In Memory – École Polytechnique, Dec. 6, 1989

UofA Memorial

UofA Memorial

For women in engineering, things changed forever when their lives were stolen:  Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, Barbara Daigneault, Anne-Marie Edward, Maud Haviernick, Maryse Laganière, Maryse Leclair, Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier, Michèle Richard,  Annie St-Arneault, Annie Turcotte, and Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz.

On November 1, 1989, I started my job as the first female tenure track professor in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Alberta –  the only woman in a faculty of about 140 male professors.  That was just 23 years ago –  unbelievable for one of Canada’s largest universities.  Of course, when you wrap your brain around the fact that just 90 years ago women were considered property, and not even allowed to vote, I guess maybe it’s not all that surprising.

To say  I was an oddity would probably be an understatement.  I can remember being interviewed on radio and in the newspaper.  I can remember going to engineering faculty council and being totally intimidated as the only woman in a meeting with 140 men.  I can remember going to the faculty Christmas party and having many people ask me which of the professors was my husband.  I can remember getting a call from one of those professor’s wives inviting me to join the engineering wives for tea on Wednesday afternoons – and I remember that she was amazed when I said I couldn’t because I had a lab to teach at that time.   I can remember the Dean asking me to give a lecture to the entire first year engineering class of 600+ students (probably 90% men), so that they would all have at least one lecture from a woman professor during their 4 year program.  (One lecture out of thousands…  pretty sad.) I can remember being mistaken for a secretary by professors, graduate students and undergraduates on a daily basis.  I can remember being treated like a ‘second-class’ professor by secretaries.  And barely one month into the job I can remember the darkest day ever for women in engineering.

Just after 4 pm on December 6, 1989 a man carrying a semi-automatic rifle entered the École Polytechnique in Montreal, Canada and shot dozens of people.  He killed fourteen…  all women…  most were engineering students.  In the 23 years since, these women have been remembered each December in memorial ceremonies at engineering schools across Canada and around the world.  In the first few years I was actually afraid to attend these ceremonies, for fear that someone else would take the opportunity to mimic this horrible act.

Probably every Canadian who remembers, or knows about, this event could name the murderer, but sadly few would be able to name even one of his victims.  So I will name them here – but I will not name him.  Never him.  The fourteen women who lost their lives that day were:  Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, Barbara Daigneault, Anne-Marie Edward, Maud Haviernick, Maryse Laganière, Maryse Leclair, Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier, Michèle Richard, Annie St-Arneault, Annie Turcotte, and Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz.

Did their deaths have meaning? Of course not.  It was a senseless act of violence against women.  Did it make a difference?  Undoubtedly.  Perhaps not in terms of invoking better gun control laws as many (including me) might have hoped, but in terms of changing the school and working environment for women in engineering – absolutely.  Here are the things that vanished from my work world:

  • Godiva rides during engineering week – in my undergraduate days  (~1980), this actually involved driving a topless stripper through campus on the back of a pickup truck. (They didn’t even have the class to use a horse!)  Some years later they were still doing this at my graduate school – they had the girl on a horse, but faked the nudity.
  • Objectification of women in lectures – it was a routine practice to slip the occasional slide of naked or scantily dressed women into engineering lectures (and instructional movies) – to keep the men in the audience attentive.
  • Beauty (princess) pageants – this was still a big part of engineering week at my graduate university up until 1989.
  • Nude women on posters and calendars – these were ubiquitous in engineering labs and offices – both on and off campus – right up until the late 1980s.
  • Sexual harassment of women in engineering – until at least the early 80s it was commonplace for male students to pinch or slap women on the backside, or to ‘goose’ them – for example as they leaned over to look through a survey instrument.  The practice among older men in the profession to make sexually suggestive remarks to female colleagues and students was still common in the later 80s.

It’s sad to think that in the late 1980s women in engineering were still expected to put up with so many of these humiliating practices and attitudes.  Most women engineers would have never even considered speaking out against them – lest they be branded “feminist” – a very dirty word indeed in those days – at least in engineering circles.  We engineering women strove to ‘fly under the radar’, to ‘not make waves’, lest we wear out our welcome (such as it was) in the engineering world.

The massacre at the École Polytechnique on December 6, 1989 was unquestionably the turning point in changing these  attitudes – it caused a complete paradigm shift, at least in the engineering schools across Canada.  The murderer was a self-proclaimed anti-feminist, and so for men to continue to harbour these antiquated attitudes immediately invoked a comparison to this murderer’s attitudes and thus (by default) his actions.  And so it finally became unfashionable to be chauvinistic in one of the last bastions of male chauvinism.  As a result, women were no longer reluctant to complain about chauvinistic practices in engineering.

I’m sure it would be little consolation to the victims or their families to know that this massacre forever changed the work and school environment for women in engineering for the better.  But as one of the women in engineering who has benefited immensely by those changes – I will forever honour these women in my memory.  Ladies – you will never be forgotten – and your loss will forever be mourned.

© Faye Hicks 2009, 2012

Posted in Random Thoughts, Work life | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

What to expect at a Pitch Slam with literary agents

I was in LA for a writers’ conference a couple of weeks ago and the big event of the weekend was the Pitch Slam. For those of you who aren’t aware of what this is – or what’s involved – here’s the description, quoted from the conference organizer’s web site:


You’ll sit down for three-minute sessions with as many agents as you can fit into ninety minutes. For the first 90 seconds with each agent, you’ll describe what you’re writing and why you think it will be successful (that’s your pitch). For the second 90 seconds, the agent will provide immediate, unbiased feedback on your work and your pitch, including invaluable suggestions for improving it. And if an agent gives you his or her business card, jackpot! That’s a request to see more of your work, and could lead to signing with an agent and publication of your book.”

I had no idea what to expect at this event, other than what I gleaned from the description above, and a few tips from the same website, including the following:


Practice your pitch ahead of time. If you’ve never had to develop a pitch or “elevator speech” for your writing, this is a great opportunity to develop a succinct, compelling description of what makes your work unique and desirable. Write it out, and then practice your pitch with a timer to make sure you stay within the 90-second limit. The time enforcers at the Pitch Slam will be strict!”

Naturally I was desperate for more info and advice, so I did some searching on the internet – to try to get a better idea of what to expect and how to prepare. Surprisingly, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of info out there describing what actually happens at these events. Here’s the best of what I did find:

Dawn’s Rise – Writer’s Digest ’11 Conference Report: This blog post provides a bit of insight regarding the Pitch Slam experience, but I must admit – I got a lot more out of it after experiencing a Pitch Slam myself – she really captures the feeling of it.

Falling Leaflets – Pitch Slam Summary Twitter Style:  This blog post provides some snippets of advice from the agents tweeted during and after a pitch slam.  (Wow! How on earth did agents have time to dictate tweets during a pitch slam?)

In terms of preparing for the Pitch Slam – the best advice I found was on the WriteSideways blog in this post called, “How to Slam Dunk Your 90-Second Pitch

However – that was about it – perhaps if you know of any other useful sites, you could comment below to help those facing this same quest in the future.  With that same goal in mind – let me tell you about my own experience at the Writer’s Digest Pitch Slam in LA in October 2012.  That way, hopefully, you will go into your first Pitch Slam with a much better idea of what to expect than I did.

First off – to keep it ‘real’ – let’s look at some numbers.

How many agents can I expect to see?

At the event I attended there were 18 agents and the session lasted 90 minutes.  The registration was limited to 250 participants.  If you do the math, assuming that there would be an even distribution of interest across all agents, that’s about 6.5 minutes of ‘agent time’ per person.  Yep – that’s just 6.5 minutes out of 90 – the rest of the time you can expect to spend waiting in line. Given that you get 3 minutes (maximum) with each agent – you should expect to see two in that 90 minute period.  This was exactly my experience.

Here’s a tip for you though… something I wish I had known.  You have to line up to get into this thing (obviously) and (here’s the news) you have to get there incredibly early!  I went 30 minutes ahead of time and was more than halfway back in the lineup of ~250 people when the doors finally opened.  I didn’t get a chance to ask the people at the front, but I would guess they were there at least an hour early. (Of course, this means that they didn’t get to attend the regular conference sessions ahead of that.)  Once the Pitch Slam session got underway, I heard a few of these people saying that they saw 3 or 4 agents – so it definitely pays to get into that line-up an hour or more ahead of time.

There were two Pitch Slam sessions back to back – that’s 3 hours total for the agents.  I chose the first session because I had heard that the agents get burnt out by the second session. However, there were fewer people signed up for the second session and so I suspect that each person got to see one or two more agents than those of us in the first session. We were actually given the option to switch to the second session as we were waiting in line – had I known just how crazy it was going to be in that room – I would have definitely taken the offer to switch.


Just how crazy is it in that room?

Again let’s look at some numbers. The room we were in was 44’ x 60’ or 2640 sq. ft.   There were 18 agents seated at tables around the perimeter of the room, in a strip about 4 to 5 ft deep.  There was also something large in one corner (I think it was a screen), and a table with the PA equipment on it in another corner.  These furnishings left an area of, perhaps, about 2000 ft2 in the centre of the room for ~250 people, which averages out to about 2 ft of spacing available between each person. There was actually considerably less than 2 ft of space directly in front and back of people as they lined up and perhaps a few inches more, side to side, between the lines. In fact, the room already looked full as I entered – I couldn’t tell where any of the line-ups began or ended. By the time we all got in there, it was total bedlam.  It was so crowded that the noise level was deafening.  The organizers appealed to people in line to be quiet – so that the agents could hear the pitches – but they were totally ignored.  I was focused on mentally rehearsing my pitch and didn’t talk myself, but I can’t really blame those that did.  Boredom won out as they waited for 83.5 out of those 90 minutes and they talked incessantly – mostly about how ticked off they were at the anarchy in the room and the fact that they were only going to get to see two agents.

I think that if the organizers had spent the money to get a properly sized room, (realistically, about twice that size) – the event would have been considerably more effective, fair, and comfortable for all concerned.

What was it like talking to the agents?

Okay, so those are the numbers but what about the actual experience of talking to the agents?  Well, again, it was absolutely nothing like the description provided by the organizers (reproduced above).  For example, I did not get to pitch for 90 seconds, nor was there any ‘strict time enforcement’ at the end of 90 seconds to cut off the pitches.  Both of the agents that I saw cut me off after the first sentence of my pitch.  The first one stopped me to say that she wasn’t interested in my genre, which surprised me because I had researched her areas of interest, but it turned out that she wasn’t interested in my sub-genre.  Fair enough – no point wasting our time at that point – but gosh I wish I hadn’t wasted 20 minutes waiting in her line. The second one interrupted me to start asking questions about my story.  I don’t think that being interrupted was necessarily a bad thing in either case – but I sure wish I hadn’t spent a ton of time honing that pitch that I never got to use. (And I had that sucker down to exactly 88 seconds!)    I don’t know if any of the other agents were actually letting people do their 90 second pitch but, as I waited my 83.5 minutes in line, I heard a lot of people grumbling about the fact that they were interrupted after only a sentence or two of their pitch.


And how did it turn out?

Well – here’s another place where the reality diverted from the information provided.  Of course, I got no feedback on my pitch because I never got to deliver it.  Also I don’t think getting a business card was necessarily a ‘jackpot’; as I waited in line, I saw one agent giving out cards to almost every person they met. Of course, I didn’t get a business card, nor 3 minutes, from the first agent I saw. In fact, that’s another thing that didn’t match the info provided.  True, there was a bell at the end of each 3 minutes but neither of the agents that I saw was adhering to it.  Many people – like me – left the table of one agent or another within 15 to 30 seconds, which meant the 3 minute intervals, and the bell, were immediately irrelevant.

The second agent that I met asked some strange questions and had me tongue-tied in about 30 seconds – in particular, she liked the premise of my story but said that it could be very hard to execute well. She thought it would likely have too much narration – which, she explained, can get boring.  I know that, but what could I say other than it doesn’t, and it isn’t?  She smiled, looked doubtful, and told me to email her a couple of scenes.  No card thought – she just pointed to her name tag. I saw her make the same gesture to a couple of people ahead of me and heard several people reporting the same result as they came away from her table.  When I checked her web site, I found that there’s no way to contact her directly – you just have to submit to a generic company address.

In the end I was left wondering at the value of this experience.  About half the people around me were buzzing about the fact that they had gotten cards from the agents they saw and/or had been asked to submit scenes – but in reality, were all of these people actually going to be remembered later on when they emailed in their samples?  The other half were grumbling about getting interrupted after the first line of their pitch – something I too found frustrating, primarily because I spent so much time preparing something I didn’t get to use. However, could it be that our pitches just weren’t good enough and thus invited interruption?  I’d be really interested to know if anyone did get to deliver their entire pitch uninterrupted and if anyone actually got feedback on their pitch. Many people were complaining about the fact that they were only going to get to see two agents.  Personally, I don’t feel ripped off about that, I had worked out the numbers ahead of time and expected that would be the case, though I do wish I’d known to line up an hour early – I might have seen 3 agents instead of just 2.

Overall, I just wish that I’d been better informed about what to expect – which was my motivation in writing this post.  I hope someone out there finds it helpful.  I’d be really interested to hear if anyone actually got an agent out of this (or any) Pitch Slam. If you did – please post a comment below to give the rest of us hope.  I’d say you are definitely a star!  🙂

Posted in Blogging, Fiction/Novels, Writing and Books | Tagged , , , , , , | 19 Comments

The Lighter Side of Learning to Play the Fiddle #5 …or… How long is this going to take anyway?

As I mentioned in  an earlier post on this topic, I’ve been a bit discouraged lately about my apparent lack of progress at learning the fiddle.  I’ve been at it for 12 months now and I still can’t play Orange Blossom Special or Turkey in the Straw.  So I decided I would do a bit of research to find out if it is just me, or whether this is typical.  What I found is that a lot of people do this sort of research before they decide to take up the fiddle.  Given what I found – I’m actually glad I didn’t think to do that.

For example, I did a search on the questions: How long does it take to learn to play the fiddle? and Am I too old to start?  I found the best answers at this link – here’s a smattering of the responses.

“The first year is unavoidably grim.” (I actually found this encouraging to hear.)

“I started to learn fiddle from scratch at age 53, I’m still learning it at age 66…”  (This worried me – I mean, 13 years?)

I’ve been at it for 50 years and it’s still a little b****r!!”  (This really had me worried.)

“It involves a long period of sounding like a dying cat, but if you can get through that then you’ve got it made.”  (I ‘ll vouch for that first bit – as will my family!)

“It’s a lot like trying to play golf…there are so many variables and ways to screw up…”  (OMG – I suck at golf!)

That was all a bit too discouraging so I tried this question.  Are their stages in learning to play the fiddle?  I got some good answers at this link.

“I think the phases are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.”

“Frustration and despair fit in there somewhere.”

“…joyful self-delusion, dream-like wakefulness, grim reality, determined perseverance, and utter madness. But then I’ve been at it for only 30 years, so maybe there’s something after utter madness…”

“I think I’m entering the Carboniferous phase, but I’m probably being optimistic.”

Personally, I like the last one – I agree that geological time scales are the most relevant.  Unfortunately, I am still in the Precambrian stage myself.

Although entertaining, none of this helped me to determine whether I was ‘fiddle challenged’ or on par with my peers in terms of progress to date.  Then, finally, I came across a site that put things in very practical terms.  Apparently it depends on how many hours of practice you put in – who would have thought?  After investigating many students, researchers have made two important observations – first it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to become an elite virtuoso and second, they found no evidence of anyone becoming such an elite expert with less than 10,000 hours of practice.  In other words, stars are made, not born, and there are no shortcuts.  Of course I’m not trying to get to Carnegie Hall – but the premise is valid – practice, practice, practice.  This same site mentioned that those who had practiced 4000 hours were sufficiently good to teach beginners and those with 8000 hours on the practice odometer were good enough to entertain professionally.

Armed with this info, I did what any engineer would do – I put together a little spreadsheet (including a graph of course!) to see where I’m at now and how long it would take me to reach these lofty heights under various scenarios.  The results were pretty shocking.  For starters, I’ve been averaging about 3 hours of practice per week over the past year, which adds up to a whopping 156 hours since I started.  I didn’t find any particular threshold of achievement associated with that number – but I can tell you that it pretty much takes you to the point of being (relatively) comfortable holding the fiddle and bow (which is a big deal – believe me!), being able to play a few novice tunes Like Oh Susanna, Short Bow Jig (very slowly) and Faded Love, and you can find the right notes as long as you have someone else to play along with, but only if they play sloooowwwly.

No wonder I haven’t gotten far yet – I’m barely registering on the experience scale!  No point showing you my graph – 156 hours doesn’t even show up.  Suffice to say that, at my current rate of practice, I will not be teaching beginners until I’m 80 and I’ll need a miracle of modern medicine to get to the virtuoso stage, because I’ll be 118 years old when I’ve racked up my 10,000 hours.  Armed with this information, I did some hypothetical calculations and came up with the graph below – which helped me to determine two important things.  First, it is realistic to attempt to get to 4000 hours – not that I’ll ever want to teach the fiddle – but I figure I should be having a lot of fun with it by then.  And second, it’s going to take me about 8 years to get there if I can step up my practice intensity to about 10 hours per week.

So, I’m no longer discouraged about my lack of progress – it makes sense, given the actual hours I’ve put in so far.   And I’m actually excited to have a plan.

One last piece of wisdom I found – apparently, people who practice every day – even if only for 30 minutes – progress faster than those who do a couple of longer sessions per week totalling the same amount of time (which has been my general approach to date).   So, I’d best get at it – I’ve only got 7.5 h logged since Sunday!

Posted in Fiddlin' Around | Tagged , , , , , , | 48 Comments