academic reorganization · adjuncts · classrooms · guest post · mental health · workload

Guest Post: When too much is still not enough; Academic workloads and campus exhaustion

Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall, Suzette Mayr’s recent satiric novel about a harried English professor, dramatizes the anxious thrum of academic work. Edith teaches, grades, and answers “pounds” of email. Her phone therapist advises her to excel in new areas, to increase her pace of publications while exercising regularly, revamping her wardrobe, and networking more extensively. Edith protests, “there’s never any time.” While swimming laps, she worries she “should be catching up on her critical theory, not frolicking in pools.”

Over the past decade, faculty have become increasingly willing to protest that academic workloads are overwhelming, stressful, and conducive to ill health. In last year’s The Slow Professor, Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber called for a shift to a more deliberative, less frenetic approach to research and teaching. Cultural theorist Rosalind Gill contends, “A punishing intensification of work has become an endemic feature of academic life.”[1][1]  The contributors to a special issue of The Canadian Geographer on academic workload and health describe “academic cultures and practices that valorize overwork, including expressions of martyrdom, talking about not sleeping or eating and about working all of the time, [and] an expectation of always being available for work purposes . . . .”

Faculty complaints about workload and stress may “appear self-indulgent,” as Berg and Seeber acknowledge. Mark Kingwell, for example, has little patience: “I am sure that people feel rushed to produce journal articles and positive teaching evaluations, to sit on this committee or that. But can you seriously compare this to actual work? Surely, there is a better term for such high-end special pleading. Ultra-first-world problem? Point-one-per-cent lament?” This is an invitation to shame and guilt. How can you be working too hard if what you are doing is not even work?

And the culture of shaming starts early. A mid-August tweet from the University of Cambridge praises novelist and alumna Zadie Smith for spurning barbecues in favour of long hours in the library and asks students, “Are you #teambbq or #teamlibrary”? The fierce competition for admission suggests entering students are unlikely to need an additional nudge. But the comment is perfectly characteristic of the anxiety that if we are not working all of the time, we are not doing enough to pursue the world-class status demanded by a growing number of institutions, with all members pressed to achieve more with declining resources. It reflects the anxiety of a neoliberal higher education sector beset with measurements and rankings of excellence. Graduate students are urged to publish while completing doctoral studies as rapidly as possible, even while new (and not-so-new)  proposals advocate that they also commit extensive time  preparing for non-academic careers. Institutions increase class sizes for introductory courses taught by teaching-stream faculty and sessional instructors and then mandate the time-consuming development of online resources to support struggling students. Research universities require qualifications for new Assistant Professors that were once sufficient to achieve tenure.

Contract faculty cobbling together enough courses to pay rent, staff members who have experienced surges in expectations without salary increases, and hourly-waged service workers on campus laid off every summer are all experiencing time crunches of various kinds, exacerbated by financial strains. Rather than isolating one kind of faculty work for analysis, we might assess how various campus groups—including students who are juggling onerous work obligations with school—are participating in a culture of academic exhaustion. We need to know more about each other’s work conditions. A student who fell asleep in one of my classes explained that she clerked at a convenience store until two a.m., when public transit had stopped running, and then walked several kilometers home. She had no family financial support and, as a first-generation university student, feared acquiring a heavy debt load. A member of the custodial staff described how her work duties had been revised to increase the amount of heavy lifting while reducing the social contact with faculty and students that she enjoyed. Knowing these stories, and translating that knowledge into advocacy for better student aid and more equitable and safe working conditions across campus, is crucial.

But we also need to resist the notion that academic work is such a privilege and a pleasure that there can never be too much of it—only too little capacity to carry it out. This approach stigmatizes people who bring up workload concerns and equates endless work with competence, pushing out those who, in Berg and Seeber’s terms, fear they are “not suited” to academia, who judge themselves as inadequate to (unreasonable) demands. It also creates trickle-down impacts, as burnt out faculty members’ responsibilities shift to their colleagues.

And we need to watch out for the unequal workloads that are imposed. Alison Mountz is among those who have pointed out that female faculty members perform a disproportionate amount of emotional labour; persuasive evidence suggests they do more service work, particularly in lower-status roles,  and that this has a negative impact on promotion. Racialized and Indigenous faculty are called upon by their institutions as diversity workers and as mentors to students from traditionally underrepresented groups, sharply increasing service responsibilities that are less valued than research.[2]

Universities and colleges have increased their attention to student mental health, but most are doing far less to support faculty and staff members (even while adding to their work the support and monitoring of student well-being).

Workload is a labour issue; workload is a feminist issue; workload is a disability issue; workload is a mental and physical health issue, a collegiality issue, and a sustainability issue. It is also one that academia avoids tackling. Ramped-up expectations in all areas of faculty performance have come to seem inevitable, and they cannot be resisted without collective will.

[1] More recently, Gill reflects on the ubiquity of a discourse of academic pain among tenured faculty: “Academics’ talk about our own lives has become suffused with extraordinarily violent metaphors: people speak of going under, of coming up for air, of drowning or suffocating. This shocking imagery should surely give cause for concern.” Rosalind Gill, “What Would Les Back Do?: If Generosity Could Save Us.” International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society. Pre-print. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10767-017-9263-9

[2] The essays in The Equity Myth expose a much broader set of issues and reach depressing conclusions about the ways in which symbolic forms of inclusion and diversity are overriding more substantive equity efforts. Frances Henry, Enakshi Dua, Carl E. James, Audrey Kobayashi, Peter Li, Howard Ramos, and Malinda K. Smith, The Equity Myth: Racialization and Indigeneity at Canadian Universities (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2017). The essays by Henry and Kobayashi and by James pay particular attention to the workload consequences.

 

Heidi TD

Heidi Tiedemann Darrock holds a PhD from U of T and taught as a contract faculty member at universities and colleges in Ontario and BC for more than a decade before accepting a position as an Assistant Teaching Professor. For four years she was a member of the MLA’s Committee on Contingent Labor, serving for two years as Chair. Heidi publishes on Canadian literature.

affect · emotional labour · guest post · reflection · Uncategorized

Guest Post: Check Your Privilege

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Recently I was invited to deliver a public lecture on the ethics of care and feminism, in Vancouver, to a women’s cultural group called Réseau-Femmes. I was delighted, and nervous, about the challenge of making my academic research and writing accessible to a wider audience. I decided to test parts of my presentation on a few readers from my personal circle, id est my mom in the first instance, and a friend as my second reader. My talk began with this:

Je suis une nord-américaine blanche, allochtone, bourgeoise, instruite, littéraire et féministe. Je suis une femme cisgenre, c’est-à-dire, l’identité de mon genre correspond à mon sexe. Mon privilège social est ostensible et indéniable. Je suis fille d’une mère et d’un père; je suis moi-même mère de deux filles; je suis conjointe, amie et confidente. J’ai un chien, un chat, parfois un poisson, et trois mois sur douze, une roseraie et un potager. Je suis mentore, administratrice, parfois poète; je suis essayiste et professeure.

Le soin est au cœur de ma vie.

The opening was meant to be both political and light hearted. Situating myself and my privilege as a white, North American, settler, middle-class, educated, cis woman constituted of course the political gesture; the references to domestic pets and tasks that occupy, as do my daughters and students, my own daily care-giving practices elicited kind, knowing laughter from my audience. As for my mom, she loved it: « J’aime beaucoup beaucoup. Je trouve que c’est une belle approche à ton sujet ». After all she’s my mom, you might say. But when she’s in disagreement, she doesn’t mince words.

And so I had gone ahead with this introduction, despite my second reader who had emailed me the following a few days before:

I will admit that I find your introductory comments about your own privilege to be overly apologetic. I know that acknowledging privilege seems to be the thing to do these days, but I don’t agree with the trend. Let’s say that I am a critically minded member of a racial minority group and that I am reading your essay. How am I in any way helped or reassured by a confession of white privilege? To me it sounds rote and contrived, sort of the way we have to sing the national anthem before a hockey game. I simply don’t buy that the confession of white privilege actually makes a difference or opens up room for a more genuine conversation between equals.

Ouch. My friend didn’t mince words either. I was stunned, but not exactly dismayed, or at least not enough, to delete acknowledging privilege from my text. As another good friend reminded me, this important if not searing point of view recalls Vivek Shraya’s questioning of the practice of acknowledging Indigenous territory in her poem “indian” from even this page is white:

        is acknowledgment enough?

                    i acknowledge i stole this

        but i am keeping it social justice

                                or social performance

Am I being one of those “good white people” whom Brit Bennett in turn does not exactly chastise but does problematize in her 2014 essay – who tend to co-opt and detract from Black or Indigenous narratives with their good, but ineffectual, if not self-congratulatory, intentions?

Recently, I’ve noticed some disturbing backlash to the privilege issue bouncing around social media. One form appears in a poster of an old, angry white guy yelling the words, “CHECK YOUR PRIVILEGE” and pointing accusingly into the camera. It’s supposed to be funny, ironic, and dismissive. I find it a grotesque, revolting image, with the ugly resonance of the right’s co-opting of political correctness to silence minority voices demanding space to be heard, respected, and recognized.

Coming back to my second reader, if anything, what surprised me wasn’t so much the disagreement with what was considered a trivial trend as the assumption that my address was meant to help or reassure racialized people in the room. I’m not sure what it says about me that it never occurred to me that this was the goal of acknowledging my privilege. Particularly in the context of Francophone scholarship, the practice isn’t common at all, just as acknowledging territory from a settler point of view isn’t (yet) common either, at least not in Quebec.

But whether in an English- or French-speaking cadre, I saw and still consider that drawing attention to my racial, class, and gender privilege is meant to destabilize, maybe even annoy, and prompt critical reflection about these very categories. These are, after all, at the heart of any situated, material, and embodied idea of care, which was the central tropic of my talk. Despite the past thirty years of intersectional feminism, this is still no mean feat. In addition, the social workings of race, class, and gender are central to an understanding of care as a practice and an ethics for our time.

This all may sound like a sweaty exercise in self-justification. Maybe it is, but that’s okay. My second reader’s reaction – and I am thankful for it – prompted me to think harder about not only the practice of acknowledging privilege and colonial space but on its possibly unwanted effects on the persons who receive it.

How might the Indigenous individuals in my audience have received this white settler woman’s acknowledgement of the unceded territory of the Musqueam People in Vancouver, or of the Coast Salish Nation in Victoria where I also lectured during the same trip? Is this speech act for them? They already know too well that we settlers are occupying their unceded lands. Who’s it for, then? Maybe other settlers in the room who need unsettling – just as I do, regularly, repeatedly, in my daily goings on, in my daily care.

And so, I write this blog entry as a white settler cis woman, privileged in my middle-class upbringing and living. I am not apologizing. I situate myself and my privilege at this particular time in our history which is, perhaps in more deflected ways but perhaps also more than ever, precarious and whitewashed and male-dominated AF. I don’t think I am congratulating myself for making this awareness public. i acknowledge i stole this, and saying so is not nearly enough. (Thank you, Vivek.) I am an ally to, and not a representative of, racialized and Indigenous voices. I am drawing your attention to the ways in which I walk through the world, often happily, but maybe even more so angrily – a feminist killjoy trying to figure out how to resist the indignities that befall my sex and gender, trans people, queer and minority groups, and children all over the world and right under our noses.

I’ll continue to share drafts with my trusted second reader (as well as my mom), and I will most likely continue to be challenged. We will talk, sometimes disagree, and hear, respect, and recognize one another.

We all need so much more of that.

Carrière

Marie Carrière directs the Canadian Literature Centre/Centre de
littérature canadienne at the University of Alberta, where she also
teaches Canadian, Indigenous, and Québécois writing and culture. Her
current research includes a book manuscript on contemporary feminism —
and namely affect, intersectionality, and care ethics, which she examines
through a metafeminist lens.

#shinetheory · academic reorganization · DIY · empowerment · guest post · Uncategorized

Gap Riot Guest Post: How to Start Your Own Small Press, From People Who are Still Learning

Thinking of starting your own small press? There is lots of PEE YOUR PANTS EXCITEMENT AND ANXIETY, plus material, financial, and good business issues to think about when starting out. The ladies of Gap Riot Press are here with some helpful tips, some loving caution, and some gentle reminders to keep us all woke.

Aside from learning the craft of the chapbook, learning the business side of publishing has been a twisting and winding ride. Other small presses, poets, and printers have been very generous and super helpful, and have created an integrated community thinktank that has been invaluable. These fabulous people include Will and Nicole at words(on)pages, Catriona at Desert Pets Press, Cameron at Apt. 9 Press, the very patient and understanding Sebastian Frye at Swimmer’s Group, and the excellent members of the Meet the Presses collective. But for some things, we’ve been on our own trying to figure out the lay of the land.

Among the things we’ve never asked ourselves before now: How does one register a business name to accept grant monies? And, do we even have to do that? What the hell is a master page in InDesign? How do we begin to think about royalties? Since we are academics ourselves, we know well the culture of unpaid labour that runs rampant in cultural circles, so we made it a mandate to pay our authors. But how much? How much do we need to pay our designers? And what does that leave for us?

But please remember: we are not the experts; we are the adventurers. We’re learning every day, and we’re failing too. We’d love to share some of our story, but you’ve got to clear your own path. And for cat’s sake, please be kind to yourself throughout your journey. Ask for help when you need it. And hike up your knickers – you’re in for a wild one.

To encourage other riotous word-lovers to do it themselves, we’ve worked with Hook & Eye to put together this helpful (hopefully) how-to guide to start you off, inspired by the collective that continues to inspire us, the incomparable New Kids on the Block.   

Step 1: We can have lots of fun

One of the first things Dani was asked when she sat down for coffee with Will and Nicole from words(on)pages was, “So, why chapbooks?” It was a fun question, and although we thought we had an answer, it was something we had to think about for a while. We realized that we needed to spend more time at the beginning conceptualizing our press and our mandate. So, our first piece of advice is that before you start up your small or micro-press, you need to take some real time, right off the bat, to conceptualize a larger poetics, mandate, or vision for your project. Remember, your press should be fun for you and for others, and it should highlight the kind of work you want to amplify.

This process starts with deciding on a name, logo, and general design theme or concept that conveys the message you have decided on. In our case, we developed the name Gap Riot Press for a few reasons, first and foremost because both founding editors have gaps in their front teeth, and we live this truth everyday. We also wanted to convey an acknowledgment of gaps in publishing standards, in the gender and race of editors, in the voices heard in the avant-garde and in visual poetics, and in the persistent gendered wage gap in the Western world. The riot came next, a clear homage to our Riot Grrrl predecessors, and a reminder that resistance is always a collective space, a physical and a psychic space, and a volatile space. Gap Riot is in flux.

For logos, we enlisted our friend, local artist and graphic designer Stace Schmidt to develop a logo that brought gap teeth to the forefront, making beautiful our “imperfections” and channeling our femme power. Stace developed a set of beautiful graphic logos that we use on all our print and digital media. We did our own website design to start, but as we grow we are working with local web designer and IT professional Jordan Doucet to create a dynamic website that has room to grow and expand with us.

Having a clear vision for your small press is important, but it’s also good to keep reminding yourself that a vision does not have to be a limitation. Kate is always reminding us that while we want to prioritize femme, queer, and PoC voices in our press, we also don’t want to cut off conversations or limit participation in our collective vision. We have had to be very careful about our language, always being clear that what we seek is focus and not another form of tokenism, exploitation, or exclusivity.

Having fun with your press also means carefully considering what your role in the press entails, and who else is on your team. The both of us wanted to share, as equally as possible, the requirements of a small press editor. Stace handles all the visuals, including book cover and illustrations, and helps with general book design. Different small presses organize this work differently. You need to figure out what works for you based on your print runs, your finances, and your abilities. Some small presses bring in a copyeditor or proofreader for the final stages. Some editors do all the design work themselves. Some presses solicit photographs or illustrations. Some presses contract out their PR and marketing.

The moral of this story is that this is absolutely too much work to take on as one person, particularly because as much as we love small press publishing, it’s not likely to become your full-time job, and certainly not from the beginning. Kate has a full-time job with a company. Dani works as a sessional instructor at two post-secondary institutions with typist work on the side. Stace works as a freelance graphic designer. None of us can put off paid labour to do Gap Riot work. It’s a really important thing that you need to remember: at best, you can hope with the start of a small press to break even. Do not try to do it all yourself, unless you are independently wealthy and have decided to spend all your time spreading the good literary word. If that’s you, power to you. But, I’m guessing it’s not, which brings us to the issue of funding.

 

Step 2: There’s so much we can do (once we have some funds)

Getting initial funding for a small (especially niche) literary press in Canada can be really difficult. That said, we were really lucky. Some full disclosure: Kate’s work, the fabulous Ian Martin Group, supported our press from the start with a donation, and continues to emotionally support our work. It’s fabulous that they helped us, but it’s also pretty rare and carries some hefty privilege. We don’t point this out to discourage others starting out, but to point to the fact that to start off our press, we looked in a pretty unconventional place. In other words, don’t just limit yourself to major funding bodies (Toronto Arts Council [TAC], Ontario Arts Council [OAC], Canada Council [CC]). First of all, it can be limiting to have to abide by the rules that come with using government monies to support your press. Second of all, most of those funding agencies don’t even support purely publishing projects anyway (see step four). But, there are funding opportunities there if you look. There are plenty of guides to getting funding, so we won’t spend too long on that. What we found we needed most guidance on was what to do after you have some cash flow (from grants, donations, a crowdfunding campaign, sales [from books, tickets, drinks at events, or PWYC at the door], or whatever method or combination you choose).

If you are accepting grant or donation monies for your organization, you’re going to need a business bank account. This is where the most confusion came up for us. Most other small presses in Toronto have a business account, but have not incorporated, enlisted as a partnership, or registered as a non-profit.

For tax purposes (blame it on the man), both major banks we consulted required that we actually BE a business before we registered for a business account. So, we registered as a 50/50 partnership and chose an account with low fees if we do most of our banking online. Whatever you choose to do in this situation is largely dependent on what kind of runs you’re doing, how well you think you’ll be selling, how much money you’re dealing with, and so on. Alongside this, it’s worth noting that you don’t need an HST number for your press right off the bat. According to the wonderful woman who set up our account at the bank, this is really only necessary if you’re going to be making over $30,000 per year with your press. But, if you’re there already, you’re likely not reading this.

This is also a good opportunity to add a quick note on paying your authors/artists: try to! Please! Have guidelines for royalties, speakers’ fees, honorariums, or whatever you decide, outlined clearly in your author contract. Not only is this good practice (in business and in ethics), but many larger funding bodies require that you pay your authors/artists (and that those authors/artists have receipts for their income) so having good documentation is useful. Royalty payment for authors varies greatly between presses: most offer a certain number of comped copies of the book to the author alongside a percentage of sales; most offer the author discounted copies above the comped copies; some offer the percentage of sales after a certain amount to ensure they cover costs, while others offer a smaller percentage off in-person sales and a larger percentage off online ones. Your author contract/royalties plan might change depending on the size of the run (and if it goes into more than one run), size of the book, cost to produce, notoriety of the author, and other factors. It’s important to craft a clearly defined author contract, but remember that the Press is a fluid business; don’t be afraid to talk about payment with your authors/artists and negotiate the contract together.

 

Step 3: It’s just you and me (and that’s it?)

One of the most important things to remember when you’re running a small press is that you’re not making books in a vacuum. LISTEN, THINK, REPEAT. This means three things:

 

  1.         Listen to and Think about your authors: engage them on whatever level they feel comfortable and consult them about design, run, and so on. Also, don’t be SHADY. In our opinion, a Press should never be a Best Friends Club – this is one of the ways in which Press culture becomes self-replicating and impenetrable. Support your community, but be generous – open your eyes and ears, and consider submissions (and even solicitations) of works outside of your circle, and your comfort zone. And, again, if you can, PAY THEM for cat’s sake.

 

  1.         Listen to and Think about your readers: make books they want to read at prices they can afford; offer some samples for free online; make it easy to purchase online and have a clear digital presence while at the same time having launches, readings, events, and attending markets to make yourself physically accessible.

 

  1.         Listen to and Think about your community: as we have said over and over, the community of small press publishers, DIY collectives and spaces, and so on, has been invaluable. We learned A LOT from simply listening to our peers, and hearing their concerns about publishing and how to make this process better. This works both ways. Other presses can, and will, help you, but you need to also support them. Go to other events for other presses. Buy other chapbooks. Support other presses and others through hyperlinks, sharing on social media, and promoting other works. You may consider doing this through the Meet the Presses Literary Market, happening this year on November 18, 2017. Meet the Presses is a collective that works to actively support small press publishing in Canada. Other organizations, like the League of Canadian Poets & Diaspora Dialogues are also places to look to join, build, and support the small press literary community in Toronto, and other versions of these organizations are all over the country.

 

Step 4: I can give you more (than just a few books)

As we mentioned in Step 2, most funding bodies do not offer funding opportunities for presses who just make books. This is absolutely true of TAC and OAC grants for literary organizations. But, that’s not the only reason to expand your literary praxis beyond making books. The truth is, we have tons of poetry by white people, and not nearly enough from others. But beyond poetry, what we need is more active conversation, more inclusive communities, and more opportunities for writers, readers, artists, editors, and other people involved in literary communities to come together, to share, teach, and learn.

 

Alongside your small press, you might consider the role of a reading series or other type of reading/gathering to complement the work you publish. Not only will this make it possible to apply for other funding you wouldn’t be eligible for otherwise, but it also provides space to sell your books, meet new potential authors, and engage physically with your community. Gap Riot is in the process of organizing a reading series which we aim to begin in the fall. You might also want to consider having your organization run workshops (writing, bookbinding or design, printmaking, &c). You can also, once you have some real funding supporting you (never stop dreaming), envision your collective as a space where you invite others in the literary scene to come in as apprentice editors, as curators of a series or an anthology, etc.

 

Step 5: Don’t you know that the time has arrived (to make a book)

When you get to the point where you have all your ducks in a row and you’re reading to make a book, our best advice is to jump right in. The best way to get started is by trial and error. We typeset and design our chapbooks in InDesign. Other people were really helpful when we started to figure that out (Nicole, Sebastian, and Stace in particular). One thing Nicole pointed out to us that I think bears repeating is that you can find SO MANY fonts available for free online that you can use to make your book cover and design unique. But, you should be careful that you’re not stealing someone else’s font design. Be sure that any font you download and use for your books is free for all uses, and not simply free for personal use. That is, if you care about paying artists and designers, you’ll keep in mind that a font is their art product. When/if you have enough money, donate to a font designer or buy a fancy font. There are a lot of free tutorials on YouTube and elsewhere about using InDesign and we recommend using all those resources, as well as just playing around, to get you started.

Also, don’t forget that the best way to make your chapbook more serious is to get an ISBN for each book. This will help your authors when they try to get writers’ grants, and it will help preserve your work for posterity (if that’s a thing you care about). When you get an ISBN, which is hella easy, you need to remember to save copies of your chapbook to send to the Library of Congress.

 

Once you’ve created your masterpiece, you need to think about how you are going to print your books. The way we see it, you have three options:

 

  1.         Get all the materials and print it yo’ damn self: expensive to start but will save money in the long run; much more time-consuming; you have complete creative control; there’s a real learning-curve here, unless you already know what you’re doing. You will need a quality printer, a guillotine or excellent exact-o knife, a large stapler and/or awl, needle, and binding thread (I have been advised that embroidery cotton also works well and is cheaper). You may want to invest in a paper folder. You can get adventurous about paper.

 

  1.         Go to a chain store (like Staples, FedEx, TPH): obviously the cheapest option, and usually the fastest; very limited control/engagement; supporting big bad industries who do not care about small presses, or poetry, or art, or…people.

 

  1.         Go to a small printing studio (we use Swimmer’s Group and they are amazing, but there are others): the most beautiful end-products; smaller studios will engage you in the printing process and advise you about design issues, paper and binding options, and ways to experiment with the book; plus, you are supporting a small, local company.

Don’t forget that one of the bonuses of small press is that you’re not stuck with the boring standards of popular/mainstream publication, so for cat’s sake have fun with the material components of your books. Make something beautiful, weird, fascinating, or terrifying. But, make a statement for real.

So, that’s our advice, for now. Take it with a heaping spoonful of salt. If you’d like to ask us questions, give us feedback, or see copies of our contracts, etc., please feel free to reach out to us at gapriotpress@gmail.com.  

Sashay, Shanté, and don’t forget to WERK IT, gurrrl.

love,

dani & kate xo

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Kate Siklosi lives, writes, and thinks in Toronto. She holds a PhD in English Literature and has defenestrated from the academic ivory tower in search of warmer climes. She is a writer by day and a poet by night. She is the cofounding editor of Gap Riot Press and is currently working on a manuscript of experimental petro-poetry, Love Songs for Hibernia.

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Dani Spinosa is a poet of digital and print media, an on-again-off-again precarious professor, and the Managing Editor of the Electronic Literature Directory. Her first chapbook, Glosas for Tired Eyes, was published in 2017 with No Press and her first scholarly manuscript, Anarchists in the Academy: Machines and Free Readers in Experimental Poetry is forthcoming from University of Alberta Press (Spring 2018).

academic work · emotional labour · guest post · Uncategorized

Guest Post: Attend meetings or perish….

The advice one gets about pursuing an academic career is to do as little service as one can manage. As a young scholar, I am advised by colleagues, friends, and mentors time and again that research is everything, and that while teaching counts too, service work means little in one’s tenure file, so I should do the bare minimum and get on with things. With the ethos of “publish or perish” in mind, the scholar’s lament seems to be that time that could be spent conducting research is wasted—wasted—in meetings that go nowhere, and achieve nothing.

The advice I receive about service is also informed by the knowledge that seeming burden of service work most often falls to women. A recent study about emotional labour in academia documents how women drastically outperform men in terms of service work and that this results in a lack of promotion of women that is, because of service women publish less and therefore are less likely to rise through the ranks. And the study was posted and reposted in my social media feeds, with male and female colleagues alike describing strategies to get out of service work, and how to advise their students not to get bogged down. They meant well. They mean well.

Startup Stock Photos

But the trouble with this advice is that service work (not all of it surely, but much of it) needs doing. It is the housework, the reproductive labour, of the university and it is not going to go away because we don’t do it. The problem then, isn’t that women are doing too much service work and therefore don’t have the chance to publish enough, rather it is that some of the most important labour that we do—the work of keeping our departments going–is undervalued. And in its devaluation, it has fallen to women and people of colour, in many of the ways that reproductive labour often does. We need to find ways to distribute this labour without offloading it, downloading it, and disproportionately centering around those already precarious within our institutions.

Service work is critical to the ongoing capacity of universities. And we need to recognize that service is important to some of the most important things that our departments and faculties do—creating spaces for the free exchange of ideas by planning speakers’ series and symposia, building (and challenging) the canons of our disciplines through syllabus committees, representing and standing up for our colleagues as Chairs and Deans, finding ways to expand and diversify through hiring and admissions committees, and so on.

Viewing service work as intrinsically valuable is integral to enable us to continue our work in the university and to move it forward. If you’re in a position to do so, recognize it in colleagues’ tenure and promotion files, on your own CV, and your admissions and hiring committees. Service is critical part of scholarship.

CattapanAlana Cattapan is an Assistant Professor at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan and a recent visiting researcher at the Brocher Foundation. A longtime feminist researcher and activist, she studies the governance of reproductive health, interest group engagement in public policy making, and biotechnologies, focusing on the Canadian case.

 

#shinetheory · DIY · fast feminism · guest post · Uncategorized

“This book is an action”: Notes on Creating a Feminist Small Press

For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.

– Audre Lorde

Gap Riot Press is a Toronto-based, women-run chapbook press cofounded by Dani Spinosa and Kate Siklosi. Our mission is to engage a wider literary community through the publication of formally innovative and experimental poetic works, with a priority on unrepresented and marginalized voices.

There’s no ifs ands or buts about it: the textual object is an expression of privilege. As women, we know this well. It’s 2017, and if you want to publish experimental poetry today, chances are, you have to go to a white man to do it. So, we asked ourselves – how, with embers of the CanLit dumpster fire still glowing (see here, here, here, and everywhere), can we enter the space of publication and open a communal space to listen to and engage with writers we so desperately need to hear from?

Gap Riot is the fruit of conversations between women – it is infused with the night heat of summer, the breath of whiskey, the lament of hearts outpouring. It is also the result of our classical anarchist training (thanks, Robert Duncan!). We believe that artists and writers have a communal responsibility to respond creatively to the world – to approach its conditions with a spirit of action, intervention, and love.

A great deal of this responsibility lies with literary publishers and editors, who have a huge role to play in shattering the canon and opposing the very foundations of canon-formation. “By editing with empathy and a wider eye to the readership,” Jacqueline Valencia has recently written in “How Do We Fix the Canlit Canon,” “we can start to form a dialogue conducive to openness and understanding.” Gap Riot Press is our little way of minding the gap in these conversations. If the canon is to change, we don’t need more words – we need dialogue, coproduction, and exchange.

We’ve gotten a lot of questions so far about what makes feminist publishing, well, “feminist.” Do we only publish works by and for women? Does all of our writing have to pertain to gender issues as a theme? Do we hate men? For us, the feminist press is not about exclusion or cutting off conversations between men and women, or people of different races, sexualities, or abilities. It goes beyond having a diversified masthead and roster and our work is just one way of looking at how to move beyond “diversification.” As we will explore in our second installment with Hook & Eye, there are many ways of doing this editorial and cultural work. Gap Riot is also a way for us, as women, to get our hands dirty in the poetic craft as a form of activism: or, poetic craftivism, to use Betsy Greer’s term that grew out of Riot Grrrl. Purposeful acts of gentle anarchy to keep the patriarchal, academic, and corporate worlds woke.  

That’s why we at Gap Riot are so devoted to the craft and the material of small press book production. As poets ourselves, we have always had our eye on the visual poetic which refuses to withdraw the materiality of language from its meaning-making capacities. This materiality, countless poets reminds us, is central to the politics of poetic production. At Gap Riot, we translate this interest in the materiality of poetry to the production of small runs of books that are crafted by women working collaboratively across disciplines and printed at the Toronto-based art printing house Swimmer’s Group. Of course, along with material production and craft comes the issue of finances; we speak more specifically to that issue in our second installment with Hook and Eye on the practical issues of starting a small press and the politics that goes alongside that. As we continue to design and publish these books, we will work collaboratively with designers, artists, printers, and poets to produce books that challenge the traditional structures of book publishing. Chapbooks have always done this work. Craft has always done this work. Feminists have always done this work. We are still learning.

We desire an active and responsive readership. Too often, literary publication practices ignore crucial opportunities for engagement beyond the page. We not only want to take up space in the material production of texts, but we want to open spaces for women and marginalized writers to become their works, try them on, experiment with them. So, beginning in the fall of 2017, we will be starting a reading series that fosters inclusivity and interaction. These events will create reading spaces that are inclusive, supportive, and antagonistic to the traditions of canonicity and exclusivity that so frequently accompany experimental writing.

It is a well-known and widely discussed fact that marginalized writers are severely underrepresented in what we read and critique; it is also well-known, but seldom engaged-with, that the labour of literary production – the work of editors, publishers, agents, and reviewers who wield so much capacity for changing the industry – is work that is controlled and undertaken by white liberal sentinels. Why are there so few marginalized people in influential gatekeeping roles? What barriers to access need to be torn down? These and other questions need to be asked of our literary peers in arms. But we need to start doing more than just asking these questions. As white women, we’re aware that we have a lot of work to do beyond the privilege of setting up a press, and we know how great of a privilege it is to get to do this work. Sure, we can model the editorial practices we wish to see in the world; but mimicking praxis is not enough to destabilize the accumulated cultural capital wielded by the literary establishment. This is an establishment whose kingdoms are universities, whose loudspeakers are mainstream media, and whose coffers are filled by corporations. The establishment is as powerful as it is steadfast; it is a black hole that hungrily absorbs and consumes that which comes near to it. We need strategies other than those practices used by the establishment to feign change, assume diversity, and then reabsorb any glimmers of progression back into its flat, self-serving agenda. It is not enough to simply ask questions about why writers are continually sidestepped. It is not enough to pledge quotas or insert a few texts by recognizably “diverse” writers. We need to begin to open conversations, and open spaces to collective presents at the limits of and outside the establishment. We need to imagine and reimagine together, revise and revision together, and create and recreate – together.

Part of this work involves seeing intersectionality as more than just tokenizing Indigenous, Queer, PoC writers and their work. We want to get further to the roots of access not only in terms of who gets read, but who gets to produce and therefore interrogate and intervene on the canon. We don’t need more words about inclusivity, we need action. We need to mind the gap. So, once we are a little more established, we plan to establish a sponsorship program that will offer funding to add an editor who has traditionally been denied opportunity and representation to the Gap Riot collective. Such funding will also allow that editor to take editing workshop classes and to curate a series of chapbooks, magazines, readings, or perhaps even an anthology for our press. It’s a small way of creating some space for necessary hands in the literary production of what we read. It is a way of constructing shared creative futures based on reciprocal mentorship and exchange. In this way, Gap Riot becomes more than a press – it becomes a moving project, a tremoring constellation of diverse voices, radical ideas, and dissonant discussions.

As they exist and govern today, the larger structures of literary production (their institutions and their gatekeepers) do not foster this type of movement. Most literary powerhouses – commercial houses and university presses – protect whiteness, and in particular, male whiteness. These institutions also foster a culture of self-absorbed elitism and careerism. We need to counteract these entrenched narratives by using community to combat the institutions and practices that render innovative writers tokenized or invisible. Part of the solution is to increase exposure by getting on the ground with our works – selling them at book fairs, in parking lots, at kitchen tables. We need to actively identify those writers who are doing innovative work but aren’t receiving acknowledgement and invite them to publish and to edit the work alongside us. We have to move beyond the desire to just sell a few books, and work instead towards getting people talking, performing, and creating alongside each other.

Gap Riot Press takes influence from our literary forebears and Riot Grrrls. We know we are following in a long lineage of women, PoCs, queer and trans folk, and allies who have done, and continue to do, the work of supporting and amplifying marginal voices of all kinds. We’re also in good company. Bolstered by the continued work by organizations like CWILA, literary awards like the Emerging Indigenous Voices Fund, and publishing and editorial support initiatives like Vivek Shraya’s new imprint, VS Books, with Arsenal Pulp. We’re here to embody the unexpected and question expectations. We’re here to challenge the view of marginalized as always “emerging” when they have simply been unacknowledged. We’re here for collectivity, protest, and resistance channeled through creative energy. We’re here to work together towards shared, intersectional futures. We’re here to kick down the doors of the privileged canon, and take some names.

Of course, we’re only just getting started. Our first chapbook, the beautiful and moving What Linda Said by Toronto-based poet, novelist, and playwright Priscila Uppal, soft launched as a part of the premiere of her play by the same name at this summer’s SummerWorks Theatre Festival in Toronto. Our next release is already being finalized as we write this—an innovative, visually striking, and generally badass look at Salomé from feminist poet Adeena Karasick. And we have more on the way.

For more information, please visit us online at www.gapriotpress.com, follow us on Twitter @gapriotpress, or shoot us a quick email at gapriotpress@gmail.com.

classrooms · faculty evaluation · guest post

Guest post: She’s Hot: Female Sessional Instructors, Gender Bias, and Student Evaluations

This post by Andrea Eidinger was originally published on ActiveHistory.ca and is reposted here with permission.
_________________________________________
I would like to acknowledge and thank the many female instructors who got in touch with me over the past week, not only for their bravery in sharing their experiences with me, but for their strength in continuing in their dedication to the field of history and education. I am profoundly grateful and honoured. 
“I think your feminist stances are slightly overcorrecting reality. I’m sure minorities had a harsher experience than women, ESPECIALLY today, a point you seem to overlook. You’re a really nice person though.”
That comment comes from my student evaluations from one of the first courses I ever taught, back when I was still a graduate student. At the time that I read that, I burst out laughing. I mean really, how else can you react to that kind of statement? But many courses and student evaluations later, I am starting to think that this is reflective of a larger problem in the world of academia, and history in particular, with respect to female sessional instructors and course evaluations.
Over the course of the past year or so, there have been a number of studies that have emerged detailing the gender bias against female instructors in student evaluations.  According to one study, male professors routinely ranked higher than female professors in many areas. [2] For instance, male professors received scores in the area of promptness (how quickly an assignment was returned) that were 16% higher than those of female instructors, even though the assignments were returned at the exact same time.  Another research project, which examined word usage in reviews of male and female professors on “Rate My Professor” found that male faculty members are more likely to be described as “funny,” “brilliant,” “genius,” and “arrogant,” while female faculty members are more likely to be described as “approachable,” “helpful,” “nice,” and “bossy.”[3]
While many of these studies discuss the negative impact that this bias has on tenure and promotion few consider how devastating they can be to sessional instructors, particularly given the overrepresentation of women at this academic rank. Although data on sessional instructors in Canada, both contract and regularized, remains scarce, what we do know based on a 2016 report on sessional faculty at publicly-funded universities in Ontario is that 60.2% of sessional instructors identity as female. Most of these individuals have Ph.Ds. and will spend roughly 4 to 5 years working as a sessional instructors with the hope of securing  full-time positions within academia. During these 4 to 5 years, 53.2% of these individuals will secure contracts that are less than 6 months in duration while the next largest group, at 18.2% will not have any current contract at all.? And declining enrolment in history courses across the country means that jobs of any type are becoming more and more scarce.
The effectiveness of sessional instructors is often evaluated based primarily on student evaluations, particularly when it comes to questions of hiring, contract renewal, regularization, and promotion to tenure-track positions. (This is in spite of solid evidence that student evaluations are not good measures of teaching effectiveness). Consequently, female sessionals often face a serious disadvantage compared to their male colleagues.
Here is a quick sampling of some of the more problematic comments I’ve received over the years:
  • “The focus on social history was good but I did not learn events leading to confederation. I didn’t come out of this course with any more information, except gender and race struggles, than I came in with.”
  • “Although Andrea stated on the first day she would teach a peoples[sic] perspective it was not illustrated how much was going to be focused on first nations and women’s history.”
  • “A bit biased in her views: very feminist and consequently an alternate view isn’t respected.”
While these remarks only represent a small percentage of the student comments that I’ve received on evaluations, they are extremely troubling. They also appear to be fairly representative of the types of comments that female instructors, particularly those who appear to be younger, receive on a regular basis. While writing this piece, I put out a call on social media for Canadian female instructors who teach history to get in touch with me if they were willing to share some of these comments on an anonymous basis. Eight women came forward and shared their stories. These comments and stories generally fell into five categories: bias, inexperience, unprofessionalism, behavior/appearance, and sexualization.
One of the most common critiques is that of “bias.” You can see several examples of these types of comments that I’ve received above. Many female instructors are heavily criticized for including women and gender history in their courses, and this is often described as them imposing a personal bias on history. They are often accused of “only having one point of view” and “shutting down opposing views.”
For instance, one instructor had a student that complained, “it was obvious that she didn’t quite enjoy the boys telling her that men are biologically superior. She rapidly dismissed their explanations as outdated and sexist without giving them the reason (although she did later on in the course elaborate). But it was clear that those students had lost interest since their ideas were being rejected.”
Related to this problem are comments about female professors being “inexperienced,” “new,” or “too young.”  Female instructors often have to face criticism from students who don’t feel that they are qualified to be professors. This is particularly a problem for female professors who appear to be younger than they really are or who happen to be short. Several of the instructors shared comments from students about them being “newer,” or just “getting started in teaching.” In one case, an instructor relayed that, “I also recently had an issue with a mature male student who made comments about me being “early in my career” and that he may be able to “help me” through his own line of work. He also expressed unsubstantiated doubts about my qualifications for teaching the subject matter after admitting to doing an online search of my background.”
On a related note, this can often result in direct challenges to female instructors in classes. Recently, a colleague related the following exchange on Twitter:

 

Another common complaint is that female instructors behave “unprofessionally.” The reasons for this can vary significantly, but often relate to references to one’s personal life. For instance, one instructor I spoke with had been forced to cancel a class because her child was sick. She joked about it in the following class. Then, on her student evaluations, she noted the following comment: “I found it very unprofessional that the Instructor referenced her child as an excuse for not being available or for missing class. This is not the concern of the student or any reputable faculty. Those issues should remain private and availability should be clearly indicated without reference to the Instructors personal life.”

Female instructors are criticized on everything from their behaviour to their appearance. Many are told that they should “smile more” or be “more approachable and friendly.” One student wrote, “she sounds like a dictionary with all the words she uses.” In some cases, students comment on their clothing choices in student evaluations, with comments like, “I like how your jewellery[sic] matches your clothing” and “I would love to know where you shop. You have some great dresses.”
More pernicious are the sexualized comments that female instructors received. These ranged from comments that “she’s hot” and “the prof is not hard on the eyes” to “I would really like to get you into a room alone and have some fun.” Finally, one instructor was told “I like how your nipples show through your bra. Thanks.” As the instructor herself noted, “this one led me to never wear those bras again. I now wear lightly padded bras exclusively. I was horrified when I got this one. Horrified. And not because my nipples were showing. Who the eff cares? But because someone was looking at me that way and sexualizing me while I was teaching a class in political history.”
Instructors have handled such comments in different ways, but nearly all of the instructors that I spoke with have stopped reading comments on student evaluations entirely. This is particularly the case in more recent years, as student comments have become increasingly aggressive and at times violent. Not only are these comments not helpful in any regard, but also they are profoundly unfair.
The end result to these kinds of comments is a situation that puts female sessional instructors in an un-winnable position. Their job performance is judged on teaching evaluations that are significantly biased against them. And yet teaching evaluations are used to make hiring decisions, where female instructors are ranked alongside with their male peers, on the assumption of an even playing field. And when there are no second chances and bad teaching evaluations can spell the end of your entire teaching career, female instructors get the short end of the stick.
Further, there are few support systems in place for female instructors to help them deal with these kinds of comments as well as misogyny in the classroom. While some departments and department members are sympathetic, others are less so, and some are openly hostile to even the suggestion. Female instructors are routinely told to just “ignore” these comments,[4] or are reluctant to even raise concerns for fears of being accused of “not being able to handle it” or of not being sufficiently “grateful for having a job.” Most of us end up feeling entirely alone. The situation is often worse for women of colour, Indigenous women, women with disabilities, and LGTBQ+ instructors.
However, it does seem that at least one Canadian university is starting to take this problem seriously. In May of 2014, the University of Waterloo initiated the Course Evaluation Project Team, to “assess the current practice of course evaluations and provide recommendations for improvement.” Their draft report was released to the university community in November 2016, recommending the adoption of a cascaded course evaluation model that would be consistent across all faculties. More than ninety associations and departments responded, and the final report is pending following a full review of this feedback. Three groups of faculty in particular submitted the most detailed responses, the Faculty Association of the University of Waterloo, the Status of Women and Equity Committee, and faculty members from the department of psychology.[5]
Each of these responses recommended that student evaluations should no longer be used to evaluate faculty members due to the significant gender, race, and other biases. They all specifically refuted the idea that careful design can be taken to counter the gender and racial biases in student evaluations. Instead, these reports advised that written comments in student evaluations should only be for the instructor’s use, and that alternative assessment tools be used instead, such as teaching practice inventory or correlating teaching with in one course with student grades in later courses. It remains to be seen what the final report will say.
While I can’t provide recommendations about what kind of system should replace student evaluations, what I can say is that based on the feedback that I’ve received and conversations I’ve had with other female instructors, gender bias in the classroom, and academia, is a serious problem that needs to be addressed openly, with honesty and compassion. Not only do these biases end careers, but they also deprive students of superb instructors.
Andrea Eidinger is a historian of gender and ethnicity in postwar Canada. She holds a doctorate from the University of Victoria, and has spent the last six years teaching as a sessional instructor in British Columbia. She is the creator and writer behind the Unwritten Histories blog, which is dedicated to revealing hidden histories and the unwritten rules of the historical profession.
[1] Special thanks to Joanna Pearce for her comments on the piece!
[3] Scott Jaschik, “Rate My Word Choice,” Inside Higher Ed (February 9, 2015). You can use the tool itself, which was developed by Ben Schmidt, here. For information on how he developed the tool, click here.
[4] Thank you Christo Aivalis for the suggestion of this example.  The comments section of this article (and many similar articles) highlights the prevalence of the ‘just ignore’ attitude.
[5] To see the background research for the study as well as some of the other responses and commentaries, including those from students, click here. Interestingly, of the responses posted that website, only the Federation of Students was fully supportive of the draft report’s recommendations.
academic reorganization · backlash · guest post · race

Guest post: I talked About Racism in Canada in a Public Venue. Here is what happened

By Misao Dean
I gave an interview on my research last March on the CBC program The 180. In it I talked about colonialism in Canada, picking away at some of the myths that sustained my childhood sense of “Canadianness,” and arguing that we should read them as representations of colonial power.
These ideas are not that radical in Canada; they’re absolutely conservative, in the context of recent interpretations of Canadian law. But it seems that when you bring those abstract ideas down to specifics – this piece of land, that cultural practice – or when you mention whiteness – well, some people get pretty excited. And someone wrote a reaction to my interview on a British right-wing website called “Heatstreet,” and that got a comment in the Times Higher Education Supplement, and a tweet was picked up by Fox News, and then things went a bit bananas.
On October 23rd 2016 I checked my e-mail and found a request for an interview about my research, from a podcast that is produced in Chicago. My first thought—as a researcher and scholar based in Victoria, British Columbia was WTF? The request referenced a tweet from someone I’ve never heard of, who according to Google, is a sociologist from the UK. My feelings shifted ever-so-slightly from incredulity to careful interests. Maybe my research is really getting some traction, I thought. People are talking about it, excitement, I thought.
By the time I got to work there were more requests for interviews, this time from ESPN, and there was something else: a steady stream of e-mails all consisting or two or three words, calling me a cunt and a fool, an idiot and an “SJW,” (derogatory internet slang for ‘social justice warrior.’) These emails had something in common: they were all lamenting the way I’m poisoning the minds of students. Many of them suggested I commit suicide.
Take a moment and pause on that: I was receiving emails from strangers telling me to commit suicide.
By the time I finished teaching my first class in addition to invitations to be on international news, and the hate-filled trolling, there were also e-mails to the Dean and my department chair, and someone in the Dean’s office had contacted me, offering “support.”
I’m ok, no big deal,I said. When the first death threat appeared in my inbox my stomach dropped, and I started to wonder why I did that interview.
I mean let’s stop and think about this again: I talked about systemic racism in Canada and I got death threats. Me—a middle-aged white university professor whose idea of a good time is a visit to the National Archives—got death threats talking about facts of Canadian social and political history.
My daughters asked me, What did you expect? Talking about race in the mainstream media just makes you a target. I gave this some thought. It doesn’t really help that I was attacked using my own words, taken out of context. This kind of irresponsible and de-contextualized quoting has become an art form among Trump followers who think it’s hilariously funny to post stories that make it look like famous “liberals” have said something entirely opposite to what they actually said: for example, that Michael Moore endorsed Trump, or that a woman academic doesn’t know the first thing about her own research topic.
I don’t know what I expected, but I didn’t expect hundreds of abusive and obscene accusations from people who didn’t even know that the interview was talking about Canada.
I didn’t expect my Rate My Professor  page to be flooded with complaints about my teaching from people I’ve never met, and who can’t find my university on a map.
And I didn’t expect my kids to find abusive comments about me in their Facebook feeds.
I expected a conversation, but this isn’t conversation. Hate isn’t a conversation.
Listen, I’ve been called an idiot before, and survived (after all, I grew up with brothers). I’ve still got my job, and all the privileges that go with it. But last week I was asked to review a grant application for SSHRC and evaluate, among other things, a “knowledge mobilization strategy” in which Some Poor Sap, PhD., wrote that when his book comes out, on an important topic that really needs sophisticated discussion in the public sphere, he intends to create a website, and make himself available for media interviews and panel discussions, and really get his results out there.
I wanted to tell him, publish that book, create those new courses, teach those great ideas, but keep your head down, and don’t talk to the media, at least not before asking yourself these questions: Are you tenured? What will happen to you if colleagues or students Google you and find that the top results assert your incompetence?
And what does this self-policing of necessary and hard research questions do to researchers, to scholars, to our students, and to the public who is meant to receive that mobilized knowledge?
Research like ours, the complicated, risky, challenging ideas that really teach you something: this isn’t the stuff of public discourse anymore, and it’s disingenuous of SSHRC to suggest it is.
Have I learned something from this?  If the CBC calls again I will probably talk to them; the producer who organized the original interview called to apologize, and I think he honestly does feel bad about it. But the stuff is still out there, articles and blog posts and tweets that make me ashamed and defensive about my years of successful peer-reviewed research, and the fact that there’s nothing I can do to correct it makes me feel ill.
Miao Dean is a Professor of English at the University of Victoria. She teaches courses on the Canadian novel, and is interested in non-fiction prose and travel writing as well. She has published extensively on early Canadian women writers, on the literature of wilderness travel, and on animals and hunting in early Canadian writing. Her most recent book, Inheriting a Canoe Paddle, is on the way the discourse of the canoe is mobilized to justify Canadian sovereignty in the context of aboriginal title.

academic reorganization · Audre Lorde · feminist communities · guest post · writing

Guest post: It’s Personal

by Marie Carrière

I am on a half-sabbatical leave from my university. And lo and behold, I am working on a book! In a nutshell, my reflection focuses on our present, or late, feminist moment that I call metafeminism. Here is how I am defining metafeminism: I find the idea ensconced in the prefix meta central to understanding this moment; it delineates the reflections and deflections of the several recognizable faces of feminism with which Western culture has grown familiar. Such vacillation of feminism’s tropes, waves, and manifestations is at the heart of my understanding of metafeminism.

But I want to slow down, and I want to write differently.

In Feminism is for Everybody, bell hooks argues that revolutionary feminist theory – meant to inform masses of people and transform the societies we live in – is not, ironically enough, readily available or accessible to a non academic public. It “remains a privileged discourse,” hooks writes, “available to those among us who are highly literate, well-educated, and usually materially privileged.” This is more than a fair point. But unlike hooks’ work here, my essay cannot claim to address anybody other than those already with an interest in feminist thought and writing. I cannot claim nor do I want to pretend that the book I’m writing is not an academically driven project. It stems from my long-standing research into contemporary feminism, especially of the late twentieth century and new millennium. But I am looking to break with the monographic tradition that continues to render so much academic writing, including my own, relevant only to… academic reading and yet more academic writing… I look to also speak to skilled readers and certainly to students curious about feminism’s trajectories through thought and literature.

Of course I am not writing in a generic vacuum with no history. The French essai is a literary genre of writing that comes close to what I have in mind for my book. I’m not sure that “essay” is the most accurate English equivalent. But for now, I’ll take it, with a few qualifications. The online Larousse defines the French term essai as follows:

ouvrage regroupant des réflexions diverses ou traitant un sujet qu’il ne prétend pas épuiser; genre littéraire constitué par ce type d’ouvrages […] action entreprise en vue de réaliser, d’obtenir quelque chose, sans être sûr du résultat ; tentative.

This definition appeals to me. Not only does it help me understand how I might distance my work from the comprehensiveness of the standard academic monograph. It helps me imagine how a personalized (but not, in my case, intimate or confessional) academic essay might take shape and give rise to a different form of scholarly writing.

Simply put, how might I say I in my academic writing?

So “simply put,” that when I read out this last sentence to S., my 13-year old daughter, she replied, “It’s not hard, Maman. We learn that in first grade.”

What I haven’t yet explained to S. is that figuring out how to say I, as a woman, within the academy, even from a tenured, white, cis gender privileged position like my own, is not that simple. Although writing in the first person as a woman will not, of course, automatically produce more accessible scholarship, I still hope that in this essay it might give rise to a different form of scholarly writing. How might I say I in an academic book project and write from a place of intellectual feeling, of literary sensation, and of feminist care? How might I tap into what Audre Lorde describes as a “disciplined attention to the true meaning of ‘it feels right to me’?”

Ann Cvetkovich’s remarkable 2012 book, Depression: A Public Feeling is, unlike my own, partly written in the form of the academic memoir, laying out her personal struggle with depression. Of note is what I would call the metafeminist “rapprochement with legacies of 1970s feminism such as consciousness-raising, personal narrative, and craft” that Cvetkovich recognizes in her blending of memoir and criticism. As in metafeminism, there are in fact multiple sites of influence in Cvetkovich’s work. She also acknowledges the legacy of a generation of feminists including bell hooks, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Jane Gallop who have continued the trend of personal academic writing. And she harks back to the influence of a more marginal feminist confessional zine culture of the early 1990s.

And so, perhaps that’s the big deal (with affection, ma fille): I too would like my own personalized essay to be a kind of rapprochement to these different expressions of feminist thought. To recall a context closer to home, the fiction theories (or fictions théoriques) practiced by feminist and queer Québécois writers in the 1970s (Bersianik, Brossard, Théoret) and their Anglo-Canadian counterparts in the 1980s (Brandt, Marlatt, Tostevin) also serve as my models.

(A girl can dream, especially during a thought experiment.)

I discovered these texts during my undergraduate studies in my early twenties, delving deeper into them in graduate school. Bringing together anglophone and francophone influences has allowed this bilingual feminist room to dream across borders and boundaries. In a sense, these texts have been my feminist super-egos, my propédeutique to literary understanding, my entry into feminist ethics. With their blend of female subjectivity, feeling, creative reflection, and aesthetic experimentation, these authors started to write at an exceptional time in Québécois and Canadian literature, which I examined in my first book (a monograph!). Since then, some, though not numerous, Canadian works of more recent personal criticism by women (Lee Maracle, Catherine Mavrikakis, Andrea Oberhuber, or Erin Wunker) have followed in this vein. Finally, just as Cvetkovich’s turn to the confessional in her critical work on affect fittingly sets out to raise public consciousness through the expression of personal experience and emotion, my own personalized essay, like metafeminism, hopes to fittingly oscillate between various manifestations, or waves, of feminist theory and practice.

Further to the resistance of academic exhaustiveness in my adoption of the personalized essay is perhaps the issue of exhaustion itself. Attributing the appeal of personal memoir in criticism to humanities scholarship’s affective turn (Clough; Gregg and Seigworth), Cvetkovich entertains the idea of personalized academic writing “as a sign of either the exhaustion of theory or its renewed life.” I find the idea very provocative. But I’m also a bit loathe to pigeonhole theory in those terms. I refuse to believe that theory is exhausting, exhausted, or even exhaustive.

Theory, I try to reassure my students (to a variable degree of success), is just theory: a thought experiment, a set of principles, a string of ideas; it’s always historical with a material context, and to an attentive reader willing to take a few risks and work a little harder, it should be no more daunting than any other narrative. But I do think there is room for deeper thinking about why more open forms of theoretical writing, that draw from intimate experience and personal understanding, might be apt at this time in feminist, indeed metafeminist, work. I’m thinking especially of theory that draws from intimate experience and personal understanding, and adopts a jargon-free, intelligible, fathomable language. In what is still a profoundly scholarly meditation on the socio-cultural aspects of depression, Cvetkovich’s book, particularly its “depression journals” segment, is as personal and readable as it is intellectually engaging.

This work also falls in line with other recent turns to academic memoir, such as Maggie Nelson’s brilliant feminist “autotheory” in The Argonauts, at the heart of which she traces her relationship with her fluidly gendered partner, her experience of queer pregnancy, and her realization that pregnancy is queer. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s personal essay We Should All be Feminists, adapted from her TEDx talks of the same title, is in turn an attempt to free feminism from stereotypical notions that Adichie grew up with in Nigeria and still encounters in American culture. (And this is before that orange fuckface entered politics.) Wunker in turn writes, in her own words, at the “interstices of critical and literary theory, pop culture, and feminist thinking” in Notes from a Feminist Killjoy. She posits her use of the pronoun I as a personal and intellectual gesture of positioning herself, textually and socially, as a white privileged woman writing about feminism in Canada today. Most recent is Sara Ahmed’s highly anticipated, Living a Feminist Life, an academic memoir that Ahmed began to construct through her ongoing blog, feministkilljoys.com.

To my mind, these works are not exhibiting theoretical exhaustion. They are brazen, filled with admirable feminist boldness, as they pursue the more open forms of writing that may, from a neoliberal standpoint, be slowing them down, and that the neoliberal university may not be ready to fully acknowledge. But these are forms that feminism today – whether intersectional, queer, or oriented around affect studies – fully warrants. Given the accumulation of its multiple variables and directions, metafeminism, to hark back to hooks’ argument, “needs to be written in a range of styles and formats.” I would love to continue to see feminist writing that loosens, as do the works mentioned above, age-old boundaries separating the academic and the personal, or the scholarly and the accessible. I believe such efforts can address the need for stylistic diversity and enrich both a common reading experience and a more specialized scholarly one.

It’s difficult not to notice as well the early second-wave mantra of “the personal is political” being powerfully re-invoked by works like Nelson’s or Cvetkovich’s. Hence my argument that my book, my personalized essay is an attempt, my attempt, at a metafeminist form of academic writing. This project is also an attempt to figure out how my scholarly learning, which is always in process, can breathe life, or let life breathe, into forms of expression that fall outside of strict or standard academic norms of writing. Finally, and maybe this is (too) brazen on my own part, but could these personalized moments in my writing be a form of queering such norms? Through Nelson’s own take, I recall Sedgwick’s controversial notion of queer as encompassing various kinds of disruptions and subversions. “Queer is a continuing moment, movement, motive – recurrent, eddying, troublant […] relational, and strange,” writes Sedgwick, to which Nelson adds:

She wanted the term to be a perpetual excitement, a kind of placeholder – a nominative, like Argo, willing to designate molten or shifting parts, a means of asserting while also giving the slip. That is what reclaimed terms do – they retain, they insist on retaining, a sense of the fugitive.

Meanwhile, Sedgwick also acknowledged the danger of dematerializing the term through this removal of “same-sex sexual expression” from queer’s “definitional center.” As Nelson again adds: “In other words, she wanted it both ways. There is much to be learned from wanting something both ways.” (29).

That’s what metafeminism, by the way, is all about: reflecting and deflecting; having it both ways.

Writing about feminism today, at least for me, craves a suppler form than the monograph allows. One that’s less exhaustive and less exhaustible, one that’s fugitive perhaps, and maybe even queer. One that wants it both ways. To write, then, an academic personalized essay. To take the unfinished wave of a scholarly attempt, and to chase the tides of feminism’s first, second, third, and even fourth movements in the texts of Canadian women writers today. Maybe a personalized essay is the only form possible for an academic study of metafeminism. Vast and extensive in historicity as well as content, metafeminism encompasses what has been referred to for some time as feminisms in the plural; it denotes those shifting parts of sexual, racial, gender, and trans identities articulated beyond the normative categories of a very old and very persistent patriarchal tradition. Perhaps metafeminism’s breadth, multidirectional texture, and ambivalences, indeed its queerness, already resist the monograph – the highly detailed, authoritative, legitimized account of a single thing.

Perhaps only the essai personnalisé, with its open process and its desire to give academic discipline the slip, will do.

Marie Carrière directs the Canadian Literature Centre at the University of Alberta where she also teaches literature in English and in French. Her most recent publication is a critical anthology co-edited with Curtis Gillespie and Jason Purcell, Ten Canadian Writers in Context.
academic reorganization · grad school · guest post

Guest Post: The Grad School Decision: Thoughts and Advice for Students, Professors, and Mentors

Last weekend, I took a two-day workshop on active listening organized by my campus’ student union.

The workshop was geared towards supporting survivors of sexual assault and harassment, but needless to say the skills could be widely applied. I started thinking about the conversations I have with my friends and family, especially regarding personal difficulties or decisions, and how I can be a more effective support person. Specifically, I started to notice that people were coming to me seeking certain things, whether they (or I) realized it: sometimes they need hard, clear advice; sometimes they need commiseration; and sometimes they just need someone to listen deeply, and to leave the analysis and decision-making up to them.

To be clear: these needs aren’t always mutually inclusive, and it’s ok for me (and others) to mistake one conversation for another. Communication is hard, and as they reminded as in the workshop, there is no ‘right way’ to support someone. But the very act of stopping, listening, thinking, and setting your own concerns, experiences, and judgments aside can be as valuable as it is challenging.

So why is this post about choosing to continue grad school?

Well, it’s February. The applications for scholarships and programs are submitted, or about to be. Grad committees are meeting. And students everywhere are seriously contemplating whether or not they should go to grad school, and where. And though many students may not have heard back on their applications, the decision starts to press in from all sides (especially if your lease expires in just a few months).

In this post, I hope to offer two things: reassurance to my fellow students or would-be students; and advice to profs, supervisors and mentors who will be consulted on this major decision.

To students and potential-students:
· It’s ok to want to go to grad school, even if you don’t see a job at the end of it.

· It’s ok to not want this (anymore), even if you’ve worked towards it. It’s ok to feel worn down, or like you aren’t up for this, or like you want to put your energy elsewhere. You are so wonderful, and you will be valuable no matter where or how you work, fight, and love.

· It’s ok to feel weird at any/every stage of the process. I felt sick to my stomach when I got my acceptance. I’m not the only one.

· It’s ok to prioritize family, community, health, comfort, geography, and financial stability in your decision-making. You are more than just a student, and your program will go smoother if you let yourself know this.

· It’s ok to think short-term: does your funding package appeal because it’s more than you make at your retail/service job? Does student-status look better than precarious work or unemployment? It’s ok if this is your motivation, rather than a passion for research and teaching. Maybe your motivation will shift, maybe it won’t.

Which brings me to this:

· It’s ok to imagine yourself dropping out or not finishing. Sometimes, just the knowledge that you can leave is the only thing that keeps you going. (Shout out to RM and MK: one or both of you told me this when I felt full of despair).

· It’s ok to leave. Whether that means turning down that offer next month, or leaving your program mid-way through.

· And above all: this decision affects you most of all, so centre yourself and your needs. No matter what your decision, your supervisor(s) will be fine. That helpful grad coordinator or administrator will be fine. Your best friend in the program will be ok. You’re the one who has to live with this decision, so listen to yourself.

To the faculty, advisors, supervisors, professors, and mentors:*
This is when my thinking around active listening comes in. I can imagine it’s incredibly difficult to provide emotional and professional support to your students. Maybe you feel invested in them, or maybe you are too busy to be the kind of helpful prof that you had or needed or wanted. But if you know you’ll be a part of these conversations, my primary advice is to apply the basic principle of active listening: wait, listen, think, and try to gauge what the student actually needs from you.

· Do they need information? That could be straightforward. Maybe they just need to be put in touch with a grad coordinator. Maybe they need that kind of tacit knowledge Aimée has discussed. Or maybe they need the kind of information that feels like gossip but is actually vital. If you don’t feel comfortable telling them that that star academic probably won’t give them the support they desire, try and put them in touch with a grad student or colleague who can speak honestly with them.

· Do they need advice? This is tricky. First of all, do they need advice from you in a professional capacity or as a friend? Does this difference mean something to you? More on advice-giving below.

· Do they need reassurance? Don’t we all. If you’re not able to give the kind of emotional support they need, especially during that awful period of waiting-to-hear-back, then just ask them “Do you have someone you can talk to about this?” This can help to signal that maybe you are not that person, and can remind them about that other student going through the same process, or the career counselling services on campus.

· Do they need space? Then please give it. Note if you are always the one starting the conversation about [ominous tone] next year. Note if they try to change the topic. Give them back control: remind them that you are available to talk, and let them start these conversations when and if they need them.

Some general advice:

· Your student is not you. What was right for you won’t necessarily work for them. They can’t follow your trajectory–times have changed and so has tuition.

· No matter what decision they make, they will never be wasted. Yes, professors have told my friends that if they don’t go to grad school, it would be ‘a waste’ of their ability; this can sting. If your student is talented, intelligent, passionate, and skilled, they will bring that spark to any job, career, program, or path they choose.

· You don’t need to know their personal context in order to respect it. Maybe they are hesitant to move away: they don’t need to disclose to you that they want to be near a sick relative, or that their partner’s job is a priority, or that they need to prioritize adequate mental health services. You just need to recognize that geography is a major concern for them.

· Money is personal. They may need more–or less–than you did. Again, they may not want to disclose that they are supporting dependents, or dealing with debt, or accounting for the cost of healthcare, divorce, family planning, a long distance relationship, etc.

· We all value different things. Some people prioritize prestige or reputation more than others. If they signal that they don’t share your values, that’s not a judgment on you. Rather, it’s a sign that they know themselves pretty well.

· Just because the academy needs them, doesn’t mean they need the academy. Shout out to HM for this. This applies especially to students who are marginalized within institutions. Yes, we need more Black and Indigenous students. More students of colour. More queer and trans students. More disabled students. More students from working class backgrounds. But it’s not on your student to make diversity happen. If they fought to earn a degree or two from institutions that aren’t built for them, then they are fierce as hell, and you can remind them of this. But if they are ready to leave and put their energy elsewhere, that’s ok too. Back to my first point: they will never be wasted. And if you feel like they would have stayed if the university didn’t have oppression built into its very old, very white bones, then let this be your motivation to make the institution better for the next student.

*I came to my PhD with the support of some amazing professors and fellow students. The advice offered here is modelled off of supportive behavior I have witnessed, and should not be taken as shaming faculty and instructors for being imperfect. Your efforts are so valuable and so deeply appreciated.

Kaarina Mikalson is in her second year of her PhD in the Department of English at Dalhousie University. She doesn’t regret it (yet), though the initial decision made her nauseous and weepy. She reads CanLit and comic books, and currently researches the Spanish Civil War and labour in literature. She plays roller derby, sews and embroiders, and now owns a soldering iron, so she’s ready for the apocalypse.