A few months after I was admitted into the MA program at my current university, I drove three hours north to visit the campus. I remember walking into the graduate student lounge in my soon-to-be department in a semi-state of awe. I didn’t notice the dreadful couches or the filthy dishes in the sink; I barely perceived the stacks of paper and books on the table. Instead, I gazed at the group of students clustered in the middle around a wooden table. Soon, I’d be one of them, I recall thinking. What are they like? What area are they studying? Had they been much better prepared than I was (or felt)?
My feeling of uncertainty didn’t change much after I actually began my studies. The first few weeks and months of graduate school are chock full of it, particularly for newbie MAs. I recall with vivid clarity the panic that set in after I’d received all my syllabi, bought my stacks of books, and wrote the dates of my first presentations in my agenda. Would I really be able to do this?, I wondered, frequently and often. How would I make it through?
It’s been several years since I was a newbie MA, but every year in September I’m reminded again of what it feels like when I introduce myself to the new Graduate Students in my department. With them in mind (and putting aside for the moment the question of whether or not to go to grad school in the first place!), I’d like to offer a bit of advice on how to approach the first few months as a new graduate student:
1. Know that You’re Not the Only One. Everyone feels a bit like an imposter starting graduate school, and uncertainty and self-doubt is common. It’s there even if you think that everyone else seems confident and on top of things! The fact is that the learning curve of grad school is a steep one, and every student coming from an undergraduate degree has to climb it, not just you.
2. Be Generous with your Friendship. Know that some of the people you meet for the first time at various orientation events might come across unfavourably on first impression, but are actually great, brilliant, kind people. It’s well-worth the effort to go to all the orientation and social mixer events and meet everyone you can. You’ll probably interact with people who will become great friends and collaborators for months or even years to come.
3. Participate in New Student Mentorship Program. My department offers “grad buddies” to new incoming students who can answer all sorts of questions about the university, department, and even the city. But even if you don’t have a program like this one, you can ask to be put in touch with students further along in the program, or you can simply introduce yourself. These seasoned veterans can direct you around the campus, show you the library, and give you advice about how to manage your crushing reading schedule. They’re invaluable resources and can be great friends and mentors, too.
4. Read Blogs like Hook and Eye! Blogs like this one can be invaluable resources. Melissa has written about things she wished she’d known when she started her PhD, and Boyda has discussed productivity in the PhD and practicing self-care. Aimée has blogged about how to write great conference proposals, and I’ve talked about starting writing groups, and what it’s like to teach for the first time. Over the next few months, we’ll be tackling how to choose an advisor, issues related to graduate-student labour, self-care, and other questions of concern to both the newbie and seasoned graduate student.
Negotiating priorities in my work has been really hard recently. And by recently I mean, oh, since the MLA back in January.
It’s not that I haven’t been working. I have. Oh, I have. York is undergoing a pan-university review exercise much like the TransformUS initiative that’s been causing so much of a ruckus (and rightly so) at the University of Saskatchewan, and as one of only a few writers in my office, I’ve been heavily involved in the writing and editing of our Faculty’s report. Scholarships and grants are never ending, and overtime has been rather more plentiful than I would like. A friend and I have (fingers crossed) a book-like online project about graduate training and reform launching soon, and that’s required lots of tending, as has the newly published Digital Studies article about grad students in DH that he and I wrote with a bunch of wildly talented folks. I’m just finishing up the paper for the panel another friend and I put together for the ACQL at Congress, and a good chunk of my free time has been spent researching and editing for a scholarly edition of a Canadian play another friend is working on. Writing this paragraph, it seems that I’ve been doing a good job of working on collaborative projects, or stuff for other people, but not things for me.
In fact, in writing that last paragraph, I’m realizing that neglecting things for me–not just in terms of work and writing, but in terms of all the things–is precisely what I’ve been doing across the board. My dissertation is languishing in Scrivener, a fact that weaves a low hum of anxiety through most of my days. When my Dean asked me recently if there were ways that she could help facilitate my finishing, it didn’t make me feel happy, or supported–it just made me feel guilty. I haven’t kept my Thursday appointment with Hook & Eye for longer than I’d care to admit. I went for a walk after work today, stopping for gelato midway (because spring), but almost didn’t go because I felt a little panicked about all of the things I need to do tonight (write this post! finish my ACQL paper! start packing!) and less than entitled to a break and some exercise. I’ve spent too much money on new clothes recently, because spending money on myself is the easiest way to remedy the feeling that I’m not doing a very good job of actually taking care of myself. When was the last time I did something creative? When was the last time I took an entire day off work, or took time off work and didn’t feel guilty about it? No idea. And aren’t those the things I was trying to steer myself away from by deciding to step off the tenure track?
I think the thing that frustrates me the most is the feeling that I’ve written this post before. I know that I’ve written this post before, and I know that there are so many other things that I could write about, that I’d rather write about, but I’m just…tapped out. I get it–it’s not just me. We all know that we shouldn’t be the last people on our own to-do lists. We all preach the gospel of self care. But we all live in a culture of productivity and anti-procrastination and self-realization through work. And when it comes down to the wire, do I practice what I preach on those subjects? You’re damn right I don’t. And if I think it’s bad now, what about when the day comes that I’ve got a child? I’m nervous (read: terrified) just thinking about it.
I don’t know what the solution is. I love my job, truly, and I really don’t mind the overtime or the end-of-day mental exhaustion, most of the time. I really do want to finish my dissertation, for the personal satisfaction, and for the sunk costs, and because I do think it will get me ahead at work. I’m not willing to give up my writing on #altac or my other academic collaborations, and I’ve already cut most conferencing ( I go to the MLA and Congress, fin) and all additional training completely out of my schedule. I already have someone to help with the cleaning, and a partner/takeout to take care of the cooking when I don’t have the time or energy to. I have the lowest maintenance pet I can imagine, except for when he misses my partner and takes some serious consoling before he’ll stop crying at the top of his lungs (who needs a baby?). So what gives? In the end, it’s quality time with my partner and my friends, and it’s sleep, and it’s me, and the things that no one but me is depending on me to get done.
I’m at a bit of a loss, because I can’t see where something else can give, and something else has gotta give. In the meantime, until I figure it out, I guess I’ll keep trucking along, put the credit card away, and hope that my annual Congress visit with the other lovely ladies of Hook & Eye will bring some enlightenment, or at least some sympathy.
See you in St. Catherine’s?
This morning my social media news feeds are a mix of reflection, rage, and resolve. Here is what I am seeing: Many of my friends and acquaintances were able to be in Edmonton for the last days of the hearings for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I’ve been reading their reflections and watching videos of speakers like Cindy Blackstock in order to learn and listen from here. This afternoon I’ll be teaching Marie Clements’s play Burning Vision. Here at home, though, I am altering my class lectures to make room for discussion about the editor of the local paper who made the egregious decision to run a photograph of a person in blackface on the cover of the paper.
What do these things have to do with one another? A lot. Specifically, I think that together they model or open opportunities to talk about responsibility, community, and learning. Who are your teachers? Who are mine? Who gets listened to when? Whose voices are consistently and often violently left out of conversations? And how might we–with all the diversity that collective pronoun might mean–start having those conversations.
As most of you know I do much of my teaching and research under the auspices of literary studies, so let me talk about Clements’s play in order to start to unpack what I mean by a model of learning as community and responsability.
Burning Vision is a play in four movements, and it is a play that moves across time and space and between cultures. It has been described variously as a complicated play, as a postmodern play, and play about environmental justice. It may be all of these; I want to suggest it is also a model for learning as community responsibility.
The facts informing the play are these: in the late 1880s a Dene Seer prophesies a burning vision that will come in the future. The timeline in the play depicts how his vision comes to be. Between 1898-1925 radium becomes a valuable commodity. Between 1931-1932 the Canadian government issues a publication that warns of the health hazards associated with radioactive ore. 1930: The LaBine brothers discover highgrade pitchblende stake on Great Bear Lake. 1932 Dene men are hired to carry ore out of the mine and transport it to Fort McMurray. 1938: The Nobel Prize is granted to Enrico Fermi who has discovered the fissurable properties of uranium. 1941: Japanese Canadians are required to carry identification cards. 1941 the US orders eight tones of uranium from Great Bear Lake to conduct military research. 1942: Japanese-Canadians are forced into internment camps. 1945: Atomic bombs are dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 1960: the first Dene miner dies of cancer. And in August of 1998 six Dene residents travel to Hiroshima to pay respects on the anniversary of the detonation of the first atomic bomb.
As I said, the play works across time, space, and cultures. It is about Canada’s colonial history and its historic and ongoing violence against First Peoples. It is about systematic racism. It is about ecological devastation and mass violence. And it is about building communities of responsibility.
What I hope to discuss with my students in the comping classes are the ways in which this play models community responsibility and demonstrates the necessity for learning as a life-long process. Here’s what I mean: Burning Vision brings together historical and cultural specificity. As readers (or playgoers) we encounter historic injustice from our own cultural, racial, and gendered experiences. Crucially, Burning Vision does not let us stop there. The play–which draws on fact–requires that readers engage with injustice, historic violence, and reconciliation in the present. Let me be even more direct: as a white reader this play requires me to check my privilege. It does not allow me to relegate injustice, racism, and violence to the past or to something I might want to pretend is in the past. It reminds me that my silence or my limited knowledge is a kind of complicity. It teaches readers–it teaches me–that learning history is an on going process and that teachers don’t always, or even often, stand at the front of a classroom. Burning Vision opens a space to talk about historic inequity in the present. It also opens a space to talk about learning as a collaborative practice.
Let me turn back to the third of my opening examples: what can be gained by talking about the local paper’s decision to run a photograph of a person in blackface? I’m not going to reproduce the photo here because, as El Jones made so clear on CBC this morning, turning the discussion about the racist history of blackface into a single talk about one person and one paper sidelines the bigger, more urgent conversations we need to have. If you are in a position of privilege–when that privilege is unearned (ie. whiteness, maleness, cisgenderedness)–it is your responsibility to listen. Listening is responsible engagement. Listening is learning.
Far too often ears are shut. Often, I find myself at the front of a classroom and realize that I’m not the teacher. I don’t have all the knowledge. In those situations it becomes my responsibility to make space for that knowledge to circulate.
I’ll close with an opportunity and an example of learning as a community project, as a project of building communities and of listening. Tomorrow #30daysofprisonjustice will begin. It is a collaborative teach-in happening on social media. It is being initiated by El Jones and is, as she notes, a collaborative project.
Dehumanizing language about prisoners will not be permitted (monster, evil, animal.) Respectful questioning and dialogue is encouraged in order to critique, clarify and understand. Everyone is encouraged to both teach and learn, with the recognition that personal experience, lived experience of prison/racism etc. should be respected and listened to. This list is only my list, others are encouraged to add. Teaching can take many forms as in posting videos, articles, beginning disucssions, asking each other questions, sharing stories, drawing attention to cases of injustice, etc. Grammar policing or classist/racist values of what proper discussion look like is not welcome – all are encouraged to post.
It is no secret that this semester has brought some challenges, and with the so-called storm of the century apparently heading towards those of us in the Eastern provinces I figure it is time for some levity. Indeed, it is time for one of my favourite crowd-sourcing activities. Friends, it is time to talk about music.
In almost every course I teach music — and often music videos — finds its way into the classroom as a teaching supplement. This term is no exception. I’m teaching a third-year literature course which the course catalogue briefly describes as “Traditions in 20th and 21st century Women’s Writing in English.” Given that I’m only here on a year contract I didn’t go through the tangle of renaming the course, but if I had it would be something along the lines of “Poetics of Form: Women Writing.” Here is my course description from the syllabus:
This course covers particular and recurrent aspects of twentieth- and twenty-first century literature written from the perspective of women. The course stresses the diversity of women’s authorial worlds, both through time and/or space. Rather than be organized in a strictly chronological fashion the course is organized thematically. In each unit we will address the historical, cultural, linguistic, and aesthetic ways in which women writers address some of the recurrent material and conceptual concerns for women.
Work I: Histories
Work II: Gendering Work
Susan Glaspell, “Trifles,” Ruth Stone, “Things I say to Myself While Hanging Laundry”
Work III: Interventions
Mina Loy, “Gertrude Stein,” “Feminist Manifesto,” Zora Neale Hurston, “How it feels to be Coloured Me”
Work IV: Frame-off
Adrienne Rich, “Snapshots of a Daughter In Law,” Joy Harjo, “Deer Dancer”
Work V: Craft & Form
Amy Lowell, from A Critical Fable [On T.S.Eliot and Ezra Pound], Gertrude Stein, “Ada,” H.D. “Sea Poppies,” Marianne Moore, “Poetry,” June Jordan, “Poem About Police Violence”
The Body II: As Subject
Lyn Hejinian from My Life, Anne Carson from The Glass Essay, Maragret Atwood, “Rape Fantasies”
The Body III: Motherhood
Diane Di Prima, “Song for Baby-O, Unborn,” Anais Nin, “Birth,” Jamaica Kindcaid, “Girl”
The Body IV: Desire
Jeanette Winterson, “The Poetics of Sex,” Radcyffe Hall, “Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself”
The Body V: Writing
Adrienne Rich, “When We Dead Reawaken,” Audre Lorde, “Zami: A New Spelling of My Name.”
The Body VI: Writing
Angela Carter, “The Company of Wolves,” Carolyn Kizer, “Pro Femina” P.K. Page, “The Stenographers”
Nella Larsen, Quicksand
Toni Morrison, from Unspeakable Things Unspoken
Carolyn Forche, “The Colonel,” “Elegy,” Octavia Butler, “Bloodchild”
Flannery O’Connor, “Good Country People”
Maxine Hong Kingston “No Name Woman”
Affect I: Lauren Berlant from The Female Complaint
Sylvia Plath selection, Anne Sexton, “Her Kind,” “Sylvia’s Death,” Maxine Kumin “How It Is”
Chantal Nevu from Coit
Shannon Maguire from fu(r)l parachute, Aisha Sasha John from The Shining Material
Nina Simone “Work Song” Forbidden Fruit, LP 1961
Alabama Shakes “Rise to the Sun” Boys & Girls, LP (2012)
Tanya Tagaq & Bjork “Ancestors” Sinaa, LP (2006)
Julie Doiron “Snowfalls in November” Julie Doiron/Okkervil River LP, (2003)
Angel Haze “Battle Cry” Dirty Gold (2013)
Julie Ruin “Tania” Julie Ruin (1998)
The Sounds “Queen of Apologies” Dying to Say This To You LP (2006)
Rae Spoon “We Can’t Be Lovers With These Guns On Each Other” Love Is a Hunter (2010)
If you asked me while I was in the first year of my PhD how I would manage the long, unstructured hours of post-course-work dissertation writing, I might have stared at you blankly and stammered out something about supervisory meetings, conference proposals, creating self-imposed deadlines blah blah blah.
Really I would have had no clue. In fact, it took me about three months of post-candidacy-defense panicking to figure out exactly how to write the dissertation (well, how to start writing the dissertation, anyway!). And though my supervisory meetings have been absolutely essential in helping me move along through the program, and conference proposals have helped me clarify and restate my ideas in clear and simple prose, I can honestly say the best thing for my productivity, bar none, has been my writing group. Strike that: my two writing groups.
It was mostly serendipitous, and I honestly can’t quite remember how I started with either one. The first had been going for a while before I became a regular member, I started out occasionally and then became a regular, the second I joined on the suggestion of a friend who didn’t even attend herself. Now they have both become essential not only for my productivity, but for my sanity as well. I need these groups not just because of the habit and practice of writing, which becomes mandatory in the presence of the all-mighty timer, but also because this is time to chat, commiserate, ask questions, and, ultimately, build friendships. My writing group buddies are the people who have offered me support, both in terms of the practice of writing and in the practice of care. These are the people who have helped me prioritize my work/life commitments with with offers of babysitting, dinner for my family, drinks out, and sympathetic ears. We offer each other advice from things ranging from conference attire to encouragement for how to slog through a chapter that’s burgeoning out of control. And, of course, we stop talking and write.
Want to start your own writing group? Here’s how we structure a day of writing:
1. At the beginning of each writing session, we usually state what we hope to accomplish in the session. Working on a portion of a chapter? Writing a conference proposal? Revising an article for publication? We say what we’re working on and what, specifically, we’d like to write during the day.
2. Stick to the timer. Each writing session is usually divided up into several chunks of time, which we dedicate to writing. We set the timer for 25-45 minutes, depending on how people are feeling in terms of focus and goals. Then, we stick to it. The rule is no talking while the timer is running, no internet, no interruptions. After the timer has gone, we usually say what we accomplished during the unit, or describe how it went.
3. Take Breaks. Whether it’s to check email, chat about how the writing is going, or complain about how hard writing is (WRITING IS SO HARD), these are imperative to making the day work. I usually take a minimum half hour break for lunch, but 5-10 minute breaks between timer units are important as well. Our brains need breaks to refocus.
Do you have a writing group? What kinds of habits do you practice?
It’s almost six years later, and we’re still at it. Every three weeks we gather with wine, pounds of cheese, our laptops, a baby or a couple of cats for company, and we talk words. The prompt is usually simple: does this section make sense? is my tone consistent from the material you read last time? I need to cut this article down by half–help! By the end of the night, we’ve usually figured it out. The people whose writing we’ve critiqued feel heard, and talented, and like they know what to do next. But more importantly, we feel connected. We’ve caught up on all of the personal and departmental gossip. We’ve traded recipes. We’ve talked boyfriends and girlfriends and spouses and coming out stories and faculty crushes and teaching techniques and upcoming conferences and why today was a good day. We go home feeling a little glowy, a little giddy, and not all of it is from the wine.
Losing that connectedness was one of the things that I feared most about leaving the PhD, but it was also the thing I knew I didn’t have to fear at all.
Creating more of those connections–a community of care, of support, of mentorship, of collegiality–is one of the best parts of my administrative job. It’s also one of those that I’m most committed to. I was collaborating with one of our technology services people on a project today, and he asked me if my role was “student facing.” It took me a minute to get what he meant. When I did, my answer was that in the past it really hadn’t been, but that’s something I’ve been working to change. In the past, the person in my role would most often act as a liaison, or as an enforcer of procedure, or as a conduit for feedback coming from on high. I do those things, but I question the effectiveness of the arms-length approach. I prefer to work with students one-on-one, to coach and to guide and to support. In my portfolio of graduate professional development and the cultivation of our graduate research culture, I rely on graduate students as sources of knowledge about important skills, knowledge that can be shared with other students, and as examples for the rest of the university community of how dynamic and cutting edge graduate research can be. I love talking to our students about their work. I love cultivating their involvement with the university. I love providing them with opportunities to do more, to do better. I love providing them with chances to create new communities. And I love when the barrier between me as an administrator, albeit one who is simultaneously a student, and them as a graduate student breaks down, and we talk to each other as people, as emergent scholars, as part of the community that shares a passion for ideas and discovery and knowledge.
I like to think that my work is fundamentally informed by an ethics of care. I worry that that’s a feminized approach to my job, that I’m falling into the trap of mothering my students, that care is a bad polestar to guide a career. But I got into graduate admin because I cared about the mental, financial, emotional health of grad students like me, who struggle with negotiating between what the academy thinks it is, thinks is happening for its students, and what the reality of life after the PhD looks like. I opened my office doors to any student who wants to see me because I believe that the personal should take precedence over the procedural. I focus my attention on initiatives that build community among graduate students, primarily because I know first hand what a difference it can make to know that someone cares who you are, how you are, how your work is going. I mentor. I coach. I cheerlead. I give tough love. It’s hard work, choosing the path toward the personal, the intimate, the connected. It takes more time, and energy (particularly emotional energy), and effort. It requires that more effort is focused on fewer people, that energy is concentrated rather than diffuse. It leaves you open to being disappointed, or frustrated, or angry.
But then I think back to the wine, and the cheese, and the babies, and the faces that have surrounded me since the day I stepped through the doors of my PhD orientation. I’ve been so very lucky, and I can’t help but believe that I have a responsibility to help others cultivate the community I’ve been so fortunate to have, to be a part of that community and invite others in. I don’t have to worry right now that my goals for my larger career and my goals for providing students with community, connection, care are in conflict; it might become an issue one day. But until then, I’m leaving my door open and letting care and community-building be my guide. I can’t help but hope it’ll do some good.
Do you know what day it is today? It’s the day the hallowed MLA Job Information List (JIL) descends upon us, enabling the birth of many a hope, a dream, and/or a plan. For people happily not acquainted with the JIL, allow me to inform you: it is *the* list of academic jobs in the field of languages and literatures, open across US and Canada, but increasingly also in Europe and Asia. The UK and Australia, and some of Asia, run on a slightly different academic-job recruitment schedule. In brief, for many PhDs and ABDs in English and other language/literature fields, the publication of the JIL initiates the bulk of the academic-job application process and its attendant emotional and material labour.
The ugly truth that has emerged in the past years points to the numeric inadequacy of the list, which I’m holding up here as a symbol of the job market. For the first time ever this year, the JIL will be accessible free of charge, rather than by subscription. However important this gesture, it cannot mask the simple fact that there are not enough jobs. Many conversations around the internet, twitter, facebook, departmental water cooler, etc. revolve around the absence of sufficient and appropriate employment for higher degree humanities graduates. A significant amount of media commentary also rose in response to the generalized attack on the humanities, especially in its higher education form. In addition, the advice industry and academic coaching has bloomed, while many PhDs and ABDs are urged to orient themselves toward #AltAc and #PostAc careers. Congratulations to Hook & Eye’s own Melissa Dalgleish for acting on that advice and succeeding!
There is thus no shortage of band-aid solutions to what we should recognize as a structural problem. It is NOT the fault of the individual PhD or ABD that s/he has not secured a permanent job. It is NOT up to the individual candidate with a #HigherEd degree to prove to industry and other #PostAc venues that s/he has all the skills to perform in a given position and then some. We should recognize and excise the blame-game rhetoric out of our conversations, especially in the malicious reactions to bona fide attempts to open up discussions of this systemic issue.
Instead, we should look for both ways to advocate for the people we train and their invaluable skills. I’m sure when we put our smart, creative, and experienced heads together, we can come up with many reasons why higher education in the humanities is valuable. The question is, how do we propagate our message? Many of us happily shared a variety of articles extolling the virtues of employees majoring in humanities disciplines. Shouldn’t we do more of that work ourselves? In an organized, collaborative way? Dare I dream: in an institutional way?
Every Friday at four, we gather around someone’s kitchen table. Coffee gets poured, baking gets passed around, and we settle into our chairs and share stories about our weeks and plans for the weekend ahead. We talk about cooking, and travel, and books, and movies, and gossip. And then, when we’ve caught up, we talk work. Structure. Application of theory. Voice. Organization. Negotiating our committees. Publication. Productivity tools. Grammar. Turning conference papers into articles into chapters. Syntax. Analysis.
Each week, two of us send around a 20-ish page chunk of writing for the others to read, and the rest of the group responds with comments that we then discuss in person. Despite writing on sometimes wildly different topics—law in the Western, English country house novels, Canadian modernist poetry, contemporary anarchist poetry, Canadian underground comics—we’ve come to know each others’ work well over the weeks and months we’ve been working together. We prize that familiarity, that ability to see how the work is changing and developing as it progresses, but we also prize six fresh sets of eyes that can see what our own myopic perspectives cannot. We’re kind, but we’re also critical. We want to help each other get better, and we want to see each other succeed.
I don’t know how common this kind of arrangement is. Narratives of competition, of isolation, of backstabbing and loneliness and alienation, are all too common when we talk about doing a PhD, especially the years we spend writing a dissertation. My writing group and I belong to a larger PhD program—my cohort has nine people in it, and that’s about average for us—but I know others whose isolation is exacerbated by being the sole doctoral student in their year, or one of only two. As a writing group—indeed, as a program—we’ve rejected narratives of conflict, mistrust, and isolation. Instead, we work hard to foster a sense of community, a culture of collegiality, and a genuine caring. We like each other–a lot. And while competition and backstabbing are presumably intended to help one get ahead, research shows that those of us who form writerly communities actually do more, and better, writing. In a profession where success is measured by both the quality and quantity of our writing, fostering community is positively an advantage.
I’m lucky in this. I’m privileged to be able to write about the “we” that is my immediate academic community, one that is invested in my success, as I am in theirs. These folks are very necessary to my health and happiness as an academic and as a person. And I’m very interested in hearing about the communities that you’ve created and entered that have shaped your academic life.
So tell me: what version of academic community do you have in your life? What role does it play? And how can we foster these kinds of supportive and collaborative communities across the academy, particularly in graduate programs?
It is February, and to my mind the best thing about this month — a month my poetry professor once called the month with rue at its heart — is the fact that a spotlight is cast upon the history, culture, and achievements of Black Canadians.* And while I am compelled by arguments made by scholars like Cecil Foster, who has stated that in a truly multicultural nation there would not be a need to single out individual cultures (because all cultures would be equally valued and celebrated) I want to cast a spotlight on some of the amazing and brilliant Black feminist thinkers in Canada who have fundamentally shifted my own thinking and research. Think of this as an opening; it is by no means a comprehensive list.
Today I want to cast the faster feminist spotlight on Professor M. Jacqui Alexander. I was first introduced to Alexander’s work when I saw her speak at the Not Drowning But Waving: Women, Feminism, and the liberal arts conference at the University of Alberta. Of course, Alexander has been working much longer than I have been aware of her. Alexander is a foundational feminist researcher and writer in the field of transnational feminism. Her work brings together issues of race, gender, and class and thinks about how regulatory practices such as heteronormativity are brought to bear on marginalized communities. One of the things I find thrilling about her work is its ability to be positive and generative while simultaneously unflinching in its analysis of the functions and failures of the modern nation-state. Here is an example from her essay “Not Just Any (Body) Can Be a Citizen”:
Why has the state marked these sexual inscriptions on my body? Why has the state focussed such a repressive and regressive gaze on me and people like me? These are some of the questions I seek to understand in this paper. I wish to use this moment to look back at the state, to reverse, subvert, and ultimately demystify that gaze by taking apart these racialized legislative gestures that have naturalized heterosexuality by criminalizing lesbian and other forms of non-procreative sex. It is crucial for us as feminists to understand the ways in which the state deploys power in this domain and the kinds of symbolic boundaries it draws around sexual difference, for these are the very boundaries around which its power coheres (Hall, 1994).
This short excerpt exemplifies what I love about Alexander’s writing, and what was so formative for me as I began to read her work: it is that collective pronoun “us.” For, while I do not share Alexander’s experiences I am a feminist, and as such it is my responsibility to work with her to understand the forces that are brought to bear on her gendered, sexed, and racialized experience. And that — responsibility to witness, work with, in solidarity with, and in collaboration with other humans — is one of the responsibilities and privileges of working and living as a feminist, isn’t it? Thank you, Dr. Alexander.
*It is also Black History month in the United States and the United Kingdom. I’m simply narrowing the focus to my own national context.