generational mentorship · global academy · literature · righteous feminist anger

Reading as Resistance

What does reading do? Or rather, what good does reading do? 

As a scholar of literature I find my self thinking about this big (too big?) question a lot. I think about it on bad days when I wonder what on earth I have devoted my life to, this fighting windmills business trying to find work teaching literature. I think about it on my good days when the answers are so fundamental to moving through life with an ethic of care and what Rey Chow calls responsible engagement that I can hardly believe my good fortune. Teaching books! Reading books! And I think about this on the average day, when I drive the 200km to work and back listening to audio books, or writing lectures trying to think through how to convince a room full of students that yes, it is meaningful and relevant to think about Kate Chopin‘s The Awakening or James Baldwin‘s Giovanni’s Room or Lucas Crawford‘s Sideshow Carnival today, now, in their very own lives.

This week I will be thinking about reading even more as I steel myself for the inauguration of the next President of the United States. I will think about reading and how it is a revolutionary act to think and listen to the perspectives of people whose lives and experiences and oddities differ from my own. I will think about reading as resistance, as solidarity, and as an act of joyful insurrection and radical self-care. 

On Friday January 20th I will also think about what it means to read with and in community as I take my place with sixty other humans to participate in a collaborative reading of Operations by Moez Surani. Operations–or more properly, ةيلمع Operación Opération Operation 行 动 Oперация–is a book-length poetic inventory of contemporary rhetoric of violence and aggression, as depicted through the evolution of the language used to name the many military operations conducted by UN Member Nations since the organization’s inception in 1945. Moez has invited sixty-one people around the world to each read a year from the book. Some people will be gathered in Toronto at Rick’s Cafe for the reading. The rest of us will read from wherever we are and tweet documentation of our reading. For me, this invitation is an act of hospitality, care, and solidarity: I will be able to participate in an action of protest and witness by reading. Through reading. Through the attentiveness that reading requires. And, while I know that reading will not be enough to resist the current and coming civic aggressions, I am glad to move through this week with reading as a mode of resistance and revolution in my heart. 

In honour of Moez’s invitation and with a nod to the recent circulation of top-ten lists of the albums that most influenced high-school you, I close with another list. This one answers Paul Vermeersch‘s invitation to document the ten books that influenced high-school you. I offer these as document to my sixteen year old self, who was just learning about resistance, revolution, and being a feminist killjoy. I invite you to add your own list. And I send you warmth as we move forward in solidarity, and with attentiveness. 

In no particular order:

1. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

2. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

3. Beloved by Toni Morrison

4. Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

5. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

6. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

7. Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank

8. The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

9. The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor

10. Krik? Krak! by Edwidge Dandicat

fast feminism · generational mentorship · guest post · ideas for change

Guest post: An Anti-Elite Manifesto for Canadian Public Intellectuals

Last winter, I took graduate level seminar Public Intellectuals in Canada: Their Essays, Talks, and with Dr. Joel Deshaye at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador, and it got me all riled up.
Considering the academy is churning out so-called intellectuals without even recognizing the status, or implications of the term, I wrote “Anti-Elite Manifesto for Canadian Public Intellectuals.”
Why? Because manifestos harness imaginative power.
Manifestos intervene. Manifestos are excessive. Manifestos are relentless. Manifestos interrupt. Manifestos persuade. At their core, manifestos are public declarations, often pushing political, social or artistic motion.
While elitism is defined as a select part of a group that is superior to rest in terms of ability or qualities, to truly be successful as a Canadian Public Intellectual one needs to speak to an audience, and appeal to a broad range of voices. One voice can’t speak for the whole, but many voices can create a chorus. A manifesto is a critical poetic choir of sorts.
As a poet and journalist, I’ve written several manifestos. In my opinion, the manifesto acts as a conversation between private and public thought. In my tenure as Canadian Women In Literary Arts critic-in-residence, I wrote “An Incomplete Manifestofor Canadian Women In Literary Arts,” in 2014, though it wasn’t the first time I was drawn to the manifesto as a genre. I’ve also written a “Modern Day Riot Grrrl Manifesta,” in 2011 for International Girl Gang Underground zine, and “A Fragmented Manifesto,” for GULCH: An Assemblage of Poetry and Prose published in 2009.
I am drawn to manifestos. They exist somewhere between poetry and criticism.
According to Mary Ann Caw, who edited Manifesto: A Century of Isms, “Originally, a manifesto was a piece of evidence in a court of law, or put on a show to catch the eye. The manifesto is: “a public declaration by a sovereign prince or state, or by an individual or body of individuals whose proceedings are of public importance, making past actions announced as a forthcoming.”
Manifestos articulate specific plans for action, and can discuss the intersections of feminism and social justice. Unlike the essay, which is quieter, more textual, manifestos are loud. Manifestos are messy. Manifestos elicit. Manifestos ignite. Caw notes, “The manifesto is an act of the démesure, going past what is thought of as proper, sane and literary.”
I didn’t intend to write to convince or convert, only to consider. This “Anti-Elite Manifesto for Canadian Public Intellectuals” is an invitation, an offering.  Hopefully, I’m not coming across as a one trick pony. I’m only taking Atwood’s advice to “think pink, and pack black.”
An Anti-Elite Manifesto for Canadian Public Intellectuals
By Shannon Webb-Campbell

BECAUSE we need to acknowledge the land where we gather
BECAUSE this is unceded and unsurrendered Mi’kmaq and Beothuk territory
BECAUSE Indigenous communities of Newfoundland and Labrador have always existed despite what was declared in 1949
BECAUSE we relate to the characteristics of this country now called “Canada”
BECAUSE private actions can have public impact
BECAUSE public is a relationship among strangers
BECAUSE we have a responsibility as publics
BECAUSE we are involved in the affairs of a community
BECAUSE not all communities are recognized as publics
BECAUSE we must examine
BECAUSE we want to discuss poetry’s potential in public
BECAUSE Michael Warner notes, the diary can’t have an imagined public
BECAUSE public sphere is purely imaginary
BECAUSE publics are internalized as humanity
BECAUSE an image of writing should be the ghost of freedom
BECAUSE there are all kinds of knowledge transfers
BECAUSE public language addresses a public as a social entity
BECAUSE Daniel Rigney believes capitalist ideology is the main type of anti-intellectualism
BECAUSE paradox is the elitism of intellect and progressive ideals
BECAUSE mass media is a manufactured product
BECAUSE we are of the public, by the public, and for the public
BECAUSE of Marshall McLuhan, the medium is the message
BECAUSE personal and social consequences of any medium is an extension of ourselves
BECAUSE new technology eliminates jobs
BECAUSE fragmentation is the essence of machine technology
BECAUSE electric light is pure information
BECAUSE it’s a medium without a message
BECAUSE Glenn Gould reminds us, you can’t forget to pay homage to the source where all creative ideas come
BECAUSE we don’t have to duplicate the eccentricity of experience
BECAUSE we must discover how high our tolerance is for the questions we ask of ourselves
BECAUSE questions extend the vision of our world
BECAUSE this is a performance of the self
BECAUSE self-reflection means you always question yourself
BECAUSE questions paralyze the imagination
BECAUSE there is a new kind of listener
BECAUSE there was two hundred thousand “so-called” Indians in what became Canada
BECAUSE most of Canada clings to the attitude of a dominion
BECAUSE we’ve been watching from a ring seat, waiting for our time
BECAUSE Conrad Black deliberately had absolutely no contact, direct or indirect with anyone
BECAUSE in the past he’s known the prime minister
BECAUSE like Phyllis Webb, all our desire goes out to the impossibly beautiful
BECAUSE the glass castle is an image for the mind
BECAUSE we claim the five gods of reality to bless and keep us sane
BECAUSE a place of solitude is not where I choose to live
BECAUSE I prefer a suite of lies
BECAUSE Thomas King knows the truth about stories
BECAUSE stories is all we are
BECAUSE I’m not the Indian you had in mind
BECAUSE you are beginning to wonder if there is a point to this
BECAUSE you can’t say you would have lived differently years down the road if only you’d heard this story
BECAUSE we’ve heard it
BECAUSE George Eliot Clarke is parliamentary poet laureate
BECAUSE journalists turn facts into jazz
BECAUSE we have all the public fun
BECAUSE revolution is the orgasm of history
BECAUSE you really want to be prime minister
BECAUSE we have the privilege of academic freedom
BECAUSE poetry begins where lying ends
BECAUSE when I tweeted that last Clarke quote, Sina Queyras responded: if only
BECAUSE publicness can’t be underestimated (especially for women)
BECAUSE to think publically takes great risk and vulnerability
BECAUSE women’s work and criticism is still under-represented
BECAUSE we’re taught not to take up space
BECAUSE we are rarely invited to speak
BECAUSE there isn’t one way to write or think about anything
BECAUSE women are prevented from evolving in public
BECAUSE poetry makes its own mouth
BECAUSE the public doesn’t read
BECAUSE poetry repeatedly enacts its own construction and deconstruction
BECAUSE David Suzuki doesn’t have to kiss anybody’s ass
BECAUSE he doesn’t have to mask truth that comes from his heart

BECAUSE if you want everyone to like you, you are not gonna stand for anything
BECAUSE there will always be people that object
BECAUSE the greatest need we have is for clean air
BECAUSE we owe it to mother earth to take care of her
BECAUSE Margaret Atwood knows she is omnipresent and omniscient 
BECAUSE those are two attributes of the divine
BECAUSE the issues of responsibility are legal, moral and societal
BECAUSE intimacy builds worlds
BECAUSE we need to run the marathon
BECAUSE speaking in public still makes me sick
BECAUSE we must think pink, pack black
BECAUSE Atwood’s done her job
BECAUSE we’ve yet to do ours
Shannon Webb-Campbellis a Mi’kmaq poet, writer, and critic. Still No Word (Breakwater, 2015), recipient of Egale Canada’s Out In Print Award, is her first collection of poems. She was Canadian Women In Literary Arts critic-in-residence 2014, and is a board member.
Shannon holds a MFA in Creative Writing from University of British Columbia, a BA from Dalhousie University, and currently studies and teaches English Literature at Memorial University. Her work is anthologized in IMPACT: Colonialism in Canada (Manitoba First Nation Education Resource, 2017), Where the Nights Are Twice As Long: Love Letters of Canadian Poets (Goose Lane, 2015), This Place A Stranger: Canadian Women Travelling Alone (Caitlin Press, 2015), and others.
She curated “Screening the Offshore” at The Rooms Provincial Museum, Art Gallery and Archives, and worked as a curatorial assistant at Eastern Edge Gallery. Shannon is poetry editor at Plenitude Magazine.
Her play Neither Love Letters Nor Moonlight, premieres at the Arts and Culture Centre in St. John’s, Newfoundland February 2017. She is a member of Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation.

fast feminism · generational mentorship · intolerant shrew · slow academy · teaching

The unbearable privilege of cynicism

Ron Srigley is doing it again. Last fall, he was in the LA Review of Books bemoaning the unrelenting vapidity of today’s university students, the soul-crushing inanity of teaching, the hollow commercialism of pedagogy, riven with “fads” like student-centred learning and the flipped classroom. And now again in the Walrus. Students are stupid and lazy. Teaching is meaningless. The university is hollow. “Pedagogy” is a farce. It’s a race to the bottom.

Only Srigley knows better, has standards, cares.

Much of the press has lapped it up. He is a truth teller, bravely thumbing his nose at power! He is leaping over the wall of the ivory tower to share its dirty secrets with parents! He says difficult things that need saying! Even if we don’t want to hear them! (Except everyone seems to want to hear them and say them, at least people who are not actually university professors, or university students, or pedagogy scholars). He’s the Donald Drumpf of higher ed.

Many reasonable people have produced thoughtful responses to the substance of what he’s written, some from a collegial perspective, others simply on formal logical grounds.

That’s not what I’m thinking about today. I’m thinking about how ready the world is to hear such things from Srigley, and why. Of course, conservative publications love him: he confirms their dim view of the university as a kooky liberal bastion of anything-goes hedonism. But why Srigley? I suspect it’s because he looks like many people expect a professor to: male, fluffy white hair, dark thick-rimmed glasses, a serious look. You go Google image search him. Then click on this: if you dare.

“Everybody is stupid, except me!”

What I’m saying, first is this: Srigley walks into the discussion with view that people are primed to want to hear. And he walks into the discussion with this tremendous amount of identity privilege. He is a living, breathing confirmation bias for everyone who only knows about university from watching movies.

How powerful is this privilege? Powerful. I’m going to say this advisedly and carefully: you will see Srigley described over and over as “professor of philosophy.” He is a career adjunct, touring North Bay and Sudbury, Ontario, and on annual contract at the University of Prince Edward Island. Powerful and conferring high status this career is not. His CV proudly lists a book published with the Edwin Mellen Press–you know, the one most famous for suing Dale Askey, for naming them as a vanity press of the first order. But no one links Srigley to adjunct employment conditions (dire) or the question of status among institutions (barbaric) or the notion of maintaining a research profile in an itinerant and no doubt heavy teaching career (an impossible bind). Nope. He’s just Professor. Expert. Authority. Because he says things that confirm people’s authoritarian biases and distaste for youth, and because he looks the way he does: white, male, cranky.

I am going to guess that hell would have to freeze over before Srigley self-identified as “adjunct” or even “teaching-track”. I’m going to guess he knows, implicitly and calculatingly, that he would lose status through this identification. And status is something he can fabricate out of thin air. Or out of privilege.

So Srigley becomes famous, basically, for complaining. And he’s a hero. For complaining. For calling his students and his colleagues stupid and shallow. For this he’s called brave.

Contemplate for a moment how far up the ladder of prestige and esteem such a strategy would get you, dear Hook & Eye readers, you marvellous and hard-working women teaching your hearts out as graduate students, as tenure-track faculty, as teaching track faculty, as Associates, as sessionals. Is the world ready to boost your voice when you decry classroom overcrowding? When you lament you have no office? When you suggest you are not sufficiently trained to do the main part of your job, and you want help? When structural constraints push you into Scantron multiple-choice exams when you would prefer essays? When you note that students don’t want Friday classes because they’re working at jobs for 20 hours a week to pay for tuition? And perhaps that’s why they’re not so perky in class? Probably not.

In fact, a key status-building activity for Srigley and his ilk lies precisely in the sort of move he makes in his op-eds: call everyone else stupid, and disavow, especially, teaching–the dirty work of the academy, the care work, the feminized labour.

The Srigley Manoeuvre(tm) is, thus, really only available to conservative white dudes, and the glory of it is you get plaudits for not doing a damn thing at all. (See also: I’m a liberal professor and my liberal students terrify me). Me (and you, I imagine), I hold a tiny bit of my soul in my hands every class I walk in to. If today’s group work didn’t work, then I’m going to redo next-day’s lesson plan to try it a different way. If the writing on the final paper is poor one year, I’m going to rejig the whole course so it’s writing-focused from day 1. If my students don’t know something I think they should know I try to teach it to them. And I sit in committees on curriculum. And I attend teaching workshops. And I engage my students every day as if they were human beings who mattered, who have stories.

Could this sound any more like care work? Could I feminize this description any more, make it sound less like what many expect to be “the life of the mind” and any more like exactly the sort of “handholding” Srigley stakes his whole career against? Probably not. It’s exhausting but it’s my job and I’m actually doing it and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t but it is my duty and my vocation to teach my discipline to the students who enrol in my courses and by God, I’m going to try.

So are you. Srigley is not: he’s climbed on his high horse and mistaken throwing insults for revolution, hot air for hard work, his rejection of 2016 for a principled stance for classical values.

And that he gets so much attention for it should remind us all how far you can go on pure privilege, and bashing those less powerful than you, how far you can go by slipping into the easy stream of gendering and deprecating care work and marking as manly and principled the act of saying “no” to anyone who needs your help.

academy · empowerment · enter the confessional · fast feminism · generational mentorship · heavy-handed metaphors · ideas for change · midcareer

Pivot Point: Mid Career Feminist Academic

Sometime between earning tenure and right now, something important shifted. Instead of asking for signatures, I began to provide them. Instead of putting my name on the ballot for the committee, I became its chair. Instead of asking for orientation and guides to processes, I am now providing them. Instead of standing up for my principles in someone else’s meeting, I am setting the agenda for everyone. Instead of paying to go to conferences, I am invited to present. Instead of responding to CFPs, I am responding to invitations. It has become the case that I am teaching grad courses where half the assigned readings are by people I know personally, and some of the pieces cite work of my own. It’s weird.

Sometimes I look in the mirror and I’m surprised to see my 42 year old face looking out at me. I feel like a fresh young upstart, a rookie. Like a grad student sometimes. I feel like I’m starting out, still trying to figure out how everything works. An outsider.

This is all bullshit, and terrible feminism, to boot. Such a perspective enables me to avoid acknowledging the actual privilege and power that have attached to me over time. It’s flattering to my self-image to see myself bravely storming the barricades around the Ivory Tower. The truth is that at some point, I became an inhabitant safely ensconced on the protected side of the moat. The truth is that I guard the gates now.

This is a pivot point. The point where I acknowledge that while I’m still reaching for greater heights, I’m kind of holding the brass ring, and while still reaching as ably and confidently as I can manage, I need to release my grip a little so that others can grab a little piece of it too.

I’m not sure how to do this. I’ve climbed the Ivory Tower to the position I currently occupy by some combination of luck, timing, doggedness, self-promotion, faked confidence, and an always upthrust hand waiting to grab the microphone. It has taken a certain amount of tenacity and single-mindedness. But now, I have some small measure of power and control not only over myself but over others. My core values have, if anything, become more radical, and my critiques more pointed–I’ve had a lot of time to get smarter. However, it needs acknowledging that my relations to others–to people, to structures, to institutions, has radically shifted over time. This will necessitate some changes in how I act. It will also necessitate some changes to how I understand my own academic subjectivity–I’ll tell you frankly that it’s ideologically expedient to see myself as a rebel outsider rather than an agent of the institution of power.

I do know I need to acknowledge my own power and position not so much to seize it more fully (I was always already leaning into it, from junior kindergarden forward) but to wield it more lightly. To fight less hard to take up space as a the dragon-slaying rebel, but learn instead to use my dragony fire breath to make the clearing a little larger for more rebels to set up larger and better camps, use my wings to shelter them. I’m kind of discovering what that means, in practice.

I would love to hear from other mid-career faculty: what are your pivot points? How do you cope? What are your strategies for wielding power and influence for the cause of equity, or justice, or change from the inside rather than the outside?

balance · family · generational mentorship · guest post

Guest Post: An Open Letter to My Son, On Starting University

Dear Owen,
When you were accepted to Dalhousie, one of my first thoughts was “welcome to my world!”
I’ve been around universities all of my life. I was born in Berkeley, where my parents had met as graduate students. I vividly remember childhood visits to my father’s office in UBC’s Old Administration Building: I had no idea what work he did there, but I loved the hushed yet busy atmosphere and the cabinets full of stationery supplies. My parents used to pick us up from elementary school at lunch time so we could attend the Music Department’s noon-hour concerts; when I went to University Hill Secondary School (which, as its name implies, was on the periphery of the campus) the university library, cafeterias, bookstore, and pool all became familiar territory. Without really knowing it, I was internalizing a culture, a way of life, that I went on to explore further as a university student and which I now inhabit fully as a professor myself. Though I’m at the opposite side of our (very wide) nation from where I began, in this respect at least I’m still very much at home.
It’s not as if you haven’t also been around universities all of your life, of course. You were born literally across the street from the Dalhousie campus, in a teaching hospital affiliated with the university’s medical school. You went to many summer camps at Dalhousie — what a treat it always was to visit you on the quad at lunch time! You’ve hung out with me at my office and attended workshops and special events here. Over the years you’ve also overheard endless conversations between your two professor parents about our academic work: about our students, about our colleagues, about our professional commitments, but also about the passionate interests that motivated us to take up this work in the first place.
You aren’t exactly a stranger to this world, then. But it’s different now, because this time it’s about you, not me.
I’ve been surprised by how emotional I get contemplating your move to university. It’s not just that you are literally moving, into residence, though that’s part of it: the room that has been yours for so many of your 18 years will feel more than empty. It’s not just that I’m worried about how well you’ll take care of yourself without a bit of nudging, though of course that’s part of it too, because moms fret (“this mom especially,” I hear you saying, with a hint of irritation)(but seriously, you won’t forget to floss, will you?). No, what’s both exciting and unsettling is knowing what a period of discovery this will be for you, and thus, inevitably, for us, as we all find out who you are really going to be and where you’re going to go from here. We’ve brought you this far, but from now on we will recede, rightly, from the foreground of your life — we will be formative but not definitive influences on you. “Every limit is a beginning as well as an ending,” George Eliot wisely observed: while for you this is a beginning, for me it is also an ending, and so my celebration is inevitably tinged with poignancy.
It turns out, then, that I’m not really welcoming you into my familiar world: I’m watching you make it yourworld. Don’t think, though, that this means I don’t have any advice for you! After all, I’ve still been around universities a lot longer than you — and I’m still your mom. So here are my top tips, for you and for anyone on the brink of this big adventure.
First of all, take care of yourself (did I mention flossing? healthy gums, healthy mind!).
Second, take care of your business — by which I mean the business of your education. My specific tips here might seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how much they matter, and how many students disregard them, sometimes until it’s too late.
1.     Go to class. Boring or entertaining, simple or challenging, that’s what you are there for, and you won’t always be the best judge of the value of the time you spend in the room.
2.     Do the work, including all the readings. Remember the immortal words of Raymond Chandler: “There are no dull subjects, only dull minds.” Make it interesting.
3.     Be present — not just physically, but mentally. Sometimes this will take effort. Make the effort.
4.     Talk to your professors. That’s what they are there for — and there’s nothing they like better than talking to a student who is trying to know more, understand more, do more with the subject they have dedicated their lives to. (Remember how I light up when I talk about Middlemarch? Every professor has a Middlemarch, and you will learn the most from them when they talk about it. If you ever want to listen when I talk about Middlemarch, you will learn something from me too!)
5.     If you don’t know something, or if you need something, ask someone. This applies in class, but also across campus: in your residence, at the library, at the counselling center, or at the gym. Just because it’s up to you now doesn’t mean you’re on your own.
I miss you already, but I also couldn’t be more excited for you. Learn a lot, have a wonderful time, and when you’re ready, invite me over and tell me what it’s like for you.

Department of English, Dalhousie University
Read Rohan’s amazing blog Novel Readings here
CWILA · generational mentorship · sexist fail · social media

Healthy Communities and Mentorship

No new post from me, because what I really want you to read today is Erin’s most recent essay over at CWILA on healthy communities and mentorship for women. Erin is also looking for contributions to a crowdsourced guide for effective and responsible mentorship. Here’s a bit of what she has to say:

Here’s the thing: for the most part, we—and here, I mean people working in various facets of the academic world and the literary economy—don’t know how to mentor women. Or, rather, most of us don’t. We need better and more consistent strategies to mentor women towards the kinds of strength they need in these spheres. If we did collectively know how to mentor, then as a loose-knit community we would see less perpetual damage wrought by asymmetrical power relations, by misogyny, by the seeming endlessness of rape culture. If we knew how to mentor women we would have a different understanding of the valences of access or marginalization inherent in that little pronoun “we.”

For the full post, head over to CWILA.

generational mentorship · guest post · women

Guest Post: Why Dorothy Livesay Matters

To read of 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.

-Joan Coldwell[i]

I am browsing in a bookstore with some friends. One of them pulls a book of poetry from the shelf and tells us about it: “This poet is amazing, but no one talks about her. Dorothy Livesay called her the strongest poet of her generation.” His tone is one of admiration and regret. A man I have just met hears this and scoffs: “Dorothy Livesay.”

I turn sharply. “Did you just scoff at the name Dorothy Livesay?” There is a definite edge to my voice.

He responds with something like: “Dorothy Livesay recommending a poet is like John Travolta naming the year’s best movie.” I have no idea what he means by this, but it is clear he doesn’t consider John Travolta a brilliant cinematic critic. I don’t back down, glaring at him until he expresses surprise that someone would get offended over Dorothy Livesay.

I exit the conversation.

For those not familiar with her, Dorothy Livesay is one of the big names in Canadian poetry. Her writing career spanned seven decades, but she was also a critic, social worker, activist, journalist, teacher, wife, daughter, and mother. I came to her work through Right Hand Left Hand, her documentary/memoir of the 1930s.

The bookstore exchange comes at a time when Livesay and I are at a crossroads. I worked closely on Right Hand Left Hand for a year, and though I deeply admired Livesay, I began to conflate her with all the frustrations and self-doubt of that time. Now, after an eight-month break, I have the chance to continue my work on Livesay–and I am afraid this work will recall my personal stresses. But I am realizing, in this bookstore, how much I care about her. If young male academics can scoff at her name, then obviously its time for a reminder of how much she accomplished

On a more personal level, this confrontation is revealing something about myself. I don’t do confrontation. I don’t challenge strange men in bookstores to explain themselves. But I should; in my daydream revisions of past experiences, I say biting, intelligent things and force the offending person to reconsider. If Livesay inspires me to be that kind of person, then I need her more than she needs me.

Months have past, and I am diving deeper into my work on Right Hand Left Hand. I check out a copy of Livesay’s second book of poetry, Signpost, and when I open it, I gasp. There, on the first page, is a signed note from Livesay to her future husband:

                                                  Duncan Macnair–

                                                  For an outrider–

                                                  this signpost

                                                           Dorothy Livesay October, 1936

Signpost is a book of Livesay’s more lyrical poetry, but by 1936 she was doubting this kind of work. The political and economic realities of the Great Depression demanded, in Livesay’s eyes, a more relevant kind of poetry, exemplified in her 1936 poem “Day and Night.” Livesay had recently moved to Vancouver, where she worked as a social worker and as regional editor of the leftist magazine New Frontier. She was writing poetry about the escalating Spanish Civil War, and articles covering strikes in rural BC and Alberta. The next year, Livesay married Macnair and lost her career in social work–forced out by regulations that prohibited married women from holding jobs.

I have read pages of Livesay’s adolescent diary, seen a picture of her topless, and examined her archives from top to bottom, but this dedication feels different. It feels so intimate, and yet so situated in all these political and cultural contexts. It is a still moment in the life of a woman who was always consciously growing and changing, but it is marked with her past and future endeavours, as if her identity was never stable, even for a few words.

Joan Coldwell’s words strike me to the core. I am beginning to recognize my work on Livesay as work on myself. I am striving to be that kind of dynamic person who cannot be contained–not in a quick note to a new lover, and definitely not in a scoff.

Kaarina Mikalson
University of Alberta

[i] Coldwell, Joan. “Walking the Tightrope With Anne Wilkinson.” Editing Women. Ed. Ann M. Hutchison. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.

generational mentorship · guest post · learning

Guest post: On not being the expert;

or what I learn from my teenage son;
or where I never expected to find myself over the past few summers

I have been giving a lot of thought lately about the idea of being an expert, partly due to my stage of professional life.  I just recently completed the tenure and promotion process successfully (an experience that is likely worth another blog post).  While it took about 6 months from when I submitted my dossier until the final decision point, the whole process was more than a decade in the making.  This time was spent building and demonstrating expertise and having it recognized by others.  And at the same time, I did not necessarily explore and learn new things; after all, that would take me away from becoming an expert and getting tenure and promotion.

But what happens when you open yourself to a new knowledge area, even in your personal life?  What might it mean for teaching, research and other professional activities?  How can you handle some of the anxiety that comes from not knowing while embracing the potential that comes with that very situation?  Good questions all around.

And thus began a journey into heavy metal music, perhaps the not most obvious starting point to exploring these questions. 

First, as bit of background, as a family, we have always worked to be supportive of each other’s interests, including musical ones.  For our son, that interest is heavy metal with all its different styles.  (Did you know that there are about 24 different genres of heavy metal, each very distinct? Who knew? See here for more info.)  Given the variety, much of it having changed since I was a teen, I quickly realized that more learning was needed to understand, if not appreciate, the music and the associated culture.

And so, I turned to reference material (I am an academic after all.)  I read books, such as Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal by Ian Christie.  I watched documentaries, such as Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey by University of Victoria alumni Sam Dunn.  And I even took a course on metal through continuing education.  (I did say I was an academic.)  These were useful for the “theory” of the music but did not really help me understand or fully engage with it.  What was left was full immersion and so off to several metal festivals we went.  (It was easy to spot me in the crowd – the middle age Canadian mom with no tattoos.)

For the past two years, we have gone to the holy land of metal: Wacken Open Air  for the full immersion experience with music, camping, beer, dust and much more.   
(We also added Graspop Metal Meeting, this year.) 

These were much more enjoyable than I thought they would be.  Some of the music has even “grown” on me and now occupies space on my playlist.  Proudly, I can now identify the artist/band correctly about 10% of the time, up from 0 at the outset.

So what have I learned through this?  First, while it is humbling and often embarrassing not to be an expert, it is also quite exhilarating, freeing and perhaps even a bit of fun.  You are able to ask (lots) questions without feeling like you have to already know the answer.  Second, by reversing the roles of teacher-learner, just about anyone becomes your teacher, especially those who we often spend the most time teaching, our children.  It also opens the possibility of new conversations as my son and I now discuss which metal band has the best stage presence, something I never thought I would have with anyone.  (My vote is split between Alice Cooper, Rammstein, and Alestorm.)   

Alice Cooper





Third, it has been very useful to remember what our students face each term and the ways that I as instructor can respond to their questions and anxiety while fostering their desire to learn more.  (And here is the big thanks to my son who is always patient in answering my often ill-informed and repetitive questions as I struggle to identify music, bands, etc.)  Fourth, there is nothing like the “field school”/immersion to fully explore a topic.  Books, movies and other resources can only take you so far until you have to experience something to appreciate it.  And finally, it is okay to never become an expert in a field.  It is possible to learn just enough to appreciate a topic and enjoy the ride.  And with my trusty camera in hand, we are off Wacken for a third time next year.

If you are interested in more photos from Wacken, Graspop and other music festivals, see my blog.  I also got a photo credit from the Globe and Mail for one of my pictures from Wacken.  See the banner picture here.

Lynne Siemens 
University of Victoria
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