feminism · politics · resolution · saving my sanity

Remind me I’m a feminist

A few weeks ago, I completely forgot about the anniversary of the Montreal Massacre. My forgetting was of course short lived as my numerous social media feeds started trending with memorial posts, but the point is, for a very brief few moments, I completely forgot about the anniversary, about the event, about violence against women…

In discussing this with friends, a few of them joked that what every good feminist needs is an email reminder that they are a feminist. Maybe an online service [www.remind_me_i’m_a_feminist.com] that would compile all of the important dates and events and send out email alerts and news digests.

The darkly comical element here is that one shouldn’t need reminding. Our feminist consciousness should never be that far away. And yet, sometimes we will it into the background. I am sure I am not the only feminist out there that has had her friends complain about a propensity to make every social event/pub night/movie outing into some kind of “feminist thing.” My powers of feminist observation are never far from being unleashed at any given time and place. However, I have also learnt to choose my battles, and that not every event welcomes such politics. This has been a hard lesson to learn, and I’ve definitely alienated a few friends and family members who – for their own reasons – are not particularly enthused by feminist politics.

What I am trying to come to terms with is the difference between “choosing my battles” and forgetting them. There is a certain social convenience that comes with overlooking our feminist politics. What dates like December 6th (or horrific events like the shooting of Malala, or protests like Chief Spence’s hunger strike) reinforce is that the personal needed to become political for very good reasons. Our feminist foremothers knew what they were on about. It may seem easiest at times to push aside our politics for the sake of our everyday sanity, but it is in the everyday that these politics are most profound – in the fight to go to school, to walk the streets unharassed, and  to live with dignity in a safe, warm, and permanent home.

I’m resolving to re-engage with my everyday feminist politics. To remember more forcefully that the personal is political.

academy · mental health · politics · turgid institution

Fatigue and the World University Rankings

SSHRC deadline was yesterday. I submitted the application. I seem to be unable to write in complex sentences as a result. And yet, I am attempting to write a coherent blog post. All week long I thought I wanted to write about fatigue. The students’, my own. Yours, too? Why is it that, no matter how much I work to prevent it, the September freight train always hits me. Always. All ways.

And now, when SSHRC is finally put to rest, fatigue. But not just my own. This year, I was struck by just how tired the students are. The ones in my classes are mostly first-years, so you’d expect more bright-eyed-bushy-tailed than weight-of-the-world-crushing-me types. It’s sad, really, how fast they go from the former to the latter. Two weeks? Three tops. And now, it’s the end of week 5 out of 13, and it seems like we’ve all aged a couple of years.

In seemingly unrelated news, the Times Higher Education World University Rankings came out a couple of days ago. Did you notice? Did you talk about them? Have an opinion on them? Where’s your U on it? The Globe and Mail tells us that, on the whole, Canadian universities are dropping this year. The University of Alberta fell in these Rankings from spot 100 in 2011 to 121 in 2012. This news will undoubtedly cause some soul-searching in the higher levels of the academy this week. Either that or some questioning of the methodologies, as it happened a few years ago, some Canadian universities bowed out of the Maclean’s rankings, because of dissatisfaction with their methods of inquiry.

So, what’s the connection between fatigue and the THE Rankings? I’m not sure, but the links emerged in my head as other questions. Such as, does it have anything to do with the the increasingly precarious positions of teaching staff? Or the rising debt levels students undertake to pay for their education? Or the lack of transparency in decision-making, which is part of the very situation of precarity of the New Faculty Majority? And how does the post-Recession permanent state of exception (it’s recession, so no new hirings, no replacement hirings, no budget) in universities affect this generalized fatigue? What non-quantifiable qualities are lost in the ensuing budget cuts and job losses and generalized austerity?

Ultimately, how can we combat this fatigue?

administration · change · openness · politics · slow academy

Veep: or, can you be a netizen and move up the ladder at the same time?

We’ve lost Heather. You haven’t seen her blogging here since last year, when she took up her post as Vice Dean, and worried about how to be in administration and on the Internet at the same time. And it turns out that that is a dance that no one has yet really mapped the steps to, Heather included. I miss her in direct proportion to the pride I feel for her in her new role.

We’re recruiting new bloggers, and the response has been really wonderful, but from the field in view in front of us, Heather noted: “Aimee, you are the old lady blogger now!”

Well, shit. This old lady blogger just took on an administrative post, too.

July 1st, I became Vice President of our Faculty Association here at UW. How this happened I’m not quite sure. I remember putting my name in to be on the Board, after a friend and colleague whose service to this organization I have greatly admired and appreciated asked me to, but this veep thing snuck up on me.

I mean, I did say last year that I’m in the sweet spot to be cranky, by which I meant, having secured tenure without completely burning out or embittering myself on either academic inquiry or collegial governance, I ought to use my (however limited) powers for good. These are weird times. Exciting and full of possibilities, but also worries and scarcity. It’s hard to know where universities are headed. We have a systemic, continent-wide jobs and employment crisis. We are all being asked to do more with less: more research with less granting agency funding, more teaching with fewer professors, more graduate training with fewer academic jobs, more knowledge mobilization with no less academic publishing, more enrolments with less infrastructure renewal, etc.

But here’s the main challenge I’m feeling: a lot of this work is confidential. Confidentially, Internet, just between us, I’ve never been very good at “confidential.” I’ve always considered “confidential” with its cousins “unsayable,” “private,” and “taboo” and the repercussions of decorous silence and discretion, I feel, have not been particularly empowering to lots of people. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, I say. However, I’m now receiving memos headed “confidential” and reports labelled “draft — not for circulation” and I’m bound by those rules. And in some ways I really do understand the value of closed-door work on some issue. On other issues? I think this “discretion” is misplaced and old-fashioned.

In any case, I’m not sure what to say about issues where I know more than I’m supposed to let on. Should I preface all of my writing here by saying, “I have no real knowledge about any of this, from an administrative point of view, which means I’m allowed to write about it”? Because that seems like a good dodge, but also maybe counterproductive, in the long run. I’m pretty sure that this new role is meant to capitalize on my passions, my talents, and my mouthiness, rather than to lock them up in small committee rooms away from the people I care to talk with, but I’m not sure how to manage that. I don’t think the idea now is that I should restrict myself to blog posts about academic haircuts and other such institutionally inconsequential topics.

And perhaps I’ve already said too much.

So where I’m sitting now, I’m feel a little bit pinched between getting what feels like a good deal more institutional agency and the feeling I might be expected to shut up a bit more on the inter tubes, to manifest the discretion and compartmentalization that’s been blasted to bits by services like Twitter, for example.

This is a generational issue. Probably Heather and I are at the vanguard of a generation of academics who are either digital natives or skilled early immigrants to Weblandia, moving up the ladder, where the sorts of cultural change we’re expected to deal with in our undergraduate teaching hasn’t really penetrated.

The mismatch extends beyond administration and into the ranks, of course. Five years from now, how is anyone going to find a tenure referee who is both in the candidate’s field, and completely arm’s length? Aren’t we already beginning to see the kinds of networking and interconnection that social media offer us as normative? Won’t it actually mark you as an outsider if everyone who’s anyone isn’t on your Twitter feed? And there’s the question of knowledge mobilization as well: to what extent should academics be for seeking out opportunities to break their research results out of the academy and into the bigger world, or at least out from behind the Elsevier paywall and into open access repositories. What about when a social media upstart collates retraction data to ferret out and publicize academic chicanery, in full view of the public, but the institution’s processes (often for very good reason) take place over longer duration and behind closed doors?

I like blogging and tweeting and posting photos and asking hard questions and making embarrassing disclosures, all in the name of working continually to improve this great big academy we all love so much (well, sometimes … and in some ways …). Can I still do that? How hard should I push? When should I back off? If I am a change agent, what things am I actually trying to change as I go to more and more meetings where attendees are accompanied by their assistants?

I have no idea. But I’m going to try to work it all out here, in public, with you.

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?

change · going public · ideas for change · politics · popular culture · solidarity

The 51 of the 99

As faithful readers know, my colleagues and I recently published a book called Not Drowning but Waving: Women, Feminism and the Liberal Arts (UAP 2011): I blogged about it here if you want an overview. One of the questions that’s been nagging at me since NDBW came out is whether the book and its concerns might be belated. The occasion for the project was the career of the first woman Dean of Arts; since 2006, both the Interim Dean and the new Dean have been women. Some contributors wrote about how hard it is to be a mother and an academic; since then, conversations here at hook&eye – and here, and here – suggest things might be getting better. For my part, I was ground down and crazy in 2006; happily, I’m no longer as vulnerable as I once was to institutional bullshit. And so on.

I raised the question with my friend and collaborator JW: are we living the change we hoped to see? And she said yes, but only in small part, the part that is centered in the privileged classes which we tenured and tenure-track colleagues help comprise. She went on:

The gap between the rich and the poor has never been greater (except during the Gilded Age), and this is not even taking into account the conditions of women in many parts of the world. The equity audit of the universities is one thing, but all the big equity audits indicate that Canada has not come nearly far enough in closing the gap between men’s and women’s wages. And the very very wealthy are so unbelievably wealthy that some of them are embarrassed by it — admittedly not many, but some. And our governments won’t do anything about it. Even in the university the gap between the privileges of women academics and our mostly female support staff is massive.

Which brings me to where I am today, thanks to the magic of hotwire: a hotel on the corner of Wall St and William, two blocks from Occupy Wall Street.

Wed 12 Oct 4pm: the occupation began 17 Sept 2011

Confession: I was skeptical. Partly it’s because I’m old: I cut my political teeth defending abortion clinics in California, an action with a clear, pragmatic goal and a well defined ideology. Partly it’s because I’m an administrator: what’s a demonstration without a manifesto? what does “leaderless resistance movement” mean, and exactly how do these people think they’ll achieve whatever it is they want, without a clear go-forward plan and next steps? But partly it’s because I didn’t really think OWS had much to do with me. A belated response to the bailout debacle, I thought. An American issue in a city where unemployment approaches 10%, I thought. Not my issue, I thought.

Spending some time at OWS today has made me change my mind about that. It was exciting and fascinating and surprisingly inspiring to be in Zuccotti Park. Among the folks there on a rainy Wednesday nearly a month after the occupation began: librarians, anarchists, communists, atheists, christians, jews, muslims (conversation near me: is Wall Street a jewish conspiracy or a new victimization?), Tibetan monks, students, professors, journalists, trade unionists (I saw Teamsters, the Wobblies, and my friend Hector’s SEIU local, 32BJ), African Americans holding banners proclaiming debt as the new slavery, something called the Retail Action Project, guys looking for beer (“you know where I can get some? I’m really riled”), and a man who appeared so old that he may very well have marched against Wall Street back in 1929. 

As you might expect, that diverse a crowd makes for a certain diversity of concerns: a semiotic richness, an ideological slipperiness. Some people are angry at oil baronry:

 Some people want better working conditions:

Some people are voluble (the sign below quotes Henry Ford, “It is well enough that people of the nation do not understand our banking and monetary system, for if they did, I believe there would be a revolution before tomorrow morning”) and some are terse (one woman drew the invisible hand giving the finger):

I particularly loved the Granny Peace Brigade:

While it’s true that there is no single overarching position and no definitive action plan, there is a definite feel to the occupation. The feel is exasperation. It’s like a whole bunch of unrelated people got up one day and thought: are you fucking kidding me? It’s about 2008, and the big bank bailouts, and the debt ceiling; it’s the endlessness of underemployment, the Tea Party and Fox News. But mostly it feels like that dream you have where you simply cannot face one more email / student essay / scholarly rejection / committee meeting, and so you push back your chair, stand up, and walk away. That walk ends, I think, at Zuccotti Square.

People are fed up with the world we have. They are fed up with a system where it’s okay for some people to get obscenely rich and others to sell plasma. They are fed up with lily-livered politicians and their apologists; they are fed up with greed. While it may not be a terrifically nuanced analysis by academic standards, OWS offers one of the clearest anti-capitalist actions I’ve ever seen. Of course there’s no action plan, no manifesto, no list of demands: are you fucking kidding me?

The occupation opens up space for what Stuart Hall calls “articulation”: it’s an opportunity to connect events with meanings, to wrest a historical moment out of its given context and assert its significance and its importance in terms of an emergent (sometimes) discourse. Forgive my quoting from wikipedia, but I don’t have my books at hand:

[T]the relationship between actual culture…on the one hand, and economically determined factors such as class position, on the other, is always problematical, incomplete, and the object of ideological work and struggle….Cultural relationships and cultural change are thus not predetermined; rather they are the product of negotiation, imposition, resistance, transformation, and so on….

What I understand Hall to mean by this is that we don’t always have a preconceived idea for political struggle – we don’t always know exactly what we want in advance of wanting it (the vanguard is a bankrupt concept) – but meaning is forged in and through political struggle. Getting there is a matter of “negotiation, imposition, resistance, transformation, and so on.” 

This concept gives shape to what I’ve seen at Zuccotti Park: a group of people yearning toward something different. In a profound way, OWS calls on us to articulate our sense of the world in terms of the power relations its occupants have laid bare. In this sense, OWS belongs to all of us – the genius, obviously, of “we are the 99%”: OWS is an issue for women, for feminists, for academics, for teachers, for students, for parents.

And so OWS speaks to me, and perhaps to you, of the ways in which the academy is changing: the chronic underfunding of the system, references to students as clients or consumers, the speed-up and download of responsibilities that generate the need for more administrators, the crappy academic job market, the reliance on international registrations as revenue streams, public denunciations of the humanities, reductions in SSHRC funding, casual anti-intellectualism, even in the cities we rely on for the opposite (Rob Ford, I’m looking at you), the loss of the long-form census, three-job sessional commutes, instrumental learning, budget cuts, again: are you fucking kidding me?

The good news is you’re not alone. The OWS movement is growing, and it doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon: cf “occupy,” verb. This Saturday there will be Occupy events going on all over the world, probably near you. (You can check here.) Perhaps you’ll be inspired to go and start articulating the change you wish to see in the world.

If you do, here’s a couple thoughts to bring with you. We – women – are 51% of the 99%. But we – TT academic women in Canada – are also the 1%. That’s worth thinking about.