classrooms · community · global academy · reform · solidarity

For Students: Some Reflections on Recent Events

It is hard to be a teacher in November. The grading seems never-ending. The strange emails from students who have not been in class since September start trickling in. Research deadlines for the semester creep closer and closer. And there are still two and a half weeks worth of lectures to be written. Oh yes, and did I mention the grading? But recent and ongoing events have reminded me once again that these are small (albeit pressing) parts of my job as a teacher. There are global lessons to be learned. They are unfolding before our eyes, and they are being taught to us by students.

Like many of you I have spent the weekend watching in horror as students sitting in peaceful protest on the ground are sprayed directly in the face with pepper spray. I have watched as professors stand with their students in peaceful protest, and I have watched as they too are thrown to the ground. I have read one of the most powerful examples of speaking truth to power in Assistant Professor Nathan Brown‘s open letter to University of California Davis Chancellor Linda PB Katehi calling for her resignation. And when that Chancellor finally left the safe confines of her office I have watched as hundreds of students employ the powerful tool of silence. I have watched this all from my computer screen in my home in Canada where on November 10th police were called onto the campus of my alma mater and pepper sprayed students who were in peaceful protest against tuition hikes.

I have been enraged by these occurrences. I have been disheartened. I have been moved to tears. But most importantly, I have been moved. 

Sure, some of those students who demonstrated incredible restraint while Chancellor Katehi walked to her car have handed in late assignments, skipped class, or sent emails signed ‘respond ASAP!’ Or not. No doubt some of the students on the McGill campus sit in the back of class and text throughout lectures. What I mean here is that these are not perfect people; they are people whose lives are affected by policies, economies, and now by pepper spray.

As Cathy N. Davidson and others suggest, those of us who teach in the university space have a responsibility to our students that extends beyond coming to class prepared with well written and well conceived lectures.What I am saying moreover is this: there is a profound connection between standing in front of students in a classroom and standing beside students on political and ethical grounds. It is a connection I am going to work harder to remember as I walk into the classroom, and as I manoeuvre through the minutiae. We occupy positions of relative power, even those of us in sessional or part-time positions. We owe it to our students to let them know that we support them, that we care about their issues, and that we will stand with them in protest against injustice.

We owe it to them. We owe it to the future we want to occupy.

Thanks to TVM, MJH, and MRE. Thanks to Judith T. for telling me she was also moved.

faster feminism · global academy · slow academy · women · women in the news · you're awesome

I wanted to say something but…

Lately our numbers have been down, or at least it seems like they have been. We’ve been getting less comments, and I’ll admit that while I can think of many likely reasons–end of term, too much grading, hope of summer–ultimately I find myself fretting about it. I find myself thinking, what’s the point if we’re/I’m not garnering commentary? And more generally I find that I start turning my concerns onto myself: am I not pulling my weight? Should I bow out? Forge a new writing style? Have more links? Spend more time crafting my posts? Spend less? Am I going to regret publishing a post? Will it come back to haunt me? Worse, will it go unnoticed? These are just a few of the questions that run through my mind on a Sunday afternoon.

Granted, I worry about most everything, and I’ve worried about letting readers know that I worry about whether or not you’re reading. However, I find it reassuring and incredibly interesting that Sina Queyras aka Lemon Hound who, in my opinion is one of the most important women currently blogging, has expressed concerns about taking up public space on the internet. Here’s what she wrote in 2005 under the heading “Women blogging women”

Back in September I posted a note that said I was likely going to end my blogging adventure. Clearly I have decided not to. There are a number of reasons why, but the most important one may be–dare I say it–a question of gender. Tired old dialogue that it is, I noticed there are not enough women engaged in the discussion of poetry and poetics. Over and over again the voice seem to be male, shouting about this or that school or lineage…deciding what is important and what not in such confident and reductive tones as to shut out more cautious or considered voices.*

Now Queyras is obviously writing about discussions of poetry and poetics, and she’s writing this in 2005. Much has changed, certainly, but I cite her here to underscore some things that haven’t. Namely what she calls cautious or considered voices. Are those women’s voices? Queyras thinks so. In answer to her own question ‘where are all the women?’ she writes,

I have my theories. Look to the deletions, the hesitations, the reflective responses… the women are still out there thinking, their voices not quite up for the bombastic and instantaneous responses.

Hm. I’m certainly slow to respond most times, even here on a space I’ve helped to create. I’m still wondering how to agree and encourage and consider Heather’s post about post-term tristesse, or how to respond to Aimée’s most recent post about the performance of gender in a male-dominated field. It seemed relevant that my partner, who is a car enthusiast, send me a link to the latest Waterloo gender debacle from one of the car sites he reads, but I wasn’t sure how to work it into a pithy consideration of the post. In fact, I remember when Sina invited me to write a post for Lemon Hound; I very nearly backed out because I didn’t feel I had put enough work into it. She encouraged me (which I’d say falls into categories of both unpaid emotional work and mentorship), and she also told me to speak up.

Creating a space for dialogue and community is a collaborative act. Here is what poet Emily Kruse Carr has to say about it:

Collaboration is the most sincere form of adaptation.

By which I mean: vulnerable, requiring blind faith, solicitations for admiration, involvement, reciprocity, empathy. It is something like being in love: as a strategic mode of aesthetic presentation & performance.

Social coherence versus coherent self identity. Ok. That’s the problem.

Collaboration holds these tensions in play, rather than wistfully papering them over or simply & improbably wishing them away. It destabilizes the individual into an assemblage that is spatially & temporally contingent.

Collaboration is adaptation as animation: to move mentally, to excite an action at the neurochemical level. A waltz, for example, or a molecular mosh pit. Hypothesis building on the level of synapse.**

Which is to say that comments or no, there is no telling what kind of collaboration is happening here. And that it exciting. Or, to put it another way, perhaps fast feminism sometimes appears to be slow in the way we want the academy to be: considered.

But if you’re hesitating to join the conversation because you feel like what you have to say is unimportant, obvious, or passe, let me tell you: we’re here, and we want to know what’s on your mind.

*You can read this post and more in the beautifully produced Unleashed which was published by BookThug‘s fantastic Department of Critical Thought.

**This is an unpublished excerpt of a collaborative project Emily and I are working on entitled The Sonnets Project.
academic reorganization · global academy · righteous feminist anger · sexist fail · solidarity

Higher Learning

About a month ago readers were outraged to learn about the hate campaign targeting women at the University of Waterloo. A good deal of my own shock came from a naive assumption–proven wrong on a regular basis, mind you–that the university is a bastion of enlightenment. Or at least a place that people come to work towards higher learning. But what does “higher learning” mean? According to he UN International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, “higher education” is education that “shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education.”

The term “higher learning” conjures two images for me, and they are both spatially-oriented. Firstly I imagine it as a place that facilitates the coming together of people from diverse backgrounds and experiences for the purpose of thinking in an open, discursive fashion. Secondly, I think of the 1995 film of the same name. If you haven’t seen it the film depicts a year in the lives of students at an unidentified American university. It didn’t shy away from depicting the insidious sides of a university. Rape, racism, homophobia, violence, and harassment were all depicted plainly. Not the subtlety required of great film making, perhaps, but the film made an impression on me. The spaces of higher learning need constant work, self-reflexivity, and care.

Still, the overwhelming and popular imagination (based on my experience and not research) is that the academy is a space of higher learning in the first sense. And when it isn’t working, it is–or should be–a place where due process is upheld, right?

Wrong. I admit I don’t generally keep track of what is happening at the Ivies, but the goings on at Yale over the past few weeks and, really, years, have caught my attention. Here’s a few highlights: In 2004 Naomi Wolf wrote an article for New York Magazine about her sexual harassment by the infamous H.B. While I certainly don’t agree with a lot of what Wolf writes, I am grateful for her very public consideration of what harassment did to her self confidence as a student. Just this past week the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights went public with its intent to open an investigation into Yale’s “its failure to eliminate a hostile sexual environment on campus, in violation of Title IX.” According to several news sources the legal complaint includes

The complaint includes personal accounts from five students, along with descriptions of these well-publicized incidents:

  • Delta Kappa Epsilon pledges chanting “No means yes! Yes means anal!” on campus in October 2010.
  • A September 2009 “Preseason Scouting Report” email, which was written and circulated by a group of male students. The email ranked 53 freshman women in the order of how many beers it would take to have sex with them.
  • Pledges from Zeta Psi surrounding the entrance to the Yale Women’s Center in January 2008 with signs that said “We Love Yale Sluts.”
  • Fraternity members stealing t-shirts inscribed with accounts of sexual assaults from the Clothesline Project in 2005.

What can we learn about one example of what is clearly a decades-long failure at only one space for higher learning? We can keep lists, and for the record I mean all of us because women are by no means the only group subject to harassment and violence. Further, since Heather’s pithy post on the ways in which jargon obscures meaning I’ve found myself thinking about some of the terms that circulate in the academy. Some of the news articles circulating refer to the “alleged misogyny” that occurred on campus. Alleged? We can create space for frank dialogue about systemic injustice. Finally, though I hold on to the hope that the spaces and places of higher learning will become the ‘equally accessible’ spaces of rigorous intellectual exchange they can be–and often are–we need to take note of examples like the current issues happening south of the border, and remain mindful that there is still much work to be done for all of us.

equity · global academy · slow academy · turgid institution

Guest Post: Academic hierarchies

Here is a guest post from Linda Warley, associate professor of English at the University of Waterloo, about her experiences abroad this term.

Academic hierarchies: women and status in different contexts

I am currently a visiting professor at the University of Zagreb, Croatia. A year before I came here, soon after the initial contact was made and I expressed interest in this position, a member of the English department—let’s call her Natasha—was “assigned” to be my contact person. I assumed that she was an Assistant Professor (I knew that she had recently defended her PhD), but it turns out that she is what we call a CLA. (Big shout out to all CLAs who read this blog!) I was somewhat surprised that a sessional instructor would be given the responsibility of looking after me—answering my million questions, arranging for the flat I live in, scheduling my course, getting me set up with a mobile phone, a transit pass, keys to my office, access to the internet, and so on. Natasha has been there for me at every moment. She picked me up at the airport; she showed me where and how to get around; she’s sitting in on my course and is invaluable if I have questions about how things are done at their university, what students need to know or what they can expect. Heck, her husband even fixed a broken cupboard door in my flat. I asked her why she had been “assigned” to me (one would have thought this was a chair’s job, or at least another member of the regular faculty’s job). The answer: because she teaches a course in my area. Ohhhhkay…? It had nothing—and everything—to do with her status.

At the University of Zagreb the department promises recent PhDs three years of sessional teaching, after which their contracts may or may not be renewed. Since there are so few faculty jobs available in a small country like Croatia, this is a lifeline for the newly PhD’d academic. However, unlike at our Canadian universities (at least those that I know), here sessional instructors do not seem to be considered peers. I don’t want to overstate the case at Canadian universities but I would say that we treat sessionals as professional, independent academics. But here it seems that the sessional instructor’s labour is still available to her former PhD supervisor. My colleague refers to her former supervisor as her “boss” (perhaps jokingly) and she tells me that the boss can get her to do all sorts of things, through assumed loyalty and through asserted power. Teach a class while the boss is away. Look up references in the library that the boss was too lazy to track down herself. Proofread the boss’s article. Set and mark an exam for the boss’s course—a course that the sessional herself has not taught. Now, we might get our graduate students to do this kind of thing (except the exam setting bit) BUT WE WOULD PAY THEM FOR THEIR WORK. Moreover, CLAs are not only expected to do administrative work it is often dumped on them. Wow. I would say no full time job means no responsibility for administration—unless I chose to involve myself, which some CLAs in Canada do.

The academic hierarchy here is very Austro-Hungarian. Formal, trenchant. The older members of the department do not have much to do with the younger ones, certainly not socially. And even professionally there is a boundary that is not easily crossed. Most troublingly, the older women professors do not seem to support the younger women in the department. Any male—professor, CLA, visiting professor—is held in higher esteem than their own female colleagues. I have been treated with respect (after all, I am a tenured professor) but also with a certain aloofness. So I’ve been hanging out with the younger women in the department. They are my kind. They are also fun. Being here has taught me a lot about my own context. It makes me realize how much status I do have. I hope that I am using that status partly to foster the careers of my younger colleagues. I was certainly lucky to have been mentored by my senior colleagues, especially the women. After all, isn’t that what women do?

Linda Warley
University of Waterloo