#shinetheory · DIY · fast feminism · guest post · Uncategorized

“This book is an action”: Notes on Creating a Feminist Small Press

For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.

– Audre Lorde

Gap Riot Press is a Toronto-based, women-run chapbook press cofounded by Dani Spinosa and Kate Siklosi. Our mission is to engage a wider literary community through the publication of formally innovative and experimental poetic works, with a priority on unrepresented and marginalized voices.

There’s no ifs ands or buts about it: the textual object is an expression of privilege. As women, we know this well. It’s 2017, and if you want to publish experimental poetry today, chances are, you have to go to a white man to do it. So, we asked ourselves – how, with embers of the CanLit dumpster fire still glowing (see here, here, here, and everywhere), can we enter the space of publication and open a communal space to listen to and engage with writers we so desperately need to hear from?

Gap Riot is the fruit of conversations between women – it is infused with the night heat of summer, the breath of whiskey, the lament of hearts outpouring. It is also the result of our classical anarchist training (thanks, Robert Duncan!). We believe that artists and writers have a communal responsibility to respond creatively to the world – to approach its conditions with a spirit of action, intervention, and love.

A great deal of this responsibility lies with literary publishers and editors, who have a huge role to play in shattering the canon and opposing the very foundations of canon-formation. “By editing with empathy and a wider eye to the readership,” Jacqueline Valencia has recently written in “How Do We Fix the Canlit Canon,” “we can start to form a dialogue conducive to openness and understanding.” Gap Riot Press is our little way of minding the gap in these conversations. If the canon is to change, we don’t need more words – we need dialogue, coproduction, and exchange.

We’ve gotten a lot of questions so far about what makes feminist publishing, well, “feminist.” Do we only publish works by and for women? Does all of our writing have to pertain to gender issues as a theme? Do we hate men? For us, the feminist press is not about exclusion or cutting off conversations between men and women, or people of different races, sexualities, or abilities. It goes beyond having a diversified masthead and roster and our work is just one way of looking at how to move beyond “diversification.” As we will explore in our second installment with Hook & Eye, there are many ways of doing this editorial and cultural work. Gap Riot is also a way for us, as women, to get our hands dirty in the poetic craft as a form of activism: or, poetic craftivism, to use Betsy Greer’s term that grew out of Riot Grrrl. Purposeful acts of gentle anarchy to keep the patriarchal, academic, and corporate worlds woke.  

That’s why we at Gap Riot are so devoted to the craft and the material of small press book production. As poets ourselves, we have always had our eye on the visual poetic which refuses to withdraw the materiality of language from its meaning-making capacities. This materiality, countless poets reminds us, is central to the politics of poetic production. At Gap Riot, we translate this interest in the materiality of poetry to the production of small runs of books that are crafted by women working collaboratively across disciplines and printed at the Toronto-based art printing house Swimmer’s Group. Of course, along with material production and craft comes the issue of finances; we speak more specifically to that issue in our second installment with Hook and Eye on the practical issues of starting a small press and the politics that goes alongside that. As we continue to design and publish these books, we will work collaboratively with designers, artists, printers, and poets to produce books that challenge the traditional structures of book publishing. Chapbooks have always done this work. Craft has always done this work. Feminists have always done this work. We are still learning.

We desire an active and responsive readership. Too often, literary publication practices ignore crucial opportunities for engagement beyond the page. We not only want to take up space in the material production of texts, but we want to open spaces for women and marginalized writers to become their works, try them on, experiment with them. So, beginning in the fall of 2017, we will be starting a reading series that fosters inclusivity and interaction. These events will create reading spaces that are inclusive, supportive, and antagonistic to the traditions of canonicity and exclusivity that so frequently accompany experimental writing.

It is a well-known and widely discussed fact that marginalized writers are severely underrepresented in what we read and critique; it is also well-known, but seldom engaged-with, that the labour of literary production – the work of editors, publishers, agents, and reviewers who wield so much capacity for changing the industry – is work that is controlled and undertaken by white liberal sentinels. Why are there so few marginalized people in influential gatekeeping roles? What barriers to access need to be torn down? These and other questions need to be asked of our literary peers in arms. But we need to start doing more than just asking these questions. As white women, we’re aware that we have a lot of work to do beyond the privilege of setting up a press, and we know how great of a privilege it is to get to do this work. Sure, we can model the editorial practices we wish to see in the world; but mimicking praxis is not enough to destabilize the accumulated cultural capital wielded by the literary establishment. This is an establishment whose kingdoms are universities, whose loudspeakers are mainstream media, and whose coffers are filled by corporations. The establishment is as powerful as it is steadfast; it is a black hole that hungrily absorbs and consumes that which comes near to it. We need strategies other than those practices used by the establishment to feign change, assume diversity, and then reabsorb any glimmers of progression back into its flat, self-serving agenda. It is not enough to simply ask questions about why writers are continually sidestepped. It is not enough to pledge quotas or insert a few texts by recognizably “diverse” writers. We need to begin to open conversations, and open spaces to collective presents at the limits of and outside the establishment. We need to imagine and reimagine together, revise and revision together, and create and recreate – together.

Part of this work involves seeing intersectionality as more than just tokenizing Indigenous, Queer, PoC writers and their work. We want to get further to the roots of access not only in terms of who gets read, but who gets to produce and therefore interrogate and intervene on the canon. We don’t need more words about inclusivity, we need action. We need to mind the gap. So, once we are a little more established, we plan to establish a sponsorship program that will offer funding to add an editor who has traditionally been denied opportunity and representation to the Gap Riot collective. Such funding will also allow that editor to take editing workshop classes and to curate a series of chapbooks, magazines, readings, or perhaps even an anthology for our press. It’s a small way of creating some space for necessary hands in the literary production of what we read. It is a way of constructing shared creative futures based on reciprocal mentorship and exchange. In this way, Gap Riot becomes more than a press – it becomes a moving project, a tremoring constellation of diverse voices, radical ideas, and dissonant discussions.

As they exist and govern today, the larger structures of literary production (their institutions and their gatekeepers) do not foster this type of movement. Most literary powerhouses – commercial houses and university presses – protect whiteness, and in particular, male whiteness. These institutions also foster a culture of self-absorbed elitism and careerism. We need to counteract these entrenched narratives by using community to combat the institutions and practices that render innovative writers tokenized or invisible. Part of the solution is to increase exposure by getting on the ground with our works – selling them at book fairs, in parking lots, at kitchen tables. We need to actively identify those writers who are doing innovative work but aren’t receiving acknowledgement and invite them to publish and to edit the work alongside us. We have to move beyond the desire to just sell a few books, and work instead towards getting people talking, performing, and creating alongside each other.

Gap Riot Press takes influence from our literary forebears and Riot Grrrls. We know we are following in a long lineage of women, PoCs, queer and trans folk, and allies who have done, and continue to do, the work of supporting and amplifying marginal voices of all kinds. We’re also in good company. Bolstered by the continued work by organizations like CWILA, literary awards like the Emerging Indigenous Voices Fund, and publishing and editorial support initiatives like Vivek Shraya’s new imprint, VS Books, with Arsenal Pulp. We’re here to embody the unexpected and question expectations. We’re here to challenge the view of marginalized as always “emerging” when they have simply been unacknowledged. We’re here for collectivity, protest, and resistance channeled through creative energy. We’re here to work together towards shared, intersectional futures. We’re here to kick down the doors of the privileged canon, and take some names.

Of course, we’re only just getting started. Our first chapbook, the beautiful and moving What Linda Said by Toronto-based poet, novelist, and playwright Priscila Uppal, soft launched as a part of the premiere of her play by the same name at this summer’s SummerWorks Theatre Festival in Toronto. Our next release is already being finalized as we write this—an innovative, visually striking, and generally badass look at Salomé from feminist poet Adeena Karasick. And we have more on the way.

For more information, please visit us online at www.gapriotpress.com, follow us on Twitter @gapriotpress, or shoot us a quick email at gapriotpress@gmail.com.

academic work · after the LTA · new year new plan · Uncategorized

Repetition with a Difference

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A funny thing happened this weekend when I stopped by my office to drop off some books and art. As I got out of the car my partner reminded me to have some identification as well as my keys in case I had to call security to let me in. In the past several years we’ve both had trouble getting in on weekends because, I think, of how part-time and contract faculty cards are programmed. As I walked up to the security doors on Saturday they clicked open before I could even pull my card form my pocket. They didn’t quite swing open, roll out a red carpet, and hand me champagne as I passed through them, but the difference was palpable: I have a tenure-track job now. I am legible to the institution.

It is a very strange feeling indeed to return to an institution as a tenure-track faculty. Much of my public-facing work in the last decade has been about precarity, and now I am no longer precarious. My feelings are complicated: I don’t feel guilty about landing a job, not really, but I do feel acutely aware of how very hard the hustle has been. I know I deserve my position, and I am also acutely aware of how many others—my loved ones, my colleagues, my peers—deserve the stability and legibility I’ve been granted.

When I received the call that I got the job several months ago, I burst into tears. I cried (a lot). Then I took a three-hour nap. I slept in a way I hadn’t in who-knows-how-long. My body relaxed in ways I still don’t have the words for. And yet, I’m also more attuned to and more attentive to the ways in which stability is such a privilege. The more I calm, the more I focus, the more time and space I have for carefully plotting out my five- and ten-year research plans, the more I am also aware of how completely precarity is woven into so very much of one’s life.

And so, as I head into a new school year, I’ll be here writing and thinking about the shifting experience of working and teaching within the institution, rather than on its periphery. I’ll be working to structure my time here with the aim and intent of making and holding space for myself and others who are and have been so marked by our precarious times. And, I’ll be doing my very best to strike a balance between having a critical attention and a joyful heart. For, a feminist killjoy’s work is never done.

literature · Uncategorized

Guest Post: Podcasting CanLit

In her post about Unpacking CanLit, Jennifer Andrews writes about the spaces we occupy as critics and asks what it might mean to “[step] outside of the institutions which prop us up.” In the ramp up to the same conference Jennifer is writing about, I was stepping outside myself, walking through the streets of Dublin and listening to podcasts that, I think, exemplify publically engaged and politicized Canadian literary criticism. As I walked, I listened, and I thought: what are these podcasts doing that makes them so much more thrilling than other forms of cultural criticism?

I find myself talking a lot about podcasts these days, and not only because I listen to so many of them. Cheap, intimate, mobile, manipulable, interactive, and participatory: the podcast, I think, is an ideal medium for public scholarship. So why don’t we see them saturating academia? The problem lies in how they’ve been used. Academic podcasts are mostly lecture recordings, which is disappointing, because podcasting can do so much more than that. It can upset the binaries between scholarship and pedagogy, professor and student, producer and listener, opening up space for different kinds of critical dialogues. It might even be able to push a new kind of public scholarship, one that goes beyond the abstraction of our work into bite-sized pieces. We—academics—often presume that the real scholarship happens in the university and is then disseminated out to the public. But what if, instead of just thinking about public scholarship and public pedagogy as forms of dissemination or knowledge mobilization, we instead thought of it as public first? What are the real barriers that are preventing us from thinking publicly as the default mode of our work—and how can start to tear those barriers down?

I want to tell you about the two podcasts I was listening to in Dublin, and how I think they build public engagement with Canadian literature and cultural production beyond the academy. I want to talk about how they model different kinds of engagement that can teach us something about how academics could use podcasting differently.

“Everything Is Weird Here”: Can’t Lit 

Dina Del Bucchia and Daniel Zomparelli’s Can’t Lit is a monthly podcast birthed from the literary magazine Poetry Is Dead. In each episode, the hosts have an author on to talk about books and feelings and CanLit feuds. Sometimes they play games; frequently they make fart jokes. As the hosts explained in an interview for Discorder Magazine, their goal is to make Canadian literature both less insular and less serious. Says Zomparelli:

It’s important because people are having these conversations like the ones we’re having in the podcast, but they’re not recording them. We’re able to create some sort of a record of what’s going on in Canadian literature.

Del Bucchia and Zomparelli emphasize the conversational informality of the podcast as a genre, the way it can break down perceived cultural barriers between potential listeners and this thing called literature.

That informality registers at multiple levels, from the clear friendship of the hosts to the inclusion of laughter, tangents, and mistakes. Listen, for example, to the opening of their sixth episode, with guest Wayde Compton:

Zomparelli and Del Bucchia embrace the messiness of a medium that must go on no matter how flawed. The promise of seriality as a contract with the listener produces something more raw and immediate than academics are used to. Sure, many of us have learned to embrace the classroom as a space of productive failure and unpredictability, but our public performances are so scripted. As Lucia Lorenzi recently discussed on Twitter, the academic drive towards perfection and polish often shuts down conversation, even in spaces like the conference where conversation is supposed to be the point.

Read the whole thread by Dr. Lucia Lorenzi (aka @empathywarrior) here.

The possibility for goofiness, profanity, and, of course, error is what makes podcasts in general, and this podcast in particular, so appealing. Now take note of how Tintin Yang of Discorder Magazine describes this appeal:

By placing emphasis on the more relatable, less academic perspectives on literature, Can’t Lit follows a similar mandate to Daniel’s project, Poetry is Dead: “If it’s not fun, don’t do it.” Can’t Lit is one solution addressing the problem of framing Canadian literature in an inaccessible and pedagogic way.

That’s academic, pedagogic, and inaccessible on one side, and relatable and fun on the other side. And part of being relatable and fun is also being enthusiastically flawed. Listen to this clip of Vivek Shraya and Del Bucchia in episode 34:

Imperfection isn’t a side effect of seriality: it’s the point. In order for Can’t Lit to break down barriers between listeners and the culturally intimidating construct that is Canadian Literature, it needs to embrace a little messiness. Imperfection is the starting point of letting people in.

*

“Listen, We Should Be Making Things”: Red Man Laughing

Imperfection is also embraced in Ojibway/Metis comedian Ryan McMahon’s podcast Red Man Laughing. Red Man Laughing is part of the Indian & Cowboy Indigenous Media Network, “the world’s only listener supported Indigenous podcast media network.” McMahon describes Red Man Laughing as “conversations, investigations and pontifications about the collision between Indian Country and the Mainstream,” embracing both the openness and the orality of podcasting as a medium to highlight indigenous artists, thinkers, and creators. Guests have included Tanya Tagaq, Wab Kinew, Lee Maracle, Christi Belcourt, and, in the episode I’ll talk about here, Anishinaabe/Métis games designer and scholar Elizabeth LaPensée.

McMahon and LaPensée’s wide-ranging conversation should be required listening for every academic, particularly for its focus on the experience of working in the academy as an Indigenous scholar. But the real reason I’m focusing in on this episode is how LaPensée frames the value of what we might call maker culture. “Can we just make some things,” she exclaims at one point. “Can we just do that? Fuck! Who wants to come make some games?”

These thoughts obviously resonate with McMahon, who opens the next episode, on Indigenous comic books and graphic novels, with the statement “Listen, we should be making things.” Specifically, according to LaPensée, indigenous creators should lean into the pleasures of smaller projects and their shorter development cycles. Here’s what she has to say:

The shorter development cycle is key to the sustainability of creation. This is especially true for creative work that challenges the ideas of success and legitimacy promoted by institutions like big gaming companies—or universities.

LaPensée and McMahon’s discussion of podcasting as a form of experimental and community-driven creation contrasts the podcast with the university. One is a pleasure-motivated expression of real cultural values, while the other is a Kafka-esque bureaucracy that presents a series of hoops to jump through in pursuit of a credential.

*

I don’t think it’s particularly radical to say that the university in general, and humanities education in particular, is at a crossroads. One might even call it a crisis. The precaritization of our workforce, in particular, is driving many of us to ask what the point of higher education in the humanities actually is. I’m not claiming, by any means, that podcasts offer a solution to this crisis. That would be absurd. What I’m saying is that podcasts, like animals, are good to think with—and I’m saying that the rise of public-facing cultural criticism podcasts like Can’t Lit and Red Man Laughing offer us an opportunity to think about what the university is for, and what academics are for.


Hannah McGregor is an Assistant Professor of Publishing at Simon Fraser University, where her research and teaching focus on the histories and futures of print and digital media in Canada. She is particularly interested in Canadian middlebrow magazines, podcasting as public scholarship, and the histories of structural racism in the Canadian publishing industry. She is also the co-host of Witch, Please, a feminist podcast on the Harry Potter world.

Uncategorized

Unpacking: A CanLit Special Series

 

Although the blog has been on summer hiatus, we have decided to re-open the blog for a moment in order to take up Jennifer Andrews’ guest post. First, though, a short introduction from Lily and Erin.

For many of us here in Canada, the spring conference season is finally winding down. For Lily, as with a lot of other literature academics, the season began with Black Like, rolled into Mikinaakominis/ Transcanadas, then right into Congress where she ran madly between incredible panels at Congress 2017 from ACCUTEACQL, and CACLALS. Erin began in Dublin at Untold Stories, then went to Toronto for Mikinaakominis/ Transcanadas, and, like Lily, right into Congress 2017. (We both collapsed after that but we know that for a lot of you out there, the conferencing continued and might not even be over yet.) Throughout these post-conference weeks, we’ve thought a lot about what just happened? Indeed, we’ve been in touch with one another more regularly than ever before—texting, emailing, and writing to one another and asking how are you? What about this thing that happened? And, how are you feeling and what are you thinking now?

We’re in agreement: we don’t normally think these kinds of questions after conferences. But these conferences have been some combination of the most generative, fraught, difficult, and complicated ones we have ever attended. Since then, we’ve been talking to each other over coffee, in snatched moments in the hallway, on email, on the phone, on limited social media channels. In our experiences, these have been private conversations thus far, but it is clear to us we also need to have a lot of public dialogues too. There is a lot to unpack. Hook & Eye will only be one place where this happens.

This post, sent to us by Jennifer Andrews, is about a set of conferences that happened in Toronto and that mostly concerns folks working in Canadian literary criticism. Each of these things – Toronto, CanLit crit – can be, and often is, its own bubble. But these bubbles—the interconnected spheres of power and relations— need to be named. And the issues that have come up and out of these conferences are about much more than Toronto and literary criticism in Canada. Jen’s post is also very much about the spatial dynamics of institutional power, of the ways in which whiteness and masculinity are reified in the very buildings and cities where we gather to work. As Jen’s post highlights, there is without a doubt a LOT that happened in CanLit this year that those of us in the field need to keep talking about. Additionally, as Jen writes, there is a wider and equally urgent need to think hard not only about the conversations we have, but also where we have them.

This isn’t just about what rooms are in, but also about the kind of room we need to make. One of the greatest things to come out of this year, as Jen notes, is the Emerging Indigenous Voices Literature Award(if you haven’t already kicked in, and want to, it’s not too late!). This award gets us to all the rooms that are going to emerge from indigenous voices that will be supported by it.

But there’s a backstory to the award that is also about feminism and making the rooms that we want. The campaign for this award is put together by a lawyer, Robin Parker, who is a partner in a newly formed feminist law firm, Paradigm Law Group, LLP. When The Precedentwrote about the firm, Angela Chiasson, another partner, said, “This is not a female-only space… but this is a no-bullshit space.”

So, here’s to a LOT more no-bullshit spaces. What we’re aiming to offer here at Hook & Eye is an interim no-bullshit space to think through power and space in the academy through the context of CanLit.

Let’s unpack.

Uncategorized

Unpacking Transcanadas

by Jennifer Andrews

I recently returned home from a Canadian literature conference held in my old hometown of Toronto in a state of disillusionment, frustration, and anger.  Usually I attend conferences after a long semester of teaching, looking for a glimmer of inspiration and motivation to jumpstart my research and writing but most importantly to engage with other scholars and to see what is happening in the areas that I write about and teach—in this case, Canadian literature.  This semester was a bit different.  I am working on a project that examines how American fiction writers perceive of and write about Canada; the motivation for this came from a longstanding interest in and commitment to exploring how Indigenous writers straddle, contest, and as best they can ignore the imposition of the Canada-US border as something that has been imposed upon pre-existing communities.  All this to say, that I have spent most of my time over the last few years reading and writing about American fiction and I was eager to see what is happening in Canadian literary criticism.

The months and weeks leading up to the conference were filled with turmoil within the Canadian literary establishment.  The termination of Stephen Galloway, the #UBC Accountable letter and counter-petition (the latter of which I signed), the rightful probing of Joseph Boyden’s ability to speak for and about Indigenous peoples, the recent horrifying debacle of Write: The Magazine of the Writer’s Union of Canadain which the white male editor published the work of Indigenous authors while simultaneously including an editorial that mocked the very serious questions of appropriation, without prior disclosure of the contents of the editorial to the writers being included in the issue.  The one good thing to come from these events is the viral success of the Emerging Indigenous Voices Literary Award which now totals over $110,000; I was thrilled to contribute and watch it grow.  So given all of the possibilities that could and might have come out of a Canadian literary criticism conference at this juncture, why was I left feeling so depressed and embarrassed by this experience.

Full disclosure: I am one of the lucky ones in spinning the roulette wheel of the job market.  I am a white, middle class woman who did my graduate work at the University of Toronto with full-funding, held a SSHRC post-doc for seven months, and then received my first tenure-track job offer at UNB.  I have no right to complain.  I have the stability and security to do my research and teaching in a supportive and nurturing environment, to apply for grants and hire graduate researchers to help move my projects forward, as well as creative and academic freedom to teach a wide array of texts.  Over my career, I served a decade as co-editor of Studies in Canadian Literature, a role in which one, like it or not, contributes to canon formation, while also hopefully making room for new ideas, approaches, and texts.  In other words, I have institutional clout.

I’ve been fully employed ever since, albeit far from my birthplace and hometown of Toronto in Central Canada, a move that I made because I wanted a job but have grown from in so many ways.  While the Fredericton campus of UNB is a bucolic place, as evidenced by the work of the white, male Confederation Poets, many of whom are deeply tied to the city of stately elms, I have also learned a great deal about checking my own privilege and unpacking what lies beneath those elms—deep-rooted classism and racism. I have watched my spouse struggle with over-education and underemployment in a region of Canada where work is difficult to find, resources are scarce, and the challenges faced by a small population are all too often dwarfed by the desires of Central Canada.  Many of my students are first generation university goers, working multiple jobs for minimum wage, and overwhelmed by an institution that appears alienating and exclusionary; for those who leave their rural homes, coming to a city of 50,000 is a big step.  I have embraced my life in Atlantic Canada and my research reflects that interest—I regularly work on, teach, and write about the rich literature from the region, including a plethora of incredible African-Canadian and Indigenous texts, many of which remain unknown nationally.

So coming to Toronto now has its own baggage for me, claiming a geographic, cultural, economic and political clout that I did not recognize or critique when I lived there.  Moreover, the conference was held in Hart House on the University of Toronto campus, an all too familiar locale from my time as a graduate student, primarily because it housed a very fancy restaurant on its second floor that my grandmother treated me to several times.  Built in 1919 and gifted by the Massey Foundation, its Beaux Arts Gothic Revival style is intimidatingly beautiful with Italian travertine flooring and wood paneling.  The Great Hall is described on the Hart House website as the “showpiece” of the building.  It was also the primary location for the majority of the conference, housing the plenary sessions and literary readings, despite the fact that it is a difficult place to hear people speaking because of grandeur of its size without renting an extensive and doubtlessly expensive sound system; to be able to hear people’s voices and see their faces is critical yet challenging and virtually impossible without extensive equipment in such a locale.  Its vaulted ceiling and enormous stained glass windows are reminiscent of a church, and symbols of empire and institutional status abound, with the “coats of arms of the Royal Family and degree-granting universities of the British Empire” from the era of its construction located on the south wall.  Among the decorative features of space, the north end of the hall displays “shields” representing 74 universities of nations allied with Britain and Canada in 1919” and large portraits of the Hart House wardens, as well as university chancellors and governors are visible throughout the room.  In other words, the Great Hall conveys a great deal of White, male, heterosexual authority and privilege by virtue of its history and thus perhaps, could or might have been the perfect place to engage with “Literature, Justice, and Relation,” key conference themes, in new and productive ways.

Yet, institutions are notoriously hierarchical, resistant to change, and eager to hold onto established practices, often because it ensures that those at the top don’t have to surrender their power, which is all too often tied to disciplinary turf.  It takes enormous courage and self-reflexivity to break free of—or into—those ivory towers and it is especially hard to do so when a conference is itself framed physically by a building that represents the very essence of empire, at least in the context of Canadian education, as an iconic building on the largest research university in the country, located in a city that has constructed itself as the financial centre of the nation.  Perhaps I have it wrong, or maybe I am just misguided.  Nor would I have read the situation this way had I remained in Toronto, or even another large city as a professor.  And sometimes there is no rhyme or reason as to why conferences work or don’t, despite the best intentions and efforts of the organizers.  But I do believe that reflecting on what constitutes Canadian literary criticism, at least for professors, may mean stepping outside of the institutions which prop us up, whatever the level of discomfort or unfamiliarity of moving off campus.  This may offer one small step toward making Canadian literary studies more accountable to those who work within and outside of academia and turn frustration, anger, and disavowal into the beginnings of new kinds of dialogues that acknowledge the ways in which institutions and those at the top (me included) all too often dictate who teaches Canadian literature, what they teach, and how they teach it.

jandrew2016Jennifer Andrews is Professor of Canadian Literature at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. She has published book chapters and articles in a variety of scholarly journals including American Literary HistoryESCAmerican Indian QuarterlyECW, The Canadian Review of American Studies and The Journal of Commonwealth Literature. Her co-authored book, Border Crossings: Thomas King’s Cultural Inversions, was published by the University of Toronto Press in 2003 and her SSHRC-funded book on Native North American women poets, titled In the Belly of a Laughing God, was published by the University of Toronto Press in 2011.

Uncategorized

Announcement

Hi everyone,

We are taking a break for research, conference season, recalibration, and vacation. Hook & Eye will be back at it with a whole new website in August. We can’t wait to show you what our designer has been working on for us! Until then please consider sending a guest post to our Managing Editor Erin Wunker. You can reach her at erin.wunker at gmail. Please put “Guest Post Pitch” in the subject heading.

Take care of each other!

Love,

Hook & Eye

classrooms · faculty evaluation · guest post

Guest post: She’s Hot: Female Sessional Instructors, Gender Bias, and Student Evaluations

This post by Andrea Eidinger was originally published on ActiveHistory.ca and is reposted here with permission.
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I would like to acknowledge and thank the many female instructors who got in touch with me over the past week, not only for their bravery in sharing their experiences with me, but for their strength in continuing in their dedication to the field of history and education. I am profoundly grateful and honoured. 
“I think your feminist stances are slightly overcorrecting reality. I’m sure minorities had a harsher experience than women, ESPECIALLY today, a point you seem to overlook. You’re a really nice person though.”
That comment comes from my student evaluations from one of the first courses I ever taught, back when I was still a graduate student. At the time that I read that, I burst out laughing. I mean really, how else can you react to that kind of statement? But many courses and student evaluations later, I am starting to think that this is reflective of a larger problem in the world of academia, and history in particular, with respect to female sessional instructors and course evaluations.
Over the course of the past year or so, there have been a number of studies that have emerged detailing the gender bias against female instructors in student evaluations.  According to one study, male professors routinely ranked higher than female professors in many areas. [2] For instance, male professors received scores in the area of promptness (how quickly an assignment was returned) that were 16% higher than those of female instructors, even though the assignments were returned at the exact same time.  Another research project, which examined word usage in reviews of male and female professors on “Rate My Professor” found that male faculty members are more likely to be described as “funny,” “brilliant,” “genius,” and “arrogant,” while female faculty members are more likely to be described as “approachable,” “helpful,” “nice,” and “bossy.”[3]
While many of these studies discuss the negative impact that this bias has on tenure and promotion few consider how devastating they can be to sessional instructors, particularly given the overrepresentation of women at this academic rank. Although data on sessional instructors in Canada, both contract and regularized, remains scarce, what we do know based on a 2016 report on sessional faculty at publicly-funded universities in Ontario is that 60.2% of sessional instructors identity as female. Most of these individuals have Ph.Ds. and will spend roughly 4 to 5 years working as a sessional instructors with the hope of securing  full-time positions within academia. During these 4 to 5 years, 53.2% of these individuals will secure contracts that are less than 6 months in duration while the next largest group, at 18.2% will not have any current contract at all.? And declining enrolment in history courses across the country means that jobs of any type are becoming more and more scarce.
The effectiveness of sessional instructors is often evaluated based primarily on student evaluations, particularly when it comes to questions of hiring, contract renewal, regularization, and promotion to tenure-track positions. (This is in spite of solid evidence that student evaluations are not good measures of teaching effectiveness). Consequently, female sessionals often face a serious disadvantage compared to their male colleagues.
Here is a quick sampling of some of the more problematic comments I’ve received over the years:
  • “The focus on social history was good but I did not learn events leading to confederation. I didn’t come out of this course with any more information, except gender and race struggles, than I came in with.”
  • “Although Andrea stated on the first day she would teach a peoples[sic] perspective it was not illustrated how much was going to be focused on first nations and women’s history.”
  • “A bit biased in her views: very feminist and consequently an alternate view isn’t respected.”
While these remarks only represent a small percentage of the student comments that I’ve received on evaluations, they are extremely troubling. They also appear to be fairly representative of the types of comments that female instructors, particularly those who appear to be younger, receive on a regular basis. While writing this piece, I put out a call on social media for Canadian female instructors who teach history to get in touch with me if they were willing to share some of these comments on an anonymous basis. Eight women came forward and shared their stories. These comments and stories generally fell into five categories: bias, inexperience, unprofessionalism, behavior/appearance, and sexualization.
One of the most common critiques is that of “bias.” You can see several examples of these types of comments that I’ve received above. Many female instructors are heavily criticized for including women and gender history in their courses, and this is often described as them imposing a personal bias on history. They are often accused of “only having one point of view” and “shutting down opposing views.”
For instance, one instructor had a student that complained, “it was obvious that she didn’t quite enjoy the boys telling her that men are biologically superior. She rapidly dismissed their explanations as outdated and sexist without giving them the reason (although she did later on in the course elaborate). But it was clear that those students had lost interest since their ideas were being rejected.”
Related to this problem are comments about female professors being “inexperienced,” “new,” or “too young.”  Female instructors often have to face criticism from students who don’t feel that they are qualified to be professors. This is particularly a problem for female professors who appear to be younger than they really are or who happen to be short. Several of the instructors shared comments from students about them being “newer,” or just “getting started in teaching.” In one case, an instructor relayed that, “I also recently had an issue with a mature male student who made comments about me being “early in my career” and that he may be able to “help me” through his own line of work. He also expressed unsubstantiated doubts about my qualifications for teaching the subject matter after admitting to doing an online search of my background.”
On a related note, this can often result in direct challenges to female instructors in classes. Recently, a colleague related the following exchange on Twitter:

 

Another common complaint is that female instructors behave “unprofessionally.” The reasons for this can vary significantly, but often relate to references to one’s personal life. For instance, one instructor I spoke with had been forced to cancel a class because her child was sick. She joked about it in the following class. Then, on her student evaluations, she noted the following comment: “I found it very unprofessional that the Instructor referenced her child as an excuse for not being available or for missing class. This is not the concern of the student or any reputable faculty. Those issues should remain private and availability should be clearly indicated without reference to the Instructors personal life.”

Female instructors are criticized on everything from their behaviour to their appearance. Many are told that they should “smile more” or be “more approachable and friendly.” One student wrote, “she sounds like a dictionary with all the words she uses.” In some cases, students comment on their clothing choices in student evaluations, with comments like, “I like how your jewellery[sic] matches your clothing” and “I would love to know where you shop. You have some great dresses.”
More pernicious are the sexualized comments that female instructors received. These ranged from comments that “she’s hot” and “the prof is not hard on the eyes” to “I would really like to get you into a room alone and have some fun.” Finally, one instructor was told “I like how your nipples show through your bra. Thanks.” As the instructor herself noted, “this one led me to never wear those bras again. I now wear lightly padded bras exclusively. I was horrified when I got this one. Horrified. And not because my nipples were showing. Who the eff cares? But because someone was looking at me that way and sexualizing me while I was teaching a class in political history.”
Instructors have handled such comments in different ways, but nearly all of the instructors that I spoke with have stopped reading comments on student evaluations entirely. This is particularly the case in more recent years, as student comments have become increasingly aggressive and at times violent. Not only are these comments not helpful in any regard, but also they are profoundly unfair.
The end result to these kinds of comments is a situation that puts female sessional instructors in an un-winnable position. Their job performance is judged on teaching evaluations that are significantly biased against them. And yet teaching evaluations are used to make hiring decisions, where female instructors are ranked alongside with their male peers, on the assumption of an even playing field. And when there are no second chances and bad teaching evaluations can spell the end of your entire teaching career, female instructors get the short end of the stick.
Further, there are few support systems in place for female instructors to help them deal with these kinds of comments as well as misogyny in the classroom. While some departments and department members are sympathetic, others are less so, and some are openly hostile to even the suggestion. Female instructors are routinely told to just “ignore” these comments,[4] or are reluctant to even raise concerns for fears of being accused of “not being able to handle it” or of not being sufficiently “grateful for having a job.” Most of us end up feeling entirely alone. The situation is often worse for women of colour, Indigenous women, women with disabilities, and LGTBQ+ instructors.
However, it does seem that at least one Canadian university is starting to take this problem seriously. In May of 2014, the University of Waterloo initiated the Course Evaluation Project Team, to “assess the current practice of course evaluations and provide recommendations for improvement.” Their draft report was released to the university community in November 2016, recommending the adoption of a cascaded course evaluation model that would be consistent across all faculties. More than ninety associations and departments responded, and the final report is pending following a full review of this feedback. Three groups of faculty in particular submitted the most detailed responses, the Faculty Association of the University of Waterloo, the Status of Women and Equity Committee, and faculty members from the department of psychology.[5]
Each of these responses recommended that student evaluations should no longer be used to evaluate faculty members due to the significant gender, race, and other biases. They all specifically refuted the idea that careful design can be taken to counter the gender and racial biases in student evaluations. Instead, these reports advised that written comments in student evaluations should only be for the instructor’s use, and that alternative assessment tools be used instead, such as teaching practice inventory or correlating teaching with in one course with student grades in later courses. It remains to be seen what the final report will say.
While I can’t provide recommendations about what kind of system should replace student evaluations, what I can say is that based on the feedback that I’ve received and conversations I’ve had with other female instructors, gender bias in the classroom, and academia, is a serious problem that needs to be addressed openly, with honesty and compassion. Not only do these biases end careers, but they also deprive students of superb instructors.
Andrea Eidinger is a historian of gender and ethnicity in postwar Canada. She holds a doctorate from the University of Victoria, and has spent the last six years teaching as a sessional instructor in British Columbia. She is the creator and writer behind the Unwritten Histories blog, which is dedicated to revealing hidden histories and the unwritten rules of the historical profession.
[1] Special thanks to Joanna Pearce for her comments on the piece!
[3] Scott Jaschik, “Rate My Word Choice,” Inside Higher Ed (February 9, 2015). You can use the tool itself, which was developed by Ben Schmidt, here. For information on how he developed the tool, click here.
[4] Thank you Christo Aivalis for the suggestion of this example.  The comments section of this article (and many similar articles) highlights the prevalence of the ‘just ignore’ attitude.
[5] To see the background research for the study as well as some of the other responses and commentaries, including those from students, click here. Interestingly, of the responses posted that website, only the Federation of Students was fully supportive of the draft report’s recommendations.
academic reorganization · backlash · guest post · race

Guest post: I talked About Racism in Canada in a Public Venue. Here is what happened

By Misao Dean
I gave an interview on my research last March on the CBC program The 180. In it I talked about colonialism in Canada, picking away at some of the myths that sustained my childhood sense of “Canadianness,” and arguing that we should read them as representations of colonial power.
These ideas are not that radical in Canada; they’re absolutely conservative, in the context of recent interpretations of Canadian law. But it seems that when you bring those abstract ideas down to specifics – this piece of land, that cultural practice – or when you mention whiteness – well, some people get pretty excited. And someone wrote a reaction to my interview on a British right-wing website called “Heatstreet,” and that got a comment in the Times Higher Education Supplement, and a tweet was picked up by Fox News, and then things went a bit bananas.
On October 23rd 2016 I checked my e-mail and found a request for an interview about my research, from a podcast that is produced in Chicago. My first thought—as a researcher and scholar based in Victoria, British Columbia was WTF? The request referenced a tweet from someone I’ve never heard of, who according to Google, is a sociologist from the UK. My feelings shifted ever-so-slightly from incredulity to careful interests. Maybe my research is really getting some traction, I thought. People are talking about it, excitement, I thought.
By the time I got to work there were more requests for interviews, this time from ESPN, and there was something else: a steady stream of e-mails all consisting or two or three words, calling me a cunt and a fool, an idiot and an “SJW,” (derogatory internet slang for ‘social justice warrior.’) These emails had something in common: they were all lamenting the way I’m poisoning the minds of students. Many of them suggested I commit suicide.
Take a moment and pause on that: I was receiving emails from strangers telling me to commit suicide.
By the time I finished teaching my first class in addition to invitations to be on international news, and the hate-filled trolling, there were also e-mails to the Dean and my department chair, and someone in the Dean’s office had contacted me, offering “support.”
I’m ok, no big deal,I said. When the first death threat appeared in my inbox my stomach dropped, and I started to wonder why I did that interview.
I mean let’s stop and think about this again: I talked about systemic racism in Canada and I got death threats. Me—a middle-aged white university professor whose idea of a good time is a visit to the National Archives—got death threats talking about facts of Canadian social and political history.
My daughters asked me, What did you expect? Talking about race in the mainstream media just makes you a target. I gave this some thought. It doesn’t really help that I was attacked using my own words, taken out of context. This kind of irresponsible and de-contextualized quoting has become an art form among Trump followers who think it’s hilariously funny to post stories that make it look like famous “liberals” have said something entirely opposite to what they actually said: for example, that Michael Moore endorsed Trump, or that a woman academic doesn’t know the first thing about her own research topic.
I don’t know what I expected, but I didn’t expect hundreds of abusive and obscene accusations from people who didn’t even know that the interview was talking about Canada.
I didn’t expect my Rate My Professor  page to be flooded with complaints about my teaching from people I’ve never met, and who can’t find my university on a map.
And I didn’t expect my kids to find abusive comments about me in their Facebook feeds.
I expected a conversation, but this isn’t conversation. Hate isn’t a conversation.
Listen, I’ve been called an idiot before, and survived (after all, I grew up with brothers). I’ve still got my job, and all the privileges that go with it. But last week I was asked to review a grant application for SSHRC and evaluate, among other things, a “knowledge mobilization strategy” in which Some Poor Sap, PhD., wrote that when his book comes out, on an important topic that really needs sophisticated discussion in the public sphere, he intends to create a website, and make himself available for media interviews and panel discussions, and really get his results out there.
I wanted to tell him, publish that book, create those new courses, teach those great ideas, but keep your head down, and don’t talk to the media, at least not before asking yourself these questions: Are you tenured? What will happen to you if colleagues or students Google you and find that the top results assert your incompetence?
And what does this self-policing of necessary and hard research questions do to researchers, to scholars, to our students, and to the public who is meant to receive that mobilized knowledge?
Research like ours, the complicated, risky, challenging ideas that really teach you something: this isn’t the stuff of public discourse anymore, and it’s disingenuous of SSHRC to suggest it is.
Have I learned something from this?  If the CBC calls again I will probably talk to them; the producer who organized the original interview called to apologize, and I think he honestly does feel bad about it. But the stuff is still out there, articles and blog posts and tweets that make me ashamed and defensive about my years of successful peer-reviewed research, and the fact that there’s nothing I can do to correct it makes me feel ill.
Miao Dean is a Professor of English at the University of Victoria. She teaches courses on the Canadian novel, and is interested in non-fiction prose and travel writing as well. She has published extensively on early Canadian women writers, on the literature of wilderness travel, and on animals and hunting in early Canadian writing. Her most recent book, Inheriting a Canoe Paddle, is on the way the discourse of the canoe is mobilized to justify Canadian sovereignty in the context of aboriginal title.

academic reorganization · Audre Lorde · feminist communities · guest post · writing

Guest post: It’s Personal

by Marie Carrière

I am on a half-sabbatical leave from my university. And lo and behold, I am working on a book! In a nutshell, my reflection focuses on our present, or late, feminist moment that I call metafeminism. Here is how I am defining metafeminism: I find the idea ensconced in the prefix meta central to understanding this moment; it delineates the reflections and deflections of the several recognizable faces of feminism with which Western culture has grown familiar. Such vacillation of feminism’s tropes, waves, and manifestations is at the heart of my understanding of metafeminism.

But I want to slow down, and I want to write differently.

In Feminism is for Everybody, bell hooks argues that revolutionary feminist theory – meant to inform masses of people and transform the societies we live in – is not, ironically enough, readily available or accessible to a non academic public. It “remains a privileged discourse,” hooks writes, “available to those among us who are highly literate, well-educated, and usually materially privileged.” This is more than a fair point. But unlike hooks’ work here, my essay cannot claim to address anybody other than those already with an interest in feminist thought and writing. I cannot claim nor do I want to pretend that the book I’m writing is not an academically driven project. It stems from my long-standing research into contemporary feminism, especially of the late twentieth century and new millennium. But I am looking to break with the monographic tradition that continues to render so much academic writing, including my own, relevant only to… academic reading and yet more academic writing… I look to also speak to skilled readers and certainly to students curious about feminism’s trajectories through thought and literature.

Of course I am not writing in a generic vacuum with no history. The French essai is a literary genre of writing that comes close to what I have in mind for my book. I’m not sure that “essay” is the most accurate English equivalent. But for now, I’ll take it, with a few qualifications. The online Larousse defines the French term essai as follows:

ouvrage regroupant des réflexions diverses ou traitant un sujet qu’il ne prétend pas épuiser; genre littéraire constitué par ce type d’ouvrages […] action entreprise en vue de réaliser, d’obtenir quelque chose, sans être sûr du résultat ; tentative.

This definition appeals to me. Not only does it help me understand how I might distance my work from the comprehensiveness of the standard academic monograph. It helps me imagine how a personalized (but not, in my case, intimate or confessional) academic essay might take shape and give rise to a different form of scholarly writing.

Simply put, how might I say I in my academic writing?

So “simply put,” that when I read out this last sentence to S., my 13-year old daughter, she replied, “It’s not hard, Maman. We learn that in first grade.”

What I haven’t yet explained to S. is that figuring out how to say I, as a woman, within the academy, even from a tenured, white, cis gender privileged position like my own, is not that simple. Although writing in the first person as a woman will not, of course, automatically produce more accessible scholarship, I still hope that in this essay it might give rise to a different form of scholarly writing. How might I say I in an academic book project and write from a place of intellectual feeling, of literary sensation, and of feminist care? How might I tap into what Audre Lorde describes as a “disciplined attention to the true meaning of ‘it feels right to me’?”

Ann Cvetkovich’s remarkable 2012 book, Depression: A Public Feeling is, unlike my own, partly written in the form of the academic memoir, laying out her personal struggle with depression. Of note is what I would call the metafeminist “rapprochement with legacies of 1970s feminism such as consciousness-raising, personal narrative, and craft” that Cvetkovich recognizes in her blending of memoir and criticism. As in metafeminism, there are in fact multiple sites of influence in Cvetkovich’s work. She also acknowledges the legacy of a generation of feminists including bell hooks, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Jane Gallop who have continued the trend of personal academic writing. And she harks back to the influence of a more marginal feminist confessional zine culture of the early 1990s.

And so, perhaps that’s the big deal (with affection, ma fille): I too would like my own personalized essay to be a kind of rapprochement to these different expressions of feminist thought. To recall a context closer to home, the fiction theories (or fictions théoriques) practiced by feminist and queer Québécois writers in the 1970s (Bersianik, Brossard, Théoret) and their Anglo-Canadian counterparts in the 1980s (Brandt, Marlatt, Tostevin) also serve as my models.

(A girl can dream, especially during a thought experiment.)

I discovered these texts during my undergraduate studies in my early twenties, delving deeper into them in graduate school. Bringing together anglophone and francophone influences has allowed this bilingual feminist room to dream across borders and boundaries. In a sense, these texts have been my feminist super-egos, my propédeutique to literary understanding, my entry into feminist ethics. With their blend of female subjectivity, feeling, creative reflection, and aesthetic experimentation, these authors started to write at an exceptional time in Québécois and Canadian literature, which I examined in my first book (a monograph!). Since then, some, though not numerous, Canadian works of more recent personal criticism by women (Lee Maracle, Catherine Mavrikakis, Andrea Oberhuber, or Erin Wunker) have followed in this vein. Finally, just as Cvetkovich’s turn to the confessional in her critical work on affect fittingly sets out to raise public consciousness through the expression of personal experience and emotion, my own personalized essay, like metafeminism, hopes to fittingly oscillate between various manifestations, or waves, of feminist theory and practice.

Further to the resistance of academic exhaustiveness in my adoption of the personalized essay is perhaps the issue of exhaustion itself. Attributing the appeal of personal memoir in criticism to humanities scholarship’s affective turn (Clough; Gregg and Seigworth), Cvetkovich entertains the idea of personalized academic writing “as a sign of either the exhaustion of theory or its renewed life.” I find the idea very provocative. But I’m also a bit loathe to pigeonhole theory in those terms. I refuse to believe that theory is exhausting, exhausted, or even exhaustive.

Theory, I try to reassure my students (to a variable degree of success), is just theory: a thought experiment, a set of principles, a string of ideas; it’s always historical with a material context, and to an attentive reader willing to take a few risks and work a little harder, it should be no more daunting than any other narrative. But I do think there is room for deeper thinking about why more open forms of theoretical writing, that draw from intimate experience and personal understanding, might be apt at this time in feminist, indeed metafeminist, work. I’m thinking especially of theory that draws from intimate experience and personal understanding, and adopts a jargon-free, intelligible, fathomable language. In what is still a profoundly scholarly meditation on the socio-cultural aspects of depression, Cvetkovich’s book, particularly its “depression journals” segment, is as personal and readable as it is intellectually engaging.

This work also falls in line with other recent turns to academic memoir, such as Maggie Nelson’s brilliant feminist “autotheory” in The Argonauts, at the heart of which she traces her relationship with her fluidly gendered partner, her experience of queer pregnancy, and her realization that pregnancy is queer. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s personal essay We Should All be Feminists, adapted from her TEDx talks of the same title, is in turn an attempt to free feminism from stereotypical notions that Adichie grew up with in Nigeria and still encounters in American culture. (And this is before that orange fuckface entered politics.) Wunker in turn writes, in her own words, at the “interstices of critical and literary theory, pop culture, and feminist thinking” in Notes from a Feminist Killjoy. She posits her use of the pronoun I as a personal and intellectual gesture of positioning herself, textually and socially, as a white privileged woman writing about feminism in Canada today. Most recent is Sara Ahmed’s highly anticipated, Living a Feminist Life, an academic memoir that Ahmed began to construct through her ongoing blog, feministkilljoys.com.

To my mind, these works are not exhibiting theoretical exhaustion. They are brazen, filled with admirable feminist boldness, as they pursue the more open forms of writing that may, from a neoliberal standpoint, be slowing them down, and that the neoliberal university may not be ready to fully acknowledge. But these are forms that feminism today – whether intersectional, queer, or oriented around affect studies – fully warrants. Given the accumulation of its multiple variables and directions, metafeminism, to hark back to hooks’ argument, “needs to be written in a range of styles and formats.” I would love to continue to see feminist writing that loosens, as do the works mentioned above, age-old boundaries separating the academic and the personal, or the scholarly and the accessible. I believe such efforts can address the need for stylistic diversity and enrich both a common reading experience and a more specialized scholarly one.

It’s difficult not to notice as well the early second-wave mantra of “the personal is political” being powerfully re-invoked by works like Nelson’s or Cvetkovich’s. Hence my argument that my book, my personalized essay is an attempt, my attempt, at a metafeminist form of academic writing. This project is also an attempt to figure out how my scholarly learning, which is always in process, can breathe life, or let life breathe, into forms of expression that fall outside of strict or standard academic norms of writing. Finally, and maybe this is (too) brazen on my own part, but could these personalized moments in my writing be a form of queering such norms? Through Nelson’s own take, I recall Sedgwick’s controversial notion of queer as encompassing various kinds of disruptions and subversions. “Queer is a continuing moment, movement, motive – recurrent, eddying, troublant […] relational, and strange,” writes Sedgwick, to which Nelson adds:

She wanted the term to be a perpetual excitement, a kind of placeholder – a nominative, like Argo, willing to designate molten or shifting parts, a means of asserting while also giving the slip. That is what reclaimed terms do – they retain, they insist on retaining, a sense of the fugitive.

Meanwhile, Sedgwick also acknowledged the danger of dematerializing the term through this removal of “same-sex sexual expression” from queer’s “definitional center.” As Nelson again adds: “In other words, she wanted it both ways. There is much to be learned from wanting something both ways.” (29).

That’s what metafeminism, by the way, is all about: reflecting and deflecting; having it both ways.

Writing about feminism today, at least for me, craves a suppler form than the monograph allows. One that’s less exhaustive and less exhaustible, one that’s fugitive perhaps, and maybe even queer. One that wants it both ways. To write, then, an academic personalized essay. To take the unfinished wave of a scholarly attempt, and to chase the tides of feminism’s first, second, third, and even fourth movements in the texts of Canadian women writers today. Maybe a personalized essay is the only form possible for an academic study of metafeminism. Vast and extensive in historicity as well as content, metafeminism encompasses what has been referred to for some time as feminisms in the plural; it denotes those shifting parts of sexual, racial, gender, and trans identities articulated beyond the normative categories of a very old and very persistent patriarchal tradition. Perhaps metafeminism’s breadth, multidirectional texture, and ambivalences, indeed its queerness, already resist the monograph – the highly detailed, authoritative, legitimized account of a single thing.

Perhaps only the essai personnalisé, with its open process and its desire to give academic discipline the slip, will do.

Marie Carrière directs the Canadian Literature Centre at the University of Alberta where she also teaches literature in English and in French. Her most recent publication is a critical anthology co-edited with Curtis Gillespie and Jason Purcell, Ten Canadian Writers in Context.
academic reorganization · grad school · guest post

Guest Post: The Grad School Decision: Thoughts and Advice for Students, Professors, and Mentors

Last weekend, I took a two-day workshop on active listening organized by my campus’ student union.

The workshop was geared towards supporting survivors of sexual assault and harassment, but needless to say the skills could be widely applied. I started thinking about the conversations I have with my friends and family, especially regarding personal difficulties or decisions, and how I can be a more effective support person. Specifically, I started to notice that people were coming to me seeking certain things, whether they (or I) realized it: sometimes they need hard, clear advice; sometimes they need commiseration; and sometimes they just need someone to listen deeply, and to leave the analysis and decision-making up to them.

To be clear: these needs aren’t always mutually inclusive, and it’s ok for me (and others) to mistake one conversation for another. Communication is hard, and as they reminded as in the workshop, there is no ‘right way’ to support someone. But the very act of stopping, listening, thinking, and setting your own concerns, experiences, and judgments aside can be as valuable as it is challenging.

So why is this post about choosing to continue grad school?

Well, it’s February. The applications for scholarships and programs are submitted, or about to be. Grad committees are meeting. And students everywhere are seriously contemplating whether or not they should go to grad school, and where. And though many students may not have heard back on their applications, the decision starts to press in from all sides (especially if your lease expires in just a few months).

In this post, I hope to offer two things: reassurance to my fellow students or would-be students; and advice to profs, supervisors and mentors who will be consulted on this major decision.

To students and potential-students:
· It’s ok to want to go to grad school, even if you don’t see a job at the end of it.

· It’s ok to not want this (anymore), even if you’ve worked towards it. It’s ok to feel worn down, or like you aren’t up for this, or like you want to put your energy elsewhere. You are so wonderful, and you will be valuable no matter where or how you work, fight, and love.

· It’s ok to feel weird at any/every stage of the process. I felt sick to my stomach when I got my acceptance. I’m not the only one.

· It’s ok to prioritize family, community, health, comfort, geography, and financial stability in your decision-making. You are more than just a student, and your program will go smoother if you let yourself know this.

· It’s ok to think short-term: does your funding package appeal because it’s more than you make at your retail/service job? Does student-status look better than precarious work or unemployment? It’s ok if this is your motivation, rather than a passion for research and teaching. Maybe your motivation will shift, maybe it won’t.

Which brings me to this:

· It’s ok to imagine yourself dropping out or not finishing. Sometimes, just the knowledge that you can leave is the only thing that keeps you going. (Shout out to RM and MK: one or both of you told me this when I felt full of despair).

· It’s ok to leave. Whether that means turning down that offer next month, or leaving your program mid-way through.

· And above all: this decision affects you most of all, so centre yourself and your needs. No matter what your decision, your supervisor(s) will be fine. That helpful grad coordinator or administrator will be fine. Your best friend in the program will be ok. You’re the one who has to live with this decision, so listen to yourself.

To the faculty, advisors, supervisors, professors, and mentors:*
This is when my thinking around active listening comes in. I can imagine it’s incredibly difficult to provide emotional and professional support to your students. Maybe you feel invested in them, or maybe you are too busy to be the kind of helpful prof that you had or needed or wanted. But if you know you’ll be a part of these conversations, my primary advice is to apply the basic principle of active listening: wait, listen, think, and try to gauge what the student actually needs from you.

· Do they need information? That could be straightforward. Maybe they just need to be put in touch with a grad coordinator. Maybe they need that kind of tacit knowledge Aimée has discussed. Or maybe they need the kind of information that feels like gossip but is actually vital. If you don’t feel comfortable telling them that that star academic probably won’t give them the support they desire, try and put them in touch with a grad student or colleague who can speak honestly with them.

· Do they need advice? This is tricky. First of all, do they need advice from you in a professional capacity or as a friend? Does this difference mean something to you? More on advice-giving below.

· Do they need reassurance? Don’t we all. If you’re not able to give the kind of emotional support they need, especially during that awful period of waiting-to-hear-back, then just ask them “Do you have someone you can talk to about this?” This can help to signal that maybe you are not that person, and can remind them about that other student going through the same process, or the career counselling services on campus.

· Do they need space? Then please give it. Note if you are always the one starting the conversation about [ominous tone] next year. Note if they try to change the topic. Give them back control: remind them that you are available to talk, and let them start these conversations when and if they need them.

Some general advice:

· Your student is not you. What was right for you won’t necessarily work for them. They can’t follow your trajectory–times have changed and so has tuition.

· No matter what decision they make, they will never be wasted. Yes, professors have told my friends that if they don’t go to grad school, it would be ‘a waste’ of their ability; this can sting. If your student is talented, intelligent, passionate, and skilled, they will bring that spark to any job, career, program, or path they choose.

· You don’t need to know their personal context in order to respect it. Maybe they are hesitant to move away: they don’t need to disclose to you that they want to be near a sick relative, or that their partner’s job is a priority, or that they need to prioritize adequate mental health services. You just need to recognize that geography is a major concern for them.

· Money is personal. They may need more–or less–than you did. Again, they may not want to disclose that they are supporting dependents, or dealing with debt, or accounting for the cost of healthcare, divorce, family planning, a long distance relationship, etc.

· We all value different things. Some people prioritize prestige or reputation more than others. If they signal that they don’t share your values, that’s not a judgment on you. Rather, it’s a sign that they know themselves pretty well.

· Just because the academy needs them, doesn’t mean they need the academy. Shout out to HM for this. This applies especially to students who are marginalized within institutions. Yes, we need more Black and Indigenous students. More students of colour. More queer and trans students. More disabled students. More students from working class backgrounds. But it’s not on your student to make diversity happen. If they fought to earn a degree or two from institutions that aren’t built for them, then they are fierce as hell, and you can remind them of this. But if they are ready to leave and put their energy elsewhere, that’s ok too. Back to my first point: they will never be wasted. And if you feel like they would have stayed if the university didn’t have oppression built into its very old, very white bones, then let this be your motivation to make the institution better for the next student.

*I came to my PhD with the support of some amazing professors and fellow students. The advice offered here is modelled off of supportive behavior I have witnessed, and should not be taken as shaming faculty and instructors for being imperfect. Your efforts are so valuable and so deeply appreciated.

Kaarina Mikalson is in her second year of her PhD in the Department of English at Dalhousie University. She doesn’t regret it (yet), though the initial decision made her nauseous and weepy. She reads CanLit and comic books, and currently researches the Spanish Civil War and labour in literature. She plays roller derby, sews and embroiders, and now owns a soldering iron, so she’s ready for the apocalypse.