canada · guest post · in the news · Uncategorized

Guest post: Reading anti-niquab legislation alongside sexual harassment

The anti-niqab legislation newly passed in the Quebec legislature comes amidst a longstanding debate about “reasonable accommodation” for religious views and a more recent debate about sexual harassment and assault, the “me too” campaign that sees women everywhere describing unwanted sexual advances and attacks.  It’s worth seeing these two issues as related.

I’m a woman so, naturally, I have my “me too” stories. I too have experienced routine harassment and open assault, dating way back. Sometimes it seemed relentless: multiple propositions, day in and day out, just because you were walking in the streets or taking the subway or even going for a jog. Some guy would proposition you and then shout abuse when you declined to engage. I was eighteen when I went for a solo walk in the woods and was assaulted. That was also the year that I stopped wearing makeup. A visiting cousin persuaded me to put on some of hers. But within five minutes of leaving the house, I’d received so many catcalls that I rubbed it off, and never wore the stuff again. To wear makeup seemed to be taken, by the men on the street where I lived, as issuing a sexual invitation.

If there had been a veil option, I think I would have taken it. Anything to make those propositions and gropings stop. It’s hard to say: “but listen to what I have to say” when attention is being continually directed to how you look or what you wear or other female attributes. That’s why sexism—or racism—in the university is so toxic, especially for students seeking a voice: one’s body seems to speak louder than one’s words at a place where words are supposed to be particularly valued. I don’t think Premier Couillard can have any idea of the frustration that women can experience from that onslaught of sexual harassment. Deciding to wear a veil can be, for some women, a little bit like deciding not to wear makeup. It can be a choice for more privacy, less visiblity, less sexualization. It’s not something we should forbid, any more than we should set rules on makeup. Women can and should make up their own minds.

Quebecers have fought hard for women’s rights. They don’t like the idea of women being bullied and they have gone to considerable lengths to oppose it. Many Quebecers, I think, see the niqab as a threat to women’s autonomy and liberty; they think they are protecting women from bullying when they oppose the niqab. Quebec has had some truly horrific experiences of misogyny in recent years: so-called honour killings and the terrible events of 1989 when fourteen young women were killed for supposedly being out of their sphere.  It’s no wonder that Quebecers aren’t quite satisfied with an official stance that suggests people can believe what they like and comport themselves as they like, so long as they don’t cause public trouble. It’s no wonder that Quebecers want more searching protections for women. I think the same impulse that makes Quebecers want to “protect” women from the niqab would also make them, on fuller consideration, repudiate anything that would actually provoke bullying, as this ban must inevitably do. They would be the first to leap to the defence of any person they saw being bullied or even arrested for trying to ride a bus.

Cynical politicians have tried to exploit such concerns and direct them towards nativist resentments. But Quebecers repudiated that sort of nativism in the last election and I’ve no doubt they will do so again if the case is squarely put to them. If some people wish to politicize what women put on their faces, then the way for a secular society to respond is not: “Hey, we can politicize it right back at you,” but, instead: “Whatever. Wear a veil or wear five of them; we take no interest in the matter.” Only when we stop sensationalizing what women wear and focus instead on what they have to say, can we genuinely overcome misogynistic bullying. And Quebecers are more likely to come fully around to that view if they, too, are addressed moderately as reasoning beings, rather than attacked as incorrigible racists.

Elsbeth Heaman teaches history at McGill University. Her views are her own.

canada · media · righteous feminist anger · skeptical feminist

More Thoughts on Recent Events

I watched the story unfold in real time. I heard of Jian Ghomeshi’s leave of absence on Friday, then Sunday that the CBC had cut ties with Ghomeshi, which was a considerable surprise. Then I read Ghomeshi’s Facebook post. Then Twitter. Then the comments. (Yes, I read the comments. Probably a bad idea). Then the Star Article. And Twitter again. Yesterday and today I’ve been following closely how the mainstream media has been reporting the story.

There is a lot of confusion related to this thing. As Erin said yesterday, we are not privy to the discussions that have gone on behind closed doors. There is little that is definite, much that is said, more that is unsaid. Voices have been heard, helped by high-stakes media management companies or filtered through the writings of independent male journalists. One voice has laid out the terms of the debate, and another has responded.

One thing is clear: We still don’t know the whole story. We have yet to hear the unfiltered voices of those barred from doing so because of lawsuits alleging wrong-doings, or from those too afraid to speak out in public.

Reading comments like this one, I fear that we may never:

I hope for the unfolding of both sides of the story. For voices that refuse to be silenced by fear of reprisal or backlash, or because the public has already told them how they should feel about what happened. For the truth to come out. For the public to make judgements based on determined facts, not because they take one person’s defence at face value or because they really liked ‘Q.’ We know that only 10% of all sexual assaults are reported to police. That advocates of BDSM have come out questioning Ghomeshi’s claims. And it is important to note that in Canada, you can’t consent to bodily harm. There is clearly more to this than what has currently come to light.

Like Erin, I want to keep the dial tuned to questions of power, issues of misogyny, and rape culture. Let’s continue the conversation.

canada · media · righteous feminist anger · women in the news

Social Media vs. Slow Academe: Some thoughts on recent events

Less than two weeks ago, I was at a conference about Canadian women and/as public intellectuals. On the first of a series of moderated public panel discussions Christl Verduyn interviewed Dionne Brand, Mary Eberts, and Janice Stein. In the question and answer session I asked the panelists about risk. Specifically, I asked them to think with we, the audience, about the ways in which risk is inherent to a woman speaking in public. For context, I cited #GamerGate–specifically feminist gamer and media critic Anita Sarkeesian‘s then-recent cancellation of her public talk at the University of Utah after threats of violence…and the police’s response that guns are allowed on campus if the carrier has a legal permit. I also referenced a less widely known event: an article published on Hairpin by Canadian writer Emma Healey in which the author carefully thinks through her own experience of a relationship that proceeded despite unequal relations of power and was, for her, damaging and abusive. In both cases the women continue to receive varying degrees of public backlash for speaking publicly, albeit about substantially different issues. The connecting thread, for me, is that they are women taking up public space.

The panelists took up my question in turn. Janice Stein spoke about the threats she has received over her career and told the audience that she tries to keep them from her family so that they don’t worry about her. Ultimately, though, Stein’s advice was to keep speaking and ignore the threats. Dionne Brand spoke about some of the ways in which speaking publicly as a woman, and as a woman of colour, are always-already risky. And yet, said Brand, I have to do it. Not speaking would be worse than any public backlash, she told the audience. Mary Eberts responded last, and she said this: women can speak about almost anything in public and survive the backlash. In some cases, they can even use the public backlash to underscore the points they are trying to make. However–and this was the big however–Eberts then paused–there is one thing no woman can speak publicly about without fear of fundamental and ongoing reprisal and that, said Eberts, is sexual abuse. No one else responded after that, and we moved on to the next set of questions.

I have found myself thinking about Mary Eberts’s statement repeatedly in the last week and a half. Since yesterday, since the CBC announced that it was severing its relationship with Q host Jian Ghomeshi, and since Ghomeshi’s own public Facebook post, I find myself with Eberts’s words on a loop in my head. Let me be clear: I don’t know what happened between Ghomeshi and his partners.  I don’t know what went on behind closed doors. Lawyers for both sides have apparently been discussing allegations of abuse–by four women who allege varying degrees of non-consensual abuse, by Ghomeshi for defamation of character — but I wasn’t privy to those conversations. None of us were.   What I do know is this: women are statistically less likely to speak out about abuse. Women are more likely to trivialize their experiences. Women are more likely to use backchannels (emailing, using social media, talking) to alert one another to potentially harmful situations or to circulate stories of inequity. What I do know is that every day Mary Eberts’s words are given more evidence.

But that’s not all I know. I also know a thing or two about close reading and critical thinking. I know that recognizing, addressing, and changing longstanding systemic issues takes time, and that in a hyper-mediated world slow thinking–slow academe–is not something that is particulary valued. It is, however, something that is necessary. Take, for example, Ghomeshi’s Facebook status update. Reading it purely as someone trained as an academic (I am 50% of the Star’s strange, yet predictable qualifications for the women’s credibility: they are described as “educated and employed”) what I see it this: smart placement, smart rhetorical crafting. First, placement: Among other things, Facebook functions as a kind of faux-intimate confessional. As Chelsea Rooney wrote on Twitter:

In terms of rhetorical craft, the person who speaks publicly first sets the terms of the debate, or so it would seem. Ghomeshi’s post makes the issue about sexual preference and desire that falls outside the restrictive parameters of traditional heteronormative relations, whatever those are. I could go on, but the point, for this post, is not to close read this event. Rather, I’m interested in opening a discussion about how to sustain slow, deliberate, and public thinking about issues of misogyny, rape culture, and asymmetrical power relations in the face of the rapid-fire pace of social media. I’ve written elsewhere that I fear that restorative justice and social media are incompatible. I want to return to that thought here, by way of opening up conversation. How are we–by which I mean (for the purposes of readers of this blog) women working in the Canadian academic sphere–working to sustain slow thinking about these pressing issues in a public way. “Public” here is key, I think. Publicness is not a failsafe, often for women it is the opposite, but it does keep attention on a topic maybe–just maybe–long enough to shake the systemic conditions that sustain inequity.

I don’t know how to draw this to a conclusion, because having the final word is the last thing I want or feel prepared to do. Rather, I will leave you with this cartoon my colleague Xtine sent. The original posting is here:

canada · CWILA · emotional labour · fast feminism · guest post · righteous feminist anger · structural solutions

It’s About More than Livesay

Last week, Kaarina Mikalson wrote a guest post for us titled “Why Dorothy Livesay Matters.” In it, she recounted an exchange with a male acquaintance that ended with the wholesale dismissal of Livesay as a poet and a figure central to the history of Canadian literature. She prefaced it with an epigraph from Joan Coldwell’s “Walking the Tightrope with Anne Wilkinson,” her essay about editing Wilkinson’s collected poems and autobiographical writings, one in which she articulates her reasons for the necessity of recuperating Wilkinson’s work: “To read other women’s lives, especially in their own voices, is to be given a fuller understanding of ourselves. It is to participate in a community of women writers and readers that generates a different kind of confidence than is permitted to women’s voices in patriarchal culture.”

Livesay died in 1996. Wilkinson died long before, in 1961. Jay Macpherson, a contemporary of both and the subject of my doctoral research, died in 2012. All three were among the foremost writers of their generations, but for all three (and for most of the female poets of Canadian modernism, with the possible exception of P.K. Page) reading the body of criticism about their work reveals something strange and important. Like Coldwell, very many critics view their critical work on these women and their writing as an act of recuperation. The fundamental impulse behind much of it is not to reveal something noteworthy about style, or relationship to historical context, or use of language, or community formation in the modernist period, although that happens along the way and often as justification for recuperation. The core message–implicit or explicit–is that the work of these women is on the verge of disappearing from the world, from our critical consciousness, and has been on that verge for a very long time. This criticism, written by those like Kaarina and I who care deeply about this work and advocate strongly for its importance, fights to keep the work of these writers from disappearing from world, from our understanding of what it was like to to be a woman writer in the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, from the matrilineage of writing by and about women that forms a chain that leads right to the present.

Like Kaarina, I’m mad about the state of things. I’m mad that Livesay and her colleagues get dismissed, or ignored, or misrepresented. That anger is a productive one for me, and fuels my work on Macpherson, as it did my earlier work on Wilkinson. There’s plenty to be mad about: I don’t imagine that if the youngest-ever winner of a Governor General’s Award for Poetry were a man, there would be fewer than ten articles about his work and endless digs about his much more famous girlfriend. I don’t imagine that the collected poems of a male modernist, one edited by his lover, would emphasize all of the sexy bits. But I’m angrier still that this isn’t just an issue of temporal remove, that this isn’t just about us forgetting the modernists and those who came before them. CWILA, and its annual count of books reviewed in Canada, proves that this is simply not true. As Erin argues, despite efforts to change this status quo women writers still get short shrift in the present. This doesn’t bode well for the future. We don’t get reviewed and read now, and the chances become ever less likely that we will build up a reputation that will sustain us through the years, that will ensure that some critic will take us up as their personal cause, will advocate for our remembrance and our importance twenty, thirty, forty years from now.

As Woolf argues, we think back through our mothers, and we need women muses, as well as male, to mother our minds and to act as keepers of memory and as inspiration. What happens to women writers now, when those who came before them are already on the verge of being lost? What happens to the women writers of the future, who may have neither the writers of the present moment nor  the ones of the years before to mother their minds? We–and I’m talking readers and writers of all genders here–lose that memory, that inspiration. We lose that fuller understanding of ourselves that comes when we try to see the world from another’s perspective, one often markedly different from our own. We lose historical perspectives that have crucial things to tell us about how we could best deal with the challenges of the present and the future. And we lose that community of women writers, one that generates in all of its members a different and greater confidence to speak as a woman than our current culture provides, to articulate perspectives and truths that our broken world needs to hear. These are things we cannot afford to lose.

And this is why the CWILA count matters. This is why Livesay matters. This is why Hook and Eye matters. It’s hard to say if the work we do here, or the work of CWILA, or the individual moments in which we advocate for ourselves and for other women, are making a difference. To be a woman in the world today is to continually walk the tightrope between hope that it will get better and utter hopelessness at the brokenness of the world’s relationship to women. It’s hard to sometimes to feel that hope justified, to see change in action. But we keep trying.

canada · equity · inconvenience

On Inconvenience

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

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

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

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

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

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

academic work · canada · empowerment · faster feminism · women

3 Reasons 2 Opportunities to Speak Up About Women

November is a few days away, and with it comes two deadlines you should be aware of:

1) CWILA‘s Critic in Residence competition closes on November 1.

The Residency
CWILA supports a female Canadian writer (poet, novelist, storyteller, scholar) as its resident critic for a calendar year. The aim of the residency is to foster criticism that promotes public awareness of women’s literary and critical presence in Canadian letters. Specifically, the critic-in-residence works on critical essays and/or book reviews and submits them to one or more Canadian review venues (print and web). This work is also archived by CWILA and becomes available through its website following publication elsewhere, copyright permitting. The critic-in-residence is encouraged to support a climate of critical responsiveness in Canadian letters through a collaborative or community-based project of her choice. In addition, the Critic in Residence will comment on the results of the annual Count in a public forum. The residency is virtual, so the writer is free to work from home. The Critic in Residence will finish the term by submitting a dossier summarizing the work done while in residence. The deadline for submission of the essay or reviews to CWILA is December 31st of the year of the residency. At this time, the writer also provides documentation that the pieces have been submitted to other publications.
Application Criteria:
Applications should include a letter of intent describing the project or projects the applicant wishes to undertake, the venue or venues to which they plan to submit, a one-page CV, and one short sample of critical work.
We particularly encourage applications from writers with disabilities, genderqueer writers, Indigenous writers, as well as other women and/or genderqueer writers of colour.
Stipend:  $3,000
Applications: The deadline for applications is November 1, 2013
Please send applications to

2) Abstracts for Discourse & Dynamics: Canadian Women as Public Intellectuals are due October 31. 

This national conference proposes to appraise women’s contributions to dynamic discourse in Canada and Quebec. Scheduled in conjunction with Persons Day, 18 October 2014, the conference will feature among other notable participants Margaret Atwood, Nicole Brossard, Siila Watt-Cloutier, Jessica Danforth, Charlotte Gray, Smaro Kamboureli, Antonia Maioni, Pam Palmater, Judy Rebick, Janice Stein, and Lori Turnbull.
Canadian women have contributed enormously to public discourse, in important but often under-valued ways.  Across different generations and cultural communities, women in English Canada and Quebec address key questions that animate intellectual discussion, from concerns about the environment and the economy to issues of social justice, racism, poverty, health and violence.  But are their voices valued and heard, or are they subsumed in the general noise of public debate?  Why are they not accorded the attention and approbation they merit?

Both the Critic in Residence position and the Discourse & Dynamics conference hinge on the fundamental belief that women have a crucial role to play in working towards a more egalitarian future for people living in Canada. If you’re reading this blog then I suspect that point isn’t one you need to be convinced of; however, it is also almost November. If you’re reading this then chances are you have some affiliation with the Academy as well. Whether you’re a graduate student, sessional, adjunct, precariously or under employed, tenure track, or tenured faculty member we know that this time of year is busy. It is easy to let deadlines slip by. Here are three reasons to consider speaking in public, whether in an application to CWILA’s CIR, or in a proposal for a presentation to Discourse & Dynamics, or simply to circulate these and other opportunities to speak up and speak out. 

1) Indigenous women are leading the fight for land rights and environmental protection against a government that does not respect Indigenous peoples and their rights. 

2) We live in a country saturated with rape culture: from the chants on university campuses, to the ongoing systematic violence against women, to violently engendered language. For example, I just learned about #rapeface this morning, but apparently it has been in circulation for a few years. Speaking out against violence is one step, speaking with people — especially young people — about it is another crucial step towards eradicating rape culture.

3) We need more images like this one of women celebrating the recognition of their lifetime achievements.

canada · january blues · research

‘Tis the season

I’ve worked on weather and climate history, off and on, over the past ten years (it was the subject of my MA and is also the focus of an on-going research project). In that time, I’ve moved from an interest in how historians can contribute to past climate reconstructions, to curiosity about how our social and cultural experiences of weather, climate, the seasons, storms, droughts, floods, shape our lives and histories. I continued to be fascinated learning about the complex environmental consequences of past climate change (like the climate changes at the end of the last major glaciation that caused a shift in seasonality – shorter and more abrupt seasonal shifts – that likely contributed to global species extinctions) and horrified at the models of future climate predictions and their implications. Nevertheless, as a historian my interests in climates past and present lie not with what people can tell us as objective observation stations about the changes in climate and environment around them, but how we feel the weather, and what that makes us do, and more broadly how have we gotten ourselves into our current mess when it comes to unprecedented, and potentially catastrophic climate change. (As I argue elsewhere, the problem we face is not excess CO2, it’s ourselves.)

As an environmental historian, I also love the fact that where I live helps me to understand our relationships with the rest of nature, climate included. Close to a decade living in Toronto and Vancouver helped me to understand urban environments. Living in Edmonton? I now get the place of daylight in the seasons. (Note that I don’t say Edmonton helps me understand urban environments!) I used to find that February was my low point of the year, when I was tired of dirty roads, cold weather, my winter wardrobe, and always running out of time. Now, it’s December-January. December, I’m always surprised by how bleak I feel as sunlight becomes a precious commodity. This year, I was taken aback at one point at how dismal my mood had become, until I remembered that it was December, which cheered me up considerably. January is worse, even though the days start to lengthen (we now get to drop our son off at daycare with some daylight) because it’s also the start of a new semester which I’m invariably much less prepared for than the fall semester. This, of course, speaks to the intersection of cultural and natural seasons. My husband loves March and April, because it’s still winter in the mountains, and long sunny days make for great skiing. As part of my research I now understand why daylight and moonlight figure as prominently in historical experiences of climate in the North, as do cold and ice – the more conventional representations of northern climate. I also better understand why Olaf Eliasson’s Weather Project at the Tate Modern was one of the most compelling exhibitions I’ve ever been to.

So here’s to the end of the January! Good riddance.

canada · feminist win · global academy

IRL: The Beauty of Real Time

I suspect that you, like me, spend an immense amount of your day on the internet, in front of the computer, or otherwise interfacing with people and paces that are necessary in your work and life. Goodness knows, I certainly do. If I were to log the hours I spend on my computer, on my phone, or on my iPad communicating with friends, family, and collaborators …. Well, it would be a staggering number. While I am grateful for the multi-modal platforms available to me, I do find myself yearning for some face-to-face time (rather than, say FaceTime).

 This weekend I have had the rare opportunity to spend In Real Life time with collaborators and friends. I’ve been in Banff at the Women’s Writing inCanada and Québec Today: Alliances/ Transgressions/ Betrayals. I’ve been hanging out with Margrit and Heather and a number of others who are near and dear! It’s been a whirlwind few days full of smart papers, lively round tables, and the all-important coffee breaks. For all the brilliance happening, I’m especially grateful for the moments in which new alliances are forged and old friendships are given that shot of IRL time that helps sustain them over the months that stretch between next visits.
Canada is a huge country. This is a truism remains perkily factual despite the inevitable eye-rolling that accompanies that utterance. It is in these moments when I am in a room filled with friends, colleagues, and new acquaintances that I feel the challenges of geography. How do you maintain your companionships and  collaborations across these huge spaces when the inevitability of real life creeps in? What kind of scholarly meetings are more generative for you, and how do you keep the momentum going? How do you build IRL meetings with those far-flung friends and colleagues into your life?

canada · change · collaboration · faster feminism

Faster Feminism Spotlight: Canadian Women in the Literary Arts

Numbers matter. 
Last year when Amy King published The Count on VIDA‘s website there was a flurry of conversation on the web and in print regarding women, publishing, and numbers. Indeed, prior to The Count poets Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young published a controversy-producing piece entitled Number Trouble. In this text Spahr and Young refute claims made by Jennifer Ashton in an article called “Our Bodies, Our Poems” in which Ashton suggests that “by the mid-80s efforts to ‘redress the imbalance’ had apparently succeeded—women seemed to make up more or less half of the poets published, half the editorial staff of literary magazines, half the faculties of creative writing programs, and so forth.” Following Ashton’s lead Spahr and Young review women’s presence in anthologies and come to resoundingly different conclusions.
In Canada the Numbers Trouble debate did not get the same kind of attention, at least not immediately.* In their introduction to Prismatic Publics: Innovative Canadian Women’s Poetry and Poetics editors Heather Milne and Kate Eichhorn cite Young and Spahr’s text as one inspiration for their anthology. Poet, blogger, and public intellectual (Montreal) Sina Queyras has been asking hard questions about the presence of women in public intellectual spaces for years. One of the stunning undercurrents in Unleashed, a collection of early blog posts, is Queyras’s unflinching refrain, “where are the women?” But aside from comments on her own posts the conversations around women in the literary arts remained siloed, for the most part. There are regional conversations, there are some conversations in the academy, and more (or so it seems to me) in creative writing communities. Last year poet, blogger, and intellectual-about-town (Toronto) Natalie Zina Walschots (aka NatalieZed) undertook her own analysis of the gender of literary arts reviews in Canada. Her post garnered quite a bit of discussion, unsurprisingly, perhaps, not all of it friendly.
Fast forward to this week. I was sitting at my computer looking at Facebook as I often do when I am procrastinating with my own writing. Lo, there’s a post from Sina Queyras that announces the launch of Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA). CWILA is the brainchild of poet, writer, teacher, and intellectual-about-town (Vancouver) Gillian Jerome. According to Jerome the idea for CWILA came from Vida’s Count, from Walschots’s post, and from her experience of organizing V125, where though they worked extremely hard to have gender balanced panels Jerome noted the conversations were not quite as balanced. Here’s a quote from CWILA’s site in which Jerome outlines the organization’s aims:
CWILA strives to promote and foster equity and equality of representation in the Canadian literary community by:
1) tracking statistics on gender representation in reviewing;
2) bringing relevant issues of gender, race and sexuality into our national literary conversation;
3) and creating a network supportive of the active careers of female writers, critics and their literary communities.
I say: BRAVO!
I also say, if you are interested in helping out you can join CWILA here. One of the most exciting things CWILA aims to do is to garner enough funds to pay a critic-in-residence. While not all Hook & Eye readers work in English departments, I wager many if not all of us have a sense of the importance of having someone write about your work. Reviews—good or bad (so long as they are fair)—are generative. They generate awareness, conversation, and frankly, they generate the culture we live in, and the canons we teach. You might also consider making a donation to the critic-in-residence fund here.

Gillian was kind enough to answer some of my questions. Here they are along with her answers:

EW: Tell our readers about yourself. You’re a poet, a teacher, an intellectual community organizer. What led you to form CWILA? Did you have help? What are your short and long-term goals?

GJ: You asked about why I created CWILA; and in a sense, I didn’t create CWILA—a group of 70 + Canadian women poets, novelists, scholars and critics did over the span of the last six weeks. But if you’re asking about how the idea for CWILA originated in me then I can speak to that.

The impetus came most recently from questions I asked myself after reading Natalie Walschots’ blog in which she discussed the imbalanced numbers of reviews—if counted by gender—in Michael Lista’s poetry column in the National Post. She counted the reviews he’d written in the last year, and out of fourteen books reviewed, only two were authored by women. I wondered: what are the numbers like at other national literary publications? What does the Canadian review culture look like in terms of gender? Is there imbalance in poetry reviews across the board? What about other genres? How might we measure these numbers against how many books are published each year by men and women in Canada? In short, counting became, for me, a very rational way to examine the gendered aspects of our literary landscape.
CWILA’s primary goal is to start a conversation about our data. Of course, we would like to improve the numbers by asking editors to take stock of their numbers. And we would like to see greater equity in reviews in all regards, not just gender. It seems to me that there is great interest in talking about these issues, connecting with other writers and critics and shifting the climate of reviews in this country among men, women and genderqueer writers. I’m very excited about our call for a CWILA critic-in-residence which will provide the successful applicant with $2000 to take time to write book reviews or a longer critical project. We are fundraising rigorously for this project and so I’d like to encourage everyone to donate to it.
I’m equally excited about the community that has been created around CWILA. It makes me happy to discover that more women writers already feel more supported and empowered about entering critical space because of what we’ve done. CWILA members would like to see more women take up public critical space in Canada and feel more supported, more confident, more capable.
EW: What role do you see the Academy playing in fostering equitable literary communities? What role would you like to see it play?
GJ: The academy plays an important role by offering discursive space to talk and write about the politics of representation. But it also has the capacity to produce more female critics who could be trained, supported and mentored to write in the national literary press. This is complicated, I understand, because so many female academics are overworked already, but it’s vital, I think, for women in the academy to enter the national conversations about books inside and outside of scholarship. Women who teach and study in universities have all kinds of training that makes them very well-equipped for these conversations. I also think that there is room for more connections to be made between the work that writers and scholars do; I would like to see more scholars value creative work and more writers value scholarly work, and for more collaborative work in these communities.
I will also say that I think many academic publications, like Canadian Literature, are already doing equitable work in reviewing books.  There are all kinds of female academics in positions of power in this country who do amazing work in fostering important conversations about womens’ writing, and work in editorial roles to ensure that womens’ books get written about and talked about, and that women review books. It’s also true that more can be done: more scholarship on books by women and more scholarship that examines the work written by marginalized writers. The most obvious example would be indigenous writers: we need more conversations about indigenous writing in English departments and more books by indigenous writers on course syllabi. I know that the conversations that I’ve had in my work with CWILA have changed the way I think about my courses and the books that I will teach. After all, the choices we make as academics shape canons, careers and national conversations about books.
 EW: How can our readers become involved?

GJ: Readers can become involved by thinking and speaking up about these issues. Engagement is an expression of attention and respect. So far, I have encountered some silence in particular parts of my literary and professional circles.  Perhaps people are thinking; perhaps they are afraid to engage; perhaps they are waiting to see if it’s cool to engage, or if it will help or hinder their careers; perhaps they simply don’t care. There are a myriad of reasons for silence in this rhetorical moment and the moments to come. It’s a complicated topic that isn’t always easy to talk and/or write about. My hope is that CWILA will provide an entry point for conversations about gender and the literary arts in Canada among writers and readers, as well as editors, publishers, agents, etc.
A few women have said to me that they don’t expect men to care about CWILA’s work, but I totally disagree: why wouldn’t men be concerned? What male writer in Canada wants the numbers for book reviews to be so embarrassingly unequal and for the conversations about books in the literary press to continue to reflect a masculinized tradition? To not be concerned is just such an outdated position in my mind.
Surely it’s the case that some men in Canadian literature want things to stay as they are because they benefit, but I am hopeful that that belief is held by the minority. After all, some of the percentages of reviews of books written by women at particular publications were as bad as percentages for representation of women writers in anthologies in the 1930s and 1940s, and in review space in the 1960s. I would find it disheartening to discover that anybody—man or woman—-involved in literature in this country doesn’t care at all about these inequities. This is perhaps why total silence on behalf of particular writers, editors, critics, scholars and publishers disturbs me. I think that saying nothing now or in the future— i.e. ever—is cowardly: it’s a means of keeping the numbers exactly as they are and hoping that the problem will go away or be handled by somebody else, i.e. the same women who have been speaking up—Sina Queyras, Margaret Christakos, Larissa Lai, Lisa Roberston, Kate Braid, Daphne Marlatt, etc. Lots of writers (male and female) are doing great feminist work in this country—I just want more of it. I want more people—women and men—to talk, write, engage in public where it counts. I want the conversation engendered by the findings to be robust, inclusive and transformative for everyone’s benefit.

A final thought: I often find myself fretting about how heavy I sound when I write my posts. Partly, as I have so often reminded myself, that is my role as a precariously employed academic worker. I often feel as though I cannot take on a single thing more, not one thing! But get this: in addition to having her own writing career Jerome is also a sessional lecturer at UBC. CWILA was formed and launched in six weeks flat! How inspiring is that knowledge?
What have you been dreaming of building? What would it take to get that underway?
*In 1984 Barbara Godard wrote an incredible essay suggesting why this may be a ‘Canadian thing.’ That essay is entitled “Excentriques, eccentric, avant-garde.” A Room of One’s Own 8, 4 (Fall, 1984): 57-75.

academic reorganization · canada · change · open letter · slow academy

The Pedagogy of Comprehensibility

When I was in the last year of my PhD the current graduate chair at my alma mater decided to initiate a new professionalization course. Unlike the research methods class I took as an incoming PhD student, this course was entirely voluntary and meant for those of us in the finishing stages of the degree. We learned how to write job letters (there’s a formula!) We learned how to prepare job talks. We delivered job talks to mock interviewers and then after the interview we as a group discussed how the candidates did: what questions were answered well and why? Which questions need more thought, and how might the candidate do a better job of presenting her or his project? What exactly does one ask when given the opportunity to pose a question to the interviewing committee? We even discussed what one should wear to an interview (general consensus is still a suit) and whether one should have a drink at dinner (yes, but only one).

Of the many invaluable things I learned in this professionalization course the discussion of the CV has stuck with me. We work-shopped our CVs for organization, font, and design, and we were given the invaluable and simple advice to update our CVs regularly. It makes sense: in the course of a few months immense amounts of CV-worthy things can happen. Book reviews get written, conference papers get accepted, service is completed and (holy grail) articles get published. The short point of this post is to encourage readers to write everything down. Keep your CV up-to-date as conference season approaches.

But there’s a more theoretical and complex point I’d like to make, and that is one of what I’m calling the pedagogy of comprehensibility. Each time I revisit my CV I consider whether or not I am comprehensible to potential hiring committees (though you could insert admissions committees, tenure and promotions committees, granting agencies et cetera here). On the one hand, I’m not comprehensible (file this sentence under is-this-too-dangerous-to-write-about-since-I’m-an-LTA?). I don’t yet have a manuscript publication, I teach, research, and write about poetry and poetics, gender, race, urban space, collaboration, and experimental writing. I’m on board with one of the most phenomenally innovative digital humanities projects in the world. This can look like a lot.

On the other hand, I do my research under the umbrella of being a Canadianist. Here’s what I’ve come to think: whether I am in a contract position or (one day) a tenure-track position I’ve come to see my job as one of facilitating comprehensibility. In other words, it is my job to teach committee member X to understand my areas of research interest.

There is much to worry/complain/rage about in this profession, and taking on the responsibility for change is a tiresome burden. However, what I learned from Dr. Ellis’s professionalization course is that it is my responsibility to teach you how to understand me. More over, I learned from that course that we can’t do this alone, we need networks and communities and small classrooms of people who are willing to mentor all stages of pedagogical comprehensibility.

What about you? How have you been taught to teach others to understand your CV?

Speaking of teaching others how to understand the necessity of our work, don’t miss Donna Palmateer Pennee’s open letter regarding the academy and the upcoming election. Professorial vote mob? Count me in.