enter the confessional · feminist health · risky writing

Why Can’t We Be Our Whole Selves as Academics?

man-person-woman-face

I recently had a stark reminder of how hard it is to be a whole person in academia. I was sitting in a Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship review meeting, which is one of my favourite committees to be on. Banting has strict rules about postdoc mobility: if you don’t move institutions and in some cases cities after your PhD you’re unlikely to get funded. Banting’s rules are more explicit and narrow than most, though no stricter than the spoken and unspoken ones that govern many postdoc awards, advice about where to take your next postdoc, and new faculty hiring decisions.

Like many of our postdocs, the majority of whom are in prime family-building years, the person we wanted to nominate for the Banting was tied to Toronto, where they had done their PhD, because their partner was employed here and they were expecting a child together in the spring. Banting requires nominees to write a “special circumstances” document making the case for their staying in the same place for a fellowship. A significant part of the first draft outlined the financial, family support, and childcare hardships this postdoc’s family would face if they were forced to relocate for a fellowship with an infant.

The committee had a real debate about whether or not to include that information. Would it not be better to use that space to articulate the strength of our institution as a research environment and justify staying in Toronto that way? The committee, longer embedded in academic culture than the fellow or I, felt strange about letting the non-academic parts of the fellow’s life into an otherwise very scientific, research-focused document. They worried that talking about parts of the fellow’s life outside their research would be to their detriment, that they wouldn’t be taken seriously as a researcher if the Banting Secretariat knew about their child-to-be and their decision to choose stability and family support over a postdoc in a far-flung location that looked better on paper.

The postdoc and I both felt the same way about it: not only did that explicitly need to be in the statement, we both felt this would be a good moment to suggest to the Banting Secretariat that if the proposed location of research is excellent, they shouldn’t otherwise have any say in the geographic or life decisions of postdocs. Postdocs have complex lives that include lots other than just research, and they know best how to manage those lives.

The committee’s concerns didn’t surprise me. But something that happened to me recently, and relatedly, did.

Not long before this Banting meeting, I walked into my senior manager’s office and told her that my in-office hours would be a bit wonky for the next few months as my partner and I pursued fertility diagnostics and treatments. (Despite my best efforts to avoid infertility by not waiting until I had a tenure-track job to try for a kid, here we are anyway. It happens for so many people, but we so rarely talk about it in academia. I have nothing to lose by being open, in large part because I am no longer a full-time academic, so I’m going to use this platform to help destigmatize discussions of reproductive health.)

Coming from academia and having seen how pregnancy is often treated there–as a disruption, an intrusion, something to be ignored–I expected judgment, resentment, and concern from my colleagues about how this decision and a possible pregnancy were going to negatively impact my work and that of our team. Not because of anything I think of my colleagues as people–they’re awesome across the board–but because that’s the culture I’m used to.

Instead, I got delighted claps and nothing but encouragement. I was frankly shocked.

The rest of my team now also knows that my partner and I are trying to have a kid. Because we’ve all been open in various ways about pregnancy, miscarriage, and our plans for the future, I have no qualms about sharing news with them early and giving us the longest possible period to plan for my parental leave.

I know that my office, and my team, are somewhat unusual in this. We’re all women; we’re all born within 15 years of each other and all openly have or enjoy kids; we’re employed by an organization with a culture of work-life balance and staff support; we work largely with and for academics but are not full-time academics ourselves; our organization has some corporate aspects but functions most often as a hybrid non-profit/healthcare/academic space.

But I so appreciate getting to be a whole person at work, one who doesn’t have to pretend that she’s a worker and a researcher and a writer but not also a person. I can be a person who wants a kid and someone who is good at and taken seriously in her work. I can be a person who is sick, or hurt, or stressed out by a pending renovation and someone who is good at and taken seriously in her work. I can be a person who writes about infertility on the internet and someone who is good at and taken seriously in her work.

Why can’t we have that as academics? It’s a genuine question: what does an academic culture that requires us to elide our personal lives, to treat our bodies as containers for our brains (even with broken feet), to elevate intellect over affect, do that’s useful to the academy? Does it make academic work appear more legitimate–and if so, to whom? Does it gatekeep, for the benefit of those in power, the people who cannot wholly divorce their bodily/personal/affective lives from their work? Does it make stressful and onerous academic and administrative work seem simpler, even if it isn’t? Does it delegitimate certain kinds of labour, especially emotional, so that labour doesn’t have to be acknowledged or compensated?

I’m sure it’s a combination of all of these things, and more that I don’t know yet. But I want to know, because understanding better why we can’t be whole people in academia–and still get taken seriously–is going to be crucial to figuring out how to make things different.

 

feminist health · from the archives

From the Archives: The Good Enough Professor

It is mid-October. Energy? It’s lagging, maybe. Stress? Creeping up, probably, if we are frank. So it seems like a really good time to bring back Lily Cho’s post on being good enough. It seems relevant that she wrote this almost a year ago to the day.

Guess what? You’re good enough:
______________________________

Are you wondering where September went? Me too. So it seems like a good time to revisit something I was thinking about over the summer: the Good Enough Professor. It came up for me when an interview with Adam Phillips was floating through my FB networks. The interviewer, Paul Holdengräber, notes at one point: “In Winnicott’s essay ‘On the Capacity to Be Alone,’ he writes that the goal for the child is to be alone in the presence of the mother. For a long time this has seemed to me the single best definition of reading.” Being someone who loves to be alone, and a newish mother, and reader, I thought, ding, ding, ding, ding… I really should read that essay again. So I did. And that lead me to a few other biggies in the Winnicott archive and I found lots there to think about in terms of aloneness, parenting, and reading, but I also was especially struck by his brief discussion of “the good enough mother” in Playing and Reality. The idea of being “good enough” really got me. 

I’m not the only one. There’s this Good Enough Professor. And this one. And this one. The idea of being good enough at anything, including being a professor, is both seductive and useful. It gives us a chance to stop and think about letting go of our perfectionism. It asks us to think about what it really means to be good enough. 
 
The first thing that jumps out for me is the literal idea of being good enough. For example, there’s Erin’s incredibly useful call to be strategic and efficient about course prep. For those of us who are lucky enough to be full-time faculty members, it might mean taking seriously the 40-40-20 split between research, teaching, and administrative work that our jobs usually demand. For me, taking on a lowly admin gig as my department’s Undergraduate Program Director, it has also meant trying to figure out how to keep this part of the job from taking up all of my work time when it is only supposed to take up part of it (so that I can, you know, teach and get that thing called research done). Before I took on the UPD gig, it was true that my research never knocked on my door, or sent me middle of the night panicked emails. Now, it is even more true. 
 
So figuring out how to be a Good Enough Professor has something to do with embracing your inner slacker and, maybe more crucially, figuring out boundaries like: not looking at email after dinner; or setting aside one day of the week as a research day and making it an inviolable part of the schedule; or collaborating with others on research so that your research actually does knock on your door, or email you with stuff that has to get done, or call you for a meeting (huge shout out here to my crew at the Toronto Photography Seminar). I do all of these things and they work for me. 
 
But, looking back at Winnicott, there’s another way of thinking about being a Good Enough Professor. For me, it’s really useful to remember that Winnicott’s theory of being good enough was first and foremost a way of thinking about parenting and the specifically gendered form of parenting (notably, he’s not writing about the good enough father). He talks a lot about illusion and disillusion – how the mother should give the infant the illusion of her constant presence and attendance to the child’s needs, only to slowly disillusion the child of that unfettered availability. Hello, transitional objects! What might this have to do with being a professor? Well, a lot, I think. 
 
First, let’s tackle the (often unspoken) myth of the professor-as-parent. There’s this discussion about how the best professors resemble parents from a man who also refers to some of his brilliant undergrads as “excellent sheep” (sheep or child? I wouldn’t want to choose). Although it might be tempting, even obvious, to connect the professor with the parent, I think we have to shy (or run screaming at the top of our lungs) away from that connection for all kinds of reasons. For one thing, the student-professor relationship often already risks over-infantilizing students. Instinctively, and maybe because I actually have a child, I find the idea of thinking of my students as anything like children to be kind of awful no matter how persuasive Mr. Excellent Sheep might be. The student-professor dyad is not the only relation that marks this job. What’s more, profs are not merely teachers. Our jobs involve a lot of other duties. 
 
So, what if we put the institution, the university, where Winnicott put the infant? Most of the institutions that I have been at always seem to be in a state of perpetual re-birth. Hello, sigh, cyclical program reviews. Hello, huge sigh, strategic plans. Hello, huge, huge sigh, prioritization exercises. But also, hello to the wonderful kind of questioning on the part of students, faculty, and administrators that is always breaking the university down even as the ivy on the walls or the concrete breezeblock in my office might just hold the thing up for a little bit longer. Putting the institution in the place of the child in Winnicott’s theory would make it so that the professor’s job would be to provide the institution with the illusion of constant availability, of an unwavering commitment to respond to all of its demands and needs, only to slowly engineer that disillusionment. 
 
We move from being academics doing something purely because of our love for the job to a more detached relationship where labour relations are more visible. We come to the university as providers of an illusion of our love for this work, but this illusion can only be sustained temporarily. Ultimately, we have to disillusion the institution. We can only love our work within limits and with boundaries. 

What does that look like? I really don’t know. Maybe, just maybe, for me it might involve not doing things that make me feel important when don’t actually help anyone else. It’s a tiny shift. I plan to resist the urge to copyedit my students’ papers and actually evaluate them; to only write constructive peer review reports; to agree to book reviews only when I know that I have something to say; to go to fewer conferences but to make them really count; to write more slowly and take more care with what I write. Maybe, maybe, maybe. I’m figuring it out. But I can’t help feeling that it’s important to keep in mind that, for Winnicott, being good enough was not about doing less, but about detaching in ways that actually sustain relationships, and that allow that relationship to thrive. For anyone navigating their place in the academy, it seems like a good idea to keep this idea handy. 
 
How do you think you could be a Good Enough Professor? 


Lily Cho
York University
community · emotional labour · feminist health

Giving Thanks: Gratitude and Feminist Work

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to co-facilitate a workshop on how to address and combat misogyny in the academy. The conference, Consent Culture: A National Forum to End Sexual Violence on Campus, was organized by the Nova Scotia chapter of the Canadian Federation of Students. I was excited by the invitation, and I was also nervous. And so I did what I tend to do: I said yes and then sought out collaborators.

My co-facilitators–Fazeela Jiwa and Kaarina Mikalson–are brilliant, generous, and incredibly expansive in their thinking. When we sat down to plan the workshop I started by saying “Fazeela, meet Kaarina. Kaarina, meet Fazeela.”

You see, these two people were willing (immediately, I might add) to work with each other despite the fact they had never met. Work together! On a workshop! About combatting misogyny! Phenomenal, right?

As we sat at a tiny table in the busy cafe close to the university, figuring out how to talk with one another about practical things (how much time do we have? How many people are expected at this workshop? How will we make it feel like a safe enough space to talk about practical tactics for combating misogyny) we were also navigating new relationships. Questions such as “How long have you lived here?” and “What do you like to do in your spare time–wait, what do you do?” interspersed our mapping, planning, and defining of terms such as micro aggression and intersectionality. We each had a different approach to how to think through the material. Each person listened carefully when the others spoke, and then chimed in adding ideas or information, or questioning a suggestion generatively.

To organize our allotted hour and fifteen minute workshop (and to address my anxious need to have a fairly specific roadmap for any class, even if that map gets thrown out in the first five minutes) we drew on our own experiences of facilitation. We also had a veritable archive of material I had gathered when I reached out to half a dozen other women and women-identified people who work, or have worked, or are working in academic settings. When I asked this group of people for suggestions of material, approaches, or best practices, they took time out of their incredibly busy, diverse, demand-filled lives and responded with suggestions. The suggestions included making sure to do our pronouns and let the participants do theirs, if they choose, to not simply make acknowledgement of the Indigenous traditional territory where we were guests, but also to think through how to activate those acknowledgements (Chelsea Vowel has an amazing piece on this), to not just cite terms but to historicize them (for example, remind participants that ‘intersectionality” is a methodology that comes from Black feminist thought), to make the space trans inclusive immediately, and to try spatial mapping as a way of doing a lot of conceptual work in a short period of time.

I mean, really. Pretty wonderful and thoughtful, right?

Between the invitation to combat misogyny in a practical way, the willingness of two amazing people to co-facilitate, the wealth of generosity and information from a group of people who also don’t all know one another… well, it all felt pretty amazing. And the experience of organizing, asking for help, and then facilitating the workshop (which went well, by the way), got me thinking bout how grateful I am to know all these smart, caring people. It got me thinking about how grateful I am for the thinking that can, and sometimes does, happen in academic places.

We know that the University–as an institution, as a business, and, at its best, as a site of resistance and knowledge-generation–is built on heteronormativity, White supremacy, and class exclusion. We know that in Canada universities sit on Indigenous lands, and that there is so much work to be done in the projects of both reconciliation and resurgence. We know that misogyny takes the form of micro aggressions and violent assaults every day. And we know that racism is harnessed as so-called “humour” and that spaces of higher learning are violent towards people of colour. We know that precarity is damaging to the education mission as well as to individual lives lived in a constant state of crisis. We know this.

Yet, on this day that we take to pause and be grateful for the people and things in our lives, I find myself being grateful for academe. Not as some totemic bastion of knowing, but because all the people I encountered in this one workshop–the conference organizers (all students!), my co-facilitators, the friends and acquaintances and colleagues who shared their own hard-earned knowledge, the participants, the keynote speakers (who were Indigenous women and women of colour) who preceded us and spoke of the complex and viscerally raw project of decolonization–I encountered them all through academe, in one way or another.

And so I am grateful for the possibility, the fortitude, the resilience, the resolve, and the hope of people working in academe, or against it, in the service of a more equitable world. I am grateful for books, for the expansiveness that I see in my students’ faces when they read certain writers. I am grateful for my new colleagues. I am grateful for my old colleagues. I am grateful for people calling out and calling to question all the hard questions. And I am grateful for Hook & Eye, for the voice this space has given me, and for you, readers, who bear witness and work, too, from your own subjectivities and situations. In another week of horrifically violent, sexist, homophobic and transphobic, and racist news, I am grateful for you, readers.

Let’s take pause, and then, let’s get back to work.

academic reorganization · feminist health · gradgrind · guest post

Women, Academia, Sport: “Pink It and Shrink It,” the Tomboy Running Experience

Until the early 1990s the running industry’s philosophy towards women and running could be summed up by the phrase “pink it and shrink it.” This phrase was used in reference to women’s running shoes implying that they were the shrunken version of men’s and “feminized” by colouring them pink. Thankfully, largely owing to Nike and their recognition that women’s gait and biomechanics differ from that of men, this philosophy has since changed.
I grew up being that girl with untamed hair, ripped jeans, stealing my dad’s hats, and avoiding at nearly any cost the colour pink.  In short, I was a tomboy.  On entering the world of running I was overjoyed to discover that the industry had moved beyond the need to make all women’s running shoes pink.  Nike had set a new and forward thinking trend and not only adjusted the shoes to fit a women’s gait, but also had decided to give women the choice about the colour of their running shoes.
Nearly five years later, with still not-pink running shoes laced, I am heading to run club on Sunday morning much like almost every Sunday for the last five years.  When I first started going to run club I expected to find an all-boys club with only a few women – I was wrong. The room was packed and majority were women. Since moving beyond “pink it and shrink it,” more and more women have taken up running. I’ve really noticed the increase of women participating, as my running clinics are usually all women with one or two men. I usually start my new clinics with the opening remark: “running is more of relationship than a sport, and one that is sixty percent psychological and forty percent physical.” Running is more often a game of convincing yourself that you can do it and then pushing your body to do so. In this way, running is also the most freeing sport relationship. You decide how far, how fast, and how long you go. You set your own goals and if you stick to the training program you can achieve your goal. I wish I could say the same for academia.
Academia is the other major relationship in my life. Unlike running, there is no training program that I can follow to succeed as an academic. While my relationship with running has not always been straightforward due to injury or inclement weather conditions, there is always a sense of security because of the degree of control I have.  My success in academia, however, I only partly control. I can pour over books, jump through all the program hoops, and meet all the deadlines with no guarantee that I will be able to advance to the next phase of my academic career. While both academia and running operate on a schedule, the biggest difference between them is bureaucracy.
Academia has become more about jumping through bureaucratic hoops than actually participating in scholarly exploration. When I started graduate school I was under the impression that part of the reward of succeeding beyond the undergraduate level was the freedom to research and study what interests me, but like my expectations for run club, I was wrong, and this time it wasn’t a pleasant surprise. The higher up the academic ladder you climb the more bureaucratic and unpredictable it becomes. I wish academia were more like running where if you set a goal and stick to a training schedule you have the security of knowing that you could succeed on your own merit rather than your success being determined by the subjective and often conflicting nature of academic bureaucracy.

While my love letter to running is ongoing, my letter to academia has become a little bitter sweet.  It’s difficult to succeed in a discipline when the goals keep changing; when you’re cheering section and equipment are ill-fitting and change daily from “you can do it!” to “you’re just not good enough”.  I am sad to say I am only partially in control of my academic career.  The other part is controlled by the bureaucrats still making equipment that is a simple reduction and recolouring of the same flaws academia had a hundred years ago.  In short, I love you academia, but you are still in the “pink it and shrink it” phase and make it hard for minds like me to show you what I can do.

 

Liz Tetzlaff is an MA candidate in English at Dalhousie University, and running coach for Running Room, where in addition to coaching, I give outreach talks around the city encouraging others to get involved in the running community.  My research interests mainly focus on poetry of the female Great War poets and their engagement with radical pacifist movement. In addition to running and war poetry, I enjoy playing with puppies, listening to Sarah McLachlan, and watching BBC mini series.

feminist health · guest post · ideas for change

Guest Post: Towards a Critical Theory of Breast Cancer

My sister and I share a lot of things: a love of reading; a room until she was a teenager; when my sister got her first bra, she made me wear it (I was 7); we geek out over queer theory; and we both have the ability to produce lots and lots of estrogen.
But I’m the only estrogen maker days while Emily’s hormones are being blocked by not one but two inhibitors. And, after my 31 year-old sister’s double mastectomy, the bras are all mine, too. Emily made the decision to remain what she calls “a flattopper,” which means that she didn’t want breast implants. In doing so, she joined the 58% of patients who choose not to reconstruct. Post-mastectomy bodies underscore what we’ve been taught all along in Women’s Studies classes: gender and biology are not correlative.
photo cred. Chloe Wicks

Ever since Emily lost her breasts she gained a mission: to make bodies like hers less taboo, to proudly display images of breastless chests. I think of my sister’s body as an essay on performative gender roles come to life, a breast cancer theory from inside the body and out.
After my sister’s breast cancer diagnosis, during my first year as a PhD student, I was often frustrated with academia. I imagine I’m not the only one who’s felt that graduate seminars are useless when someone you love is facing a life-or-death situation. But, for Emily, being in university was part of the healing process. In fact, she chose to go back to school after finishing treatment to find theoretical frameworks to incorporate the felt experiences of breast cancer, gender, and queer identity.
During treatment, Emily felt like she had signed her body over to a team of doctors. Now she can name it: the medical gaze. When her visible signs of cancer are met with stares when out in public, Emily can name that, too: panopticism. More than anything else she learned in university, Emily says Lauren Berlant’s affect theory “resonates with every other aspect of my life, and it changed the way I went about my campaigning.” If chemo and surgery took away a sense of control over her body, knowing how to use her affective body to elicit change is a way of taking it back.
There were limits to what school could do for Emily, however: “Going back to school was really empowering, but it was also difficult because I had chemo brain,” she explains, “I was not capable of engaging with my brain in the same way.” Limited memory, along with other lingering post-cancer effects form what Emily calls “an invisible disability,” which made schoolwork difficult. There were restrictions within the university, too. Even though Emily praises her program, the Comparative History of Ideas at the University of Washington, she found both rigid disciplinarity and the inaccessibility of academic writing to be challenging to her ultimate goal of sharing her scars and her ideas with the public.
Ultimately, Emily used what she learned in the classroom as platform to launch flattopperpride.org, a website of resources and first-person essays. The term “flattopper” is a way of naming the decision not to undergo breast reconstruction post-mastectomy. It is an identity. Choosing to have implants or not is an act of agency, an individual choice that shouldn’t be contested—yet it is. My sister tells me stories of women who adamantly wanted flat chests but who woke up from surgery with extra skin still attached (to make space for implants). The surgeons, in these cases, taking away their patient’s agency along with their breasts. Facing the loss of body parts is a grim enough choice as it is, and having a medical professional question your choice only makes it worse. But, more than that, a surgeon dismissing that choice carries these patriarchal undertones that women’s bodies are not their own.
photo cred. Kat Chambers
In the idea of a flattopper alone there are infinite possibilities to work through theories about bodies, identity, and agency. I’ve read the awful and amazing comments on websites where Emily’s topless images are posted and I have learned this: we need a flattopper praxis. We need to challenge the equation of breasts and womanhood.
As breast cancer and gender theory intersect more and more, we can look to what Emily calls the productive potential of “what bodies like mine, post-cancer bodies, can do in terms of adjusting the way we think about gender.” When I ask my sister who should develop these critical theories of breast cancer, she reminds me that most people’s lives are affected by cancer. For me, Emily’s struggles show that there’s more work to be done both inside and outside the academy. And while I don’t share my sister’s disease, I can certainly share her ideas.  

Sarah Jensen
PhD Candidate, York University