advice · pedagogy · teaching

How to Succeed at Online Teaching and Virtual Education

–Rebecca Anderson and Lai-Tze Fan (who are we?)

WHERE DO I START?

  

STUDENT COMMUNICATION & TRANSPARENCY

  

INTERNET ACCESSIBILITY, SAFETY, & PRIVACY

  

ALTERNATIVES TO F2F (face-to-face) CLASSROOM METHODS

  

LEARNING & ACCESSIBILITY

  

VIRTUAL COMMUNICATION

  


  
If you are reading this “how to” guide, it can be assumed that you are have also looked at the resources provided by your own institution or by other educational resources that you’ve found online. What makes this one different?

We prioritize self-care for the teacher. Things are tough enough with finding childcare, lack of personal space, lack of daily structure, mental and physical health scares, and added responsibilities. We are university teachers, but hope that our suggestions may apply to educators in several other areas and age groups.

We prioritize self-care for the student. One of the best things about going to school is a student’s ability to build a community and support network of friends, which comes from informal and spontaneous ways to meet each other and to reach out when things get confusing or lonely. We include in our considerations how teachers can better support students’ mental health—including by believing them when they say they are not feeling well or are overwhelmed, by giving extensions, and by creating opportunities for them to build a community while they #stayathome .

We offer best practices, not perfect answers. We are open to feedback and suggestions, because pedagogy is not an island. We are rooting for you!

Please note that select pieces of information may be repeated below to answer questions in other categories.

  


  

Where do I start?

When designing an online course, where do I start?

There’s no shortage of design frameworks for online course delivery. And given ample time, choice, and resources, you might decide to redesign and build your course with one of these frameworks. Right now, however, consider assessing what you can keep from the F2F (face-to-face) iteration of the course, what you need to modify, and what you need to remove with respect to learning outcomes, instructional strategies, and summative assessments. And once you’ve determined what outcomes, strategies and assessments to import, consider how they will translate: what infrastructures do you need to effectively implement these elements in a virtual learning environment? What tools do you need to structure course content? What tools do you need to deliver grade assessments?

There are also lots of contexts that require consideration when designing an online course: learner context (i.e. Who are your learners? Why are they taking this course? What do they already know? How do your learners learn? Where are they learning from? etc.); instructor context (i.e. How do you teach? And how can you adapt your approach to teaching in online learning environments? What else is on your plate this term? etc.); course context (i.e. What do you want your learners to learn? What instructional materials and technologies will you use to facilitate this learning? What instructional methods will you use to support this learning? What summative assessments will you design to assess this learning? etc.). This is to say there are many different things to consider, and all the questions, and it is overwhelming. So when designing or adapting your course for remote teaching, keep it simple, make it flexible, design for “good enough.”

A note on flexibility. Flexibility is everything: give your learners the opportunity to choose, whether it’s a choice of which summative assessments to complete (i.e. they must complete four out of 10 assignments); when they’d like to submit the assignment and the corresponding amount of feedback they’ll receive (i.e. submit sooner, rubric comments and written feedback; later, rubric feedback); which assignments to revise and resubmit, etc. They know their schedule and their commitments. Build choice into the course framework and let them direct their own learning. And! Flexibility can also help mitigate your workload.

  

Should I teach asynchronously or synchronously? Both?

Whether it’s your choice, or your institution has instructed you on which instructional design model you will be using this term/year, we acknowledge that asynchronous and synchronous teaching have pros and cons. Neither can replace the experience of F2F, but we do advise some of the following considerations:

Perhaps we don’t have to say this, but virtual classrooms are not F2F classrooms and can’t be treated as such. We will elaborate, but for now, let’s just say that the factors of eye contact, body language, and “eyes front” attention do not hold. Nor do long speeches, hand raising, and students who prefer to blend into the back of the room.

Even if teaching is asynchronous, holding at least one synchronous meeting at the beginning of the term can help students meet each other. If students are in different time zones, consider whether you could hold a meet-and-greet at a time that works for them. If you enjoy meeting with students, you can also try casual biweekly meetings for which attendance isn’t required. When setting up such a meeting, use a time-based poll such as Doodle.

If you have a choice: classes that are heavy in conversation lend themselves to the synchronous style, including graduate seminars, workshops, and topics that lead students to ask a lot of questions.

If you can choose what times your classes or office hours are held, be mindful of the fact that students may be in different time zones and that there are less than ideal times for them to be trying to learn (3am, for instance).

  

What changes in the approach to building community in asynchronous environments?

There are lots of cool ways to encourage interaction and build community with course content via apps separate from the learning management system. You’ll want to consider the purpose of the interactions (i.e. is it linked to a course or assignment outcome?), your learners’ familiarity with additional applications, and your capacity to teach, troubleshoot, and support them with unfamiliar applications.

There’s also a lot of existing ways to encourage interaction and build community within the LMS (learning management systems). For instance:

    • If they meet in groups at the beginning of the term, please arrange this!

    • Create a presence and maintain it: pre-record a welcome message that’s a bit of “here’s an introduction to the course”, and a bit of “here’s an introduction to me as a person/your instructor/your professor.” Invite your learners to respond and introduce themselves so you get to know them too.

    • And/or, pre-record short, weekly messages, so your learners get the opportunity to see and hear you throughout the term. Doing any sort of group work that’s shared across the class? This pre-recorded message would be a great opportunity to recognize thoughtful group work! Do you have results to share from a formative assessment? This is also a great space to discuss them.

    • Connect regularly with your learners so you can identify what’s working for them or where they might require further support, and communicate what you’re able to change or revisit. There are lots of formative assessments that lend themselves well to online contexts, like anonymous polls, Q/As, Start/Stop/Continue, 1-Minute Papers, Muddiest Point/Crystal Clear. The more targeted the formative assessments, the more tailored the feedback will be. And framing these formative assessments with open-ended questions creates space for learners to feel comfortable asking for clarification, and ensures they have an opportunity to think about what they already know, what they might want to pay attention to, and what they might want to reflect on and or revisit and how that might impact their overall grasp of the material. For example, “What more do we need to know about [theory] or [tool]” or “What’s crystal clear about [theory] or [tool]? What’s the muddiest thing about [theory] or [tool]” or “What can I start/stop/continue with respect to [weekly lectures] or [check-in videos] or [discussion boards]”.

    • Consider creating spaces for informal [but still professional and respectful] student-student interactions, like a discussion board that’s for non-course related conversations.

    • If your students don’t mind signing up for a(nother) new platform, try Slack or Discord, which are community platforms in which people can have group and private conversations, break off into groups (for group work!), post relevant content, and share files. For cohort building in particular, participants in Discord can see when others are “online,” so even during non-class hours, they can write to each other to talk or hang out virtually.

  

What if I’m not tech savvy? What if I’m working with others who aren’t tech savvy?

Ok, first of all: no shame here. We both know that age is not a factor when it comes to being averse to technology. But now that we’re all in this together, let’s try to help each other out.

The best tactic is to avoid signing up for or downloading new programs, and to avoid asking others to do the same. We realize that that is not always going to be possible, in which case: the next easiest thing to do is to seek out or offer video guides to using technology. Step-by-step instructions recorded on videos are much easier to follow than text-based instructions (“click which button? Where is it?”) and screenshots (“wait, how did they get to that page?”). YouTube is your friend here, as there are many introductory and step-by-step tutorials on computer programs, and even more have been made since COVID-19 forced us all to stay connected via technology.

If you’re instructing others on technology, turn on your computer’s screen recorder and record the process of what you are trying to explain, whether it’s how to download a browser, how to sign up for Zoom, or where to find this week’s readings.

To turn on your computer’s screen recorder, try these keyboard commands:

    • Mac: shift + command (⌘) + “5”
    • Windows: Windows key (⊞) + alt + “R”
    • Linux/Ubuntu: ctrl + alt + shift + “R”

  

What about institutional support?

If you’re wondering what institutional licences are available for particular apps, programs, software; who to contact to purchase institutional licences; what to do when your request is denied; if your department has funding for teaching and learning aids; if your request to purchase an institutional license is denied, what other app, program, software can you use; if there is an open-source option …

Consider connecting with the formal support offered by academic partners at your institution to develop the course. For example, a teaching centre, extended/distance/online learning centre, accessibility services, the library, IT services, media services, etc. might offer self-paced learning, workshops, and or 1-on-1 support resources to help you design and deliver your online course.

  

What if I’m being asked to do extra unpaid labour? What if my colleagues or students are being asked to do extra unpaid labour?

While much of the labour that goes into online teaching (and, let’s face it, teaching in general) is unseen, those of us in contingent positions, or who are juggling teaching with other responsibilities in graduate school, may really get the short end of the stick. And often you will not even be asked to do this extra labour, it’s just assumed or implied you will do it because you accepted the assignment. Read your contract, particularly if you’re paid for a set number of hours per week, and track how many hours you spend on course-related activities, including training, course prep, answering emails, facilitating, grading, etc. If you’re exceeding what’s outlined in your contract, connect with your union or association to identify your options, reflect on how you might streamline and minimize your workload, and know you might already be doing everything you can to streamline and minimize your workload and it’s still too much.

If you have job security, consider how you might highlight the exploitation of contingent instructors and leverage whatever power you possess in your position to dismantle this exploitation. Employers should inquire how they can better support their contingent faculty in particular. What kinds of support would be helpful, including collecting and sharing resources, having a chat group, arranging formal training in a timely fashion, giving as much notice as possible to contingent faculty for teaching assignments, and even looking to compensate for extra unpaid labour? The best scenario is to pay people for extra work that they do, period.

  


  

Student Communication & Transparency

What kinds of things should I be transparent with my students about?

With assignments and exams, be very clear about deadlines as well as your expectations. More detail about expectations is needed than usual (they can’t ask you on the spot, so some anticipation must occur), put the expectations somewhere that students can return to over and over).

State the submission times and submission methods for assignments. Tell students to include their names or some other kind of identification in the name of the submitted document

If grades will be docked, tell them how much and give them examples. If you are open to extensions (oh, please be open to them during this time), be transparent about how much notice you need and when it’s too late to ask (e.g. the day before).

If there is an option to take pass/fail instead of a numerical or letter grade, let them know as soon as possible.

  

What if different students are e-mailing me with the same questions?

Once a term or more, gather all of their questions and make an FAQ document or video to share with the class, especially since students often have the same question.

  

How do I address class concerns? How do I know whether they are enjoying or struggling with the class?

Create an anonymous questionnaire midway through the term to allow them to ask for things to start/stop/continue: what would they like the instructor to start doing more of? What kind of requests and exercises would they prefer to stop? What should the instructor continue to do that is working well?

  


  

Internet Accessibility, Safety, and Privacy

What if I’m concerned about Internet privacy and safety, including hacking or personal information theft?

Use a VPN (virtual private network), which allows you to mask your device’s IP address with a fake IP address in another location (including other countries!), to protect your computer’s privacy and security. VPNs work like a P.O. box: you can receive the content but hide your home address.

The browser Opera includes a free VPN that can be turned on and off. Here is a video made by Lai-Tze, showing you how to turn on Opera’s VPN.

  

How can I support learners who can’t access common educational resources because of their geographical location?

Please be sensitive and sympathetic to the learning environment of international students as well as to the content laws of the countries in which they are living. Some of these countries may enforce firewalls and content regulations, and you should not make any classwork obligatory that may get them into any kind of legal trouble. Remember: a lot of students use shared devices with family members, or access the Internet in public spaces where their screens can be seen. But to answer that question more specifically …

  

What if my students can’t access specific websites?

Consider using some software alternatives, including open-source options for students worldwide who can’t access certain parts of the Internet websites, or who just don’t want to support monopoly company programs.

    Switching.software is a website that offers alternatives to many popular online resources.
    Jitsi is a free and open-source video conferencing site. It is open-source, free, and global Internet-accessible. Jitsi has screen sharing, chat, and recording functions. There is no time limit. Make a Jitsi “room” with a unique name and send the link to your students. Nothing to download; all they have to do is click.
    Github (higher learning curve) allows for open-source software sharing and development

  


  

Alternatives to F2F (face to face) Classroom Methods

What should I keep of F2F classroom methods?

Some things should be ok to maintain, including the natural time it takes to move around a classroom. It always takes time to set up presentations, shuffle through notes, take a sip of water, sneeze, and so forth. It’s ok. Take your time and let others take theirs.

You can still engage with your students, including by asking them questions and starting conversations. Maybe one of the better parts of virtual learning is that users’ names are included in many video conferencing platforms, so use their names when you are talking to them.

  

What alternatives are there to F2F classroom tools?

See the University Design for Learning guidelines on how to adapt for both F2F and virtual best practices. However and wherever you’re teaching, provide your learners with multiple modes of representation, engagement, action, and expression.

Are you used to writing or drawing on a board while you teach? Virtual whiteboards may be a great option for you. Try AWWApp or Miro>.

  

What about group work?

Arrange students into smaller groups (if they know each other, you could also let them arrange themselves). If they are comfortable with it and if the group work allows it, consider asking them to change groups each time so that they can meet new people.

  

How about class presentations?

With class presentations, students will have to learn some of the same tricks as the teachers to adapt to virtual teaching and learning. One suggestion that may be helpful to them is to be transparent about sections of talks and lectures: ask them to start the presentation with a visual + verbal table of contents (Part 1, Part 2 of talk). Whether they want to keep things as a conversation or read straight off of a paper (which is very difficult to pay attention to even F2F), suggest that they offer visual aids: images, videos, slides, and so forth.

  

How about interactive or hands-on activities and exercises?

Integrating learner-centred, interactive instructional activities into online teaching spaces is possible, it just requires a bit more time. Learners require clear directions for the activity, clear expectations, and clear links to course objectives. Collaboration is amazing and learners need to know how collaborating with their colleagues is going to prepare them for a summative assessment, or help them meet the intended learning outcome for this particular unit in the course.

Seek out accessible and affordable ways to do hands-on activities at home, even if the project has to change slightly. Usually, Lai-Tze teaches her graduate classes out of a technological lab with lots of equipment for “critical making.” In March 2020, when the COVID-19 lockdown began, her “Critical Media Infrastructures” class turned to making face masks. Instead of using lab supplies and machines, they used spare cloth, vacuum cleaner bags (non-HEPA/fibreglass), old shoe laces, elastics from the dollar store–whatever they had at home. To put their masks together, they used sewing machines, needle and thread, or hot glue guns!

  

How do I assign grades for things like participation, group work, etc.?

Find ways for them to participate in their own time. For example, ask a weekly question in a forum (either through your home institution or use an accessible chat group like Slack), which can give them the chance to respond in text + via links (many of them are already used to sharing content).

Consider using a rubric so learners have something concrete to reference regarding what’s expecting of them, and so you have something concrete to consult when grading more nebulous course elements like participation. Rubrics take time to draft, revise, and tweak, but once you have them, you have them!

For group work, consider implementing a rubric and/or group contract. Provide all groups with a template they can discuss and modify according to their group’s dynamics. Again, both of these documents give learners something concrete to reference re: expectations, and you something concrete to consult re: grading, and all parties a pathway to recourse should there be any sort of implosion because of group work (it happens.)

Reflective exercises can come in handy too for both participation and group work! For example, “What did you learn through X? How might you apply this to future Y?” Learners often feel comfortable communicating in this mode because it’s metacognitive, they can be honest, and they don’t have to verbalize face to face.

  


  

Learning & Accessibility

How can I save my notes for captions, slides, and future lectures?

If you’re recording video lectures and talks, try turning on a dictation program to capture the text while you ramble! While the text isn’t always perfect, you can copy + paste the final product into presentation slides and documents for current and future lectures!

The dictated notes can be used for captions and accessibility. Captions are helpful for students who are hard of hearing, who don’t retain information as strongly over verbal communication, and/or who aren’t fluent in the language of instruction.

To turn on dictation …

    • Mac: “fn” two times (to dictate in any program) OR turn on Speech Recognition (System Preferences -> Accessibility -> Voice Control -> Enable Voice Control). If your computer runs slowly with Voice Control on, be sure to turn it off when you’re done dictating
    • PCs: Windows key (⊞) + “H”
    • Linux: see here

  

Should audio be kept on or off?

Individual participants should be able to choose what makes them comfortable–as long as they are not distracting others. If select speakers are talking, it’s a good idea for everyone who is not speaking to keep audio off. This is useful if a participant’s mic is producing a lot of background noise or feedback/echo. If there is no extra noise and an open conversation amongst all participants is happening, audio can be kept on so that participants aren’t muting and unmuting constantly.

  

Should video be kept on or off?

Individual participants should be able to choose what makes them comfortable–as long as they are not distracting others. Students should not be punished if they look like they are not paying attention. Even in F2F lectures, they don’t have their eyes at the front the whole time. Also, students should not be forced to keep their videos on. Their homes are private spaces, just like your home, and they may not want to show everyone their bedrooms, their family members, their roommates, and/or their pets.

  

How long should my recorded talks and lectures be?

We have been given all kinds of advice when it comes to how long/short recorded videos should be, and the answer to this question is that it depends on how long you expect them to either look at the screen or to listen. We strongly suggest breaking up long videos into smaller videos, with the consideration that watching a two-hour lecture can equate to watching a two-hour movie. Longer videos should also be avoided, as they take more time to load and can be difficult to navigate if a student has to refresh the video or if they try to look for “that one part where the Professor defined osmosis.” Have you spent a long time trying to find “that one part” in a movie? Be kind!

If you need more information (about tools as well), look no further than this amazing Tweet on video lectures by Hook & Eye’s Editrix Aimée Morrison:

Individual videos should be approximately ten minutes if there is a lot to look at on the screen, and 20-30 minutes if there is not much to look at. Students are used to intently watching five- to ten-minute YouTube videos, but they are also used to listening to hour-long podcasts so long as they can cook, clean, drive, or do other activities while listening. It also helps with their navigation if videos are titled in the same way as a table of contents. So, not “Week 4, Part 3.” Instead, try “4.3: The Principles of New Media.” You can also try including time stamps so that the videos are easier to navigate.

Apply the principles of universal design to your instructional materials and assessments, so learners have a few different formats to engage with course content. Bonus! Many learning platforms now feature built-in accessibility checkers, so you can double-check the way you’ve designed course elements is accessible (i.e. text size and type; alt text for images; page hierarchy etc.).

  


  

Virtual Communication

How do I get students to stop talking over each other or to stop talking too much?

Without resorting to enforcing Robert’s Rules of Order, there still needs to be a little structure. In classrooms, some students like to raise their hands, so is there an equivalent? Hand-raising is a built-in option for many video conferencing tools, but the order of who gets to speak next is sometimes up for debate. We recommend having students put an emoji (a hand or perhaps a rainbow, but not a conch!) in the text-based group chat, which denotes that they would like to speak next and in a first come, first served order. For those who have thoughts and questions but would not like to speak, they may type into the chat alongside the conversation.

If a few students are in fact talking too much, remind them to put their emoji in the chat. You can also start to respond to or read out some of the typed comments in the chat, asking if students who haven’t spoken yet would like to elaborate or give an example. If the conversation is clearly dominated by a select few students, it’s time to try getting the rest to speak up more. In which case …

  

How do I get students to start talking in class?
Try out a class exercise called “free writing,” recommended to us by creative writer Sean Braune. In this method, the instructor poses a question (usually open-ended) and gives the students a few minutes to jot down responses, preferably on paper. When the time is up, no one has to speak and none of the responses are collected or marked. Students can either read aloud, say anything that has come to their minds, or type their feedback and thoughts in the text-based group chat. The “free write” method had been very effective at getting quiet students to participate in class because their notes serve as a safety net.

  

What are some alternatives for is to communicate via text or video?

If your students don’t mind signing up for a(nother) new platform, try Slack or Discord, which are community platforms in which people can have group and private conversations, break off into groups (for group work!), post relevant content, and share files. For cohort building in particular, participants in Discord can see when others are “online,” so even during non-class hours, they can write to each other to talk or hang out virtually.

If you don’t have to use your institution’s video conferencing platform, consider switching to the open-source, free, and global Internet-accessible Jitsi. Jitsi has screen sharing, chat, and recording functions. There is no time limit. Make a Jitsi “room” with a unique name and send the link to your students. Nothing to download; all they have to do is click.

  

What if they are abusing the text-based chat function?

Unfortunately, as with F2F classes, students can abuse their devices and class time by messaging each other. But as teachers would also do in class, if they are distracting you and other students, you have the right to ask them to stop. If they don’t stop, you have the right to ask them to leave. If they are extremely disruptive and also won’t leave, you have the right to end the class and end the online session. Students have the right to feel safe in their classroom, whether virtual or F2F.

  


Author Biographies


Lai-Tze Fan is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Waterloo in Canada, as well as a Faculty Researcher of the Critical Media Lab and Games Institute. She researches digital storytelling and communication, media theory and infrastructure, research-creation or critical making, and gendered tech/AI/labour. Fan has written for Hook & Eye before, including a guide on “How to Write an Academic Cover Letter.” Learn more at laitzefan.com.


Becky Anderson is a Career Advisor in the Centre for Career Action at the University of Waterloo. She supports the career development of individuals in the undergraduate community pursuing further education. She’s also a doctoral candidate with the Department of English Language and Literature, concurrently pursuing a Graduate Diploma in Cognitive Science. Her research considers methods of immersion across storytelling media.

academic reorganization · change · guest post

Guest post: Emilie Pine on how “later” is now.

Later. Is there any more seductive word?

I have been teaching post-PhD for 15 years. And for at least the past five years I’ve been intending to look at what I teach and how. Each year the teaching term seems to arrive before I’ve quite got around to it, and so each year I put it off until ‘later’, promising myself that next year will be the one. And then all my teaching went online. It turns out, ‘later’ is now.

I used to see the online module dashboard as a place to throw up the course outline, a few PDFs of secondary readings, and assignment instructions. When students asked if, maybe, I could share some links to performances or bibliographies, I would tell them (not unkindly) that these were research skills they were meant to learn themselves as part of the course. And, in an environment where they could drop into office hours easily, or stay after class for a chat, or where they were going to see real life shows at Dramsoc, I didn’t think that was such a problem. 

My online format is different now. With the zeal of the convert, I have adopted scaffolding, whereby every seminar is presented as a unit. Yeah, a ‘unit’. ‘Ugh, my class is not a “unit”,’ I muttered during one training webinar about remote learning. Except, of course, it is. 

Each unit begins with a welcome message, an overview of what we’ll cover, and the main learning outcomes for that week. There are learning checklists, alongside links to performances, production images, ‘refresher’ discussion questions, and a mindfulness exercise.  I have posted mini videos talking through each of the assignments, and I’ve started a weekly newsletter for each module (aka ‘an email’). All of this self-improvement has not been achieved solo, of course. I am gratefully dependent on my colleagues’ leading-by-example and the extra training created by my university’s educational technologists. Following these lessons, and belatedly using the online dashboard not just as a noticeboard, but as a platform for structured and asynchronous learning, is a practice I should have adopted a long time ago. These are the kinds of support structures that students need whether we’re teaching face to face or not.  

And I have learned another belated lesson – that the online format is actually better for those students who struggle to find their voice in a crowded classroom. These students now type comments in ‘chat’ and I read them out. This way of contributing makes the students more comfortable and, though it seems paradoxical, they say they feel more part of the course. One student even emailed me to ask if there’s a way, when we go back to face to face, we can keep up the practice of written comments. 

In all of this, I don’t aim to fetishise the online format – it is a ton of work, it is draining in ways I have never experienced when teaching before, I hate looking at myself on screen for hours at a time, and I hate talking into a void. Most problematic, many of the students who keep their cameras and microphones off are not, in fact, feeling ‘more part of the course’ but much, much less. For most students, university is a social space they appreciate being welcome in. But, for some students, university is the safe space they desperately need. Online teaching is a big loss for them. 

Still, I am counting every win. Not least because I am working in a context that does not seem to want me to.

My university’s response since the summer has been denial (advertising in July that we would resume 60% face-to-face undergraduate teaching and 100% graduate teaching), insufficient support (when staff asked if there was a protocol for returning to campus, we were told not to fret, there were ‘plans’ but what those were remained a mystery), and inadequate communication (bulletins from the University Management Team mention the word ‘health’ only in relation to government guidelines, never with any concern for, you know, our actual health, mental or physical). The only reason our campus is even vaguely safe for those staff and students participating in face to face teaching, is because the majority of us have chosen (before renewed government restrictions mandated us) to work remotely. Against this background, it feels like a wilful act of necessary optimism to be inspired by what we can achieve through online teaching. 

But it is not only anger at one university’s callous approach driving me to suggest that we celebrate and mark the many goals we are striving for in remote teaching, learning, researching, and administering. 

Most of all, I am stressing the good because it is a necessary reminder that even though everything has changed, some things remain the same. And I feel that if we don’t make space for this kind of reminder, that may go unsaid. 

Here’s the thing: We still love what we do.

And here’s the other thing: We are still good at it. 

In a discourse of crisis, these facts are far too easily forgotten.  

Emilie Pine is Professor of Modern Drama in the School of English, Drama and Film in University College Dublin and Editor of the Irish University Review. She has published widely as an academic and critic, most recently The Memory Marketplace: Witnessing Pain in Contemporary Theatre (Indiana University Press, 2020), and the multi-award-winning Notes to Self: Essays, which has been translated into fifteen languages. 

Uncategorized

So…how are you?

Last week my friend S. sent me this meme and a message that said “Sending you love and laughs, friend.” I wrote back “OMG. Amen.” I felt so seen, and so in commiseration with her. Why? Because S. is a student, and I am a professor.

Here is a bit of context: S. and I met because our kiddos went to the same daycare. We learned, after a while, that we’re at the same university. She is in the sciences, I’m not. I’m a prof, she’s a student. She has classes on neuroscience and I teach creative writing and literature courses. In many ways it might seem we’ve not got a lot of commonality, but let me tell you: it feels good to compare notes. When we aren’t chatting about kids and their experiences this fall, we’re talking about how challenging it is to be on either side of the classroom this year. She is taking all her classes online. I am teaching all my classes online. We laugh about the difficulty of navigating bizarre and clunky pedagogical platforms (and then usually deferring to zoom in the end). We talk about how unexpectedly draining it is to talk to a computer screen (me) or stare at a talking head on a computer screen (her). And more than anything what we are noticing is that the increase of screen time and the near to totally deficit of face-to-face instruction is depleting.

I knew that the move to online teaching would be difficult. Unlike many of my colleagues, and indeed many regular Hook & Eye readers and contributors, I am not a particularly digitally-situated pedagogue. I rely, I realize, on the kinds of teaching tools that I haven’t yet found ways to translate into the online platform. I knew, though, that in many (most?) ways, online teaching would be more work. For example, my courses are all asynchronous. It is important to say that this is the case for really good reasons: students are taking them from all over the world, meaning time zones are a real factor in accessing the material. Some students don’t have enough bandwidth for synchronous teaching. Accessibility is an issue across a range of specificities. And, unlike with synchronous and in person teaching, this means that my lectures are scripted, with slides. It is just a fundamentally different mode of teaching for me, and it takes a lot more time to prepare a lecture. These are just a few very small examples, but suffice to say I knew this would be different and that it would be more work.

I did not anticipate some of the ways in which it would leave me feeling both over extended and, strangely, simultaneously feeling isolated. I think students are having similar experiences, at least some of the time.

In the coming weeks we’ll have a suite of guest posts from writers who are focused on the nuances, complications, opportunities, and silver linings of this online year. Stay tuned, and let us know if you would like to pitch a post. I, for one, am keen to connect.

Uncategorized

Becoming “The Man”: Our own Lily Cho is interviewed by Hannah McGregor on Secret Feminist Agenda!

So, did you know that friend of the blog and sometimes-contributor Dr. Hannah McGregor hosts a peer-reviewed feminist podcast? She does. It is called Secret Feminist Agenda, and you can catch up on all the incredible interviews here.

Last week, Hannah interviewed our own beloved and brilliant Lily Cho about mentorship. Here’s how Hannah describes the interview:

“In this episode I sat down (virtually, of course) with Lily Cho to talk about feminist mentorship, the importance of boundaries, and trying to make change from within institutions. What if mentorship wasn’t based on intimacy but on clear boundaries and structures? What if the best way to transform the university is to really understand how it works? What if you clicked on these links?”

Give yourself a gift and listen to this conversation. Then, give yourself another set of gifts and listen to all the episodes!

Uncategorized

We’re Here: A Welcome and a Welcome Back

Every September, for the past ten years, we’ve been blogging here.

That’s right. Ten years of a feminist academic blog.

We’ve experienced enormous personal change. We’re not the same we who began this blog a decade ago. We’ve been many regular writers and many more guest writers. We’ve been precariously employed, unemployed, and in different stages of tenure track careers. We’ve left faculty positions for administrative ones. We’ve left academia entirely, and not always (or often) on our own terms. We have had children. We have lost loved ones. We have written, often in personal and vulnerable-making ways about out struggles, hopes, and concerns. We have raged. We have protested. We have despaired. We have hoped. We have written articles, and we have written posts about not writing. We have made mistakes. We have begun again, resolved to keep learning. We have held each other up. We have hoped, feared, and worked for and with students.

And now, this September, amid the Covid-19 pandemic, amid climate crisis, amid the intersecting pandemics of racism and hate, we are here again. And we will try to write and think and rage and hope and cry and worry and research and teach here with you.

Ten yeas ago “slow academe” was an idea linked both to sustainable slow food movements, and resisting the neoliberal imperative to produce. Now, here, in all the places and particularities that make up our divergent and necessary lives, “slow academe” might be a place to return our thinking. We’re here, and we hope you’ll meet us here from time to time, too.

For surely we need one another now as much as ever.

feminist communities · good things · ideas for change

Hook & Eye Research Hangout: a better new normal

I’m thrilled to report that our first research hangout was so fabulous that I am committing to hosting one every week for the next long while. I want a better new normal and I want it to be about nurturing communities and work that I care a lot about.

When the hangout started and we turned to our work, it took me twenty minutes to even find the book manuscript that I had been working on before the emergency descended. For about half that time, I was in a full panic and worried that I had done something dumb like saving the most current version only on the hard drive of the computer in my office. And then, once I finally found it, in the quiet company of all these lovely women, I oscillated between being sad and mad at myself too. The “last modified” date showed that I hadn’t touched this document since March 10, 2020. That date really hit me. Remember where you were then? Probably, like me, you knew that something world-changing was descending but you didn’t really fully know how, or how much would change. I thought I would be leaving my office for a few weeks, maybe a few months. Now, I really don’t know.

It has been more than ten weeks since I had touched that document. Every day (and, to be honest, every night too) since then, I have been inside the emergency as a university administrator, in the seemingly endless work of trying out how to keep the university going when the news changes everyday.

When I signed up to be an Associate Dean, I knew that I would only survive that work if I continued to teach and if I always stayed close to my research. Being with my students, and being with the books and ideas and conversations at the heart of my research, are the things that keep me alive to the world as a scholar.

I don’t want to be away for so long from my students and my research. This is not normal. I want a better new normal. I bet you do too.

I’m tired of being told that “this is the new normal” when it is always about having to adjust to something I don’t really want.

So, I am taking a baby step towards a normal that I do want.

I’m so grateful to the women who joined me at this first hangout. They came from all different time zones and from all over the continent. Some of us have known each other for years. Some of us were meeting for the first time. Some of us are senior scholars. Some of us are graduate students. We chatted a little during the first few minutes and then I closed the virtual door, we muted our microphones, and settled into work.

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Erin Penner joined us from Kentucky and wrote after to tell me:

Working from home recently has made research challenging.  Not impossible (I am doing background reading for a new project, and just finished revisions of an article), but less “worth” the fight to carve out that time and focus from my other demands (namely, kids, students, and home).  

This morning, I completely forgot for long stretches that there were any other people working.  But when I did look up, it was wonderful to see other women, heads down, brows furrowed, fighting to keep that focus.  And that made it all the easier to go back in.  

Erin is so right. Getting our research done is something we have to fight for because, more than ever, everything else will call us away. Looking up every once in a while to see other women fighting for focus, for this little sliver of time to be inside our own work, lessened my own struggle.

So, for the next long while, we will keep this ritual and this community going. Every Monday at 11.30am EST for one hour, I’ll be there, fighting for focus. If you’d like to join me, please sign up here by 6pm EST the night before (Sunday). If you know someone who would like to be there too, please share this post or just the link to the sign up.

I’ll send the hangout details Sunday night and I will be there every Monday. I’ll ask you to keep those details (of where and how to find us) to yourself because feminist communities need to be closely held. I’m also asking, in the spirit of addressing the gender inequity in research output that spurred our first hangout, that this hangout be just for those who use she/her and they/them pronouns. Thanks to all our beloved Hook & Eye readers for understanding.

Research is a ritual. Research is community. Here’s to finding the ones we need.

feminist communities · good things · ideas for change

Hook & Eye Research Hangout

Welcome to an experiment in making a research community. Hook & Eye is going to host its first-ever live event. We’ve never done this before, but we’ve never been so in need of community and connection.

I’ve been thinking about doing this ever since I had an alarming conversation last week where I realized that I had become profoundly disconnected from my research. I had agreed to chat with a university librarian about my research for a survey they were doing. I couldn’t even remember the most basic nouns connected to my work, never mind the name of the book I’m trying to finish. It was scary. I felt like a toddler learning to talk — except that it was about the things that I have spent a decade researching.

We know that women are submitting fewer journal articles, and that women’s research productivity has plummeted since this emergency began. Mine certainly has. I also know that I am more likely to do something if I promise other people that I will do it with them. We also know that many of our students study better by watching someone else study. We can learn a lot from our students.

So, if you’d like to join me, let’s try working together apart. Let’s pretend we are going to a beautiful library to work for a while.

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Here’s what it’s actually going to look like.

On Monday, May 25, 2020 at 11.30am EST, I will commit to doing one whole hour of research with you.

If you want to join me, please sign up here. I’ll send you the details of where and how to find me the night before.

When you arrive, you will see me at my desk. I’ll chat for a few minutes but will get to work at 11.35am EST on the nose. I will be closing the virtual door to our virtual room at that point so please be on time because I will be focusing on my work and won’t be looking up to let latecomers in. Sorry!

Once we close the door and start working, I will be muting my mic as well as yours. This will be like being in the library but with less whispering.

I’ll leave my video on but please don’t feel that you have to as well. We know that one of the most exhausting things about a virtual meeting is looking at yourself. I won’t be looking at my own video.

I’m probably going to be listening to some music on my headphones. You might want that too. Or you can listen to the sound of being in a not-quiet library in New York, or the sound of a slightly quieter library (pages turning, keys clicking, chairs being pushed around once in a while). Whatever works for you.

At the end of the hour, I will look up and wave good-bye but won’t say anything in case you are in a happy work groove and want to keep working.

And, even if you can’t join us, find a few minutes or an hour, or even a few hours, and open up that document that you haven’t seen in months, or read that book or journal article that has been patiently waiting for you to come back to it. Know that we are are cheering you on in our own quiet and distant-but-close ways.

academic publishing · academic reorganization · collaboration · Uncategorized

A little good news! The Radical Publishers Alliance

Hi folks — today a PSA in lieu of a post: Fazeela Jiwa, amazing book-editing human and friend of the blog has alerted us to The Radical Publishers Alliance. This newly-formed coalition of left-wing publishers have joined together to support each other during this global pandemic.

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Here is a bit about the Alliance from their press release:

With the entire book industry in jeopardy, the only response can be one of unity and solidarity.

Independent radical publishers struggle for survival in the best of times and with the book industry facing huge challenges as a result of COVID-19 and the economic shutdown, a group of radical publishers in the US, UK, and Canada have come together to share advice on publishing during the crisis and to encourage readers to support radical presses.

Left publishers in the Alliance share online promotions and author events of fellow presses, work together on virtual panels and book launches, and maintain an online hub for readers to find their next great radical read from a left publisher. You can find all of the publishers participating in the Radical Publishers Alliance, along with their discounts for readers, on the Left Book Club partners page .

The first initiative of the Radical Publishers Alliance is #RadicalMay , an online radical book fair featuring panel discussions, talks, and teach-ins with authors from 50 radical publishers from the US, UK, Canada, France, Spain, Catalonia, Basque Country, Italy, Germany, Argentina, and Indonesia. The book fair, held in partnership with LITERAL , a radical festival of books and ideas that’s held annually in Barcelona, kicked off May 1 and will continue throughout the month.

Participating English-language publishers include AK Press (US), PM Press (US), Verso Books (US and UK), Haymarket Books (US), The New Press (US), Seven Stories Press (US), Beacon Press (US), The Feminist Press (US), O/R Books (US), Between the Lines (Canada), Pluto Press (UK), New Society Publishers (Canada), Fernwood Publishing (Canada), Myriad Editions (UK), Repeater Books (UK), and The Evergreen Review/Foxrock Books (US).

More information about #RadicalMay as well as a schedule is available here .

As the Radical Publishers Alliance Writes:

In this moment of crisis, the need for critical left thinking is more urgent than ever. Our aim is to lift up the voices challenging our broken social and economic systems and to come together around radical ideas for a more just and equitable world. By supporting fellow left publishing houses during this dark time, we hope to emerge from the crisis intact and more organized for the long fight against capitalism still ahead of us.

If you are able, support your local booksellers and small presses! And, regardless, if you’re curious go check out the events that are available through #RadicalMay

 

adjuncts · affect · careers · guest post · inconvenience · Uncategorized

Guest post: Reflections on Adjunct Labor, Feminism, and other Inconvenient Truths

This post is by Virginia Konchan.

I’m an American citizen with Canadian permanent residence since 2014. I moved to Halifax from Montreal in December 2019, and while I am not teaching this semester (I was formerly teaching part-time at Concordia University), I have been corresponding frequently with several former students I had in various literature and creative writing courses over the years, in the US and Canada.  One is moored on a writing residency in Finland, working on his novel; another, a gifted poet, is quarantined in Boston, doing marketing and PR remotely for a health insurance company:  her days are consumed by new policy changes, telemedicine, and Zoom meetings about how to offer emergency resources to customers struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues.  And a third, also a poet with tremendous talent, is teaching a full-time academic course load at a college in Washington State as an adjunct professor; yet several others are in graduate school, working toward degrees in poetry, literature, and the humanities.

My former student who is adjuncting and I have recently been sharing adjunct war stories and new poems.  Her experience of adjunct life was so painfully reminiscent of my own life as an adjunct in the States, and as a sessional instructor in Canada, that it made me cry. I cried out of deep sympathy for her plight, and those of all academics with precarious, non-tenured positions.  And to add to that endless, non-remunerative academic labor, the isolation and loneliness of quarantine.  And to that, the fact that her hundred or more students that she is now conferencing with through Zoom (while dealing with system crashes and delays) don’t understand the difference between her academic rank and that of tenured professors, and thus impatiently expect her prompt email responses, thorough feedback, and emotional support.  While the adjunct crisis remains a culturally ubiquitous topic to the point of redundancy, it may bear repeating, especially now in our global and financial meltdown, if only with the hope of underscoring just how broken and dehumanizing our capitalist-driven institutions of higher education are, particularly after the waves of privatization, corporatization, and the latest statistics on academic contingent labor (non-tenure-track positions of all types now account for over 70 percent of all instructional staff appointments in American higher education:  the Canadian figures are better, but not by much).

So, while just one more voice to the chorus, I know my former student’s Sisyphean deadlock situation well because I’ve only ever had itinerant stints in academia myself, despite having been on the North American job market for over five years, with a PhD and three published books, searching for a tenure-track professorship or even full-time appointment, as a lecturer.  I know what it feels like to feel completely expendable, to rely desperately, without any governmental or family safety net, on that $20k/year salary, only to have your course load slashed or reduced to zero the following semester with no notice, and to always wonder what other colleagues are discussing in faculty meetings, where adjuncts aren’t allowed.  To duck my head in the hallway or at the copier in embarrassment to avoid making eye contact with other, more important faculty, and lastly, to try, with a kind of fruitless passion known only to other supplicants, to rise to the challenge every day, greet students with a smile, field their queries, and prolong my “office” hours (at most of the universities where I worked, I shared a makeshift cubicle space with dozens of other adjuncts, a constant influx of students and faculty making a quiet conversation impossible), despite the fact that by semester’s end, an adjunct’s intellectual and emotional reserves are beyond spent:  sometimes irrevocably so.

I realize this mental, emotional, and spiritual depletion I am describing is not unique to adjuncts, yet it’s worth noting that the last few posts on Hook & Eye have been by only one tenured professor, and the rest by students (one other by an adjunct and alt-ac laborer).  Yet all these posts suggest, regardless of the writers’ academic positions, that academe, perhaps globally, is undergoing a structural crisis revealing how, in the words of Hannah McGregor, our care is “being leveraged to ensure that the university maintains its institutional and imaginative force in the midst of this crisis, rather than being exposed as a site of neoliberal profiteering,” and wherein, as Brenna Clarke Gray puts it, paraphrasing Samuel Beckett:  “I am trapped between an intellectual awareness of my own exploitation (I can’t go on) and an emotional need to enact care on behalf of those who are owed it from an institution that cannot pay its debts (I’ll go on).”

I can only speak on behalf of my own last 13 years in academe, as a student, graduate student instructor, and adjunct, but it seems both that the crisis of which others are speaking, and which I myself have always felt in the low rungs of the ladder I occupied, is both particular, and universal, and a pressure felt uniquely by women in academia, regardless of their position or rank.  I have routinely seen, in the various Ivory Towers where I studied or worked, female faculty members shoulder greater administrative burdens than their male faculty counterparts; take on a lion’s share of the emotional labor and care work that is part of what can make teaching so rewarding, at least in theory; and suffer greater consequences as a result.

My female colleagues in the States and Canada have shared horror stories with me (I, too, relate) ranging from a variety of stress-induced conditions (sudden hair loss, rashes, insomnia, OCD) to alarming situations where Title IX complaints they filed against male coworkers poisoning the department with sexual harassment and veiled threats were either dismissed or not supported by HR and other faculty members, regardless of gender.

At this point in the history of neoliberal academy, and given the crushing immediacy of the pandemic, might our current broken moment of systems collapse provide a uniquely valuable time to evaluate these forms of brokenness, and seek a way forward: collectively and personally, intellectually and somatically?  It seems less and less relevant (especially now, when questions not just of safety and survival, but situated value of academic labor and publishing loom large), what buzzwords we use to describe these various forms of exploitation: invisible or shadow labor, ghost work, zombie capitalism.  The ugly facts remain that while articles appear regularly (scholarly and in pop culture) on the adjunct crisis (referred to by poet and professor Catherine Wagner as a “sharecropper estate” in her 2010 essay “I Am a Poet and I Have”in the Poetic Labor Project, a term usefully reworked into David Perry’s 2014 essay in Chronicle Vitae, “Sharecroppers.  Migrant Workers.  Adjuncts?”),every single agent who is imbricated in the system, from students paying $100k/year in tuition, on loans, to university presidents, seem helpless to stop the bleeding, or stop the system in its tracks.

We live in a globalized, and increasingly automated and roboticized world, where all human labor, academic and otherwise, is constantly threatened to be “phased out” by machines (I personally cannot stand the term “labor-saving device,” as that labor is usually not “saved,” it’s simply transferred onto a more flexible worker, willing to work for less and under more hazardous conditions, until everything is mechanized).  And yes, there are marked differences between the structure of higher education in American and Canada:  for example, I was paid nearly triple as an adjunct at Concordia than what I made per class in the US (it differs radically in Canada by province:  in Atlantic Canada the pay is similar to the lower end of the US scale),though was only granted one course per semester because of part-time union restrictions, and thus my annual salary was even less.  But whether late capitalist or quasi-socialist, the imperatives of higher ed remain the same:  publish or perish; don’t complain; and follow the relentless pursuit of industry, efficiency, speed, and utility until you die, or until we face a global pandemic, as we are now, trying to imagine a path forward from this institutional calamity.

Lately, I find myself thinking in particular about affectual relations, and moments of bonding or connection that supersede Sianne Ngai’s concept of spectacle-induced “stumplimity,” particularly in speaking to my professor friends who share stories with me of their students’ plights, efforts to complete coursework, and moments of wisdom, hilarity, and poignancy online (my cousin’s entire class failed to show to a schedule Zoom conference last week, and the one student in attendance wouldn’t speak a word, instead merely staring at her while she peppered him with questions for as long as both could bear it; another friend cites “actual fear, working with/for parents, taking care of others, not caring whatsoever, knowing their grade cannot go down, being actually ill, not having access to school, bouncing around from home to home, and sheer ennui”) as reasons for her students’ lackluster attendance on Google Classroom.

I have also been re-reading Naomi Klein’s excellent book The Shock Doctrine(2007), recently, as, along with stumplimity, and outbursts of compassion, fear, uncertainty, and joy, I think our current moment is, affectually speaking, marked by the aftermath of shock (Klein speaks of it in reference to psychiatric shock therapy and the use of “shock and awe” as war tactics in the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq), as we begin to realize anew just how deeply embedded our psyches and even central nervous systems are by the 24/7 news cycle, our vicarious experience of tragedy, and the various forms of cultural mediation through which we experience the world, including social media self-curation, which tends to set our consciousness and being apart from the representations of ourselves we are presenting.  For me, over time, these processes have resulted in what Freudian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich refers to as “character and body armoring”:  learned coping mechanisms of obedience and thralldom that obstruct a more expansive, energetic, spontaneous interaction with ourselves, our world, and our here and now.

To say nothing of sensitivity to our or another’s pain:  last week, for example, with my to-do list far outpacing my now-scattered attention span, and my emotionally-deregulated sensibility causing me anxiety, I instead chose to maniacally clean my house from top to bottom for 8 hours:  the furor of my labors even scared my cat. At the end of the day I sat down and looked at my hands:  they were badly cracked and bleeding from the scrubbing and harsh chemicals, but I largely felt indifference toward my own injuries and the trauma-fueled nature of my frenetic cleaning spree, as they were self-imposed.  They didn’t even feel like my own hands.

Is this the nuclear fallout of what we all came to academia seeking:  a life of the mind?

British writer and journalist Laurie Penny, author of several books including Meat Market: Female Flesh Under Capitalism, and Bitch Doctrine:  Essays for Dissenting Adults, in her recent Wiredarticle “This is Not the Apocalypse You Were Looking For,”writes with great clarity about the awful truth that the most vulnerable among us, whose lives are sacrificed during the pandemic, are not the monied, insured, and protected:  they are the healers and carers, the nurses, doctors, cleaners, and drivers, those “whose work is rarely paid in proportion to its importance.”

Capitalism, writes Penny (who has also written cogently on related topics of self-optimization, and panic, pandemic, and the body politic, for Wired) “cannot imagine a future beyond itself that isn’t utter butchery,” and that is why, over the last two months, “There has been no vision, because these men never imagined the future beyond the image of themselves on top of the human heap, cast in gold.”  Personally, I don’t want to live in a world where the talking heads of global capital suggest that “a certain amount of brutal death is a reasonable price for other people to pay to protect the current financial system,” yet that is the world I was born into and now inhabit.  But the pandemic cannot be—imagine that!—solved by state-sponsored eugenics, violence, militarism, or any other handy tricks of capitalism to erase the fearful other.

So where does that leave us?

In a similar “desert of the real” that the other writers on this blog have described, and yet, to quote Penny one last time, “The end of the world has never been quite so simple a mythos for women, likely because most of us know that when social structures crack and shatter, what happens isn’t an instant reversion to muscular state-of-naturism. What happens is that women and carers of all genders quietly exhaust themselves filling in the gaps, trying to save as many people as possible from physical and mental collapse . . . emotional and domestic labor have never been part of the grand story men have told themselves about the destiny of the species—not even when they imagine its grave.”

I’m not a necromancer of any kind, even with regard to capitalism’s malaise, but this statement brings me a measure of peace because it’s not in direct opposition to my body’s own intelligence, my mind’s own form of logic, and my multifaceted emotional life, the way capitalism so often is.

So while I myself am not in any position to offer a critique or way forward, necessarily, at this juncture, any solace I’ve found over the last month has been born of this:  the knowledge that, to quote Hamlet, “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” There is no quick fix, nor one-size-fits-all solution:  no one really knows.  But there is, perhaps more now than ever, a growing awareness of a natural order of things in the natural world, and while not a model (ideological, aesthetic, economic) one can seek to follow in a societal sense, perhaps that’s what makes the small inroads we are all making day by day, from within a revisited ethics of care and solidarity, the best (albeit anti-theoretical), position of all.

VK author photo sushi
Author of two poetry collections, Any God Will Do and The End of Spectacle (Carnegie Mellon, 2018 and 2020); a collection of short stories, Anatomical Gift (Noctuary Press, 2017); and four chapbooks, as well as coeditor (with Sarah Giragosian) of Marbles on the Floor:  How to Assemble a Book of Poems(University of Akron Press, 2022), Virginia Konchan lives in Halifax.
academic reorganization · change management · feminist health · guest post · Uncategorized

Guest post: “Fetch the Bolt Cutters!” Or, How Fiona Apple Gave Me the Freedom to Rage

This post is by Myra Bloom.

There seem to be two main ways of dealing with the end of the world as we knew it: some people are conjuring an illusion of normalcy. They’re leaning extra hard into schedules and routines, maybe even cultivating new ones – working remotely, palpating sourdough, dialing into digital yoga classes, closely observing the behaviour of birds. Others are of the “chuck it in the fuck it bucket” school, to borrow a phrase from my friend Kristina. We might call this the ‘quarantinis-and-Tiger-King’ approach. A quick Google will furnish guides for maximal productivity(King Lear, they admonish you, was written under quarantine) or non-productivity(your desire to write King Lear, they admonish you, is your internalized domination by capitalism).

Until recently, I was an adherent, if not a card-carrying member, of team productivity. I was ‘teaching’ remotely (lol). I was pumping out Alison Romandishes, getting my daily unit of state-sanctioned exercise, wearing structured pants. I was, I thought, doing quarantine right. But as the days dragged on, the edges started to fray: a pair of leggings here, an extra handful of snacks there. I stared constantly at my laptop screen, waiting for something other than grim stats to happen, and when it didn’t I turned anxiously to my little screen, hoping something was happening there. I found only my haggard face reflected back at me in a black pool unmarred by notifications of any kind.

I started this essay one early afternoon. I was still wearing rumpled pyjamas, my body unwashed, the dog unwalked. Ordinarily, I would be horrified by the lassitude. I love order, stability, routine. Years of hustling in a precarious job market have honed me into an edgy shark, swimming for my life. There’s always something to chase in academia, where the resources are lean and mean. I sometimes personify academia as my bad boyfriend: he barely pays attention to me and doesn’t really seem to care how I’m doing, but when he smiles at me it’s like sunshine. And at first, I have to admit that I was pretty happy we were self-isolating together. When people would ask if I was “lonely” living “all by myself” (ugh, and plus, give the dog her due), I’d reassure them that, au contraire, I was keeping very busy. Maybe I didn’t specify exactly how much time I was spending with Boris, my sexy manuscript.

Lately, though, I’ve gotten a little sick of Boris. To be frank, I’d rather just eat chips. So, in the words of Fiona Apple, “fetch the bolt cutters!” By which I mean, blithely discard that which worketh not for thee.

I had a prof in grad school who once said to me, koanically, “Sometimes saying no, Myra… is saying yes… to the self.” I’ve been trying to channel that energy a lot this past year, my first in a tenure-track job. A joiner by nature, I felt flattered and gratified by all the opportunities that came my way, until I started to feel crushed under their weight. Now, I’m finding new power in a kindly but firmly stated ‘no’. Never has this advice felt more timely. Civil society is crumbling into the very earth, and yet my inbox is replete with dispatches from the university encouraging me to improve my digital pedagogy. My students are literally fleeing to their home countries, cowering terrified in crappy apartments, freaking out about their parents working on the front lines, and I’m supposed to get them excited to do an online poll? I would prefer not to.

You know who else would prefer not to? Fiona-effing-Apple, who has officially unseated Alison Roman as my quarantine guru. Step aside, rustic salad! It’s time to RAGE. For those of you who haven’t been playing her new album on repeat, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is a big FU to the micro and macroaggressions women face in a patriarchal, conformist society. Apple directs her righteous fury at the bullies, rapists, and other general assholes who have tried to hold women back over the years. Enough playing nice. The time has come to “Blast the music! Bang it, bite it bruise it!”

Fetch the Bolt Cutters is a work of genius, but what makes it“the unofficial album of the pandemic”is its purposeful imperfection. Apple recorded it at home in Venice Beach, and you can hear her dogs, some weird sounds that might be coming from outside, and even her own mistakes: on the final track, she drops a line, swears, waits a few bars, then picks the song right back up. It’s the perfect musical accompaniment to these days of awkward Zooming, where the angles are unflattering and the dog farts audibly in the middle of the meeting (true story). This homespun humbleness could not be any farther from Drake’s “Toosie Slide,” also released this month, whose autotuned braggadocio put me in a funk that took several days to shake. While Drake’s gilded palace (watch the video) is a monument to capitalism’s monstrous logic, Fetch the Bolt Cutters gives us the tools to dismantle the master’s house. It reminds us, by way of contrast, that every shimmering surface is an illusion built on the backs of unsung labourers hauling a lot of garbage. I happen to know this firsthand: I used to drive by Drake’s McMansion-in-progress on my way home from work.

Remember that video from the Before Times of Prof. Robert Kelley’s children storming into his BBC interview, chased by their frantic mother? Besides the children’s impeccable timing, the punctum of that video was the domestic intrusion. The invisible labour of Prof. Kelley’s wife, Jung-a Kim, was suddenly visible, as she struggled to keep her family out of her husband’s frame. These days, we’re seeing a lot of people’s private lives as they broadcast to us from their home offices and bedrooms. It makes people seem a lot more human when we encounter them in the context of their worldly detritus. To me, the visibility of the domestic sphere, and of the invisible work that happens there, is one of the possible silver linings of the pandemic. In late March, the BBC describedthe “unintended consequences” of Malaysia’s decision to permit only the ‘head of the household’ to do the grocery shopping: namely, that men lost their minds in a labyrinth of leafy greens. I like to think that these men will ask themselves what other secret knowledge gardens their wives cultivate.

Another form of invisible labour that is being recognized in this moment is the chronically “underpaid and undervalued” work of women in “essential” sectors, including the service industry and healthcare. The New York Times reports that because women are overrepresented in these sectors, women suddenly outnumber men in the American workforce. As they put it, “the soldier on the front lines of the current national emergency is most likely a woman,” and even likelier a woman of colour. It’s likely too optimistic to say that the situation will change when the dust settles on the economy: structural inequalities stemming from issues like race, class and gender are too deeply rooted. To make a historical comparison, the women who entered the labour force during the First and Second World Wars were largely pushed to its margins when soldiers returned from the front. Nonetheless, their visibility in historically masculine roles gave them a platform from which to advocate for rights and opportunities. It’s in this more modest sense that I’m hopeful that gains might be made in the future.

So I guess what I’m driving at here is that Fiona Apple’s aesthetics of imperfection is also an ethics. In daring to put something imperfect into the world, she reminds us that the slick veneer that coats all our cultural products masks the rot festering just beneath the surface. Like Greta Thunberg, or Tarana Burke, or the Wet’suwet’en land protectors, she invites us to raise a collective middle finger to the status quo, and to build something wilder, fairer, freer.

Fetch the bolt cutters! Turn off the computer! Blast the music! Let’s get to fucking work.

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Myra Bloom is an Assistant Professor in the English Department at York University’s Glendon campus. She teaches and studies Canadian literature, confessional writing, feminist aesthetics, and Quebec language/identity politics.