adjuncts · affect · careers · guest post · inconvenience · Uncategorized

Guest post: Reflections on Adjunct Labor, Feminism, and other Inconvenient Truths

This post is by Virginia Konchan.

I’m an American citizen with Canadian permanent residence since 2014. I moved to Halifax from Montreal in December 2019, and while I am not teaching this semester (I was formerly teaching part-time at Concordia University), I have been corresponding frequently with several former students I had in various literature and creative writing courses over the years, in the US and Canada.  One is moored on a writing residency in Finland, working on his novel; another, a gifted poet, is quarantined in Boston, doing marketing and PR remotely for a health insurance company:  her days are consumed by new policy changes, telemedicine, and Zoom meetings about how to offer emergency resources to customers struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues.  And a third, also a poet with tremendous talent, is teaching a full-time academic course load at a college in Washington State as an adjunct professor; yet several others are in graduate school, working toward degrees in poetry, literature, and the humanities.

My former student who is adjuncting and I have recently been sharing adjunct war stories and new poems.  Her experience of adjunct life was so painfully reminiscent of my own life as an adjunct in the States, and as a sessional instructor in Canada, that it made me cry. I cried out of deep sympathy for her plight, and those of all academics with precarious, non-tenured positions.  And to add to that endless, non-remunerative academic labor, the isolation and loneliness of quarantine.  And to that, the fact that her hundred or more students that she is now conferencing with through Zoom (while dealing with system crashes and delays) don’t understand the difference between her academic rank and that of tenured professors, and thus impatiently expect her prompt email responses, thorough feedback, and emotional support.  While the adjunct crisis remains a culturally ubiquitous topic to the point of redundancy, it may bear repeating, especially now in our global and financial meltdown, if only with the hope of underscoring just how broken and dehumanizing our capitalist-driven institutions of higher education are, particularly after the waves of privatization, corporatization, and the latest statistics on academic contingent labor (non-tenure-track positions of all types now account for over 70 percent of all instructional staff appointments in American higher education:  the Canadian figures are better, but not by much).

So, while just one more voice to the chorus, I know my former student’s Sisyphean deadlock situation well because I’ve only ever had itinerant stints in academia myself, despite having been on the North American job market for over five years, with a PhD and three published books, searching for a tenure-track professorship or even full-time appointment, as a lecturer.  I know what it feels like to feel completely expendable, to rely desperately, without any governmental or family safety net, on that $20k/year salary, only to have your course load slashed or reduced to zero the following semester with no notice, and to always wonder what other colleagues are discussing in faculty meetings, where adjuncts aren’t allowed.  To duck my head in the hallway or at the copier in embarrassment to avoid making eye contact with other, more important faculty, and lastly, to try, with a kind of fruitless passion known only to other supplicants, to rise to the challenge every day, greet students with a smile, field their queries, and prolong my “office” hours (at most of the universities where I worked, I shared a makeshift cubicle space with dozens of other adjuncts, a constant influx of students and faculty making a quiet conversation impossible), despite the fact that by semester’s end, an adjunct’s intellectual and emotional reserves are beyond spent:  sometimes irrevocably so.

I realize this mental, emotional, and spiritual depletion I am describing is not unique to adjuncts, yet it’s worth noting that the last few posts on Hook & Eye have been by only one tenured professor, and the rest by students (one other by an adjunct and alt-ac laborer).  Yet all these posts suggest, regardless of the writers’ academic positions, that academe, perhaps globally, is undergoing a structural crisis revealing how, in the words of Hannah McGregor, our care is “being leveraged to ensure that the university maintains its institutional and imaginative force in the midst of this crisis, rather than being exposed as a site of neoliberal profiteering,” and wherein, as Brenna Clarke Gray puts it, paraphrasing Samuel Beckett:  “I am trapped between an intellectual awareness of my own exploitation (I can’t go on) and an emotional need to enact care on behalf of those who are owed it from an institution that cannot pay its debts (I’ll go on).”

I can only speak on behalf of my own last 13 years in academe, as a student, graduate student instructor, and adjunct, but it seems both that the crisis of which others are speaking, and which I myself have always felt in the low rungs of the ladder I occupied, is both particular, and universal, and a pressure felt uniquely by women in academia, regardless of their position or rank.  I have routinely seen, in the various Ivory Towers where I studied or worked, female faculty members shoulder greater administrative burdens than their male faculty counterparts; take on a lion’s share of the emotional labor and care work that is part of what can make teaching so rewarding, at least in theory; and suffer greater consequences as a result.

My female colleagues in the States and Canada have shared horror stories with me (I, too, relate) ranging from a variety of stress-induced conditions (sudden hair loss, rashes, insomnia, OCD) to alarming situations where Title IX complaints they filed against male coworkers poisoning the department with sexual harassment and veiled threats were either dismissed or not supported by HR and other faculty members, regardless of gender.

At this point in the history of neoliberal academy, and given the crushing immediacy of the pandemic, might our current broken moment of systems collapse provide a uniquely valuable time to evaluate these forms of brokenness, and seek a way forward: collectively and personally, intellectually and somatically?  It seems less and less relevant (especially now, when questions not just of safety and survival, but situated value of academic labor and publishing loom large), what buzzwords we use to describe these various forms of exploitation: invisible or shadow labor, ghost work, zombie capitalism.  The ugly facts remain that while articles appear regularly (scholarly and in pop culture) on the adjunct crisis (referred to by poet and professor Catherine Wagner as a “sharecropper estate” in her 2010 essay “I Am a Poet and I Have”in the Poetic Labor Project, a term usefully reworked into David Perry’s 2014 essay in Chronicle Vitae, “Sharecroppers.  Migrant Workers.  Adjuncts?”),every single agent who is imbricated in the system, from students paying $100k/year in tuition, on loans, to university presidents, seem helpless to stop the bleeding, or stop the system in its tracks.

We live in a globalized, and increasingly automated and roboticized world, where all human labor, academic and otherwise, is constantly threatened to be “phased out” by machines (I personally cannot stand the term “labor-saving device,” as that labor is usually not “saved,” it’s simply transferred onto a more flexible worker, willing to work for less and under more hazardous conditions, until everything is mechanized).  And yes, there are marked differences between the structure of higher education in American and Canada:  for example, I was paid nearly triple as an adjunct at Concordia than what I made per class in the US (it differs radically in Canada by province:  in Atlantic Canada the pay is similar to the lower end of the US scale),though was only granted one course per semester because of part-time union restrictions, and thus my annual salary was even less.  But whether late capitalist or quasi-socialist, the imperatives of higher ed remain the same:  publish or perish; don’t complain; and follow the relentless pursuit of industry, efficiency, speed, and utility until you die, or until we face a global pandemic, as we are now, trying to imagine a path forward from this institutional calamity.

Lately, I find myself thinking in particular about affectual relations, and moments of bonding or connection that supersede Sianne Ngai’s concept of spectacle-induced “stumplimity,” particularly in speaking to my professor friends who share stories with me of their students’ plights, efforts to complete coursework, and moments of wisdom, hilarity, and poignancy online (my cousin’s entire class failed to show to a schedule Zoom conference last week, and the one student in attendance wouldn’t speak a word, instead merely staring at her while she peppered him with questions for as long as both could bear it; another friend cites “actual fear, working with/for parents, taking care of others, not caring whatsoever, knowing their grade cannot go down, being actually ill, not having access to school, bouncing around from home to home, and sheer ennui”) as reasons for her students’ lackluster attendance on Google Classroom.

I have also been re-reading Naomi Klein’s excellent book The Shock Doctrine(2007), recently, as, along with stumplimity, and outbursts of compassion, fear, uncertainty, and joy, I think our current moment is, affectually speaking, marked by the aftermath of shock (Klein speaks of it in reference to psychiatric shock therapy and the use of “shock and awe” as war tactics in the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq), as we begin to realize anew just how deeply embedded our psyches and even central nervous systems are by the 24/7 news cycle, our vicarious experience of tragedy, and the various forms of cultural mediation through which we experience the world, including social media self-curation, which tends to set our consciousness and being apart from the representations of ourselves we are presenting.  For me, over time, these processes have resulted in what Freudian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich refers to as “character and body armoring”:  learned coping mechanisms of obedience and thralldom that obstruct a more expansive, energetic, spontaneous interaction with ourselves, our world, and our here and now.

To say nothing of sensitivity to our or another’s pain:  last week, for example, with my to-do list far outpacing my now-scattered attention span, and my emotionally-deregulated sensibility causing me anxiety, I instead chose to maniacally clean my house from top to bottom for 8 hours:  the furor of my labors even scared my cat. At the end of the day I sat down and looked at my hands:  they were badly cracked and bleeding from the scrubbing and harsh chemicals, but I largely felt indifference toward my own injuries and the trauma-fueled nature of my frenetic cleaning spree, as they were self-imposed.  They didn’t even feel like my own hands.

Is this the nuclear fallout of what we all came to academia seeking:  a life of the mind?

British writer and journalist Laurie Penny, author of several books including Meat Market: Female Flesh Under Capitalism, and Bitch Doctrine:  Essays for Dissenting Adults, in her recent Wiredarticle “This is Not the Apocalypse You Were Looking For,”writes with great clarity about the awful truth that the most vulnerable among us, whose lives are sacrificed during the pandemic, are not the monied, insured, and protected:  they are the healers and carers, the nurses, doctors, cleaners, and drivers, those “whose work is rarely paid in proportion to its importance.”

Capitalism, writes Penny (who has also written cogently on related topics of self-optimization, and panic, pandemic, and the body politic, for Wired) “cannot imagine a future beyond itself that isn’t utter butchery,” and that is why, over the last two months, “There has been no vision, because these men never imagined the future beyond the image of themselves on top of the human heap, cast in gold.”  Personally, I don’t want to live in a world where the talking heads of global capital suggest that “a certain amount of brutal death is a reasonable price for other people to pay to protect the current financial system,” yet that is the world I was born into and now inhabit.  But the pandemic cannot be—imagine that!—solved by state-sponsored eugenics, violence, militarism, or any other handy tricks of capitalism to erase the fearful other.

So where does that leave us?

In a similar “desert of the real” that the other writers on this blog have described, and yet, to quote Penny one last time, “The end of the world has never been quite so simple a mythos for women, likely because most of us know that when social structures crack and shatter, what happens isn’t an instant reversion to muscular state-of-naturism. What happens is that women and carers of all genders quietly exhaust themselves filling in the gaps, trying to save as many people as possible from physical and mental collapse . . . emotional and domestic labor have never been part of the grand story men have told themselves about the destiny of the species—not even when they imagine its grave.”

I’m not a necromancer of any kind, even with regard to capitalism’s malaise, but this statement brings me a measure of peace because it’s not in direct opposition to my body’s own intelligence, my mind’s own form of logic, and my multifaceted emotional life, the way capitalism so often is.

So while I myself am not in any position to offer a critique or way forward, necessarily, at this juncture, any solace I’ve found over the last month has been born of this:  the knowledge that, to quote Hamlet, “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” There is no quick fix, nor one-size-fits-all solution:  no one really knows.  But there is, perhaps more now than ever, a growing awareness of a natural order of things in the natural world, and while not a model (ideological, aesthetic, economic) one can seek to follow in a societal sense, perhaps that’s what makes the small inroads we are all making day by day, from within a revisited ethics of care and solidarity, the best (albeit anti-theoretical), position of all.

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Author of two poetry collections, Any God Will Do and The End of Spectacle (Carnegie Mellon, 2018 and 2020); a collection of short stories, Anatomical Gift (Noctuary Press, 2017); and four chapbooks, as well as coeditor (with Sarah Giragosian) of Marbles on the Floor:  How to Assemble a Book of Poems(University of Akron Press, 2022), Virginia Konchan lives in Halifax.
academic reorganization · change management · feminist health · guest post · Uncategorized

Guest post: “Fetch the Bolt Cutters!” Or, How Fiona Apple Gave Me the Freedom to Rage

This post is by Myra Bloom.

There seem to be two main ways of dealing with the end of the world as we knew it: some people are conjuring an illusion of normalcy. They’re leaning extra hard into schedules and routines, maybe even cultivating new ones – working remotely, palpating sourdough, dialing into digital yoga classes, closely observing the behaviour of birds. Others are of the “chuck it in the fuck it bucket” school, to borrow a phrase from my friend Kristina. We might call this the ‘quarantinis-and-Tiger-King’ approach. A quick Google will furnish guides for maximal productivity(King Lear, they admonish you, was written under quarantine) or non-productivity(your desire to write King Lear, they admonish you, is your internalized domination by capitalism).

Until recently, I was an adherent, if not a card-carrying member, of team productivity. I was ‘teaching’ remotely (lol). I was pumping out Alison Romandishes, getting my daily unit of state-sanctioned exercise, wearing structured pants. I was, I thought, doing quarantine right. But as the days dragged on, the edges started to fray: a pair of leggings here, an extra handful of snacks there. I stared constantly at my laptop screen, waiting for something other than grim stats to happen, and when it didn’t I turned anxiously to my little screen, hoping something was happening there. I found only my haggard face reflected back at me in a black pool unmarred by notifications of any kind.

I started this essay one early afternoon. I was still wearing rumpled pyjamas, my body unwashed, the dog unwalked. Ordinarily, I would be horrified by the lassitude. I love order, stability, routine. Years of hustling in a precarious job market have honed me into an edgy shark, swimming for my life. There’s always something to chase in academia, where the resources are lean and mean. I sometimes personify academia as my bad boyfriend: he barely pays attention to me and doesn’t really seem to care how I’m doing, but when he smiles at me it’s like sunshine. And at first, I have to admit that I was pretty happy we were self-isolating together. When people would ask if I was “lonely” living “all by myself” (ugh, and plus, give the dog her due), I’d reassure them that, au contraire, I was keeping very busy. Maybe I didn’t specify exactly how much time I was spending with Boris, my sexy manuscript.

Lately, though, I’ve gotten a little sick of Boris. To be frank, I’d rather just eat chips. So, in the words of Fiona Apple, “fetch the bolt cutters!” By which I mean, blithely discard that which worketh not for thee.

I had a prof in grad school who once said to me, koanically, “Sometimes saying no, Myra… is saying yes… to the self.” I’ve been trying to channel that energy a lot this past year, my first in a tenure-track job. A joiner by nature, I felt flattered and gratified by all the opportunities that came my way, until I started to feel crushed under their weight. Now, I’m finding new power in a kindly but firmly stated ‘no’. Never has this advice felt more timely. Civil society is crumbling into the very earth, and yet my inbox is replete with dispatches from the university encouraging me to improve my digital pedagogy. My students are literally fleeing to their home countries, cowering terrified in crappy apartments, freaking out about their parents working on the front lines, and I’m supposed to get them excited to do an online poll? I would prefer not to.

You know who else would prefer not to? Fiona-effing-Apple, who has officially unseated Alison Roman as my quarantine guru. Step aside, rustic salad! It’s time to RAGE. For those of you who haven’t been playing her new album on repeat, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is a big FU to the micro and macroaggressions women face in a patriarchal, conformist society. Apple directs her righteous fury at the bullies, rapists, and other general assholes who have tried to hold women back over the years. Enough playing nice. The time has come to “Blast the music! Bang it, bite it bruise it!”

Fetch the Bolt Cutters is a work of genius, but what makes it“the unofficial album of the pandemic”is its purposeful imperfection. Apple recorded it at home in Venice Beach, and you can hear her dogs, some weird sounds that might be coming from outside, and even her own mistakes: on the final track, she drops a line, swears, waits a few bars, then picks the song right back up. It’s the perfect musical accompaniment to these days of awkward Zooming, where the angles are unflattering and the dog farts audibly in the middle of the meeting (true story). This homespun humbleness could not be any farther from Drake’s “Toosie Slide,” also released this month, whose autotuned braggadocio put me in a funk that took several days to shake. While Drake’s gilded palace (watch the video) is a monument to capitalism’s monstrous logic, Fetch the Bolt Cutters gives us the tools to dismantle the master’s house. It reminds us, by way of contrast, that every shimmering surface is an illusion built on the backs of unsung labourers hauling a lot of garbage. I happen to know this firsthand: I used to drive by Drake’s McMansion-in-progress on my way home from work.

Remember that video from the Before Times of Prof. Robert Kelley’s children storming into his BBC interview, chased by their frantic mother? Besides the children’s impeccable timing, the punctum of that video was the domestic intrusion. The invisible labour of Prof. Kelley’s wife, Jung-a Kim, was suddenly visible, as she struggled to keep her family out of her husband’s frame. These days, we’re seeing a lot of people’s private lives as they broadcast to us from their home offices and bedrooms. It makes people seem a lot more human when we encounter them in the context of their worldly detritus. To me, the visibility of the domestic sphere, and of the invisible work that happens there, is one of the possible silver linings of the pandemic. In late March, the BBC describedthe “unintended consequences” of Malaysia’s decision to permit only the ‘head of the household’ to do the grocery shopping: namely, that men lost their minds in a labyrinth of leafy greens. I like to think that these men will ask themselves what other secret knowledge gardens their wives cultivate.

Another form of invisible labour that is being recognized in this moment is the chronically “underpaid and undervalued” work of women in “essential” sectors, including the service industry and healthcare. The New York Times reports that because women are overrepresented in these sectors, women suddenly outnumber men in the American workforce. As they put it, “the soldier on the front lines of the current national emergency is most likely a woman,” and even likelier a woman of colour. It’s likely too optimistic to say that the situation will change when the dust settles on the economy: structural inequalities stemming from issues like race, class and gender are too deeply rooted. To make a historical comparison, the women who entered the labour force during the First and Second World Wars were largely pushed to its margins when soldiers returned from the front. Nonetheless, their visibility in historically masculine roles gave them a platform from which to advocate for rights and opportunities. It’s in this more modest sense that I’m hopeful that gains might be made in the future.

So I guess what I’m driving at here is that Fiona Apple’s aesthetics of imperfection is also an ethics. In daring to put something imperfect into the world, she reminds us that the slick veneer that coats all our cultural products masks the rot festering just beneath the surface. Like Greta Thunberg, or Tarana Burke, or the Wet’suwet’en land protectors, she invites us to raise a collective middle finger to the status quo, and to build something wilder, fairer, freer.

Fetch the bolt cutters! Turn off the computer! Blast the music! Let’s get to fucking work.

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Myra Bloom is an Assistant Professor in the English Department at York University’s Glendon campus. She teaches and studies Canadian literature, confessional writing, feminist aesthetics, and Quebec language/identity politics.

 

 

 

 

compassion · emotional labour · feminist digital humanities · guest post · Uncategorized

Guest Post Pedagogy of the So Stressed: Pivoting to Digital with an Ethics of Care

This post is by Brenna Clarke Gray.

 

I am just so tired.

Eight months ago, I started a new role as a faculty educational technologist. It didn’t occur to me that within the year of starting I would be a key member of a small and scrappy team leading a university-wise pivot to digital in the midst of a pandemic.

 

Good thing I love my job.

 

And I do. Really. But I am also just so tired. I know we all are. I know many of us wrestle with an anxious privilege around acknowledging our tiredness: we are so, so lucky to be working; those of us who caregive are so, so lucky to have our loved ones close. We know these are deep, profound privileges, that the peanut butter smear occluding the videoconferencing camera is really a gift. And yet.

 

I tell you these things as context for who I am and how I come to talk about care and educational technologies. I’m not sure how aware most people within the university are of the work of educational technologists; a lot more aware now than eight months ago, I would reckon. What has surprised me in this role is how easily I took to it as care work, and how that phrase means something very differently all of a sudden as we enter this strange new moment in the life of the university.

 

Educational technology is care work on a number of fronts. When I support faculty, I absorb a tremendous amount of anxiety, anguish, fear, and stress. I don’t actually know how to do this. I feel ill-equipped for how sad and scared my colleagues are, and I feel ill-equipped to be their first line of defence. But I do it anyway. And while I help them digitize their course content, we chat about their families and their students, how to manage their stress levels, how long this all might last. Like anyone who seeks out instructional support work, I love solving problems and I work hard to be approachable. I want to be seen as caring and competent, and if I’m honest, it’s in that order that I hope those characteristics are seen.

 

But more importantly, I want to help faculty make teaching and learning decisions around technology that enact care for students. That has never been clearer to me than in this pandemic, where my key role has been to advocate against synchronous, timed exams; against lengthy video lectures; against requirements of synchronous participation; for asynchronous participation options; for reflective writing and other open-book assessment strategies; and for generosity and compassion in course design. I spend far more time discussing pedagogy than I do pushing the buttons, and the pedagogy I work hard to enact is one that acknowledges the once-in-a-century shitstorm we are living through and asks for compassion. It is a pedagogy rooted in an ethics of care.

 

This work, in this moment, is infinite. For the first few weeks, I answered emails and phone calls and video chats and support tickets twelve or fifteen hours a day and never found the bottom of it. I don’t do that anymore, most days, but I could. There are more questions than answers, more people to help than helpers, and every time we think we’re at the end of it — that we’ve levelled off or are gaining ground — we find out we’re wrong.

 

As Hannah McGregor rightly points out, this labour serves to protect the institution; because individuals care, the institution itself doesn’t have to. Our care and goodwill allows the university to go on. If individuals take on this work, the institution can continue to ignore issues of care, or to present the difficult labour of individuals as the united mission of the institution. Neither option is sustainable for the human beings on the ground. Increasingly, in the intellectuals circles within which I move, I hear repeated calls to “let it break,” to refuse this labour. Pencils, pens, and emotional labour down.

 

And yet, I have no idea howI am supposed to do that. The university cannot love, but I can. And I do. Because the individualization of care within the university means that I know and love the people who will pick up this fight if I drop it, and I know and love the people who will be most impacted by a failure of support.  I work on a team of individuals trying desperately to enact care in an increasingly hopeless-feeling sector-wide climate. A choice to resist calls for my emotional labour is also a choice to kick the ball down the road to someone else, someone who may not have the privileges of security and academic freedom that my faculty position — tenure-track only, to be sure, and thus precarious in its own way — affords me. Those of us who work in universities are hearing about the imminent budget crises that will befall the institution in the wake of Covid-19. Is there an ethical way to refuse to undertake this labour of care, of activism and agitation, from my position under these conditions? And if no one else continues the fight, if we do all revolt, is there a way for that to happen that doesn’t leave students and truly precarious faculty as collateral damage, left to flounder without adequate supports? I cannot see one.

 

I am not saving lives. I tell myself this every night as I fail to clear my brain enough to meditate, as embodied reminders of unanswered emails circle through me viscerally, jolting me into alertness over and over and over. I am not saving lives. I am not a frontline worker. I am not intubating patients or keeping the grocery store open or keeping vulnerable populations alive. There are so many more important ways actual lifesaving care is enacted, and I think too about the institutions that structure and obfuscate and absorb credit for that care, too.

 

But this work of mine is still urgent. It is urgent because we have no evidence that the institution, left to its own devices, will enact an ethic of care without the individuals who take on the labour. And the people left in the wreckage are real people. So then what? I am really asking. Because until I figure it out, I am trapped between an intellectual awareness of my own exploitation (I can’t go on) and an emotional need to enact care on behalf of those who are owed it from an institution that cannot pay its debts (I’ll go on).

 

I am so tired. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.*

 

*The author confesses that she previously tortured Samuel Beckett in an earlier blog post collecting some of these thoughts.

 

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Brenna Clarke Gray (MA Carleton, PhD New Brunswick) is a literature scholar by training, a comics scholar by practice, and an educational technologist by trade. Her research interests include open pedagogies and ethical approaches to educational technologies. She is the Coordinator, Educational Technologies at Thompson Rivers University and is currently at work tracing the history and imagining the future of open tenure processes.

guest post · health · mental health · Uncategorized

Guest post: Feeling Certain: Optimization culture, Productivity, the Pandemic, and Me

This post is by Katie Clarke.

We like answers and our brains like shortcuts. Especially right now, as everything seems indeterminate, unanswerable and interminable. Brain shortcuts, known in Psychology terms as “heuristics,” allow us to function despite the constant influx of stimuli to our five senses, not to mention the additional emotional reflexes that accompany these inputs. Heuristics help pare down and sort information that’s useful to us and keep the information that keeps us safe, happy, and healthy.

However — and this is a big however — I have been thinking about how all this shorts out in times of crisis.Human perfectibility culture, or “optimization,” is the everyday aspiration to complete knowledge of ourselves and our psychological states, to the end of being more “efficient,” “productive,” and ultimately, “happy” under the capitalism of today. As the COVID-19 epidemic escalates and we continue to support our communities, health workers and other essential service workers by staying home, we are bombarded by the productivity/optimization rhetoric. Productivity culture is telling us that we have all sorts of “free time” at home (which we don’t, really, but that’s a whole other essay).

While the biological and functional use of heuristics makes sense, I often wonder why this “shortcut culture” so much a part of our day to day lives. Self-help books are some of the best selling and highest grossing works put out by publishers in North America. These are alongside a genre I’d like to call “optimization lifestyle reads”: anecdotal insights into “human nature” as such, like those put out by Malcolm Gladwell and Daniel Pink. These books slip in optimization buzzwords like “scientific” and “research-based” (which they often are, it’s true!). But this alluring language of objectivity can provide a false sense of certainty. This research/storytelling hybrid genre is captivating: often well-written, engaging and relevant to the culture of perfectibility and search for ultimate self-understanding that is taken up by our brains and bodies from the day we’re born. While social isolation measures are in place, some folks might have a little extra time to pick up a book. Why not make it something “useful” like an optimization lifestyle read? That’s where my brain went, at least, two days after stopping university classes and trying to juggle a multitude of academic and professional commitments which had “simply” slid into the online realm. I figured that if I was going to read “for pleasure” for once (and I love reading, I really do), it should be “productive.” And don’t get me wrong, I can get behind some of these bestsellers, but I felt inclined to self-examination and optimization, rather than any semblance of true relaxation or distraction from the situation at hand. The pursuit of perfection and self-regulation, foregrounded by self-understanding, is a pervasive urge — one cemented by productivity culture.

To me, productivity culture is the product of both an ingrained scientific tradition and the perils of (you guessed it!) advanced capitalism. Physicist and Philosopher of Science Evelyn Fox Keller deconstructs how modern science reinforces our urge to optimization and self-understanding in her collection of essays, Reflections on Gender and ScienceShe identifies a complex interplay of autonomy, objectivity, knowledge and power in a distinctly masculine scientific custom. Keller demonstrates how a search for individual autonomy and power over the self distances the “other” or object of examination — the subject of scientific inquiry, for example. Objectivity holds the “other” at arms length and asserts that the subject (viewer, scientist, supposedly self-aware human being) can access total and complete knowledge of the object (task, schedule, body, brain), being separate from it. Power over the self, self-control, is quickly manipulated into a totalizing theory of certainty. In the current pandemic, science is incredibly important — finding a vaccine will be a feat of biology, technology and medical expertise, among a multitude of other fields. However, recourse to capital-S Science as the measure of all things is not a straightforward capital-S Saviour. Future access to a COVID-19 vaccine will also rely on innumerable number of social, organizational, political and communal resources, not to mention a tremendous amount of community support and care.

Yes, we do live in an era of extraordinary scientific advancement. However, this period is structured by an age-old scientific system held in place by market interests and economic stakeholders in those scientific developments. Under the guise of optimization and productivity, work becomes a project of certainty and perfection, a race to make the most money in the least amount of time with the least mistakes. In self-isolation and under physical distancing protocols, this urge to self-improvement is incubated in our living spaces: bathed in the blue light of our devices, the irresistible glow of social media, news and self-optimization.

Jia Tolentino, journalist and author of the 2019 essay collection Trick Mirror, wrote an op-ed for the Guardian titled “Athleisure, barre and kale: the tyranny of the ideal woman.” Tolentino describes the “ideal” young professional woman as one who’s body and mind are organized, who’s schedule is flawless, who flies between barre workouts and kale salads and an endlessly productive workday only to end the day and tap into a seemingly limitless social sphere. This hard work, then (prescribed, organized) play atmosphere tends to harden our bodies and our immune systems and our emotions into recognizably adverse, highly regulated networks. I feel I can lean in to the “organized” discomfort that over-regulates my brain and body because it’s much more cohesive with the optimization-first structures that surround me. This is what makes me valuable under capitalism. I’ve been taught to fear mess and disorganization above all else. Tolentino’s optimized woman is another kind of artificial, scientifically crafted and genetically optimized nightmare: wouldn’t we all want to be like her, if we could?

No, it’s not likely that we’ll abolish capitalism for a local trade and barter system anytime soon (although the more time we spend in isolation, the more it seems possible, and the more microcosms of this possibility become visible…). But how do we imagine novel futures that do not ask us to optimize our bodies and minds like machines? Our deviant and unruly bodies are some of the first things to be regulated in this perfectibility culture — as feminist scholar Hannah McGregor comments in one episode of her peer-reviewed podcast, Secret Feminist Agenda. McGregor laments the pervasiveness of deterministic diet culture, citing a diet-enthused relative: “’in an ideal future, when we really perfect nutritional science, we’ll be able to do bloodwork, and know exactly what each person should be eating’ — what a eugenicist nightmare you are painting!” (SFA ep. 4.10 20:30–20:43). While this might seem dystopian, the idea of a genetically perfected and predictable human being is not so far from our everyday consciousness. In social isolation, the internet seems to be reminding me of my existence in my body/as a body more than usual. Diet culture, too, is incubated in our now smaller spaces, with incredibly harmful effects. I found this comicby local Halifax artist Mollie Cronin an excellent response to an influx of fatphobia and diet culture on the internet.

Neural networks (artificial intelligence programs modelled on the human brain) are another modern “optimization” tool which can provide incredible mechanical and economic benefit. However, neural networks are another force of technological and economic development that encode the rhetoric of human perfectibility in our day to day lives. The masculinist “rationality” of neural networks is (at least in part) incompatible with the human brain — which is not deterministic or wholly rational at all. Stoic, masculine science presents “ideal” form of human intelligence which rests in the potential of artificial intelligence. While perfected models like artificial intelligence and neural networks can prove incredibly useful — essential even — for research and medical care, their presence as psychological models or standards can lead to a dangerous reductionism and self-effacing “objectivity.” In this pandemic, vaccine research and medical treatments are linked to our advanced technological abilities, likely including the use of artificial intelligence. However, I would argue that most of the life-saving care work that’s going on is done by human beings — nurses, doctors, care workers of all kinds, people offering to support one another remotely. Who knew? We’re not surviving on big tech or big science alone — but on interpersonal care and trust (even if it’s from a distance). As we strive to become more and more like our perfected, rational, machine counterparts, we’re becoming dangerously enamoured with the surreality of masculinist perfection — doing violence to our soft, emotive, critical, failing, irrational brains.

Feminist scholar Donna Haraway counters the allure of objectivity in her essay “Situated Knowledges”: “feminists don’t need a doctrine of objectivity that promises transcendence, a story that loses track of its meditations just where someone might be held responsible for something, and unlimited instrumental power. We don’t want a theory of innocent powers to represent the world” (579). We are not innocent; we are angry and flawed and we make mistakes. But we should make mistakes. The genetically, technologically and socially optimized human being of perfectibility culture is a product of statistical averages. In statistics, the centre of a curve or the “average” is non-existent — as an average of everyone, it corresponds to no one in particular. The average, the perfected, the wholly optimized human being does not exist. To blindly seek out and imitate this speculative, flawless form is to destroy our precious partiality.

Now, more than ever, we (feminists, working from home, still on the front lines at the hospital or grocery store, kids, parents, students, families) can fight against the optimization or standardization or our brains and bodies. We cannot know or control everything (and at this point it’s hard enough controlling our own daily schedules). We can contribute to our communities, we can start to heal or help others heal, we can rest, we can lean into our individuality and our partial vision, while listening to and learning from others who see things differently. We can begin to create routines and space for ourselves in this crisis. We don’t need a sense of obligatory or additional productivity in a pandemic. But we can make space for creativity and creation (in whatever unique, situated form it may take) in crisis.

Katie Clarke

Katie Clarke is a student at the University of King’s College in Halifax, studying Psychology and Contemporary Studies a LORAN scholar. Passionate about women’s rights and mental health, she uses poetry and playwriting as a medium for feminist activism. In her spare time, Katie runs the Oxfam Society at Dalhousie University, and she volunteers as a literacy tutor with newcomer and immigrant Canadians.

 

Works Cited

Fox Keller, Evelyn. Reflections on Gender and Science. Yale University Press, 1995.

Haraway, Donna. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies, vol. 14, no. 3, 1988, pp. 575–599. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3178066.

Lewontin, Richard. It Ain’t Necessarily So: The Dream of the Human Genome and Other Illusions. New York Review of Books, 2001.

McGregor, Hannah. “Our Categories of Knowledge Suck with Tina Sikka.” Secret Feminist Agenda, 20 Dec. 2019, https://secretfeministagenda.com/2019/12/20/episode-4-10-our-categories-of-knowledge-suck-with-tina-sikka/

 

 

 

guest post · Uncategorized

Guest Post: What Are We Talking About When We Talk About ‘Care’?

 

 

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Image: “mutual aid (still here)” by the wildly talented Dr. Lucia Lorenzi who describes it this way “Five drops of ink fade down like the scratches of nails. A handprint, tendrils of gold ladder the fingers together. Perhaps what is traced by falling water are matches, what revolution ignites.” Used with permission with thanks and gratitude to the artist. 

Today’s post is by Dr. Hannah McGregor

There’s an awful lot of talk about care these days. I’m paying attention to it, because I’m a scholar who has worked quite a bit on care as both a feminist ethical framework and, frankly, a problem

In the broader field of normative ethics, an ethics of care is a feminist intervention that grapples generally speaking with the problem of the other and how we ought to treat them. There are different approaches to producing a normative ethics—an idea of how we ought to be towards one another—such as utilitarianism, which holds that we should make choices that benefit the greatest number of people. The feminist force of an ethics of care lies how it values the kinds of emotional labour and care work that build and sustain networks and that are often responsible for keeping the most vulnerable—those who might be tossed aside in a utilitarian model—alive. 

But care has also been the subject of much critique, particularly by Black and Indigenous scholars who have pointed out how feelings, especially feelings that cluster around the concepts of compassion, empathy, and care, can be used as justification for great violence. Care is often the name in which children are separated from parents, in which state power is extended into the lives and homes of BIPOC and disabled people, in which power decides whose lives matter. The capacity for empathy is the name in which white women extended the guiding hand of colonialism and imperialism that encoded white supremacy in churches and libraries and schools and hospitals. 

This is the context in which I find myself paying particular attention to how we’re talking about care right now. I keep thinking about Dr. Bonnie Henry, the provincial health officer here in B.C., crying at a press conference in early March. An act that, perhaps, in another time, might have been leveraged against her, a woman in a position of medical authority, was instead praised as a welcome sign of compassion and empathy. These are times, we all seem to agree, when we need a lot more compassion and empathy. These are times when knowledge and expertise, necessary though they may be, come accompanied by feeling. 

That’s as true in the university as it is in public health. In this moment of global and (unequally) shared crisis, the idea that intellectuals and experts need to model disinterestedness or unemotional objectivity is crumbling around us. Academics insisting on a business-as-usual adherence to traditional notions of rigour look more and more out of touch. In the spaces of the university, our classrooms and our conferences and our associations, calls for care are being sounded everywhere. Those of us who teach at universities and colleges are suddenly, unavoidably being reminded of our students’ humanity and our own, in the context of institutions that are invested in us becoming a little less human so we can be a little more efficient. Where a utilitarian approach to the current crisis in post-secondary education might celebrate the efficiencies of digital pedagogy or the “free time” some academics seem to be finding right now, calls for an ethics of care emphasize the networks of connection that make our research and our teaching possible and encourage us all to nurture those networks, even if it’s at the expense of efficiency and utility.  

Suddenly, everywhere, it seems like care trumps structure. Deadlines, grades, and rubrics have become laughable, their arbitrariness impossible to ignore. And these transformations are not unique to the university. As the Canadian government implements wage subsidies that underline the need for a guaranteed basic income, telecommunication companies are suddenly waiving overage fees—all in the name of care. BC is finally opening pathways to a safe supply for drug users, seeming to recognize at last, as so many advocates have been arguing for so long, that drug users are part of our community, and that we cannot let some parts of our community suffer without all of us suffering. In the university, as in the world, we are perhaps realizing that our institutions, our systems, our rigour will not save us. We are being collectively called upon to reimagine these systems in terms of an ethics of care. 

But care as deployed by corporations or by the state in the interests of oppressive systems will not save us. We need to be suspicious when institutions claim to care, and when care is being used to maintain, rather than dismantle, fundamentally dehumanizing systems. As the many inequities and injustices in and beyond the university are being laid bare, care may be leveraged as a way to patch over them. What if we refuse this? What does it look like, as Christina Sharpe puts it, to “think (and rethink and rethink) care laterally, in the register of the intramural, in a different relation than that of the violence of the state”? What forms of care might we enact that are not economized by the state or the university or for-profit ed tech companies? 

Alongside calls for care and empathy, we need to be asking: what does this care look like, and where might it be, to quote Billy-Ray Belcourt, actually in service of the settler colonial state’s “economization of emotion”? We might also ask: who does the burden of care fall on, and how might a depoliticized call for empathy be invisibilizing the very real inequities this crisis lays bare, particularly the urgency of the many forms of underpaid, precarious, and often gendered and racialized front-line work, and care work, that has been declared urgent and essential? Is our care being leveraged to ensure that the university maintains its institutional and imaginative force in the midst of this crisis, rather than being exposed as a site of neoliberal profiteering?

 
Blog post:

McGregor headshot_Christopher M Turbulence

Dr. Hannah McGregoris an Assistant Professor of Publishing at Simon Fraser University and the host of Secret Feminist Agenda, a podcast about the mundane and radical ways we enact our feminism in our daily lives. She lives in Vancouver on the territory of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations.

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Art (used with permission):

Dr. Lucia Lorenzi (B.A. Hons, Simon Fraser University; M.A. Simon Fraser University; PhD, The University of British Columbia) is a scholar, activist, and writer based out of Vancouver, B.C. Her current academic appointment is as SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University, working under the supervision of Dr. Amber Dean. She specializes in trauma theory and Canadian literature and drama, with a broad focus on sexualized and gendered violence in literature and other media. Her dissertation project was a study of the literary and dramatic uses of silence as a subversive technique for representing sexual assault. Her current research focuses on representations of the figure of the perpetrator, with a specific emphasis on perpetrators’ own narratives. Lucia’s research has been published in West Coast LineTOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, and Canadian Literature. You can find her art on Instagram @empathywarrior

 

 

adjuncts · contract work · guest post · Uncategorized

Guest Post: Feeling Included as Contingent Faculty

At the end of last year my first book was longlisted for a literary prize. I didn’t make the shortlist, but I didn’t care. I know that awards are a little bit arbitrary, but that day I felt as if a space had opened up for me in the world of Canadian literature; I counted and the work I was doing mattered.

I teach at a respected university and I was pleased to see that someone posted a link to the prize announcement on my department’s Facebook page. For a moment, I wondered if someone might send out a congratulatory email on the department listserv. But when no one did, I felt silly for needing for such overt validation at work.

When it comes to work as a contract faculty member, I know I’ve got it pretty good. I’ve worked as a sessional lecturer for over a decade now and, for the most part, I like my job. I love working with students. And my days are flexible enough that I can make time for a writing career.  Not only that, I’m lucky enough to be regularized, which means I have job security that many sessionals are denied.

Despite all these benefits I continue to feel the absence of something crucial in my life at the university: a sense of belonging. At first, wanting to belong seemed trivial—especially when so many contingent faculty across North America are worried about more basic things like job security or healthcare. But a quick search yields tons of research on the importance of belonging in the workplace. It matters. And in academia it especially matters for contract faculty.

An acquaintance tells me that she gave up on collegial respect years ago. She loves teaching and she finds meaning in her relationships with students—and that’s enough for her. I’ve been trying to convince myself that it’s enough for me too, but maybe it isn’t. And why should it be? Academia has a reputation for being competitive and exclusionary, but this is especially true for contract faculty— professionals whose work is, by definition, provisional.

I’m not alone in my frustration. I’ve heard stories from colleagues and acquaintances at a variety of institutions. An adjunct who worked long hours to win a big grant, only to have a tenured faculty member announce it at meeting while she was away, never bothering to mention her name or thank her. A sessional who passes the head of his department in the hallway every day, but even after two years has yet to hear a hello. A writer who was deemed unqualified to teach an intro-level literature class but was invited to guest lecture about his work, which was on the course syllabus.

In this way, I get the illusion of value: my accomplishments are as likely to be used for promoting the school’s public image as any tenured faculty member’s; but only one of us gets supported and promoted for the work.

The weight of any single instance of alienation or lack of recognition may vary, but their accumulation is heavy. I’ve spent some time thinking about the question of what my university, my department, my colleagues owe me. And I haven’t come up with a good answer.

My contract specifies that I show up to teach three days a week and that I keep a minimum number of office hours. That’s it. It doesn’t mandate—or even suggest—that I attend department meetings or serve on committees or advise students either formally or informally. In fact, because anything that isn’t in a sessional faculty member’s contract is considered unpaid work, we are often discouraged from doing any departmental service at all. This leaves contract faculty with two options. We can invest the time we don’t spend prepping, teaching, and marking in additional department activities with no additional pay. Or we can pursue opportunities for belonging and community outside of the institution. Over the course of my sessional career, I’ve experimented with both approaches, but neither has felt totally satisfying. Do I need invitations to a tenured professor’s holiday party? Not really. But would I like it if there was a culture of warmth and recognition, if we all knew each other’s names and used them? Definitely.

To be clear, this isn’t an indictment of tenured and tenure-track faculty. “I know I can also do more to create the community I’m looking for. But I am interested in considering how the institution is set up to create and sustain hierarchies—and how those hierarchies get in the way of genuine collegiality. I often sense a scarcity of resources: not enough courses or merit or grant money to go around. Not enough time to do everything that needs doing. Not enough jobs for each graduating cohort. Class sizes that are temporarily raised and then never readjusted, a cost-saving measure that sends those at the bottom of the hierarchy back on the job market.

Contract —in ways both obvious and subtle—that we are replaceable. In this climate, why would department heads or more permanent faculty bother getting to know new sessional or adjunct hires? If a sessional receives a contract for four or eight months, why bother attending department meetings? And, if you are lucky and those months turn into years, a point comes at which it seems too late to say hello to someone in the copy room when you’ve not said hello for the past three semesters.

A culture of social alienation is endemic to academia and damaging to everyone who works there, regardless of where you fall on the social ladder. It’s easy to point out systemic institutional problems, but it’s harder to figure out how to change them. I don’t have the answers but I have a few questions:

What resources really are scarce in our institutions? And how might we make space for those resources that aren’t limited by actual material constraints—things like warmth, recognition, and personal connection? How does the (over)emphasis on hard work and competition sustain the social hierarchies of academia? And how might we begin to question the notion of academia as a pure meritocracy, where status is always earned or deserved? How does the implicit expendability of contract faculty contribute to a culture of social alienation and dehumanization? What might those in positions of stability and power—tenured and tenure-track faculty, administrators, department heads—do to make those with less stability and less recognition feel like valuable, contributing members of a community?

I’m genuinely interested in the answers to these questions—and the further questions they inspire. I hope  they continue the conversation about belonging, validation, and community within the institution.

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Originally from Appalachian Virginia, Mandy Len Catron now lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Rumpus, and The Walrus, as well as literary journals and anthologies. Her first book How to Fall in Love with Anyone: A Memoir in Essays was published in 2017. She’s been teaching writing and literature for over a decade.

disability · enter the confessional · grad school · guest post · Uncategorized

Guest Post: #ADHD in the Academy

Hello, dear readers! Today we have a guest post from Devon Moriarty (Twitter: @devmoriarty), a PhD student in my home department of English Language and Literature at the University of Waterloo. Devon writes about navigating university pre- and post-ADHD diagnosis. Her candor here is really valuable to me personally, as I was diagnosed myself this summer (ADHD/ASD) and am trying to figure out what it all means. So a great big thanks to Devon for sharing this!

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My elementary, middle, and high school years were easy-peasy. Well, grade-wise I breezed through them, but the recurring comments from teachers on my report card concerned my work habits, namely that I consistently distracted others, disrupted class, and could never bring myself to complete, let alone hand-in, homework. University provided a real shock to say the least, and in the fall of 2009, I was barely scraping my way through an undergraduate degree in Psychology. Having been demoted in my program 4 times, I was now only eligible for a 3-year general degree. Sitting in my Child Psychopathology class, determined to get my marks up high enough to re-enter at least a 4-year General degree (I mean, every term was the term that I was going to get my shit together), I learned about Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

As I checked off literally e-v-e-r-y symptom listed in the Professor’s PowerPoint it struck me as odd that I fit the diagnostic criteria for a children’s disorder, and also that this was apparently abnormal—I had spent my whole life experiencing these atypical “symptoms” (I find it odd to categorize my normal behaviour as “symptoms,” thus the sarcastic quotation marks). Long story short, over the next year I received the official diagnosis and finally found the right medication to effectively manage the “disability” (cue sarcastic quotation marks again). My marks skyrocketed. I got back in to the 4-Year-General BA, and even squeezed an English minor in there. The English Department at the University of Waterloo clearly took a chance on me when they admitted me to their MA program given my poor grade performance and lack of the “Honours” on my BA – but I think they’re happy with their decision considering I’m now crushing it in their PhD program. Like, I have even won awards and stuff.

But, I should clarify: medication doesn’t erase the symptoms, but it makes it a lot easier to manage everyday tasks. And FYI, deficit is a really bad way to describe what I experience, because in actuality I pay attention to everything. I have over attention. To illustrate how my brain works here’s a little representative anecdote: When driving at night I find it impossible not to pay attention to the bright sequence of headlights coming from the traffic on the other side of the road. My brain just wants to look at every light as it passes by because it thinks it’s more important than looking at the road itself for some odd reason. (Don’t worry, I don’t actually drive at night having learned this about myself).

But imagine having a brain that is unable to ignore irrelevant stimuli when you’re trying to complete more intellectually demanding tasks: reading a book, writing a paper, listening to a lecture, meeting with colleagues: Oh my gosh, the tapping on the keyboard makes a really cool beat! [lights flicker] I wonder if they use eco-bulbs in this classroom? Why am I so uncomfortable? I should cross and uncross my legs repeatedly to address that issue. I’m gonna tap my feet in sync with the keyboard clicks too. Also remember to nod now and then so it looks like you’re comprehending whatever the heck is going on in this class—but don’t look too engaged or else you’ll be called on. Professor is talking about bell hooks, remember that, bell hooks, bell hooks. OOOOOOOOOhhhhhhhhh, Jingle bells, Jingle bells, Jingle all the way! Oh yeah, bell hooks that’s what I was supposed to be thinking about. bell hooks bell hooks bell hooks, what a strange name, two “thing” nouns. Bells and hooks. What about bell hooks? What was I supposed to remember? Annnnnd its gone. God I’m hungry. I’m going to start eating breakfast every day. That’s what my problem is, lack of breakfast. I can’t believe I didn’t do the reading for today’s class, I hate myself for that. If I ate breakfast, I could have read the reading while eating breakfast instead of wasting my morning playing candy crush. I just love that game so much though. *daydreams candy crush patterns for a while*. Why did the person beside me just change their breathing pattern? Can’t they do it in 4/4 time to appease me? I want them to have equal inhales and exhales, and then this whole class would be more bearable and I could pay attention. I HATE HOW UNEVEN THEIR BREATHING IS. I wonder if I have twitter notifications, I’m going to check right now. And facebook too. And e-mail. Because this is the most appropriate time to do it. DEVON, seriously! PAY ATTENTION. Like you’ve missed everything now and can never catch-up. NEVER. But since you can’t ever catch-up, it’s totally okay that you don’t do work today because it wouldn’t even accomplish anything at this point. You’re right! Excellent reasoning, now I can go home and watch Netflix guilt-free, and I’ll try really hard next term! Also, I can still perform well in the other class because it will be no problem to write that 10-page essay that’s due in 2 days tomorrow. But for real, what was I supposed to remember about bell hooks because it’s really bothering me now.

So, that’s my normal. [ed note: WAIT. THIS IS NOT HOW OTHER PEOPLE MOVE THROUGH THE WORLD??? I HAVE NEVER SEEN A BETTER REPLICATION OF WHAT HAPPENS TO ME EVERY TIME I SIT DOWN TO WORK]

But anyways, I’m writing this guest blog to give advice about being an academic with ADHD, and I think I got distracted.

So let’s get to the advice part:

1) Capitalize on your ability to work under pressure. Boy do ADHD-ers procrastinate, but it’s absolute euphoria when we leave something until the last possible minute, and then just do it in an impossible amount of time. 20-page paper in 72 hours? No problem! High pressure, high stakes often brings clarity and hyperfocus. The problem is, once you’re ABD and beyond, you’re independent without the pressure and structure that deadlines offer. No one’s going to force you to submit a journal article, source out and apply to additional funding opportunities, draft conference paper proposals, or write a teaching statement. You have to find a way to mimic deadlines with immediate, external consequences if you miss them (It really doesn’t work when you set your own consequences, trust me, I tried. I’m such a pushover.) For example, you might find a person who holds you accountable to deadlines, and is genuinely disappointed when you don’t meet them. I joined an agraphia group that meets bi-weekly to set concrete writing goals and to report on the previous goals we all set (shout out to George, Kyle, Monique & Saeed who shame me when writing goals are unmet).

2) Capitalize on your ability to multi-task. During my MA I had one term where I had 3 graduate courses, a TAship, and was working at a local newspaper for 15 hours/week. Oh yeah, and I have 2 kids. . .3 if you include my husband. But dammmmmmnnnn, I was at the top of my game! Like I said before, ADHD brains like to pay attention to everything—rapidly shifting my attention from scholarship, to work, to teaching, to home life helped me to control where my attention was being drawn. With ADHD it’s really hard to maintain attention on a single, time-consuming task, so I find I work most productively and effectively when managing multiple projects or commitments. With multiple projects you can drop one, pick up the other and don’t have to feel guilty about it because you’re still accomplishing stuff.

3) Don’t overcommit yourself. It can be tempting, since you thrive on being overwhelmed to overcommit and you end up letting people down. Don’t do that. Find the sweet spot. Also it’s fine to not work on weekends. I mean you can work a little bit, but weekends are mostly for play not for work.

4) Find productive ways to procrastinate. I really hate writing literature reviews, so to avoid them I’ll do other productive things so that I don’t feel bad. Recently I made my own website and taught myself CSS in the process—fun, but productive. Attend workshops, join committees, offer to guest lecture, reformat your cv, update your 5-year-plan, find a target journal for your latest project, coordinate your travel plans for your next conference, blog. I don’t have advice to avoid procrastination because you can make it work for you.

5) Pomodoros. I’m not talking about basic tomato sauce here, I’m talking about the Pomodoro technique, a time management method where you complete 25 minutes of timed work followed by a short five-minute break. After four pomodoros, you get a longer, 20 minute break. You can download a Pomodoro app to your phone to help track your poms! (Disclaimer: My five-minute break often turns into a lunch hour because I like to procrastinate, or because I’m frustrated because I accomplished nothing in one pom. Other days I’ve banged out 12 poms.)

6) Don’t forget things
a. Lists. I forget things. All the time. Lists help you to not forget things, but the caveat is that you have to remember that you have a list and where you put the list.
b. Bullet Journals. A list, calendar, and productivity tracker all in one journal (journals are harder to lose than lists), and you feel so productive when you can cross completed items off your list! I don’t have time to do these life savers justice, but I encourage you to visit http://www.bulletjournal.com to get the basics.
c. Write things on your hand. Hands are an appropriate place to write really important reminders because you can’t misplace your hands. Use sharpie fine point markers to avoid it washing off when you wash your hands. I’m being serious.
7) Have others review your work before submitting anywhere – One of my Professors once asked if I skipped editing my work. I didn’t, I’m just really bad at it. In true ADHD fashion, I make countless thoughtless errors in my work, but the real challenge is that I often can’t even detect the errors—I don’t even know why. I can edit other people’s work, but not my own. So have a reliable colleague review your work, and return the favour to them too. Teamwork!

I could go on, but I need to do some RA work (by which I mean check all social media streams for notifications immediately).

guest post · Uncategorized

Guest post: Insubordinate, Indiscrete, Interdisciplinary: Risking Perpetual Precarity in All The Wrong Places, or, Just Being Fabulous, A Manifesto

image via CWRC

By T.L. Cowan

Preface: This is a version of a talk I gave at the Universities Art Association of Canada (UAAC/AAUC) at the Banff Centre, located on the traditional territory of the Kootenay, Stoney, Blood, Peigan, Siksika and Tsuu T’ina First Nations. With thanks to Andrea Terry and Riva Symko for the invitation to be part of the panel “A Big Dull Axe Looms Large: Interrogating the Disciplinary Relevance of Art & Art History in Canada.” Dedicated to the striking OPSEU/SEFPO faculty, who are putting their bodies and livelihoods on the line to improve working conditions of part-time and full-time faculty in Ontario’s colleges.

And with thanks to the many comrades I have talked with about adjunct methods, precarious faculty survivance and feminist solidarity across institutional and community differences of rank and resources throughout the years including and to everyone who taught me how to do cabaret.

____________

It took me 10 years to get my undergraduate degree. The first time around, university was my escape route. I used up all of my bravado to get myself into university as the best way to get out of the small town where I was raised, moved into a university dorm room and that is where the plan ended. I paid my way out of that small town with a small portfolio of scholarships, grants and loans, which I spent in a shockingly short amount of time on tapered jeans and binge drinking. Since I had only ever imagined university as an escape route and not actually its own thing, I rarely went to class and even more rarely turned in assignments. Very soon I was on academic probation and my student loans were in collection.  So I dropped out, got a few jobs in restaurants, started volunteering at some feminist organizations, moved to Vancouver and became a lesbian spoken word artist. I found my way into the booming feminist and queer spoken word and broader cabaret scene in Vancouver in the late 1990s, and quite quickly realized that to meet the feminists and queers a girl most desired and to keep a scene going so you could keep meeting those feminists and queers, you had to make shit happen out of nothing. So, like everyone else I knew, and along with many collaborators, I started making cabaret—creating a theme, finding a space, inviting many performers who did different things and hoping they would invite their friends, making posters, getting the word out, bringing people together in different configurations depending on the show.

As an event organizer and cabaret curator (although certainly we were not calling ourselves ‘curators’ in those days), I regularly planned shows by inviting people I already knew and liked as well as people who I wanted to meet and whose work I loved. My collaborators and I, we were making spaces in which to gather the people we wanted to be together with. So we took the shows to where the feminists and queers were at: political rallies, marches, vigils. Take Back the Night, International Women’s Day. Maybe you know what I’m talking about. We almost never had any money to work with and even when we charged a cover at the door, we almost never took home any cash. But sometimes we took home a date. We never made solo shows. Each show was a cabaret–a variety show with six to a dozen or two performers working in poetry, performance art, dance, video, storytelling, puppets, bondage, and so on, with different life experiences and ways of expressing these ideas. We created stages in whatever show space we could get our hands on: bookstores, cafeterias, sex shops, coffee shops, strip clubs, nightclubs, living rooms, parks, theatres, squatted gallery spaces, bars, community centres, and more than one basement show space so dense with mould spores you choked when you inhaled.  Together with the other folks in this scene (and like so many queer, trans-, feminist and other minoritized artists past, present and future), we were creating shows in the image of the world we wanted to live in, bringing into existence a reality that we didn’t see elsewhere, designing shows to attract the people we wanted to be together with. We were hacking together our own existences.

Five years after dropping out, I got myself back to school and made it through an undergrad and then eventually through grad school. Several years into my professor life, it has become very clear that the drop-out years filled with cabaret-making have been just as important to the academic life I want for myself, as all of the grad courses, exams, and scholarly mentoring. Indeed it has been the practice of what I have come to call survival interdisciplinarity – a skill I learned in making cabaret – that got me through the most difficult years of my career to date. As a queer feminist anti-racist trans-loving crip-loving scholar committed to equity, decolonization and Indigenization in and of corporate settler university culture, cabaret has continued to be my most important skill.

What I hope is that the revolution of adjunct faculty is coming and that it will create a new turn in our disciplines.  The ‘Adjunct Turn’ which, as a method from below, will be aligned with what Chela Sandoval calls “differential oppositional consciousness” (2000), coalitional techniques for affinity-based disciplinary and institutional transformations. An orientation away from individualism and the life of a solitary specialized genius, and an orientation towards critical intimacy, towards collaborative, process- and practice-centred distributed epistemologies and an aesthetics of multiplicity and shared resources. A method aligned with what Audre Lorde called in the power of the erotic, “the yes within ourselves” (1984, 57); the yes work of making the intellectual-cultural worlds we desire.

It was while I was completing my undergrad (my third go at it), that I started to realize the vast inequalities of the professoriate. It became very clear to me which of my professors were working on a contract, sessional, part-time, precarious, course-by-course way. Perhaps this is because I grew up underclass, so I can spot another one easily. What this meant was that when I started grad school, I was very determined to never work as a sessional faculty, since I had a notion of the humiliations that sessional and adjunct faculty were experiencing in the context of my education, and the humiliations of being underclass was not an experience I wanted to repeat in my adulthood.

In the first instance, I got very lucky and did, in fact, go from grad school to post-doc to tenure track job. However, in 2011, I left that tenure track job, in order to live with my partner, who had been offered a job in New York City. Although we didn’t have kids, I did what people with children call “keeping our family together” and took a career risk in order to live the intimate life I wanted and needed.

My immediate experience in New York City was not the explosive success I had hoped for. No one knew me. My reputation did not cross the border. I had to start over. I had signed a part-time contract at The New School, which meant that I would teach somewhere from 1-3 courses per year, with a salary cap of something around $21,000. If I wanted more work, I would have to look elsewhere.

Even though I thought I had previously understood the underclassness of part-time faculty, I soon realized that I had underestimated how my new status as “an adjunct,” “a part-timer,” would so significantly and negatively impact what kinds of contributions I would be invited to make at my home institution and beyond. The reality of adjunctism started to set in, and I realized that it was going to be more difficult than I expected to have the life I needed. It was in the context of working from the marginal, isolating, humiliating and largely unresourced position of an adjunct faculty that cabaret methods became so clearly central to my life as a research-practitioner of trans- feminist and queer cultural and political production. It was in the context of working as an adjunct faculty that I realized “the state” of our profession and our cross-disciplines in the Humanities.

Rather than honing an expertise in a small, specialized area of research, it became clear to me that I needed to be able to mobilize my capacity for indiscretion – I had to be able and willing to teach absolutely anything, anywhere. The cross-disciplinary, make-do training of my ongoing cabaret worlds bolstered this practice. The precariat in academic industries work where we can, when we can, and how we can.

And it is in these conditions that we find the “state” of our disciplines and our profession. What is the work being done by adjunct faculty in the classrooms, conferences and research cultures of the professoriate? What are the knowledges about our disciplines produced within the conditions of desperate, degrading, crushing, strategic survival economies of part-time and contract professorial labour? How can our profession and disciplines account for and value these knowledges even when that labour is treated by our institutions as infinitely replaceable, disposable, unspecialized, undisciplined? These are questions I am continuing to ask myself again, as I find myself with the good fortune of being in a new tenure-track position. And importantly, I owe this new position to the kindness, solidarity, patience, generous help, understanding and recognition from feminist comrades, along the way. We cannot survive in this system without making worlds that we want to be in together; this means that tenured and tenure-track faculty have to acknowledge that it is their job to simultaneously work and break this broken, vastly unjust system. We have to pay attention to the ways our departments, faculties and institutions are using contract faculty in ways that become increasingly invisible to those of us protected from such realities in the daily life of our jobs.

And when we are on hiring committees and grant juries, we need to be attentive to the inclination of our profession to punish the undisciplined for their insubordinate expertise in everything—an insubordination produced by the need to create something awesome from nothing while living out the conditions of massive and unforgivable collegial neglect. The survival work of adjunct faculty needs to be acknowledged as a specialization, as expertise, in our disciplines and in the research and teaching economies of the contemporary university.

A story to end, a dispatch from the stage of the Loud & Queer Festival in Edmonton from many years ago. It is story that has shaped my intellectual and creative life and it offered me a survival practice that I used constantly when I was working as an adjunct faculty. The story comes from the Edmonton Queen, Gloria Hole and her drag mother, Halifax-based drag queen high priestess, Lulu LaRude (it is told with permission from Darrin Hagen aka Gloria Hole):

When Gloria was just a baby queen (so, in the early 1980s), she and Lulu found themselves offered a gig out in Gibbons, north of Edmonton. They were booked for a show at a place called “Sensations” or “Celebrities” or “Hot Spot” or something very gay-sounding. For weeks before, an excited Gloria had told all of her friends that she’d booked a FEATURE gig and she just couldn’t stop talking about it. It turns out the place was a strip club with patrons who were not impressed by these drag queens, and Gloria and Lulu barely escaped with their lives.

They got back in their dragmobile and high-tailed it back to (the relative safety of) Edmonton. As they are driving, poor young Gloria turns to the wise Lulu and says, “Oh Lulu what are we going to tell everyone? I’m so ashamed.”  Wise Lulu turns to Gloria and says, “Darling, have I taught you nothing? We’re going to tell them it was FABULOUS.”

The risk of being fabulous, as many a drag queen knows, is the risk of being under-appreciated and misunderstood, disciplined by a life-threatening set of rules that you’re not even playing by. I propose that we all begin to appreciate and reward the fabulous as it is mobilized by faculty working in the shittiest of conditions. As Anjali Arondekar and Geeta Patel note in their introduction to the recent introduction to their special issue of GLQ, Area Impossible: The Geopolitics of Queer Studies,

we have opted for the fabular because it can be thought of as the form through which one imagines a better or perhaps just a good enough analytic. Fables underscore peculiar commonalities and repetitions of belief and orient routinized habits of analysis

while attending to the generation of value/capital that is implicit in both. [Whereas] translation (especially in embodied elsewheres) could inadvertently slide into literalization, punctiliousness, or conversion, mislaying in the process the fecundity that the fabular can lug along. (2009, 154)

I suggest that we need to recognize and reward the fabulous in our fields, not only to work to eradicate the entrenched and enforced maldistribution of resources and life chances within our profession and disciplines, but to begin to assess and appreciate the radical disciplinary transformations at work through the X-factor (Coleman 2011) specialties of colleagues working as adjunct faculty. The fabular is the practice of creating and holding what is necessarily generative for ourselves and those who listen to our stories in the face of obvious disaster (Cowan & Rault 2016); it is “a good enough analytic” for these times and I propose that this is the analytic from which we are all working, adjunct and otherwise; to operate securely is to disavow the situation that produces these massive inequities in our places of education. As Tavia Nyong’o writes of fabulation: “The overriding of our rational brain is key to how fabulation, as an instinct for the virtual, unlocks and unleashes novelty in an otherwise deadlocked symbolic order” (Nyong’o 2013/2014). I suggest first that we identify and seize upon that symbolic order in which we are deadlocked; and then we must begin the cabaret work of fabulating a new reality.

 

References

Arondekar, Anjali, and Geeta Patel. 2016. “Area Impossible: Notes toward an Introduction.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 22 (2): 151–71.

Coleman, Beth. 2011. Hello Avatar: Rise of the Networked Generation. MIT Press.

Cowan, T.L. & Jasmine Rault. 2016. “Transmedial Drag: Cabaret Methods, Digital Platforms & Technologies of Fabulous.” Talk delivered at Trinity College, 25 February.

Lorde, Audre. 1984. Sister Outsider Essays and Speeches. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press.

Nyong’o, Tavia. 2013. “Wildness: A Fabulation.” S&F Online 12 (1-2). http://sfonline.barnard.edu/activism-and-the-academy/wildness-a-fabulation/.

Sandoval, Chela. 2000. Methodology of the Oppressed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

 

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T.L. Cowan is an Assistant Professor of Media Studies (Digital Media Cultures) in the Department of Arts, Culture and Media (UTSC) and the Faculty of Information (iSchool) at the University of Toronto. Before moving to the University of Toronto, T.L. was a Presidential Visiting Professor in Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies at Yale University, and Chair of Experimental Pedagogies in the School of Media Studies at The New School. T.L.’s research focuses on cultural and intellectual economies and networks of minoritized digital media and performance practices. This work includes a first monograph on intermedial performance, poetry and digital culture, entitled Poetry’s Bastards and a second, on the translocal methods of trans- feminist and queer cabaret in Montreal, Mexico City and New York City, entitled Sliding Scale, both nearing completion. T.L. is also the Primary Investigator on a collaborative digital research-creation project called the Cabaret Commons: an online archive and anecdotal encyclopedia for trans-feminist and queer artists, audiences and researchers, and is writing a co-authored book entitled Checking In: Feminist Labor in Networked Publics & Privates with Jasmine Rault.

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Guest post Another Dumpster Fire: an opinionated review of Arrival: the Story of CanLit by Nick Mount

By Julie Rak

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I consider the following to be a public service for all those who might consider reading Arrival: the Story of CanLit by “rockstar professor” Nick Mount. I analyse Mount’s book so that you don’t have to read it, unless you want to write a lengthy rant about it yourself. Arrival has had a soft landing in the mainstream press. Its author has been a guest on television and radio, and the book has enjoyed mainly positive reviews in The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star and The National Post, to name a few. Quill and Quire is a little sceptical of Mount’s sweeping premise and The Walrus wonders about Mount’s cheerleading of CanLit paired with the omission of serious discussions about writers of colour, but that’s the most critical things have been.

I’m here to provide some spikes on the landing pad because readers, I assure you that Arrival: the Story of CanLit is one whopper of a bad book. It’s bad because every word of its title contains a dubious claim about what Canadian literature is, or when it “arrived,” or who wrote it, or what we should think about it. It’s not well researched. But more importantly–and the reason why I decided to write such a long essay–Arrival is bad because its cluster of sweeping generalizations manage to do something that in this dumpster-fire of a CanLit year should not be done. It reproduces assumptions about white, homophobic, sexist, settler Canada, and it celebrates them.  So those of us who know better need to throw off the mantle of Canadian politeness and confront the premises of this book because the recent CanLit scandals are founded on ideas that also structure much of Arrival. Mount says that it took 10 years to write Arrival (9), and so I recognize that he could not have commented within it on the current problems with CanLit. But beyond admiring comments about Mount’s “wit and panache,” interviewers and reviewers have not been taking serious issue with Mount about how Arrival constructs its version of the CanLit boom in the wake of the scandals of 2016 and 2017. It’s time to do so now.

Arrival begins with a version of Terra Nullius, “no one’s land,” a formula used by some non-Native explorers and politicians to claim territory in the new world by presuming that Indigenous people did not own the land and had no claim upon it. Mount recasts no one’s land as  no one’s time  in the preface so that he can lay claim to “the whole story”:

“I wrote this book because it didn’t exist. We have many excellent biographies of the writers who emerged during what came to be called the CanLit boom. We also have some good histories of the publishing side of the story in both English and French Canada, and a great many books about the time itself. What we don’t have is a book that puts all those stories together. This is the first book to try to do that, to tell the whole story, for both those who know parts of it and those who know none of it.” [emphasis mine] (9)

There is a field called book history that has in fact pulled together much of the story of this period. But alas, it’s full of what Mount might think of as dreary technical research and complex social history. It’s much more fun to call this period a CanLit boom without a lot of hard evidence, and to detail the swinging 60s and the early 70s as a time of hedonism, when writers “lived larger and often riskier lives than their inheritors.”  If Mount had said that this book was just about literary nationalism or the writing scene in some of Canada’s major cities, that would have been fine. But Arrival says that it is about much, much more, and that proves to be the book’s undoing.

Remember what Mount said in his preface: this isn’t just a story about Canadian writing. It’s the whole story. That’s why at the end of the preface, Mount has this to say: “This book is about the past, but like all such books, it’s for the present, a book that I hope helps explain how we got from there to here, from a country without a literature to a literature without a country  [emphasis mine] (9).” It’s such a neat phrase, almost as neat as Northrop Frye’s oft-quoted observation about who we are being answered by where is here,* which characterizes Canada as empty land ready for the colonization of the imagination, another act of Terra Nullius. So what is the whole story? It seems that before the 1960s (before 1959 to be exact) there was no Canadian literature at all. Mount’s CanLit boom, at last, brought proper literature into being. By the end of the boom, which Mount says happened in 1974 “when Margaret Laurence ran out of novels” (14), Canadian literature itself no longer existed because it had gone global. “CanLit,” Mount  opines in his conclusion, “ended when it arrived because that was its job—to arrive” (326).  Ending the boom in 1974 makes for a convenient chronology because it excludes so many writers who belong to minority groups. No past and then no future. According to this version of events, Canadian literature is just part of global literature now. Alice Munro has won the Nobel Prize. Margaret Atwood belongs to the world, like Celine Dion or Alex Trebek.

There are of course enormous leaps of logic in Arrival that bolster such a premise. “Canadian literature” mostly means the following: Toronto writers, English-speaking Montreal poets, and the TISH poetry collective in Vancouver. The mentions of Hugh MacLennan and Alden Nowlan do little to balance this out. The restrictions Mount places on the idea of Canada mean that only certain kinds of writers “count” within the CanLit formation. The others exist on a periphery oriented towards the centre, if they count at all. Much of the literary history of Canada simply does not exist in Arrival: there is no L.M. Montgomery, E. Pauline Johnson, Mazo de la Roche, John Richardson or Ralph Connor. It is no accident that all of these authors were popular, whether they published bestselling novels, serialized their widely-read writing for newspapers and magazines or, in the case of Johnson, popularized a poetry book with thrilling live performances. But they cannot be part of Canadian literary history, it seems.

And so, Arrival itself is a breathtaking work of a mari usque ad mare, from sea to sea, a literary railroad of sorts built across Canada to ensure Upper Canadian dominance. It invites comparison (and reviewers are already doing the comparing)  with another work made more than four decades earlier, Margaret Atwood’s Survival, also published by Anansi Press. This is a book that Atwood herself has called “Canadian literature for dummies,”** meant for high school teachers as a way to save the publisher from financial ruin. I interpret this comparison as disturbing, not flattering. Atwood herself affirms “no one’s time”  as part of her own practice. She is quoted in Arrival saying that when she came on the scene, she “found the lack of literary ancestors liberating, like being handed a blank sheet of paper” (208). This vision of CanLit is urban, able-bodied (only the “strong” survive in Survival), centrist, mostly anglophone, and overwhelmingly white.

Even when Austin Clarke is mentioned in Arrival (he was the most prominent Caribbean-born writer in Canada in the 1960s)  he is someone who publisher Jack McLelland says “needs a kick in the ass” (192). As Lucia Lorenzi has pointed out, that is exactly how Clarke is indexed in the book, an inscription of violence against a Black writer enshrined in the book’s apparatus, played for laughs. Mount’s description of Harold (Sonny) Ladoo, a Trinidadian-Canadian author who published one book before his untimely death in 1974, is the only other serious reference he makes to a Black writer in Arrival. This omission joins many others that work to marginalize writers who belong to minority groups: somehow, Jane Rule, Jean Little, Maxine Tynes, Dorothy Livesay, Adele Wiseman,  the many Inuit authors published in the 1970s, Joy Kogawa, Ethel Wilson and Mi’kmaq writer Rita Joe either do not appear at all or do not merit serious discussion. Gabrielle Roy is only a French Canadian writer who goes to Winnipeg to escape her fame for writing the Tin Flute. Francophone writing in Quebec in the 1960s is represented by mainly by Hubert Aquin, Pierre Vallières, Michel Tremblay, and Marie-Claire Blais. Pierre Vallièrres’ White Niggers of America is discussed without much contextualization—and this is a book with a title and premise that must be accompanied by an anti-racist critique*** if it is to be mentioned today. Meanwhile, Nicole Brossard, the highest profile feminist and GLBTQ writer in Quebec at the time who published five books before 1974 and who won the Governor General’s award in that year, goes unmentioned.

Despite this last glaring omission, Mount does have a bit to say about feminism, and it’s this: “feminism did not create the writers of the CanLit boom, at least not feminism by name. But both feminism and the conditions that awoke it did give women writers a large and interested audience” (308). That’s what feminists are here, consumers. As is the case so often in Arrival, Mount takes a partial truth and makes it stand in for the whole. Margaret Atwood and Gwendolyn MacEwan, who Mount cites for evidence, may not have been a feminists in the 1970s but Brossard was an active feminist during this period and founded feminist publications at the end of the decade. Dorothy Livesay was also involved in feminist political groups at the time and Margaret Laurence was part of the feminist peace movement. If Mount had extended his CanLit Boom chronology just a bit further to 1979, he could have written about the numerous feminist newsletters, literary journals and magazines**** in French and English that appeared from 1975 to 1979, and he could have addressed the work of Red Power activists and feminists of colour too. In a book dedicated to providing “the whole story,” it is remarkable that feminism is reduced to consumerism and the representation of women to commodification, as it is in this passage: “Khrushchev and Nixon debated communism versus capitalism in Moscow; a doll named Barbie spread her plastic legs in New York and settled the argument” (14).

In this version of the CanLit boom,  the increase in titles published in the 1960s and 1970s is used as the rationale for why good writing emerged at the time. Literary quality is read here very narrowly: Harlequin Enterprises, probably Canada’s most profitable publisher for decades, doesn’t even figure in this analysis.  All other cultural production in Arrival plays a supporting role to high literature. Theatre, for instance, is pictured as a void, with only the Factory Theatre deserving mention as the place where Canadian plays were produced. After the Painters 11 pack up their paints and go home, it seems that there’s no worthy national art. Music plays no role in Canada during the period, except for Leonard Cohen and briefly, because they make money, the Tysons. Literary programs on radio are given their due, but television and film (even animated shorts) are unworthy of mention.   What is most important here is that “literature” does the work of exclusion for Nick Mount. Where “literature” cannot do the work, value judgements take over.

Here’s an example. Maria Campbell’s memoir Halfbreed of 1973 was a bestseller and it remains a landmark work. But Mount discusses Campbell’s impact like this:  “the Prairies grew Margaret Laurence, Rudy Wiebe, and Maria Campbell, all three in their own way heralds of a coming Native renaissance” (19).  Mount reinstates the reading of regionalism Northrop Frye made in the 1970 essay “Canadian Identity and Canadian Regionalism,” where he observes that on the prairies, riding a horse makes one feel that one is “at the highest point in the universe” (267),***** reducing the cultural production for the region  to a geography. Prairie writers, it follows, are products of their environment, unlike writers in Toronto, who are products of cultural interaction. Laurence and Wiebe, who have been critiqued for their representation of Indigenous people in their fiction, somehow contribute to “a Native renaissance,” a phrase that simultaneously erases and mischaracterizes the contribution of Indigenous writers in the 1970s and their struggle to get their work into print.******  The politics of Halfbreed are blunted here. Campbell’s identity as a Métis activist and writer is erased by making her “regional” and making Laurence and Wiebe part of the history of Indigenous writing.

To add more fuel to this dumpster fire of an argument, Mount “reviews” a variety of Canadian books published between 1959 and 1974. He uses a 5 star rating system running from “Got Published” to “World Classic” (spoiler alert: Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Alistair MacLeod, Al Purdy, Sheila Watson, Mavis Gallant, Dennis Lee and bp nichol are the ones who get five stars). Reviewers have objected to these puff pieces because they are so partisan, but I like to think of them as the true heart of the book, where Mount really flies the flag for the kind of literature he enjoys. What we find out is that Mount likes high literary fiction and poetry well enough, but no other kinds of writing really pass muster. And we find out that the author hasn’t done all that much work to make most of his reviews accurate or respectful.

At one painful point, Mount reviews Halfbreed.  It gets three stars, a “very good.”  Mount goes on to mention what he calls a true fact: Campbell’s book and Cher’s song “Half-Breed” were released in the same year, and then he adds that Campbell is “of mostly Scottish, French and Cree descent” (301). This is not how to talk about Campbell’s identity. She is Métis, and that is the nation to which she belongs. To add to the problems here, the song “Half-Breed” has been shown to be highly problematic. In the past, Cher has claimed Cherokee ancestry , especially when she has performed the song, without providing any evidence to substantiate her claim. Placing that song next to Halfbreed without that context and not stating that Campbell is in fact Métis look to me like neocolonial assumptions bolstered by sloppy research.  It’s not the only instance: Mount repeats Milton Acorn’s claim (debunked for decades)******* that he is of Mi’kmaq origin, writing about “the Mi’kmaq in his blood” (314). The Japanese Canadian internment becomes “The Japanese internment” (250), erasing decades of explanation by activists and historians that the internment refused to treat Japanese Canadians as Canadian citizens.********

2016 and 2017 have seen a parade of scandals in CanLit as an industry:  the spectacle of famous authors rushing headlong to the defense of author Steven Galloway when UBC fired him for breach of trust; the revelation that Joseph Boyden, Galloway’s staunch defender, was not in fact an Indigenous writer; the Writer’s Union of Canada appropriation “award” controversy. In the wake of these scandals that revealed much of the foundation of the CanLit star-system to be racist, neocolonialist, sexist and just plain arrogant, it might seem unthinkable that a book such as Arrival could be received without much hard-hitting discussion of its assumptions about history, regionalism, race, settler colonialism, and what constitutes sound research. But this is what has happened, so far.

The dumpster fire that is Canadian literary nationalism continues to burn. Arrival fans the flames.

*Northrop Frye, The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Literary Imagination, House of Anansi, 1971, 220.

** She said this in a talk I saw in Edmonton, Alberta for the Canadian Literature Centre, 2016.

***Josée Makropoulas, “Promoting Frenchness Within the Realm of Whiteness,” in Racism, eh? A Critical Anthology of Race and Racism in Canada, Captus Press, 2004.

****See Cecily Devereux, “Canadian Feminist Literary Criticism  and Theory in the ‘Second Wave,’” Oxford Handbook of Canadian Literature, Ed. Cynthia Sugars, Oxford University Press, 2015. 845-851.

*****This was an unpublished report to the CBC on regional programming. Northrop Frye, Northrop Frye on Canada vol. 12. U. of Toronto Press, 2003.

******See chapters by Emma LaRocque in Writing the Circle, Armand Ruffo in (Ad)ressing Our Words, Greg Young-Ing in Looking at the Words of Our People and Cheryl Suzack in History of the Book in Canada, vol. 3.

*******Richard Lemm, Milton Acorn in Love and Anger. McGill-Queens UP, 1999. 13-17.

********Roy Miki & Cassandra Kobayashi, Justice in Our Time: the Japanese Canadian Redress Settlement. Talonbooks, 1991. Roy Miki, Redress: Inside the Japanese Canadian Call for Justice. Raincoast Books, 2004.

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Julie Rak is a Professor in the Department of English and Film Studies, and she lives and works on Treaty 6 and Metis territory. Julie holds an Eccles Fellowship at the British Library for 2017-2018 and is also a Killam Professor at the University of Alberta for 2017-18. She is the author of Boom! Manufacturing Memoir for the Popular Market (2013) and Negotiated Memory: Doukhobor Autobiographical Discourse(2004). She is the editor of Autobiography in Canada (2005), has co-edited with Anna Poletti Identity Technologies: Constructing the Self Online (2014) and with Keavy Martin she edited the reissue of Mini Aodla Freeman’s prize-winning Inuit memoir, Life Among the Qallunaat (2014). With Jeremy Popkin, she edited a collection of Philippe Lejeune’s essays translated into English, On Diary (2009) and with Andrew Gow, she edited Mountain Masculinity: the Writings of Nello “Tex” Vernon-Wood, 1911-1938 (2008).   Julie sponsored and co-wrote with Hannah MacGregor the 2016-2017 Counter-Letter petition about the UBCAccountable controversy, and she maintains a website of resources for those who want to learn more about the issues.