"And the survey said"

By Shannon Stunden-Bower and Sharmalene Mendis
CWAG Student Representatives 2003-2004

As soon as we took on the roles of student representatives to CWAG for the 2003/4 year, we began asking ourselves what we could do in service to the organization at large and its student members in particular. As we struggled to hit on a satisfactory project, other questions suggested themselves. What do grad students want from CWAG? What sorts of folks comprise the CWAG membership? What is CWAG's purpose? We were obliged to recognize that the questions far outnumbered the answers. With this, a survey was born. Sincere thanks to all who took the time to respond to the Membership Survey circulated in February 2004, as well as to Jennifer Hyndman, Bonnie Hallman, Maureen Reed, and Scott Bell for valuable advice over the past year.

 

In keeping with our special concern for students' experiences, there were small differences between the questions asked of students and those asked of faculty/post-docs. This report will address in turn each section of the survey, lingering on the responses that seem to us particularly interesting and highlighting differences between the replies of students and faculty/post-docs. While the number of responses was not overwhelming, we hope that what follows is a useful starting point for discussions of who we are and where we are going. And, of course, that it provides some guidance to future grad student representatives who may be casting around for projects.

 

Invasions of Privacy

We are happy to report that CWAG is viewed as a welcoming organisation. Our faculty/post-doc respondents ranged from 30 to 60 years old; the students, from 25 to 35. All were female. Of the total, 25% identified themselves as lesbian or queer while 12.5% described themselves as belonging to a visible minority.

 

Students identified junior status (seen as more a function of experience than age) and financial constraints as factors that affect their experience of CWAG. The annual incomes of students ranged from approximately $17 000 to approximately $25 000, before tuition and taxes. The lowest income among those in Ph.D. programmes was $21 000, and only one respondent was at the M.A. level. According to students, limited financial resources hinder their ability to attend the CAG annual meetings and thus to participate in face-to-face CWAG events.

 

Professional Experience

Why do members maintain their standing in CAG/CWAG? For faculty, it is to keep abreast of new research, to remain in touch with others in the profession, and to know "who is working on what" not only for their own purposes but also so as to be able better to advise students. Membership in CWAG is an opportunity to associate with a group of "good people, academically and personally speaking," who have "important aims".

 

Students shared many of these motivations, but also exhibited a more concerted interest in the networking opportunities that CWAG provides. The connections sought were personal as well as professional, with CWAG seen as a "social context for academic practice." CWAG exposes the "doing" that lies behind the "telling" that fills the journals. These aspects of the organization help to inspire students to continue work in the discipline. Travel grants, low-cost opportunities to connect with other members, and informational resources are things that students value in organizations such as CWAG.

 

How can CWAG improve the professional experience of our members? Faculty members suggested that CWAG could provide more information on opportunities such as conferences and networks that appeal to feminist and/or female geographers. This could be achieved at minimal cost through more deliberate use of our listserv.

 

From the varied responses of students, two key themes emerged. First, along with some faculty, many students expressed a desire for a formalized relationship with SWIG. [1] CWAG was seen as an existing network that could support the organization of local SWIG chapters, perhaps through the sharing of ideas and experiences. Second, many students would like to participate in formalized mentoring programmes or informal discussions with more senior scholars on topics of concern (i.e. What has been! your experience in balancing academic life with outside interests/family? Are the expectations for graduates increasing, and if so, in what ways?). Some expressed concern that, due to heavy workloads, faculty might be reluctant to participate. Interestingly, the more intimate connections sought by students seem of the sort that could be provided by SWIG groups that are organized locally and that have relatively small memberships.

 

Students have big ambitions for CWAG. It was suggested that CWAG might engage in advocacy on behalf of women and minorities at the level of the university. Also mentioned was the possibility of a meeting at the CAG of CWAG student members. This would provide a chance to connect with each other and to discuss our graduate programs. CWAG sponsorship of a panel dedicated to students' work was another suggestion. Through these last two, a more coherent student membership might be created. Perhaps this would lead to more active student involvement in the general CWAG business meetings. Students also expressed appreciation for the opportunities currently offered by CWAG, such as social events for members. This tradition seems particularly well attuned to the needs and desires of graduate students.

 

Organizational Navel-Gazing

Who 'belongs' in CWAG? This is a matter of confusion, perhaps even of discord. To judge from the admittedly brief responses to our questions, some assume that males are not part of CWAG. A sense of organizational coherence is derived from the interests, experiences and issues that it is assumed males do not share. However, our membership list indicates that we do have a few male members. Further, as the utility of binary distinctions such as male/female has been challenged in the literature, it seems particularly important to ensure that we recognize the breadth of our organization. Certainly most will agree that there is much to gain by welcoming all interested people to our community. This does, however, raise an interesting question. If female is not a useful descriptor of our membership, perhaps we must consider whether Canadian Women and Geography is an appropriate title. Are we about women or are we about gender? Are we made up of women and people who study women, or is it more appropriate to think of our organization as uniting those who are concerned professionally and affected personally by gender issues?

 

What divides CWAG's membership? An interrogation of the divide between students and faculty was fundamental to the survey, and the character of the divide is considered throughout this article. Other divisions mentioned by respondents include longstanding rifts among members and sub-disciplinary differences (such as that between the human and the physical). A number of respondents commented on the significance of what one described as a distinction between feminist geographers and female geographers. Female geographers do not necessarily present in CWAG sessions, as their current research may not relate explicitly to gender. With professional activities that are more removed from the shared concerns (however diffuse) of CWAG members, female geographers feel less at home within our organization.

 

To facilitate the bridging of divides, our respondents called for greater participation in informal CWAG events. Casual mingling and friendly conversation were seen to have the potential to bring us together, not by the imposition of some artificial unity but through the cross-fertilization that results from sharing ideas in a respectful environment.

 

One respondent suggested that the impact of divisions within CWAG is heightened by the structure of academe: members are unable to dedicate much effort to fostering CWAG due to "time pressures that constrain participation in intellectual communities and a professional reward system that recognizes individual over community achievement". This echoes Andre Roy's sentiments in the CAG newsletter, Volume 11, Number 1 regarding heavy academic workloads that stifle efforts to create intellectually stimulating communities. He observes that "we are at the point when we have to let some things fall by the wayside if we want to make ends meet in a minimal state of mental and physical health..." (10). Unfortunately, it is informal commitments, such a valued aspect of CWAG, which can most easily be allowed to fall away.

 

Getting together in any casual manner is further complicated by the fact that we all live so far apart. Respondents were asked to comment on how better to cope with the dispersal of the CWAG membership. The establishment of a system of regional representation was viewed as redundant and, indeed, impossible because of the difficulty of freeing up the necessary time and energy. The consensus seems to be that we should further develop our national CWAG electronic community while supporting the development of local groups by building connections with SWIG and using the CWAG network to further the SWIG movement.

 

What unites the CWAG membership? This question prompted a variety of short and specific answers: our discipline, shared research interests, common struggles (e.g. getting tenure), our connection to academia. At a higher level of abstraction, one respondent asserted that we are united by a "belief that organisations such as CWAG perform a needed and useful function." Another response suggests something of the nature of this function, identifying CWAG as part of the redress of "the archaic and very white, male, and British geography tradition within Canada." Clearly, CWAG remains relevant to members' efforts to bring about positive change.

 

Should advocacy figure in the CWAG mandate, and if yes, how? Most said yes, but were unsure how we would identify issues and develop strategy. One workable suggestion was that CWAG could support the work of existing equity committees by highlighting emerging issues. One respondent commented that CWAG's current role is more one of support than of advocacy. It was suggested that CWAG might offer more vigorous support to individual members tackling particular issues, such as salary parity among genders at individual institutions. Perhaps it is more useful to consider how CWAG could better support the efforts of individual members rather than to think in terms of any sort of shared CWAG project.

 

From advocacy to recruitment: a faculty member wondered about how CWAG solicits potential student members. Is there a formal attempt to contact geography student associations to increase awareness of CWAG? The answer, it seems, is no. As far as we can tell, CWAG has relied on faculty to encourage their students to explore the relevant study groups. If we are interested in cultivating a larger membership, one effective means would be to develop a brochure describing CWAG. This could be distributed to all geography departments and regional CAG associations. A student suggested that information about CAG and CWAG should also be distributed to American geography departments. This emphasizes that, as CWAG has the opportunity to welcome all genders, so does its appeal transcend national borders.

 

Faculty are concerned about the experiences of students. Indeed, one asserted that "student involvement is the raison d'etre of CWAG in my view." However, as we have already intimated, many students feel that they remain on the periphery. CWAG functions do present good opportunities to meet established scholars, and students recognize and appreciate this. However, students experience intimidation even in the most congenial of circumstances. Many are unsure how to join the networks of personal and professional relationships that connect established scholars. Students noted appreciatively that some faculty make deliberate efforts to interact with students. Perhaps if more faculty were aware of the significance of such encounters for students, they might be inclined to find the time to get to know another budding scholar.

 

In sum, it is clear that CWAG is valued by students and faculty/postdocs alike. Nevertheless, in its current incarnation, CWAG seems to be more successful at meeting the expectations of faculty/postdocs than of students. In the responses we received, any suggestion of organizational change was followed by an expression of concern regarding the additional time and effort that might be required. CWAG, it seems, is perceived as an additional commitment, piled on top of other personal and professional responsibilities. Respondents appreciated the informal nature of our meetings and social events, but were adamant that they were neither willing nor able to take on much else. Any substantial reorientation of CWAG must take this into account. Or perhaps we might try to imagine what CWAG could do to ease the personal and professional load on its membership. If overwork is the theme that is most common to CWAG members, should addressing this in some deliberate way be part of our mandate?

 

Thanks again to all who assisted with this survey, whether through advising, editing, or responding. We very much appreciate the feedback we received, and we invite your responses to the results of the survey.

[1] Supporting Women in Geography (SWIG) is a loose association of local groups that seek to address the otherwise unsatisfied personal and professional needs of members. This common goal is pursued through a diverse range of strategies. Operating norms vary significantly from group to group. There are a number of SWIGs across the United States. To our knowledge, Vancouver is the location of the only Canadian chapter. For further information on SWIG, please consult the past two issues of the CWAG newsletter.