Heading down East – the FAR East… of Canada

In early March, nine other students from CMSS and I had the opportunity to travel to Dalhousie Graduate Symposium at Dalhousie University. I was very excited for the opportunity, as I had never been to the east coast, and had grown up with a highly romanticized idea of it – largely due to an overconsumption of L.M. Montgomery novels. Anything that is ok with Anne of Green Gables is ok with me. We had also heard rumours from other students who had attended the conference in previous years that it was a good presenting opportunity, and that Haligonian libations had to be tasted to be believed.

While we have been spoiled at the Centre with generous travel funding, I wasn’t expecting the hotel that the conference provided to be so fantastic. The Lord Nelson is one of Halifax’s oldest hotels, and it fairly reeked of history. It was brought home to me yet again that while Calgary has its charms, it is depressingly lacking in the history department. The hotel was close to the Halifax Citadel, a national landmark overlooking the city, which provided another fascinating glimpse of the past.

The conference provided a good opportunity to think more carefully about our research topics. Unlike other conferences that I have attended, each conference panel had both a panel chair and a discussant. The role of the discussant was to read each presenter’s paper in advance, and to offer in-depth commentary on the strengths and weaknesses of the content. It was certainly an interesting approach, and it was a good challenge to defend both one’s presentation and one’s written work. CMSS was the largest contingent from any university, and represented itself well. Topics covered a diverse array of topics, ranging from an analysis of Canada’s northern communications capabilities, to the rise of China, to the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

The conference was one of the smallest that I have attended, and provided a good opportunity to interact with other presenters, particularly at the conference dinner. It was interesting to hear in greater depth about the research of other presenters, and more than a little daunting to once again be reminded of how much time and work goes into completing a PhD. The keynote speaker at the conference dinner took an interesting approach with his address, choosing to review recurrent themes that he noticed throughout the conference, and challenge us all as social scientists to improve our approach to the discipline and our topics.

After the conference was finished, most CMSSers chose to stay in Halifax for a few extra days. During this time, we had the opportunity to enjoy several typical tourist pastimes – eating lobster, visiting the harbour, going on a brewery tour, and exploring the citadel. A profound experience for several of us was visiting the immigration museum at Pier 21, the dock where our grandparents arrived in Canada.  I found this particularly moving as I had also visited the dock in Rotterdam where my grandparents set sail for Canada, and this brought the experience full circle.

All in all, traveling to Halifax was a great experience for the CMSSers who went. It was a good opportunity to present our papers, sample east coast culture and east coast brew, and to learn more about the history of our country.


Sessional Teaching: The Trenches of Academia

Academic departments at universities across Canada rely on sessional lecturers to fill out their course offerings every term.  Sessionals – usually all-but-dissertation PhD students who are hired on a flat fee, per-course basis – are like intellectual mercenaries fighting in the trenches of the academic world.  As a lightly grizzled veteran, I’m writing to share some observations about the good, the bad, and the ugly of sessional teaching.

The Good

Getting some (but not too much!) teaching experience looks good on your CV, and that’s why most PhD students get into the racket.  If you’re gunning for a faculty career, then just finishing your dissertation and getting the degree probably isn’t going to cut it: Prospective employers are also looking for publications and some evidence that you can teach.  Requests to include a teaching dossier with faculty job applications are code for “please provide proof that you don’t absolutely suck at teaching”; in other words, copies of student evaluations from previous teaching.  My students are surprised to hear that the reason why I’m teaching the course is to get their evaluations, but it’s largely true.

The life of an intellectual mercenary is about more than just career building, though.  Teaching, at least for me, has been very satisfying and rewarding.  You learn way more about a subject by having to teach it, and you are reminded of how broad your field really is – which can be a helpful antidote to thinking, reading, and writing only about your dissertation topic for years at a stretch.  This can rejuvenate your writing if you’ve been feeling stalled for a while.  You also realize how much you actually know, usually at the same time you realize how much your students don’t know.  The overwhelming majority of them are keen and enthusiastic, though, and very much willing to learn.

Of course, you might discover that you really, really hate teaching.  Not all teaching is created equal – lecturing to 200+ students three times a week for a term is very different than running a seminar for 9 students three hours a day for a month – but some people wouldn’t like teaching no matter how favourable the conditions.  If this turns out to be you, then perhaps you should consider pursuing something other than a faculty job with your PhD after you’re done.

The Bad

It’s not all fun and games.  First of all, one certainly doesn’t become an intellectual mercenary for the money: Sessionals usually make between $4,000 and $5,000 per course, and at first glance this looks like a decent deal.  Three hours of teaching time per week, plus an hour in the office, for a standard 13-week term translates to an hourly wage of between $77 and $96.  Cha-ching!  But wait… consider that you’re also looking at a couple of hours per week just answering student email, about three hours of prep time per hour of teaching, a bunch of marking (averaged out to 4 hours per week, including final exams), supervising the final exam itself, and a day of course design work up front, and suddenly the hourly rate becomes $15 to $19.  Factor in mandatory union dues, CPP, and EI contributions to the tune of $300 per contract, and you’re looking at $14 to $18 an hour.  It’s better than a kick in the pants, but if you were looking for a lucrative part-time job, this isn’t it.

Not only is sessional teaching not lucrative, it isn’t really part-time, either.  I suspect that every PhD student thinks the same thing about his or her first sessional gig: “This is great!  I’ll teach a few hours a week, and spend the rest of my time on my dissertation, and since I normally spend so much time on Facebook and PhD Comics I won’t even notice a difference!”  Not so.  First, the weekly workload explained above is not 4 hours per week, but 15-20 hours.  Even teaching one course, particularly if you haven’t taught it before, can take up a big chunk of your workweek.  Teaching two courses that you’ve never taught before basically suspends progress on everything else.  Plus, teaching can be more exhausting than you expect, so much so that not even the grad student’s secret weapon (caffeine) can overcome your need for rest.

You could aspire to be the laziest part-time lecturer ever, and by putting in the least possible amount of time and effort overcome these two problems.  Your students will notice this, though, and their course evaluations will reflect it.  Since those same evaluations are ostensibly the reason you’re doing this… well, you don’t need to attend the CMSS to be able to figure that this isn’t the best strategy.

The Ugly

Remember how I said that some teaching experience looked good on a CV, but not too much?  While you have to have done some teaching to round out an application for a faculty job, teaching experience alone is not going to get you that job.  At a major, research-oriented university, glowing student evaluations are nice in a candidate – but not nice enough to compensate for a weak or non-existent publication record.  In other words, being a prolific writer and a merely competent teacher has a better probability of success than being an unpublished researcher but brilliant lecturer.  (Where you got your PhD also matters a lot, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish!)

This almost creates a catch-22, because sessional teaching is so time-consuming that each course you take on is very likely to delay the completion of your PhD, as well as delay any spin-off publishing you might be trying to do.  Sure, it’s less time-consuming once you’ve taught the same course a few times, but by the time you’re in this position you have already sunk more hours into that course than it’s worth to you.  The opportunity costs of sessional teaching – the stuff that you don’t do because you’re teaching – create two very significant hazards for intellectual mercenaries.

The first hazard exists for the all-but-dissertation PhD student.  You want to get a bit of teaching on your CV, and get some decent course evaluations, but you also want to finish the program in a timely manner, try to publish a few articles along the way, give papers at conferences, and not starve or go crazy in the process.  Sessional teaching offers steeply diminishing returns under these conditions: After you’ve done a few courses, your time is much better invested in research, publication, or a speedy completion.  None of these carry a short-term payoff, though, whereas teaching offers a thousand bucks a month for a course (or four to five thousand in one month for spring/summer teaching!)  For a grad student, that can be hard to pass up.

Then there is the hazard of becoming a lifer – the “Mexican day labourer” of academia, as one of my fellow mercenaries puts it – trying to cobble several part-time teaching positions into one full-time career.  Some lifers manage this by becoming regular sessional instructors at multiple universities in the same city, thus overcoming any restrictions on how many courses they can teach in a year at any one institution.  This is an uncertain existence, though, since the number of sessional opportunities varies a lot from year to year, with no guarantees about how many courses will need filling, or whether they will be ones you can teach.

Ultimately, being a lifer is a dead-end path.  Time passes quickly, and you can suddenly realize that you’ve had a PhD for years but haven’t published any research during that time.  As a result, you’re not a serious contender for a faculty position anywhere: You’re trapped.  The chair of a political science department once came right out and told me that if you found yourself slipping into this trap, you were better off getting a full-time job outside of academia for a few years and then coming back later.  After you’ve spent too much time in the trenches, it is said that even the departments you’ve taught for may come to see you as just a mercenary, not faculty material.  This hasn’t been my experience yet, but I don’t plan to continue doing this long enough to find out if there’s any truth to it.

The Last Word

All in all, getting some teaching experience under your belt is a good idea – particularly if your degree is going to say “military and strategic studies” instead of the more traditional “history” or “political science”.  Just be careful of the risks when you sign on.

As for how to sign on, cast the net wide: The strategy that worked for me was to send a CV and cover letter to every university and college in the area expressing interest in upcoming teaching opportunities.  You will get a whole lot of nothing by way of reply, until months or years later when some department chair somewhere is in a jam because they have a fully enrolled course and nobody to teach it.  Your name will leap to mind, your CV will be dug out of a filing cabinet, and you will find yourself with a teaching gig.

Getting the first course is the hardest part; impress people with that first course and getting subsequent ones will be easy.  The challenge then becomes keeping your eye on the bigger career picture, and knowing when to pass further sessional opportunities by.  Go for courses in the spring/summer terms: They have smaller enrollment (which means less marking!) and you usually do the entire course in one very intense month.  This minimizes the opportunity costs of teaching, though it may leave you burnt out for a week or so afterwards.  Try to teach a few different courses that span a broad range of topics in your discipline, rather than one super-specialized course a few times.

Above all, remember that a brief stint as an intellectual mercenary is a normal and noble part of the academic experience, but spending too much time in the trenches can condemn you to a life there.  Getting through the front door to a faculty position will require things that time spent in the trenches will deny you, such as a solid publication record.  Sometimes, though – rarely, but sometimes – an exceptional teacher can be promoted from the ranks.

Musing the Nature of Strategy

I thought utilizing the department’s blog might afford me the opportunity to gain insight from my peers on the nature of strategy.  As a student of ‘Military and Strategic Studies’ this question should be relevant to all that study at CMSS; as strategy provides the theoretical foundation for what both distinguishes us from and links us to Political Science, International Relations and History in general.  Coupled with the fact that upon meeting someone the second question a CMSS student is normally asked is: what is that? (Military and Strategic Studies)  While the first question is almost always: are you in the Military?

Back on track, at this point in my academic career (if I can call it that) I understand strategic studies and more specifically strategy, as the study of the conduct of human conflict actual or perceived.  That’s pretty generic and that is the point.  A key foundational assumption on which the entire field of strategic studies is based is that conflict among humans will continue to play a large role in our collective political experience.  And for those who study History, they know it has played a major role up until this point.  There does not seem to be a good reason to believe this will change anytime soon.  Once one has swallowed that pill (that humans regularly kill each other as a means and ends of political discourse), consciously or not, they can proceed in thinking more about the nature of strategy; a highly contested term to say the least.  For the sake of this blog post and conscious of space constraints, let us consider this a fork in road.  The fork represents two very different conceptions of the nature of strategy.

Go left and you get the contemporary and very generic conception of strategy.  This can be described as a plan of action which is applicable to any human endeavour.  Once solely confined to the domain of war, usage of this strategy has been adopted by ‘white collar warriors’: politicians, businessmen, lawyers and the like.  In short this conception reduces strategy to a mere descriptive term, one that is labelled after the fact and in almost all cases when it is perceived to have been successful. I question its utility.

Go right and you get a narrower conception of strategy. While being less abstract, it still conceives strategy as fundamentally an art.  It emphasizes an inherent and inextricable link to human conflict; either threatened or actual. This conception of strategy has been described as a bridge between military force and political power.  For analytical purposes it is more useful when used as a tool in attempting to understand the use of force in political affairs.

I appreciate the ‘right’ conception of strategy. I hope that at least some of my peers will respond with comments, voicing what they consider the nature of strategy or even if they think this whole post is rubbish, although I hope that isn’t the case.  I find this debate as I have very simply summarized it, fascinating and hope to spark some discussion.

I have attached a table from Colin S., Gray’s book The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 240.  These are what he considers the Classics of strategic thought. Those that have taken Dr. Herwig’s Classics Course will find many quite familiar there are some very important works left out.

Table 7.1 The Classics of General Strategic Theory

1.     First Division

upper class

Carl von Clausewitz, on War (1832-4)

Lower class

Sun-Tzu, The Art of War (ca.490BCE)

Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War (ca. 400 BCE)

2.     Second Division

Niccolo Machiavelli, The Art of War (1521)

The Prince (1522)

Discourses on Livy (1531)

Antoine Henri de Jomini, The Art of War (1838)

Basil Liddell Hart, Strategy: The Indirect Approach (1941)

J.C. Wylie, Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control (1967)

Edward N. Luttwak, Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace (2001)

3.     Third Division

Bernard Brodie, (ed.), The Absolute Weapon: Atomic Power and World Order (1946)       

Strategy in the Missile Age (1959)

War and Politics (1973)

4.     Fourth Division

Thomas C. Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict (1960)

Arms and Influence (1966)

Other Contenders

Julius Caesar, Commentaries (d. 44 BCE)

Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783 (1890)

Julian S. Corbett, England in the Seven Year’s War (1907)

Some Principles of Maritime Strategy (1911)

J.F.C. Fuller, Armament and History (1946)

John R. Boyd, A Discourse on Winning and Losing (1987)

Martin van Creveld, The Transformation of War (1991)

The Culture of War (2008)

Откуда ты?*

*”Where are you from?” or, more accurately, “From whence [do] you [come]?”

I appreciated Joel’s recent post <https://cmssblog.wordpress.com/2012/02/22/at-the-midway-point-a-reflection-on-my-time-thus-far-at-graduate-school/> for his brutal honesty. One of the pluses of the interdisciplinary approach of the Centre is that each student brings different perspectives based on their diverse fields. Joel clearly has a more philosophical bent in his reading and is the only student I know who actively cites Hegel Nietzsche and Schumpeter. Interestingly, we have both arrived at the same place with the same goal but went through different processes to get here.

After taking three semesters of archaeology at the University of Calgary, I took a couple years off to be a humanitarian representative in Eastern Ukraine (2003-2005). Though I was there during the Orange Revolution, I didn’t really understand what it was until I returned home. In my defence, my news source was word of mouth and my Russian vocabulary was fairly non-political. The only thing I knew about the campaign was that bands <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bbkEVJgrBUs> toured <http://www.youtube.com/user/okeanelzyofficial?feature=watch#p/u/37/PIF3CKpOpbw> in <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c2FXmvNQTEo> support <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dL-9QgWyefw&feature=relmfu> of <http://www.youtube.com/user/okeanelzyofficial?feature=watch#p/u/88/9i9Qz9C3XVs> their <http://www.youtube.com/user/okeanelzyofficial?feature=watch#p/u/62/dgpiBJpUNwk> preferred candidates <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dFx5D2eokFs&feature=related>,which made post-Soviet politics cooler than politics in Canada.

Returning home, I switched my degree to history (concentrating in military-diplomatic history) and minored in Russian. It was a pragmatic choice: I wanted to demonstrate and preserve my Russian skills; history could provide context and U of C’s department has one of the strongest military history programs in North America. The CMSS program seemed like a place where post-Soviet relations could be studied and taking undergraduate courses from research fellows seemed like a good way to scope out the program (and perhaps line up some references for the application process).

Conveniently, I attended a presentation on gas as a lever in Russian relations at the student strategy conference. A year later, I found a Council on Foreign Relations report <http://www.cfr.org/iran/russias-wrong-direction/p9997> on Russian-American relations, which listed several areas of common interests, “terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, tight energy markets, climate change, the drug trade, infectious diseases, and human trafficking.” By then, I was in the co-op program and had learned that it can be difficult to find a job with a history degree, even when Calgary was booming. At the time, I was engaged and realized that enjoying learning was not enough: I also needed to be employable.

Subsequently, I took a course on the history of the North American petroleum industry (yes, Calgary is one of a handful of universities with such spectacular subjects). I learned that during the 1950s and 1960s, American analysts described the Soviet expansion of its oil exploration and production as a political tool, even calling it a weapon. In the process of writing the paper, it turned out that English-speaking historians had yet to consider the Soviet petroleum industry. With that, I had a historical topic for future research that seemed to correspond with current events.

At the end of that semester, I got married and started my last co-op job, where I worked for about a year and a half before finishing my final semester. After convocation, I returned to my previous employer. My wife and I spoke often about whether I would make a career in construction management or if I should build on my previous education and further develop my research, analytical and language skills. Over time the plan shifted; ‘Be a company man’ became ‘work until the end of the project,’ and later ‘work for one year.’ My wife and I decided I would apply to CMSS and if I didn’t get in this year I would keep working and apply to more programs the following year. Fortunately, I was accepted and though it has been rough getting back into student mode (there will probably be a post on thesis writing with a little gentleman at home after my wife goes back to work), I enjoy the discussions even if those who know their theory <https://cmssblog.wordpress.com/2012/01/30/a-theory-on-theory/>and technical details <https://cmssblog.wordpress.com/2012/01/23/focus-issue-the-littoral-combat-ship/> are speaking way above my head.

I’ll admit I didn’t use my working years to read every piece on strategy. Instead, I researched grad school so I could make a plan <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rb0QLxcvowk>. I subscribe to a simple school of thought: if grad school includes full funding and career prospects <http://sarantakes.blogspot.com/2010/05/blog-xlix-debate.html>,it might be worth it. That is one more reason why CMSS is a great program. Here’s some of my reading list for those interested in the subject (the last two are my favourite sources):

Thomas H. Benton<http://chronicle.com/article/So-You-Want-to-Go-to-Grad/45239> William <http://chronicle.com/article/Graduate-School-in-the/44846> Pannapacker<http://chronicle.com/article/The-Big-Lie-About-the-Life-of/63937/> and other pieces from <http://chronicle.com/article/Unemploymentthe-Toil-of/44780> the Chronicle of Higher Education <http://chronicle.com/section/Graduate-Students/559/> 100 reasons not to go to grad school <http://100rsns.blogspot.com/> Beyond Academe <http://beyondacademe.com/> “So What Are You Going to Do with That?”: Finding Careers Outside Academia <http://www.amazon.ca/What-Are-You-Going-That/dp/0226038823>by Susan Basalla and Maggie DebeliusVersatile Ph.D <http://versatilephd.com/> selloutyoursoul.com <http://www.selloutyoursoul.com/> (the ebook is on my to read list) In the Service of Clio <http://sarantakes.blogspot.com/> (A diplomatic historian on career management) Getting What You Came For The Smart Student’s Guide to Earning a Master’s or Ph.D <http://www.amazon.ca/Getting-What-Came-Robert-Peters/dp/0374524777/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1330496698&sr=1-1>by Robert L. Peters

My approach to grad school is based on this research. Since careers are political, one should be wise in how one plays the game. Peters recommends image building (“be businesslike, punctual, respectful, dress neatly, get your work done on time, and appear serious about your work. Project goodwill, optimism, cheerfulness, maturity, sobriety, and modesty” – original emphasis but you can expect a post or two on clothing and power in the future), attitude, networking, conferences and presentations, and publishing as means of career development. The variety of research topics reduces competition within the Centre and makes CMSS a cooperative place (others’ success strengthens the Centre’s reputation, benefiting all of us). It is a positive setting, in which to improve one’s career prospects before competing with those from other programs.

Academia is not the best choice for myself. The academic market is poor and that is unlikely to change soon. I have a nine-month-old son, whom I want to support. Awards have been beneficial as my wife has been on maternity leave this year but they are not a viable long-term solution. That’s not to say that a Ph.D. is out of the question but the opportunity cost is high in my cost benefit analysis. Thus, for different reasons, Joel and I have the same goal: employment outside of academia.