fast feminism · generational mentorship · intolerant shrew · slow academy · teaching

The unbearable privilege of cynicism

Ron Srigley is doing it again. Last fall, he was in the LA Review of Books bemoaning the unrelenting vapidity of today’s university students, the soul-crushing inanity of teaching, the hollow commercialism of pedagogy, riven with “fads” like student-centred learning and the flipped classroom. And now again in the Walrus. Students are stupid and lazy. Teaching is meaningless. The university is hollow. “Pedagogy” is a farce. It’s a race to the bottom.

Only Srigley knows better, has standards, cares.

Much of the press has lapped it up. He is a truth teller, bravely thumbing his nose at power! He is leaping over the wall of the ivory tower to share its dirty secrets with parents! He says difficult things that need saying! Even if we don’t want to hear them! (Except everyone seems to want to hear them and say them, at least people who are not actually university professors, or university students, or pedagogy scholars). He’s the Donald Drumpf of higher ed.

Many reasonable people have produced thoughtful responses to the substance of what he’s written, some from a collegial perspective, others simply on formal logical grounds.

That’s not what I’m thinking about today. I’m thinking about how ready the world is to hear such things from Srigley, and why. Of course, conservative publications love him: he confirms their dim view of the university as a kooky liberal bastion of anything-goes hedonism. But why Srigley? I suspect it’s because he looks like many people expect a professor to: male, fluffy white hair, dark thick-rimmed glasses, a serious look. You go Google image search him. Then click on this: if you dare.

“Everybody is stupid, except me!”

What I’m saying, first is this: Srigley walks into the discussion with view that people are primed to want to hear. And he walks into the discussion with this tremendous amount of identity privilege. He is a living, breathing confirmation bias for everyone who only knows about university from watching movies.

How powerful is this privilege? Powerful. I’m going to say this advisedly and carefully: you will see Srigley described over and over as “professor of philosophy.” He is a career adjunct, touring North Bay and Sudbury, Ontario, and on annual contract at the University of Prince Edward Island. Powerful and conferring high status this career is not. His CV proudly lists a book published with the Edwin Mellen Press–you know, the one most famous for suing Dale Askey, for naming them as a vanity press of the first order. But no one links Srigley to adjunct employment conditions (dire) or the question of status among institutions (barbaric) or the notion of maintaining a research profile in an itinerant and no doubt heavy teaching career (an impossible bind). Nope. He’s just Professor. Expert. Authority. Because he says things that confirm people’s authoritarian biases and distaste for youth, and because he looks the way he does: white, male, cranky.

I am going to guess that hell would have to freeze over before Srigley self-identified as “adjunct” or even “teaching-track”. I’m going to guess he knows, implicitly and calculatingly, that he would lose status through this identification. And status is something he can fabricate out of thin air. Or out of privilege.

So Srigley becomes famous, basically, for complaining. And he’s a hero. For complaining. For calling his students and his colleagues stupid and shallow. For this he’s called brave.

Contemplate for a moment how far up the ladder of prestige and esteem such a strategy would get you, dear Hook & Eye readers, you marvellous and hard-working women teaching your hearts out as graduate students, as tenure-track faculty, as teaching track faculty, as Associates, as sessionals. Is the world ready to boost your voice when you decry classroom overcrowding? When you lament you have no office? When you suggest you are not sufficiently trained to do the main part of your job, and you want help? When structural constraints push you into Scantron multiple-choice exams when you would prefer essays? When you note that students don’t want Friday classes because they’re working at jobs for 20 hours a week to pay for tuition? And perhaps that’s why they’re not so perky in class? Probably not.

In fact, a key status-building activity for Srigley and his ilk lies precisely in the sort of move he makes in his op-eds: call everyone else stupid, and disavow, especially, teaching–the dirty work of the academy, the care work, the feminized labour.

The Srigley Manoeuvre(tm) is, thus, really only available to conservative white dudes, and the glory of it is you get plaudits for not doing a damn thing at all. (See also: I’m a liberal professor and my liberal students terrify me). Me (and you, I imagine), I hold a tiny bit of my soul in my hands every class I walk in to. If today’s group work didn’t work, then I’m going to redo next-day’s lesson plan to try it a different way. If the writing on the final paper is poor one year, I’m going to rejig the whole course so it’s writing-focused from day 1. If my students don’t know something I think they should know I try to teach it to them. And I sit in committees on curriculum. And I attend teaching workshops. And I engage my students every day as if they were human beings who mattered, who have stories.

Could this sound any more like care work? Could I feminize this description any more, make it sound less like what many expect to be “the life of the mind” and any more like exactly the sort of “handholding” Srigley stakes his whole career against? Probably not. It’s exhausting but it’s my job and I’m actually doing it and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t but it is my duty and my vocation to teach my discipline to the students who enrol in my courses and by God, I’m going to try.

So are you. Srigley is not: he’s climbed on his high horse and mistaken throwing insults for revolution, hot air for hard work, his rejection of 2016 for a principled stance for classical values.

And that he gets so much attention for it should remind us all how far you can go on pure privilege, and bashing those less powerful than you, how far you can go by slipping into the easy stream of gendering and deprecating care work and marking as manly and principled the act of saying “no” to anyone who needs your help.

administration · femimenace · intolerant shrew · politics · reflection

Idealism: the life of the mind versus institutional cynicism

I don’t know about you, but when I decided, back when I was several inches shorter and living rent free with my parents and legally obligated still to attend school, to be a professor when I grew up, one of the main inducements was this:

I would never have to sully myself with the concerns of the world.

By that, I sort of understood that most private sector jobs (my mom, I should note, was an elementary school teacher before retirement, and my dad worked for the Ministry of Natural Resources before his, so “private sector” was always sort of imaginary for me) involved worshiping the god of profit, which seemed sorta Glengarry Glen Ross to me, or maybe Clerks. And I always imagined this worship was going to involve compromising my principles. I just couldn’t square that circle in my head, of being a Nine Inch Nails / Nirvana-listening, nose-ring wearing, Salinger reading, Sassy subscribing weirdo social justice vegetarian eco-friendly feminist, with … what other people called “real life.” So I chose what I imagined to be the intellectual meritocracy of School-for-Life.

And I kept choosing it, because, as a bachelor’s then master’s then PhD student, it kinda is an intellectual meritocracy. Learning for the sake of learning! Taking the long view! Searching after (contingent and partial, but nevertheless meaningful) truth!

Even seeking out The Job still seemed to be the path of ideals: what is tenure after all but the guarantor of academic freedom, the heady amazing freedom sometimes to say, when no one else can risk it, that the emperor has no clothes?

So it has proven to be in my scholarship. I say whatever I want, on the basis of my critical judgement and careful research. I am of course subject to peer review, and rigorously held to high standards of enquiry. Totally fair, and totally awesome. And so it has been too in my public pursuits: public and university lectures, news interviews, TV punditry, national radio–I say what I want, on the basis of my expertise, serving no agenda but what I perceive as what’s right and what’s true.

But in my service? In my teaching? Hm. Maybe not. I’m a staunch idealist in these areas, too, but I don’t know if that’s what’s required–if that’s what’s effective, or pragmatic, or leading to anything but frustration and eye-rolls all around. Over my seven years here, I have both earned the nickname “Gosh, tell us what you REALLY think,” and been counselled to choose which battles to fight, to be more pragmatic, to engage in horse-trading, etc.

As I enter the mid-career stretch, facing more administrative work, and more important administrative work, I wonder: what is the place of idealism in the academy?

Was I wrong, in high school, to think I could do this job and keep my ideals intact? To not have to hold my nose and go along with something I think is wrong? To not lobby hard for something I think is right, and damn the torpedoes?

I’m no saint, nor am I omniscient. Sometimes I’m wrong–I’m always willing to change my mind in the light of new evidence or clearer thinking. But I always vote / write / grade / decide according only to my best judgement of what’s really right: I proceed according to my ideals, not any other kind of calculation. I’m worried, though, that being effective at this level means believing one thing, but doing another, in some kind of cost-benefit calculus where I play the balance of effects rather than the absolutes I currently hold so dear. And I don’t like the person I am when I think about doing that.

Am I naive? Am I avoiding the hard decisions? Am I being a Pollyanna? Or a priss? What do you think?

bad academics · community · intolerant shrew

Rage against "the powers that be"

Remember my rant about empty buzzwords, from a couple weeks back? Let me introduce you to Unsuck It, a web based translation service to turn corporate jargon into normal language. (Props to The New Yorker for blogging about this.)You input the term (“low hanging fruit,” say), click UNSUCK IT, and out pops the translation (“easy goal”). If the term isn’t in there, you can crowdsource a definition (twitter link: “Hey, Lazyweb. Help me define silo #unsuckit”). If you find your obnoxious term, you can “Email the douchebag who used it.”

(Sidebar: is “douchebag” a sexist metaphor?)

There are not enough terms in the Unsuck It dictionary yet (hey, lazyweb: ditch “enhance” #beforeilosemymind). What was particularly disappointing to me today is that there is no entry for “the powers that be.” Because if I could excise any particular phrase from the academic lexicon, that would be the one.

My first objection is that “the powers that be” is vague. Consider its 73 synonyms from the Moby Thesaurus:

John Bull, Rasputin, Svengali, Uncle Sam, VIP, Washington,
Whitehall, access, bad influence, big wheel, bureaucracy, court,
directorate, eminence grise, five-percenter, friend at court,
good influence, gray eminence, heavyweight, hidden hand, hierarchy,
higher echelons, higher-ups, holdover, incumbent, influence,
influence peddler, influencer, ingroup, ins, jack-in-office, key,
kingmaker, lame duck, lobby, lobbyist, lords of creation,
man of influence, management, manipulator, ministry, new broom,
office-bearer, officeholder, officialdom, open sesame, prelacy,
president-elect, pressure group, public official, public servant,
ruling class, ruling classes, sinister influence,
special interests, special-interest group, the Crown,
the Establishment, the administration, the authorities,
the government, the ingroup, the interests, the people upstairs,
the power elite, the power structure, the top, them, they,
top brass, very important person, wheeler-dealer, wire-puller

Whenever you’re blaming Whitehall and the wheeler-dealer, you know you’ve lost your rhetorical way.

But my real objection is that “the powers that be,” in a university context, eviscerates an entire tradition of collegial governance. It’s a lazy shortcut, an abdication of intellectual and political responsibility that lets you bitch about – whatever – without making even the slightest effort to understand where the objectionable policy / procedure / rule / requirement comes from. I’ve worked at a university for a long time and I have yet to see any curriculum, spending, research, outreach, teaching, administrative, intellectual, or financial decision conveyed in an email from Jesus@HeavenlyKingdom. It may feel like “the administration” is ruining ___ [insert fail] ___, but the complaint at the heart of the usage can almost always be traced to specific decisions made by actual people in an institutional context at a particular historical moment. That doesn’t mean the decisions are good, but they are historical and therefore subject to change.

Our tradition of academic self-governance is precious. Canadian public universities are not corporate structures, but there are some worrying trends in that direction, and they are often conveyed through objectionable policies, procedures, rules and requirements. Object to them – please: do it for yourself, do it for your students, do it for the ideas you care about and for the common good. But please also do it as smartly as you can.

copper-bottomed bitch · intolerant shrew · reflection · resolution · skeptical feminist

And a Happy New Year, Too

As always, my husband read over the draft of my post before I put it in queue to be published. “Um, Aimée?” he began, delicately, “I think people are going to fight with you.”

It might surprise you to know that I have actually written an article on conflict management in personal blogging (under review! At New Media and Society! October 2010!) and that I’m an expert on the building and maintenance of trust relationships online (Volume 4, Issue 2! Cyberpsychology: A Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace!). Because, inadvertently, I started a minor flame war. Now, in the new year, I don’t want to rehash or re-light, but to consider the process of how we frame our ideas, and how we can disagree with each other with goodwill.

In hindsight, I can see that including the phrase “wanna make something of it?” in a post title is obviously a little combative, but I imagined that readers would see me as I saw myself, comically swinging my oversized red mittens in useless little circles and saying ‘pow! pow!’ while dancing about on my tiptoes. And commenters who know me in real life picked up this tone, probably because they know me in real life: that’s how I speak, and they have the context for that. (In this category, please include SC, Joanne Wallace, and Claire, as well as, of course, Heather.) To others I can see that the text may read aggressive. That’s my bad. Arianna’s comment helped clarify that for me, and I appreciate the holiday wishes with which she closed her comment–thank you, Arianna.

Some commenters prompted me to become more subtle in my thinking. Geetabix offered a useful and interesting personal story: thank you for that. Jana distinguishes between individual and institutional practices, in a way I didn’t do, and she’s right: thanks, Jana. I feel that I have benefited from the thoughtfulness each of you exhibited, and I’m grateful.

Other people outright disagreed with me, but not unpleasantly. SC supports my own practice, while articulating one totally different from it: I appreciate the care that you have used in respecting my position, SC, while disagreeing with it! Thank you, also, to those other readers who couched their negative comments in careful wording: thank you jroselkin for noting that what you read in the post might not be what I have intended, and for noting as well that you mostly like the blog. Jordana did this too. You all modeled a generosity of spirit I want to bring with me into the new year.

Heather, using conflict management strategies I discourse on at some length in my article, deflates the conflict with humour: how do I find time to bake? (Easy: my sister and I do it together–multiple batches of 7 recipes, over one 12 hour day, where her oldest kid minds my only kid.) Claire, too, focused on the baking, probably to cool things down. Humour and re-direction are time-honoured mommy-blogging conflict containment strategies, you should know! We must be becoming a community! Joanne just offered hearty well-wishes, probably to raise my spirits. From my hear, I appreciate the emotional labour you each expended to raise my morale, to maintain relationships and to build community here.

A couple of comments, though, attacked me personally. I have received emails from my friends, commiserating, and asking after my feelings. Let me be perfectly honest here: these comments made me cry. After a couple of weeks of dread whenever a comment popped up in my email, I’ve regained my equanimity and can only say: ad hominem is a logical fallacy. I would let this go unremarked but this space is really important to me so I ask: does vituperation maybe prevent other readers, perhaps more marginally situated than I am, but members of this community nevertheless, from feeling safe to participate if participating might mean disagreeing with a prevailing view?

In any case, let me close with this: Happy new year to all of you, and best wishes for a continued, various, multivocal conversation here at Hook and Eye. I hope we all feel safe and respected in articulating our ideas and our beliefs: I do. We may not always agree with each other–God, I hope we don’t always all agree with each other–but this blog has by and large been a very positive experience for me, and, I hope, for you.

bad academics · intolerant shrew

Why Are Conferences So Bad?

I’m sitting in a dark room with 13 colleagues who’ve gathered to talk about pedagogy. Or so I was led to believe. But now I’m not sure, because the guy at the front has been meandering around … something … for over a half hour now, and shows no signs of wrapping up. Painfully, we can see that he is on slide 7 of 12. The slides are so packed you can hardly read them – but I suppose it doesn’t matter, because he can. And he does. Every word. Then he decides to show us something on the internet. When he opens safari, there’s the site for my presentation, primed and ready to go. He blithely closes it and then starts rummaging around for the URL he’s after.

It’s like watching a “How Not To” video, all the way through.

The kicker is that all conferences are like that. This summer I explored both ends of the rigor spectrum. One required a 2500-word proposal plus citations and generated four sets of feedback. Reviewers graded us out of 100 (range of marks: 35%-98%) and said things like, “Although it was helpful to have a list of works cited, I would have liked a more representative bibliography. I’m not convinced these scholars are acquainted with the full history of GIS-based scholarship.” Bibliography? Did I mention this was for the proposal? for a poster?

The other conference asked for a four-sentence summary and responded within 90 minutes of submission: You’re in!

Both conferences were equally bad, and bad in the same ways. By bad I mean, principally, boring. Let me get this out of the way: most academics are nicer – more tolerant, more polite, more attentive, more forgiving, more generous – than I am. Regrettably, this chronic condition shows no sign of improving. In fact, the older and busier I get, the less forgiving I am of having my time wasted.

For instance, by being read to. I have reached my lifetime limit of sitting in a room being read to. I learned to read when I was 5 and I have a PhD in English. Reading is something I can do for myself. So, please. Stop.

If you can’t stop, if for some reason you cannot imagine any other way to reach your audience (for instance, if you have spent your entire life in a media deprivation tank), then read. But for the love of all things holy, run through your presentation first, and if it takes longer than the 15 minutes allocated to you, it is too long. What to do? Shorten it. Yeah, that’s right: take some stuff out.

Being timely would meet my minimum standard for conference presentations. Not everybody can be brilliant, but everybody can read a clock. If you’re ticking that one off Ye Olde List of Lifetime Accomplishments, then I challenge you to the relevance test. Before you present a point-by-point elaboration of an obscure novel dredged from the depths of your field, stop and ask yourself this question: Who cares? Look, I’m sure the use of ellipses in pre-colonial Spanish poetry is fascinating, and I bet you’re right that you can only truly understand its implications by contrast with post-colonial Spanish poetry’s elimination of ellipses. I’m prepared to concede all of that. In fact, I insist: let me concede the technical details of your argument and give me the good stuff – the punch line, the implications, the reasons I should care.

Finally, a word to session moderators. Moderate! You are the only person in the room who can shut this gong show down. We rely on you to do so. No polite “2 minutes” signs passed along three times. Once: fine, even I can be that polite (or, I can try). But once those two minutes are up, clear your throat, stand up, and interrupt. Reach over and shut off the mic. Start to clap. Not only the other presenters, but every member of the audience will thank you for doing so.

Until that happy day, you can find me in the back row, where I’ll be checking my email.