change · collaboration · community · race · social media

Listen: Learning As Community Responsibility

This morning my social media news feeds are a mix of reflection, rage, and resolve. Here is what I am seeing: Many of my friends and acquaintances were able to be in Edmonton for the last days of the hearings for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I’ve been reading their reflections and watching videos of speakers like Cindy Blackstock in order to learn and listen from here. This afternoon I’ll be teaching Marie Clements’s play Burning VisionHere at home, though, I am altering my class lectures to make room for discussion about the editor of the local paper who made the egregious decision to run a photograph of a person in blackface on the cover of the paper.

What do these things have to do with one another? A lot. Specifically, I think that together they model or open opportunities to talk about responsibility, community, and learning. Who are your teachers? Who are mine? Who gets listened to when? Whose voices are consistently and often violently left out of conversations? And how might we–with all the diversity that collective pronoun might mean–start having those conversations.

As most of you know I do much of my teaching and research under the auspices of literary studies, so let me talk about Clements’s play in order to start to unpack what I mean by a model of learning as community and responsability.

Burning Vision is a play in four movements, and it is a play that moves across time and space and between cultures. It has been described variously as a complicated play, as a postmodern play, and play about environmental justice. It may be all of these; I want to suggest it is also a model for learning as community responsibility.

The facts informing the play are these: in the late 1880s a Dene Seer prophesies a burning vision that will come in the future. The timeline in the play depicts how his vision comes to be. Between 1898-1925 radium becomes a valuable commodity. Between 1931-1932 the Canadian government issues a publication that warns of the health hazards associated with radioactive ore. 1930: The LaBine brothers discover highgrade pitchblende stake on Great Bear Lake. 1932 Dene men are hired to carry ore out of the mine and transport it to Fort McMurray. 1938: The Nobel Prize is granted to Enrico Fermi who has discovered the fissurable properties of uranium. 1941: Japanese Canadians are required to carry identification cards. 1941 the US orders eight tones of uranium from Great Bear Lake to conduct military research. 1942: Japanese-Canadians are forced into internment camps. 1945: Atomic bombs are dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 1960: the first Dene miner dies of cancer. And in August of 1998 six Dene residents travel to Hiroshima to pay respects on the anniversary of the detonation of the first atomic bomb.

As I said, the play works across time, space, and cultures. It is about Canada’s colonial history and its historic and ongoing violence against First Peoples. It is about systematic racism. It is about ecological devastation and mass violence. And it is about building communities of responsibility.

What I hope to discuss with my students in the comping classes are the ways in which this play models community responsibility and demonstrates the necessity for learning as a life-long process. Here’s what I mean: Burning Vision brings together historical and cultural specificity. As readers (or playgoers) we encounter historic injustice from our own cultural, racial, and gendered experiences. Crucially, Burning Vision does not let us stop there. The play–which draws on fact–requires that readers engage with injustice, historic violence, and reconciliation in the present. Let me be even more direct: as a white reader this play requires me to check my privilege. It does not allow me to relegate injustice, racism, and violence to the past or to something I might want to pretend is in the past. It reminds me that my silence or my limited knowledge is a kind of complicity. It teaches readers–it teaches me–that learning history is an on going process and that teachers don’t always, or even often, stand at the front of a classroom. Burning Vision opens a space to talk about historic inequity in the present. It also opens a space to talk about learning as a collaborative practice.

Let me turn back to the third of my opening examples: what can be gained by talking about the local paper’s decision to run a photograph of a person in blackface? I’m not going to reproduce the photo here because, as El Jones made so clear on CBC this morning, turning the discussion about the racist history of blackface into a single talk about one person and one paper sidelines the bigger, more urgent conversations we need to have. If you are in a position of privilege–when that privilege is unearned (ie. whiteness, maleness, cisgenderedness)–it is your responsibility to listen. Listening is responsible engagement. Listening is learning.

Far too often ears are shut. Often, I find myself at the front of a classroom and realize that I’m not the teacher. I don’t have all the knowledge. In those situations it becomes my responsibility to make space for that knowledge to circulate.

I’ll close with an opportunity and an example of learning as a community project, as a project of building communities and of listening. Tomorrow #30daysofprisonjustice will begin. It is a collaborative teach-in happening on social media. It is being initiated by El Jones and is, as she notes, a collaborative project.

To participate in #30daysofprisionjustice use this hashtag. Please note: 

Dehumanizing language about prisoners will not be permitted (monster, evil, animal.) Respectful questioning and dialogue is encouraged in order to critique, clarify and understand. Everyone is encouraged to both teach and learn, with the recognition that personal experience, lived experience of prison/racism etc. should be respected and listened to. This list is only my list, others are encouraged to add. Teaching can take many forms as in posting videos, articles, beginning disucssions, asking each other questions, sharing stories, drawing attention to cases of injustice, etc. Grammar policing or classist/racist values of what proper discussion look like is not welcome – all are encouraged to post.

Who are your teachers? Who are mine? Who gets listened to when? Whose voices are consistently and often violently left out of conversations? This is one way that we–with all the diversity that collective pronoun might mean–can start having more of those conversations.

learning · parenting · teaching

The Vulnerability of Learning

Around my fifth or sixth birthday, I got a small wooden kids’ piano as a present. It was gleaming red with no more than ten or twelve keys, but I was instantly enchanted. I resolved, with all the might of a preschooler, to learn to play the piano. A friend of my parents’ taught me to play the “Do Re Mi” song from The Sound of Music, and I became convinced that I wanted to dedicate my life to the pursuit of piano playing. My mom, however, had been traumatized by childhood piano lessons with the strict Fräulein Schiller, who used to encourage correct playing through the assiduous administration of ruler slaps to erring fingers. In consequence, my mom had vowed not to inflict music lessons on her innocent children, so she was reluctant to fuel my newfound passion for piano playing.

Fast forward a few decades to the present, and here we are, my daughter and me, going to her music lessons every week. We found our way into the Yamaha music education system through the recommendation of some friends, and their class-type method suits both of our social-butterfly natures. She loves going to music class. She really likes her teacher. She can watch the dvd like a pro. But she masterfully avoids practicing at home until the very last moment, when she has to do her homework, because she does not want to miss out on her workbook receiving the literal stamp of approval, which changes every week to a new child-friendly rendering of a musical instrument, an cute animal, a flower, or some fruit.

My goal is to find the middle ground between my kids’ gaining exposure to the world of music and my mom’s legitimate reluctance to shove music down her own kids’ oesophagi. I want my kids to grasp the richness of music, to offer them the opportunity of not starting from scratch should they ever want to pursue it, short of pushing them into it with all my might. I am not tiger mom, and this is not my battle hymn. However, I do want my kids to understand that the world is available through different types of languages, and that adequate understanding requires engagement and work rather than passive consumption. Achieving that understanding demands work, practice, and openness to rendering yourself vulnerable by admitting some degree of ignorance in order to open up the space for fostering new knowledge.

The affective vulnerability of learning emerges through the gamble of its result: acquiring new knowledge can make you happy, but a better understanding can also make you despair sometimes. When we were driving to the Farmers’ Market one Saturday while listening to CBC Radio 2 broadcasting a piano sonata, I put my pedagogical hat on–you know the one with the teacher and the classroom, right?–and asked my daughter if she noticed how accomplished the pianist was, and did she imagine how much practice had gone into achieving that level? Her reply, skirting my direct and very transparent moralistic lead, was that when the pianist plays F clef, it sounds like “[deep voice] Santa’s going down the chimney,” whereas when it’s G clef “[squeaky voice] Santa’s going back up.” Chuck this one to the woefully under-represented pile of “good-parenting goal achieved.”

There will be time, of course, to despair when learning about our inequitable social structures leads to an understanding of the diminished options for most humans’ and others species’ lives; when seeing how our generalized obsession with women’s bodies colludes with numerous other acts of aggression–physical and mental–that amount to a patriarchal structure whose fundamental modus operandi relies on domination and subjugation; when concluding that wars of both military and ideological kinds are waged by a handful, yet impact us all.

My hope, in both parenting and teaching, is that despair will be transitory, and move us into action, into changing the world to the benefit of the many. I want to resist the facile cliché of pain and gain here, because like most soundbites, it simplifies a complex affective situation, and reduces it to some form of monetary outcome. Vulnerability of the non-teleological kind is more like it.

classrooms · collaboration

Syllabus + Sound: Remixing and Teaching

It is no secret that this semester has brought some challenges, and with the so-called storm of the century apparently heading towards those of us in the Eastern provinces I figure it is time for some levity. Indeed, it is time for one of my favourite crowd-sourcing activities. Friends, it is time to talk about music.

In almost every course I teach music — and often music videos — finds its way into the classroom as a teaching supplement. This term is no exception. I’m teaching a third-year literature course which the course catalogue briefly describes as “Traditions in 20th and 21st century Women’s Writing in English.” Given that I’m only here on a year contract I didn’t go through the tangle of renaming the course, but if I had it would be something along the lines of “Poetics of Form: Women Writing.” Here is my course description from the syllabus:

This course covers particular and recurrent aspects of twentieth- and twenty-first century literature written from the perspective of women. The course stresses the diversity of women’s authorial worlds, both through time and/or space. Rather than be organized in a strictly chronological fashion the course is organized thematically. In each unit we will address the historical, cultural, linguistic, and aesthetic ways in which women writers address some of the recurrent material and conceptual concerns for women. 

There are some limitations in this class: Namely, we are working with an anthology. Specifically, we’re working with the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: Traditions in English. The anthology, while huge and heavy, is limited in its scope. It deals only in writing that is in English, and it focusses almost entirely on North America and the United Kingdom. We are using the anthology through a fluke: I ordered the earlier version of this anthology for the first half of this class in the fall and the bookstore received them as a packaged deal. Given that several students in the fall class intended to take this course in the winter I decided to make the syllabus match their purchases so that they didn’t end up with an unused (& hard to resell) textbook. In addition to having a narrow linguistic and geographic scope the anthology is also limited by its temporal reach. The most contemporary writer in it is Jhumpa Lahiri who was born in 1967. If I were to teach the class again I would switch up the texts. As it is, I’ve supplemented. With these things in mind here is a glimpse at our course reading schedule as well as the various themes we’re unpacking:

Work I: Histories 

Virginia Woolf, “A Room of One’s Own,” Alice Walked, “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens”

Work II: Gendering Work
Susan Glaspell, “Trifles,” Ruth Stone, “Things I say to Myself While Hanging Laundry”

Work III: Interventions
Mina Loy, “Gertrude Stein,” “Feminist Manifesto,” Zora Neale Hurston, “How it feels to be Coloured Me”

Work IV: Frame-off
Adrienne Rich, “Snapshots of a Daughter In Law,” Joy Harjo, “Deer Dancer”

Work V: Craft & Form
Amy Lowell, from A Critical Fable [On T.S.Eliot and Ezra Pound], Gertrude Stein, “Ada,” H.D. “Sea Poppies,” Marianne Moore, “Poetry,” June Jordan, “Poem About Police Violence”

The Body II: As Subject
Lyn Hejinian from My Life, Anne Carson from The Glass Essay, Maragret Atwood, “Rape Fantasies”

The Body III: Motherhood
Diane Di Prima, “Song for Baby-O, Unborn,” Anais Nin, “Birth,” Jamaica Kindcaid, “Girl”

The Body IV: Desire
Jeanette Winterson, “The Poetics of Sex,” Radcyffe Hall, “Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself”

The Body V: Writing
Adrienne Rich, “When We Dead Reawaken,” Audre Lorde, “Zami: A New Spelling of My Name.”

The Body VI: Writing
Angela Carter, “The Company of Wolves,” Carolyn Kizer, “Pro Femina” P.K. Page, “The Stenographers”

Identity/Politics I:
Nella Larsen, Quicksand 

Identity/Politics II:
Toni Morrison, from Unspeakable Things Unspoken
Identity/Politics III:
Carolyn Forche, “The Colonel,” “Elegy,” Octavia Butler, “Bloodchild”

Identity/Politics IV:
Flannery O’Connor, “Good Country People”

Identity/Politics V:
Maxine Hong Kingston “No Name Woman”

Affect I: Lauren Berlant from The Female Complaint 

Affect II:
Sylvia Plath selection, Anne Sexton, “Her Kind,” “Sylvia’s Death,” Maxine Kumin “How It Is”

Affect III: 

Dionne Brand from Inventory

Affect IV:
Chantal Nevu from Coit

Affect V:
Shannon Maguire from fu(r)l parachute, Aisha Sasha John from The Shining Material

For some reason more music than usual has found its way into the classroom. Last week one of my students who writes for the campus newspaper, The Argosy, invited me to contribute to the weekly mix-tape column. I decided to give a partial playlist from the class. Like the syllabus it has holes and like the syllabus it could be remixed over and over. But! Here is what I submitted. Some of these we have discussed in class, others we’ve not: 
Le Tigre “Bang! Bang!” From the Desk of Mr. Lady EP, 2001

Nina Simone “Work Song” Forbidden Fruit, LP 1961

Alabama Shakes “Rise to the Sun” Boys & Girls, LP (2012)

Tanya Tagaq & Bjork “Ancestors” Sinaa, LP (2006)

Julie Doiron “Snowfalls in November” Julie Doiron/Okkervil River LP, (2003)

Angel Haze “Battle Cry” Dirty Gold (2013)

Julie Ruin “Tania” Julie Ruin (1998)

The Sounds “Queen of Apologies” Dying to Say This To You LP (2006)

Rae Spoon “We Can’t Be Lovers With These Guns On Each Other” Love Is a Hunter (2010)

Patti Smith “Horses” Horses (1975) 
Now for the crowd-sourcing part: what texts would you put on a course like this? What music?
canada · equity · inconvenience

On Inconvenience

I was in Kingston for the day yesterday, giving a talk to grad students, staff, and faculty about how grad students can be strategic in the choices they make during grad school to optimize their flexibility post-degree. More on that later, since the gender issue became present in ways I hadn’t expected. But ever before I got to Kingston at all, I got held up at Union Station in Toronto, where I was supposed to be catching a train. On arriving at the station, late and a bit flustered, I was dismayed to find that no trains were running, and we were being put on buses instead. Ugh. Why the buses, it took awhile to find out. In the meantime, I stood I line, the time getting later and later, no sense of when we might leave, worried about missing my talk and the meetings I had scheduled before, and listening to people in line huffing and sighing and swearing. And then we found out that the tracks had been blockaded by First Nations people* near Nappanee who were protesting the refusal of the federal government to stage a full inquiry into the disappearance of Aboriginal women.

I emailed the folks expecting me that I might not make it, and calmed right down. Injustice trumps inconvenience any day.

But still. Via had known about the blockade quite awhile, and yet we had been waiting for a bus for most of the morning. Employees were defensive when people inquired about a timeline for departure. Many of my fellow passengers were, despite knowing about the reason for the blockade, still extremely annoyed. And when we went to finally board the bus–just in time for me to make it to Queen’s for my talk–reporters were on hand to ask us how we felt about the delay. They didn’t mention the blockade, or the reason for it, at all. Instead, they wanted to focus on the irritation and inconvenience to a bunch of largely privileged, largely white, people. My annoyance, indeed my anger, grew again.

And then we got into the Don Valley Parkway and learned that the buses had been delayed because someone had jumped off the Bloor Viaduct, despite the city’s efforts to make it physically impossible, efforts not accompanied by an increase in accessible and affordable mental health services. By this point, I was annoyed at myself for being annoyed. Injustice trumps inconvenience any day.

I made it to Queen’s just fine. The talk was great, and my meetings were rescheduled for after instead of before. I had the privilege of being paid to talk to people about a topic I care passionately about, of having bosses that allow me to do these kinds of trips, of having the kind of institutional and personal authority that means people invite me to talk, and listen when I do. I didn’t have to worry about affording the trip, or being discriminated against while I was on it, or mysteriously not coming home and having the government not care where I’d gone.  All I had to do was sit on a bus when I would have preferred to be on a train, to stand in line for longer than I might have liked. And to think about the reasons for the blockade, the very good reasons, and the extremes to which First Nations people feel the need to go to get the attention of the rest of Canada about something that is so very, so deeply, so terribly wrong. They’ve recognized that inconvenience can be a route to awareness and to justice, if people can look beyond their own privilege, and that the inconvenience of having to stage an inquiry is an injustice that the government has no chance of justifying. I just hope that their efforts have some effect, that injustice starts to trumps inconvenience in the minds of Canadians, and in our government, one day. Any day. And that I can figure out what I can best do to help.

*This isn’t the best link, but it’s nearly impossible to find a news source that emphasizes the reasons for the blockade over passenger frustration.

body · language · pedagogy · yoga

Jargon, expertise, exclusion

My last twenty-hour yoga teacher training weekend intensive featured a full day of anatomy lessons. It was great! Jesse Enright came, with a bag full of variously sized bones and skeletons, and some other props, and we all worked on learning some of the technical terms for bones and how they move.

We stood up and practiced a kind of anatomy-dork “Simon says”: flex your left shoulder! pronate your right wrist! extend your right knee! invert your right foot! both feet dorsiflexion! adduct your left forearm! It was embodied pedagogy of the best kind.

But here’s what knocked my socks off: you know that what we call ‘the hip socket’ is just the colloquial term? The joint in question is referred to, medically, as the “acetabulum.” All the bones have Latin names. It’s all very precise and sciency and much more objective and important and learned than our analogic or metaphoric terms like “knee cap” or “collar bone” or “shoulder socket.” Doctors and scientists use the real words, the science words, right?

You know what “acetabulum” means, in Latin?

It means “small vinegar bowl.” Because the joint looks, to a vinegar-bowl-using anatomist who devised the term, like a a small vinegar bowl.

Wikimedia Commons


There’s another bone, inside the whole shoulder apparatus, a little knobby pointy thing. It’s called the “coracoid process”. Want to know what that is in English? “Like a raven’s beak.” See?

Wikimedia Common

As a culture, we’re so very quick to draw hard lines between objective, scientific domains and squishy, subjective humanities domains. Even those of us who might decry the hierarchy this creates sometime even forget that this is a forced and ideological distinction in many ways. This is disingenuous. Anatomy is metaphorical, and, as my teacher suggests, speculative.

Speculative? Yes. Did you know that until a couple of months ago, humans only had four ligaments in our knees, but now we have five? Yeah. I’m going to guess that fifth ligament was there the whole time, but anatomists and doctors and other scientists just learned not to see it because they were told there was nothing there. Hm.

I’m going to let you assemble your own conclusion from this. Maybe it’s about how becoming a student in a new domain of knowledge can really add zip to your day job. Maybe it’s about the inevitability of metaphoric thinking. Maybe it’s about how jargon serves sometimes to clarify, but often to mark the boundaries of a community of knowledge and exclude outsiders. And maybe it’s about how sometimes the stories we tell ourselves turn out to be really wrong, and yet somehow persist in the face of a million knee surgeries that might daily correct the record. Maybe it’s about why we’re so invested in the difference between objective and subjective even when this distinction keeps collapsing in on itself. Huh.

academic work · advice · balance · collaboration · community · day in the life · grad school · making friends · writing

Write! In Community!

If you asked me while I was in the first year of my PhD how I would manage the long, unstructured hours of post-course-work dissertation writing, I might have stared at you blankly and stammered out something about supervisory meetings, conference proposals, creating self-imposed deadlines blah blah blah.

Really I would have had no clue. In fact, it took me about three months of post-candidacy-defense panicking to figure out exactly how to write the dissertation (well, how to start writing the dissertation, anyway!). And though my supervisory meetings have been absolutely essential in helping me move along through the program, and conference proposals have helped me clarify and restate my ideas in clear and simple prose, I can honestly say the best thing for my productivity, bar none, has been my writing group. Strike that: my two writing groups.

It was mostly serendipitous, and I honestly can’t quite remember how I started with either one. The first had been going for a while before I became a regular member, I started out occasionally and then became a regular, the second I joined on the suggestion of a friend who didn’t even attend herself. Now they have both become essential not only for my productivity, but for my sanity as well. I need these groups not just because of the habit and practice of writing, which becomes mandatory in the presence of the all-mighty timer, but also because this is time to chat, commiserate, ask questions, and, ultimately, build friendships. My writing group buddies are the people who have offered me support, both in terms of the practice of writing and in the practice of care. These are the people who have helped me prioritize my work/life commitments with with offers of babysitting, dinner for my family, drinks out, and sympathetic ears. We offer each other advice from things ranging from conference attire to encouragement for how to slog through a chapter that’s burgeoning out of control. And, of course, we stop talking and write.

Want to start your own writing group? Here’s how we structure a day of writing:

1. At the beginning of each writing session, we usually state what we hope to accomplish in the session. Working on a portion of a chapter? Writing a conference proposal? Revising an article for publication? We say what we’re working on and what, specifically, we’d like to write during the day.

2. Stick to the timer. Each writing session is usually divided up into several chunks of time, which we dedicate to writing. We set the timer for 25-45 minutes, depending on how people are feeling in terms of focus and goals. Then, we stick to it. The rule is no talking while the timer is running, no internet, no interruptions. After the timer has gone, we usually say what we accomplished during the unit, or describe how it went.

3. Take Breaks. Whether it’s to check email, chat about how the writing is going, or complain about how hard writing is (WRITING IS SO HARD), these are imperative to making the day work. I usually take a minimum half hour break for lunch, but 5-10 minute breaks between timer units are important as well. Our brains need breaks to refocus.

Do you have a writing group? What kinds of habits do you practice?

empowerment · enter the confessional · faster feminism · righteous feminist anger · sexist fail

This life in sexism

Imagine this: you’re going out for drinks with fairly new work colleagues to bid another work colleague farewell, as they* are moving on. Lots of the people present have not met each other before, because some of the people present there have been in that work place for long, while others are quite new. So, you’re walking into the pub accompanied by men and women. So far, so good. When you reach the table, however, it’s all men, some of whom you’ve never met, and who get up to introduce themselves and shake hands with… the other men in your group *only*, while ignoring you, and the other women. All this among the usual banter, posturing, and performance of masculinity of the most patriarchal kind.
Welcome to the club. Not.
Ever since Hook and Eye has started, I have been a fan of reading the positive stories, the wins, the triumphs, etc. My thinking was we all know we deal with sexism and other kinds of discrimination every single day, so let’s rally around the good stuff, to remind ourselves that we can move in better directions. I still am.
However, since 2010, I’ve gotten older and more cynical, and to tell you the truth, I have lost patience with this type of effrontery. I want to pull an SNL-style “Really!?!” whenever I meet with this level of blatant erasure of any gender that is not aggressively in-your-face, homosocial-style masculinity.
My jaw dropped on that occasion, and I could not pick it up off the floor during the entire event. I had trouble speaking, and you already know I’m a talker! My jaw still drops every single time one of my friends tells me about yet another encounter with sexism of the nth degree, because you know what the cherry on top of this BS-filled cake is? We’re talking about academia. Where we all think ourselves high and mighty and feminist and all, but when it comes down to it, we pat young women on the head, and declare them “Charming! Like Heidi” or we withdraw job offers when they try to negotiate a living wage and maternity leave
So, let’s have an Expose Sexism Fest, Academic Style, and denounce it right here and now. If you feel like keeping it anonymous, send it my way at margrit at ualberta dot ca, and I’ll post it in the comments. Otherwise tell us what happened to you or your friend or “your friend,” and let’s expose this life in sexism.

*as much as I loathe grammatical disagreement in number when it comes to personal pronouns, I think that’s the way English is going (or has already gone). On the bright side, it does enable gender-neutral expression.
sexist fail · slow academy · style matters

Let’s talk about outfits, and power, and authority: a fashion post omnibus

Have you seen the piece by Katrina Gulliver, on how she doesn’t like students calling her by her first name? She’s funny and self-deprecating, writing like she’s internalized the critical voice that will indeed soon enough tell her to lighten up, already. Gulliver’s take on the first name issue is about how she has to work hard to get respect in the classroom. Intriguingly, she calls out her white male colleagues for trying to be cool and wearing really casual clothing and inviting students to call them by their first names. She says these guys might be deflating a tiny bit of their own authority, but demolish hers.

Will Miller wrote an incredibly smug response, that mocks Gulliver in taking the very structure of her opening to turn it back on her, disavowing her claims: “If what students call me determines whether I am respected or not, I’m not deserving to be in a classroom.” Miller, unsurprisingly, seems completely at ease in his own prose, without the faintest whiff of self-reflexivity jarring his lightly sarcastic and righteous tone.

Ugh. This is making me tired. This is a feminist blog and you know our politics so I’ll just lay it out: this is the epitome of clueless (in this case white, male) privilege. It’s snotty, and silencing, and smug, and denies Gulliver’s experience. Will Miller: stahhhhhhp.

I don’t want to argue this. I want to start a grounded conversation about the how’s and why’s of managing one’s authority in teaching. Erin wrote about the first name issue. I did, too, in a post about email. And we’ve had a post about the politics of eyewear. And one on how people treat me nicer when I look pretty than when I don’t. Melissa has written about haircuts and so have I. And boots! All of these produced great, useful discussions: what’s great is hearing about other people’s experiences and strategies even if and especially when they differ from my own. Read the comments: they’re thoughtful and engaging and awesome!

I want to talk about my clothing choices and ask you to share yours, if you’d like.

My current positionality is this: mid-career tenured academic, coming into an administrative post in July, 41 and mostly look it, white, cis-gendered, not visibly disabled, normative height / weight range, conventionally pretty. Privileged also in the sense that I’m pretty fluent in the rhetoric of clothing, and adept at constructing (and having access to the tools to construct) grammatically correct utterances in this language.

Me, I’m all about blazers lately. Nothing connotes immediate authority like a blazer. Mine all feature rolled up sleeves, so it’s more fashion-forward than banker-bland, but there’s something very comforting to me about the work jacket. I’ll wear it over a dress, or with a skirt, or dress pants. I can even wear my beloved black yoga jeans and the jacket makes it work appropriate. I have blazers (with suits and not) in: rust/black herringbone wool, grey wool, grey cotton, black wool, navy wool, chartreuse cotton, blue suede (yes!). Most were on sale, some were full price, two were from consignment shops, but they read “expensive” and “tasteful.” I often take it off to teach, but put it back on for meetings of all sorts. I keep one in my office, in case I happen to be without, and I need one.

Sometimes I’m in situations where I’m the only person under 45, and the only woman who’s not an adminstrative assistant to some older man. Sometimes I’m teaching 17 year old. Sometimes I’m on TV. Blazer on / blazer off, like glasses / contacts are choices I can make fairly easily that allow me to manipulate others’ perceptions of me, and thus, manage my interaction with them, in some small way. Bear in mind that I have dramatically two-toned hair, and that I wear fashion-forward nailpolish (today nine fingers are mint green and one is sunshine yellow). The blazer is part of the whole package.

How about you? Maybe you are like Steve Jobs and hate to think about clothes and have a functional uniform. Maybe you are junior and trying to stay fashionable and a very limited budget. Maybe you are a little older and thinking about appropriateness. Or something else. Please share!

grad school · guilt · mental health · PhD · productivity

The Trap of Perpetual Productivity

After a tough week involving a lovely dose of strep throat and a major chapter deadline, I wanted to post a brief follow-up to Jana’s repost from last week, which was a vital reminder to “take the time for self-care.” The article to which she linked is indeed important as it opens up a conversation regarding the pervasive but often overlooked problem of mental health in academia. But while this Anonymous Academic is concerned with the pervasive “culture of acceptance” that encourages academics to keep silent about their own mental health issues, I’m concerned about the culture of guilt that disallows us from taking relaxing, enriching, non-academic-related mental health breaks. I want to know, that is, how exactly we unaccept the culture of acceptance.

As I’m now finally in the dissertation-writing stage, I’m finding this more than ever: with this behemoth of a paper looming over me, I am faced with a constant sense of having to be productive.  Academics with families, I think, may have an easier time structuring their schedules, setting aside dedicated time for work and dedicated time for family; and they have a defined life outside of academia, giving them fulfillment and balance and perspective. But for a night owl and worrier like myself, who has spent the last seven weeks sans partner and even sans teaching, I feel like I am supposed to be working on my dissertation all the time.

There is a culture of guilt in academia that demands not only that we churn out articles and research at an alarming rate, taking few breaks, but also that when we do take breaks, those breaks be designed to make us more productive. I so often hear academics guiltily confessing that they ended up watching TV instead of working (at like 9 pm at night), or posting statuses akin to “this chocolate bar with help me work, right?” Or reminders that breaks are important because they’ll help us work that much harder when we get back to it. Why does everything we do–even the breaks we take–have to hinge around how productive we are? Why can’t we eat a chocolate bar and just enjoy it for it’s own sake?

How do we learn, that is, to structure our time such that our breaks do help us establish more generative work-time, without falling into the trap of perpetual productivity? Especially during a time when our futures are precarious and we non-tenured must learn to accept that academia may not always be our home, it is more important than ever that we cultivate lives and passions outside of the ivory tower (though the catch 22 is that this is not always possible due to the very nature and structure of the system).

Atsuko Tanaka, 93G (1993)–at the Armory Show 2014 
Photographed by me

I recently tried to take a full day off, the first in weeks and weeks. I visited the Armory Show, located inside a massive passenger ship terminal on Piers 92 and 94 on the Hudson River. I saw so much art that challenged me or confused me or made me think (and I also marvelled at the fact that I was in a place where, if I had thousands of dollars to spare, I could feasibly purchase a Pablo Picasso or a Kandinsky. And have it in my home.) I tried, readers, to relax, and breathe, and take time for myself. But I have to tell you, fighting back my own guilt at doing something entirely unrelated to my dissertation was really, really hard.


What We Can and Can’t Talk About

Last week Margrit wrote about privileges in things big and small. Specifically, she situated herself as someone who has a certain amount of privilege, especially when it comes to feeling that the space of the university is a space she has access to on a regular basis. She also wrote about the ways in which writing in public on a site like Hook & Eye is a privilege. In both cases, as Margrit notes, privilege comes with commensurate responsibilities. Some of these are readily apparent: taking up space means thinking about how and why you feel that space is yours to take up. Speaking in public means drawing attention to people and issues that are marginalized or not in a certain public eye. Writing in public as someone who feels that the space of the university is a space that, on the whole is a welcoming space: this is a constant and, for me, sobering challenge. It is also a challenge I can’t always adequately meet.

Let me try to explain.

In her post, Margrit writes:

Privilege can feel like a huge burden, like an unearned reward in a system that looks increasingly more like a lottery than a meritocracy. [….] What I’m getting at is how easy it can be for emerging scholars who are in TT positions to feel like they cannot discuss the excessive demands of academia, when so many of their peers struggle to make ends meet. They feel their privilege acutely, and sometimes as a silencing force.

Um, yes. While I am not in a TT position I can still relate to this statement. Over the past several years I have tried as clearly and honestly — and subjectively — as possible to think through what it has been like for me as a precariously employed worker on the job market. I try to acknowledge my own relatively privilege by consistently underscoring my working conditions, which are these: since 2008 when I finished my PhD I have worked one year as a sessional (2008-2009 at the University of Calgary and Mount Royal College–now Mount Royal University). I spent 2009-2010 on a 10-month contract at Dalhousie, spent June-July 2010 unemployed, and in August of 2010 I took up another 10-month contract at Dalhousie. The summer of 2011 was easier because someone pointed out that I had likely accrued enough hours to apply for Employment Insurance.* I had! Holy cats! So I spent June-July 2011 on EI. August 2011 saw me take up another contract, this time a 20+ month contract to account for the fact I was supervising graduate students (two MAs who finished on time! Hi Ainsley! Hi Amanda!) and directing the Canadian Studies Programme. That contract took me to June 2013. I began a new 12-month contract at Mount Allison, which is where I am now. This contract ends June 30. 

Here is what I hope is clear from laying out part of my employment history to talk about relative privilege: for the better part of six years I have been in a series of precarious employment situations that have been salaried. That means I have been a member of the union (very useful when you go on strike, let me tell you. For instance, I got strike pay). It means that I have had an office with my name on the door. I have access to letterhead. I am on the Departmental website. I have benefits. I have been without salary or on EI in most summers, yes. I am consistently applying for tenure track jobs, yes. I have often taught overloads and taken on supervisory duties and service roles that are outside the parameters of my contract description, yes. And the reasons I have taken these extra roles on are a complex mix of wanting to make use of my privilege and time in a Department and, yes, that sense that when you are in a sessional, adjunct, or contract position you are in a long, long job interview, how ever much we might try to deny that fact. 

Have I worked a lot? Sure. Have I worked from a position of relative privilege? You bet I have. 

Let’s turn back to Margrit’s post, specifically that bit I quote above:

What I’m getting at is how easy it can be for emerging scholars who are in TT positions to feel like they cannot discuss the excessive demands of academia, when so many of their peers struggle to make ends meet. 

I’m not in quite the position she describes, but I think that sense of relative privilege extends to those of us who have landed contracts. When I talk about my own experiences what I am trying to do is not only be frank about my own struggles and anxieties and hopes, I am trying to speak from just one of many many many different experiences of precarity. But there are some things I still can’t talk about, and they may just be the very things we desperately need to discuss. For example: I wont talk about jobs I have applied for. I’ve never written about interviews I’ve done. I can’t. It feels beyond risky.

That risk, that very real sense that you can’t talk about the material conditions shaping your life–and let’s be clear, we are talking about lives here, not “just” jobs–is the context out of which the ACCUTE Best Practices checklist arose. The checklist itself is a collaborative document that, in its present iteration, was initiated by the ACCUTE Executive led by Stephen Slemon. I had the privilege–and I mean that–to participate in a slew of emails and one lovely conference call with the folks whose names appear on the checklist: Michael Brisbois (MacEwan), Heidi Tiedemann Darroch (Victoria), Dorothy Hadfield (Waterloo), Jason Haslam (Dalhousie), Nat Hurley (Alberta), Luke Maynard (Huron), Laura Schechter (Alberta), Stephen Slemon (Alberta). Some of these people are former classmates (hi Michael!), some are former colleagues (hi Jason!), some are people I’ve never met in person yet. The process of developing this checklist was humane and really pleasurable. Stephen circulated a draft as a means of initiating conversation and then we all had many opportunities to edit, discuss, and revise. It is, we agreed, a place to start.

I also think it is fair to say that part of the impetus for developing the checklist came out of a series of complex and emotional conversations at the TransCanada Institute last spring. The people around that table included several senior colleagues–Stephen Slemon and Len Findlay were among them–and several early career colleagues whose employment statuses ranged from pre-tenure to sessional to post-doctoral to contract to underemployed. The aim of the talks was to develop concrete strategies for addressing the sustainability challenges of the study of Canadian literature in what I am coming to think of as the long Austerity Epoch. As I and the incomparable Jade Ferguson work to discuss last term, so many crucial and emotional issues emerged that we were not able to create the kinds of concrete documents we’d intended. Not then. It became clear immediately that talking about privileges–at the level of employment, from differing lived experiences of race, class, gender, and sexuality–was hard hard hard work. It felt risky. It was risky. It was risky at least because it was so personal. It was risky because it revealed the vulnerabilities we are so often required to mask. And to my mind the “we” in that last sentence refers to early career tenure track scholars and the rest of us under- and un-employed scholars. Writing and talking about the material conditions of the Academy means writing and talking about some of the visceral emotions that make us who we are. And if who “we” are is a group of people trying to find a foothold in a profession that has historically disavowed the relevance of lived experience well, that’s pretty risky stuff, isn’t it?

Let me close by returning to the experience of being on the ACCUTE task force. For me, the checklist has a larger, more personal narrative. It bears some–not all, not yet–marks of those excruciating and vital conversations I was a part of last spring. For me it bears unmistakable traces of conversations I have had with friends and colleagues who were or, in many cases, were not in the room. And it also is marked by the spirit of collaboration and responsibility that the ACCUTE executive modelled as the task force worked on it these past few months. And this is where I will end: what the ACCUTE Best Practice checklist represents for me is one example of recognizing privilege and attempting to be responsible with that privilege, how ever provisional that attempt may be. In initiating the checklist under the auspices of ACCUTE Stephen Slemon, Nat Hurley and the rest of the ACCUTE executive have used their privileged position of tenure as well as the structure of a national organization to make space for talking about risk and taking some first steps in making concrete change. 

We can’t stop here, this is only the beginning.      
*Speaking of relative privilege I must say I find it galling, nay reprehensible that EI is structured in such a way as to lock out most sessionals and folks who have just come off post doctoral fellowships. If you’re tempted to suggest that most post-docs make a lot of money I encourage you to demystify your assumptions and take a peep at not only SSHRC postdoc sizes, but also take a moment to understand how they are taxed. Break that down to account for any unpaid labour that might happen and then decide if you still feel comfortable saying postdocs have it made. Yes, there are some that are rather large, but most postdocs make less than folks teaching a 4/4 sessional load. And now there’s a whole additional kettle of fish. I’ll save it for another post.