium for the School of Environment and Sustainability at the University of Saskatchewan, and opened it up to graduate students and colleagues in several related departments. The result? A capacity crowd registered to attend an all-day session built to encourage an appreciation of good writing in general, and writing for a public audience in particular. I’m grateful to my NiCHE colleagues for starting me out — I have been lucky enough to attend similar conferences through NiCHE, and they were superb.

And, I have snagged some big guns to come out and help me. Colleen MacPherson, editor of On Campus News, leads the pack with a basic writing seminar. Bill Waiser will talk about vision, voice, and crafting a good narrative lead with an arc. I have the tough slot of the day, right after lunch — and my topic is the plain language report. Others might call it the executive summary, or the lay language report. Perhaps a more plodding document, but a good first step in learning to cut technical jargon from your research project. But at the end of the day, we have a treat: Kathryn Warden, director of Research Communications at the U of S, will guide us through media relations, press releases, and op-ed pieces.

It promises to be a fascinating day. April 10th, 2012 at 144 Kirk Hall, University of Saskatchewan. Pop by.

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Conference Workshop Poster

On Friday, January 13th, I will be giving a presentation to Department of History graduate students. The topic? Conference presentations: tips, tricks, and things to remember.

I’m going to take a somewhat different tack than I normally would. It would seem, on the surface, an obvious place to design and give a lecture (complete, of course, with power point and copious note-taking by the audience). I’ve decided, however, to give the first ten minutes of a conference presentation that I have given to a real audience. Then, I’ll ask the students to dissect my presentation and give their own tips and tricks that they have used, read about, or think might be a good idea. A roundtable discussion, rather than a formal and one-sided presentation, will (I hope) be more effective.

Ideally, I’d like to see each of them give five minutes of a conference presentation that we could evaluate and give constructive critique, but that would take more time than we have.

Some points MUST be brought up, and I’ll be sure to do so if the students don’t spontaneously bring them up:

1. Choose a SMALL part of your research to present (part of one chapter, one strand of research, or one story to dissect).

2. No more than 8 pages double spaced (10 pages if larger font size, say 14 points) for a 20 minute presentation.

3. Practice it OUT LOUD. Time yourself. NEVER go over your time limit.

4. Use visuals and/or audio and/or artifacts; but DO NOT talk to the powerpoint.

5. NO JARGON! (And I would say, limited to no theory… save that for the written paper).

6. Dress nicely. NO casual clothes.

7. Use humour and storytelling. SHOW don’t TELL.

8. Voice techniques count: project, enuniciate, head up, look at your audience, slow down.

9. Leave room for questions (i.e. allude to ideas, points, etc. to give audience something to latch on to for questions)

10. Point out areas where you need help or would like audience ideas/response. Conferences are a super place to ‘workshop’ ideas in progress.

11. Re-word each question to be sure you understand it, before you answer it.

12. Thank the audience before you begin, and when all the questions are finished. This leaves a professional impression.

13. Have fun! Networking is best part of conference participation.

14. Remember: stuff happens. Powerpoints fail. Power goes out. Images don’t load. You get a rotten cold. Someone else has presented research that is too closely aligned to yours. Your methodology is old news. And, the airline lost your luggage and you have to present in your 2-day old clothes. Give it your all anyway — your audience will appreciate your humour, forthright disclosure, and modesty. There is always another conference…

All the best to you.

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Completing a dissertation is a wonderful process. I am pleased to announce that “At the Edge: The North Prince Albert Region of the Saskatchewan Forest Fringe to 1940” can now be found on-line at the University of Saskatchewan Library website: http://library2.usask.ca/theses/submitted/etd-12292010-104947/unrestricted/Massie_Merle_Mary_Muriel_2010.pdf

The dissertation can be viewed or downloaded directly. Public access is unrestricted — you do not need a library card to view this document.

As a public historian who often writes for a non-academic audience, I aim to publish a manuscript version of this dissertation within a few years. In the meantime, though, you may enjoy some of the stories and photographs from archival collections gathered within this document.

For those interested in the general overview of the dissertation, the abstract is as follows:

“Canadians have developed a vocabulary of regionalism, a cultural shorthand that divides Canada into easily-described spaces: the Arctic, the Prairies, the Maritimes, and Central Canada, for example. But these artificial divisions obscure the history of edge places whose identity is drawn from more than one region. The region north of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, is a place on the edge of the boreal forest whose self-representations, local history, and memorials draw heavily on a non-prairie identity. There, the past is associated with the forest in contrast to most Canadians’ understanding of Saskatchewan as flat, treeless prairie. This dissertation presents the history of the north Prince Albert region within a framework that challenges common Saskatchewan and Canadian stereotypes. Through deep-time place history, layers of historical occupation in the study region can be compared and contrasted to show both change and continuity. Historical interpretations have consistently separated the history of Saskatchewan’s boreal north and prairie south, as if the two have no history of interchange and connection. Using edge theory, this dissertation argues that historical human occupation in the western interior found success in the combination of prairie and boreal lifeways.First Nations groups from both boreal forest and open plain used the forest edge as a refuge, and to enhance resilience through access to resources from the other ecosystem. Newcomer use of the prairie landscape rebranded the boreal north as a place of natural resources to serve the burgeoning prairie market. The prairies could not be settled if there was not also a nearby and extensive source for what the prairies lacked: timber and fuel. Extensive timber harvesting led to deforestation and the rise of agriculture built on the rhetoric of mixed farming, not King Wheat. The mixed farming movement – tied to landscape – underscored the massive internal migrations from the open prairies to the parkland and forest edge.

Soldier settlement, long viewed as a failure, experienced success in the north Prince Albert region and gave a model for future extensive government-supported land settlement schemes. South-to-north migration during the 1920s was based on a combination of push and pull factors: drought in the Palliser Triangle; and a strengthening northern economy built on cordwood, commercial fishing, freighting, prospecting and fur harvesting, as well as mixed farming. The economy at the forest edge supported occupational pluralism, drawing subsistence from both farm and forest, reflecting the First Nations model. As tourism grew to prominence, the Saskatchewan dual identity of prairie/forest led to the re-creation of the north Prince Albert region as a new vacationland, the ‘Playground of the Prairies.’ The northern forest edge drew thousands of migrants during the Great Depression. Historical analysis has consistently interpreted this movement as frantic, a reactionary idea without precedent. Through a deep-time analysis, the Depression migrations are viewed through a new lens. The forest edge was a historic place of both economic and cultural refuge and resilience predicated on the Saskatchewan contrast of north and south.”

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As an environmental historian, I’m pleased to learn that I will be attending the upcoming EH+ conference in Hamilton, Ontario at the end of April. Sponsored by NiCHE (Network in Canadian History and Environment) and the Wilson Institute for Canadian History, this conference aims to bring together Canadian environmental historians for a weekend of discussion. The purpose is to assess the state of Canadian environmental history and brainstorm some new ideas for upcoming events and possible collaborative projects.

I will also be a participant in a special workshop on writing for a public audience. Geared to new scholars and graduate students, this workshop is designed to generate enthusiasm and technical writing skills. NiCHE has worked hard to erase the artificial boundary between academic publications and those geared for a more general audience. Preparation for the workshop includes writing a potential piece for a magazine or newspaper, and working with senior writers to bring the article to publication. The senior writers include the guest speakers for the weekend: Andrew Nikiforuk (Tar Sands) and Alanna Mitchell (Sea Sick).

From a very cold Saskatchewan winter day, this conference brings a breath of fresh spring air. I’m looking forward to it.

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The Interdisciplinary Center for Culture and Creativity (ICCC), along with the Department of English at the University of Saskatchewan, have recently announced the outstanding new program: Masters of Fine Arts in Writing.

Centered within the University and anchored to the vibrant Saskatchewan writing community, this new initiative is welcome. Blending fiction and non-fiction, this two-year intensive writing program will be a spectacular addition to the Saskatchewan, Canadian, and world writing community. Good luck to all applicants!

I have attached the Program Information and Requirements from the ICCC website below. You may read it online at http://www.arts.usask.ca/iccc/writing/.

Program information

The MFA in Writing is a two-year program. In both years students take a variety of courses; in the second, students also complete a thesis. The thesis can be a substantial part of a novel, a substantial piece or series of non-fiction, a play, or a sequence of poems, or a collection of short stories.

The first year

In the first year, all students in this program take two 3cu Workshop courses, in which they are required to present work in two genres (for example, WRIT 800.3, Short Fiction and WRIT 801.3, Poetry). As well, each student will take an 800-level (or, where approved, undergraduate level) course in another subject: the relevance of this course to the student’s writing must be demonstrated, and prerequisite requirements must be satisfied.

Each student will take part in the program’s 990 colloquium The Profession of Writing, and in GSR 960, Introduction to Ethics and Integrity. During the first year, each student will be assigned an approved faculty supervisor.  A co-supervisor, to be an established writer from the community with professional affiliate status in the College of Graduate Studies and Research, will also be assigned. 

Successful completion of the first year thus entails the completion of 9cu of courses plus GSR 960, consistent participation in WRIT 990, and progress in WRIT 994 (the thesis).

The second year

In the second year, upon successful completion of year one’s requirements, all students in the program will be required to take two more Workshop courses, each in an additional, distinct genre. They will continue to participate in Writ 990. With regular supervision, including supervision throughout the summer, they will propose and carry out the thesis (WRIT 994). The second year will be completed with the submission and successful defense of the thesis.

Requirements

Entry into the MFA in Writing requires a four-year Bachelor’s degree and a strong portfolio of writing. In exceptional cases, applicants without the degree may enter the program on a probationary basis: equivalency will be judged on previous participation in reputable workshops such as those offered by the Banff School of Fine Arts, the Sage Hill Writing Experience, and the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild; on relevant work experience; and on substantial publication.

All applicants must submit to the Coordinator of the MFA in Writing a statement of intent, indicating the genre(s) of literature in which they wish to specialize. As well, applicants must submit three letters of recommendation, official transcripts, a University of Saskatchewan application form and application fee, and a portfolio of at least thirty pages of published and/or unpublished writing.

Applications should arrive no later than February 1st to be considered for admission in the fall of that year. Late applications will be considered only under exceptional circumstances.

Checklist:

•Bachelor’s degree or equivalent with a minimum average of 70% in the last two years (30%)

•Statement of intent

•Portfolio of 30 pages of writing (50%). This portfolio will be judged for evidence that the candidate has achieved a preliminary standard of originality, craft, style and literary sophistication

•3 letters of recommendation (10%)

•Official transcripts (10%)

•University of Saskatchewan on-line application form and application fee

•Language proficiency at the University’s standard (www.usask.ca/cgsr)

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Merle Massie, PhD

It is now official: on Monday, December 13th, 2010, I successfully defended my PhD dissertation in the Department of History, University of Saskatchewan. As a newly-minted PhD, my role as a professional historian, writer, editor, and all-around storyteller has been given a stamp of approval.

My grateful thanks to everyone involved in the process of writing and defending a doctoral dissertation. Over the past four years, I have been supported by graduate student colleagues, professional colleagues within the History Department and elsewhere across campus, by people in my hometown region north of Prince Albert, by my family and by the people of the community of Biggar, in which I currently reside.

Specific kudos and thanks go to my committee: Dr. Erika Dyck, Canada Research Chair in the History of Medicine; Dr. Jim Miller, Canada Research Chair in Native-Newcomer Relations; Dr. Geoff Cunfer, a specialist in agricultural and Dust Bowl history (as well as the Department’s hard-working Graduate Student director); and Dr. Maureen Reed from the Department of Geography, who brought a new, and much appreciated, perspective on the material.

My external reviewer was Dr. George Colpitts from the University of Calgary. Not only did he brave the cooler Saskatchewan weather, but his insight into local and place history, his suggestions for further improvements, and his overall response (very positive and complimentary) was appreciated.

Other key players in the dissertation process included Andrew Dunlop, who was a tremendous help in scanning the photograph and map collection, and Nadine Penner, the hard-working center of adminstration for the graduate students. The staff at both the Saskatchewan Archives Board and the Prince Albert Historical Society have been unfailingly helpful and enthusiastic.

It was my honour to work with Dr. Bill Waiser as my advisor throughout the process. His depth of experience, his writing expertise, his expert handling throughout the administrative hurdles, and his tremendous sense of humour and support opened the way. I am endlessly grateful.

The title of the dissertation is: “At the Edge: The North Prince Albert Region of the Saskatchewan Forest Fringe to 1940.” In it, I argue that the forest edge is an ecological and cultural ecotone between two different environments and two different ways of life. Canadian history that depicts Saskatchewan using only the iconic images of endless fields of wheat have skewed the Saskatchewan story. In fact, I argue, from First Nations use of the western interior to the end of the Great Depression, Saskatchewan inhabitants used both landscapes of prairie and forest in concert to provide the necessities of life.

I build the story from First Nations use of the Saskatchewan Forks/North Prince Albert region through the rise of the lumber industry, the introduction of farming and soldier settlement, the occupational pluralism typical of the forest edge where locals drew their living from both farm and forest, the rise of tourism (Lakeland and Prince Albert National Park), and the local boom during the Great Depression, where thousands of refugees flocked to the forest fringe, abandoning the wheat belt Dust Bowl.

I will upload the document to this website once all the changes requested by the committee have been made.

My thanks and appreciation to all.

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