Lying Low, Feeling Chilled

feeling_chilled_mugimage via

You guys, it’s happening again. A silence. Scarier than the thinning of the divide between the world of the living and the dead from which comes this season of otherwise delightful spookiness, there is this silencing of feminists whose voices I want to hear.

There’s a lawsuit (actually more than one — but a recent one hits closer to home since it is sort of in my field) out there naming a lot of women and accusing them of talking too much. I don’t know them. I can’t claim to know anything about the claims being made. But I know that, when this suit dropped, my social media fell silent. I got notes from friends telling me that they have been advised to lay low for a while, to choose to be quiet, to not draw attention to themselves. They haven’t been named. But they might be.

I am heartbroken about this. I don’t have anything smart to say. I just wanted to register that this is happening. That there is a silencing effect at work and it ripples out far beyond those who are specifically targeted.

Last spring, I was asked to speak on a panel about social media and my profession. I found myself going back to those remarks because I feel all over again some of what I felt then.

Some time last year, someone I admire was badly trolled and she shut down her social media and stopped writing publicly about a lot of things like feminism and the academy. She asked her friends and allies to stand down and disengage and that really did seem like the best course of action. Trolls don’t deserve our time and they thrive on our attention.

At the time, I thought that losing this voice was a huge loss but I didn’t think it was about me at all.

I was wrong. I stopped blogging.

It wasn’t direct. I didn’t think to myself, a friend has been targeted and I don’t want that so I won’t write anything.

Instead, whenever it was my turn to post, and when the posting deadline came and went, I told myself that I just didn’t have anything to say that week. Or that there were already so many other important things about feminism, and especially about #metoo, being written on other blogs that I just wanted to pause and listen and really hear the things that other women were saying. Or that I was tired. Or that I had to focus on my real work and just couldn’t spare the time to blog just at that moment.

All of this was true.

But I also never said to myself, and could not admit until many months later, that losing that voice, also meant losing something of my own.

It is one of those many situations where we “won” but winning that battle meant a very specific kind of silencing that bled into larger silences.

Not saying publicly, Hey! Back off. That is my friend and warrior and co-conspirator and you suck and all the other things I wanted to say, not saying those things, affected my ability to say anything.

These blog posts demand a kind of honesty and it felt increasingly disingenuous and dishonest to write about anything without also writing about why losing one voice made my own feel more and more fake.

What happened chilled me. It wasn’t immediate but I can see now that it did.

I feel it happening again.

The weather is turning. I am cold again.

I will buck up and find a sweater. Of course, there’s a lot for us to talk about that has nothing to do with lawsuits and the weather. For now, I just want to say, I am feeling a little quiet but I am here, full of raging solidarity for all the good feminist fights.








emotional labour · heartbreak · peer review · risk · workload

Academic Roadkill

GrindImage via

We are so lucky to have a guest post from the inimitable Linda Morra. Here she is, thinking hard about how the “grievance studies” hoax hurts:

I’ve thought quite a lot about roadkill recently, probably because of the long stretch of drive, from Montreal (where I live) to Sherbrooke (where I teach). Today, it was a deer; a couple of days ago, it was a raccoon and a cat. I consistently think about how these animals were simply foraging for food, innocent of their imminent violent end—one that was just veering around the corner and bearing down on them, as the result of a vehicle on an entirely different trajectory. I feel for these animals – I sometimes even foolishly weep for them.

And today, this week in particular, I identified with them.

I am not actual roadkill, very obviously. But, when I read about the latest version of the Sokal hoax, which produced and found publication for sham essays that spouted left-wing ideology, I felt like I was thrown to a curb. They were out to prove that the social sciences and humanities are not undergirded by proper research, but rather by left-wing ideology. Apparently, seven of twenty of the latest Sokal hoaxes were accepted. Seven. That’s one third. It saddens me to think that either the editors or peer reviewers weren’t doing their job, and that it has, as a result, cast suspicion on the entire field.

On some levels, I think the hoax serves as an important reminder of how some of us failed in our responsibility by allowing such articles to find publication. How different are we from, say, some very right-wing American news station, if we simply allow left-wing ideology to stand, rather than allowing real and meaningful scholarship to undergird the ideology? Than well-articulated, defensible points of view? Aren’t we just producing fake news too?

Perhaps some of us are. But here is why I felt like roadkill: many, if not most of us, aren’t.

As Lily Cho pointed out, we invest substantial voluntary time—and often unrecognized, at that—in peer-reviewing. We are the ones who invest countless hours in reading and vetting papers for scholarly journals and manuscripts; we also train students, both graduate and undergraduate about what real scholarship means and what it looks like; we try to build meaningful connections and address injustices, locally and globally. I and others often do this work with very little recognition or reward—neither public, nor institutional. We do not take up time in a spotlight as a means of advancing ourselves or our careers, and, for many of us, there is no other reason to make such an investment. (For a moment, at least, I’d like us to reflect upon how, conversely, these three academics used their time, as a point of contrast. Seriously—didn’t they have better things to do?)

There is no reward, particularly, for vetting a manuscript or an essay for a journal—not at my institution, anyway. But I still do it, at regular intervals, and try to provide feedback with care—looking up sources to make sure what has been presented is accurate and to check claims that are being made. Some of the claims are not properly historically grounded—the writer might try to apply recent theoretical or ideological trends anachronistically. I check that tendency. Others simply pretend that no other academic has done the research before—and “disappear” other critics in the process in order to elevate their own scholarly ego (more of that in another blog post). Usually, I and other peer reviewers do our best to catch these kinds of errors, because we know we have a standard to maintain. We may not always succeed—but we try.

Why do we do this? Because peer-reviewers are, in fact, gate-keepers. There’s no point in claiming we are not, because we ultimately determine what passes muster and what does not.

And this is not an issue of control, as some of my own colleagues have suggested—because that would render us no different than any major news outlet that lays claim to ideology as news rather than factually-based research. We do it out of a sense of personal and communal responsibility. And responsibility means accountability. And accountability works on multiple levels: from the individuals who write the articles, to those who serve as peer reviewers, to the editors themselves.

That’s why I feel like roadkill: I and others have been inadvertently injured too. The recent Sokal hoax may have shown us where the weakest links in our chain are. The perpetrators themselves engaged in an unethical intellectual exercise to prove that ideological politics have supplanted scholarship, or at least that very little scholarship undergirds the ideological politics being championed—in the very realm where it shouldn’t do that.

But, in the process, they harmed the credibility of many good academics, who are committed to their work and to maintaining scholarly standards—which may now seem like no standard at all.


Linda Morra is a Professor of English at Bishop’s University. She has tried to research and publish meticulously about archives, especially those related to women writers in Canada, including Sheila Watson, Jane Rule, and M. NourbeSe Philip (in Unarrested Archives, UTP 2014). She is extremely grateful to her peer reviewers and editors, who have invested time in providing critical feedback that has helped to shape and improve her scholarly work.

affect · emotional labour · grief · heartbreak · women

Guest Post: That lachrymose season: a term of crying in academia

Last week’s Hook and Eye post by Margeaux Feldman, “There’s no crying in academia,” is vital reading about largely unacknowledged emotional labour in the academy. In twelve years of academic instruction, I have never spent a term without having someone cry in my office for some very justifiable reasons. There’s plenty of pain out there: depression, divorce, violence, crippling anxiety. But this term, I’m the crier in my office. There’s no saying no to it and no separating the personal from the professional. And while the grief is terrible – how could it be anything but? – the reception of it in my department and my classes has been surprising.

My mother passed away in September from injuries sustained after a fall; she died on the first day of the fall teaching term. I have all kind of feminist criticisms about our health care system, and I’ll be writing about those soon. But first, grief. For the record, any time of the year that your mother dies is a terrible time of year but it’s the timing that my sympathetic colleagues have most remarked on. And if it hadn’t happened to me, I too would immediately wonder how to handle such an upheaval in schedule. Since it has happened to me, here’s the answer: I haven’t handled it. It’s the steamroller that has run over me, cartoon-like, and I can only work with the physical demands that are left.

It’s emotional labour, no question, but to tell the truth, it’s taking a toll on my body. Fatigue activates my sciatica, which is now a long taut string of poker-hot muscle that hobbles me. Being in public is a challenge; the performance of normality is the hardest work of all. I swing between being too voluble about the horrible to saying nothing at all. I am indebted to my colleagues who have offered me everything from tea to Kleenex to non-judgemental ears to teaching classes if I feel I can’t. The fact that I appear to have replaced my memory with a sieve has fazed no one. My Chair advised me well to cancel a class or two when I was too stunned to make a good decision, and – maybe more importantly – he was also mindful enough not to insist that I was too stunned to make a good decision. And when he asked me what I wanted to tell the students when I cancelled classes, I knew what I had to say.

I chose to tell my students that I was cancelling class because I had a death in the family. When I was a student, I found the lack of information given to me about a professor’s sudden absence not practically useful and a bit insulting as it assumed that I was a doofus who couldn’t be trusted with basic human information. I remember saying to the department admin, “I don’t need salacious details. I just want to know if she’s okay.” This appeal got me the hairy eyeball. Now that I was the prof, I knew that my students would eventually look me in the face and my face would tell all. I needed to prepare them.

To be clear, I’m not a pool of tears trickling from room to room, discomfiting students. I speak in full sentences, grade papers, discuss texts; I write and sit on committees. But I know that I look odd, strangely strung out: broken blood vessels in my eyes, no makeup, everything a little off-kilter. Because that’s grief. One thing that happens when death occurs is that the boundaries between private and public are wiped out for a while. You have to conduct private business in ways that are horribly public. Many things about the breaching of those boundaries has been and continues to be shocking, but my students have been great. Many immediately sent me condolences via email, or told me when they saw me that they were sorry for my loss. I could even see a few of them — those I’ve taught several times — keeping a close eye on me in my first few classes back.

In turn, I have protected them from the awful knowledge that one’s mother can die by just keeping my statement about “a death in the family.” Because it’s not right to frighten them, but it is right to let them step up and be adults, to make the leap to the understanding that their professors have lives, and loves, and tragedies. It’s right to show them their red-eyed professor who is not absent and not made of stone. It’s right to show them that grief forges its own pedagogical model.

Tanis MacDonald
Wilfrid Laurier University
heartbreak · mental health · popular culture · righteous feminist anger · sexist fail

Amanda Todd: the problem is sexism, not the internet

Amanda Todd’s recent presumed suicide made me very sad, and then made me very angry.

My heart goes out to her family, and to those who cared for her. What a terrible loss. That’s the sad part. I was myself bullied for years and years and years, and it was awful. And that was in the 1980s, so at least the vicious commentary was all in pink pen on ruled paper pulled from notepads. Every story like Amanda’s brings me back to what it feels like to be so gleefully excluded, to have random acts of cruelty visited upon you, just so that the rest of the group can bond over your expulsion from it. So sad.

The angry part is just getting angrier, every time I read about how Amanda was bullied, about why she was bullied, and about the terrible terrible paradoxes that being a girl has always entailed, only now much more publicly. I am angry that we are calling this “bullying” like it’s not very specifically gendered. And how we are blaming the internet, rather than endemic sexism. It is a re-victimization to deny what is really going on here.

To review. When she was 12, Amanda and a friend were goofing around a webcam chat, having a flattering interaction with a stranger. She flashed her breasts. Screenshots, it transpires, were made. At 14 she found herself confronted again by these images, now being used to try to extort further webcam performances. She refused, and the pictures went public. Vicious public shaming and bullying, online and off, ensued.

What happened to Amanda is an amplifed version of what happens to all women who were once girls: we suddenly found ourselves with new bodies, and a social system that tells us, at one and the same time, to manifest an increasingly normative hypersexualized self-presentation (to be popular, to fit in, to have friends) and to viciously slap down as sluts any other girl who went just a shade too far in this hypersexualized self-presentation (again, in order to be popular, to fit in, to have friends). Dating introduced further complications: be sexy, but not necessarily sexual; put out, but not too enthusiastically. The range of acceptable teenage girl behaviours and self-presentations is very, very, very narrow. The band widens a bit for those who are conventionally pretty, if they also happen to have good self-confidence, and a higher than average starting social or economic position. Kim Kardashian can made a sex tape and become a global brand icon; Amanda Todd can flash her nascent boobs for one person over a webcam and be driven to suicide.

What if we lived in a world where 12 year olds didn’t feel like they had to flash their breasts at men to make friends? Or, perhaps more radically, what if we lived in a world where when people wanted to flash their breasts at some point, the later circulation of these images wasn’t so incredibly shameful as to bring down a virtual lynch mob onto this girl?

[Let’s go further: what about a world where boys didn’t learn about adult sexuality from a pervasive porn culture, or where such a large part of their own social standing didn’t come from treating girls as some kind of social currency to acquire and just as rapidly spend?]

The internet is a gossip and picture machine. No law in the world is ever likely to curb the wildfire of teen gossip, stop the screen shots or the camera phone snaps from zipping around a school before the bell finishes ringing. What we can change are our social relations. Maybe we can stop being ashamed of our bodies and our sexuality. Maybe we can stop letting these be manipulated to our detriment by parties who would exploit or harm us to exert power over us.

Adolescence is awful. It’s a time of separation from our childhood and the various kinds of security it offered us. We are meant to rethink who we are, to take social risks, to experiment with identity at that time. This shouldn’t kill us. It shouldn’t, either, lead us to become monsters in the name of social standing either: so terrified of not fitting in ourselves, even those of us who were bullied are quick to turn on anyone a little weaker, a little more precarious, than ourselves, just to turn that heat away, to feel like we belong even momentarily. And of course puberty is a misery as well, perhaps particularly for girls, who, it seems to me, have absolutely no way of getting through the physical and emotional changes without feeling like they have in some very significant way failed very significantly: too hairy, thighs too squishy, desires too strong, boobs to big or too small or too visible or too hidden. Too tall or too short. Too ‘boyish’ or too ‘womanly’.

Adolescence plus puberty is bad. Adolescence plus puberty multiplied by an unforgetting, unforgiving internet? Multiplies the capacity for harm.

But the internet isn’t really the problem. “Bullying” isn’t really the problem. The problem is systemic, pervasive, all-encompassing sexism, and the stifling of female power, the rigid policing of female identity at the time when this identity is barely nascent, and its bearer so very vulnerable.

If we all learned that lesson, about the impossibility of being female, we might become kinder. We might push out the boundaries a little further, to allow the Amanda Todds of the world (among whom I would place my own teenage self) a little breathing room, a little kindness, to become who they are, without shame, without coercion, without violence.

With love.

academy · classrooms · good attitudes about crappy possibilities · heartbreak · hiring · job market · solidarity

So You’ve Got a PhD in the Humanities…

As usual I’ve been spending a (good) portion of my Sunday working, and one of my tasks for the weekend is to write this post. After soliciting suggestions from friends and colleagues (thank you!) and thinking about that humorous little video that made the rounds last week I’ve decided to weigh in on making fun of the profession.

I’m not the first to do this, nor is it the first time I’ve done so. The first time I was given an opportunity to think about the ups and downs (to put it mildly) of the profession was on a panel hosted by the Professional Concerns Committee at ACCUTE this spring. Likewise, many of the commenters here have been thinking gamely about the pros and cons of “So You Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities” and the responses have been varied. The reason I’m wading in again though has directly to do with a conversation I had with a graduate student friend of mine last week. “After I finished watching that video and laughing I felt kind of ill,” she admitted.
Before I get there though, let me recap in case you’ve been living under a wi-fi-free rock or don’t feel like spending four minutes of your life watching this: xtranormal.com is a site where you can type in dialogue and make your own film. In this particular little gem a young woman (blonde, with vaguely hipster glasses) comes in and speaks to a female Dean about getting a letter of reference for graduate school. What follows is a hilarious–if uncomfortable–exchange. The student blithely asks for references because she has “brilliant thoughts about death in literature” while the Dean attempts (with increasing acerbity) to alert the student to the, ahem, difficulties of attaining a permanent job in the profession.
Ok, it IS funny. And often bang-on. But there are several things that give me cause for concern. I’m going to skip over the fact that this is a conversation between two women (unpaid emotional work?), the fact that it conflates the position of a (female) Dean with the office-sharing, salary-realities of an adjunct, and instead think about dissing the profession versus restructuring the profession. And yes, this is both blue-sky thinking (defiantly so, as it is cold and rainy in Halifax today), and devastatingly earnest. That’s just how I roll.
While I am reluctant to advocate honing business-like skills such as PR (possibly because I desire to live a life of the mind? Sigh.) one of the dangers of simply trotting out the admittedly myriads of inequities and labour abuses that can and do happen in this profession is that they become the central focus. I wasn’t a cheerleader, but it seems that there is something in celebrating what we do well. I teach in an English department. Among many, many other crucial skills, we do a heck of a job teaching students about critical thinking. How might we productively celebrate (ok, and advertise) what it is that our specific disciplines do well? I realize that I’m focussing on the Humanities and Social Sciences here, but I’m sure this can be shifted to be a useful thought exercise across disciplinary lines.
Here’s another issue: I noticed that the people who were predominantly most reluctant to laugh at this video were not the folks on the Dean’s side of the desk. They were folks like me (contract workers) or graduate students or undergraduates. What kind of message are we sending to ourselves and to the future if we don’t also start thinking about how to repackage–and I mean fundamentally repackage–what we do (or at least how we explain what we do, because I hold to the belief that there is much that is being done very well indeed).
And so back, obliquely, to the conversation that I had with my graduate student friend, who was concerned that there was no point and felt ill after watching the video.
Why did she feel sick? Because she’s in the profession–or at least trying to be–and so am I. We’re both pretty acutely aware of how difficult it is to get a permanent job, and I at least am viscerally aware of what that job looks like if you ever get to the other side of the desk (however temporarily) so my question is this: How might we think and act positively about the game without getting inextricably mired in its increasingly corporate structure?
For starters, give yourself a pat on the back for reading this blog: we’re engaging in community building here.
Here’s another thought, what about (more) co-op programmes in the Humanities?
Perhaps a commons for the exchange of pedagogical strategies?
Other thoughts?
heartbreak · hiring · turgid institution

Guest Post: Spousal Hiring

In May 2010 I read an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about spousal hiring. The former dean of the faculty of arts and sciences at Johns Hopkins University made a convincing case about the need for administrators (not just faculty members and their unions) to care about spousal hiring. He writes:

My experience in the dean’s office confirmed my impressions as to the need for spousal hiring. Johns Hopkins simply could not have built its faculty without a willingness to create positions for spouses and partners.

In case after case, that willingness was, by far, the single most important factor in recruitment. We could increase a salary offer by tens of thousands of dollars a year; provide lavish research accounts; promise a scandalous number of sabbatical leaves—none of it mattered if it meant that a candidate still faced the prospect of a long-distance commute or a major professional sacrifice by a spouse.

Now to be clear here, this issue matters much to me, and likely rang true in many ways because I am one half of a dual-academic couple. In 2007 my husband began a tenure-track job in one city, and in 2009 I began one in another city. I even gave up the second year of a SSHRC postdoc for this job since everyone and their dog told me that I’d be stupid to pass it up. Again and again other academics – those in contract positions, those in administration, and fellow professors of every rank – told us just how lucky we were to land two tenure-track jobs within a 5 hour drive of each other. Heck, they said as they toasted us, at least you’re in the same time zone!

Ours is an academic “success story,” but I’d like to take a moment to articulate my experience of this so-called “success.” I won’t offer a list of things that don’t really work with a long-distance, dual-academic partnership in my experience, because I fear that it will just read as a long whinge, a litany of complaints. (“Is the husband a problem?,” is how the New York Times put it.)

What I do want to communicate, however, is the very real sense of helplessness and lack of agency that both myself and my partner have experienced with respect to academia as we have tried to remedy our long-distance situation. We are crushed by a monolithic and slow bureaucratic structure. Our hands are tied, as are those of our respective Chairs and Deans (for the most part). I thought universities would be places where smart people could come together to find creative solutions to any kind of problem, but I’m learning just how wrong I was in that notion. By and large, the advice that we get is: “just wait it out and eventually you’ll end up in the same place.”

Now while that advice may be true, there is no guarantee that it is true. We could just live out our professional lives split between two Ontario cities. But perhaps more importantly, when well-meaning friends and colleagues tell us that it will all “work out eventually,” what they neglect to realize is the price to be paid for that “eventual” timeline. Put simply: we can neither buy a house nor have children until we’re in the same place. And if “eventually” doesn’t happen soon enough, then the window on having kids will close, whether we like it or not. That, I have to admit, is a high price to pay for what is, at the end of the day, just a job.

Here’s where things stand for us right now: This year I was awarded a research grant and was able to convince my university to give me a one-year unpaid research leave (July 2010-July 2011). So I’m back in the same city as my spouse, working from home. What do I think will ultimately happen? I’m a realist. So what I think will happen is that I will end up leaving academia, and I will try to find work doing something else, and I will be one more female statistic who compromises her own academic and professional goals. So if I were a betting woman, I’d bet that my days in academia are numbered. And that makes me very sad. In fact, it breaks my heart just a little bit. But at the end of the day, I would rather have my marriage than my job. And I just wish that academia didn’t ask me to make that choice.

Lindy Ledohowski, Ph.D.