Teaching students how to student

There’s an expression about how the shoemaker’s children have no shoes. Well, the social media consultant is terrible at her own social media!

I’ve clearly fallen behind in my New Year’s resolution of a blog post a month. I thought I might catch up when I had a month off work this summer, but somehow social media was the last thing I wanted to work on.

But I’m back at work now and busier than ever. In fact, this fall will be the most paid work I’ve had at once since I quit a full time job to go back to school a decade ago.

I’m have resumed my social media work with the Faculty of Humanities at the university and what a difference a year in the job makes! I feel really comfortable in the position, now that I’ve figured out what I need to be doing, and I’m seeing the benefits of the connections and network I’ve been building. I’m really looking forward to the year ahead!

I’ve also been fortunate to pick up several other small contracts to flesh out my hours and paycheque. I’ve just started working with our Centre for Pedagogical Innovation (CPI) where I’m helping out with a number of very interesting projects, including TA training, support for those teaching large classes, and research into the perceptions of the value of teaching. I have a lot of experience as a teaching assistant (TA) in the classroom and even helping professors develop pedagogical resources, so it’s exciting to be thinking and learning about pedagogy from a different perspective.

Finally, if enrolment numbers permit, I may get to spend a little time in the classroom again this year as a TA.

Which relates to the Twitter thread I want to share with you. @atrubek shared this really great thread tonight and it so important! I think when we’re teaching it’s so easy to get caught up in the transmission of content and forget about the transmission of skills. I don’t mean discipline-specific skills, but the “how to be a student” skills.

It’s easy, when we’ve been academics for 5, 10, 15 years or longer to forget that we, too, started someplace. We didn’t enter university knowing everything. Sure, we like to think we were more self-sufficient and self-starting than “today’s students” but hindsight can have a gloss superiority to it.

Our students come to us from a wide variety of backgrounds and face a diversity of pressures that we may not have faced.

In my case, for example, my mother had attended university and I had two older sisters in university as well, so I had lots of support at home in navigating the system and knowing what I needed to do.

But not every student has that privilege. Some will be the first in their families to attend university. Some will be far from home and perhaps struggling to make friends and navigate a strange system with strange titles like “registrar” and “dean” and “chair,” never mind the myriad of acronyms we use without thinking!

High school today is different from high school “back in our day.” Again, students will have had a diversity of experiences and come with–or without– skills we deem necessary.

So @atrubek’s thread is such a timely reminder. We need to not assume that our students know how to navigate the system socially or how to access resources. We need to teach them how to take effective notes, how to use the library, how to identify a scholarly resource, what a database is.

Because after the final exam, the student may very well never think about our course content again. But they will be taking other courses, and we can equip them with the skills they need to succeed there, too–whether it’s something we teach directly, or we direct them to campus resources.

We don’t just teach content, we teach students how to be students.

Reblogged: “Ethical Engagement and the Study of Antiquity” (Classics and Social Justice)

Some really fantastic classicists got together recently to discuss ethical engagement and classics. Several of the talks were posted on Classics and Social Justice by Jess Wright, Matt Chaldekas, and Hannah Čulík-Baird.

It’s a long a read, but a very good one. I encourage you to read the whole thing, but I’ve copied below a few snippets that particularly jumped out at me.

Classicists are in a particular bind: we must argue for the salience of antiquity to a modern world preoccupied with the effects of European imperialism, and we must do so without resorting to the imperialist argument that the Classics are the foundation of humanistic endeavour….

How does our study of antiquity inform us as ethical subjects? How does our pedagogical approach to antiquity shape our students? Through what strategies and initiatives might we render “Classics” a term that evokes social and ethical engagement, rather than elitist isolation and the ivory tower?

Ethical Engagement and the Study of Antiquity https://classicssocialjustice.wordpress.com/2017/05/15/write-up-ethical-engagement-and-the-study-of-antiquity-april-20th-21st-2017/


The common idea about the canon is that it is inherently valuable because it articulates the best that has been thought and written or some such. This notion of values is both a stumbling block and a powerful entryway. For instance, is “the unexamined life not worth living” irrevocably damaged as an ideal because of its elite original context? Or should we aspire to democratize the concept through education?

Nancy Rabinowitz, Ethical Engagement and the Study of Antiquity https://classicssocialjustice.wordpress.com/2017/05/15/write-up-ethical-engagement-and-the-study-of-antiquity-april-20th-21st-2017/

Edelstein cannot have known that his work on the Oath would directly affect the lives of literally millions of people. But here’s the thing: you can’t study any aspect of what many consider to be the foundation of modern Western society and ignore that your work is potentially relevant in modern discourse, even if you are limited in your ability to understand how. Classicists are ethically and socially engaged, whether we acknowledge it or not, and because we’re all engaged in this way, we have at least two tasks… 

The first task is to attempt to dissuade modern consumers of our work from using the ancient world as direct precedent for modern legislation, for good or for ill…

Our second task is to recognize that people are going to use our work however they want to regardless of what we say and therefore to be responsible in our research.

Deborah Sneed, Ethical Engagement and the Study of Antiquity https://classicssocialjustice.wordpress.com/2017/05/15/write-up-ethical-engagement-and-the-study-of-antiquity-april-20th-21st-2017/

What is academic twitter, anyway?

On Wednesday, @savasavasava threw out the following question on Twitter:

It’s a pretty big, and pretty important, question. When I’m asked, I usually say something along the lines of it being academics on Twitter, but that’s not quite right. It’s more than that, but it’s hard to explain until you experience it.

I’ve brought together some of the responses to @savsavasava’s question here, so that those not on Twitter can hopefully get a glimpse of why some of us like it so much.

The modern water cooler

I like to say that Twitter is the modern agora. It is a (privately owned) public space where people come together to chat, exchange knowledge, do business, complain, share cat pictures, and generally try to make sense of what’s going on in the world.

A broad community

Twitter–any social media, in my opinion–should be about the people who use it. Social media is simply being social through a medium. This allows broad communities and networks to form, which in turn fosters creativity, connection, knowledge exchange, and public engagement. Academic Twitter breaks down the barriers of status–tenured faculty, contract, independent scholars, alt-academics, para-academics– and becomes about the ideas people have, not the rank a person holds in an institution or organization.

A “time-shifted” conference

A never-ending conference may not sound like fun to some, but in some ways, that’s what Twitter is. But don’t worry: It’s the fun networking in the bar after the panel presentations part of conferences, and you can dip in and out of it as you wish. Also, no expensive hotel fees or air fare.

A way to do academics publicly

Twitter is public and provides a platform for us to do our discipline publicly. But it’s not just about sharing facts on ancient Greece, say. @OmanReagan hits the nail on the head: Twitter allows us to humanize our work. When we allow our personality and personal interests to come through on Twitter, the public can see scholars as relatable. Our enthusiasm comes across. We are interesting people doing interesting things, no more or less human than anyone else. Engagement is about connection, and we best connect with people when we allow ourselves to be seen as people.

 A disability resource

The importance of Twitter and social media to the disabled community is often under-appreciated, but it is a vital tool. Live-tweeting may make a presentation easier for someone to follow. Networking on social media doesn’t require the same energy investment that travel and meetings do. In addition, Twitter is a way to find other marginalized people who share the same challenges and can provide support during difficult times.

 A network that breaks down institutional hierarchies and silos

Twitter allows us to engage with other people as people first, and gives us access to people who we might not otherwise meet. It’s pretty awesome to be able to tweet to someone you respect, and even cooler when they reply or RT. I know I’ll never forget getting a RT from an academic hero!

Twitter gives space for the voices that are often marginalized and unheard in traditional spaces. By listening to –and amplifying–people from marginalized groups, we learn to be better people and better academics. Twitter is a classroom where, if we choose to listen, we can learn from each other.

A venue for trans-disciplinary collaboration

Twitter, if used well, breaks down barriers of disciplines, departments, faculties, and hierarchical rank to encourage cross collaboration. It’s way to work out ideas and get input from other perspectives.

Academic Twitter is complex. But however we describe it, it is a community: a community we create as individuals coming together to listen and learn and share with each other.

How do you define academic twitter?

What counts as academic writing? #AcWri – Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD

The truth is: YOU ARE WRITING EVERY SINGLE DAY. Even if you are sending emails to a coauthor about how to craft a specific section, THAT COUNTS AS WRITING. Why? Because you are sharing concept notes. You are shaping how your argument is going to be structured. You are discussing the data. Are you reading and taking notes off of each paper you read? You are WRITING.

Are you drawing tables by hand to decide how you’re going to present them in your paper? YOU ARE WRITING. You are, in fact, WRITING.

Source: What counts as academic writing? #AcWri – Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD

I highly recommend following Raul Pacheco-Vega on Twitter (@raulpacheco) and his blog. He offers great resources on planning, organizing, and writing. In fact, reading his Tweets has motivated me to make this blog more of priority in 2017. I’m setting modest goals (surely I can manage just one post a month?) in the hopes that maybe I’ll exceed them.

I found this particular post, which he shared recently on Twitter, very encouraging for thinking about my own writing practices. I don’t consider myself a writer, as I don’t write as much as I think I should.

I like the idea that all the various bits of writing I do every day– emails, social media posts, jotting notes–all count as writing. So maybe I do write more than I think and maybe I can produce a blog post (or two or three?) a month for a year.

Source: What counts as academic writing? #AcWri – Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD

some beginning thoughts on myth & fantasy; or, a classicist’s foray into tolkien

I am a latecomer to the genre of high fantasy. I come to it not as a fan of fictional worlds (although that is a consequence), but primarily as a classicist trained in studying mythological texts. It is only in the past few years that I have become increasingly interested in classical reception; that is, how successive audiences have received, reinterpreted and reused Graeco-Roman mythology. This has led to my growing interest in how classical mythology is adopted and adapted into popular modern art and literature.

My academic training has certainly equipped me with a theoretical framework for approaching mythological texts. As an MA candidate in Classics writing a thesis, I had to not only understand and use theory, but also defend my use of it. I became comfortable using Foucauldian discourse analysis, feminist theory, gender theories, and, of course, Lévi-Strausse’s structuralism to understand classical texts. This, I believe, is one of the enduring legacies of my MA degree: As I read any work of fiction, watch a movie (which, alas, I do all too infrequently) or even a TV show, a part of my brain is always churning away at some point asking questions. What genders are being constructed and how? What kinds of power dynamics are happening, and how does this relate to gender roles? How are women’s roles constructed? What type of thinking is happening here? What is the underlying invariant that this work explores? And, most importantly, WHY is this happening the way it is?

I began my venture into high fantasy accidentally, reading the first four books of Martin’s GoT series during the last spring of my MA. I binged on them between writing drafts of thesis chapters. They were an escape, but they also enthralled me as I began to apply my thinking skills–at first unwittingly, but then more consciously. As my ideas of how I could apply my theoretical toolkit to these texts increased, so did the questions I wanted to investigate, and thus my interest in epic fantasy grew. As a late comer to the epic fantasy party, I have a lot of catching up to do. Thus far I have only read the first five books of GoT (that’s all that’s out) and The Hobbit; I am currently a third of the way through Silmarillion with the rest of the Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy lined up next. Forays into Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, Pratchett’s Discworld and Riordon’s Percy Jackson series are also planned, as is a re-reading of Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. I might even be convinced to finally dip a toe into Rowling’s Harry Potter. Plus, of course, reading some academic writing about these works. My goal in all this venture is not to become a know-it-all of fantasy literature; I am not interested in memorizing endless trivia as I have already burned up too many precious brain cells memorizing Greek conjugations, which I no longer use. Rather, I am interested in seeing how these works connect with Graeco-Roman mythology, whether it be openly, as in the Percy Jackson series, or through structuralist analysis.

The problem is, of course, the more I read the more ideas I get and the more questions I come up with to answer. That’s where my blog comes in. I want to use this space to sift out ideas, see what works, piece things together bit by bit. My goal isn’t to determine which work is best, or list characters or facts or argue about movie interpretations (although I plan to address that), but to look at how these works engage mythological ideas. The focus isn’t on facts, but ideas. (I’ve always been a big-picture thinker.) A warning that this will not be a series of neatly-written essays, but a rambling monologue!

Is it right to approach these texts as mythology and to relate them to classical mythology in particular? We are, after all, talking about multi-volume epics written by a single author and, in the case of Tolkien especially, influenced primarily by Norse mythology, not Graeco-Roman.  Graeco-Roman mythology, on the other hand, was a result of oral tradition. There is (and was) no one defined canon of Greek mythology; rather, there were as many variations to a story as there were tellers. The versions of myth with which you as an ancient Greek might be familiar depended on where you lived; when you lived; and whose version you heard, liked, and remembered. Myths were in constant creative reuse, and only a fraction of the art and literature which records them has survived to our day. I find students, when first approaching Greek mythology, want to pin down the “correct” version of a myth and to fit multiple myths into a single timeline (I was guilty of that desire myself, way back in the day), but myth simply doesn’t work this way. Multiple versions co-exist simultaneously and cannot be logically reconciled with one another. It’s a challenge to our linear, western way of thinking, but once we move past that we find a remarkable field of study.

To come back to the question, then, can works written by a single author be compared to works composed anonymously by many poets in many versions be compared? Yes. When we study Greek mythology we use a text that, at some point in time, has been set down by someone. The difference, I think, will be that a work by one author, such as Tolkien, will have a greater degree of internal consistency than a work created over many centuries by multiple authors, such as the Homeric epics. Homer, whoever and how ever many he was, set down the Iliad and Odyssey after centuries of oral composition and thus it contains an odd mixture of both Bronze Age and Dark Age society which leads to what could be considered inconsistencies in description (I am thinking here particularly of the difference between the Phaeacians’ Bronze-Age palace and Odysseus’ hovel with a manure pile out front– both these men are kings (basilei), but one’s palace is from the Bronze Age and the other’s is from the Dark Age.) Tolkien, on the other hand, went back to The Hobbit after writing LOTR to make slight adjustments to the story to ensure consistency. But my point is really this: at some point, we have written texts for Greek mythology and we also have written texts for epic fantasy. We have texts with which we can do a textual comparison.

And we can compare mythologies across culture and time. Structuralism allows for this; indeed, I would say structuralism demands this. A key aspect of structuralism is the search for the invariant; that is, the underlying ‘thing’ that a myth is about once you strip off the decoration. Lévi-Strauss describes it several ways in his English work Myth and Meaning; The image that works best for me is that of a landscape. Structuralism strips away the plants and trees and soils and looks at the underlying features of the landscape/myth and finds similarities here across mythologies. These are the invariants, and include explanations of good and evil, death and life, how to live, how to relate to the gods, and why we can’t see the gods. While mythological invariants are found across genres and forms of art, they are perhaps the most easily seen in myths proper and the fantasy genre.

Structuralism also includes the idea of pre-literate thought. It feels odd to discuss pre-literate thought when we are dealing with a work written by a very literate man in the 1950s, but that is the term we have so let’s use it. Pre-literate thought seeks to provide a total, global explanation for the world. Rather than addressing particular phenomenon and being content in not knowing the rest (which is what Lévi-Struass calls scientific thought), pre-literate thought seeks to provide a comprehensive explanation. I think this might be most easily seen in Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, which I am reading now, although it is certainly evident in The HobbitThe Silmarillion attempts to provide a global understanding of the world of Middle Earth (and includes all the invariants I listed above– but more on that in another post). Comparable mythological texts for easy comparison would be Hesiod’s Theogony or Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Finally, Greek mythology gives us epic and we are talking about epic fantasy. Now the epic is not unique to Greek mythology (think of the Old English epic Beowulf, which is also on my reading list), but we have the Iliad and Odyssey where we see the idea of the hero developed and the hero on a quest. Heroes on a quest…. sounds a bit like Bilbo, doesn’t it?

To summarize, then: A work does not have to make direct reference to Graeco-Roman mythology to be compared to it. We can use structuralism to compare myths across time and culture by looking at the invariants. Graeco-Roman mythology provides us with texts for comparisons, as well as the heroic epic cycle. Building on this, my ideas for further inquiry include:

  • more consideration of fantasy as myth;
  • construction of gender in The Hobbit;
  • relation between Tolkien’s books and the movies;
  • searching for the invariant in Tolkien;
  • evidence of the heroic epic cycle in The Hobbit and LOTR;
  • depictions of women;
  • depictions of monsters;
  • discussion of the nature of epic; and
  • comparison of origin myths.

But I know this list will grow much longer the more I read. Clearly, you can take the girl out of academics, but you can’t take the academics out of the girl!

Your Mental Health Toolbox: A Post for Suicide Prevention Day

This week is Suicide Prevention Week, and today is Suicide Prevention Day. In honour of the day, I am going to share, once more, a piece I wrote in January 2012. This piece was originally published in Brock University’s Brock Press. Yup, that’s right, I “outed” my mental health experience to the entire university. Ok, well, the tiny fraction who actually read the school paper! It was definitely one of the scariest things I’ve ever done, but if we’re going to break down stigma, we need to talk about it, right? I got some encouraging feedback from others, so I have faith it was worthwhile. 

Your Mental Health Toolbox

 I’ve been watching a lot of Mike Holmes lately. (In fact, I’ve got Holmes on Homes playing in the background now). You know, that good-looking guy on HGTV who rescues homeowners from incompetent contractors and ignorant home inspectors. I have no intention of taking up the trades myself, but it’s interesting to watch the team transform homes (and lives) and to learn what goes into making a good house.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about mental health. Hyperbole and a Half (http://hyperboleandahalf. blogspot.com) had an interesting post about her  “adventures in depression” a while ago and recently The Bloggess (http://thebloggess.com) shared her fight with it. But closest to home is my own mental breakdown at the end of last term. Depression and I go way back—we’ve been tight “frenemies” for more years than I care to remember. So I wasn’t entirely surprised to find myself in the midst of anxiety and depression, but I wasn’t happy to be there. What does mental health have to do with a show like Holmes Inspection? Well, if we think of our bodies as buildings that need constant care and occasional repair, I think there’s quite a bit we can learn from a guy like Mike Holmes. Here’s some of what I’ve been reminded of this year:

Make it right.

Holmes’ trademark phrase is all about doing stuff right and fixing the stuff that’s wrong. But when I’m depressed, the last thing I feel capable of doing is fixing anything. Everything seems overwhelmingly hopeless. I think this is pretty common. But the important thing is not to stay inert. If you’re feeling depressed, reach out to someone for help to start the healing process. If you think a friend might be depressed, make the first move and reach out to them. We need each other to help us heal.

Ants are a sign of bigger moisture problems.

It’s so important to be aware of the ant-sized signs of depression. Even with my years of practice, I can still miss the little warning signs in myself and consequently let things get far worse than they have to be before seeking help. Signs and symptoms include: feeling worthless, helpless or hopeless; sleeping more or less than usual; eating more or less than usual; having difficulty concentrating or making decisions; loss of interest in taking part in activities; decreased sex drive; avoiding other people; overwhelming feelings of sadness or grief; feeling unreasonably guilty; loss of energy; feeling very tired; thoughts of death or suicide (Canadian Mental Health Assocation, www.cmha.ca). If you are experiencing some of these signs, please talk to your doctor immediately.

Call in the pros.

If you need plumbing done, call a plumber. If you need electrical done, call a certified electrician. Often, I find all I need to cope with stress is a long chat with a good friend. But sometimes I worry about wearing out my friends’ ears or my problems seem to big (or even too banal) to bother them with. At times like I that, I book an appointment with a pro. Don’t be afraid of talking to a professional therapist. It is not as scary as you might think—trust me, I have years of experience! At the very least, think of it as someone who has to listen to you rant for an hour because it’s their job. I mean, what’s better than talking to someone who has no choice but to listen to you?

You need a complete thermal break between inside and outside.

Just as heated spaces have to be separated from unheated spaces, I find it’s important to keep some of my life separate from school. I call this having boundaries. I aim to have one day a week when I do no schoolwork so that I have space for my hobbies, my friends and my family. I also have learned to make rules for myself about what kinds of work I’ll bring home and what work will stay at the office. I’m not always successful with these goals, but just having them helps keep my life a little bit more balanced. When was the last time you carved some time out of your schedule for yourself?

Always have two spare spaces on your electrical panel.

You’re not supposed to overload the electrical panel or your house might burn down. We shouldn’t overload ourselves with work or we’ll burn out. Since I know I’m bad about overloading things, I try to be aware of what I commit to and prioritize the things that do need to get done. Saying ‘no’ or ‘not now’ can be scary, but it does get easier with practice. Have you said ‘no’ to anything lately?

Have a whole home surge projector.

Holmes is big on whole-home surge projectors because they’ll protect everything if your house gets hit by lightning. I think of the surge projector as the key indicator that tells me something’s going wrong. This surge projector is often a close friend who notices that something’s up before I’m willing to acknowledge it myself. Be aware of how you feel when you are both mentally well and ill so you can notice when things start going sideways.

Your electrical should be properly grounded.

What keeps you emotionally grounded? One way I take care of my mental health is by making time for the things that are truly important to me. I go hiking, practice photography or absorb myself in scrapbooking. Even better, I meet up with the friends who matter the most to me. My friends from academe can commiserate or celebrate with me as the occasion warrants, and my non-academic friends remind me that there is a huge, interesting world outside of the university’s walls. Spending time with family (especially my little nieces!) reminds me whose opinions really matter. Make a list of what keeps you emotionally grounded and make sure to put those items on your to-do list.

Use the right tools for the job.

You don’t use wood screws to put up drywall, you use drywall screws. So when it comes to mental health, use the right tools to get better. Maybe all you need is to step back from work for a weekend and get some perspective. For some people, the healing process will involve medication; for others, it might involve talk therapy. Some people find the help they need from their faith organization. For many people, it’s a combination of different things. No two people are alike, so you need to work with your doctor or therapist to find what works for you. Trust me, it might take a while to figure out what works but it is totally worth the effort!


At the end of almost every Mike Holmes episode, the grateful homeowners have a party for Holmes and his crew. Don’t forget to celebrate your recovery with the people who supported you. As The Bloggess says, “When depression sufferers fight, recover and go into remission we seldom even know, simply because so many suffer in the dark” (2 Jan 2012). Recovery is a long, hard process and we should be proud of ourselves when we make it.

Having a mental health episode of some sort is practically a rite of passage for grad students. Everyone I’ve talked to about my experience has a story of his/her own to tell. I knew coming in to grad school that there would be tough times and I would likely have a depression episode before I finished my degree. And although I have learned how to manage depression and live with it over the years, I haven’t spoken publically about my experience. Until now. And I’m doing so now because I think it’s time we started talking about this.

So let’s start talking.


Some links for Suicide Prevention Week:

Ms. Hazardous’ post Not About Sportsball

The Bloggess Something About September (and search her blog for “depression lies” for lots of good posts)

Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention

Directory of Canadian Crisis Hotlines/Centers

Distress Centers in Ontario, Canada

Canadian Mental Health Association Understanding Mental Illness