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.

IMG_2037
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

IMG_0769

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.

movement · risk · Uncategorized · writing

Trying Things that Scare Me

pexels-photo-270214

Have any of you read Carol Dweck’s MindsetIt’s not a new book, and its basic points (or a corrupted version of them) have pretty well sunk into the popular consciousness, so you likely know about it even if you haven’t read it. Dweck argues that people bring two basic mindsets to the things they do (and often a combination of the two): a growth mindset that says that talent and skill are built over time and we can get better and smarter with practice, and a fixed mindset that says that intelligence and skill are innate and cannot be changed or improved with effort.

Tons of academics have a fixed mindset about their intelligence and their work. (It me, at least sometimes.) We’ve tied our identities to being smart, to being good at our jobs. Instead of trying radically new things, risking being bad at something, we can get stuck in the trap of doing what we know that we can do well. If I think that my intelligence and skill are fixed, I’m going to be more concerned about protecting my identity as a smart person (i.e. doing easy things that make me look smart) than doing new things that are going to help me grow (i.e. the hard things that I’m going to be bad at to start and might make me look less competent or skilled).

I’m trying to develop my growth mindset. While a fixed mindset is comfortable and safe, it’s boring. And, I know, false. There are lots of things I’ve gotten better at over time, things I value a lot like cooking, and writing, and friendship, and feminism. I just hate the being bad at things part, and I wanted to challenge myself to embrace the suckitude, to learn to get comfortable with being a beginner. To take pleasure in the process and not the product.

So, I threw myself into a bunch of things that I knew were going to challenge my fixed mindset. I started biking to work, which was something I was afraid of because the stakes for doing it wrong can be really high (Toronto drivers, amirite?). I’m teaching myself how to do Tunisian crochet. And I’m taking a creative non-fiction class where I have to write things pretty far out of my usual academic/blog/advice writing wheelhouse and read them aloud to strangers for critique. Yipes.

And so far, it’s pretty okay! I bike to and from work every day and I’m very comfortable being a city cyclist now. (It helps that the Bike Share bikes, which are what I ride most often, are tanks and I don’t ever have to worry about my bike being stolen.) My first creative non-fiction class was on Tuesday and I really liked being forced to write something fast without time to think or self-critique. Writing “growth mindset” in big letters at the top of the page was actually helpful in terms of reminding me that it’s okay to not be good at this. And the thing that’s the lowest stakes is proving the most challenging–I’ve started and ripped out my crochet project a half-dozen times now, and have put it aside because I’m finding that level of not-goodness challenging to deal with. I’m going to try again tonight, and remind myself that even if my scarf looks nothing like this, there’s enjoyment to be had in playing with beautiful fibres and, hopefully, in slowly getting better at something.

I might not like being bad at things, but I like the person I am when I let myself be.

 

 

 

 

advice · positive thoughts as I fill out grant applications · Uncategorized

Working on my grant application…

I’m about 80% done my SSHRC Insight Grant application, the 80% where I made a serious go at getting all the moving pieces drafted and formatted and collated and sent it in for feedback. When it came the feedback was detailed, useful, and totally overwhelming and I pushed the whole thing away for a week or so to regroup. I did not regroup. I had to call in reinforcements, actually: my dear love who used to be the guy that did the feedback. He sat down with me and went over it step by step, while I tried not to lash out and/or cry.

Hilariously, the issue with my SSHRC Insight Grant application is the issue that I raise with all the grad students whose SSHRC Doctoral Fellowship applications I see. The issue is threefold:

  • Give the main point first
  • Be less tentative
  • Be more specific

The reason it’s hard to do these things is that it requires a kind of assertive confidence that is, understandably, hard to muster at the start of a project. This hesitation is natural and useful and keeps the mind open to the possibilities of the research as it proceeds. Good. That is, I dare see, the right way to feel. However, the grant application rewards confidence and straight-aheadness–literally rewards it, you are asking for money, remember–so the correct way to write the app requires bald directness, confidence, and the impression of mastery of time and space. Fake it if you have to.

So.

Give the main point first: If you ask my grad students what editorial suggestion I make most frequently on their writing they will probably say, “Take this thing at the end and put it at the beginning.” I say that a lot. Quite right. Most of us discover what we’re thinking once we see what we’re writing and often that means that we really get the point of the whole thing right at the end of the application / chapter / article,/ dissertation. That’s fine as a process. But then literally ask yourself every time: what would happen if I took my last paragraph and made it first. I will tell you: 9 times out of 10 your thing will get better, and clearer, and more fundable.

Be less tentative: I know that I’m not sure where my research is going to end up, but I sure as hell have to sound like I do. I’ve been tentative in my writing, saying things like, “this project aims to address” when I should say “this project addresses” or even “this project argues.” Tentativeness manifests mostly in the verbs, and the verbs hedge in two ways: they describe actions the author is going to do instead of what the research will prove, and they downplay the thesis animating the research. Here is a list of weasel words you should mostly cut almost completely from your grant application: understand, examine, explore, investigate, consider, aim, compare. Mostly, these words are about what you are going to do. But the grant app is not a biography, it is a statement of research. Better verbs: argue, prove, show, demonstrate, produce, craft. These verbs have the benefit of being much more active, and of being focused on the value of the research, rather than the process of the researcher.

Be more specific: It is frustrating to have to write very specifically about something you’re going to be doing three years from now, that you may not have properly even started yet. But it is also very frustrating to read things like, “over the course of the grant, I will examine the secondary literature and compare pertinent examples from among possible primary texts.” There’s nothing I can actually picture there. I would rather read “In the first year, I will perform a literature review of sources in social media practices (Jenkins, Ito, and Boyd; Noble and Tynes; Thumin; van Dijck) and begin to select primary texts for the case studies, beginning with social justice selfies (eg, #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, #StayMadAbby)” Being specific is hard. You have to make decisions and go to the library. I hate it, myself, particularly when I’m trying to write about the second half of the third year of the grant. However. That’s what people want to read, myself included.

It’s pretty funny that this is the exact advice that I give grad students and yet it is very hard for me to follow it, too — I need my own reader to make exactly the same editorial comments I make to others. I guess we all need editors!

Anyhow, this is my day today. Changing my verbs, beefing up the details, getting to the point. If you’re still working on your Insight Grant, or your doctoral fellowship app, well, bon courage. I’m right there with you.

academic reorganization · adjuncts · classrooms · guest post · mental health · workload

Guest Post: When too much is still not enough; Academic workloads and campus exhaustion

Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall, Suzette Mayr’s recent satiric novel about a harried English professor, dramatizes the anxious thrum of academic work. Edith teaches, grades, and answers “pounds” of email. Her phone therapist advises her to excel in new areas, to increase her pace of publications while exercising regularly, revamping her wardrobe, and networking more extensively. Edith protests, “there’s never any time.” While swimming laps, she worries she “should be catching up on her critical theory, not frolicking in pools.”

Over the past decade, faculty have become increasingly willing to protest that academic workloads are overwhelming, stressful, and conducive to ill health. In last year’s The Slow Professor, Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber called for a shift to a more deliberative, less frenetic approach to research and teaching. Cultural theorist Rosalind Gill contends, “A punishing intensification of work has become an endemic feature of academic life.”[1][1]  The contributors to a special issue of The Canadian Geographer on academic workload and health describe “academic cultures and practices that valorize overwork, including expressions of martyrdom, talking about not sleeping or eating and about working all of the time, [and] an expectation of always being available for work purposes . . . .”

Faculty complaints about workload and stress may “appear self-indulgent,” as Berg and Seeber acknowledge. Mark Kingwell, for example, has little patience: “I am sure that people feel rushed to produce journal articles and positive teaching evaluations, to sit on this committee or that. But can you seriously compare this to actual work? Surely, there is a better term for such high-end special pleading. Ultra-first-world problem? Point-one-per-cent lament?” This is an invitation to shame and guilt. How can you be working too hard if what you are doing is not even work?

And the culture of shaming starts early. A mid-August tweet from the University of Cambridge praises novelist and alumna Zadie Smith for spurning barbecues in favour of long hours in the library and asks students, “Are you #teambbq or #teamlibrary”? The fierce competition for admission suggests entering students are unlikely to need an additional nudge. But the comment is perfectly characteristic of the anxiety that if we are not working all of the time, we are not doing enough to pursue the world-class status demanded by a growing number of institutions, with all members pressed to achieve more with declining resources. It reflects the anxiety of a neoliberal higher education sector beset with measurements and rankings of excellence. Graduate students are urged to publish while completing doctoral studies as rapidly as possible, even while new (and not-so-new)  proposals advocate that they also commit extensive time  preparing for non-academic careers. Institutions increase class sizes for introductory courses taught by teaching-stream faculty and sessional instructors and then mandate the time-consuming development of online resources to support struggling students. Research universities require qualifications for new Assistant Professors that were once sufficient to achieve tenure.

Contract faculty cobbling together enough courses to pay rent, staff members who have experienced surges in expectations without salary increases, and hourly-waged service workers on campus laid off every summer are all experiencing time crunches of various kinds, exacerbated by financial strains. Rather than isolating one kind of faculty work for analysis, we might assess how various campus groups—including students who are juggling onerous work obligations with school—are participating in a culture of academic exhaustion. We need to know more about each other’s work conditions. A student who fell asleep in one of my classes explained that she clerked at a convenience store until two a.m., when public transit had stopped running, and then walked several kilometers home. She had no family financial support and, as a first-generation university student, feared acquiring a heavy debt load. A member of the custodial staff described how her work duties had been revised to increase the amount of heavy lifting while reducing the social contact with faculty and students that she enjoyed. Knowing these stories, and translating that knowledge into advocacy for better student aid and more equitable and safe working conditions across campus, is crucial.

But we also need to resist the notion that academic work is such a privilege and a pleasure that there can never be too much of it—only too little capacity to carry it out. This approach stigmatizes people who bring up workload concerns and equates endless work with competence, pushing out those who, in Berg and Seeber’s terms, fear they are “not suited” to academia, who judge themselves as inadequate to (unreasonable) demands. It also creates trickle-down impacts, as burnt out faculty members’ responsibilities shift to their colleagues.

And we need to watch out for the unequal workloads that are imposed. Alison Mountz is among those who have pointed out that female faculty members perform a disproportionate amount of emotional labour; persuasive evidence suggests they do more service work, particularly in lower-status roles,  and that this has a negative impact on promotion. Racialized and Indigenous faculty are called upon by their institutions as diversity workers and as mentors to students from traditionally underrepresented groups, sharply increasing service responsibilities that are less valued than research.[2]

Universities and colleges have increased their attention to student mental health, but most are doing far less to support faculty and staff members (even while adding to their work the support and monitoring of student well-being).

Workload is a labour issue; workload is a feminist issue; workload is a disability issue; workload is a mental and physical health issue, a collegiality issue, and a sustainability issue. It is also one that academia avoids tackling. Ramped-up expectations in all areas of faculty performance have come to seem inevitable, and they cannot be resisted without collective will.

[1] More recently, Gill reflects on the ubiquity of a discourse of academic pain among tenured faculty: “Academics’ talk about our own lives has become suffused with extraordinarily violent metaphors: people speak of going under, of coming up for air, of drowning or suffocating. This shocking imagery should surely give cause for concern.” Rosalind Gill, “What Would Les Back Do?: If Generosity Could Save Us.” International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society. Pre-print. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10767-017-9263-9

[2] The essays in The Equity Myth expose a much broader set of issues and reach depressing conclusions about the ways in which symbolic forms of inclusion and diversity are overriding more substantive equity efforts. Frances Henry, Enakshi Dua, Carl E. James, Audrey Kobayashi, Peter Li, Howard Ramos, and Malinda K. Smith, The Equity Myth: Racialization and Indigeneity at Canadian Universities (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2017). The essays by Henry and Kobayashi and by James pay particular attention to the workload consequences.

 

Heidi TD

Heidi Tiedemann Darrock holds a PhD from U of T and taught as a contract faculty member at universities and colleges in Ontario and BC for more than a decade before accepting a position as an Assistant Teaching Professor. For four years she was a member of the MLA’s Committee on Contingent Labor, serving for two years as Chair. Heidi publishes on Canadian literature.

advice · from dissertation to book · writing

From Dissertation to Book: Choosing a Publisher

books-bookstore-book-reading-159711

Before I went through the process of working to get my dissertation published–or rather, before my dissertation was finished and I wasn’t sure yet what or how good it was going to be–I was worried about any publisher wanting it. Never mind thinking about having a choice of where I’d like it to be published, about finding the best fit for me and the project.

Don’t be like me!

When it comes to publishing your dissertation, you have many choices and considerations:

  • Where to submit your proposal
  • How to frame your proposal for different presses and tailor how you present the project to suit a publisher’s style and mandate
  • Which editors you’re most interested in working with
  • Which publisher is going to give you the most say in how the book turns out in the end
  • Which publisher has a vision for the project that aligns with yours.
  • Which press pays the best royalties, or has the best marketing department, or does the best book design.

In my case, I shopped my dissertation manuscript to two presses in which I was particularly interested, having done my research about all of the possible options and their various strengths. One was a very traditional university press with a strong track-record in Canadian literary studies (my primary field) and the other a younger and more innovative university press with a strong and growing list in Canadian life writing (my genre). My relationships with the acquisitions editors to whom I sent my proposal came about in the twisty, unexpected way that is as often the norm as a straightforward pop into the publisher’s booth at a conference: one editor I had worked with during my brief stint at a university press between my Master’s and PhD; the other editor reached out to me about the possibility of writing an entirely different book after reading my work on H&E and seeing some of it at Congress, and then became interested in my dissertation manuscript during our conversations.

What came next was the same for both editors–a series of coffee meetings and the exchange of ideas about what I had in mind for my biography of Jay Macpherson and what they thought their press would and could do with the project. I wrote a formal proposal, although I didn’t necessarily need to, that we used as our basis of discussion. Because I have a very strong vision for the project–that it be accessible in style and cost, that it be a ‘partial life’ and not a cradle-to-grave biography, that I have significant control over format and design–I shared the same proposal with both editors, despite the very different profiles and approaches of their presses.

In many ways, finding a publisher for my manuscript felt a lot like my most recent job search. I was ready to move on, but I could afford to be very selective–I had a good job, one I could stay in until the just right thing came along. And so when I was interviewing for new positions, I was interviewing potential new employers as much as they were interviewing me–did our interests and approaches align? did we have the same vision for my role? did the idea of working together excite us both? I ended up choosing to work for a place where the answer to all of those was (and continues to be, nearly three years later) yes.

Meeting with publishers was much the same. As we met and discussed, we were both assessing if our interests and approaches with this book aligned, if we had the same vision for the manuscript, if the idea of working together excited us both. It became clear pretty quickly that one press, in particular, had a vision that aligned very closely with mine, and, moreover, that the editor had ideas for the book that I hadn’t even thought of but were both inspiring and exciting. Because I was clear about what I wanted from and for my book, it also quickly became clear to me that working with the other, more traditional press, probably wasn’t something that was going to work well for either of us–they ultimately wanted something in line with what they’ve always done, which would have meant a book that was less accessible, affordable, and innovative than I wanted.

Choosing a publisher also, to a certain extent, felt a little like dating: how much did I connect with this editor? Could I see myself working with them for a couple of years to shepherd this project into the world? Would they make me as a writer and thinker, and the book, better? The clincher came when I took a headlong sprawl across the sidewalk on my way to meeting the editor from the younger press. She handled my showing up bloody, bandaid-strewn, and late with aplomb, and I realized that I could be myself with her–a whole person who writes books, not just a writer or a brain in an unwieldy, bruised body. A project of this magnitude takes your whole self to complete, especially when you work in life writing and are committed to a personally-engaged kind of scholarship the way I am, and I wanted to work with someone who didn’t expect otherwise.

I decided what was important to me in publishing this book, and I found a press that supported those decisions. What’s important to you might be different–it might be prestige, or money, or a different kind of editorial relationship–but you can, and should, decide and then find what you want. Academic publishing might be a buyer’s market, but it’s not so much one that you don’t have choices.

So I wrote to that other editor to let him know that I was going to go with the publisher whose vision aligned more closely with my own, rather than revising the book to meet his publisher’s expectations, and I signed my first book contract. My biography of Jay Macpherson should be coming out with Wilfrid Laurier University Press sometime in 2019, and I’m having a ball with the revisions. I’m also super excited to see how this book turns out, as my editor (the delightful and brilliant Siobhan McMenemy) and I have a bunch of ideas about how to do something innovative and accessible.

And next up in the series: contract negotiations!

academic work · book · research · Uncategorized · writing

Research Day

I had a research morning on Monday. This is what it looked like:

  • 8:00-8:30: Read chapter of book, make tic marks, add post-it flags
  • [take kid to bus stop, wait for bus, clomp home]
  • 9:00-9:30: free write my own ideas that flowed from reading
  • [get dressed, make coffee for Write Club, light tidying so they don’t think I’m a slob}
  • 10-10:30: answer invitation for short chapter with an abstract: this abstract is a lightly rejiggered 500 words cut and pasted from my grant application
  • [5 minute break; refresh coffee; celebrate writing with Write Club members]
  • 10:35-11:05: apply to a conference call with an abstract: this abstract is a moderately rejiggered 250 words cut and pasted from an article in progress
  • [long break! 15 minutes outside with Write Club and the dog]
  • 11:20-11:50: open three documents related to chapter 1 of my book; read them; try to cut and paste them into one document (“Chapter 1”) or into other more appropriate documents

A pretty good morning!

IMG_1226
It’s a total goddamn mess, is what it is

However, what struck me about Monday’s research was how it felt like … cheating. Was  I really “working on Chapter 1 of my book” like I’m supposed to be? I don’t see the part where I’m really, actually, writing academically, for real. Look what I did: reading (active reading, but still), and then aimless free writing that was part notes on the book I read but mostly my reactions to it, and later, cutting and pasting from stuff I’d already written in a half-ass sort of way in a bunch of document stubs. I don’t have any formal notes on the thing that I read, and I don’t have any new good sentences for my chapter. I’m at this stage in Chapter 1 where it’s just all garbage: I’m right at the beginning, I hardly know what I’m talking about, I’m sure I’ll never produce intelligent, researched prose ever again. I feel like I’m rearranging the proverbial deck chairs on the proverbial doomed ocean liner. It feels, when I consider it, like I didn’t move anything at all forward in any way. Wwwwwwhhhhhhhhyyyyyyyyyyy.

And the conference “proposal” and the book chapter “proposal”! Those felt like cheating, too, because I wasn’t writing them from scratch, it was just more cutting and pasting, with some rejiggering. I don’t really feel like I’m allowed to say “I wrote 750 words today for a conference proposal and a book chapter pitch” because I don’t feel like I wrote them!

But this is how it gets done, I have to keep reminding myself. I’m never going to get to the “real” writing first if I don’t struggle with the secondary literature and chew it over pretty extensively. I’m never going to get the structure and content of the chapter if I don’t try to find some patterns and sense in my freewriting. I don’t have to make up brand new prose out of thin air for a conference or chapter proposal if I’ve already been doing some real writing on the topics in question. Rejiggering the prose is work, re-placing the emphasis or reframing the audience. That’s writing, in its way. I guess, though it doesn’t look like much, that this is the work. Indeed, it’s Wednesday morning, and I’m staring down more of the same: freewriting, active reading, trying to get a sense of what’s actually in all the notes and freewrites I’ve already produced over the last several months, taking formal notes on that book that is going to be so central for me. The slog. This is what it is sometimes. No brilliant insights, no pages of flowing text, no “thesis statement,” just building a beach, one grain of sand at a time.

If you’re in the slog too, bon courage. Let’s try today to remember that it ain’t pretty, but we’re getting it done. What does the slog look like for you, and how to convince yourself to keep going?

 

affect · emotional labour · guest post · reflection · Uncategorized

Guest Post: Check Your Privilege

Screen Shot 2017-09-22 at 12.00.49 PM

Recently I was invited to deliver a public lecture on the ethics of care and feminism, in Vancouver, to a women’s cultural group called Réseau-Femmes. I was delighted, and nervous, about the challenge of making my academic research and writing accessible to a wider audience. I decided to test parts of my presentation on a few readers from my personal circle, id est my mom in the first instance, and a friend as my second reader. My talk began with this:

Je suis une nord-américaine blanche, allochtone, bourgeoise, instruite, littéraire et féministe. Je suis une femme cisgenre, c’est-à-dire, l’identité de mon genre correspond à mon sexe. Mon privilège social est ostensible et indéniable. Je suis fille d’une mère et d’un père; je suis moi-même mère de deux filles; je suis conjointe, amie et confidente. J’ai un chien, un chat, parfois un poisson, et trois mois sur douze, une roseraie et un potager. Je suis mentore, administratrice, parfois poète; je suis essayiste et professeure.

Le soin est au cœur de ma vie.

The opening was meant to be both political and light hearted. Situating myself and my privilege as a white, North American, settler, middle-class, educated, cis woman constituted of course the political gesture; the references to domestic pets and tasks that occupy, as do my daughters and students, my own daily care-giving practices elicited kind, knowing laughter from my audience. As for my mom, she loved it: « J’aime beaucoup beaucoup. Je trouve que c’est une belle approche à ton sujet ». After all she’s my mom, you might say. But when she’s in disagreement, she doesn’t mince words.

And so I had gone ahead with this introduction, despite my second reader who had emailed me the following a few days before:

I will admit that I find your introductory comments about your own privilege to be overly apologetic. I know that acknowledging privilege seems to be the thing to do these days, but I don’t agree with the trend. Let’s say that I am a critically minded member of a racial minority group and that I am reading your essay. How am I in any way helped or reassured by a confession of white privilege? To me it sounds rote and contrived, sort of the way we have to sing the national anthem before a hockey game. I simply don’t buy that the confession of white privilege actually makes a difference or opens up room for a more genuine conversation between equals.

Ouch. My friend didn’t mince words either. I was stunned, but not exactly dismayed, or at least not enough, to delete acknowledging privilege from my text. As another good friend reminded me, this important if not searing point of view recalls Vivek Shraya’s questioning of the practice of acknowledging Indigenous territory in her poem “indian” from even this page is white:

        is acknowledgment enough?

                    i acknowledge i stole this

        but i am keeping it social justice

                                or social performance

Am I being one of those “good white people” whom Brit Bennett in turn does not exactly chastise but does problematize in her 2014 essay – who tend to co-opt and detract from Black or Indigenous narratives with their good, but ineffectual, if not self-congratulatory, intentions?

Recently, I’ve noticed some disturbing backlash to the privilege issue bouncing around social media. One form appears in a poster of an old, angry white guy yelling the words, “CHECK YOUR PRIVILEGE” and pointing accusingly into the camera. It’s supposed to be funny, ironic, and dismissive. I find it a grotesque, revolting image, with the ugly resonance of the right’s co-opting of political correctness to silence minority voices demanding space to be heard, respected, and recognized.

Coming back to my second reader, if anything, what surprised me wasn’t so much the disagreement with what was considered a trivial trend as the assumption that my address was meant to help or reassure racialized people in the room. I’m not sure what it says about me that it never occurred to me that this was the goal of acknowledging my privilege. Particularly in the context of Francophone scholarship, the practice isn’t common at all, just as acknowledging territory from a settler point of view isn’t (yet) common either, at least not in Quebec.

But whether in an English- or French-speaking cadre, I saw and still consider that drawing attention to my racial, class, and gender privilege is meant to destabilize, maybe even annoy, and prompt critical reflection about these very categories. These are, after all, at the heart of any situated, material, and embodied idea of care, which was the central tropic of my talk. Despite the past thirty years of intersectional feminism, this is still no mean feat. In addition, the social workings of race, class, and gender are central to an understanding of care as a practice and an ethics for our time.

This all may sound like a sweaty exercise in self-justification. Maybe it is, but that’s okay. My second reader’s reaction – and I am thankful for it – prompted me to think harder about not only the practice of acknowledging privilege and colonial space but on its possibly unwanted effects on the persons who receive it.

How might the Indigenous individuals in my audience have received this white settler woman’s acknowledgement of the unceded territory of the Musqueam People in Vancouver, or of the Coast Salish Nation in Victoria where I also lectured during the same trip? Is this speech act for them? They already know too well that we settlers are occupying their unceded lands. Who’s it for, then? Maybe other settlers in the room who need unsettling – just as I do, regularly, repeatedly, in my daily goings on, in my daily care.

And so, I write this blog entry as a white settler cis woman, privileged in my middle-class upbringing and living. I am not apologizing. I situate myself and my privilege at this particular time in our history which is, perhaps in more deflected ways but perhaps also more than ever, precarious and whitewashed and male-dominated AF. I don’t think I am congratulating myself for making this awareness public. i acknowledge i stole this, and saying so is not nearly enough. (Thank you, Vivek.) I am an ally to, and not a representative of, racialized and Indigenous voices. I am drawing your attention to the ways in which I walk through the world, often happily, but maybe even more so angrily – a feminist killjoy trying to figure out how to resist the indignities that befall my sex and gender, trans people, queer and minority groups, and children all over the world and right under our noses.

I’ll continue to share drafts with my trusted second reader (as well as my mom), and I will most likely continue to be challenged. We will talk, sometimes disagree, and hear, respect, and recognize one another.

We all need so much more of that.

Carrière

Marie Carrière directs the Canadian Literature Centre/Centre de
littérature canadienne at the University of Alberta, where she also
teaches Canadian, Indigenous, and Québécois writing and culture. Her
current research includes a book manuscript on contemporary feminism —
and namely affect, intersectionality, and care ethics, which she examines
through a metafeminist lens.

good things · perpetual crush · self care · style matters · you're awesome

Jump in!

jumping

Image via

(with huge thanks to Leigh and Michele for agreeing to let me write about our conversation)

Last week, I went to an amazing conference and I admit that one of the many, many highlights was a moment of sartorial sisterhood between one of my totally fabulous co-panelists, Leigh, and me. The panel was done and we stood up, looked at each other, and she said something like, “Nice jumpsuit.” I don’t really know exactly what she said because I had been so busy admiring her jumpsuit. We were in on the same not-so-secret secret: jumpsuits are awesome.

Hers was blue. Mine was black. Hers was more structured. Mine was a little more flowy. Hers didn’t have a belt. Mine did. But, really, it was the ways in which they were the same that mattered. The top was attached to the bottom. Somewhere (in a place usually apparent only to the wearer) there is a zipper. It’s never all that obvious how one gets into one of these things and that, I think, is just one of their many advantages.

More on the advantages in a sec. Let me first get right into what you – if you are not already a jumpsuit convert – are probably already thinking. What about when you need to go the bathroom? Isn’t it a huge bother?

I know. I thought that too. It was the main reason why I resisted for so long. But here’s the thing. It’s not a bad thing to be forced to think ahead a little about when you might need to go. I know you’ve been there. You’re in office hours and the students are lined up down the hall and all of a sudden you have to run to teach or go to a meeting, or you’re writing and you don’t want to stop, or you’re at a conference and listening to mind-blowing papers and you can’t imagine slipping out of the room and missing anything you think you’ll just wait till the break but then the break comes and you end up talking to people you really like and then it’s time for the plenary…  and you remember, too late, that you actually really needed two, three, four, heck maybe even five minutes for yourself somewhere in all of that rushing around. Leigh described actually hopping on one foot by the time she got home at the end of the day because what had been discomfort had verged into crisis. She tells me her husband says, Why do you do this to yourself?

How many days have you had where you were so busy that you didn’t have time to find a bathroom? Let’s not do this to ourselves.

Leigh put it perfectly when she told me that the jumpsuit has taught her a kind of self-care. It forces her to stop and check in with herself about some pretty basic needs. It forces her not to wait until discomfort becomes crisis. It forces her not to do this to herself.

Michele, another conference attendee, overheard this conversation and immediately pulled out her phone to show us a picture of a jumpsuit that her partner bought for her at the very same moment that she had liked it on insta. We paused to celebrate how all these jumpsuit-stars were aligning and Michele pointed out that she likes jumpsuits because they reminded her of a kind of futurism (think: astronauts, star trek). Okay, yes!

Here’s my vote for the jumpsuit as the uniform of feminist futurism. Jump on in. The future is fine.

 

chaos · classrooms · collaboration · grad school · ideas for change · pedagogy · skills development · Uncategorized

the Do-It-Yourself grad class

I’m trying something a little different with my grad class this year. We have a really big cohort and we’ve bumped our course caps up to 15 and that’s what I have and it’s a lot. A lot of grading and name-remembering, maybe, but also–what an opportunity!–a lot of brain power in the room.

I’m trying to turn big enrolment into a feature, not a bug. I’m experimented with, if you will, a kind of parallel processing or distributed cognition at the very foundation of the course, right up to the top.

I’m making the students do the bulk of the work–designing the syllabus, choosing the readings, teaching–and pedagogically, I think it’s the right thing to do.

Here’s what I’m trying. The course is on selfies, which is the book I’m deep in writing right now. So I know the crap out of all of this. I could teach this in my sleep–but I don’t want to teach in my sleep. Instead, I am making the students create the course as we go. They’re not experts on this material, and this is the best way I can think of to make them so. On the first day I made some handouts with different options on it, and had them discuss and debate, in pairs, then fours, the half the room, then all together until we had reached a consensus on whether we would run the course like a survey, or as case studies–we had to really think it through, not just what, but why. They decided case studies and then we had to debate to consensus on which three of five possible cases we wanted to focus on. My job then was to create a frame for the rest of the semester, to distribute the work and attention.

The next two weeks were foundations in theory and method, ideas that are going to be our North Star for the rest of the term, where I assigned the material and organized the classes. I also created five groups, and for each case study (lasting either two or three weeks of class) assigned groups to specific tasks related to the very methodologies I use to produce these cases in my research: finding and sharing context from secondary literature, intensive browsing across possible primary texts, picking representative or exemplary texts for analysis, producing a persuasive interpretation / argument, and linking the case to the broader work of the course. Starting next week, it’s the students who are going to have to figure out what we’re going to read, what theory is going to be relevant, which hashtags or instagram accounts are most useful to consider, what it all means. Already they’re asking great questions: who are the major theorists of art photography? Or, I know how to find primary materials for fine art photography, but how do I find and decide what vernacular photography to use? Yeah, those are basic research questions. I already know the answers but the goal of the course is not really for me to perform my own scholarly excellence–it’s for students to develop their own skills and excellence.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what grad students need from their courses. I think they need a lot more skills training, in the basic skills of the degree and the profession. I did a bit last night on how to read like a researcher, and how to create a lesson plan. Someone came up to me afterwards to tell me, excitedly, how that was most important bit about class. I’m teaching them how to start from literally nothing: “this is a course about selfies, and we are grounding in auto/biography studies, surface reading, new media studies, and photography studies” and figure out how to say something valuable and humane about why some images get banned from Facebook and some don’t. This is a skill that PhD students really need if they’re going to write dissertations. This is a skill that MA students need if they want to join a professional workforce and move beyond the entry level. Self-efficacy develops when we are presented with malformed problems and have to figure out how to bring some order to that chaos. They’re learning about how to find the important works on a topic they start off with very little knowledge on. They’re learning how to read a ton of primary material fast, looking for patterns. They’re learning how to link these patterns to broader cultural and theoretical contexts. And they’re learning how to frame all that work to be useful to all of us in a classroom setting.

I expect I’m going to have a LOT of meetings with students about this. That’s exciting: working one on one, or group on one, with students who have urgent and concrete scholarly problems they’re trying to solve, that have real stakes.

So far, I’m loving the results. Next week is when the plan fully launches. It might be a little bumpy until we all figure it out, but I am really looking forward to seeing how we all grow.