boast post · student engagement · teaching

Boast Post: The Wonderful Dr. Wunker

“In my second year, in a bout of seeing the world and it’s injustices especially morbidly, I asked you whether it all mattered; what anyone could really do to fix the massive social, cultural, political and economic problems that affect society today. You told me there were many ways to make change, but that a starting point – and this I remember distinctly – lay in education. Not necessarily formal education, not necessarily academic education, but being informed: recognizing and understanding societal problems was a necessary first step to changing anything. This is something I am always going to remember, and take away from my time in your classes. As you begin work in a new city, at a new school, I have the utmost confidence that you will be successful. “

 A little birdie emailed me this morning to let me know that one of Erin Wunker’s students at Dalhousie had written a lovely tribute to her, inspired by her departure to Mount Allison. Boast posts around here are normally a space where we celebrate our own achievements, but today we’ll celebrate Erin’s instead. You can find the tribute over at Cut the Jargon.

appreciation · balance · heavy-handed metaphors · kid stuff · teaching

What we teach, what they learn, involving child yoginis and the power of example

My daughter’s been taking yoga lessons for two years: picture a sunny room, with hardwood floors, an abundance of bolsters, pillows, blocks, mats, and five- to eight-year-olds, and you’ll get a pretty good idea of what it’s like. And what it’s like is mostly shambolic, often adorable, and sometimes noisy, an exercise in crowd control as much as instruction in meditation, self-respect, and rajakapotasana. I observe from the back of the room, reading my paper and drinking my coffee while Amanda does her best to hold everyone’s attention, help them do headstands, leap around like frogs, stop building towers and forts out of props.

Unexpectedly, I had a lunchtime class at my studio with Amanda the other day, and I knew my daughter would get a kick out of us having the same teacher. She did. But she wanted to know: did Amanda do the noodle test on grownups, too?

For savasana, the ‘corpse pose’ at the end of class, Amanda always wanders softly to each child, doing the ‘noodle test’ to see if they’re relaxed. This involves picking up each limb and giving it a jiggle. The kids get to name which kind of pasta they wish to be. It’s pretty adorable. “No,” I said sadly, “Amanda does not do the noodle test with grownups.”

My girl leapt up, “Mommy, I can do the noodle test for you now, so you can fully relax.” (That’s what she said: fully relax.) I lay myself out straight. My girl waited about thirty seconds, and whispered, “Mom, what kind of pasta do you want to be?”


She ran her fingers from my shoulder down my arm, picked up my arm from the wrist with her two hands, and swung it gently from side to side. She pulled it a little out from my shoulder, and then laid it down very deliberately and slowly, palm side up. “Yesssss,” she said, “a nice, well-cooked fusilli, hmmmmm.” Her voice had dropped a bit: slower and more breather, but deeper too. She moved around the rest of my limbs. “Yessssss, Mom, you are fulllllllly relaxed, niiiiiiiiiiiice wet pasta.”

Two things struck me. First, she was really good at this: it helped me relax. Second, she’s picked all this up from Amanda, sounded exactly like her. My daughter is seven; she is not a certified yoga teacher. But she held the room for me, she used a soft voice and a gentle but firm touch, gave me, FOR GOD’S SAKE, an adjustment.

Somehow, in the midst of the noisy, inattentive chaos of her yoga class, my girl learned something that neither of us realized she knew: how to touch someone gently and with respect, a generosity of spirit, where your arms and legs should be for savasana, what your muscle tone should be like. Amazing that she sounded like she was mimicking Amanda, but in dead earnest: this is how you do it.

Teaching and learning are mysterious. You never know what sinks in, or what is going in one ear and coming out the other. By dint of practice and repetition and example, surprising leaps are made. You just never know, until one day, you see it happen.

modest proposal · you're awesome

Don’t read the comments. Write them!

It seems like all the signs point to “never read internet comments.” It’s true: the more you’re invested in a topic, the more broken-hearted you will be if you read the comments on the internet. The Atlantic has a piece on internet comments, and how they’re still pretty awful. There’s a twitter account dedicated to dissuading you from the very thought. It’s hilarious, and you should check it out. Everybody and her cousin will tell you not to read the internet comments. I’m here to propose something revolutionary: don’t read the comments, but write them instead! I exaggerate, of course, but while writing thoughtful, encouraging, or just plain decent comments won’t shift the axis of the Earth, it might shift the terms of discussion and make the internet a better place for women and for everyone else.


There are several separate, but similar instances that have led me, an avowed long-time blog lurker, to think and act. While I haven’t transformed overnight into a prolific comment-writer, theses instances have made me rethink my role as avid internet user as a responsibility. It’s kinda like voting: if you can, but opt not to vote in an election, then what have you done to improve your political landscape? Here are the things that have occasioned my mental shift:

1. Under the heading “Sikh woman teaches Reddit a lesson in tolerance,” Balpreet Kaur’s story of bravely taking control of her own narrative unfolding derisively on Reddit became viral. What struck me was the pedagogy: Balpreet transformed a potentially traumatic event into a teaching moment for the internet. As a teacher, I thought I could do the same, and take the two minutes it lasts to write a comment. As an academic, on the other hand, I suffer from chronic perfectionism syndrome, which is part of the reason I’m such a reluctant commenter: “surely, it would take too much time I don’t have,” I would tell myself, “to put this thought into cogent prose that would represent my persona accurately.” But here’s the thing: the anonymous commenters who generally overpopulate the comments section [present company excluded, of course*] and transform it into a snake pit obviously discard their venom immediately, and without any packaging; also, the genre does not require polishing beyond what’s generally due to a tweet, a FB status update, or an SMS text. Bottom line: take the five minutes it takes to add your two cents, support an opinion you agree with, or demystify an idea in polite terms.


2. Michelle Moravec and Heather Froelich performed a corpus analysis of the comments in an open thread on Postcolonial Digital Humanities website, and came up with startling results, especially for an academic discussion:

Of 38 individual commenters producing a total of 153 comments, we coded 26 commenters as male (68.5%) and 12 (31.5%) commenters as female. 72% of all the comments were written by men compared to 28% written by women.

Beyond comments:
3. The Wikipedia stats on women editors stand as the most eloquent example of why we need more feminine and feminist voices  online. As teachers, we know, probably best of all, that EVERYBODY reads Wikipedia; that it’s the first line of information, for teaching and for research. And yet, this example shows that far fewer women engage in editing Wikipedia articles than men. There are drastic consequences for this statistic: women writers are under-represented or brushed aside; if they exist at all, entries on women are underdeveloped. As one of my wonderful students put it, “women’s voices have been silenced long enough,” so why aren’t we taking this opportunity for redress? There are many reasons, and this blog response to the article from NYRB linked above lists nine of them.
4. Even if it’s impolite to quote oneself, Hook and Eye has many articles on why more women’s writing, reviewing, and commenting is vital. 

Finally, there are many circumstances impeding women’s participation: time, labour, emotional investment, fatigue, etc. We’ve discussed them here on H&E, and their disproportionate propensity to affect women. Yes, we need to draw a line between enough and too much labour. But do consider, every now and then, writing a comment, a Wikipedia entry, or a review. We have the expertise, the skills, the knowledge. Let’s get ourselves a voice!

* There are many good reasons to remain anonymous, especially given the environment I am describing, and what’s often at stake in revealing one’s identity. I am not referring here to people who feel this pressure, but to those who use anonymity to spew vitriol, as our commenting policy puts it.

being undone

Homeward bound …

There is something really satisfying about packing up my belongings to return home. I like the challenge and the possibilities entailed in laying out different outfits and such when I’m getting ready to go to a conference–it’s an act of creativity to account for possible social scenarios, weather, style, maybe getting to go to yoga … But coming home is simpler: everything that belongs to me that is not in the bag must now go in the bag.

Collect everything. Put it away. Leave a perfectly clean room behind.

This satisfies my perfectionist and absolutist tendencies, and gives me a great sense of control over my life, such as this life is represented by a suitcase, some blazers, a travel yoga mat, and a bunch of computer cables. Done or not done. I’m all the way here, or I’m all the way there. Knowable, verifiable, rectilinear, mobile!

Of course, this experience is the opposite of what usually happens to my inner life when I travel.

I head out of town with nice pens and blank paper and the batteries of my MacBook and my brain fully charged. I am open to possibility, ready for anything. I experience, in this case, three very full days of Congress (Canadian Society for Digital Humanities) followed by five even fuller days of DHSI (I taught a course on knowledge mobilization), and my mind and my subjective state and my body all go directly to hell.

I always start with an empty mental suitcase I wish to pack carefully full of ideas and interactions and experiences. I very often end up with a metaphorical blown zipper, lost wheel, “heavy baggage” sticker, or, like today, feeling the equivalent of dragging all my stuff home in an off-brand black garbage bag that will not survive the flight.

When the zombie apocalypse arrives, I will be dead within days. It turns out I’m perhaps not so resilient as I wish to be: disturb my routine and a couple of days later I’m a gibbering mess under all but the most felicitous circumstances. It turns out I’m really touchy about when and what I eat and how much sleep I need and how much alone time and under what circumstances and what freaks me out. Oh dear. I’m a delicate snowflake, I find to my dismay.

The exact details of my current state of total inner chaos don’t matter. I’m trying to meditate on this condition, breathe through it, ask how it is that I let this kind of work undo me totally.

Well, at least some of it I did right. I met Margrit, whom I’d otherwise never clapped eyes on! We had a drink at a great cocktail bar, with Erin! Then I had a nice lunch with Erin and got all caught up! I walked down to the ocean with Melissa, grabbed a coffee and contemplated the surf with her and Erin! I took a picture!

And! Yesterday I met Pantagruelle, a regular commenter who happens to be attending DHSI, too! Thanks so much, Pantagruelle, for introducing yourself!

Still. My bags look perfect. Everything is folded, everything is tucked away nicely. Inside my head, though, it’s a real mess. What are some of your strategies for maintaining equilibrium on research trips or conferences or workshops? Do you suffer the long dark midnight of the soul from being mentally overstimulated? I sometimes wonder if I’m just a big baby about these things: maybe other people can sit amongst 6000 or 500 academics sharing work and ideas at top speed and somehow keep up. I wonder if I’m doing it wrong?

change · emotional labour · risky writing

Ch-ch-ch-changes: Contract to Contract

I am moving.

More precisely, I am moving from Dalhousie University where I have been a contract employee for four years. On July 1 I will take up a 12-month contract position as an Assistant Professor in the English Department at Mount Allison University in beautiful Sackville, New Brunswick. 

I am thrilled about the move, thrilled about working in this new department, and beyond thrilled to make my new home in the centre of the universe (The Black Duck! Sappy Fest! Struts!) I am truly excited about the possibilities that await me there. For example, in terms of teaching responsibilities for the first time in the five years since completing my degree I will be teaching less than 200 students in a term (indeed, in the whole year). In terms of my personal and social life there is more happening in Sackville than almost any other place I have visited. And in terms of my research I am hoping that the additional time, the presence of such a rich intellectual and artistic community, and the smaller professor-to-student ratios will allow me to finish the two manuscripts that I have under contract as well.

At the same time, it feels risky to leave a place that I have lived, worked, and developed communities in for four of the last five years. I am not leaving for a tenure track job, if I was my decision to leave Dalhousie would have been far less emotionally challenging.

The other piece that feels risky is writing about my shift from one contract to another, from one university to another. Yet, I’m emboldened by two things. First, since beginning to write for Hook and Eye I have tried to talk frankly and publicly about my own experiences as a precarious worker. Second, the job I’ve been hired for is Canadian literature and gender and literature. As Heather has written, we need to continue talking about work and women. So here I am telling you: I’m excited about my new contract, my new colleagues, my new home, and all the incredible benefits to my personal life as well as my professional life. And here I am telling you that I am sad that the conditions in the academy are such that the kind of leave taking I’ve just experienced are more than common.

That’s the thing about contract work, though: in addition to the constant scramble for employment, you also have to think about those things that fuel your ability to work. In other words, you have to think about balance and those things that help you breathe.

So here’s to change. Sackville, I’m yours.