classrooms · emotional labour · grading · pedagogy · teaching · Uncategorized · writing


I was complaining to myself about how slow my grading was going and how I was a slacker for not getting it done faster. Then I added up some numbers. Then I tweeted this, that is to say, complaining to others, and it got a LOT of traction relative to my usual Twitter complaints:


So that’s what I’m going to expand on today: grading is writing, and it’s work, and we do way more of it, probably than we think we do.

Here’s how I grade. Students hand in their assignments (a lot of short writing assignments, usually between 400-1200 words) and I mark them up with pen as I go–I put tiny underlines under simple errors; I write marginalia that queries a point, or offers a readerly reaction like “ha!” or “aha!” or “hm” or “!” or “are you sure?”; I write sentence fragments in response to the main idea. When I’ve finished reading and marking-up the paper copy, I write up more formal notes, summative and formative, in Word. This weekend I was grading Evidence-Based Arguments for my first years, so I have one Word doc called “Evidence-Based Argument” and I just concatenate everyone’s feedback in that one doc, separated by page breaks. So there’s a running word count for the whole thing.

For 24 Evidence-Based Arguments I graded this week, I wrote 2735 words. That’s a lot of writing, it struck me. I opened the other files for that course. The Internet Literacy Narrative? 2898 words. The Fact-Check Report? 2763 words. You can see that’s about 100 words per assignment, for a total in the course so far of about 8500 words. That’s a longish academic article worth of words.

Now I’m curious. For my grad class this term, 15 students, I’ve graded essay proposals and annotated bibliographies, and two 400 word response papers per student. [Goes away and calculates] Just over 6000 words of feedback.

That makes 14,500 words of formal written feedback since September. Not counting marginalia or emails or verbal feedback in office visits.

Last semester my courses were bigger–a fourth year seminar of 25 students and a first year course of 40. [More calculation ensues] 22,000 words for the first years and 16,000 for the fourth years, so that’s 38,000 formal grading words in the winter term.

In my assigned teaching in 2017, I’m at 52,500 words of direct feedback to students typed into Word docs. I’m not done yet: my first years and my grads have final papers yet to hand in for me to give them feedback on.

I have also read and given extensive feedback on …. lessee …. four complete dissertation, and about 8 dissertation chapters this year? I don’t know how much I wrote for those, but it was a lot.

I don’t begrudge this work. But I would like it to be more visible than it is. A writing intensive course for students is a feedback intensive course for professors. I often will note in my annual reports that my first years write: a response paper, then revise it, then produce a paper with a stepped structure of proposal, bibliography, intro paragraph, draft, and final paper. But I do not note what *I* am writing in response to this.

Linda Carson on Twitter suggested that in academic life as in most other domains, what counts is what gets counted. She encouraged me to think about writing out these numbers on my report. I might. But even personally, I think I generally tend to dis-count this writing as writing, because not only do I not literally count up how much of it I do, I don’t think it “counts” as real writing.

But it does, in its way: crafting feedback on student work is a balancing act of formative and summative goals, a kind of specificity of address that lets the student know you really heard them, but a level-appropriateness that encourages reach without overwhelming. No wonder we get tired doing it.

Anyhow. I’m at about, as I say, 52,000 words of feedback I can directly count up in my Word docs from my 2017 teaching. That’s not all of it, but it’s most of it. If it feels supportive, I encourage you to look back, if it’s easy enough to do, and see how much you’ve got done this year, too.

This is real work, real writing, creative and laborious. It counts.

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Guest post: Insubordinate, Indiscrete, Interdisciplinary: Risking Perpetual Precarity in All The Wrong Places, or, Just Being Fabulous, A Manifesto

image via CWRC

By T.L. Cowan

Preface: This is a version of a talk I gave at the Universities Art Association of Canada (UAAC/AAUC) at the Banff Centre, located on the traditional territory of the Kootenay, Stoney, Blood, Peigan, Siksika and Tsuu T’ina First Nations. With thanks to Andrea Terry and Riva Symko for the invitation to be part of the panel “A Big Dull Axe Looms Large: Interrogating the Disciplinary Relevance of Art & Art History in Canada.” Dedicated to the striking OPSEU/SEFPO faculty, who are putting their bodies and livelihoods on the line to improve working conditions of part-time and full-time faculty in Ontario’s colleges.

And with thanks to the many comrades I have talked with about adjunct methods, precarious faculty survivance and feminist solidarity across institutional and community differences of rank and resources throughout the years including and to everyone who taught me how to do cabaret.


It took me 10 years to get my undergraduate degree. The first time around, university was my escape route. I used up all of my bravado to get myself into university as the best way to get out of the small town where I was raised, moved into a university dorm room and that is where the plan ended. I paid my way out of that small town with a small portfolio of scholarships, grants and loans, which I spent in a shockingly short amount of time on tapered jeans and binge drinking. Since I had only ever imagined university as an escape route and not actually its own thing, I rarely went to class and even more rarely turned in assignments. Very soon I was on academic probation and my student loans were in collection.  So I dropped out, got a few jobs in restaurants, started volunteering at some feminist organizations, moved to Vancouver and became a lesbian spoken word artist. I found my way into the booming feminist and queer spoken word and broader cabaret scene in Vancouver in the late 1990s, and quite quickly realized that to meet the feminists and queers a girl most desired and to keep a scene going so you could keep meeting those feminists and queers, you had to make shit happen out of nothing. So, like everyone else I knew, and along with many collaborators, I started making cabaret—creating a theme, finding a space, inviting many performers who did different things and hoping they would invite their friends, making posters, getting the word out, bringing people together in different configurations depending on the show.

As an event organizer and cabaret curator (although certainly we were not calling ourselves ‘curators’ in those days), I regularly planned shows by inviting people I already knew and liked as well as people who I wanted to meet and whose work I loved. My collaborators and I, we were making spaces in which to gather the people we wanted to be together with. So we took the shows to where the feminists and queers were at: political rallies, marches, vigils. Take Back the Night, International Women’s Day. Maybe you know what I’m talking about. We almost never had any money to work with and even when we charged a cover at the door, we almost never took home any cash. But sometimes we took home a date. We never made solo shows. Each show was a cabaret–a variety show with six to a dozen or two performers working in poetry, performance art, dance, video, storytelling, puppets, bondage, and so on, with different life experiences and ways of expressing these ideas. We created stages in whatever show space we could get our hands on: bookstores, cafeterias, sex shops, coffee shops, strip clubs, nightclubs, living rooms, parks, theatres, squatted gallery spaces, bars, community centres, and more than one basement show space so dense with mould spores you choked when you inhaled.  Together with the other folks in this scene (and like so many queer, trans-, feminist and other minoritized artists past, present and future), we were creating shows in the image of the world we wanted to live in, bringing into existence a reality that we didn’t see elsewhere, designing shows to attract the people we wanted to be together with. We were hacking together our own existences.

Five years after dropping out, I got myself back to school and made it through an undergrad and then eventually through grad school. Several years into my professor life, it has become very clear that the drop-out years filled with cabaret-making have been just as important to the academic life I want for myself, as all of the grad courses, exams, and scholarly mentoring. Indeed it has been the practice of what I have come to call survival interdisciplinarity – a skill I learned in making cabaret – that got me through the most difficult years of my career to date. As a queer feminist anti-racist trans-loving crip-loving scholar committed to equity, decolonization and Indigenization in and of corporate settler university culture, cabaret has continued to be my most important skill.

What I hope is that the revolution of adjunct faculty is coming and that it will create a new turn in our disciplines.  The ‘Adjunct Turn’ which, as a method from below, will be aligned with what Chela Sandoval calls “differential oppositional consciousness” (2000), coalitional techniques for affinity-based disciplinary and institutional transformations. An orientation away from individualism and the life of a solitary specialized genius, and an orientation towards critical intimacy, towards collaborative, process- and practice-centred distributed epistemologies and an aesthetics of multiplicity and shared resources. A method aligned with what Audre Lorde called in the power of the erotic, “the yes within ourselves” (1984, 57); the yes work of making the intellectual-cultural worlds we desire.

It was while I was completing my undergrad (my third go at it), that I started to realize the vast inequalities of the professoriate. It became very clear to me which of my professors were working on a contract, sessional, part-time, precarious, course-by-course way. Perhaps this is because I grew up underclass, so I can spot another one easily. What this meant was that when I started grad school, I was very determined to never work as a sessional faculty, since I had a notion of the humiliations that sessional and adjunct faculty were experiencing in the context of my education, and the humiliations of being underclass was not an experience I wanted to repeat in my adulthood.

In the first instance, I got very lucky and did, in fact, go from grad school to post-doc to tenure track job. However, in 2011, I left that tenure track job, in order to live with my partner, who had been offered a job in New York City. Although we didn’t have kids, I did what people with children call “keeping our family together” and took a career risk in order to live the intimate life I wanted and needed.

My immediate experience in New York City was not the explosive success I had hoped for. No one knew me. My reputation did not cross the border. I had to start over. I had signed a part-time contract at The New School, which meant that I would teach somewhere from 1-3 courses per year, with a salary cap of something around $21,000. If I wanted more work, I would have to look elsewhere.

Even though I thought I had previously understood the underclassness of part-time faculty, I soon realized that I had underestimated how my new status as “an adjunct,” “a part-timer,” would so significantly and negatively impact what kinds of contributions I would be invited to make at my home institution and beyond. The reality of adjunctism started to set in, and I realized that it was going to be more difficult than I expected to have the life I needed. It was in the context of working from the marginal, isolating, humiliating and largely unresourced position of an adjunct faculty that cabaret methods became so clearly central to my life as a research-practitioner of trans- feminist and queer cultural and political production. It was in the context of working as an adjunct faculty that I realized “the state” of our profession and our cross-disciplines in the Humanities.

Rather than honing an expertise in a small, specialized area of research, it became clear to me that I needed to be able to mobilize my capacity for indiscretion – I had to be able and willing to teach absolutely anything, anywhere. The cross-disciplinary, make-do training of my ongoing cabaret worlds bolstered this practice. The precariat in academic industries work where we can, when we can, and how we can.

And it is in these conditions that we find the “state” of our disciplines and our profession. What is the work being done by adjunct faculty in the classrooms, conferences and research cultures of the professoriate? What are the knowledges about our disciplines produced within the conditions of desperate, degrading, crushing, strategic survival economies of part-time and contract professorial labour? How can our profession and disciplines account for and value these knowledges even when that labour is treated by our institutions as infinitely replaceable, disposable, unspecialized, undisciplined? These are questions I am continuing to ask myself again, as I find myself with the good fortune of being in a new tenure-track position. And importantly, I owe this new position to the kindness, solidarity, patience, generous help, understanding and recognition from feminist comrades, along the way. We cannot survive in this system without making worlds that we want to be in together; this means that tenured and tenure-track faculty have to acknowledge that it is their job to simultaneously work and break this broken, vastly unjust system. We have to pay attention to the ways our departments, faculties and institutions are using contract faculty in ways that become increasingly invisible to those of us protected from such realities in the daily life of our jobs.

And when we are on hiring committees and grant juries, we need to be attentive to the inclination of our profession to punish the undisciplined for their insubordinate expertise in everything—an insubordination produced by the need to create something awesome from nothing while living out the conditions of massive and unforgivable collegial neglect. The survival work of adjunct faculty needs to be acknowledged as a specialization, as expertise, in our disciplines and in the research and teaching economies of the contemporary university.

A story to end, a dispatch from the stage of the Loud & Queer Festival in Edmonton from many years ago. It is story that has shaped my intellectual and creative life and it offered me a survival practice that I used constantly when I was working as an adjunct faculty. The story comes from the Edmonton Queen, Gloria Hole and her drag mother, Halifax-based drag queen high priestess, Lulu LaRude (it is told with permission from Darrin Hagen aka Gloria Hole):

When Gloria was just a baby queen (so, in the early 1980s), she and Lulu found themselves offered a gig out in Gibbons, north of Edmonton. They were booked for a show at a place called “Sensations” or “Celebrities” or “Hot Spot” or something very gay-sounding. For weeks before, an excited Gloria had told all of her friends that she’d booked a FEATURE gig and she just couldn’t stop talking about it. It turns out the place was a strip club with patrons who were not impressed by these drag queens, and Gloria and Lulu barely escaped with their lives.

They got back in their dragmobile and high-tailed it back to (the relative safety of) Edmonton. As they are driving, poor young Gloria turns to the wise Lulu and says, “Oh Lulu what are we going to tell everyone? I’m so ashamed.”  Wise Lulu turns to Gloria and says, “Darling, have I taught you nothing? We’re going to tell them it was FABULOUS.”

The risk of being fabulous, as many a drag queen knows, is the risk of being under-appreciated and misunderstood, disciplined by a life-threatening set of rules that you’re not even playing by. I propose that we all begin to appreciate and reward the fabulous as it is mobilized by faculty working in the shittiest of conditions. As Anjali Arondekar and Geeta Patel note in their introduction to the recent introduction to their special issue of GLQ, Area Impossible: The Geopolitics of Queer Studies,

we have opted for the fabular because it can be thought of as the form through which one imagines a better or perhaps just a good enough analytic. Fables underscore peculiar commonalities and repetitions of belief and orient routinized habits of analysis

while attending to the generation of value/capital that is implicit in both. [Whereas] translation (especially in embodied elsewheres) could inadvertently slide into literalization, punctiliousness, or conversion, mislaying in the process the fecundity that the fabular can lug along. (2009, 154)

I suggest that we need to recognize and reward the fabulous in our fields, not only to work to eradicate the entrenched and enforced maldistribution of resources and life chances within our profession and disciplines, but to begin to assess and appreciate the radical disciplinary transformations at work through the X-factor (Coleman 2011) specialties of colleagues working as adjunct faculty. The fabular is the practice of creating and holding what is necessarily generative for ourselves and those who listen to our stories in the face of obvious disaster (Cowan & Rault 2016); it is “a good enough analytic” for these times and I propose that this is the analytic from which we are all working, adjunct and otherwise; to operate securely is to disavow the situation that produces these massive inequities in our places of education. As Tavia Nyong’o writes of fabulation: “The overriding of our rational brain is key to how fabulation, as an instinct for the virtual, unlocks and unleashes novelty in an otherwise deadlocked symbolic order” (Nyong’o 2013/2014). I suggest first that we identify and seize upon that symbolic order in which we are deadlocked; and then we must begin the cabaret work of fabulating a new reality.



Arondekar, Anjali, and Geeta Patel. 2016. “Area Impossible: Notes toward an Introduction.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 22 (2): 151–71.

Coleman, Beth. 2011. Hello Avatar: Rise of the Networked Generation. MIT Press.

Cowan, T.L. & Jasmine Rault. 2016. “Transmedial Drag: Cabaret Methods, Digital Platforms & Technologies of Fabulous.” Talk delivered at Trinity College, 25 February.

Lorde, Audre. 1984. Sister Outsider Essays and Speeches. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press.

Nyong’o, Tavia. 2013. “Wildness: A Fabulation.” S&F Online 12 (1-2).

Sandoval, Chela. 2000. Methodology of the Oppressed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


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T.L. Cowan is an Assistant Professor of Media Studies (Digital Media Cultures) in the Department of Arts, Culture and Media (UTSC) and the Faculty of Information (iSchool) at the University of Toronto. Before moving to the University of Toronto, T.L. was a Presidential Visiting Professor in Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies at Yale University, and Chair of Experimental Pedagogies in the School of Media Studies at The New School. T.L.’s research focuses on cultural and intellectual economies and networks of minoritized digital media and performance practices. This work includes a first monograph on intermedial performance, poetry and digital culture, entitled Poetry’s Bastards and a second, on the translocal methods of trans- feminist and queer cabaret in Montreal, Mexico City and New York City, entitled Sliding Scale, both nearing completion. T.L. is also the Primary Investigator on a collaborative digital research-creation project called the Cabaret Commons: an online archive and anecdotal encyclopedia for trans-feminist and queer artists, audiences and researchers, and is writing a co-authored book entitled Checking In: Feminist Labor in Networked Publics & Privates with Jasmine Rault.

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Guest post Another Dumpster Fire: an opinionated review of Arrival: the Story of CanLit by Nick Mount

By Julie Rak

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Image via

I consider the following to be a public service for all those who might consider reading Arrival: the Story of CanLit by “rockstar professor” Nick Mount. I analyse Mount’s book so that you don’t have to read it, unless you want to write a lengthy rant about it yourself. Arrival has had a soft landing in the mainstream press. Its author has been a guest on television and radio, and the book has enjoyed mainly positive reviews in The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star and The National Post, to name a few. Quill and Quire is a little sceptical of Mount’s sweeping premise and The Walrus wonders about Mount’s cheerleading of CanLit paired with the omission of serious discussions about writers of colour, but that’s the most critical things have been.

I’m here to provide some spikes on the landing pad because readers, I assure you that Arrival: the Story of CanLit is one whopper of a bad book. It’s bad because every word of its title contains a dubious claim about what Canadian literature is, or when it “arrived,” or who wrote it, or what we should think about it. It’s not well researched. But more importantly–and the reason why I decided to write such a long essay–Arrival is bad because its cluster of sweeping generalizations manage to do something that in this dumpster-fire of a CanLit year should not be done. It reproduces assumptions about white, homophobic, sexist, settler Canada, and it celebrates them.  So those of us who know better need to throw off the mantle of Canadian politeness and confront the premises of this book because the recent CanLit scandals are founded on ideas that also structure much of Arrival. Mount says that it took 10 years to write Arrival (9), and so I recognize that he could not have commented within it on the current problems with CanLit. But beyond admiring comments about Mount’s “wit and panache,” interviewers and reviewers have not been taking serious issue with Mount about how Arrival constructs its version of the CanLit boom in the wake of the scandals of 2016 and 2017. It’s time to do so now.

Arrival begins with a version of Terra Nullius, “no one’s land,” a formula used by some non-Native explorers and politicians to claim territory in the new world by presuming that Indigenous people did not own the land and had no claim upon it. Mount recasts no one’s land as  no one’s time  in the preface so that he can lay claim to “the whole story”:

“I wrote this book because it didn’t exist. We have many excellent biographies of the writers who emerged during what came to be called the CanLit boom. We also have some good histories of the publishing side of the story in both English and French Canada, and a great many books about the time itself. What we don’t have is a book that puts all those stories together. This is the first book to try to do that, to tell the whole story, for both those who know parts of it and those who know none of it.” [emphasis mine] (9)

There is a field called book history that has in fact pulled together much of the story of this period. But alas, it’s full of what Mount might think of as dreary technical research and complex social history. It’s much more fun to call this period a CanLit boom without a lot of hard evidence, and to detail the swinging 60s and the early 70s as a time of hedonism, when writers “lived larger and often riskier lives than their inheritors.”  If Mount had said that this book was just about literary nationalism or the writing scene in some of Canada’s major cities, that would have been fine. But Arrival says that it is about much, much more, and that proves to be the book’s undoing.

Remember what Mount said in his preface: this isn’t just a story about Canadian writing. It’s the whole story. That’s why at the end of the preface, Mount has this to say: “This book is about the past, but like all such books, it’s for the present, a book that I hope helps explain how we got from there to here, from a country without a literature to a literature without a country  [emphasis mine] (9).” It’s such a neat phrase, almost as neat as Northrop Frye’s oft-quoted observation about who we are being answered by where is here,* which characterizes Canada as empty land ready for the colonization of the imagination, another act of Terra Nullius. So what is the whole story? It seems that before the 1960s (before 1959 to be exact) there was no Canadian literature at all. Mount’s CanLit boom, at last, brought proper literature into being. By the end of the boom, which Mount says happened in 1974 “when Margaret Laurence ran out of novels” (14), Canadian literature itself no longer existed because it had gone global. “CanLit,” Mount  opines in his conclusion, “ended when it arrived because that was its job—to arrive” (326).  Ending the boom in 1974 makes for a convenient chronology because it excludes so many writers who belong to minority groups. No past and then no future. According to this version of events, Canadian literature is just part of global literature now. Alice Munro has won the Nobel Prize. Margaret Atwood belongs to the world, like Celine Dion or Alex Trebek.

There are of course enormous leaps of logic in Arrival that bolster such a premise. “Canadian literature” mostly means the following: Toronto writers, English-speaking Montreal poets, and the TISH poetry collective in Vancouver. The mentions of Hugh MacLennan and Alden Nowlan do little to balance this out. The restrictions Mount places on the idea of Canada mean that only certain kinds of writers “count” within the CanLit formation. The others exist on a periphery oriented towards the centre, if they count at all. Much of the literary history of Canada simply does not exist in Arrival: there is no L.M. Montgomery, E. Pauline Johnson, Mazo de la Roche, John Richardson or Ralph Connor. It is no accident that all of these authors were popular, whether they published bestselling novels, serialized their widely-read writing for newspapers and magazines or, in the case of Johnson, popularized a poetry book with thrilling live performances. But they cannot be part of Canadian literary history, it seems.

And so, Arrival itself is a breathtaking work of a mari usque ad mare, from sea to sea, a literary railroad of sorts built across Canada to ensure Upper Canadian dominance. It invites comparison (and reviewers are already doing the comparing)  with another work made more than four decades earlier, Margaret Atwood’s Survival, also published by Anansi Press. This is a book that Atwood herself has called “Canadian literature for dummies,”** meant for high school teachers as a way to save the publisher from financial ruin. I interpret this comparison as disturbing, not flattering. Atwood herself affirms “no one’s time”  as part of her own practice. She is quoted in Arrival saying that when she came on the scene, she “found the lack of literary ancestors liberating, like being handed a blank sheet of paper” (208). This vision of CanLit is urban, able-bodied (only the “strong” survive in Survival), centrist, mostly anglophone, and overwhelmingly white.

Even when Austin Clarke is mentioned in Arrival (he was the most prominent Caribbean-born writer in Canada in the 1960s)  he is someone who publisher Jack McLelland says “needs a kick in the ass” (192). As Lucia Lorenzi has pointed out, that is exactly how Clarke is indexed in the book, an inscription of violence against a Black writer enshrined in the book’s apparatus, played for laughs. Mount’s description of Harold (Sonny) Ladoo, a Trinidadian-Canadian author who published one book before his untimely death in 1974, is the only other serious reference he makes to a Black writer in Arrival. This omission joins many others that work to marginalize writers who belong to minority groups: somehow, Jane Rule, Jean Little, Maxine Tynes, Dorothy Livesay, Adele Wiseman,  the many Inuit authors published in the 1970s, Joy Kogawa, Ethel Wilson and Mi’kmaq writer Rita Joe either do not appear at all or do not merit serious discussion. Gabrielle Roy is only a French Canadian writer who goes to Winnipeg to escape her fame for writing the Tin Flute. Francophone writing in Quebec in the 1960s is represented by mainly by Hubert Aquin, Pierre Vallières, Michel Tremblay, and Marie-Claire Blais. Pierre Vallièrres’ White Niggers of America is discussed without much contextualization—and this is a book with a title and premise that must be accompanied by an anti-racist critique*** if it is to be mentioned today. Meanwhile, Nicole Brossard, the highest profile feminist and GLBTQ writer in Quebec at the time who published five books before 1974 and who won the Governor General’s award in that year, goes unmentioned.

Despite this last glaring omission, Mount does have a bit to say about feminism, and it’s this: “feminism did not create the writers of the CanLit boom, at least not feminism by name. But both feminism and the conditions that awoke it did give women writers a large and interested audience” (308). That’s what feminists are here, consumers. As is the case so often in Arrival, Mount takes a partial truth and makes it stand in for the whole. Margaret Atwood and Gwendolyn MacEwan, who Mount cites for evidence, may not have been a feminists in the 1970s but Brossard was an active feminist during this period and founded feminist publications at the end of the decade. Dorothy Livesay was also involved in feminist political groups at the time and Margaret Laurence was part of the feminist peace movement. If Mount had extended his CanLit Boom chronology just a bit further to 1979, he could have written about the numerous feminist newsletters, literary journals and magazines**** in French and English that appeared from 1975 to 1979, and he could have addressed the work of Red Power activists and feminists of colour too. In a book dedicated to providing “the whole story,” it is remarkable that feminism is reduced to consumerism and the representation of women to commodification, as it is in this passage: “Khrushchev and Nixon debated communism versus capitalism in Moscow; a doll named Barbie spread her plastic legs in New York and settled the argument” (14).

In this version of the CanLit boom,  the increase in titles published in the 1960s and 1970s is used as the rationale for why good writing emerged at the time. Literary quality is read here very narrowly: Harlequin Enterprises, probably Canada’s most profitable publisher for decades, doesn’t even figure in this analysis.  All other cultural production in Arrival plays a supporting role to high literature. Theatre, for instance, is pictured as a void, with only the Factory Theatre deserving mention as the place where Canadian plays were produced. After the Painters 11 pack up their paints and go home, it seems that there’s no worthy national art. Music plays no role in Canada during the period, except for Leonard Cohen and briefly, because they make money, the Tysons. Literary programs on radio are given their due, but television and film (even animated shorts) are unworthy of mention.   What is most important here is that “literature” does the work of exclusion for Nick Mount. Where “literature” cannot do the work, value judgements take over.

Here’s an example. Maria Campbell’s memoir Halfbreed of 1973 was a bestseller and it remains a landmark work. But Mount discusses Campbell’s impact like this:  “the Prairies grew Margaret Laurence, Rudy Wiebe, and Maria Campbell, all three in their own way heralds of a coming Native renaissance” (19).  Mount reinstates the reading of regionalism Northrop Frye made in the 1970 essay “Canadian Identity and Canadian Regionalism,” where he observes that on the prairies, riding a horse makes one feel that one is “at the highest point in the universe” (267),***** reducing the cultural production for the region  to a geography. Prairie writers, it follows, are products of their environment, unlike writers in Toronto, who are products of cultural interaction. Laurence and Wiebe, who have been critiqued for their representation of Indigenous people in their fiction, somehow contribute to “a Native renaissance,” a phrase that simultaneously erases and mischaracterizes the contribution of Indigenous writers in the 1970s and their struggle to get their work into print.******  The politics of Halfbreed are blunted here. Campbell’s identity as a Métis activist and writer is erased by making her “regional” and making Laurence and Wiebe part of the history of Indigenous writing.

To add more fuel to this dumpster fire of an argument, Mount “reviews” a variety of Canadian books published between 1959 and 1974. He uses a 5 star rating system running from “Got Published” to “World Classic” (spoiler alert: Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Alistair MacLeod, Al Purdy, Sheila Watson, Mavis Gallant, Dennis Lee and bp nichol are the ones who get five stars). Reviewers have objected to these puff pieces because they are so partisan, but I like to think of them as the true heart of the book, where Mount really flies the flag for the kind of literature he enjoys. What we find out is that Mount likes high literary fiction and poetry well enough, but no other kinds of writing really pass muster. And we find out that the author hasn’t done all that much work to make most of his reviews accurate or respectful.

At one painful point, Mount reviews Halfbreed.  It gets three stars, a “very good.”  Mount goes on to mention what he calls a true fact: Campbell’s book and Cher’s song “Half-Breed” were released in the same year, and then he adds that Campbell is “of mostly Scottish, French and Cree descent” (301). This is not how to talk about Campbell’s identity. She is Métis, and that is the nation to which she belongs. To add to the problems here, the song “Half-Breed” has been shown to be highly problematic. In the past, Cher has claimed Cherokee ancestry , especially when she has performed the song, without providing any evidence to substantiate her claim. Placing that song next to Halfbreed without that context and not stating that Campbell is in fact Métis look to me like neocolonial assumptions bolstered by sloppy research.  It’s not the only instance: Mount repeats Milton Acorn’s claim (debunked for decades)******* that he is of Mi’kmaq origin, writing about “the Mi’kmaq in his blood” (314). The Japanese Canadian internment becomes “The Japanese internment” (250), erasing decades of explanation by activists and historians that the internment refused to treat Japanese Canadians as Canadian citizens.********

2016 and 2017 have seen a parade of scandals in CanLit as an industry:  the spectacle of famous authors rushing headlong to the defense of author Steven Galloway when UBC fired him for breach of trust; the revelation that Joseph Boyden, Galloway’s staunch defender, was not in fact an Indigenous writer; the Writer’s Union of Canada appropriation “award” controversy. In the wake of these scandals that revealed much of the foundation of the CanLit star-system to be racist, neocolonialist, sexist and just plain arrogant, it might seem unthinkable that a book such as Arrival could be received without much hard-hitting discussion of its assumptions about history, regionalism, race, settler colonialism, and what constitutes sound research. But this is what has happened, so far.

The dumpster fire that is Canadian literary nationalism continues to burn. Arrival fans the flames.

*Northrop Frye, The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Literary Imagination, House of Anansi, 1971, 220.

** She said this in a talk I saw in Edmonton, Alberta for the Canadian Literature Centre, 2016.

***Josée Makropoulas, “Promoting Frenchness Within the Realm of Whiteness,” in Racism, eh? A Critical Anthology of Race and Racism in Canada, Captus Press, 2004.

****See Cecily Devereux, “Canadian Feminist Literary Criticism  and Theory in the ‘Second Wave,’” Oxford Handbook of Canadian Literature, Ed. Cynthia Sugars, Oxford University Press, 2015. 845-851.

*****This was an unpublished report to the CBC on regional programming. Northrop Frye, Northrop Frye on Canada vol. 12. U. of Toronto Press, 2003.

******See chapters by Emma LaRocque in Writing the Circle, Armand Ruffo in (Ad)ressing Our Words, Greg Young-Ing in Looking at the Words of Our People and Cheryl Suzack in History of the Book in Canada, vol. 3.

*******Richard Lemm, Milton Acorn in Love and Anger. McGill-Queens UP, 1999. 13-17.

********Roy Miki & Cassandra Kobayashi, Justice in Our Time: the Japanese Canadian Redress Settlement. Talonbooks, 1991. Roy Miki, Redress: Inside the Japanese Canadian Call for Justice. Raincoast Books, 2004.


Julie Rak is a Professor in the Department of English and Film Studies, and she lives and works on Treaty 6 and Metis territory. Julie holds an Eccles Fellowship at the British Library for 2017-2018 and is also a Killam Professor at the University of Alberta for 2017-18. She is the author of Boom! Manufacturing Memoir for the Popular Market (2013) and Negotiated Memory: Doukhobor Autobiographical Discourse(2004). She is the editor of Autobiography in Canada (2005), has co-edited with Anna Poletti Identity Technologies: Constructing the Self Online (2014) and with Keavy Martin she edited the reissue of Mini Aodla Freeman’s prize-winning Inuit memoir, Life Among the Qallunaat (2014). With Jeremy Popkin, she edited a collection of Philippe Lejeune’s essays translated into English, On Diary (2009) and with Andrew Gow, she edited Mountain Masculinity: the Writings of Nello “Tex” Vernon-Wood, 1911-1938 (2008).   Julie sponsored and co-wrote with Hannah MacGregor the 2016-2017 Counter-Letter petition about the UBCAccountable controversy, and she maintains a website of resources for those who want to learn more about the issues.

academic work · advice · careers · dissertation · faculty · junior faculty · mentoring · midcareer · Uncategorized

How to be an external examiner

I’m going on sabbatical in six and a half weeks (who’s counting?) and as a result I’m on a mad throw-out binge trying to clear out my office for a fresh start.

I found, among many, many other surprises, a copy of the external examiner’s report on my own doctoral dissertation. I’ve blanked all recollection of this from my mind since 2004 and I was nervous as I sat to read it. It’s about two-and-half pages of single-spaced text, that’s really evenhanded in its assessment. First off, in retrospect I’m impressed that we got such a well-known external. Scott Bukatman was a get. Thanks, Heather! Second, when I posted about finding this, on Twitter, some people expressed a profound unknowing about what an external examiner’s report should be. And it’s true: no one trains professors to do these. I wasn’t trained. Many students are never allowed to see the reports (at the University of Waterloo, it is at the external’s discretion whether the report can be shared with the candidate, with a presumption of not, and if yes, only after the defence has taken place.) I have never seen a guide on how to write one, but sooner or later most of us with tenure will be examining theses, and this work is too high-stakes and too important to leave to chance.

Lucky me that I was the Associate Chair for Graduate Studies for three years. In that time, I saw every report on every dissertation, probably something like 20 in total. I had seen a few before that, including for students I supervised and whose committees I was on. I have also examined several myself, now, so I know what it’s like to write them.

The best reports are formative as much as they are summative–that is, they seek to teach as much as to manage the gates, if you will. Especially if revisions will be required, it’s important to be clear and proactive in expressing not just what the dissertation fails to do, or what it does wrong, but also in suggesting a path forward. Perhaps a dissertation clocks in at 500 pages–easy enough to say “This is far too long and it must be shortened”. But better to say instead “This dissertation is overlong and should be reduced in length. Chapters 2 and 3 largely repeat the same point, while all the other chapters are distinct from one another–perhaps the candidate could condense these two into one. Other chapters spend too much time rehashing what has just been written: substantially reducing the preamble for each chapter would make this a stronger dissertation, and a more appropriate length.” Don’t worry–there’s always check boxes where you essentially give a grade to the whole dissertation, so the force of your judgement will be very visible.

Don’t let the cat help write the report; she’s really mean.

The best reports make detailed and specific reference to the text in framing their feedback on the dissertation as a whole. Such information, which normally the examining committee sees ahead of time, will give everyone a sense of the particular issues you might raise in a defence, and are later useful in guiding student revision. Saying something like, “This is written in a very flat style that makes the main argument difficult to care about” might be true, but imagine a candidate trying to understand what that means as she contemplates the 500 pages in front of her and thinks about how to address that criticism. More helpful might be something like, “The candidate employs passive verbs throughout, and sentences of nearly uniform length and construction, which makes this text less dynamic than it could be. Also, by mostly foregrounding the secondary criticism at the fronts of chapters, sections, and even paragraphs, the candidate is hiding her own ideas by placing them in much less prominent positions.” That is feedback that gives clear direction for improvement.

The best reports balance kindness and generosity with critique. When, as a professor of 13 years standing and frequent receiver of reports from Reviewer 2, I read the comments I’ve made up above, I am applauding my own pedagogical astuteness, but a candidate is going to receive them like this: “My external examiner thinks my dissertation is too long and I’m a bad writer and I don’t have any original ideas and I’m an idiot and she hates me.” I mean, that’s how I read Bukatman’s comments on my own dissertation at the time, but I see now, he was right about everything, and at the core, he was also very generous and full of praise though that was nearly impossible for me to see. It is your job as an examiner, then, to find some praiseworthy elements of the flatly-written, over-sourced, too-long 500 page dissertation you’re examining. Perhaps you can say, “The candidate’s secondary and primary research is clearly extensive, comprehensive, and well-nigh encyclopedic: this is to be applauded, and speaks to the great care with which this project has been handled.” Perhaps you can say, “Despite some infelicities of writing and construction, there are very clear original contributions to the field in this work: Cute Animal Studies will benefit from this deeply researched and minutely argued case for the Bassett Hound as ‘the next Corgi’ and I encourage the candidate, once suitable revisions are made, to share this work in a series of articles in refereed journals.” Perhaps you can say, “The candidate has show great skill in marshalling and explaining a hugevariety of sources in this work, evidencing a clear eye for both detail and a strong instinct for categorization.” Those portions of your review which aim to praise should have no clauses that undermine this praise–no buts. You have plenty of other sentences for that.

The best reports are attentive to the institutional norms of the host university. Each university has rules about formatting, about length, about what the different “grades” you can assign mean in that institutional context, about timelines, about length and detail required in the report, about responsibilities for attending a defence. Scrupulously attend to these, even if no one tells you what they are–it’s easy to Google this stuff, and you save needless back and forth if, for example, you are about to fail a dissertation for being too short at 150 pages, but that is considered well within the acceptable range at the university in question. A lot of stress arises from cross-institution mis-communication. This is especially true for international projects. Look it up. Save someone (possibly yourself) from a lot of gray hair and stress.

The best reports are complete and handed in on time. Period. Someone’s tuition, graduate career, and professional opportunities are at stake. At my university, most pragmatically, there are hard cut-off dates for graduation requests, as well as staggered full- and partial-tuition-refund deadlines. Please do not dally. It can cost thousands of dollars for the candidate.

The best reports are long enough to offer meaningful feedback. Usually, these can run between three and six single-spaced pages of text. That’s a good guideline.

For junior report writers, the best advice I can give you is to read as many reports as you can get your hands on. Ask if your department has any you can see. Ask your friendly colleagues in your department or in your field if you can see reports they’ve written. Exposure to a range of (anonymized) reports will go a long way to help you accustom yourself to the genre. The stakes are very high, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t admit you don’t know what you’re doing–it means you have every right to ask for guidance. I hope this little guide helps. Faculty who’ve done this a lot, do you have anything to add?

Next week, maybe I’ll write about how to conduct yourself at a defence, if you like?

Funny story. I have read probably six dissesertations in part or in whole since July. I was getting salty about it, and went to recalibrate my own expectations by looking at my own dissertation, which has sat unmolested on its shelf for more than a decade. I was looking to have a moment of hubris pricked–what I found instead was that it was way better than I remembered it and after discussing it on Facebook with a wide variety of people, I’ve lightly rewritten and sent it off, all 85,612 words, to an academic publisher. So, honestly, you never know what benefit you’ll get from reading other people’s dissertations, is the upshot of this wee anecdote.

being undone · feminist communities · solidarity

Surviving Our Questions

we learn from those who help us survive our questions by inviting us into their own

— from Gila Ashtor, “Two Girls2″




I think maybe my whole life as an academic has revolved around asking questions, or trying to ask the right questions. But, until I read Gila Ashtor’s essay, I don’t think I realized that there is also, always, the question of surviving my questions. I didn’t know that my questions — the ones I wanted to ask and the ones I was afraid to ask and the ones I finally got the guts to ask — were something that I had to live through, endure, move past.

I knew that asking a good question, the right question, could disturb, unsettle, intervene. I worked hard at doing that. I tell my students that they should try to ask good questions. That such questions can make a real mark whether they are posed at the end of a lecture or whether the are the beginning of what will be a doctoral project or book or lifelong intellectual investigation. In this sense, I thought of questions, my good ones anyways, as something unambiguously good. And if they unsettled or disturbed people or fields of study, then good.

But I never stopped to think that such questions exact a cost and demand that a burden be borne. I did not understand that asking a question was also about testing my own ability to survive the act of asking.

I love the turn that Ashtor takes in this densely beautiful essay on relationality, Mary Gaitskill’s novel Two Girls, Fat and Thin, and Lauren Berlant’s essay on that novel, queer affect, pedagogy, and so much else. It is a turn that finds solace in a kind of doubled questioning: we survive our questions by learning from those who invite us into their own. Surviving our questions is all about finding a way into the questions of others. And those others need to be generous enough to invite us into their own questions.

Reading Ashtor somewhat out of context, I have been thinking about how to survive the questions that have been unleashed in the wake of the deeply complex waves of recognition and sadness and awfulness and solidarity that is #metoo and everything that came before and everything that will come.

What now? You too? Can we say the names? Are you scared? How can we stop being scared? When do I stop being so enraged and exhausted?

Who will invite us into their questions so that we can learn how to survive these questions? I thought a lot about this and, because I work in an institutional context, I immediately thought about feminist leaders, senior academic allies, women who will know stuff. But then I realized, yes, them (and how lucky we are to have them), BUT also: us. We have turn, more than ever, to each other. We have to invite each other into our questions.

And it is going to be hard and we will only survive if we can find what is transformable and be ourselves transformed:

To the extent that “history” is not only what “hurts,” it is also in no small part a result of whom we meet and what, because of who they are, we find transformable, and transformed, about ourselves. (Ashtor)

Let’s keep asking our questions and do it knowing that we can survive them because we have to keep inviting each other in.

teaching · Uncategorized

The Two Greatest Ed-Tech Tools of All Time

Educational technology can be frustrating and tricky. I was complaining a couple of weeks ago about weirdly placed projectors and white boards with no markers and projectors that don’t work no matter how hard you try. Our learning management system is full of gargoyles and error messages and snake pits I keep stepping in.

But there are two educational technologies that have never let me down; two educational technologies that have brought nothing but sunshine, student engagement, hilarity, good work, and authentic learning to my classroom; two technologies that make my life easier at the same time as they push students forward. Cheap, robust, accessible, always working–no down time, no tech support, no upgrades.

Those two technologies? My iPhone timer, and the random number generator feature on Google.

Seriously. Try it.

Let me explain.

iPhone Timer: A lot of my courses are writing focused. All of my courses ask students to participate in class discussion. All of my courses feature group work and in-class collaboration. With my iPhone timer, I structure timed writing sessions, with every class, every meeting. In a writing class, it’s really hard to teach by lecturing: students should learn how to write by writing. So we write. I often open class like this: “Take two minutes, and write absolutely as much as you can about possible research directions for your paper–what you need to learn, what you already know, keywords for library searches, names of authors you know on this topic, names of websites likely to have information, everything. I’ll set my timer for two minutes, and I’m watching to make sure your pens don’t stop moving, or your fingers don’t stop typing … GO!” Maybe later in my grad seminar, I’ll say, “We just finished a unit on social justice selfies. I’m going to set the timer for five minutes and I want you to brainstorm all the ideas we’ve been exposed to. Then we’ll do another five minutes where you can use that material as a prompt to write a paragraph summarizing the unit.”

I use the timer every day, in every class. Students expect to have to write, and they quickly get used to it. Timed writing is purposeful–I will always say before we start what we’re going to do with the writing after: think / pair / share; or, class discussion; or, personal process writing for an upcoming assignment. Timed writing is great to move students forward on a project. Timed writing is great for making sure that everyone has something to contribute to class discussion–I tell the shy students that if they are called on, they can just read verbatim what they’ve written down, and they like that a lot. Timed writing is great for modelling what I teach: we are maybe learning to write (my undergrad course is called ‘Intro to Academic Writing’ but strong students are also always writing to learn.

The timer is great because it seems objective and science-y to everyone. No one fights the timer. Everyone works. The best? When the timer goes off and everyone is shoots their eyes up in shock: already?

Random Number Generator: I just started using this last year, in a first year digital culture / writing focused class taken by reluctant Math majors. I would do timed writing before a class discussion, and so I knew everyone had at least the stub of something to contribute, and then I would ask the question, and no. one. would. raise. their. hand. Crickets chirped. A whole lot of nothing-burger. No one. I would cajole, and I would eventually point at someone and make them talk. Yuck.

What I do now is have students number off before the timed writing. And then I say, “We will discuss this question as a group, and the random number generator is going to decide who talks!”

This is a great system, remarkably effective, and fair, and fun. It’s like video slots, only no one wants to win. Instead of trying to guess the odds that I will point at them and make them talk, the human element is taken completely out of it. The random number generator cares not if you are making eye contact, or if you are studiously scribbling. It just picks a number. Students also stop blaming me for putting them on the spot. It’s not a test of wills between me and them. They know this is a teaching strategy I use to make sure that everyone uses their timed writing wisely, and saves them from having to take the risk of volunteering to talk, or the potential dread of being called on by me. I use it nearly every day in my undergrad classes, and it has really improved discussion, attitudes, and students’ effort levels. And we laugh a lot, too.

I use the RNG for group work, too. I used to have groups work on things independently and then sequentially report back to the class. That took forever. Now I have all the groups working in shared public Google docs, so everyone can read what they’ve produced whenever they want, and the RNG picks two groups and they report. Everyone works really hard, because they’re producing class notes, and no one knows when they’re going to have to present to the class, so everyone has to prepare for that.

It is a truism that students put effort where grades are involved. I understand that their time and attention is diverted and fragmented and limited and scarce. I want to make sure that if they’re going to come to class, it’s going to be worth their time–they’re going to get something measurable and meaningful done. The iPhone Timer and the RNG add a tiny bit of accountability and stakes to in-class work–it’s not like grades are involved, but there’s a non-trivial chance that any given student or group is going to have to say something out loud, or present an idea, or fill in a shared worksheet. The iPhone Timer and the RNG make the time/attention calculus easy: it’s just easier to participate fully than it is to try to game it. And the result is a win for all of us: they do better work, they learn more, I talk / lecture a lot less, we build shared resources, we laugh at the idiosyncrasies and unintended hilarities of the RNG.

Do you have a favourite or unexpected ed-tech? I’m always looking for more classroom hacks.


change management · righteous feminist anger

The Notebook Dump



image via

Allegations are coming by the bushel, and we are in a moment of figuring out how to sort them. In journalism, there’s a term called “notebook dump,” the process of throwing together all your reporting — every note taken, interview conducted, scene observed. Some stuff won’t make the ultimate story; the notebook dump is how you see what you’ve got, and figure out how to move forward.

The women of America are currently engaged in a notebook dump of epic proportions, releasing the anecdotes they’ve been carrying since puberty.

— Monica Hesse and Dan Zak, “Who’s next? A moment of reckoning for men – and the behavior we can no longer ignore”

Every day, the whisper network roars more loudly. Women used to tell these stories to each other, but now we can start putting together documents and massive correspondence chains. Once untouchable bullies and titans are coming down and falling hard.

It’s amazing. It’s exhausting. It’s about time.

It is, as Hesse and Zak note, a notebook dump of epic proportions. Most of us are not seasoned journalists with armloads of notebooks to sort through. But I think we have all been doing our own notebook dumps. Quietly, or not so quietly, we have been sifting through all the crap that we’ve lived through and lived with, the grossness of all the stuff we saw, all the garbage behavior we have suffered through.

I don’t know what we should do with all that. But I’m becoming more and more sure that we need to do a real, no holds barred, notebook dump in the academy. Maybe you’re already doing this? As Emma Healey’s “Stories are Like Passwords” passes through our hands again and again, I know that we have been doing this, and doing it for a long time. But, even still, it’s hard to resist holding back a little. I know I have. I’m sorry. I am still trying to figure out know how to do this. Naming names feels dangerous. And this from me, a tenured academic who has much more security in the profession than most. As Jennifer Berdahl’s personal reckoning tells us,

a fancy professorship doesn’t shield a woman from being harassed or empower her to do anything about it… Ambition is the enemy of righteousness in poorly led academia. High h-indexes, editorial power, and social networks protect harassers by motivating their targets to remain silent, administrators to do nothing, and otherwise honorable colleagues to duck in the sidelines. You might end up where and what you want to be, but not who or how you wanted to be when you get there.

We have a lot of truths to tell even though we know all too well that there are still devastating consequences for us when we tell them. And I also know that, for many, even telling in the most private of spaces is not, or not yet, possible. It will trigger too much.

But, if you have some notebooks to dump, and you want to dump them, let’s do this. We don’t have to decide in advance what we want to do with what we share and what we dump. But let’s do this and let’s be really loud about the fact that we are resolutely engaged in a notebook dump of epic proportions. And we are not going to stop.

Just letting everyone know that this is what we are doing, that we are talking to each other and doing so with names and dates, that we are tracking patterns of this crap as much as we are singular incidents, could have a behavioural modification effect going forward. Every sexual harasser should know that their high h-indexes and pals in admin can’t protect them forever. They should wake up every morning wondering if this is the day where the story of their terrible behaviour is busted wide open and their legacies will be swept away in a torrent of righteous feminist anger.

Let’s go back to our notebooks, and find some places where we can start comparing them, again. Let’s help each other figure out what we want next. Let’s do it together and let’s have each other’s backs.


canada · guest post · in the news · Uncategorized

Guest post: Reading anti-niquab legislation alongside sexual harassment

The anti-niqab legislation newly passed in the Quebec legislature comes amidst a longstanding debate about “reasonable accommodation” for religious views and a more recent debate about sexual harassment and assault, the “me too” campaign that sees women everywhere describing unwanted sexual advances and attacks.  It’s worth seeing these two issues as related.

I’m a woman so, naturally, I have my “me too” stories. I too have experienced routine harassment and open assault, dating way back. Sometimes it seemed relentless: multiple propositions, day in and day out, just because you were walking in the streets or taking the subway or even going for a jog. Some guy would proposition you and then shout abuse when you declined to engage. I was eighteen when I went for a solo walk in the woods and was assaulted. That was also the year that I stopped wearing makeup. A visiting cousin persuaded me to put on some of hers. But within five minutes of leaving the house, I’d received so many catcalls that I rubbed it off, and never wore the stuff again. To wear makeup seemed to be taken, by the men on the street where I lived, as issuing a sexual invitation.

If there had been a veil option, I think I would have taken it. Anything to make those propositions and gropings stop. It’s hard to say: “but listen to what I have to say” when attention is being continually directed to how you look or what you wear or other female attributes. That’s why sexism—or racism—in the university is so toxic, especially for students seeking a voice: one’s body seems to speak louder than one’s words at a place where words are supposed to be particularly valued. I don’t think Premier Couillard can have any idea of the frustration that women can experience from that onslaught of sexual harassment. Deciding to wear a veil can be, for some women, a little bit like deciding not to wear makeup. It can be a choice for more privacy, less visiblity, less sexualization. It’s not something we should forbid, any more than we should set rules on makeup. Women can and should make up their own minds.

Quebecers have fought hard for women’s rights. They don’t like the idea of women being bullied and they have gone to considerable lengths to oppose it. Many Quebecers, I think, see the niqab as a threat to women’s autonomy and liberty; they think they are protecting women from bullying when they oppose the niqab. Quebec has had some truly horrific experiences of misogyny in recent years: so-called honour killings and the terrible events of 1989 when fourteen young women were killed for supposedly being out of their sphere.  It’s no wonder that Quebecers aren’t quite satisfied with an official stance that suggests people can believe what they like and comport themselves as they like, so long as they don’t cause public trouble. It’s no wonder that Quebecers want more searching protections for women. I think the same impulse that makes Quebecers want to “protect” women from the niqab would also make them, on fuller consideration, repudiate anything that would actually provoke bullying, as this ban must inevitably do. They would be the first to leap to the defence of any person they saw being bullied or even arrested for trying to ride a bus.

Cynical politicians have tried to exploit such concerns and direct them towards nativist resentments. But Quebecers repudiated that sort of nativism in the last election and I’ve no doubt they will do so again if the case is squarely put to them. If some people wish to politicize what women put on their faces, then the way for a secular society to respond is not: “Hey, we can politicize it right back at you,” but, instead: “Whatever. Wear a veil or wear five of them; we take no interest in the matter.” Only when we stop sensationalizing what women wear and focus instead on what they have to say, can we genuinely overcome misogynistic bullying. And Quebecers are more likely to come fully around to that view if they, too, are addressed moderately as reasoning beings, rather than attacked as incorrigible racists.

Elsbeth Heaman teaches history at McGill University. Her views are her own.

classrooms · inconvenience · teaching · Uncategorized

Classroom design and architectural determinism

You can learn a lot about an institution from its classrooms. The politics, values, and pinch-points inadvertently reveal themselves in infrastructure, I find.

In general, the classrooms I teach in attempt to squeeze too many students into a space designed for fewer of them. That’s problem number 1. One of our alumni, who took his degree in the 1970s when our building was new, remembers all of his classes having between 8 and 15 students (some of them smoking!) in classrooms that now have tables and chairs for 18-25. If someone at the back needs to get up, pretty much everyone else has to stand up and move out of the way.

Problem number 2 is that when these rooms are “redesigned” or “refurbished” the after condition is often worse than the before. The brown brick classrooms in my building, with chalkboards and pull-down screens and projectors bolted into the ceiling have now all been repainted retinal-burn white, have whiteboards that are actually wall paint and can only bear one brand of marker and be wiped only with a special rag (most classrooms have neither rag nor markers available) and instead of a screen there’s a giant wall mounted TV the people keep hitting their heads on. The instructor console is bolted to the wall now, so you have to turn your back on the class and stand up and lean in to use it. I hit people with my butt a lot this way.

The upward pressure on class sizes is visible here, as is the trend to one-size-fits all, vendor-led classroom design. There was a time when we taught classes of 12 students, and this time haunts us in the rooms we’re left with: too small for what we’re trying to do now, the awkwardness and discomfort of the new arrangements physically felt by everyone.

The bureacratization, managerialism, and business-ing of higher education is manifest in classroom redesigns that very, very clearly took no input at all from either students or teachers: I imagine it was all vendors, IT people, plant operations, and budget staff who did this. The rooms are literally unusable. So in one room I have to hit students with my butt to show some powerpoints and half of them have to move seats in order to see it. In the other room I’m teaching in right now, where there’s never any markers and no cloth, the classroom clock is hung in the middle of the painted-white-board wall that is most often obscured by the pull down screen. The students are seated stadium style (there are only 25 of them) and the rows are too close together, or too close to the wall, for me to walk past them without touching some part of my torso against the backs of their heads. No.

Yeah. I “erased” this as hard as I could.

It’s depressing.

In my ideal classroom the seating is flexible, so we can move it if we have to. I need the seating spaced enough that I can easily walk around the room. At the very least I should be able to walk to some vantage point where I can see their laptop screens. Crowded classrooms with inflexible media arrangements enforce a separation of the front of the room from the rest of it, a separation I feel keenly when I can’t even manoeuvre my way to my students to answer a group-work question, or hand back a marked paper. I can’t walk around during writing time to see what people’s screens are showing. This classroom turns it into me and them, not us. I hate that.

In my ideal classroom the technology serves teaching and learning, rather than serving as the kind of sun around which we must all orbit. Most of the projectors, for example, cover the whiteboard area, and can’t be ‘muted’–which means if the projector is on, it stays on and you can’t use the board. If you turn it off, it goes through its whole routine, and then again if you want to turn it back on. Flexible, it ain’t.

There are always tradeoffs in any situation, I understand. But as I watch all the rooms around me get retrofitted to be somehow uglier, more crowded, and even less usable than before, I fear we show a different set of values as an institution, a kind of carelessness or committee-think that has forgotten that classrooms are for students, and they are for teachers, to work together, to build something magic. All the phone calls because the TV is not working, or not being able to use the paintboard because someone else used the wrong marker, or shouting across the room at people because you just can’t get to where they are? That’s not it.

What does your ideal classroom look like?

appreciation · balance · conferences

Leaning into the weight and being off balance


This is me giving a conference paper in Paris a few years ago. That’s my daughter in the baby wrap thing. Those are her little legs sticking out. She had  fallen asleep right before my panel. We had just survived our first trans-Atlantic flight together. I was SO tired. I know she was too. Once she fell asleep, that was it. I was not going to disturb that nap no matter what. So I gave my paper with the lights dimmed and reveling in the white noise of the projector. I whispered. The whole time. The room was hot. I am pretty sure everyone in the room was asleep by the time I was done.

Not the greatest conference paper of my career. For sure. But I got through. And the whole thing seems very funny now.

I’ve been thinking about this moment again. There’s always a lot of talk about work-life balance and how hard it is to strike that balance. I would be the first to agree. But I’m also starting to think that, sometimes, it’s ok for things to be kind of totally unbalanced. Maybe you’re a new parent. Maybe you have to care for a parent. Maybe your partner needs you a lot all of a sudden and you need to be there for them.

When I look at this picture, I can feel how heavy my baby was. I can feel the straps cutting into my shoulders and the heat of her little head against my chest. It wasn’t exactly pleasant, but there was a kind of sweetness in that weight too and I want to hang on to that.

Let’s keep talking and staying with each other about all the craziness of this thing called work-life balance, about whether to lean in or lean out.  I don’t have a lot of grand thoughts about any of that except to say that, sometimes, things just won’t be in balance. You will try. And you will let that be good enough. And, sometimes, you will lean into the weight of the things that throw you off balance. You’ll feel it in your shoulders and your in your chest and it will probably be exhausting. Lean into that too. It’s ok.