emotional labour · history · solidarity


This is not an Oscars post.

Yes, I think it is great that Cate Blanchett spoke about the importance of films that centre on women. Yes, I’m thrilled that Lupita Nyong’o won Best Supporting Actress. But I don’t have anything smart and insightful to say about the Oscars. Not this year.

My mind is still with last week’s news.

In case you haven’t heard, last week the family, friends, and community members of Loretta Saunders learned that she had indeed been murdered. Loretta was an Inuk woman from Labrador. She was studying at St. Mary’s University in Halifax. I have mostly learned about Loretta through the excruciating writing by her thesis supervisor, Dr. Darryl Leroux. After Loretta went missing on February 13th her family alerted police and community members in Halifax began postering. Leroux wrote a mediation on Loretta’s thesis work specifically, and more generally on the incredible urgency of her work more generally. You can read it here.

Last week Loretta’s body was found in the median of the TransCanada Highway in New Brunswick.

Leroux managed to write another incredible and excruciating post about Loretta and her work shortly after her body was found on February 26th. You can read it in full here. She was writing an honours thesis on the pernicious erasure of Indigenous women in Canada. She was writing about the murder of Aboriginal women in Canada. She was writing about the ways in which Canada is structured to not only marginalize Indigenous peoples, it is also structured to fundamentally teach non-Indigenous subjects to simply not see this day-to-day violence.

I am devastated and I am angry. You should be too. We all should be in Ottawa with Cheryl Maloney and the rest of the Native Women’s Association demanding an immediate and full-scale inquiry into this country’s repugnant treatment of Indigenous peoples.

Why has this not happened already? Leroux articulates his thoughts beautifully, so I’ll cite him here:

What I do know is that our society has discarded indigenous women and girls in much the same manner for generations. These people were playing out a script that we all know intimately, but never acknowledge.

It’s our doing, which Loretta articulated so clearly in her writing — theft of land base, legalized segregation and racism, residential schools for several generations, continued dispossession = social chaos.

It is a recipe for disaster for indigenous peoples, and especially indigenous women. Who suffers most when access to land, to the ecological order at the basis of most indigenous societies, is limited, controlled, or outright eliminated? Is that not what’s at the basis of a settler society like our own, eliminating indigenous peoples’ relationship to the land (and/or their actual bodies), so that can we plunder it for our gain?

All the while, through trickery and deceit, we convince our children that indigenous peoples are to blame for their condition, that through no fault of our own, they simply don’t understand how to live well in society.

When I discuss these issues with my non-indigenous students in an open, honest, and non-judgmental manner, I am continuously disappointed, though no longer surprised by their lack of knowledge.

His experience with his non-Indigenous students matches mine. And, as Tara Williamson writes on the Indigenous Nations Rising site, don’t be tricked. This violence against Indigenous subjects and culture in Canada is not going to change with a tweet or a post or a ribbon or a hashtag or a comment on someone’s Facebook page. As she writes: 

Independent acts of activism are useless when they are not grounded in community and contextualized by a broader goal of dismantling colonial state power.

Nothing short of consistent activism that is predicated on learning the history and contexts of this ongoing colonial violence, learning solidarity, learning how to be an ally if you are non-Indigenous, and focussing on the long-term and broader goals of dismantling colonial power will make the change that must happen.

hiring · history · research · teaching · turgid institution

Specialist? Or expert?

What makes a specialist?  What makes an expert? These are the questions that haunt me on Sunday afternoons, apparently.

If you were to look me up on my fancy new website you would see that I do most of my teaching in the contemporary period, and, if I’m lucky, in either Canadian poetry or Canadian literary and cultural topics more generally. If you were to look at my Dalhousie faculty page you can see a different presentation of my specializations. However, if you were to ask me whether I was an expert in something or other I wouldn’t immediately know what to say.

Take, for example, a typical Saturday: for me involves writing several of my lectures for the upcoming week. Though I have now been teaching more or less full time since I finished my PhD in 2008 it has only been in the last year or so that I have been able to teach a class for the second or third time. Inevitably, every semester I am teaching at least one new course. Now, while the courses I teach are in my areas of specialization–albeit sometimes broadly speaking–I certainly can’t profess to be an expert in Canadian Gothic Revival Architecture or Jeremy Bentham or Charles G.D. Roberts, for that matter. Can I lecture on these topics and figures? Of course I can, and I can say with some confidence that I do so fairly well. Indeed, two of the three topics I listed even fall under one or more of the categories of my  candidacy exams (which were 19th and 20th century women’s writing in English, contemporary critical theory, and contemporary Canadian poetry). However, expert I am not.

Certainly, part of my broad specialization comes from my extensive teaching experience. As a limited term appointment I teach between 6-9 courses a year (that’s including spring term). Though I am amused by the (fallacious) assumption that because I am an ‘expert in literature’ I am good at things like Scrabble, I am mostly happy with my specializations being broad and my interests being many. Further, I should say that while I have broad specializations I am categorizable when it comes to the terms set out by job advertisements. Nonetheless, I found myself wondering, are the pressures of the current job market as well as the increasing focus on graduate student professionalization changing scholars from experts to specialists? From specialists to experts? Or are experts endangered? Or is the difference between the two terms merely a difference in approach? Am I just creating false dichotomies? And, so long as the teaching and research is solid, does it matter?

When I asked two colleagues what they thought of my question about the difference between specialists and experts they were both of the general opinion that the difference between the two has always existed. One colleague related that she had seen a compelling talk by an expert in the music and culture of 1934. When asked what his next book would be, he replied ‘1935!’ I am awed by the ability to think, research, and write in such a systematic way. Such expertise and depth of knowledge reminds me of my first Romantic literature professor who could recite not only the Wordsworth’s poems, but also revisions, and letters referencing revisions. From memory! But I’m equally awed by the ability of a scholar who can pull together diverse references, time periods, and approaches to unpack a set of questions.

What do you think, readers? Is there a difference between an expert and a specialist? Do you call yourself one or the other?

boast post · history · writing

Boast Post: Not Drowning!

Back in the late 80s, the English Department at the UofA hired five women in a single year and then appointed a woman Dean of Arts.

Hold onto your hats, because this handcart’s headed for hell.

A handful of professors founded a Merit Only group with the explicit purpose of winding back equity policies in university hiring. They tore apart the new English professors’ credentials in the campus paper, they organized letter-writing campaigns to the new University President, and they generally menaced colleagues and administrators in the name of “free speech.”

They sought, and eventually won, mainstream media coverage of the outrage. Feminists, together with ‘deconstructionists’ and other equally seditious entities, were featured on the front cover of the Alberta Report in 1994, the conservative Christian weekly founded by Ted Byfield and later taken over by his son Link. (Yes, mainstream: the Alberta Report could be found in doctors’ waiting rooms and the like, where it didn’t raise too many eyebrows.) Women, the story said, were taking over the university and bending its august mission to their traitorous will. It was a Famous Five persons case for our age.

I wasn’t mentioned in the coverage, which unnerved me at the time. (Was I not working hard to dismantle the patriarchy, one scholarly article at a time? How could they not even know my name?) But of course it was deeply dismaying to the friends and colleagues who were maligned in the scurrilous reporting. They spent endless hours correcting the record and battling the Merit-Only group in person and in print. Two of the five English professors left within a few years, one for a Scottish university and one for a non-academic life.

If you want the full grisly story, Pat Clements’s recollection of what it was like to be that woman dean, “My World as in My Time,” makes for bracing reading. And where might you find that memoir? Well, gentle reader, I’m glad you asked: it is in our brand new book! Edited by Susan Brown, Jeanne Perreault, Jo-Ann Wallace and yours truly, Not Drowning but Waving: Women, Feminism and the Liberal Arts (UAP 2011) is a collection of meditations on the status of academic life for women today – or is that the status of life for academic women today?

This is not a review, just a shameless plug, so let me rave for a minute about what else is in the book – others will say how well it succeeds.

Contributors write about work, whether it’s their jobs (Donna Pennee, Christine Overall), their scholarship (Christine Bold and Amber Dean on remembering women, Marjorie Stone on sex trafficking, Lise Gotell on the Nixon case in Vancouver, a splendid way of thinking through the question of separate space for women), or the labour of others (Ann Wilson on night cleaners and knitting). Susan Brown and Cecily Devereux write about the vexed status of motherhood in the academy. Len Findlay rants (in the best Findlayan way) about institutional branding. Several pieces talk about periodizing feminism, and several of them are co-written across generational, geographical or intellectual divides: Jo-Ann Wallace and Tessa Jordan, Phil Okeke and Julie Rak, Rusty Shteir and Katherine Binhammer, Liz Groeneveld.

Your very own co-blogger Erin Wunker thinks through the experience of being savaged (there’s no other word for it) at a feminist conference.

Illness comes up a lot, metaphorically and literally – and the literal illnesses are both physical (Aruna Srivastava) and mental (my piece, though please don’t read it because I am feeling quite exposed and a little less plucky than I did when it was in press). Isobel Grundy talks about mentoring. Heather Murray offers a terrifically instructive history of co-education in Toronto. And the fierce, inimitable, gorgeous Aritha Van Herk – oh, how she can write! – holds it all together with a meditation on women and bathtubs and oceans and “waves” of all sorts.

So here it is.

Ted Byfield, this one’s for you.