Author Archives: Tanya Rohrmoser

Romanticism, Then and Now, Now and Then

The Romantic world was a time of revolution, protest, politics – and climate change. With the release of his fascinating new book, Romantic Revelations author Chris Washington shares how, two-hundred years later, the focus remains anthropocentric.


The Romantic world I explore in Romantic Revelations was a time of climate change, particularly exemplified by 1816, “the year without a summer,” in which the Shelleys and Byron hunkered down in a chateau reading ghost stories and failing to write them. Well, except Mary of course who completed Frankenstein. It was also a time of revolution and protest although that was not the focus of my book. But a few recent developments with global implications for climate change seem to me to resonate with Romanticism as a mode of thinking in, with, and against the Anthropocene.

On October 31, 2018, a thousand plus members of the Extinction Rebellion collective assembled in London at Parliament Square to protest government inaction on climate change. Over the course of the next several weeks, dozens of arrests were made at multiple Extinction Rebellion stagings of civil disobedience.

And yet, for all the good climate change protests like Extinction Rebellion arguably do in continuing to bring attention to this urgent issue and to pressure governments to take action, stated aims and goals of such protests very often fail to include nonhumans as subjects of attention, care, preservation, and life. The focus remains anthropocentric: how do we save the human species from the result of its own self-death-dealing, from the destruction of the natural world that they have in fact destroyed? A certain species-wide narcissism seems to persist. We must save ourselves at all costs.

Consider then a new study of climate change that might temporally locate the Anthropocene elsewhen. Scientists at the University of Cambridge have shown how the genocidal settler colonialism of the Americas killed around 90% of the Indigenous population – 56 million people – and that Indigenous genocide produced other catastrophic results, including the drastic cooling of the earth’s climate that may be the inauguration of what we think of as contemporary climate change. Their study reminds us that not only may the history of the Anthropocene be different than we think but that we tend to think of climate change as the extinction of “we” humans as a collective, but it is also of course deeply linked to colonization, racism, sexism, ethnocentricism, and speciesism, affecting non-white euro-populations more drastically than “we” often take into account. And as another recent study finds, humans have killed off 60% of different animal populations in the last 50 years.

Romantic Revelations does not directly address either Extinction Rebellion (which occurred after its writing) or the genocide of Indigenous peoples. However, the book does speak to such events.

Romanticism offers a radical hospitality, a kind of ethos perhaps, that we desperately need to adjust to and attempt to survive in the Anthropocene. This hospitality demonstrates a need not for a politics based on democratic equality, but rather for a new type of social living arrangement that affords equality to all humans and nonhumans on the basis of difference. To put it in terms of the ongoing climate change protest movements of today, Romanticism resists calls for a universalized humanity. It asks us instead to recognize differences amongst humans and to accept those differences in an intersectional fashion that invites others in precisely because of difference, precisely because difference should be celebrated. The radical hospitality of Romanticism seeks to multiply difference rather than cling to the dangerous belief in this thing called a “human.”

Mary Shelley’s second novel, The Last Man (1826), opens onto similar problems of extinction and climate change. In the book, straggles of leftover humans sludge through a world devastated by plague and pestilence. While the novel appears to aggressively inhabit and propose a kind of nihilism, I find such texts to be hopeful. Because it is only when all hope is lost, when there is no hope, that hope can emerge – that, after all, is the nature of hope. Post-apocalyptic Romanticism, in other words, is ultimately about happy endings. Or so it is if we heed the call of hospitality, especially towards those nonhumans who we overlook in our narcissism-fueled climate discussions and everyday practices of full-throttle capitalistic consumption. Given that these same practices are what created the crisis in the first place, it appears that our rapacious eating of animals, say, needs to stop. It may well be, even, that the only way to save ourselves is to save those who cannot save themselves.

Hospitality of this Romantic sort is also, then, a kind of love towards the other, a love that can extend to collectives or to interpersonal relationships. Consider, for instance, this nonhuman vignette. Two insects from 54 million years ago found preserved in amber, preserved in an embrace, a final act of loving and love, a preservation, perhaps, of their love? Except we don’t know whether they are in love. Maybe to assume so is to anthropomorphize them. We don’t know anything about them other than that they are suspended in an act of reproduction that does not reproduce. Perhaps this amber tableau offers a metaphor for humans as well. While we may think we are reproducing a human species for the future the truth is there may be no future for humans. It would seem a wise reminder that we should love each other now, while we can, before our fate is sealed in amber.


Chris Washington is Assistant Professor of English at Francis Marion University, and the author of Romantic Revelations: Visions of Post-Apocalyptic Life and Hope in the Anthropocene.

Finding Our Way: The Future of Canada’s China Strategy

Amidst rising tensions over trade and technology, Living with China author Wendy Dobson’s curiosity changed to alarm as she watched Canada get caught up in the growing antagonism between its two largest trading partners. Learn what led to her new book – and why she’s urging Canadians to up their game with a solid strategy.


Living with China is the latest in a series that began in 2009 with Gravity Shift, an examination of the long-term impacts of rapid growth in India and China. Canadians are the target audience and Canada’s relationship with China is the current focus. My initial motivation was curiosity about future directions in Asia that the new US administration might take. Curiosity quickly changed to alarm as Canada was caught up in the growing antagonism between the United States and China, its two largest trading partners. Long accustomed to a US-dominated unipolar world, Canada lacks a comprehensive strategy for living with an increasingly assertive China whose growing political and economic prominence in our future is a strategic reality.

Since 2013, when Xi Jinping became President and General Secretary of the Party, he has made it clear that China will follow its own path of authoritarian capitalism even as China becomes more active in the liberal international order. He has inserted Party control deeply into China’s economic life even at the expense of openness, growth, and employment goals.  

These competing goals have created significant tensions between market and state. Since 2017 the Party has responded to demands from the rapidly-growing middle class for more material and social gains. It has rebalanced policy to rely less on industrial growth and more on service-based, consumer-oriented growth. But the Party-state faces growing pressures from the US administration, which sees China as a strategic rival whose rising economic and political prominence it aims to thwart despite their deep interdependence. There are internal constraints as well. China’s technological and industrial innovation, which is essential to sustained growth, is constrained by the mixed signals sent by China’s authoritarian economic policies. Xi Jinping’s Made in China 2025 advanced manufacturing strategy relies on state-led directives and funding that dominate state-owned enterprises’ (SOEs) incentive frameworks at the expense of riskier private, market-led, bottom-up innovations. Further, recent evidence of declining productivity growth in non-state enterprises relative to SOEs reflects shrinking support for market liberalization that could undermine China’s long-term economic potential.

Canadian policy should take account of such tensions and their implications. As a middle power, Canada is acutely aware of being a policy taker in the diplomatic freeze following the US extradition request for Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou in late 2018. A comprehensive strategy for living with China should aim for coexistence and pursuit of mutual opportunities, yet be prepared to take stands to manage differences in values, norms, and institutions. The policy debate about Huawei’s 5G capabilities and related security concerns should be part of the evolving strategy of permitting trade to continue in non-sensitive items but imposing selective bans on sensitive equipment and processes. Even so, there will be a price to pay as Huawei and other Chinese enterprises expand into non-western markets and redouble their efforts to become self-sufficient in such key imported components as semiconductors.

Canada’s China strategy should adhere to principles that include (a) recognition of the fundamental reset underway in the US-China relationship from engagement to strategic rivalry, (b) a stated commitment to maintain open relationships with both protagonists, and (c) cooperation with like-minded governments to push the merits of coexistence and reciprocity. The strategy should be transparent and led from the top. It should recognize that many Canadians are unfamiliar with China, a shortcoming that could be addressed in part by measures such as more civic and educational exchanges and by White Paper policy studies like those used by Australians in the past two decades.

The China strategy should protect national sovereignty and national security in the uncertain international environment. Huawei’s funding of digital research in Canadian institutions has raised concerns about cybersecurity and protection of intellectual property. It underlines the importance of managing the relationships among security, trade, and investment. Canada should also become a more active player with middle powers in Asia to develop shared views and interests in regional security. Pushing for a multilateral governance structure in telecommunications that China would be attracted to join could be timely and helpful.

When bilateral tensions ease, efforts should continue to build on the strong complementarities between Chinese interests in secure supplies of food and natural resources and Canada’s abundant supplies. Trade talks are also hampered by the diplomatic freeze and by restrictions imposed in the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) on FTAs with planned economies. Sectoral talks are an alternative. They could begin with liberalization in sectors such as clean tech where there is a high level of common interest and then move to more difficult topics as part of a ”living” agreement that promotes liberalization but allows exceptions for politically sensitive sectors.

Another key strategic issue is China’s growing assertiveness as its influence grows. While bilateral engagement and accommodation are the strategic goals, it may be necessary to form multilateral alliances among governments and coalitions of civil society and the media. These alliances would make it possible to push back against Chinese influence and diversify trade in order to avoid heavy dependence on Chinese imports and civil exchanges.

Normalizing Canada’s relationship with China is unlikely in the short term. Multilateral pressures on China are desirable to adopt laws consistent with global standards. Group pressures on both China and the United States are desirable to promote coexistence rather than the current zero-sum rivalry. All of these strategic elements will take time to develop and follow through. As other middle powers have found, living with China requires focus, patience, and determination.


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Wendy Dobson is the Co-Director at Rotman Institute for International Business and a professor emerita of Economic Analysis and Policy.

Becoming a Writer of Jewish Fiction

Can a novel be taught as history? Author Sharon Hart-Green shares her experience as a writer of Jewish fiction, and argues that fiction readers not only acquire factual knowledge, but emotional affinity. Here’s why her poignant new novel belongs in classrooms this fall.


I must admit that before writing Come Back for Me, I felt a sense of trepidation about writing a Holocaust novel. Since neither my parents nor grandparents are Holocaust survivors, I did not believe that I had the “right” to do so. At the same time, I was caught between two opposing pulls: the feeling of obligation to somehow give voice to those who were brutally murdered, and the knowledge that no book could ever do justice to what they suffered. How could I possibly resolve what seemed to be an impossible dilemma?

I believe that I was able to negotiate a solution to this impasse by taking what I would call an “indirect” approach:  writing about the lingering effects of the Holocaust on two generations of Jewish families, rather than trying to write directly about the Holocaust itself. Since I had grown up in a neighbourhood full of Holocaust survivors and their children, I felt well equipped to undertake this task. This allowed me to explore the event through the experiences of those who survived as well as how it affected their offspring. History, after all, is composed of many layers of experience, and if I could approach it from this indirect angle, then perhaps I would be able to unearth some truths about it that could not be otherwise revealed.

Indeed, one of the most effective ways to teach about history is through fiction. Why? Because fiction beckons the reader to enter another person’s life – to “live” that life on an emotional level – even if only for a short while. That is not to underestimate the value of learning from history books as well; to be sure, reading about the rise and fall of great leaders and analyzing the causes and effects of historical change is vital. However, historians rarely tell stories about ordinary people. Fiction has the unique ability to draw a reader into the personal life of everyday individuals. In fact, this might be the best way for readers to learn most deeply about a historical period. When reading about characters from other eras, they not only acquire factual knowledge, but also emotional affinity.

Yet teaching about the Holocaust through the use of fiction is a particularly complex matter, partly because the enormity of the Holocaust itself makes it a difficult subject to convey in any form. How can any of us fathom that it was only seventy-five years ago that a regime arose which attempted to systematically murder every man, woman, and child of Jewish descent in all of Europe? The victim toll alone is so massive that most people who read statistics like “six million” can barely grasp what that means.

However, I think that if a work of Holocaust fiction is written with historical accuracy, it can serve as an invaluable resource for teaching about this dark period, especially in schools. By this I mean that a writer of fiction must be absolutely unwavering in representing the brutal facts of this event before taking on this task. I say this because some novelists in recent years have tried to commercialize the Holocaust, and in doing so, misrepresent it, sometimes in grossly distorted ways. For example, there have been some novels that inject elements of romance into their storylines in order to make their plots more exciting. (The Tatooist of Auschwitz is only one such example.) What does this convey to the reader? It gives the impression that the Holocaust “wasn’t all that bad,” which of course is not only a contemptible distortion of history but it also trivializes the suffering of the victims.

I hope that writers continue to write fiction about the Holocaust – about the factors leading up to it, the people who were destroyed by it, and the world that allowed it to happen. My main hope however is that they do so with caution and with a deep sense of duty to represent it with accuracy. It is the least we as writers can offer as a gesture of respect to those who perished.


Sharon Hart-Green has taught Hebrew and Yiddish literature at the University of Toronto. Her short stories, poems, translations, and articles have appeared in a number of publications. Come Back for Me is her first novel.

Work Your Career: How Can I Be Productive?

As summer winds down, are you prepared to tackle the term? Work Your Career authors Loleen Berdahl and Jonathan Malloy share an excerpt from their helpful guide, offering practical advice on how you can get (and stay) organized.


Excerpt taken from Work Your Career, by Loleen Berdahl and Jonathan Malloy. 

Professionalism means doing what you say you will do and by when you say you will do it. You cement your professional reputation by getting things done—and done well, on or ahead of schedule. This requires the ability to manage time, resources, and energy to make this happen, over and over. By carefully managing your time and your projects, you will be more thorough, meet deadlines, and avoid accidentally missing steps.

Most productivity and time management tips are written for business audiences. The target reader works at a desk managing projects with clear, looming deadlines and has a boss who is highly interested in the worker delivering something (reports, analyses, new code, corporate strategies, etc.) by a specific date. No deliverable, no profit, and soon no job for the employee. These books tend to assume that the reader needs more time—sweet, uninterrupted blocks of time—to work on something with clear parameters and built-in boundaries.

PhD students face a very different challenge. While taking classes, you have various paper deadlines to balance and possible teaching or research assistant responsibilities. After classes are done, you are trying to coordinate reading literature with dissertation-related writing, more teaching or research work, a panel that you are organizing, and so on. But these responsibilities are typically done within a context of large amounts of unstructured time. The illusion of abundant time can be overwhelming, and the projects themselves get more challenging. Scholarly life is full of theoretical and empirical rabbit holes and blind alleys that can drain your time and energy. Again, dissertations in the social sciences and humanities lean toward the model of “go away and think,” and students are provided with limited direct guidance and supervision. Not only is this a route to inefficiency and years of drift, it also undermines the building of professional habits and demeanour.

Deliberately building project management skills increases your prospects for career success. And like other aspects of professionalism, it requires careful attention. Fulfilling your project commitments, and doing so in a way that allows you to retain some degree of quality of life, won’t necessarily happen naturally. Four basic steps that you tailor to your personal energy patterns and circumstances can ensure that you are achieving your goals while maintaining quality of life.

Step 1: Make a list of what needs to be done

Quite often, people try to just keep everything straight in their heads. The problem is that it is easy to forget things or to remember them inaccurately. The solution is simple: To determine what needs to be done, you need to get organized by writing a list of everything you have committed to and the associated deadlines.

“Wait,” you might be saying, “this is rather obvious.” Of course it is. But just like “eat right and exercise” is obvious but frequently ignored advice for healthy living, the practice of listing commitments and deadlines remains a habit that many PhD students have yet to adopt. If you have already done so, good for you: You have our full permission to enjoy a well-deserved sense of self-satisfaction. For our more mortal readers, let’s get down to business. Start with a large “brain dump” of commitments for a specific time period. (The academic semester is a good place to start.) Are you taking classes? If so, check each class syllabus and then list all of the readings, papers, exams, lab projects, presentations, and other class tasks, noting the associated dates. Are you working as a teaching assistant? Again, check the class syllabus and list all of the class tutorials, exam dates, paper dates, and other TA-related responsibilities and their dates. Are you working as a research assistant? Working on a conference paper? Do you have committee responsibilities? Other responsibilities that we have failed to mention? Do your best to think of everything you have to do over a specified time period, and then scan both your calendar and your email to see if there is anything you have missed. The more complete your list, the better. List complete? Excellent. Now just reorganize the list by due date and you have a clear picture of what needs to be done.

What do I do if I have taken on too much?

Feeling overwhelmed is awful. The panic in your chest, the feeling that you are going to let people down, that you will need to do nothing but work and more work for weeks or months, the associated anxiety and insomnia … It is the worst. And the fears that are associated with it are often well based: If you are someone who fails to meet commitments, who is constantly behind on timelines and long on excuses, it reflects poorly on your professionalism. At a certain point people may start to perceive you as either unreliable, incompetent, or both.

If the amount you have on your plate is not realistic relative to the time available, you need to identify where you can make changes. Are there any committed times that could be reduced? Is working fewer hours in your part-time job, or getting help with family responsibilities, or reducing commute times an option? (You may be tempted to cut back on sleep, fitness, or personal hygiene. Please don’t.) Chances are good that your ability to make change in the committed time part of the equation is quite low. So then you must ask, are there any projects on your list that you don’t really need to do at this point in time? Or are there some steps within the projects that can be removed or streamlined?

Ideally, you can solve your overload problem well in advance: You can tell people that you will need to decline a particular opportunity for now, or that you will need to have someone work with you to complete it, or that you will do it for a later deadline. These conversations can require a certain degree of bravery, but it is better to be upfront with people as early as possible rather than disappoint or anger them at a later stage. On the plus side, the discomfort of disentangling yourself from overcommitment may serve you well in the long run as you instinctively avoid taking on too much in the future.

As we have said at several points in this book, be attuned to your mental health and wellness. Seek balance and support networks; check in regularly with a counsellor or other source of assistance. Everyone feels stressed and overwhelmed sometimes; learn to ask for help in identifying when it is too much, and seek the support you need.

Step 2: Break activities down into smaller tasks, distinguishing between high- and low-energy tasks

Start with the list that you created in step 1. Now look carefully to see how you can break the items down into discrete tasks. For example, the paper due on October 31 requires numerous individual steps to complete it: creating an outline, searching the library database for relevant sources, reading these sources, writing a first draft, editing the draft, writing a second draft, completing the bibliography, and so forth. This detailed list allows you to create target completion dates to keep you on track and, importantly, to manage your time and energy strategically.

When you look at the more detailed list, it should be apparent that some tasks (such as writing, reading, or data analysis) must be done when you are at your peak, and other tasks (such as editing a bibliography) can be done when your energy levels are lower. By clearly labelling tasks as high or low energy, you can strategically assign the high-energy tasks to those time periods during which you are usually highly productive, creative, and energetic, and assign the low-energy tasks to the times when you are usually a bit spent out. (At this point in your life, you probably have a good idea of which times are which for you; if you are not sure, just pay attention to your energy levels for a few days.) Your goal is to protect your high-energy periods for high-energy work, and restrict all low-energy work and other activities (like dental appointments and coffee meetings) to low-energy times; to do this, you need to clearly label the tasks.

Step 3: Block work time into your calendar

The trick to getting things done (and done well and on time) is to schedule the work times into your calendar and to respect these times. Remember, an unstructured schedule and its illusion of endless time is your enemy; imposing structure on your days is necessary. Doing so is simple:

1. Block off all committed times (classes, work hours, commute times, sleep, fitness, family responsibilities, etc.) in your calendar.

2. For each task and project, estimate the number of hours you will need. Because most things take longer than you assume, and to provide cushion in case of unanticipated events (illness, transit strikes, broken water heaters, etc.), increase this number by 50 per cent.

3. Working back from the deadline, schedule task-specific working time in your calendar, assigning high-energy tasks to the high-energy time slots.

Now, in doing this process, you may be prone to optimism (“I don’t need to increase the project hours. My original estimates are realistic.”). We understand. But imagine—just as a thought exercise— that we are right that things tend to take longer than anticipated and that life sometimes throws curveballs. Blocking the extra time into your calendar allows you to quickly identify if you have taken on too much and then make needed adjustments. Of course, if your original estimates are accurate, there is risk of turning down opportunities that you could have completed. For this reason, we suggest that you treat the thought exercise as just that. But if your gut is telling you that you might have taken on too much, respect that and proceed cautiously.

Be strategic in how you enter things into your calendar. It is imperative that you save your high-quality times for high-quality tasks. The most important thing to schedule is your writing time. Social science and humanities doctoral programs involve a lot of writing: Most courses involve written assignments, and after courses are done there is (in most traditional programs) the dissertation proposal, the dissertation itself, and other writing that you seek to complete. Writing should therefore be paramount in your schedule, and we strongly suggest regularly scheduled short writing sessions (e.g., every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 9 to 11 a.m., or every Monday to Friday from 1 to 2 p.m.). This approach, admittedly, goes against the typical academic binge-writing style, in which the author procrastinates and then completes all the writing tasks within a large block of time, like a second-year student cramming for a final exam. To be sure, there can be a time for binge writing. But like binge eating and binge television watching, it has both short-term satisfactions and long-term consequences, and inevitably the former exceed the latter. Regularly scheduled writing may not fully eliminate the need for occasional binge writing, but it can reduce it (and the associated stress) dramatically.

To make the best use of high-energy time, you need to consciously batch together low-quality tasks (e.g., getting books from library, checking citations and bibliographies) and commit to addressing them only during low-energy periods in the day. Email in particular can suck up time and energy with little payoff. Make a decision to file email into a batch folder that you will address at a prescheduled low-energy time; during your high-quality work times respond only to email that, if not addressed immediately, may result in someone bursting into flames.

How can I take advantage of unexpected time?

Most weeks include a fair bit of relatively useless time. Sometimes this time is structured into your schedule (commuting time or time sitting on the pool deck while your child takes a swim class) and at other points it is unanticipated (time waiting outside your supervisor’s office because his department meeting is running long). Sometimes it can be good to just stop, take a breath, and relax looking at online cat videos (so cute!). But sometimes it is nice to make use of this time, and you can plan ahead for these opportunities by ensuring your writing projects are accessible through the mobile device you are undoubtedly carrying. The three-minute note here and the five-minute idea there will actually add up to paragraphs, and the perennially growing file creates within you a sense that the project is moving, while eliminating the frustrating “start up” time that can occur if you don’t work on a project regularly. If you adopt this practice, you will start to see small windows of time as bonus time. A friend is late to meet you for coffee? Great, you can edit your introduction! Your child has a 30-minute gymnastics class that you sit through every Monday night? Awesome, you can aim to write 150 words each time. This approach needs to be tempered; you should never feel that every second must be used efficiently. But if you can tackle some tasks during found time, you can free up more time for other things in the future. Which, we must stress, could include a run by the river, or beer with a friend.

Step 4: Work your calendar

Ah, plans. Like fitness schedules and New Year’s resolutions, making them is the easy part. But the execution, well, that takes discipline. And this is where the difference between the professionals and the others shows itself.

Scheduled writing is often the most challenging commitment to keep—which is ironic, since this single activity is most associated with a PhD student’s success (or lack thereof). Honouring your scheduled writing commitment as much as you would honour a class, meeting, or other work obligation is the sign of a true professional. But it can be hard: While thinking about writing is exhilarating, and reflecting on completed writing is satisfying, the in-between period—you know, the actual writing—invokes a broad array of emotions, not all of which are pleasant. As well, the more theoretical and interpretive your work is, the more likely it is that writing is the primary or even sole activity itself, as opposed to gathering and analyzing empirical, documentary, or archival data and then writing about it, making writing even more paralyzing.

Many writing problems occur because people are trying to plan, write, and edit simultaneously. To get around this, start with a clear outline and then focus your daily efforts on small units within the outline. Allow yourself to put ideas in point form, making notes to yourself in the draft to be dealt with at a later time (e.g., “insert three to four sentences about Jones et al. here,” “add citations”). Avoid the temptation to edit as you go along so that your creative thoughts, which will generate the innovative ideas that matter to your work and your discipline, are not impaired by your more critical editorial thoughts. Aim to get a full first draft completed before you turn to editing the work. The more you focus on small sections and just getting ideas down, the more your writing time can actually be allocated to … writing.

Working your writing time—treating it like the heart of your job—is key to your professional success. It can be tempting to schedule something else in the writing time slot “just this once,” or to fail to use the time wisely when you are in it. And it can be tempting to use low-quality tasks as “short” breaks during your productive periods (“this paragraph isn’t really going anywhere … I’ll work on my passport renewal form”). Remember that tasks expand to fill the time available, and the task might end up killing your productivity for the day. The small writing time investments add up to significant results. And the more frequently one does something, the easier it becomes, as both the runner and the smoker can attest. Use the power of habit and routine to your advantage. To further your progress, consider establishing a writing group that provides support and creates a sense of accountability.

Making it a practice to repeat these four steps will develop your professional image. You will get projects done on time, giving others the sense that you are on top of things and take your work seriously. People will notice that you are organized and competent, and they will respect you for this. Plus, you will have time to join them for a squash game or coffee.


Loleen Berdahl is Professor at the University of Saskatchewan, and co-author of Work Your Career: Get What You Want from Your Social Sciences or Humanities PhD.

Jonathan Malloy is Professor at Carleton University, and co-author of Work Your Career: Get What You Want from Your Social Sciences or Humanities PhD.

Life’s Negotiable: College as Negotiation

With the back to school season approaching, The Bartering Mindset author Brian Gunia shares how thinking about college as a negotiation can help you navigate everything from new roommates to getting help with that tough assignment. Here’s how.


People don’t typically think of college as a negotiation. Just like other aspects of life, though, it is – actually a bunch of them. And just like other aspects of life, thinking of it that way can make life negotiable.

With the back-to-school season approaching, let’s unpack what in the world I’m talking about and why it matters. In particular, let’s consider the following five situations commonly faced by a college student and why it might help to think of them as negotiations, defined here as discussions with interdependent parties to resolve partially conflicting goals:

1. Dividing the labor. The seemingly omnipresent group project almost automatically necessitates a discussion about who will do what. Though students might think of such discussions as purely collaborative – and hopefully they are! – they’re negotiations insofar as anyone’s preferences don’t perfectly align – and typically they don’t! Thinking of these discussions as negotiations should help you, the college student, build on points of disagreement, particularly by finding ways to ensure everyone’s at least sharing the load through tasks they find manageable or worthy of learning.

2. Setting the rules. Anyone who’s ever lived with a roommate – or several – knows that a common room or house does not guarantee a common set of assumptions about appropriate behavior. An open discussion of the obvious flashpoints before they flash, however, should help to prevent any flashing from happening – or at least provide a common reference point when it does.

3. Negotiating work-life balance. College students are notoriously stressed by the competing demands of work and life. But achieving work-life balance really involves negotiating thoughtfully with yourself. Thinking of it that way can prevent you from driving yourself crazy.

4. Negotiating fair terms. Fellow professors, please forgive me. But you, the student, should consider yourself entitled to certain basic benefits from all of us (or at least our TAs). A non-exhaustive list might include an accurate syllabus, clear teaching, assistance with tough concepts, explanations of grading decisions, and referrals to additional resources if needed. (Please note the conspicuous absence of “the grade you want.”) If you’re not getting what you reasonably deserve, though, you might consider the situation a negotiation, though you might omit that term from the conversation with your professor.

5. Requesting course assistance. The bad thing about college is that some courses seem impossible. The good thing about college is that different students consider different courses impossible. If you need some help from a particular course guru, don’t miss the opportunity to ask. By the same token, if you happen to be the course guru yourself, don’t hesitate to help. In the first case, they’ll surely make a reciprocal request later. In the second, you’ll make the request – or at least you’ll make yourself a friend or earn yourself a root beer. You might not think of such requests as negotiations. But trades like these actually lie at the heart of negotiation, as described in my negotiation book, The Bartering Mindset.

To conclude, it’s probably reasonable to think about college as a big bundle of negotiations. Since you go to college to educate yourself anyway, why not treat your college years as one big opportunity to learn negotiation too?


Brian C. Gunia is Associate Professor at the Carey Business School, Johns Hopkins University, and the author of The Bartering Mindset: A Mostly Forgotten Framework for Mastering Your Next Negotiation.