Job Profile: Dr. Ailsa Kay, Author, College Instructor and Grant Writer

Posted on January 29th, 2013 by najblog1.
Categories: Alum Profiles.

Ailsa Kay: fiction writer, grant writer, teacher.

This interview is part of a series that department publicity RA PhebeAnn Wolframe is conducting with McMaster English and Cultural Studies Department alumni who are working in non-academic settings, or in academic settings but outside of tenured or tenure-track professorships. These interviews are designed to give a brief overview of some of the careers English & CS grads might pursue. If you are an English & CS MA or PhD alumnus in a non-academic career, Phebe would like to hear from you at wolfrapm [at] mcmaster [dot] ca.

Today’s interview is with Dr. Ailsa Kay. Like our previous interviewee Dr. Kathryn Allan, Ailsa has a “portfolio career”: that is, her career is made up of several different kinds of related part-time, contract,  freelance and/or self-directed work. Ailsa was a PhD student in McMaster Department of English and Cultural Studies’ PhD program until last fall (2011) when she defended her dissertation. She will be graduating this spring (2012). Ailsa is currently teaching at Conestoga College and working as a freelance grant writer. She is also the author of the novel Under Budapest, which will be available in April from Goose Lane Editions.


Q: When did you begin to consider career choices other than the traditional tenure-track professorship?

A: I taught at George Brown College for seven years before starting the PhD in English at McMaster, and I always imagined that I might return to the college system after finishing.

Q: How long have you been writing fiction?

A: If you listen to my Mom, I started writing fiction when I was 6. But I guess I’d say that I started taking my writing seriously when I finished my BA, and submitted my first short story to a journal.
Q: Do you have any formal training in creative/fiction writing? (ie. university courses, workshops etc.)

A: I took an undergraduate course with Janice Kulyk Keefer [University of Guelph], and a graduate-level course with Susan Swan [York University]. These were both fantastic experiences and gave me confidence to keep going.

Q: When did you begin writing Under Budapest?

A: I wrote the story that formed the kernel of one character in 2007 and workshopped it with a McMaster creative writing group. I wasn’t sure that it would be more than a short story. The rest of the novel came together very quickly in the summer of 2010.

Q: How did you balance your academic writing (thesis, articles, etc.) and other work (teaching, committee work, etc.) with your creative writing during your PhD? Did this prepare you for balancing your creative writing with your current “day job” as a college teacher and freelance grant writer, or have you had to develop some new strategies for time-management?

A: I tend to be a pretty disciplined time-manager because this helps me reduce anxiety and reserve guilt-free time for doing whatever. I schedule my tasks, and allot them hours in my calendar. I am ridiculously protective of my creative writing time, too. I find that teaching can suck huge amounts of time from my week if I let it because my commitment is to others rather than myself. I love to teach, but I’m a better teacher when I keep it in balance with my writing. Oh, and I guess the other thing crucial to my balance is exercise. If I don’t exercise every day, my stress levels rise and before I know it, I’m stressing about work instead of doing the work.

Q: What do you like best about being a writer?

A: That’s strangely hard to answer. The best thing may be not being myself, not being in this time/place/body. I guess the fun is in following the sentences, letting myself be led.

Q: Do you approach your writing process differently depending on genre? (ie. thesis writing vs. novel writing, or writing an academic paper vs. writing a grant proposal)

A: When writing academic papers, I spend a lot of time planning. I usually try to write a 1-page précis, and then move forward from there to map an outline. Grant proposals are pretty structured already, not much room for deviating from the path. Creative writing … I want to be the type of writer who begins with a plot outline because I think that would be so much more efficient. In fact, my plot outlines always fall to pieces. So, really, I start with a blank page and a whole lot of self-doubt and maybe some vague something hovering just to the right of my brain, and hope that if I just start writing, the character and plot will emerge. After that, I create a kind of rough direction, and keep moving.
Q:What do you like best about college teaching?

A: I like the practicality of teaching students how to write for different professional and academic situations. I help students prepare for careers in construction, or hospitality, or accounting. In the process, I get to learn about the communication demands of these different fields and work with professionals in these fields to create strong curriculum. Also, Communication classes tend to be small, 20 to 45 students, so I feel like I get to know them. There’s a great range of students in the college system. While most still come directly out of high school, there’s also a significant number of adults returning for second-career training, or getting Canadian credentials. It’s a fun job. Maybe the thing I like best is that I laugh a lot. This is maybe true for teaching in general, but in college it’s got to be a pre-requisite of the job: to have fun in class, to be able to laugh with students.

Q: What are some of the challenges you face in your current career?

A: Right now, my current career is a collage. That’s the challenge. I’m trying to write creatively and do some publicity for the novel, while teaching at college and doing freelance grant writing when possible. This means that income is not steady, so I have to “hustle” and keep an eye out for new opportunities.

Q: How has your post-secondary education, and particularly your graduate work in English and Cultural Studies, helped you in your current work?

A: I’m a better writer because of my graduate work. I’m also a more systematic writer than I used to be.

Q: What advice do you have for MA or PhD students and recent graduates who aspire to be published authors of fiction?

A: Okay, practical advice: Start working with a creative writing group that meets regularly. This forces you to produce, and if it’s a good group, you’ll learn from them. Ideally, you’ll gain enough confidence to send something out into the world. Less practical, but just as important: Know that self-doubt and uncertainty are part of the work. Just show up. That’s where it starts. (I’m telling myself this a lot these days.)

Q: What advice do you have for MA or PhD graduates who are interested in teaching in a college environment?

A: Apply! Colleges are always looking for new part-time Communications and Liberal Arts instructors. If you get a position, the most important thing is to figure out who your students are—how do they learn best, what do they need to learn from you, what motivates them? The material you’ll teach is likely simple—paragraph structure, grammar, tone—the challenge is in the teaching itself.

Thank you so much, Ailsa for such an interesting and informative interview. If you want to read more from Ailsa, she blogs at Ailsa has kindly agreed to be available by email to answer further questions fellow Mac English and CS grads and alumni may have about her career. You can reach Ailsa at ailsackay [at] gmail [dot] com.

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[…] at Work. The former features a few wonderful Q & As with PhDs, including ones with Liz Koblyk, Ailsa Kay, Erin Aspenliender, and Kathryn Allan; the latter takes a different approach: it introduces us to a […]

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