Archive for the ‘professional mentorship’ Category

Actually, that’s an arbitrary number. I’m pretty sure that I made more mistakes than that — and I have no doubt that the people who interviewed me saw more than I remember.

But my goal is to help others who might be chasing the academic dream to…reveal…to you what I know for sure that I did wrong during my short-lived time attempting to land an elusive position as a tenure-track faculty member somewhere in Canadian academia.


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We are so pleased to announce the launch of our new book, 36 Steps on the Road to Medicare: How Saskatchewan Led the Way.

The launch is set for Thursday, December 5, 2013 from 7-9 pm.

McNally Robinson Booksellers, 8th Street, Saskatoon.

Distinguished former premier of Saskatchewan, Mr. Roy Romanow, will be on hand to make introductions and draw a crowd.

See you there!

Houston Massie Romanow DE 05 2013 MRB Saskatoon

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Some 2013 activities to report:

SK Sense of Place.imagesCAFVW9ZL

1. Saskatchewan: A Sense of Place — Guest Speaker:

On February 21st, 2013, I was invited by the University of Saskatchewan Archives to be the guest speaker at their Saskatchewan: A Sense of Place exhibit. Located in the annex between the main Murray library and its north wing, the exhibit showcased Saskatchewan novelists and writers, a selection from the extensive postcard and poster collection, and a fantastic display of Saskatchewan local history books. As the guest speaker, I had my choice of topics — but for me, it was simple. My MA work, back in the distant past, studied Saskatchewan local history books and I had a ball regaling the audience with backstories of mice, murder, and mayhem (the stories that didn’t make it into the history books — and why!). It was a hugely successful event and I enjoyed the beautiful music provided by Carolyn and Sonia, to round out the afternoon.

2. Adjunct Professor, School of Environment and Sustainability:

In September 2013, I accepted an adjunct faculty position with the School of Environment and Sustainability, University of Saskatchewan. Think of it as an ‘association’ or perhaps an ‘affiliation’ if the term adjunct is too weird. What it means: we have a formalized relationship, where I have a home University base at the U of S, and can advise or mentor students whose projects fit well with my own research strengths.

3. The Future of Farming: Guest Speaker:

October 23, 2013 saw me troop back to the U of S campus to visit with students from the new Interdisciplinary Learning Communities group at the U of S. (Find them at http://www.usask.ca/ulc/lc/about). Along with soil scientist Terry Tollefson from the College of Agriculture, we hosted an open forum on “The Future of Farming”. The session was live-taped, and when the link becomes available, I will post it HERE. (That could take some time — bear with me!). Learning Communities coordinator Joel Fonstad said afterward, “we’ve never had so many questions!” What will the future of agriculture look like? Three thoughts from my corner were: increases and market gains in the farm to fork movement; increased growth in Hutterite colonies and perhaps a lesson there in how agriculture will look; and some thoughts on climate change and the pole-ward progression of farming. It was fun, as a historian and active farmer, to let my thoughts fly forward instead of backward, projecting toward a future that will — yes– bring change and growth and difference to western Canadian agriculture.

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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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Well, it was a fun afternooon. My thanks to the College of Arts and Science, particularly the Interdisciplinary Center for Culture and Creativity that put on the session.

In re-reading my previous post, I realize that I meant to use the word ‘expert,’ in quotation marks, and not expert! Placing first in one poster competition does not an expert make! My apologies — and a blatant example of the need for better editing before posting…

So, in my non-expert opinion, posters are a medium that offer a breadth of opportunity for students in the humanities and fine arts. We have just begun to touch the edges of what poster sessions can do for arts and humanities research. We don’t do academic posters in quite the same way as the sciences. Posters are an entirely visual and audience-responsive medium, and arts and humanities projects — art history, history, literature, drama, and languages, for example — could have a natural affinity. I encourage anyone, from students to museum researchers to archivists to high school teachers, to consider poster creation as a new way to tell stories. Perhaps posters could become the new 10-page written paper in your class syllabus…

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