affect · emotional labour · guest post · reflection · Uncategorized

Guest Post: Check Your Privilege

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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.

affect · being undone · loneliness · teaching

On being lonely in university

A Huffington Post article made its way into my Facebook feed, last week, describing how “Almost 70% of University Students Admit to Feeling Lonely.” I clicked it because I remember the absolutely crippling loneliness of much of my undergraduate years. The post led to original news story on the topic at CBC, that details the study more closely, and outlines what staff at the University of Winnipeg are doing to support students. It links as well to a Washington Post article describing the terrible health effects of loneliness–“molecular level” physiological effects comparable to diabetes! smoking! obesity!

So go make some friends! suggests the article. In fact, there’s a different HuffPo story on “How to Cope with Loneliness at University“–spoiler alert, you cope with loneliness by making friends! The CBC story is a little more nuanced, giving space to several employees from a campus wellness program at the University of Winnipeg describing counselling and support interventions offered to students. Still, students have to seek these out.

If you’ve ever been really lonely–not solitary, not introverted, but lonely–you will know at least one thing: it’s such a terrible feeling that no one resides in it willingly, and if you knew how to be less lonely, you would do it. . People risk loneliness by coming to university, full of people, but people who are already established in campus networks, or everyone else uprooted from their home contexts and starting from nothing. If you don’t live in residence, or socialize easily while wearing multiple sets of beads and a ridiculous hat, while shouting university fight songs, it can be hard to make connections. Doubly hard if you commute from away, or if you have family obligations, or are an international student, an older student. If you are a graduate student, for whom not even these forced social encounters are organized.

I don’t know how fair it is to ask the lonely to just “make some friends!” or even necessarily to reach out for formal help.

What if we asked the non-lonely to do something instead? How might those among us blessed with social connections and a feeling of community help incorporate lonely undergrads, lonely graduate students, lonely professors?

What can we do in our classrooms, our department get-togethers and meetings, our course materials and assignments, to help ease this heavy burden of isolation?

One thing I’m still trying to do is to move beyond my own comfort zone–so hard won!–and interact with new people at events. I have been running formal and informal writing groups that make space for simple chat, and for being alone together in a common cause. In my classes, I will continue to find new ways to structure activities so that students have opportunities to meaningfully interact with one another–one of the simplest tricks being that each group has to nominate someone to introduce all the members to the class, or making space for students to have negative feelings, or having all the students send me an email introducing themselves and their interests, and I respond to it in kind.

Loneliness in higher education is real. I have at various times and stages suffered terribly from it myself, and felt completely powerless to change my situation. I think now that I’m more secure and supported, it’s time for me to be part of the solution. You? Have you suffered academic or other loneliness? How do you reach out to others?

academic work · adjuncts · affect · change · classrooms · emotional labour

Returns, Rituals, & the Road Ahead

September makes me both nostalgic and thrilled. It never fails: whatever my working conditions, when Labour Day weekend rolls around I feel a tug at my memory. My heart starts racing just a little bit. I make more lists that I do in the summer.

My first memory of going to school is hazy. I remember lunchtime which, for me, meant opening an orange plastic lunchbox with the Muppets on the front. The edge of the decal was worn because the lunchbox was a hand-me-down from my babysitter’s older children. I remember the sound of the front snaps and the smell of my sandwich. I remember my thermos filled with water or juice. I remember being excited on the days I got a juice box.

I remember the first day of grade six more clearly because it was the first day in a new school in a new country. My mom drove me. I was nervous. I wore purple overalls because they were my favourite and they made me feel brave and cool. Until this year I had never had a long commute to school. I’d either walked or taken the city school bus.

Yesterday, I texted my mom and asked her if she remembered dropping me off at university for the first time. She did. Of course she did. We had driven nearly twenty hours from Ontario back to North Carolina. We’d made the geographic shift from the cool mornings of August in Halliburton County to the oppressive humidity of Chapel Hill where walking through the early morning air feels a bit more like swimming slowly than anything I’ve ever experienced (except swimming slowly). I remember the yellow painted concrete of my dormitory walls, the surprise at how small the room was and how close my new roommate’s (a stranger) bed was to my own. And I remember struggling with the campus map trying to find my 8:30am Philosophy class.

I remember the first day of graduate school–how excited and nervous I felt to be in Montreal. How fancy everyone looked to me, how polished, how prepared. How unlike me. I remember the first day of my PhD, walking for a full hour around campus confused by the sign for the Art Building and not thinking to look in the Social Sciences tower for my orientation room.

I remember the first day of not starting classes. Or rather, I remember the first day of being the instructor fresh out of graduate school and trying very hard to sound as professional and in-charge as I wanted to feel. I remember driving between the campuses where I taught and thinking, after the first week of introductory lectures and syllabus questions, that perhaps teaching four new classes was going to be too much.

I remember my first “real” job–the excitement of an office with my name on the door, a schedule of department meetings (I know, I am one of those people who loves department meetings…), and a fresh agenda waiting to be filled with lists. I remember my second “real” job. I remember the years, most recently, of going back to sessional work, and how, despite the difficulty of shifting into underpaid labour, I still felt excited at the start of a new year. The first day of school matters, for so many reasons.

This year, as I sit at my new desk having just completed my new hour-long commute, I find myself so eager to take this moment and reflect on what it means to be able to begin a new year on campus. Sure, I am obviously nostalgic. My memories are grounded in my own experiences and affects. And I am also aware–so aware–of the ways in which university and college campuses and classrooms are challenging, restricted, and often inaccessible spaces for so many.

As we begin the new year let’s take a moment to think of our own first days. As we ready ourselves and our classrooms or offices or cubicles or cars or library spots for the labour of teaching and learning in vastly different material conditions let’s try to see one another’s work and support it. Let’s imagine that in spite of inequities (among students, among teachers, among academic workers) we can in our own ways contribute to making the project of higher learning more equitable, more just, and more exciting.

Happy September, dear Readers. Take care of yourselves as we begin.

affect · emotional labour · grief · heartbreak · women

Guest Post: That lachrymose season: a term of crying in academia

Last week’s Hook and Eye post by Margeaux Feldman, “There’s no crying in academia,” is vital reading about largely unacknowledged emotional labour in the academy. In twelve years of academic instruction, I have never spent a term without having someone cry in my office for some very justifiable reasons. There’s plenty of pain out there: depression, divorce, violence, crippling anxiety. But this term, I’m the crier in my office. There’s no saying no to it and no separating the personal from the professional. And while the grief is terrible – how could it be anything but? – the reception of it in my department and my classes has been surprising.

My mother passed away in September from injuries sustained after a fall; she died on the first day of the fall teaching term. I have all kind of feminist criticisms about our health care system, and I’ll be writing about those soon. But first, grief. For the record, any time of the year that your mother dies is a terrible time of year but it’s the timing that my sympathetic colleagues have most remarked on. And if it hadn’t happened to me, I too would immediately wonder how to handle such an upheaval in schedule. Since it has happened to me, here’s the answer: I haven’t handled it. It’s the steamroller that has run over me, cartoon-like, and I can only work with the physical demands that are left.

It’s emotional labour, no question, but to tell the truth, it’s taking a toll on my body. Fatigue activates my sciatica, which is now a long taut string of poker-hot muscle that hobbles me. Being in public is a challenge; the performance of normality is the hardest work of all. I swing between being too voluble about the horrible to saying nothing at all. I am indebted to my colleagues who have offered me everything from tea to Kleenex to non-judgemental ears to teaching classes if I feel I can’t. The fact that I appear to have replaced my memory with a sieve has fazed no one. My Chair advised me well to cancel a class or two when I was too stunned to make a good decision, and – maybe more importantly – he was also mindful enough not to insist that I was too stunned to make a good decision. And when he asked me what I wanted to tell the students when I cancelled classes, I knew what I had to say.

I chose to tell my students that I was cancelling class because I had a death in the family. When I was a student, I found the lack of information given to me about a professor’s sudden absence not practically useful and a bit insulting as it assumed that I was a doofus who couldn’t be trusted with basic human information. I remember saying to the department admin, “I don’t need salacious details. I just want to know if she’s okay.” This appeal got me the hairy eyeball. Now that I was the prof, I knew that my students would eventually look me in the face and my face would tell all. I needed to prepare them.

To be clear, I’m not a pool of tears trickling from room to room, discomfiting students. I speak in full sentences, grade papers, discuss texts; I write and sit on committees. But I know that I look odd, strangely strung out: broken blood vessels in my eyes, no makeup, everything a little off-kilter. Because that’s grief. One thing that happens when death occurs is that the boundaries between private and public are wiped out for a while. You have to conduct private business in ways that are horribly public. Many things about the breaching of those boundaries has been and continues to be shocking, but my students have been great. Many immediately sent me condolences via email, or told me when they saw me that they were sorry for my loss. I could even see a few of them — those I’ve taught several times — keeping a close eye on me in my first few classes back.

In turn, I have protected them from the awful knowledge that one’s mother can die by just keeping my statement about “a death in the family.” Because it’s not right to frighten them, but it is right to let them step up and be adults, to make the leap to the understanding that their professors have lives, and loves, and tragedies. It’s right to show them their red-eyed professor who is not absent and not made of stone. It’s right to show them that grief forges its own pedagogical model.

Tanis MacDonald
Wilfrid Laurier University