affect · emotional labour · guest post · reflection · Uncategorized

Guest Post: Check Your Privilege

Screen Shot 2017-09-22 at 12.00.49 PM

Recently I was invited to deliver a public lecture on the ethics of care and feminism, in Vancouver, to a women’s cultural group called Réseau-Femmes. I was delighted, and nervous, about the challenge of making my academic research and writing accessible to a wider audience. I decided to test parts of my presentation on a few readers from my personal circle, id est my mom in the first instance, and a friend as my second reader. My talk began with this:

Je suis une nord-américaine blanche, allochtone, bourgeoise, instruite, littéraire et féministe. Je suis une femme cisgenre, c’est-à-dire, l’identité de mon genre correspond à mon sexe. Mon privilège social est ostensible et indéniable. Je suis fille d’une mère et d’un père; je suis moi-même mère de deux filles; je suis conjointe, amie et confidente. J’ai un chien, un chat, parfois un poisson, et trois mois sur douze, une roseraie et un potager. Je suis mentore, administratrice, parfois poète; je suis essayiste et professeure.

Le soin est au cœur de ma vie.

The opening was meant to be both political and light hearted. Situating myself and my privilege as a white, North American, settler, middle-class, educated, cis woman constituted of course the political gesture; the references to domestic pets and tasks that occupy, as do my daughters and students, my own daily care-giving practices elicited kind, knowing laughter from my audience. As for my mom, she loved it: « J’aime beaucoup beaucoup. Je trouve que c’est une belle approche à ton sujet ». After all she’s my mom, you might say. But when she’s in disagreement, she doesn’t mince words.

And so I had gone ahead with this introduction, despite my second reader who had emailed me the following a few days before:

I will admit that I find your introductory comments about your own privilege to be overly apologetic. I know that acknowledging privilege seems to be the thing to do these days, but I don’t agree with the trend. Let’s say that I am a critically minded member of a racial minority group and that I am reading your essay. How am I in any way helped or reassured by a confession of white privilege? To me it sounds rote and contrived, sort of the way we have to sing the national anthem before a hockey game. I simply don’t buy that the confession of white privilege actually makes a difference or opens up room for a more genuine conversation between equals.

Ouch. My friend didn’t mince words either. I was stunned, but not exactly dismayed, or at least not enough, to delete acknowledging privilege from my text. As another good friend reminded me, this important if not searing point of view recalls Vivek Shraya’s questioning of the practice of acknowledging Indigenous territory in her poem “indian” from even this page is white:

        is acknowledgment enough?

                    i acknowledge i stole this

        but i am keeping it social justice

                                or social performance

Am I being one of those “good white people” whom Brit Bennett in turn does not exactly chastise but does problematize in her 2014 essay – who tend to co-opt and detract from Black or Indigenous narratives with their good, but ineffectual, if not self-congratulatory, intentions?

Recently, I’ve noticed some disturbing backlash to the privilege issue bouncing around social media. One form appears in a poster of an old, angry white guy yelling the words, “CHECK YOUR PRIVILEGE” and pointing accusingly into the camera. It’s supposed to be funny, ironic, and dismissive. I find it a grotesque, revolting image, with the ugly resonance of the right’s co-opting of political correctness to silence minority voices demanding space to be heard, respected, and recognized.

Coming back to my second reader, if anything, what surprised me wasn’t so much the disagreement with what was considered a trivial trend as the assumption that my address was meant to help or reassure racialized people in the room. I’m not sure what it says about me that it never occurred to me that this was the goal of acknowledging my privilege. Particularly in the context of Francophone scholarship, the practice isn’t common at all, just as acknowledging territory from a settler point of view isn’t (yet) common either, at least not in Quebec.

But whether in an English- or French-speaking cadre, I saw and still consider that drawing attention to my racial, class, and gender privilege is meant to destabilize, maybe even annoy, and prompt critical reflection about these very categories. These are, after all, at the heart of any situated, material, and embodied idea of care, which was the central tropic of my talk. Despite the past thirty years of intersectional feminism, this is still no mean feat. In addition, the social workings of race, class, and gender are central to an understanding of care as a practice and an ethics for our time.

This all may sound like a sweaty exercise in self-justification. Maybe it is, but that’s okay. My second reader’s reaction – and I am thankful for it – prompted me to think harder about not only the practice of acknowledging privilege and colonial space but on its possibly unwanted effects on the persons who receive it.

How might the Indigenous individuals in my audience have received this white settler woman’s acknowledgement of the unceded territory of the Musqueam People in Vancouver, or of the Coast Salish Nation in Victoria where I also lectured during the same trip? Is this speech act for them? They already know too well that we settlers are occupying their unceded lands. Who’s it for, then? Maybe other settlers in the room who need unsettling – just as I do, regularly, repeatedly, in my daily goings on, in my daily care.

And so, I write this blog entry as a white settler cis woman, privileged in my middle-class upbringing and living. I am not apologizing. I situate myself and my privilege at this particular time in our history which is, perhaps in more deflected ways but perhaps also more than ever, precarious and whitewashed and male-dominated AF. I don’t think I am congratulating myself for making this awareness public. i acknowledge i stole this, and saying so is not nearly enough. (Thank you, Vivek.) I am an ally to, and not a representative of, racialized and Indigenous voices. I am drawing your attention to the ways in which I walk through the world, often happily, but maybe even more so angrily – a feminist killjoy trying to figure out how to resist the indignities that befall my sex and gender, trans people, queer and minority groups, and children all over the world and right under our noses.

I’ll continue to share drafts with my trusted second reader (as well as my mom), and I will most likely continue to be challenged. We will talk, sometimes disagree, and hear, respect, and recognize one another.

We all need so much more of that.

Carrière

Marie Carrière directs the Canadian Literature Centre/Centre de
littérature canadienne at the University of Alberta, where she also
teaches Canadian, Indigenous, and Québécois writing and culture. Her
current research includes a book manuscript on contemporary feminism —
and namely affect, intersectionality, and care ethics, which she examines
through a metafeminist lens.

balance · gradschool · mental health · PhD · reflection

Repost: The Trap of Perpetual Productivity

It’s hard to believe I’ve been writing for Hook & Eye for well over two and a half years now, having joined the team in January of 2014. Sometimes I go back through my old posts and, shockingly enough, find inspiration from them. I say to myself: you’re pretty wise, past me! Tonight, after having enjoyed a semi-proper weekend doing weekend things (the extravagance!), including taking a long hike in the woods up the Hudson river with my partner, and now sitting at home facing a large stack of neglected papers and experiencing the dawning realization that a job app is due tomorrow…pulling out an old rant about the cult of perpetual productivity seems apropos.

Taken today, Oct. 23 2016, from the George Washington Bridge connecting NYC and NJ.

(originally posted March 11, 2014:)

After a tough week involving a lovely dose of strep throat and a major chapter deadline, I wanted to post a follow-up to Jana’s repost from last week, which was a vital reminder to “take the time for self-care.” The article to which she linked is indeed important as it opens up a conversation regarding the pervasive but often overlooked problem of mental health in academia. But while this Anonymous Academic is concerned with the pervasive “culture of acceptance” that encourages academics to keep silent about their own mental health issues, I’m concerned about the culture of guilt that disallows us from taking relaxing, enriching, non-academic-related mental health breaks. I want to know, that is, how exactly we unaccept the culture of acceptance.

As I’m now finally in the dissertation-writing stage, I’m finding this more than ever: with this behemoth of a paper looming over me, I am faced with a constant sense of having to be productive. Academics with families, I think, may have an easier time structuring their schedules, setting aside dedicated time for work and dedicated time for family; and they have a defined life outside of academia, giving them fulfillment and balance and perspective. But for a night owl and worrier like myself, who has spent the last seven weeks sans partner and even sans teaching, I feel like I am supposed to be working on my dissertation all the time.

There is a culture of guilt in academia that demands not only that we churn out articles and research at an alarming rate, taking few breaks, but also that when we do take breaks, those breaks be designed to make us more productive. I so often hear academics guiltily confessing that they ended up watching TV instead of working (at like 9 pm at night), or posting statuses akin to “this chocolate bar with help me work, right?” Or reminders that breaks are important because they’ll help us work that much harder when we get back to it. Why does everything we do–even the breaks we take–have to hinge around how productive we are? Why can’t we eat a chocolate bar and just enjoy it for its own sake? How do we learn, that is, to structure our time such that our breaks do help us establish more generative work-time, without falling into the trap of perpetual productivity? Especially during a time when our futures are precarious and we non-tenured must learn to accept that academia may not always be our home, it is more important than ever that we cultivate lives and passions outside of the ivory tower (though the catch 22 is that this is not always possible due to the very nature and structure of the system).

 Atsuko Tanaka, 93G (1993)–at the Armory Show 2014 

I recently tried to take a full day off, the first in weeks and weeks. I visited the Armory Show, located inside a massive passenger ship terminal on Piers 92 and 94 on the Hudson River. I saw so much art that challenged me or confused me or made me think (and I also marveled at the fact that I was in a place where, if I had thousands of dollars to spare, I could feasibly purchase a Pablo Picasso or a Kandinsky. And have it in my home.) I tried, readers, to relax, and breathe, and take time for myself. But I have to tell you, fighting back my own guilt at doing something entirely unrelated to my dissertation was really, really hard.

——
I guess I still don’t have answers to these questions, but think them important to raise. Readers, do you find yourselves struggling to enjoy allotted time off? Do you have advisors who indeed encourage and enable this kind of thinking? Please, share your stories. 

academic work · best laid plans · CWILA · new year new plan · reflection

Resolutions and Being Good Enough

Its that time again. You know, the thrice-annual academic moment for the making of resolutions: September, January, and May. September has its crisp leaves and new school supplies kind of optimism. Resolutions made then tend to focus on positive aspirations. January not so much. If my social media feeds are to be trusted January’s resolutions have all the cold self-reprimand of a wicked Victorian school master. And May? Well, as much as I love May it seems to me that the academic resolutions one tends to make in May are filled with a mix of helium and gin: effusive, gravity-defying, and likely to give you a headache in three months time.

Now that our infant is seven months old and I feel smug and secure  more comfortable in my new role as a parent I am starting to think of these academic moments as trimesters. Things grow, you change, something new (and possibly horrifying or astonishing or humiliating) is around the corner and you just keep resolving to notice and to take stock and to take it in stride and to keep watch and keep thinking about how to be a better and better human. Or you try to do those things. You try to be the right balance of grounded and amazed that things just keep happening. You try to keep up and keep your wonder intact without tripping over yourself.

Or, if that analogy doesn’t work for you, how about Antonio Gramsci’s amazing essay on why he hates New Year’s Day? Here’s a particularly poignant excerpt:

Every morning, when I wake again under the pall of the sky, I feel that for me it is New Year’s Day.

That’s why I hate these New Year’s that fall like fixed maturities, which turn life and human spirit into a commercial concern with its neat final balance, its outstanding amounts, its budget for the new management. They make us lose the continuity of life and spirit. You end up seriously thinking that between one year and the next there is a break, that a new history is beginning; you make resolutions, and you regret your irresolution, and so on, and so forth. This is generally what’s wrong with dates.


Let’s imagine that these moments of reflection in an academic worker’s life are not dates but opportunities. Not a wrestling and reckoning with past accounts, but rather neat little reminders to see how you’re growing? What if we collectively worked to refuse the disproportionate aspirations of May (I will grade my papers, get a job, go to all the conferences, finish three articles, work on the grant, go on vacation, relax and refuel, plan my fall classes by June, and WRITE A WHOLE BOOK)? What if we embraced the optimism and energy of September in…February? What if we took stock and set intentions in March? What I wonder is this: what if we circled back, re-read, and re-introduced ourselves to ideas that we have encountered, bookmarked for a later time, and forgotten? 
I did just this as I sat down to write this. 
I was, as I often do, scrolling through the Hook & Eye archives and I came across Lily’s first post called The Good Enough Professor. Do you remember it? In this piece Lily thinks through Winnicot’s notion of the Good Enough Mother to imagine what it might look like to apply these principles to her own work. Being Good Enough is, in Lily’s reading, a form of radical self-care and, I daresay, a radical paradigm shift for academics. Being Good Enough isn’t dropping the ball or dialling it in, not in the deeply negative sense. Rather, being Good Enough is a careful negotiation of what is possible, practical, and pleasurable. Being Good Enough means taking into account the gendered paradigms in which we live and operate (Winnicot, as Lily points out, is talking about heteronormative mothering. We could extend and complicate this to think about race and sexuality, I think).
So my resolution for today is to recognize that I am a Good Enough Professor. Let me explain:

Today I will be walking into the classroom — two classrooms, to be precise — for the fortieth time. What I mean is that today I will be teaching my thirty-ninth and fortieth class. I’m not counting the in depended reading courses I have taught, nor am I counting any guest lectures. Nope, just this: I’ve taught forty classes. I’ve written forty syllabi. I have planned forty different classroom arcs for forty different groups of students. This is both a big and small accomplishment. On the one hand, teaching is what I do. While I pack research and writing and blogging and working with CWILA and sitting on Boards for various projects and associations into other moments of my day, teaching is what I get paid for, not the other stuff. So in that way, the fact that I have taught for score classes is just (forgive me) par for the course.

On the other hand, of the forty classes I have taught I would say about a quarter of them are squarely in my very specific area of training. I did my candidacy examinations at the University of Calgary, and at the time PhD students had to write three lists: a major field, a minor field, and an area of specialization. My major field was in writing by women of the 19th and 20th century. No kidding. All genres, all over the world. My minor field was in contemporary critical theory. My area of specialization? Avant-garde and experimental Canadian poetry and poetics.  While I have taught a number of theory courses and general surveys of Canadian literature, I have only taught two courses on contemporary Canadian poetry and poetics. The reason for this is pretty simple: as a precariously employed academic faculty member I rarely have the luxury to reteach the same course. Like so many of my peers I often am hired a few weeks before the class begins, and often of late, because the hires are emergency hires, these are classes that are very large and very generalized.

I have learned–and am continuing to learn–to be a Good Enough teacher. I still get nervous walking into an auditorium in front of students, whether there are ten or (like today) two hundred. I still wonder if a lecture is going well, if the students like me/the material/my teaching style. I still brace myself for the inevitable comments on my wardrobe or my voice or my verve. But I realize something has shifted in the years since I began teaching. I know how to write a syllabus. I trust my ability to both write and deliver content. I (mostly) know when and how to go off script and respect or manage those moments in the classroom when things do not go quite as I planned.

Now, I am not talking about the myriad power dynamics that happen in a classroom, not here, not today in this post. I’m not talking about the vulnerabilities I often feel, either. Not today. Today, on this first teaching day of January 2016 I am talking about being Good Enough as a mode of self-reflection and renewal. Today, on this first teaching day of 2016, I’m urging you to conjure up a little of Gramsci’s resolve to keep reflecting and renewing throughout this year.  

#BeenRapedNeverReported · one year later · reflection · risk · women and violence

This Changed Me

It has been a year and a handful of days since CBC fired Jian Ghomeshi. Do you remember how the news broke? I do. I remember seeing it on Twitter first and thinking “how strange.” And then, later that evening, I recall sitting on the couch with my partner. We were both looking at Facebook — oh, modern life — and came across Ghomeshi’s long, bizarre, self-defensive post. Remember that? That’s the post in which he claimed that the CBC had fired him for his sexual preferences. I recall thinking at the time that there had to be more to the story. But even more that that, I distinctly remember thinking: how shrewd. How insightful. What a smart and deliberately pre-emptive use of social media. Rather than wait for the porous and vague language of preliminary news reports here was someone who knew the power of harnessing public opinion. Further, here was someone who knew how gender plays a powerful role in public opinion. A well-known man confessing and apologizing for his less-than-vanilla proclivities but asking for the public to respect his privacy? Wow, I thought. Very savvy.

And then the real story broke. “More to the story” turned out to be many many women. Women who had experienced varying degrees of assault and harassment in professional, private, and semi-private settings. Women who did not feel safe coming forward, and women who did. I remember listening to Lucy de Coutere be interviewed about her decision to talk publicly about her experience with Ghomeshi. I remember what she said–that she felt she could come forward, and so she did in hopes that it would make other women feel strong–but I mostly remember her voice. Confident. Assured. Strong in her own truth. And controlled. Oh, her voice was so controlled. And I remember thinking wow, this woman. This woman and her bravery. She has brought her experience into the light of the public–not a warm light, that–for the good of other people. How generous, I thought. Thank you, I thought.

And then, of course, there was more. More women, yes. And more public backlash. The women who didn’t come forward were asked why. They weren’t even recipients of the question, not usually. Rather, there was a general distrust of anonymity and silence. Why wouldn’t you come forward and seek justice, the whole country–never mind the comments sections–seemed to ask, while simultaneously failing to make a connection with the myriad risks of doing so in public.

The conversations about Ghomeshi’s years of violence were triggering. Talking and hearing about it non-stop was exhausting. And yet, it felt as though it was time for something to change. Would it lead to cities and provinces and universities and colleges taking seriously the rise of rape culture on campus? Would these conversations lead to a public recognition and outcry for an inquiry into the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in Canada? Would public opinion shift to trusting women when they say they’ve been abused?

Something else did start to happen. Women reached out to one another. Again, I saw this happen first on social media. In my town a group formed on the internet to talk about how we were dealing with this hyper public, inescapable, necessary-yet-gutting conversation about rape culture. Then, the #BeenRapedNeverReported hashtag went viral. Women all over the internet were claiming their experiences of violence and teaching the general public not only why a huge percentage of sexualized violence goes unreported, they were also teaching us what that feels like. They were teaching us how violence that is both individualized and systematic–it happened to me, it happened within patriarchal culture, within racist culture, and so forth — gets metabolized or internalized. They were teaching us, these women.

I worried, last year, that social media, which can be such a crucial tool for consciousness-raising, would also backfire. I worried that the onslaught of a topic gone viral would just as quickly move out of the public eye.

What I am trying to think through here is, at root, two pronged: 1) How do we as a networked public keep huge issues at the forefront of the public conscience? 2) How do we both honour and continue to grapple with the cost — both visible and invisible — of speaking openly about experiences of gendered violence?

The title of my post comes from an article that Chatelaine published last week. In it the magazine notes that

The events of that day hit like a brick to a window — a “where were you when” moment for a great many Canadians. Regardless of how Ghomeshi’s trial plays out in 2016, we’re still feeling this scandal’s repercussions a year later. It led to thousands of conversations about sexual violence, workplace harassment and abuses of power. For those at the core of it — the survivors who came forward, the CBC employees who lost their jobs and Ghomeshi’s family — the fallout is ongoing and severe. But even for many further afield — crisis workers and policymakers, journalists and former colleagues — the scandal has had a powerful, lasting effect. 


The article interviews seven women about the lasting effect of this public discussion of rape culture. They are all worth reading carefully. I’m struck, especially, by Piya Chattopadhyay’s recollection of hosting Q the day the news broke, of how she is willing to admit how emotional she was. But I want to draw your attention to the last interview, which is with Sally Armstrong. She writes:

Immediately after the column, I had a phone call from a very well known Canadian man with lots of connections. He said, ‘Pick a Saturday—any Saturday that doesn’t have a Santa Claus Parade on it and I’ll organize a march of the men.’ I said ‘I hope you do. I’d be willing to help.’ But I never heard from him again. It didn’t surprise me because it takes a lot of effort to alter the status quo. The Jian Ghomeshi thing was an incident — that goes on in most offices across Canada today. And who’s going to do something about it? And I don’t believe a single incident has stopped because of the Jian Ghomeshi story.


Armstrong articulates what worries me so deeply about how we remember: as communities, as people. And as much as I am loath to admit it, I think, on a large scale, Armstrong is right. 
But I don’t want to end there, because on a smaller scale–and by small I mean geographically smaller scale–things have happened. The public discussions of rape culture and misogyny did change me. It reminded me that I am not just a teacher, I am a feminist professor. I am not just a person at the front of a classroom, I am a gendered body at the front of the room. I have to negotiate power dynamics every day, of course, but this? This incident renewed my resolve to talk about rape culture, gendered and racial inequity, and the function of power dynamics in my classrooms even when it makes me uncomfortable. Even when it might mean my student evaluations are chocked full of comments that “she’s too feminist.” Even when it is risky. Its my privilege and it is my responsibility to teach with a feminist lens. And so I do. I am. I’m trying.
And you know what? Something else happened, too. About two weeks after my baby was born I went to a brunch held by the founder of that online feminist discussion group. The group, which was full of women in the community who care about feminism and each other, had spent a year navigating the emotional rapids that came about after the news of Ghomeshi’s actions. It was a group of women who took the time to build a network of verbal support for one another in a space–the internet–that feels so ephemeral, so risky. And while I was jittery about meeting them in person, and shy and awkward and full of all the weird hormones that come with giving birth, I went. And as I walked up the stairs with my very wee girl to meet a group of women I’d really only talked with online someone said “Oh! A baby! Pass me that baby and get that woman a cup of coffee!” And so, as I passed my daughter to this familiar stranger’s arms I whispered in her ear “this is Lucy.”   
So thank you, Lucy, for holding my daughter. For making me brave. For being brave. Your bravery changed me. Your bravery makes things happen.
advice · dissertation · grad school · reflection · writing

On Revising: Some Tips

There is a whole lot of writing studies research that suggests how very difficult it is for students to learn how to revise their writing. Most students tend to initially approach revision as proofreading, changing a comma here, a word there, tinkering with a sentence. They don’t typically understand what it means to develop or discover ideas, which takes engagement with opposing views, a complex multi-layered conversation, and a new, contributing idea.

This certainly was true of me as an undergraduate, and even as a graduate student. My writing practice in most of my undergraduate and graduate coursework was fairly straightforward: think about the paper topic (attend class, read critical articles), write some notes/an outline/select quotes, then whip up a 10-20 page paper in relatively little time. After I’d written the paper, proofreading/tinkering as I went, that was basically it. I’d occasionally read the paper aloud to catch stray grammatical errors, or ask a friend to proofread. But once it was written it was usually done. Only once or twice did I substantially revised a paper I’d already written in full, and it didn’t substantially shift my typical writing practice.
For a long time it worked out just fine. And some of these practices were good ones to develop, practices I still undertake, when I’m thinking about and discovering new ideas. But as an undergraduate and new graduate student, I was a pretty novice writer and thinker. Since the end of my MA and into my PhD, I’ve had to radically shift the way I think about what it means to write, and a big part of that has been learning to revise. After I’ve finished drafting papers, I’ve drafted them again (for conferences), and again (for submission-ready publications), and again (for revise-and-resubmits), and again (for dissertation chapters). I’m finally starting to gain a lived sense of what it means to genuinely revise, particularly for long and complex writing (ie: the dissertation). 
As I’ve begun to approach revising my first bit of really complex revising–the first section of my dissertation, a chapter of about 60 pages–I’ve learned, through trial and error, what really seems to work for me. 
Here are the steps I take when revising a longer piece of work: 
1. Print: Produce a (double-sided) paper copy of the draft. I’m not quite sure why exactly it took me so long to realize this simple but very important element of the revision process. For a long time I tried to do all my editing on my computer, but eventually I realized it just wasn’t working. It was difficult to scroll between pages, I could only see a narrow window of text, and I was finding it hard to conceptualized how all my ideas connected. Once I printed out a paper copy, the process became MUCH easier. Perhaps in part because it is hard to be distracted by social media when staring at a piece of paper.

2. Highlight: Once I printed out a paper copy, I went through and highlighted all the big points I was trying to make in my chapter. Thesis sentence, topic sentences, any central idea that I knew was important to carry through the chapter. This helped me focus on the main points, and make sure I was drawing my ideas through to a conclusion.

3. Write in the Margins: After highlighting the important bits, I went through and basically marked up my entire draft, fixing typos, adding sentences, filling in extra info where my supervisor had asked for more background information or explanation, and making sure my central idea and contribution was carried through my various points. I added transition sentences, did background research on the history of a particular society, and did some significant thinking, but all on physical paper.

4. New Word Docs: I usually work in Scrivener at the beginning of a project (and sometimes all the way through), but this time I found it easier to work with a blank Word screen, probably because I was overwhelmed by the amounts of writing I’d already produced. Opening a blank Word doc worked to help me produce those extra paragraphs and sections I wanted to add without being distracted by the whole.
5. Combine paper and Word drafts into a single whole: this is the fun part! It doesn’t take too much time either. Compile all the changes you’ve made into a single draft. It’s enormously satisfying.
A Final Tip: 
6. Realize IT TAKES TIME: Genuine revision of ideas takes an enormous amount of thinking time, and it doesn’t really work to push it to go faster. Recognize that this kind of hard thinking and writing can be exhausting, and don’t try to push yourself beyond what you can do. I realized I had to say no to writing in the evenings after a long day of writing, even though I felt like I shouldn’t. Pushing yourself like this doesn’t actually work: it makes that work of thinking harder in the long run. You need to give yourself the time and space to do this hard work of thinking, and then the time to recover. Give your brain a well-deserved break, so you can approach the work with fresh eyes again the next day.
mental health · productivity · reflection · silence · winter · you're awesome

Slowing Down

It’s mid-semester. We’re all a little tired, cold, and overworked. Today, as I race against yet another dissertation deadline and feverishly inscribe as many mid-semester tasks as possible into my dayplanner, I want to take a moment and remind us all to……:

SLOW DOWN. 
Here’s some Rothko for ya. Click on the image. It’ll help.

I used to be such a daydreamer, and those moments of thinking and reflecting and just sitting on the couch, staring into space, or going for long walks in the neighborhood, allowed my mind to wander and explore in a way that is becoming increasingly unavailable now that I’m constantly scrolling through my iPhone, oh that accursed piece of wondrous technology.

The Bored and Brilliant project begun by New Tech City has been asking listeners to think hard about our relationship to our devices, now that 58% of American adults own a smartphone. Our smartphones make us connected and entertained, NTC observes, but also dependent and addicted. (I write this as someone who has, on multiple occasions, worried that probably this person is really very angry with me–or, worse, annoyed or indifferent–because he/she has not responded to my text from three hours ago. AND I SAW THE BUBBLES.) At the risk of sounding like a crotchety luddite, I’d suggest that in this digital world, we are losing the capability of being idle; and “idle minds lead to reflective, creative thoughts,” according to this project and the research behind it. How often, during a spare moment, do you fill your mental space by grabbing your phone and scrolling through Facebook or Twitter? When was the last time you let your mind wander? When was the last time you got lost in a work of art, or just freewrote for a few minutes–about anything? Or just sat with your eyes closed, headphones in? (Spotify has some great mood playlists; I’m partial to “Deep Focus”).

I want to emphasize that I’m not advocating for slowing down primarily because it will, ultimately, increase your productivity when you speed up again. Such mentality feeds into a neoliberal need to produce, and to serve the all-consuming academic system to which we are hopelessly bound. You should slow down for you, because you are awesome and have cool, creative, independent thoughts that don’t always need to overlap with academia or the primary work you do. Because “academic” is not the sum-total of your identity. Because this is not about productivity, this is about self-care.

Related to the power of boredom is the “power of patience” (article of the same title here), and decelerating can constitute part of our classroom practices as well. Harvard art historian Jennifer L. Roberts believes that educators should “take a more active role in shaping the temporal experiences” of students, learning to guide practices of “deceleration, patience, and immersive attention.”* Exercises that require students to slow down, to meditate on the material at-hand and allow it to open up to them in its singularity, counter that which in the eyes of some critics has become a modern impulse toward distraction, shallow reflection, and superficial thinking. Roberts in particular requires her students to position themselves in a museum and gaze at a work of art for a veeery long period of time (though I have to say that three hours seems a little excessive…), reflecting on their experience afterwards. Colleagues of mine have had success with this exercise, and I look forward to trying it with my students in March. Do you have any other thoughts on how to guide the temporal experiences of our students, and encourage them to practice creative idleness?

So, feminist friends, let this be a reminder to you to slow down today, even just for 10 minutes. And the night-owl in me is going to practice what I’m preaching right this moment and head to bed.

*For this article, as well as the “slow looking” exercise that accompanies it, I am thoroughly indebted to Julie Orlemanski; thanks, Julie, for a particularly generative–and generous–Facebook post!

grad school · learning · mental health · reflection · saving my sanity

Unsustainable Practice

There’s something about the semester system that really gets me. It’s only really four months, I think.

Four months of teaching. Four months of writing, four months of researching. Just four months.
Four months to pound out a chapter, throw myself heart and soul into teaching, send out proposals, revise and submit papers, submit job applications…four months.

Four months is a reasonable time to do all the things, right?

I usually start out in September like this:

And then end-of-December rolls around and I’m all:

*

This past December was particularly bad. In my last week of work before Christmas, I was fighting off an epic cold. Then, two days into a lovely mountain holiday with my family, I was struck with an awful stomach bug. It proceeded to infect my whole family. It was not pretty.

This isn’t to say I didn’t accomplish a lot of things over the Fall semester. In fact, I did. I taught my second-ever class (writing-intensive, forty students), half of it new material. I continued working with the great research project I’ve been privileged to be a part of, helping to develop a visualization tool. I submitted my first-ever job application, and had my first-ever interview. I wrote, revised, and submitted two articles. I applied and was accepted to present a paper at two different conferences. I did some service work. I helped organize a conference, which included vetting proposals and contributing some pieces to a SSHRC connections grant. With a colleague, I was invited to submit a chapter to a forthcoming book. And I continued to write my dissertation.

It’s all exciting stuff.

But I totally wiped myself out.

Fortunately, this winter semester comes with a much-needed break. This January, I have the privilege of a year-long fellowship that relieves me from teaching and research duties, allowing me to focus on finishing up my dissertation. So, last week, with space to do so, I actually took some time to relax. I read some books for pleasure, for the first time in months (turns out I like graphic novels). I watched some TV. I stayed at home for a couple days and napped.

And then I resolved to develop a sustainable habit of work, one not overly-based on the semester system. If I stop thinking in terms of “just four months, then…” I might just be able to develop a sustainable work practice, one not premised on overcommitting.

My resolutions thus far are simple:

1) Say no (more often). Mostly this means saying no to myself. So far I’ve done a good job crossing items off my list that aren’t important. Last week I decided not to apply to a conference that I didn’t need to go to. Two are enough for this summer.

2) Prioritize. This is related to number one. My main and primary work priority right now is my dissertation. In the last week, I re-conceptualized how my chapters were working and decided to add a new one before my existing two chapters. My current focus is on researching and writing this chapter, and it’s the top of my list. I’m determined not to let anything displace it.

3) Go for Walks. This is one of the main ways that I think and work through problems. And it’s also a great de-stressor. Edmonton in January usually prevents long walks (without frostbite, anyway), but right now we’re having an usually warm spell. I’m determined to take advantage of it to walk and think.

Do you find that the semester-system tends to encourage overcommitment? How have you managed to develop sustainable habits over longer periods of time?

*art credit: Allie Brosh, Hyperbole and a Half

classrooms · community · learning · reflection · teaching · thank you

Teaching and Learning

On Thursday last week I sat in my office all day and waited for my first-year students to pick up their graded papers. As they filtered in and then out my door, a few of them paused, smiled, and thanked me for the semester.

I think I forgot to say “you’re welcome” for at least half of them. I know I always smile, sometimes a little awkwardly, but genuinely. But occasionally I find myself at a loss for words. “You’re welcome”, I suppose, somehow just doesn’t quite seem to cut it. 
Perhaps it’s because those students who have paused to thank me are often those ones to whom I am also grateful: grateful for their commitment to learning, their effort, for their essay re-writes, the way they’ve taken my feedback and pushed themselves, how they’ve made their papers convincing, persuasive, and drawn stronger links to textual evidence. I’m grateful for their genuine searching questions, their involvement in class discussions, and their respectful comments. I’m grateful for their their earnest fastidiousness, their engagement, and perhaps most of all, their deep concern for each other. 
My students this semester have been all this and more, all the more remarkable because for the vast majority this is their first semester of post-secondary education. For some, my class was their introduction to city-living, the cold dark of Northern Novembers, being far away from family and old friends. For most, this semester was their first experience of the university classroom space; their first lesson in self-directed time management, in living life without direct supervision, in juggling financial obligations with academic ones. 
For any first-year student, the experience of university can be challenging, difficult, and overwhelming. For the students that started out at my university this term, they also had to deal with two “non-criminal student deaths” on campus. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to experience the loss of a fellow student, a classmate, a friend. What I do know is that this first semester is hard for most students, and that without contact from caring, compassionate people, students can feel nothing but alienation and loneliness as they begin university life.
Earlier this semester I had two of my students approach me to explain their tardiness to class. They had been trying to get ahold of their friend, also in my class, who had been missing classes for a week. The reason they were late was because they’d decided to track down this friend at her house. Waking up early in the morning, they’d to travelled off-campus to their friend’s home, to see if she was going to make it to class. She didn’t answer the door.
When they told me this story, I was prompted to pass along resources–contact info for the chaplain’s office, peer-support centre, and others–to pass along to their friend, if she needed it. While I don’t know if they were used, I do know that the student did return to my class a few days later.
I’ve always implicitly seen teaching as collaborative, reciprocal learning, but this semester my students have pushed me to consider how to care beyond the classroom space. My students’ concern for their classmate and friend prompted the realization that perhaps other students in my class needed these resources, too. Following the lead of other instructors at my University, I ended up talking to my students towards the end of term about on- and off-campus support. I acknowledged that this is a difficult time of year, a challenging term. But mostly I just wanted them to know that people do care, and that what they may be feeling is important and valid, and that there are people who can help. And it was brought home to me by the demonstrative concern of my students.
I think the next time once of my students drops by to thank me for the semester, I’ll know what to say. A simple “thank you” in response will probably suffice.
Have your students taught you something valuable this term?
media · reflection · silence

Forgetting, Silence, and Being at the Ghomeshi Bail Hearing

Today’s post is the second from our several-times-a-semester blogger Lily Cho
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I cut about a third of this blog post about an hour after I wrote it. I was reminded that there was a publication ban on the Ghomeshi bail hearing. I looked at the relevant section of the Criminal Code. It’s pretty broad. Just to err on the side of being safe, I’ve decided to edit out a few things. But that in itself seems significant in a blog post that is about silence, its uses, and its power. Recently, Denise Balkissoon argued that publication bans might not be such a good idea after all. She’s got a point, but maybe we need to find a way for silence, and anonymity, to have more power.
But let me start again by going back a few days. Last Wednesday I was supposed to have lunch with my friend Emma. I texted her in the morning to see if she still wanted to meet up. She did. But then she suggested that maybe we should drop into Jian Ghomeshi’s bail hearing instead. Because Emma is a brilliant criminal lawyer and seems to know every one at various courthouses around town, this shouldn’t such a surprising suggestion. At that point, I didn’t even know he had been arrested. Of course, by the end of the day, we had all heard the news, seen the courtroom drawings, and read multiple versions of the hearings.
Lunch? Or celebrity bail hearing? Happily, I didn’t have to choose.
The rumour seemed to be that the hearing would happen around 2pm. But then it was moved up. I got out of the subway station and noticed I had missed a string of texts from Emma.
Don’t worry. I happened to be nearby. I had planned to spend the morning marking papers at one of my secret downtown hangouts (a place with excellent free wifi, perfect level of ambient noise, terrific public washrooms and no, I’m sorry, I’m not sharing). As I walked over to the courthouse, I was passed by news vans and a handful of very well-coiffed folks running past me. I haven’t watched tv news in years, but if I had to randomly pick people who looked like tv news reporters, I think they would have looked like all those people scrambling past me.   
By the time I cleared security at the courthouse, there was a long line outside the door of the courtroom and various news crews were busy setting up. I couldn’t help but think that one’s place in line signaled one’s level of access to information. Emma had saved me a premium place in line.
And then we waited for a while. The atmosphere was a little giddy and festive but I think a lot of us felt a bit badly about it. It didn’t seem quite right. And we waited some more.
When the doors opened, one’s place in line really did matter. The courtroom is small. There were three rows of seating for the public on either side of the room. Each bench could hold ten or twelve people. When there was no more room, the police closed the doors. I’m pretty sure there were quite a few people outside who were disappointed. For a brief moment, I felt a bit bad about taking up a seat since I was really there for no good reason at all. And then I just stayed put.
I’m sure you have all read the news reports about the hearing so you know about all the newsworthy things that went down – what he was charged with, the amount that bail was set for, that he has to live with his mom.
It’s been a few days since that event and I keep waiting for someone to report on the other things that happened that in the hearing. It seemed as though almost every person around me on those benches was a journalist of some kind. Everyone seemed to be taking notes. Many people were typing into their phones. Some of them were obviously live blogging the whole thing. So I just assumed that everything there was to say about the hearing has been said.
But let me tell you about one thing that hasn’t come up. When the Justice Rutherford turned to address Ghomeshi, his lawyer got up from behind the defense attorney’s table, walked past several Toronto police officers, and stood next to him. Much has been said about Marie Henien. She is striking. But that moment really struck me. The courtroom is a really static place. Everyone stays put. When Henien crossed the floor, she made clear that she literally stood by her client. It was not dramatic. It was not like tv law. But it stayed with me. Maybe brilliant defense lawyers are sometimes brilliant in their silences.
This hearing was only the first, very brief, foray into what will be a long, long judicial process. And in the midst of all this, a lot of details will emerge and a lot of them will be forgotten.
As a literary critic, I work in a field where words and voices are essential. But how do you write silence? How do you analyze that which cannot be heard? My work tends to focus a lot on gaps and absences, omissions and counter-narratives. But that only gets to part of the problem. There are a lot of important silences that we will never hear. I don’t know what to do with that except to think long and hard about it.
We are coming close to the end of what feels like watershed year in terms of public and private conversations about sexual harassment. There are the celebrities who have been accused. There are public institutions that have to start thinking hard about their failures here: the CBC, the House of Commons, our colleges and universities. There is a lot of talking.
But I am worried about how we are going to get to the silences. And I do not mean getting to the silences in terms of bringing more voices to the table or finding more ways for women to speak, to shout, to share, and to say things that have not been said before. I am worried about how to harness the power of silence. For me, what Henien did not say was much more powerful than what she did say. I realize that she is particularly privileged in all kinds of ways and not least because she was in the courtroom in the first place. But how can we find power in silence for the complainants? We acknowledge the courage of the women who have come forward in the Ghomeshi case. In the interest of justice, I can’t help hoping that more will do so. But there are many, many more women who will be silent. How can we make those silences matter.

In Europe, one has the legal right to be forgotten. These laws remind me of one of the many beautiful lessons from Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for a Time Being which closes with the liberation of invisibility. At the end of the novel, the protagonist has engineered her erasure from the online world. She has found the right to be forgotten. Maybe, finding power in anonymity and silence lies in Ozeki’s reminder for us embrace some kinds of forgetting. We do not have to fear being outside of memory. And this is hard because all of my training, and my understanding of social justice, lies in remembering, in thinking about the ways in which the past haunts the present, about transforming grief into grievance. But I’m coming around to the idea of letting go a little bit.
           

Lily Cho
York University
dissertation · grad school · PhD · reflection · research

Research (i.e. Exploring the Unknown)

Over the last week I’ve been rewriting my proposal, which was approved a little less than a year ago. I’m updating it for a fellowship application, and I find that the more I work on it, the more there is to do. It’s almost guaranteed that I won’t receive this very prestigious fellowship, so on the one hand,  this is a massive time-suck that is dragging me away from my second chapter; but on the other, it’s been a hugely valuable exercise in regaining perspective of the whole, strengthening my overall argument, and recognizing how much my project has changed for the better.

The work we do, the papers we write, the talks we give, are living things; or at least they should be. As such we should allow them to shift and evolve over time, speaking to us as we speak to them, engaging us in conversation. I was always told my actual dissertation would not match my proposal, but I was skeptical; my proposal took me about six months to write because my mentor wanted very detailed chapter summaries. Once all that was done, I thought, perhaps, things were set <!– /* Font Definitions */ @font-face {font-family:Cambria; panose-1:2 4 5 3 5 4 6 3 2 4; mso-font-charset:0; mso-generic-font-family:auto; mso-font-pitch:variable; mso-font-signature:3 0 0 0 1 0;} @font-face {font-family:"MS ??"; panose-1:0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0; mso-font-alt:"MS Mincho"; mso-font-charset:128; mso-generic-font-family:auto; mso-font-format:other; mso-font-pitch:variable; mso-font-signature:1 134676480 16 0 131072 0;} /* Style Definitions */ p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal {mso-style-unhide:no; mso-style-qformat:yes; mso-style-parent:""; margin:0in; margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:12.0pt; font-family:Cambria; mso-fareast-font-family:"MS ??"; mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";} .MsoChpDefault {mso-style-type:export-only; mso-default-props:yes; font-size:10.0pt; mso-ansi-font-size:10.0pt; mso-bidi-font-size:10.0pt; mso-fareast-font-family:"MS ??";} @page WordSection1 {size:8.5in 11.0in; margin:1.0in 1.25in 1.0in 1.25in; mso-header-margin:.5in; mso-footer-margin:.5in; mso-paper-source:0;} div.WordSection1 {page:WordSection1;} —more time spent on the proposal means less time on the dissertation, right? Maybe not. In the months following the proposal, as I came to realize how understudied these strange medieval dream interpretation texts are, a small subsection of what was meant to be my Introduction sprouted out into my first chapter. And then, a few months later, one subsection of that chapter suddenly emerged and asserted itself as chapter two. So my first and second chapters originally comprised only one small section of my Introduction. Chapter three was originally going to be chapter one, chapter four was chapter two, chapter five was chapter three, and I had a fourth chapter that no longer exists. Also, if you look at the word chapter for long enough, it becomes really weird.

None of these changes, all of which have strengthened and enriched my project, would have happened if I hadn’t given myself room to explore the unknown, if I hadn’t been patient with myself and approached my material with humility and curiosity even after I had conducted so much research for the proposal. I don’t think I will ever be confident in my understanding of the Middle Ages. But in one paradoxically empowering sense, I don’t think I should be, or I may lose the ability to allow the texts to speak to me, to reach forward and touch me in sometimes startling ways from the vast unknown that is the past. My friend Zach Hines has written a wonderful post * about the slow scholarship movement in academia (which takes its cue from the slow food movement): slow scholarship, he writes, is “about being aware of the ways in which the layers of meaning associated with objects and texts change as we re-curate and re-translate the past for new and different audiences.” It is about observing and listening to what the objects we study say to us at different points in our lives before we form our own opinions, and it is, as one scholar Zach cites puts it, about “unlearn[ing] things thought of as certainties.” It’s about letting our projects grow and evolve as they speak back to us, as they engage us in conversation.

In fact, in my work I argue that this kind of humble, receptive attitude is exactly what the literary dream visions I’m studying demand of me: in Geoffrey Chaucer’s House of Fame, for example, the dreamer (Geffrey), whose narration guides the reader along, travels through the bizarre, kaleidoscopic landscape of his dream with an attitude of wonder and questioning causing some scholars to view him as dense or dull, but I think this attitude overlooks his crucial role as a model for the reader’s own engagement with the text. There’s a reason the first part of my (new, of course) dissertation title is “Immersive Reading.”

This humble and receptive treatment of the past is also how I approach my classroom: I don’t work out a full semester reading syllabus for my Composition course at the beginning, because I believe in feeling out the class and listening for the students’ particular needs, strengths, and weaknesses (but of course I am sure to distribute the reading schedule for each unit well ahead of time).** Near the beginning of the semester, I employ Kenneth Burke’s well-known “parlor” metaphor for life as a touchstone for how we approach texts and in-class discussions. If you are unfamiliar with this metaphor, here’s a selection:

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about….You listen for awhile, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar.

(The Philosophy of Literary Form

While I must say that the other people engaged in conversation do seem a tad rude, and if you continue reading, the metaphor takes a turn for the bleak (“the discussion is interminable”), in my class this metaphor becomes a model for how we engage with the world and the texts around us. For example, when we do peer review workshops of paper drafts, I have the students write out a full summary of the paper they’re reviewing, immersing themselves in the ideas presented to them, before they activate their own critical thinking machinery and ‘put in their oars.’

So I will continue to assume Geffrey’s bewildered but fascinated attitude as I reach toward the past and engage with the present, and I will continue to allow myself and my ideas and projects to evolve organically (I didn’t even really know what I wanted to say when I started writing this! How’s that for meta.). Within a reasonable amount of time, of course, and recognizing that there are certain finite limitations on how drastically one’s work can change. Like, at some point I just need to get this chapter draft sent off.

——–

*I wrote this before Part II came out, which you can find here.
**I’m aware this is a luxury afforded to Comp classes in particular; I doubt I could/should exercise such flexibility with a literature course.