Ten Things I Learned From Will Straw

On Monday June 15th we had a wonderful retirement symposium for Will Straw. In addition to co-organizing, I was charged with giving an overview of his career. I concluded with a list of 10 things I learned from Will (lest you think this is original, Sheryl Hamilton had a similar idea). There will be a longer publication in the future, which may or may not include these 10 points, so here they are.

  1. Always be reading. Will reads with a passion—and speed—that few others can match. But especially for mid-career academics, when so many other things are vying for our attention, Will’s commitment to books is something to be emulated. We are only good at our jobs if we are immersed in others’ ideas as well as our own. 
  2. Take advantage of where you are.  Wherever you are, there are going to be multiple scenes. They will all have something to offer you, if you let them.
  3. Follow your interests wherever they may lead you, especially if they lead you to the flea market over on St. Michel, or its metaphorical equivalent.
  4. Step up when it’s your time to do so. Academic communities are fragile things, and we all need to contribute to keep them thriving.
  5. Especially while you’re in the process of stepping up, ask what your time is worth. I think he originally said this to me as we were hopping into a taxi instead of taking public transit somewhere, and perhaps it sounds a little bourgeois.  But for those of us with the resources to make these kinds of choices, sometimes it’s worth spending a little more to do a little more.
  6. Meet and learn from the next generation of scholars, not just the last.
  7. Use travel to continue your education.
  8. Beware of empty ambition. For instance, if you are worried about the work you’ll have to do if you actually get the grant, you probably shouldn’t apply for the grant.
  9. Don’t let the bustle of academic life take you away from everyday small pleasures or your bigger passions. Find a way to keep it all in proportion.
  10. For those of us with these nice professor jobs: be aware of your privilege and exercise gratitude. Never be bitter or resentful. Be principled, but never give in to the urge to grandstand.
  11. Linen.

Music News

I’ve got some gigs coming up.  These will probably be my last in Montreal until sometime later in 2025, since I’m away on sabbatical.  Though there’s always a chance of a brief return visit.


Jonathan Sterne solo synth act, Saturday 15 June 2024, 5:30pm

Hard Red Spring, Wednesday 19 June, 8:00pm

Volte, Monday 19 August, 8pm

Please come!  Bring friends!

More details:

Saturday 15 June, Rocket Science Room, 170 Jean-Talon Ouest (Atlas Building), #204, at the very reasonable hour of 5:30 start time. I’m performing solo on synth to launch the book “Modular Synthesis: Patching Machines and People.” I’m on a bill with Ky Brooks and Lisa Conway. We’re all doing 20 minute sets follows by a roundtable discussion.  This will be a weird one because I’ll also say a couple words about the book before I launch into playing.  I go first so show up on time. High nerdery.

Wednesday 19 June, 8:30pm, Hard Red Spring will be playing two sets (no opener) at l’escogriffe bar, 4461 rue St Denis.  East side of the street, just “south” of Mont-Royal. See some of your favourite profs play lyrically-driven rock songs. The big news is that Carrie is singing more.  I play bass. Lots of new material (is it power pop?), plus a range of stuff from our last three records. 




Volte, my instrumental post-rock trio (some might say “progressive”!) will be doing an album launch for our new record, Vrittis, on Monday 19 August, 8pm at Turbo Haus.  I play touch guitar (often in bass role but I venture higher) and synthesizer.  More news forthcoming, but please save the date.

Quick Guggenheim Awards Reception Review

I made a very quick trip to New York to attend the Guggenheim award reception and I’m glad I did. It was largely a reception where you walk around and talk with other fellows. Most of them were from 2024, but there were some from 2014, 2004, 1994, 1984 and I even met a poet from 1974! I appreciated the unstructured nature of the thing, and the opportunity to just talk with people. Halfway through the president made a few short remarks, and some of them were even a little inspiring (about the importance of arts and intellectual work). Then it was back to socializing. A model of an awards even for me. No endless reading of names or marching up on a stage to get something. Just a 3-hour party with a 3-minute speech.

I asked a fellow from 2004 whether and how the Guggenheim Fellowship changed her life. She replied that she would answer how it “should have” changed her life. Basically, she recommended we use as a cure for imposter syndrome. Anytime we doubt ourselves, or our right to do or say something, we should remember “well, at least I’m a Guggenheim Fellow.” I pass it along in case it is helpful to someone else.* I see no reason why once couldn’t insert other awards or achievements, though I do have to say that so far it seems the Guggenheim has a strange, prestigious pull on people.

I didn’t know what to expect, so I’m leaving this here for the search engines:

The reception took place at the Century Association in New York, which I learned is a famous private club. I’ve been in a few of these places in Montreal and am usually kind of allergic to them (don’t forget to scroll down to the date when they first admitted women!) but it was a nice site for the event.

Dress code was all over. I was really unsure of what to wear. Lots of people did standard academic (men in jackets and button-down shirts, women in the wider range of dress clothes). Though some people dressed truly fabulously, which I really appreciated and enjoyed, and might have done myself with some forethought. Some people came in very casual dress. Nobody cared at all, except to note when people were truly fabulously dressed. I went with the “nice shirt” approach since I figured I would die in a jacket. I was right. I would have died in a jacket.

The big surprise for me is a lot of people brought business cards. I did not because in my experience, the only people who want my card anymore (or have one) are in engineering or the tech world. So: bring business cards? Or other cards to give out?

Snacks were standard issue reception snacks. Unlikely any were vegan. I took a chance on a mushroom tart and–I dunno. But the person sitting next to me was very excited to learn I was vegan. I had to correct them that I was a “shitty vegan” and their reply was “you’re doing the best you can.” (I am probably not.)

But: afterwards. I went out to Mala Project, which is a fantastic Sichuan Restaurant with great vegan options. Fresh lotus root!

*A MacArthur Fellow–which is a much more exclusive club–once told me that winning it put a lot of pressure on them because they felt like every bit of work they did afterwards had to merit “genius” accolades. So these awards don’t automatically cure imposter syndrome. But it’s a nice thought.

“What’s a Guggenheim?” (aka the promised good news post)

So this post echoes my insane fall of applications post.  First of all: probably nobody should ever apply for 11 things like I did.  But it was a hell of a good year professionally. 

Tl;dr:  we will be in two places next year. Carrie will be based at the Center for Advanced Studies in Behavioral Sciences at Stanford.  I will be based at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies at Harvard.  To my great surprise, I also won a Guggenheim fellowship, which I’m deferring to 2026, but as you read this post (if it’s Monday) I’m on a very quick trip to New York City for a celebratory reception at the Foundation on Tuesday (back home Weds AM, so sorry NYC friends–I’ll see you next time!).

I’ll start with where we screwed up so you can avoid our mistakes if you want to.  As mentioned in the fall post, we missed most of the deadlines for Europe, which are about two years out from the fellowship date.  So we will be spending sabbatical in the US during a presidential election year.  That choice is almost certainly ill advised. 

Second, our plan was to apply all over and do what was “best for the family.”  That turned out to be an option we hadn’t considered when we were applying. In the end, I had no offers on the west coast and Carrie had none on the east coast.  And we did not feel like we could ask the other person to turn down the very good offers we both had.  And Harvard has great US healthcare while Stanford has no healthcare plan for fellows.* So we decided to live apart for 8 months.  Carrie gets the cats because a) I will spend January, June, July, and my fall and spring breaks in California and b) we found a place that takes cats there.  She’ll come visit me in between my longer visits to her.  I think if the most important goal is to be together then the plan has to be more geographically targeted, or perhaps only one partner applies, or we suck it up and one of us turns something down. In the end, Carrie suggested we take both, and I came around to the idea.

We don’t love the idea of being apart for several months. But we have commuted before and can do it again.  It’s temporary. We have friends in both places to look after us. And we’ve gotten great advice from couples who’ve commuted. We will try and see what works for us.  

On the flip side, we both DO love the opportunities we have. For me, the Radcliffe setup is great, and I’ll have some nice resources there.  Cambridge is ideal for me intellectually next year.  I have tons of colleagues in the area who can help me think about both projects I’ll be working on, and I’ll be an easy visit for Mara Mills, with whom I’m working on a project.  And for the AI and sound book you’d think Silicon Valley might be better.  But it’s not and I’ll still get to go there if I need to. Carrie’s Stanford is great but it’s my blog and so I’ll let her speak for herself if she wants.

“What about the Guggenheim?” you ask. Right. When I was an undergrad I remember one of my profs talking about one of my other profs “being on a Guggenheim” with great reverence. I didn’t really know what that was. It’s a fellowship. It seems to mostly be a career achievement fellowship, though you do apply with a project. Before this year, I’d had a lot of success as a letter-writer in support of others’ applications, but no success of my own. I’m not sure what got me over the hump this year–could be aging, other credentials now on my CV, a topical proposal, or a book contract (I normally never bother with advance book contracts). Like all these things, they are named for long-dead philanthropists. Most come with more prestige than money.** In this case, the Guggenheims were a Jewish family that arrived in New York in the 1850s and made their fortune in mining. Their names are now all over museums and other philanthropy. I don’t think mining in the 19th century was any nicer than it is now, so like all of these things, “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”

At Harvard, I am the “William and Flora Hewlett Fellow.” That’s the Hewlett in Hewlett-Packard.

*yes we keep Quebec healthcare but they pay at Quebec rates which don’t go far in the US.  

**exceptions: MacArthur and Killam.

Cancer Crawl, 1 June 2024

(Good news post coming Monday, music post on Wednesday.)

Just to keep this story going: I finished my 5 doses of external beam radiation on Monday the 27th. Apart from wondering whether the itching I felt was normal itching vs radiation itching (hard to tell) there was no pain or discomfort. They say it takes 1-2 weeks after finishing before side effects subside, so something could still come on in the next 7 days, but I’m optimistic. I am feeling enough fatigue to complain about it. I’ve been off Lenvima (cancer meds) for the radiation, but am still waking up tired, even after long sleeps; I am getting weird headaches, etc. It could also be a partial concussion relapse but there is no way to test or know. Except it feels a bit different from concussion symptoms, so I’m choosing to blame the radiation. I have been doing some work stuff, which is honestly nice because I was missing it, but I’m taking it easy this weekend.

External beam radiation takes awhile to have all its effects, so we’ll know more at the beginning of August, when I have my next CT scan. I go back on Lenvima next week.

Cancer and Concussion Crawl, 24 April 2024

If you’re just joining the show in progress, I’ve been on a tyrosine kinase inhibitor since 2019. It’s kept the spots in my lungs from growing, with side effects that the medical documents call “tolerable.” The good news it mostly works. The bad news is that it mostly works: one of the spots has decided to ignore the “inhibition” my inhibitors have been providing to the other tumours and is growing. The good news is that I can go in for 5 days of external beam radiation (plus one practice) and they should be able to kill the rogue tumour and then I can get on with my life. The bad news is I have to go in for 5 days of external beam radiation in late May or June. I don’t have exact dates yet, but everyone seems to think that’s a reasonable timeline and it works for me. My radiation oncologist, who did the work on me in 2010, says that the treatment is “well tolerated” but that I might have a dry cough or feel some fatigue (hahahahahahhahaha).

It’s been a bit of a bonkers academic year. Professionally speaking it’s been a wild ride (more on that in a future post) but very punishing on my body: Covid in September, a stupid knee injury that had me walking with a cane for most of fall term (now healed) and then a few days after that post before this one about applying for stuff, a tree branch fell on my head. It didn’t kill me but it killed my winter term. No awesome machine listening conference in April* or grad seminar connected with the conference, no awesome disability seminar, and no writing on the Sound of AI book. Instead, I discovered a whole new sensory world. In other circumstances, I would have blogged it for you but since screens were part of the problem, I didn’t. Suffice it to say I learned a lot about sensory processing issues. I heard in ways I’d never before, and I experienced artificial lighting in a way I’d never experienced before. Also, I was blown away at how many people in my social world have had concussions. Why don’t people talk about this more?

I’m now getting close to normal again. Not 100% but my screens are in colour, and I can tolerate more artificial light than before. I got through almost an hour under fluorescent lights today at a doctor’s office before getting nauseous. My tinnitus is back to where it was before (ie, part of me, an old friend), and I am no longer sensitive to certain sounds. Fatigue levels are more or less where they were before as well.

McGill’s short term disability benefits are very good. I’ve been on full disability, and done bits of work where I can.

Some people have told me I should write an essay about my concussion, and I think it will. But it won’t be another impairment phenomenology. Plenty of people have written great things about the experience of having a concussion. Instead I’m going to write about what my concussion taught me about enterprise resource planning software and related matters. I promise it will be a scorcher.

They say that you should take up a non-screen related hobby while recovering from a concussion. I am now officially a shitty pianist. I am not being self-deprecating. The keys are so smooth. They feel good.

The next post will be about a bunch of good news.

Yes, I will eventually do a goddamn newsletter.

*Had the conference gone ahead, the early April snowstorm would have disrupted a bunch of people’s flights, so it wouldn’t have gone ahead. It will be happening in April 2025.

Sabbatical Fellowships, or My Semester of Applying for Stuff

This term has set a personal record for me: 11 applications for things. Eleven. Let me tell you about them.


(Are you a US citizen working a contingent academic job? Scroll down for an interesting opportunity that not a lot of people in my world seem to know about).

I’m up for sabbatic leave in 2024-5. Although historically McGill has usually approved faculty sabbaticals you still have to apply. Fine. It’s one of the best benefits of our job. Carrie is applying at the same time.

We are planning to travel for this sabbatical. Maybe you’d like to as well.

The easiest thing if you are fully funded is to call up a friend at another school in a place you’d like to be and see if they can work out a visiting position and office for you. These are unpaid but often you can finagle library privileges. I accept that this might smell of a slightly disgusting clubby dimension of academia but that’s how it works. You can write to strangers too–this occasionally happened back in my days of department chair, but usually the visitor needs a faculty host, which is why cold calls are less likely to work. Of course, you could also just move somewhere and set up shop without an institutional affiliation. We might do that in a future sabbatical.

Carrie says I like a “monastic” sabbatical. I don’t think the metaphor is quite right because it implies asceticism, which is not a behaviour I have ever manifested. But what I like is: a routine (none of the schedule noise of my regular job), a place to work, and a cohort of other people on leave with whom I can have conversations and be directed to new ideas and bibliographies. It’s basically like some kind of distorted summer camp scenario. Without the crafts, unless you count your writing as a craft.

These gigs often come with money, though not enough for full salary replacement. If you’re at a school that gives some funding for sabbatical but not enough for a full year, these can supplement your income.

This year Carrie and I mostly focused our search in the United States. That’s because for a leave starting in fall 2024, we started looking in May of 2023. By that time the deadline for a lot of European gigs had already passed. There are shorter 1-month residencies, like at Bellagio, but we wanted either semester or year-long gigs.

So, first takeaway: European Institutes of Advanced Study tend to operate on a two year timeline. Check out EURIAS for a comprehensive list. American Fellowships tend to operate on a one-year timeline with deadlines in the late summer and early fall. Which means you can’t start thinking about it in August.

In sum, I recommend you start thinking about sabbatical applications two years in advance of when you’d like to start. Year -2 will be applications to Europe if you want to go there. Year -1 will be applications to US institutions, and you’ll know the deadlines well ahead of time.

Here’s the list of places to which Carrie and I applied:

Institute for Advance Study in Marseilles, (that was Carrie; I would have applied for Paris but JUST missed the deadline–these need a university affiliation)

American Academy Berlin (only US citizens), 

Guggenheim (take it anywhere! but very hard to get)

Institute for Advanced Study Princeton School of Social Science (mix of topical and some open positions, I applied for open as I’m nowhere near the topic for 2024-5), 

National Humanities Center in the research triangle, 

Cornell Society for the Humanities (topical–this year was “Silence”; they do ask you to teach a seminar), 

Radcliffe Institute, 

Center for Advanced Study in Behavioural Sciences (Stanford), 

Stanford Humanities Center

Missed deadlines I might have considered for EURIAS places:

Berlin (duh), Sweden (Uppsala, I think, maybe there’s one in Stockholm too), Netherlands, Norway. Maybe for the next sabbatical.

The UK also has Leverhulme visiting professorships. You need a sponsor and might have to teach.

For Canadians: there are Fulbright Canadian studies professorships in the US (again, need to teach). Non-US citizens can also apply for Fulbright research fellowships to do research in the US.

Are you working a contingent faculty position and wishing you too could apply for a year’s support to pursue your research?

If you are a US citizens, the ACLS has switched their faculty fellowships from being for tenured people to being for people who are working contingent jobs (maybe also tenure track). They are hard to get but a great opportunity. You can’t win if you don’t play.

What happens if get all of them?

Hahahahaha. That’s not going to happen, but what could happen is that we are each offered something different. For now, our plan is to do what’s best for the couple. If we get nothing (also a possibility–these are all very competitive), we will just find a place to set up shop. We have lines on a couple options. (See point about friends above.)

A Few Thoughts on Logistics of Applying

Our results aren’t in so I can’t tell you for sure what works/makes a difference. This is my second application to the Guggenheim. Last time I didn’t have a book contract for the project I was pitching, so this time I went out and got a book contract for it. I generally just write the book manuscript and submit it, so this was a new thing for me. We’ll see if it makes a difference.

All of these places need a project description. The project description is the first thing your referees will read so be sure it’s your best writing. You can work up a basic template that you modify to pitch to the various institutions. That’s much better than a bespoke application for each place, though some ask for different enough word counts that you’ll have to reconceptualize.

Some universities will give you feedback on your draft project description. See if yours offers that service.

You will need letters of recommendation. Line them up ahead of time. It is my best guess that people who really know you are better than the most famous people you sort of know, but I could be wrong. I’ve done reviewing for some of these fellowships in the past and certainly I was more impressed by a good letter than good letterhead.

Everyone uses their own bespoke application system. This will be a pain in the ass, though some of them are actually very well designed. Some have specific requirements for your CV. Leave lots of time for this.

Research Support

In addition to sabbatical apps, I had to apply for other stuff. It was a lot of work, but hopefully will be worth it. I have a lot of grad students right now, and McGill’s system makes it more like the sciences for humanists like me–I have a responsibility to make sure my students are funded. That means applying for grants. My timing wasn’t good in the sense that a few things piled up in one term (like sabbatical apps on top of this), but I lived. I don’t really recommend doing all this though.

SSHRC Insight Grant: I’m used to these. I should write a thing about writing SSHRC Insight Grants someday. They are a ton of work. I think of it as about the labour of two journal articles every 5 years or so. But they’re also a ton of money compared to what humanists usually get. Due beginning of October, completed while I had Covid. Kind of sucked. But if I get it, I asked for close to $400,000 over 5 years, which would be great for everyone involved. (They could cut my budget but I didn’t inflate it, so I hope I’m successful.)

SSHRC Connection Grant: this is to help support a conference I’m co-organizing in April 2024 with James Parker, called Machine Listening: Critical Perspectives. It’s been a joy collaborating with James but the combined workload of the SSHRC form and university form were disproportionate to the amount of money. 70% of the work of the Insight Grant, for $25,000, about half of which will go to student funding. Due at the beginning of November.

Microsoft Research AI and Society Fellow: Again, this will mostly go to student funding. Related to generative music chapter in my Sound and AI book (for which I got the advance contract for the fellowships). This was the easiest one. You drag and drop two documents into their interface, and fill out a form with completely standard information in their system. I basically built out the outline for that chapter with things I’d thought about or learned since I sent in the proposal and sample chapters last spring. Due at the end of November.

Misophonia Foundation Letter of Intent. I wouldn’t have known about this except for an enterprising PhD student. She is enterprising, so I was persuaded to go for it. One page LOI for a potentially massive grant–$500,000US. They don’t normally fund people who aren’t scientists but there’s a tiny crack that we might be able to squeeze into, and you can’t win if you don’t play, right? Again, mostly for student support but it’s just one page to see if they’re even interested. Easy-peasy, right? No! The letter was the usual amount of work, but McGill’s own process of approving grant applications like this took way more time than the application itself. Special shout out to the dynamic XML Adobe Acrobat form that was missing fields I had to fill out and could not be saved as a draft. Due at the end of November.