administration · faster feminism · hope · perpetual crush · popular culture

Cho on Oh: thoughts on The Chair

Screen Shot 2020-02-29 at 2.25.06 PM

Left: me, as Chair of English, on the threshold of my future office

Right: Sandra Oh, future Chair of English as seen in The Chronicle

(same difference, right?)

This week, we learned that there will be a flashy new mini-series starring my forever Asian Canadian Kween, Sandra Oh, as the Chair of English at a major university. Like all of you, I had a lot of thoughts. And feels.

As a former Chair of English at a major university, here are a few of mine.

The GoT Connection [with apologies to those who haven’t watched and don’t care]

Let’s get this one out of the way. Knowing that the show will be produced by the same people who gave us Game of Thrones, it is impossible to resist re-mapping university hierarchy with the landscape of the Seven Kingdoms even though I know this show will not be a David Lodge-George RR Martin mash-up. But still, I imagine:

  • The Iron Throne is clearly the Dean’s Office (because the White Walkers have to be all the folks with the power of fast ice zombies — and I mean this with much respect since the Night King is one of my fave characters — the Provost, President, Board of Governors)
  • The English Department is Winterfell (doomed but noble despite a few bad seeds);    Casterly Rock is the School of Business (obvs)
  • The Red Wedding in this series will be when the English department and Media/Film Studies celebrate a successful merger only to discover that both units will be swallowed by the Business School resulting in the majority of the English, Media, and Film faculty specialists re-purposed into teaching courses on Business Communication; a few English profs will survive the merger/massacre and will spend the rest of their careers trying to re-establish English as an independent department

If you like, please insert your variations on this theme in the comments. I might be totally wrong about Tywin Lannister and the Dean of your Business School.

Departmental minutes as plot lines

Read over the last set of minutes. Rewrite with Kween Oh talking about hiring and the crisis of adjunctification. Consider going to department meetings again.

This show will do for undergraduate enrollment in English what CSI did for Criminology

It’s a fantasy. Let me have it.

This show will make being a feminist academic look good totally glamorous and real

It’s a fantasy. Let me have it.

But, seriously, my time as Chair (and especially a Chair who was also a woman of colour who was also the second-most junior faculty member in her dept at the time) taught me that chairing while feminist is an elaborate exercise of perceived power enmeshed with a surprising lack of structural power.

The real surprise: how often male colleagues who, by virtue of the accident of age and gender, were the most privileged people in the whole of academia, persistently insisted upon their victimization, powerlessness, and entitlement to more privilege at precisely the moment when more women are being promoted to academic leadership. The real drama/trauma: how many male colleagues were feminists until I made decisions they didn’t like.

I love that The Chronicle ran the story of this new show with an image of the future Chair in sequins and feathers. But I know that feminist chairs past, present, and future, have stood on the threshold of power with hard hats and steel-toed boots in hand because chairing while feminist is still work that is very much in progress.





feminist win · popular culture · reflection

Year-end reckoning

This year, I made a point to read more widely. I promised myself there would be things that I would not teach, research, or use in any other way than to reclaim my love of reading that spurred my many degrees in reading closely in the first place. Although the beginning of December does not count or feel like the end of the year necessarily–and definitely not when piles of marking haunt you from the edges of your desk–I would like to issue an invitation to think back on the texts–literary and otherwise–that moved us in some ways this year. It’s not a top 3 (or 10 or 100) for me, because I am not a big fan of rankings and hierarchies, but it can be for you. What’s more, an eclectic bunch of things have ignited my imagination, dread, or hope this year, of the apple, orange, and kumquat varieties, so comparisons would not work for me, but they might for you. I’ll go first, if you promise to add one or two things in the comments.

Ruth Ozeki‘s A Tale for the Time Being has devastated me, making it difficult, at times, to come back to it, while also compelling me to go on by inferring that life cannot possibly be so bleak, and then reaching even more dismal abysses. Like many contemporary texts, Ozeki’s muses on how neoliberalism dismantles humans’ responsibility towards one another and towards other life forms, including the environment more generally. (You see, you can take the literary scholar out of the classroom, but you can’t… oh, you know how it goes.) Ozeki’s style, and the novel’s nested structure does not allow the reader to give up, however, and I kept returning to the trauma scene, only to be confronted afresh with more unrelenting realities. The novel’s ending, although attempting some sort of reprieve, manages to undercut itself by narrating a hopeful dénouement, only to throw the optimism into doubt. The same kind of device appears in Lionel Shriver’s Big Brother, but I’ve only just finished this novel, and I need some more time to mull a deeper comparison over.

This one I will definitely not teach, as it’s nowhere near my area, but it has become an aspirational model for me: Paula Byrne’s The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things. First, it’s the traditional feminist methodology. Byrne unearths documents, events, and actual things that recuperate a picture of Jane Austen as an assured, knowledgeable, and intentionally astute commentator of her time. Byrne talks back to the official biography released by her family after Austen’s death, which paints a period- and gender-appropriate picture of the writer as a humble and modest recluse, who merely stumbled upon writing as a pastime. Being an Austen amateur, and nowhere near scholar, I cannot assess Byrne’s suggestion that, for a long period of time, Austen scholarship took that family-released biography for granted. However, my amateurism lands me at my second reason for loving this book: its success in making literary scholarship accessible, nay, enjoyable to the general public. Arguably, biographies have always been the most marketable type of literary scholarship, but this book does so much more work in illustrating the connections between historical events, Austen’s life, the politics of her time, and her novels by openly doing close readings for example, that I would put it up there as a great model of public feminist cultural studies.

Finally, my life circumstances have made it logistically difficult to go out much, but this past weekend I went to see and listen to one of my favourite singers, Basia Bulat. Live! In person! (both me and her!). If I’m not much of an Austenite, than I’m even less of a music critic, so I will spare you my inane squeals of joy, and offer you one of her songs in closing.

What’s your year-end reckoning?

faster feminism · free time · popular culture

Popular culture, gender, and enjoyment

Encouraging things are happening in gender-progressive news these days. Germany instituted a third gender option on birth certificates in November: parents can now choose between M, F, and blank. I love the multitude of possibilities opened by “blank,” instead of having a designated new category with a name, or using the already-existing neutral personal pronoun. As a political move, too, I think it has more progressive potential than any declaration. Alongside this move, but on a different level of impact, Swedish cinemas have taken the step of providing viewers with ratings according to the Bechdel Test, in an attempt to stamp out sexism and promote gender equality. The Bechdel Test, if you remember asks two interconnected questions: 1. Are there at least two women talking to one another in this film? 2. Are they talking about something else than a man? If the answers to both those questions are affirmative, then the movie passes the test.

On a similar note, I’ve been thinking about my (scant) leisure time activities, and the way they allow me to enjoy myself. I won’t get all psycho-analytical on you and talk about jouissance or anything like that, but I just want to know and understand better how to make free time pleasurable, in a deliberately useless and guilt-free way. Isn’t that overanalyzing! But really: I’m so good at “making use” of my (again, very limited) free time, that I always end up making it useful for work, instead of making it into a break from work. For goodness’ sake, remember how I was talking about scheduling yoga, so I can stay sane, last week? What does it take to enjoy something for its own sake, for using free time as time away from work, rather than rationalizing it as “time for renewal so I can work better.” Really, that’s what it’s come to?

Here’s the thing, though, which brings me back to the progressive move regarding gender and popular culture in Sweden: there isn’t much in the way of popular culture that is both gender-progressive and to my liking. I’m on a mission to amass items that fulfill both categories, and while the latter is rather subjective, it’s usually contingent on the former: stuff has to not be sexist or, worse, misogynist, for me to like it. It also has to NOT be classist, racist, ableist, sizeist, or ageist. A tall order, I know. Also: it has to be a conclusive waste of time! It has to be something that I will not teach. Or write an article on. Or a conference presentation.

I might have found just the thing*: an Australian mystery series featuring a sexually-liberated (though decidedly hetero, so far) flapper, who emerged from extreme poverty, and became rich, “because too many young men died in the Great War,” which made her father inherit a large fortune and a title. After a few formative years in Britain and Europe, she returns to Australia, and uses her fortune to solve crimes, and support women’s rights all over the place. Phryne Fisher, Kerry Greenwood’s protagonist empowers women to take charge of their lives. The women whom she helps are not victims, so Phryne [pronounced ‘Fry-knee] is not a female version of Prince Charming rescuing damsels in distress Down-Under. Instead, she’s a stylish and fashionable woman determined to share her newfound wealth and improve the world for women. A veritable superhero, with perpetual shiny hair and perfect attire!

I’d say this series fulfills, and even goes beyond the Bechdel Test. Moreover, I refuse to make any academic use of it: I will not teach it, write (any more) on it, or even analyze it too much. I will, however, take any other recommendations you might have of books, movies, TV series, that I can consume and not use. What’s your popular cultural fix these days? The more guilt-free, the better!

*Thanks to Sarah Gilligan (@idleponderings) for leading me to this series!

election · media · politics · popular culture · women

Mission accomplished?

There has been a lot of media fanfare about the status of women in recent weeks. With the final episode of Tina Fey’s 30 Rock, the New York Times featured an article “Tina Fey Signs Off, Broken Barriers Behind Her” in which Alessandra Stanley elaborates on the milestones Fey has reached, and the doors she has opened for other female comedians.

“When ’30 Rock’ had its premiere in 2006 Ms. Fey was that rare thing, a female writer starring in her own prime-time network show.” – Alessandra Stanley

In Canada, we have our own little version of women’s liberation supposedly realized, with 5 provinces and 1 territory currently featuring a female Premier, a majority of Canadians are now governed by a women.
Kathleen Wynne
  • Kathleen Wynne (Lib) – Ontario 
  • Alison Redford (PC) – Alberta 
  • Kathy Dunderdale (PC) – Newfoundland and Labrador 
  • Christy Clark (Lib) – British Columbia 
  • Pauline Marois (PQ) – Quebec 
  • Eva Aariak – Nunavut
Politics, like comedy writing/production, has pretty much been a man’s game. So what should we make of the sudden proliferation of female leaders?
Is it time to be cautiously optimistic that talented women are not just breaking barriers, but changing the industries in which they work, permanently opening them up to a broader spectrum of participants? Is this it for the boys’ club?
While Stanley admits that other female comedians have also made it in the past (Lucille Ball, Carole Burnett, Roseanne Barr), she suggests that there is something different about the impact that Fey has had, having paved the way for other comedians like Amy Poehler (Parks and Recreation) and Whitney Cummings (Whitney; Two Broke Girls).
Has Tina Fey really broken the glass ceiling in television production, or is she just this generation’s Roseanne Barr? Maybe every generation gets one female performer that makes it through into a position of relative power. Overall numbers of women in comedy remain low (don’t believe me, go to a comedy club tonight and count them), so a handful of successful female comedians on television is perhaps proportional to their overall participation in the industry. In that case, until numbers increase overall, not much will change, no matter how successful individuals like Fey become.
Michaelle Jean
David Johnston
And what of our female politicians? There is a precedent in Canadian politics for women to be handed parties when they are imploding – for example, Kim Campbell for the post-Mulroney Progressive Conservatives. The argument could certainly be made that Kathleen Wynne has been handed a hopeless case.

I worry is that this random moment in which women happen to hold powerful positions will be taken as a sign of mission accomplished. We might believe equality has been won, even if in the coming years, overall numbers of women in positions of power don’t actually improve all that much. This week, as John Kerry took up the position of Secretary of State in the US (formerly held by Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton), he joked that the question on everyone’s mind is “Can a man do this job?” We might have said the same thing a few years ago about Canada’s Governor General after both Adrienne Clarkson and Michaelle Jean proved very capable and popular in the position, but then current GG David Johnston looks a lot like every other accomplished, grey-haired, white-man to hold the position prior to 1999. 
Are we really going places fast? Is Clinton the next President? Or was this just a blip on the gender equality radar? Will it be back to business as usual?

animals · learning · media · popular culture · random · teaching

Unexpected Lessons (Ikea Monkey)

I’ll be honest: I’m on a short break right now between end of classes and exams and all I want to do is relax. Fast Feminism. Slow Academe? Try, Fast Nothing. Slow Liz.
So, when I sat down to write this post, the only thing that I felt like sharing was Ikea Monkey.
Ikea Monkey has been bringing a smile to my face. And I’m not the only one. Ikea Monkey has gone viral, at least in Toronto. I’ve talked about IM with multiple people and overheard others in restaurants discussing IM, which has become an Internet meme.
Anyway, (and here comes my somewhat tenuous connection to Hook and Eye content), it’s got me thinking about what kinds of stories and ideas get picked up and circulated—the stories that spark something, that make people want to talk about them and share with others.
When I’ve taught a class and I can hear my students still talking about a particular topic as they’re leaving, I feel that I’ve done a good job as an instructor. I want to have Ikea Monkey moments in my classes.
Most of the teaching advice I’ve been given, when it comes to lecturing, centers around this basic principle: if you just try to get one or two key ideas across in a class, it’s much more likely that those one or two key ideas will stick with students.
So, I ask you, readers, now that we’re reaching the end of a semester: what are the most important things you want to achieve by the end of a course (either as an instructor or as a student)? Does it relate to course content, a style of thinking, or a set of theoretical concepts? Looking back on courses that you have taught or taken, what has stuck with you? Have you ever taught or taken courses with unexpected learning outcomes? Can we “meme” our students?

community · faster feminism · popular culture

Sassy and Imagined Communities: One Version of How I Became a Feminist

This week I read a piece written for The Nation by Jessica Valenti, and it sent me on a trip down memory lane. It wasn’t the article itself, so much as who wrote it. I encountered Jessica Valenti and when I was at a particularly lonely stage of my PhD. That said, the article itself got me thinking about my evolution as a feminist as well. Entitled “Feminists for the Win,” it details some of the ways in which feminists and feminist agendas are making progress in the United States. It ends with a call to action, and reminds readers that while some advances have been made this year, much feminist activism has necessarily been defensive. While every good basketball player knows that sometimes a good offence requires good defence, Valenti underscores the importance of continually, relentlessly moving forward in the fight for rights for women. When I finished reading the article I found myself thinking about how I came to claim a feminist identity, and whether or not it had anything to do with my current position in the academy. For, while Valenti doesn’t say as much in her article, there are many many other writers who acknowledge that despite its promise of academic freedom, the academy is not an equal opportunity space.*

In part, I became a feminist through reading. I come from a family of voracious readers. My dad keeps a list of all the books he’s read each year, and last year the list numbered over one hundred. My mother laments that I don’t remember how much she read to me as a child. We were not a family that watched television during meals, but sometimes we have been known to all have our books out at the table. Indeed, I recall my mother signing my up for synchronized swimming lessons in an attempt to get me out of the reading chair and into socializing with other children…when I was eight.

I can’t claim classical literature as an influence on my feminist development, not really. Rather, I owe my nascent feminist to a teen magazine. When I was in high school I started reading Sassy. Now long-defunct, Sassy was, for me, an outlet to another world. I was living in small-town North Carolina where I felt out of place, alone, and lonely. While I am sure I wasn’t the only one in my high school feeling like an outsider, I sure felt like I was an island. Sassy was brash, witty, and not afraid to swear! In its DIY-ish pages I learned about the Riot Grrrl movement, about why politics should matter to me, and I learned how to make my own clothes. In reading the infamous “It Happened to Me” column, I learned that I wasn’t alone, and that troubling, terrible, and sometimes hilarious things happened to other people. Along the way I also learned about feminism.

When Sassy went the way of YM and other body-image-obsessed magazines I stopped reading them altogether … until I discovered Bust and Bitch. Around this time I was in university, I was making friends with other feminists, activists, and generally politicized folks. I felt less lonely, and I was more connected to on going issues in the world. I never felt as though I knew enough, or had all of the answers, but I was developing a vocabulary and a community through which to continue thinking out loud. Granted, that community was by this time largely an embodied one: we saw one another, were in classes together, and lived in the same town. There was no Facebook yet, and while forums and listserves were active, they didn’t happen to be a part of my everyday life. So, while my lived experiences and my growing communities of brilliant, politicized people have ultimately been the most informative of my feminist identity, initially it all started with an imagined community of magazine readers.

Is this still the case? For all the phenomenal community-building that digital space can do, I wonder, have wildly popular interfaces like Facebook flattened out some of the radical possibilities of imagined communities? Certainly, there are countless feminist and feminist-inflected groups out there on the interwebs. I think of CWILA, of Lemon Hound, of VIDA to name a very few. But I also think about the site I find myself on most regularly durning the day… I go to Facebook for connection, for distraction, for a sense of imagined — and immediate — community. Last week though, a friend of my posted an article about Facebook banning a feminist activist for calling out misogyny on her page. And then I read this article.

What about you, readers? How did you come come to claim feminism as part of your identity? And where do you forge your communities?

*See for just one Canadian example Sherene Razack, Sunera Thobani, and Malinda Smith’s co-edited States of Race: Critical Race Feminism for the Twenty-First Century.

faster feminism · media · popular culture · righteous feminist anger · sexist fail

Now welcoming women?

This week, I thought I would talk about one of the reasons I feel strongly about continuing to pursue feminist research. It is, in part, because of the very issues that Liza Piper raised last Thursday in her post chicks dig big brains. For me, it is the everyday, constant detritus of gender bias and gender inequality that really push me over the edge. I’m talking about those insignificant little details that on their own aren’t a big deal, but added up over the day, over a week, over a lifetime, have a significant effect on gendered attitudes.

A new ad campaign for Mark’s Work Warehouse that is being featured in GTA subways and buses provides a good example of this very issue. I spotted it on my way to work one morning, grabbed a few photos of it with my phone, and have been struggling ever since to articulate the exact extent of my disappointment with Mark’s careless gender politics. As featured above, the ad claims that Mark’s is “now welcoming women.” I suppose this is a gesture towards some kind of expanded women’s clothing line (although Mark’s has had women’s clothing for quite some time), but it really hits an inclusion and equality nerve for me. Well, gosh, if women are now welcome in Mark’s Work Warehouse, I’d say that’s mission accomplished for feminism. Am I right? …Ladies? …Right?

I hope that it is safe to assume that this was intended to be tongue-in-cheek. Nevertheless, there is always something a little bit cringe-worthy about ads that attempt to incorporate the rhetoric of political movements, but end up getting it horribly, horribly wrong. I feel that the Mark’s campaign’s parroting of gender equality discourses offers a shining example of this. To begin with, although there are many institutions that still exclude women in practice, the chest pumping pride with which Mark’s announces that women are now welcome is absurdly outdated.

These problematic connotations are taken to an additionally troubling level when combined with the “male” version of the ad, which features a generic group of attractive, young, masculine men doing man things with the caption, “Less work. More you.”

Now, I might be taking my reading of this ad to its semiotic extreme here, but it seems to me that Mark’s Work Warehouse is inadvertently stumbling upon one of the enduring failures of second-wave feminism. That is, the reason that these men presumably have the leisure time and disposable income to spend at the pub relates to their experience of heteronormativity and gender inequality in which their spouses are working the double shift – adding household income while also continuing to take on the lion’s share of domestic work. After all, the women in the ad are not out playing pool and drinking pints, they are buying “work” clothes. The ad is an unintentional parody of shifts in the workplace, which are now also “welcoming women,” with many growing pains still being experienced along the way.

My interpretation of the Mark’s ad can very much be accused of reading too much into it, but I stand by my initial disgust at the tagline: “now welcoming women.” Joking or not, I don’t care to have a clothing store remind me of historic exclusions of women from the workplace, or attempt to capitalize on their supposed corporate progressiveness through misplaced political rhetoric. Now welcoming women? Thanks, Mark’s.

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.

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.

popular culture

Everything I needed to know I learned from Tina Fey

Emboldened by the fact that Aimee cited it the other day, I’ll admit that the best book I’ve read this year is Bossypants. Buy it – really! – and read it, in all the spare time academics having starting in the month of September. But just in case you don’t get to item #7538 on your to-do list, I’ll tell you my favorite bits.

  1. She’s unafraid of being powerful, and you should be too. “[E]ver since I have become an executive producer of 30 Rock, people have asked me, ‘Is it uncomfortable for you to be the person in charge?’ You know, in that same way they say, ‘Gosh, Mr Trump, is it awkward for you to be the boss of all these people?'”
  2. The “yes, and…” rules of improvisation. (Aimee referred to these too.) “THERE ARE NO MISTAKES,” this line of performance holds. Hmm. Can this work for us in the academy? I like to think so. When people are going down a road you don’t want to travel, agree early and play along. Keep your sentence going long enough that you manage to take the next exit, cross back over the expressway and steer the conversation back to Sanityville.
  3. Her casual references to menstrual experiences: for example, “queasy like when you lose your tampon string.” She assumes a readership of women, just like the architects at my university predicted the feminization of the Arts when they built nothing but women’s washroo- no, wait, they didn’t build any women’s bathrooms in the first version of that building. So, it’s nice to be interpellated.
  4. Her outfits, especially the electric blue polyester Hillary Clinton power suit that she and her roommate shared.
  5. Do your thing and stop worrying about what other people think. The story is actually about sweet Amy Poehler who, challenged by Famous Male Comic, goes black in the eyes and says, “I don’t fucking care if you like it.” Even writing this down gives me a little thrill.
  6. She reproduces scripts that show how last-minute some of the changes are. I like to think she’s the one winging it at the conference podium. And you know what? She’s a genius.
  7. She cries at work. Paramount among the untold true stories of working women’s lives has to be the fact that sometimes we cry at work. Exhaustion, frustration, disappointment, sadness, anger – I can’t be the only one. Right? Also awesome: she closes her door, has a little cry, and then gets on with her work.
  8. She gets that we want to be liked, and she gets that that’s not the point. On dealing with Sarah Palin after the famous skit: “I got some hate mail, and there are definitely people out there who will dislike me for the rest of my life because of ‘what I did’ to Sarah Palin. On an intellectual level, this doesn’t bother me at all. On a human level, I would prefer to be liked. … You see what I’m getting at here. I am not mean and Mrs. Palin is not fragile. To imply otherwise is a disservice to us both.”
  9. And finally, something to think about the next time you run out of time to brush your teeth, or show up at the meeting with the wrong notebook, or don’t show up to the meeting at all: “Just remember that every person you see on a [magazine] cover has a bra and underwear hanging out a gaping hole in the back. Everyone. Heidi Klum, the Olsen Twins, David Beckham, everybody.”

Everybody but you, Tina.