Category Archives: Books

This week

Some thoughts on my work in December

  • It is exam season here, which means that Q. is refusing to have library dates with me (even though we’re now both free of teaching so we could work together) because if he goes to his office he can work in blissful silence as opposed to the “silence” of many undergraduates “studying” with their closest friends.
  • The library where I work in the mornings most days is still very quiet. The big library is not. I’ve had to shush people on a daily basis (and I am sitting in the SILENT ZONE where no talking of any kind, ever, is permitted, so I have no problem with shushing). The main irritation with exam season for me is that someone else gets the little room I like to think of as my own because they all start studying before 9:30, even on Fridays, and that’s the earliest I can get to a desk.
  • I can accept this, with some bad grace, if the people who take ‘my’ room use it wisely. Today it is occupied by a pair of love-struck undergraduates. They have been cuddling and whispering throughout the morning (I am far enough away not to hear them, but I notice this when I walk past), and are currently both asleep with their heads on the desk.
  • I am looking forward to around the third week of January when all the good intentions for the new semester have worn off and exams seem a lifetime away and the only people left in the libraries are those who are very serious.
  • When I arrived at the little library on Tuesday, one of the librarians was busily taking the ornaments off the Christmas tree at the main entrance. I walked past and then doubled back to confirm that, yes, she was taking them off and not putting them on. The tree went up in the third week of November. Confusing, but when I walked out of the library at the end of the day, the tree was fully decorated again, only now it was much bigger and bushier and it smelt divine. They’d obviously decided that a real tree couldn’t be trusted to survive if displayed any earlier, so they’d set up the fake tree first, even though that made extra work.
  • The tree smells amazing. I love walking past it.
  • I have spent the bulk of my workweek cutting words out of my chapter for our edited volume. It feels weird to consider a day productive when the end result is fewer words on the page, but the chapter was significantly over length, so it had to be done. I’ve cut 2,457 words out in the last three days. Progress, to be sure, but there is more that must be destined for the trash.
  • I have started my book revisions. This should be accompanied by several (nay, copious) exclamation marks, given this is the albatross that has hung around my neck for the past two years (moaned about most recently here and here). What forced me to get started was, I think, a combination of personal loathing (I am so sick of not having finished the book that I think the idea of continuing to not finish the book is now worse than the process of finishing it), the lack of alternatives for procrastination (chapter draft finished- all the tinkering in the world can’t eat up every day of every week), and my newly-formed writing accountability group. At the first meeting, three of my four goals for December were book related. I wanted to work on the book revisions at least an hour a day once my seminar paper was over, I wanted to have completed all the “easy” revisions my readers recommended, and I wanted to have started a new file on my computer for the second draft (which ought to be the most absurdly simple goal to meet, but the very act of starting a new file and thus BEGINNING the revisions was something which had become a huge mental block). I am motivated to not embarrass myself, and so stating these goals to the other members has meant that now I am on track to meet all three goals.
  • Before starting the revisions, I forced myself to read the readers’ reports again. For two years now I have operated under the knowledge that there was a good review and a bad review. Reviewer B really quite liked the book and thought I should be offered a contract once I had completed the (relatively minor) revisions. Reviewer A didn’t like the book all that much and had doubts about whether it ought to be published, even with significant revisions. The funny thing is that once I read them again, I realized this wasn’t quite true. Both readers had similar criticisms about the book overall: they both felt the middle four chapters were the strongest, and they both, quite rightly, felt that I suffered too much from the dissertation anxiety of “must include everything!” and used too many examples and discussed those examples at far too great a length. Reviewer A’s most serious criticism largely stems from (I think) a misunderstanding of my argument, which itself stems from the way I did (or did not) define my terms and organize my ideas. Two years of ignoring the reports has meant that I’ve created enough distance between myself and my dissertation that consigning large sections of it to the trash now seems like the obvious right thing to do instead of an unimaginable horror. I don’t think I could have made the revisions in late 2015 and early 2016 even if my life had not been derailed by pregnancy/father’s accident/stepfather’s terminal cancer; I think I would have still been too close to it. But now I have another project which I’m enjoying, and the dissertation is no longer sacrosanct. Between the two reports, the report from my external examiner (who also felt the middle four chapters were the strongest), and my own sense of what needs to be changed, I think I have a strong (and not too contradictory) framework for going forward. It will still be a lot of work, of course, especially once the easy revisions are complete and I have to get down to the business of editing, but it now seems manageable, and provided I keep telling my accountability group what I intend to do, I will have no choice but to do it.
  • And now I must go and open that new file and complete a few more revisions. To close, a different kind of Christmas tree (spotted in the big library, along with a sign explaining the history of the books used, because of course):


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Filed under A (Good) Day's Work, Books, Life after the PhD, Writing

Strength in Numbers?

A few weeks ago, after I’d taken the quiz to find out my BASE in terms of my writing (the link to the quiz is in my other post and I’ll wait while you go and take it because it’s really neat), I sent an email out to two of my female colleagues/almost friends to ask if they wanted to join a writing accountability group.

I sent the email partly because I was experimenting with improving my social skills for my writing, but also because I’d come to realize in the first month of my postdoc that I needed to be accountable to someone other than myself if I was going to make any progress on my book.

I was a model of productivity for my postdoc…right up until the point where I largely finished the first draft of the chapter I’ve been writing for the edited volume and needed to turn my attention to my book revisions.

And then I stalled.

I tinkered.

I read books related to both projects.

I decided to try to post 30 times in 30 days on this blog, which counted as writing time, but not the writing that would help get the book revisions finished.

I did not want to get started on the book revisions, the revisions I’ve needed to do since August 2015.

And it was too easy to refuse to start them (again) because if I didn’t start them, the only person I was letting down was myself.

If I didn’t write the chapter for the edited volume, I was hurting my co-contributors, but I was also hurting my co-editors, one of whom is Q.

I’m not going to disappoint Q. if he’s counting on my work for his own project.

Plus, the first draft of something is what I like to write the best, so it was easy to sit down at the keyboard and let all the ideas that had been burbling around inside of me come flowing out.

I already did that with my book. The result was my PhD dissertation.

I hate editing my work. HATE. IT.

And I hate being rejected by people. HATE. IT.

So it’s been unbelievably easy for me to just not do the revisions because they combine two of my least favourite things.

If I don’t take the risk to put myself out there, I don’t have to face the consequences of being rejected.

Somewhere in late October I realized that this situation was never going to change if I didn’t change the circumstances under which I was operating, because although I occasionally lay awake at night wondering if the editor at Esteemed University Press ever wondered where my book was (answer: no, because said editor has many other books to deal with and many, many other academics who haven’t done their revisions either), and I knew I would disappoint my supervisor (and, let’s face it, Q.) if I never published the book, ultimately it just wasn’t a strong enough motivating factor.

I’d hit the point with that research where I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. I was convinced that everything I had to say was bleedingly obvious and that any attempt on my part to publish said research would expose me for the fraud I am (see earlier post on imposter syndrome). The idea that if I published the book people might read and disagree with the book (or, worse, think the book was pointless) was paralyzing.

So I emailed two other women whom I knew were in the same boat (actual sentence from our meeting: “I invited both of you to join because we all have the same albatross around our neck.”).

Last Friday we had our first meeting.

We talked a bit about why we were there. One of us has trouble writing but loves to edit. One of us has no trouble writing but hates to edit (that’s me). And one of us has trouble with both.

We talked about the emotional, physical, and psychological toll NOT HAVING A BOOK in a monograph-centric field has taken.

We talked about how our colleagues would never take us seriously (even the one of us who is tenured) without a book.

We talked about how much we hated our research, how fear and shame were the only forces that drove us forward, how we were paralyzed by our own self-doubt.

“This is a very surreal experience,” one of them said after I’d spent several minutes explaining how I felt like I had to finish the book even though I didn’t want to finish the book because I didn’t want the people who knew me to stand around talking about me in five years saying how it was such a shame I’d never produced a book. “It’s like I’m hearing my own voice come out of someone else’s mouth.”

We’re going to try to help each other get through this and get our books done.

We set short-term goals for our next meeting (late December) and medium-term goals for where we wanted to be by the end of July 2018.

If we don’t do what we’ve said we’re going to do, we have to turn up to the next meeting and tell the others why we didn’t.

Shame and fear, yes.

But support and camaraderie too.

It might just work.



Filed under A (Good) Day's Work, Anxiety Overload, Books, Life after the PhD, Writing

Helicopter Parents

One of the books I’ve read this month was How to Raise an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims, the former Dean of Freshmen and Undergraduate Advising at Stanford.

It wasn’t one of my favourite books for the year. In general I felt there were too many quotes from authors of other parenting books (or anecdotes from the author’s own experience), too little hard data, and (above all) an extremely restricted demographic for the expected audience (even with her disclaimer that what she’s discussing largely applies to children growing up in upper/upper middle class households).

I am curious about how to raise independent children, who will be ready and able to go out into the world, to have adventures and make mistakes.

I want P. and E. to be resilient.

I want them to have growth mindsets, rather than a fixed mindset like their mother.

I want them to be able to explore, even though I’m not sure how to give them the same freedoms I had when I was a child. It’s a lot harder to send your children outside to play “until the streetlights come on” when no one else’s kids are out unsupervised. One of the things I love about our area is that I do see kids walking to school without a parent. They’re older than E. is, of course, and they’re usually walking with a friend, but they’re still doing it free of adult supervision.

There were useful nuggets of information in the book I tucked away, and I will freely admit that the common parental problem of equating your child’s success or failure with your own is one that I still struggle with at times (especially when it comes to school since I was an extreme overachiever and rule follower). A large section of the book is devoted to the problems with the current college admissions process and the overscheduling of children that results, and I don’t think the system is nearly as cut-throat in Canada (although E. is only six- maybe I’ll feel differently about this in ten years’ time). That section was an interesting read, especially since I’m in academia, but I didn’t feel it was particularly relevant to my parenting (although it did align with what my instincts have always been- it’s more important to find a good fit for your undergraduate degree than to attend the most prestigious school, and there can be advantages to being a big fish in a little pond if you later apply for a very competitive graduate program).

Honestly, I thought she was laying it on a bit thick. Students who get to college and don’t know how to ask someone to help them move their boxes into their dorm room? Young adults who get momentarily disoriented in a new city and have to call their parents (who are in business meetings in a DIFFERENT city) to get directions? Parents who stick around to watch or, worse, join in the welcoming rituals of frosh week? Kids who text or call their parents multiple times a day and ask them what they should do for any situation, and parents who tell them what they should do rather than asking the kids how they plan on handling it?

When I was almost finished the book, I was reading it during one of my office hours. A couple of my students happened to come by, and one of them asked me what I was reading. This sparked a long, intense discussion for the rest of the office hour. My three students are all in their first year at university. Two of them are living in residence and the third lives with a cousin “near my Mom, but I’m not actually living with my Mom.” (his phone rang as soon as he finished that sentence- he looked at it and said sheepishly, “Actually, that’s my Mom now” and disappeared to talk to her for a few minutes).

The two who live in residence both had childhoods that very much resembled my own, with plenty of freedom to roam and explore, and high expectations about developing independence and the necessary life skills to function in society as an adult. This is exactly the kind of childhood that Lythcott-Haims says has been eroded for the Millennials (according to her the rot set in during the 1980s, which is when I was a child, which I found quite puzzling since I’ve always felt like I had one of those “good ol’ days” childhoods that people these days are always bemoaning the loss of). Even if I can’t classify myself (or my childhood) as a Millennial (I’m apparently right on the border between Gen X and the Millennials), my students, who are now a full twenty (!) years younger than I am, certainly are.

I gave them some examples of the over-parenting and the failure to grow up that Lythcott-Haims argues results from it and asked them whether they thought this was a fair assessment of their generation.

And the floodgates opened.

They have friends who don’t know how to make a phone call to book a doctor’s appointment; friends who don’t feel comfortable ordering for themselves in a restaurant; friends who don’t know how to organize or manage their time because their parents always told them where they had to go and when they had to be there.

They were unanimous in their assessment that most of the students they lived with in residence were lacking some of the basic skills they needed to be able to function as adults. And what’s more, both of my students said that their friends repeatedly came to them and asked them to help them do these things, because their friends had recognized that these two did come to university prepared to be independent from their parents.

They had lots of advice for me: Make sure my kids order for themselves at restaurants. Let my kids make mistakes with money. Teach them how to cook. Encourage them to work a service job, like a cashier at a grocery store or a barista at a coffee shop, so that they have to make small talk, engage with other people, and learn to let other people’s bad moods not affect their own.

I’m still not convinced we’re in a full-scale parenting crisis, but it was an eye-opening conversation, that’s for sure.



Filed under Books, Butter scraped over too much bread (a.k.a. modern motherhood), Soapbox

On Growing a Reader

When E. was in the second half of junior kindergarten, he started to learn to read. His JK teacher missed that fact (as was obvious from E’s final report card), but Q. and I noticed. That fall, E. started senior kindergarten, where all of his classroom instruction was in French. Although it was never explicitly spelled out to the parents, it was clear that English reading fluency was something that needed to be developed at home.

Despite significant resistance from E., we instituted a routine where he had to read to us for ten minutes every day in order to earn his screen time.

We did this the entire year.

I spent a LOT of time at the public library that year, finding readers that were the right level for his abilities, as well as ones that were more of a challenge. I’d change the readers every couple of weeks. When we found one that worked well, I’d scour the shelves for books by the same author.

When E.’s Granny came to visit us, in October of 2016, E. was reading at level D or E on the guided reading level scale. We liked Olivier Dunrea’s books about Gossie and Gertie and Ollie the Stomper. He was able to sight read Busy Busy Train (from the Wonder Wheels series) while she was visiting.

E. would get very easily frustrated.

He would fling himself around on the couch, or race off into the kitchen.

He would complain and yell and protest and whine and sulk.

Eventually, he would calm down enough to continue.

And so it went, ten minutes a day, weekly trips to the library, new books in his basket.

At some point, it all clicked.

E. developed enough fluency that reading became fun instead of frustrating.

He started sitting on the floor in the library, reading through the books before deciding whether or not to take them out.

He started disappearing to his room “just to relax” on the weekends, where we’d find him an hour later still immersed in a book.

He started reading books at lunchtime, in the bathroom, while waiting for dinner to be ready.

It made my heart so happy.

There is nothing I like better than disappearing into a good book. I often read while walking somewhere (carefully and while remembering to look both ways before I cross the street!). Reading is a major source of comfort and a way to control my anxiety, and it has been for as long as I can remember. I’ve always, always hoped that E. would love reading, and I held on to that hope all through the daily battles where it felt like we were both banging our heads against a brick wall.

I wish I’d taken better notes of how it happened, because I can’t pinpoint exactly where it all came together. The books just gradually got longer and longer, with more words and more complex sentences on each page. I do know that by this past August, E was reading at level M or N on the guided reading level scale. He read (and loved) the Ivy and Bean chapter books. We often read them together, but it was clear that he was capable of reading them independently (and that he’d been reading ahead during his book time before turning out his light in the evenings).

Currently he’s reading The Magic Tree House series. He also loves nonfiction. When we drove up to the cottage over the Thanksgiving weekend, he spent the entire trip reading a book about the Titanic (and you have no idea how excited I am that he seems to no longer get motion sick in the car).

E. generally is very quick with language- another mum told me a couple of weeks ago that her son told her that E. was “the best in the class at speaking French”, so I’m quite certain most of this success stems from his own abilities and from developmental readiness. This isn’t meant to be a “how to teach your kid to read” kind of post.

It’d be nice to think, though, that all those hours at the library choosing exactly the right books, and all those hours spent listening to him read (or helping him work through his frustration so that he could read), made a difference.



Filed under Books, E.- the seventh year, Grade One

What’s your BASE?

A post came through my Feedly today from The Thesis Whisperer reviewing Helen Sword’s new book on academic writing (Air and Light and Time and Space: How Successful Academics Write). The review started by asking how my writing was going and then asked if I wanted to reflect on my behavioral, artisanal, social, and emotional writing habits. To do so only required me to answer four questions to discover my profile.

I feel extremely time-poor at the moment but I was reading the post on my phone while waiting for the temperamental photocopier in my department, so I needed no time at all to decide to click on the link and take the quiz. (Do you want to take it too? It’s here and it’s really cool. I’ll wait!)

My first result was The Axe Head. Then I decided to take the quiz again, giving myself a lower score for the B (behavioral habits) because while my writing habits have been fairly good for the last six weeks, before that they were dreadful, and they’re still pretty dreadful for any writing that isn’t related to my research.

Changing that one variable gave me The Mountain instead.

The really interesting thing was when I looked up the other profiles. That page also lists the relative frequency of each profile. It turns out that The Mountain is the second most common (after The Pebble, which is the profile where you identify as unhappy with every single one of your writing habits, which says something about how academics tend to feel about their writing).

The Axe Head was one of the rarest.

It didn’t take me too long to figure out why that probably is- to get the Axe Head you have to score yourself highly in artisanal and behavioural habits, but low in social and emotional habits. Leaving aside the social habits variable, this profile means that you think you are a good writer, and you are a productive writer, but you feel stressed and anxious when you write rather than joyful. It strikes me that it must be hard to feel consistently negative about your writing if you are doing a lot of it and you think you are good at it. Writing begets more writing, and the more you write the easier it becomes to write. That has to improve your emotional outlook.

I’m also not remotely surprised that The Mountain is so common. That’s the profile of people who give themselves a high score in the artisanal category but low scores everywhere else (i.e., people who believe they are good writers but don’t make the time to write, don’t have support, and associate negative emotions with their writing). Knowing that you are a good writer but not writing definitely brings on negative emotions, at least in my experience.

The site also points out that “your Writing BASE may change its dimensions from day to day, from project to project, and even from one type of writing to another”, which aligns with my current profile- an Axe Head for my academic writing and a Mountain for everything else.

For me the next step is obvious: more writing, both academic and otherwise. I know from experience that when I am writing regularly and fluently I do experience enormous joy.

Next up- The Lone Wolf!

Did you discover your BASE too? Tell me your profile in the comments, and whether or not you found this as interesting as I did.


Filed under Books, Life after the PhD, Writing

Microblog Mondays: Library Fines

We use the library a lot.

I largely stopped buying books for myself four or five years ago when it became obvious that books were my latte factor. Beyond the expense there was also the question of storage, particularly as our spare rooms became bedrooms for our children. When I realized just how good our public library system was (almost always has anything I’m interested in and will let me make holds inactive if I’m not ready to read something), it became very hard for me to rationalize purchasing books, although I do still make some exceptions for favourite authors.

I tend to work at our local branch in the afternoon on my work day, and I always pick up a few new readers for E. given he’s now at the stage where his reading confidence is high enough that he’ll sit and read books on his own for fun (!!!!!). I’ll pick up holds for myself if they’re in, and I’ll sometimes even pick a book spontaneously off the shelf, which is something I haven’t done in years. I think it’s partly because of the proximity of the books- sitting for hours next to them makes it impossible not to get intrigued by a title. Mostly, though, it’s because on work days I have the time and space to go upstairs to the adult section.

I often go with E. as well at some point during the week, and sometimes I’ll pop in with P. when we’re out for a walk.

Last year we got E. his own library card after one too many occasions where I couldn’t check anything out because he had so many books out (and my library allows you to have 50 books out at any one time, so that really is saying something). The advantage to doing this is his fines are much cheaper than mine are. The disadvantage, of course, is now I have two library cards to manage and two accounts to track.

The combination of two different accounts and multiple weekly trips has meant that the rolling due dates have finally exceeded my ability to keep track of them all. Even with helpful email reminders two days before something is due I’ve found our fines slowly but surely increasing. I often wait until the last minute to renew a book because I know E. loves it, and if you renew early the new loan period starts from the date you renew and not the date it was originally due. This is a great system unless a) when you go to renew the book you can’t because someone else has put a hold on it (not very likely for E’s books but it does happen) and you don’t have time to get to the library that day, or b) you see the email, delete the email, and forget to renew the books two days later.

I’ve renewed all of E’s books and then forgotten that I had some due on the same day. I’ve missed picking up a hold before it expires (which costs $1). The total of my fines is still relatively small but it irks me because it is a system that SHOULD be free if I manage it correctly.

I try to view the fines as a very small donation to a system that gives my entire family enormous pleasure.

But it still bugs me I can’t quite keep it all under control.

Do you use and love your library as much as I do? Do you have a system that works for keeping track of the books and their due dates?

This post is part of #MicroblogMondays. To read the inaugural post and find out how you can participate, click here.


Filed under Books, Microblog Mondays

Microblog Mondays: The Unread


I have put London Fog: The Biography on hold at the library three times.

The first time the hold became available was late January 2016. I was teaching three classes (all new to me) and the most time I had to read non-course related material was on the bus between campuses on my particularly manic Mondays. I realized within a week I didn’t have the time or the brainpower to read this book in tiny snippets and returned it when my borrowing period expired.

I didn’t even attempt to get it out of the library again for more than eight months. But when September came around and E. was back at school and P. and I were settling into a rhythm and the chaos of 2016 had eased a little bit, I thought I’d be able to handle it. So I reactivated my hold just in time for P. to start the four-month sleep regression early.

Again I returned it, not a single page further ahead than I had been in January.

In December, I told Q. I was going to reactivate the hold again in January because surely by then I’d have the brain capacity to read it with the kind of attention I knew it deserved.

Q. bought it for me for Christmas, because he always pays attention and always knows exactly the right thing to do.

It’s sitting on the shelf of my night table, underneath my library books.

I still haven’t read any further. My brain still isn’t ready.

But at least I know I don’t ever have to bring it back.

Do you have a book that you desperately want to read but can’t quite ever seem to manage to get round to it?

This post is part of #MicroblogMondays. To read the inaugural post and find out how you can participate, click here.


Filed under Books, Microblog Mondays