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
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.

best laid plans · enter the confessional · reflection · writing

On Writing and Paying Attention

After a break–summer or otherwise–from the jam-packed schedule of teaching-meetings-tasks-grading-life I am reminded not only that I need a routine, but also that the routine needs to be refined and to evolve pretty much every time I have a substantial break. As I move into what is the most unstructured stretch of time I have had since writing my dissertation I have realized I need to think again about what kind of writer I am and what kind of writer I would like to become. In previous years I have taught three or four courses per term. This year, while I am only teaching one full-year team taught course, I am Chairing the Board of Canadian Women in the Literary Arts, the Contract Academic Faculty representative for the ACCUTE executive, co-organizer for Discourse & Dynamics: Canadian Women as Public Intellectuals, presenting at three conferences (so far), editing a collection of poetry, writing a book, applying for jobs, and of course, writing for Hook & Eye. Its not as though I am not busy, but as much as I feel sheepish to admit it, without the constraints of classes I’m struggling to organize my work days, especially when it comes to my own writing.

Here’s the truth: I have a really hard time sitting down and writing. Despite the fact that I have had periods of genuine rhythm and productivity the fact of the matter is that I have a bit of a magpie mind. In the best moments this means finding connections between surprising things and, if I’m really lucky, getting them down on paper to share with other readers. Usually, though, it means that I leap from one shiny idea to another…and get lost along the way. What I mean, of course, is that mostly I get distracted by the internet, find I’ve been on social media or following news stories from one site to another for longer that I like to admit. I’ve lost the thread, I’m tired from looking at the screen, and it is easier to turn my attention to the more definitive writing tasks: email and lecture writing.* Responding to emails, writing emails with  specific requests or communication, writing a fifty or ninety minute lecture–these are all writing tasks that, for me, are definitive and thus easier to complete in a reasonable amount of time. And, like the actual classroom lecture, there is a real sense of accomplishment when I finish writing a week’s lecture or respond to fifteen emails. Work has been accomplished.

But writing is also work I want to do, and now that I am comfortable with writing lectures, writing is the work that keeps me up at night thinking about doing it, and fretting that I’m not doing it enough/at all. That’s the research writing that Aimée talked about last week. Its not as though I can’t write. After all, I completed a MA thesis, a Phd dissertation, and I have written articles, blog posts, and book reviews. So what’s the issue? How do I settle my attention and sit down to write for myself? That’s the question that was in the back of my mind as I was rereading Eileen Myles‘s Inferno (A Poet’s Novel) for inspiration. Have you read it? It is a portrait of a person becoming a poet, becoming, as Myles says in one chapter, a human. The prose is lilting, jarring, and utterly poetic. It is, on the one hand, a portrait of the artist becoming, and on the other a lesson in attention. Take this paragraph:

Performance has always been at the heart of my work. I went to Milton, New York in 1975 to acquire the first six pages of what you are reading….No one asked me to have a life like this, to be a poet. It was my idea. I mean and I would definitely say poetry is a very roundabout way to unite both work and time. A poet is a person with a very short attention span who actually decides to study it. To look at it. To draw that short thing out….I’m going to talk a little about theatre and performance now, but the subject of [this book] is really just all that time. How this poet spent it. Performance is spending. And it’s always a huge loss. One good heartbreak can speed the whole thing up. Most of us have plenty of that. But we don’t even really need it. Just look at the day. Going, going, going. Nothing but loss. That’s life, and obviously that’s performance.

To read this paragraph and stay with Myles you have to pay readerly attention–to the wordplay, to the tone of voice, to the tongue-in-cheek intertextuality. Performance is living is art is practice is production is the work. Get it? Every sentence in this paragraph looks at the question “what is poetry” and “what is a poet” from a different angle. But if we were to read without attention we might miss it. The book would still be good, it would still be a fast talking romp through New York in a particular moment. But without paying a particular attention we might miss the poetic structure of the thing.

What does this have to do with writing? Maybe nothing for you, but for me it is a reminder of two crucial things: I need to pay attention, and paying attention costs. “To draw the short thing out,” as Myles writes, requires shelling out time, energy, and intellect. Refining and redefining a writing routine is part of the work. For Aimée that routine requires very early mornings. Melissa has found that stealing what is often thought of as wasted time can actually be incredibly productive time. As for me, I think I am going to need to impose those structural constraints that I realize class times had previously provided. I’m thinking that I will implement sacrosanct writing hours (thanks, Aimée!) and that when I am writing the phone and the wifi will both be turned off. I will also be looking for writing dates to keep myself on track. More than anything, I’ll be working to pay attention. Whatever the cost, I think it will be worth it.

What about you? When you sit down to write, or refine your writing practices, what are some of your techniques for focussing your attention?

There’s Inferno (A Poet’s Novel) on the right. Angela Carr’s incredible Here in There (BookThug, 2014) is a collection of poetry all about paying attention. 


*When I first started teaching lecture writing was not an easy task. I would spend hours preparing for a single class, and much of that prep time wasn’t useful. Like many Phd students I received little pedagogical training. I did take a course on pedagogy from the teaching and learning centre where I was studying, but the bulk of my fledgling knowledge about classroom management and lecture writing came from the one-on-one conversations I had with my mentors. Next week I will talk about some of that advice as well as show you how I write lectures.

classrooms · experiential education · grading · reflection · teaching

Reflections After a Semester of Teaching (for the first time)

Yesterday, I finally pushed the big writing project of my semester off my plate. Admittedly, I did it with little aplomb or flourish (in fact, I may be legitimately concerned that it might have landed with something like a splat), I’ve still got 30 final exams to grade, ongoing work with the digital humanities project I work on, and a spring research trip looming. But it feels, at last, that this very busy and taxing semester actually might wrap up. My classes have ended, my final essays (and revisions) are graded, the graduate student event I’ve been coordinating all semester is poised to take flight on Wednesday, and this week I finally have some time in my schedule to do things which I’ve been putting off since the mid-term break.

As I near the point where I can legitimately say I’m not a first-time instructor anymore, I’ve been reflecting, like Erin about the end of this semester, my first semester of teaching. This winter, as I walked into my first-ever classroom as sole instructor of an intro English course, there were several things that I expected and had prepared for, but others that presented unique and unfamiliar challenges. As a result, there are some things that I’m pleased to say went very well, but others that I think I’m going to change going forward.

First, I should say that I am really privileged to have walked into my first-ever classroom with a lot of support behind me. In the first year of my PhD, I took a writing studies course on how to teach writing which helped me feel confident and knowledgeable about how to approach first-year composition. My department also put on a valuable proseminar on how to teach English literature. Finally, and most importantly, I was given a really excellent teaching mentor who was willing to answer basically any question I had, gave me copies of sample assignments, and helped me to assess my assignments and imput my grades. I really don’t think it would have been possible to be a sole-instructor for the first time without this kind of support system, and I think anything I did right was because I had the benefit of these helps.

Anyway, without further ado, here are some of the decisions I made that I’m really happy about:

1) Assigning an obscure text: I put a book on my syllabus that I was not sure would go over well with my students, a late-nineteenth-century feminist utopia, Margaret Dunmore, or a Socialist Home, which is totally not mainstream, but I thought might be an interesting pairing with Dracula. My students found it fascinating, and took it up productively in ways I didn’t expect. In the future, I hope I’ll be less anxious about making decisions to feature texts on my syllabus that are obscure if I find them interesting and/or provoking, even if they are a little off the beaten path.

2) Sequencing Assignments: For every essay, I made my students do a short three or four sentence “Question and Answer” prospectus, which consisted of a question, revised from the essay prompts I provided, and an answer that would form the thesis of their papers. (Taken from John Bean’s really excellent book Engaging Ideas). When I got them back, my first instinct was that it was a terrible mistake, because they were kind of awful. But I was then able to give detailed feedback, explaining to my class again collectively and to each student personally how to write a thesis statement. It made my papers infinitely better than they would have otherwise been. I did this with both of my papers, and for the last final research essay, I also assigned an annotated bibliography which helped make sure they properly assessed the sources for their final essays and understood them in advance of the final assignment.

3) Requiring Drafts, Allowing Revisions: I had a peer review class for each essay assignment in advance of the due date, and required at minimum a detailed outline and intro that my students had to bring to class and read to each other. This meant that students were forced to get thinking early about their assignments, and able to collectively bounce ideas off each other in the classroom space. I also allowed revisions for their papers, but only up to a week after their papers were handed back. Only six students over the course of the semester took up the opportunity to revise their papers, but reading them as though they were drafts, and seeing the potential for improvement, made a big difference in how much I enjoyed marking their assignments. It was also a great pleasure to see how much improvement the students who did take up my offer to revise their assignment were able to make in their writing. I had several students bump up their marks from high C’s/low B’s into the A-range, and it’s great to see how much they learned to clarify/revise their thinking and writing.

Of course, there were also things I did that I did that I’m not terribly pleased with–hopefully these are rookie mistakes that I won’t make again:

1) Overpreparing: I often prepared wayyyy too much material for an hour and twenty minute class: too much groupwork, too long of a lecture, too much knowledge crammed into my head/refreshed the night before. This often caused me to rush through my lectures and not take enough time for class discussion if I had too much to say. This was a big issue in the first half of the semester. Serendipitously, my daughter’s/my frequent illnesses in the last half of the semester meant that I simply couldn’t prepare nearly as much as I had been in the first half, and I cut down my prep from probably 6+ hours for each class to just 2, and was pretty shocked to see how much of an improvement preparing the right amount of material had on my actual classes. I also got a whole lot better at being okay with letting things go if I didn’t get to them. Hopefully this is something I can carry forward to my next teaching experience.

2) Poor Organization of Classroom Time: This one is related to the above, but more specifically related to how much time I took in the space of the class to a) lecture, b) do group work, and c) undertake class discussion. I was not taking enough time for lecturing/class discussion, and giving too much time for group discussion. Fortunately, I did a stop-start-continue (an anonymous assessment from my students suggesting what we should stop, what we should start, and what should continue doing in the classroom space) with my students just a few weeks in, which let me know that I was giving too much time for group work. In response, I cut down group work drastically to between 3-6 minutes, depending on how many questions I was having them discuss.

3) Overassigning: In addition to the two essay assignments and annotated bibliography (and the sequenced assignments therein), I required my students to do 7 weekly reading responses over the course of the semester, which they were required to post on a private course blog. This one is tough because I really really liked the outcomes of this assignment: my students were always very well prepared for class, they had ideas that they were comfortable discussing in groups and as a whole class, and I’m pretty sure this largely followed from the assignment. I also used these blogs to prepare my lecture: I tailored my talks to the themes they picked up on, and was able to correct misreadings and redirect discussion to the things I thought they should note. But the fact is that there were just too many things to mark, even though it was low-stakes writing. I think in the future I’m going to have to cut this down to a maximum of 5, but of course I’m concerned that if I do this, the students themselves will be less prepared.

What are the things you do in the space of your classroom that you’ve found work well? What have you learned as you’ve become more experienced in the classroom space? Do you have any advice for for new instructors that you wished you’d learned before you stepped into the classroom space?

reflection · righteous feminist anger

Sinister Patterns: Women and the Knowledge Massacre

Is it just me, or does the Harper Government seem to hate women and knowledge?

That’s a rhetorical question, obviously, but one that I found myself thinking about again this weekend as I edited a letter written to Ministers involved with the knowledge massacre and the ongoing cutting of women’s programs.

The current government is and has been attacking women’s rights. Don’t forget, for example, that in 2010 the government strategically cut out the crucial and groundbreaking work of Sisters in Spirit. Don’t forget that in that same year Conservative Senator Nancy Ruth told the spokespeople of several women’s groups to “shut the f-k up about the abortion issue” unless they wanted more backlash from the government. 

And in case you’ve missed it, there is a corollary attack on knowledge going on in this country. National and international media platforms are referring to the burning of archives as libricide. As a literary and cultural studies scholar I teach my students to look for patterns in a given text, to consider the material and historical conditions of that text’s construction, and to make critical observations and analyses about how those things are all working together. The systematic disenfranchisement of women’s groups and the destruction of archives is a pattern, and a sinister one at that.

A pattern that I didn’t expect was this: virtually none of the ministries whose libraries have been closed of cut are led by a man. What can we make of this? Understanding how ideologies work is part of the process of breaking them down. How do we understand the correlation between these devastating policies and the ways in which women, women’s knowledge, gendered identity, racial identity, the diversity of knowledge production, and the lands on which knowledges are produced are systematically being shut down?

A few days ago I was talking on the telephone with a dear friend of mine who survived his trip to the MLA. We were chatting about that same “pervasive emotional buzz of desperation” that Melissa unpacked last week. We talked about our similar experiences of being on the job market long term, of the ways that the market has changed even in the years we’ve been on it, and we teased out (again) some of the emotional effects of the current state of affairs. And then he said this: “I always felt as though education — at the university level and outside the university — would lead to some kind of proactive community. I felt as though if workers — let’s say miners — were to go on strike then we would have created enough knowledge of how ideology and material reality work that we would all join them in solidarity.” What worried us then, and worries me now, is this: what is it going to take to get us out in the streets literally or figuratively?

Reader, what are your thoughts? Is old-school protest the way to go, or is the a more effective mode you’ve found?        

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?

academic reorganization · reflection · slow academy

Slow Academe: Addressing Misogyny, Racism, and Inequity in the Classroom

There are so many good things about the beginning of a new school year. The first day of school carries with it hopes for a new year, anxieties about change, and, if we are lucky, it comes with the realization that higher education at its best holds the possibilities for fostering sustainable thinking that can fundamentally alter the future for the better.

Last week though, that glow was overshadowed by the series of misogynistic chants performed at first year orientations at St. Mary’s University in Halifax and UBC in Vancouver. And while it is notable that these stories have made headline news what troubles me is twofold. First, as others have noted, the only difference is that this year the media paid attention. Misogyny and rape culture are not new, and they are certainly not new in Canada where young women — and a disproportionate number of First Nations women — are more likely to experience violence than any other group. Let’s not forget that the we live in a country that has a fundamentally dysfunctional relationship with women, especially women of colour. So as I began a new school year in a new province and a new university I found myself struggling with questions of pedagogy and speed.

Here’s what I mean: I found myself wondering how best to open up conversations about gender ideology, misogyny, racism, and systematic inequity while going through the syllabus and beginning to foster individual classroom learning communities. These challenges and questions aren’t new to me, certainly. Critical pedagogy is a continual concern here at Hook & Eye. But last week I found myself thinking in a new way about expediency versus sustainability. I found myself thinking that these two things–fast and clear deliverables and the long-term development of critically-engaged thinking, of slow academe–have been put at odds. Much has been written in the last decade (and longer) about the myriad ways in which corporatization of universities erode their aims, namely the best parts of humanities. Students are saddled with staggering debts, the legions of precarious workers is ever on the rise while departments and faculties are pushed to increase the clarity of their deliverables. Students are told that they are consumers, and understandably they, in turn, want to know what it is they are buying. After all, they know that their post-graduation options will likely be vastly different than those of their parents and professors.

Debt, under-employment, corporatiztion: these are all pressing issues. But as I read the news, as I ached for my colleagues at UBC and St. Mary’s, as I felt anger and frustration and exhaustion over the fact that young men and young women felt it was ok to participate in the misogynistic chants (never mind that orientation leaders felt it was in any way ok to present them) I found myself thinking that an additional effect of the corporate university has been the denigration of slow learning.

Slow learning takes its cues from things like the slow food movement, DIY education, and edupunks. For me, slow learning crosses genres and disciplines, is founded on inquiry and dialogue, and depends on learning in and with communities. Though I want these things to be inherent in all learning I think the addition of “slow” as a descriptor underscores the activism and sustainability that is central to the process.

Here’s the thing: unlearning prejudice takes time. Unspooling the ways in which we all, each of us, are interpellated into pernicious systems of inequity that depend on divide and conquer strategies takes time. It is hard. And it is a slow process that I, for one, believe is both absolutely necessary and fundamental to the higher learning project to which I’ve decided to dedicate my life and energy.

What, then, do we do?

Last week I closed a review of faster feminism by asking if readers had new year’s resolutions. In answer to my own question, “what do we do,” I’ll offer my own resolution: I am redoubling my commitment to slow academe. Sure, I will continue to construct learning objectives, but each time I feel overworked, each time I want to just dial a lecture in, I will think about the system in which I work. Universities are not wholly responsible for the erosion of activist culture and the kinds of popular feminism that seemed far more present when I was in high school in the 90s (thank you, riot grrls), but universities are designated places for learning more, and, theoretically learning to be better. So following a colleague from St. Mary’s, I resolve to have careful and difficult conversations within my classrooms. I resolve to introduce them to the concept of slow learning, and perhaps, over the course of a semester, their own education, and my career, we will help to revivify the best, most maligned parts of the higher education endeavour.

academic reorganization · change · race · reflection · solidarity

A New Politics of Loss? A Response to "We Are Not All Jims: The Colour Line and Sadness in the Academy"

Last week my friend and colleague Jade Ferguson wrote a guest post on the colour line and sadness in the university. As she notes, one recent catalyst to her post was a Think Tank that I co-organized with Smaro Kamboureli at the TransCanada Institute. The aim of the Think Tank was to open a frank discursive space for addressing the continual defunding of the university, the ongoing defamation of intellectual work, and – perhaps most pressing for me, initially – the omnipresent experience of anxiety for emergent scholars. The Think Tank was for me an event I am only beginning to work through, for the spaces that were opened there were unprecedented in their genuineness, their affect, and their challenges. I knew going into the weekend that it would be hard, for the room was composed of colleagues in unequal power relations.
While this was part of the organizational point, I was nervous. But then, I live with a certain kind of anxiety that I have naturalized. I am increasingly used to performing my own experiences of occupational precarity as a means of both dealing with and drawing attention to but a few of the systematic and structural problems of the Academy. Indeed, as I stated in my portion of the opening remarks, I approached Smaro Kamboureli in a moment of profound sadness and anxiety. Sadness cleared the way for me to risk approaching a senior colleague. Sadness made me momentarily brave. Nevertheless, I was unprepared for the multifaceted and unequal experiences of sadness that constellated in that room over the space of thirty-six hours. My own unpreparedness underscores two emergent issues that Jade addresses: the colour line and what Jade terms “the public feeling of sadness in the academy.”
I was one of the nine emerging scholars. The term “emerging” in this case acts an umbrella term that covers the vastly different subject-experiences of part-time/contingent/contract/postdoctoral/ and newly tenure-track faculty. As we each framed our thinking about and experiences of “shared precarity” in either position or response papers multiple tensions came to the fore. As Jade notes, four of the five newly tenure-track faculty members were people of colour. The two contract workers – of which I was one – were white, and the two people in postdoctoral fellowships were also white. It became quickly and viscerally apparent that there were multiple experiences of “emergence.” Conversant but dissimilar questions surfaced: How do conditions of austerity reify and ossify extant colour lines? How – and can – one tell one’s own story of on-going precarity when one has the tenure-track job? How are stories of academic precarity participating in a recapitulation of racism in the Academy? How many years can one be on the job market and be an emergent scholar? How are public feelings of sadness gendered and aged? While we could all recognize the interconnectedness of these questions, we did not all understand and experience them. And this made us sad, albeit in different ways.
Employing Ann Cvetkovitch’s work on public feeling, Jade writes that our varied and difficult discussion revealed “the emotional colour line” that separates (her) black sadness from (my) white sadness. She uses the term “incommensurable” to articulate the emotional gulf between one form of sadness – for example my anxiety around my own labour precarity that I experience in my white body – and another – her experience of racism, alienation, and disenfranchisement as a tenure-track black scholar. These experiences are incommensurate because of the vastly different scales of historical experience that are marked on our bodies.
If the hard conversations we had opened a discursive space to “dwell in sadness” (Cvetkovitch 117) as Jade suggests, then I see part of my responsibility as attempting to dwell in the uncomfortable spaces of uncertainty and difficulty; to think through the emotional colour line, rather than to attend immediately to concrete political action that might address the lived experiences of precarity we had gathered to discuss. In other words, I want to dwell in sadness, to ask, as Sara Ahmed does, what happiness does when it becomes “a measure of progress – a performance indicator – as well as a criterion for making decisions about resources” (“The Happiness Turn” 7). The neoliberal discourse informing the Academy’s actions is predicated on instrumentalizing happiness as a measurement of progress. What this means is that happiness – that “stupid” form of optimism, according to Lauren Berlant – becomes a regulatory structure that both informs how we operate and how we identify one another. “Happiness” exposes assumptions about who gets to be happy, and whether or not happiness is ever possible in the current social structure. Moreover, “happiness” becomes a normalizing regulatory structure that attempts to level nuanced forms of inequity. As Ahmed suggests, “the face of happiness, at least in this description, looks very much like the face of privilege” (“The Happiness Turn” 9). I fear that without a sustained and careful discussion of what happiness in the Academy means resisting the neoliberalization of intellectual work will recapitulate those deep-seated inequities that are at the heart of politics as usual. That I may uncritically be participating in a reification of the emotional colour line makes me more than sad. It makes me melancholic, and that might not be a bad thing.
In The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief Anne Anlin Cheng suggests that viewing race through a framework of melancholia might productively reveal its instability and “indebtedness to the dis-identity it is also claiming” (24). Its those double-binds and dis-identifications that need attending to if we who affiliate our labour with the Academy wish to embark on a new politics of loss that does not reinstate old and pernicious inequities. After all, it was a while ago that Adam Smith observed the affective sleight of hand employed by capitalism: it moves us from “miserable equality” to “happy inequality” (Wealth of Nations). As Sara Ahmed notes, Smith’s “nineteenth-century utilitarianism involves an explicit refutation … in which inequality because the measure of advancement and happiness” (“The Happiness Turn” 9).
In the last week I have found myself wondering whether melancholia, which I would frame as unresolved grief, might offer a productive framework for addressing the multiple tensions at work in the public feeling(s) of sadness in the academy. That (s) I have added onto feeling is important. It seems to me that one of the risks that resurfaced in the Think Tank was that risk of unintentionally flattening experience in the name of solidarity. My sadness is not another’s, regardless of the similarity or simultaneity of our experiences. And yet, with Jade I too want to think through how we – by which I mean those of use labouring inside/outside/on the margins of the Academy – can form temporary and productive coalitions that do not flatten out our variegated experiences of loss, sadness, and disenfranchisement.

openness · reflection · student engagement · teaching

Designing good courses

Coincidentally, I’m picking up Aimée’s baton, and thinking about how to design a good course. I have more questions than answers. Like, how do you design a good university/college course? What you do when you start thinking about what should fill the syllabus, the lectures, the seminar discussions, the assignments? Do you think in terms of learning goals? Do you have a narrative? What makes it a “good” course in your mind? Your excitement for it? Putting your own research interests in it?

Oh, yes, and I have yet more questions, but I think I have made my point. In fact, these questions have been on my mind as I have been navigating the job market and investigating the department offerings. I go on the website, check out their courses, and dream about which of them I’d like to teach. And then how I’d like to teach them. It’s a fiction, just like any other document/exercise in applying for jobs, and it adds to that emotional investment applications demand. But it’s a very exciting fiction: putting myself in those classrooms, interacting with those imaginary students, talking with them about texts that interest us all (one is allowed to take the dream wherever one wants, no?). What texts would I put on the syllabus and why? What’s is the connection between them? What’s the single most important idea or skill or connection or digression I’d like the students to leave the course with? What kinds of conversations would I like the students to engage in? What would I like to hear from them? Yes, I know, I’m killing you with the questions here.

I have been teaching first-year English for a few years; long enough to know what works and what doesn’t, to build in that flexibility that allows for alterations after the course has started, so I can tailor it better to the group. This term, however, is the first time I’m teaching a 200-level course. I am relishing the opportunity. I spent a *lot* of time thinking about the texts, the assignments, the day-to-day, or rather class-to-class content. Basically, I’ve been trying to find answers to the questions I asked you earlier.

The good news is that the class is amazing, mostly because of the students, who are interested, engaged, smart, and very generous in their contributions, their interpretations, their connections, their digressions, and their interactions. Everybody I had talked to told me it would be so in a 200-level course: no longer the overwhelmed or lost first-year, not yet the jaded fourth-year, these students are enthusiastic in my friends’ experiences as well (although I do have quite a few fourth-year students, and they are just as generous). However, even if this class ends up as a resounding success, I am still unsure I’ll know the secret and how to replicate it.

And that’s why I’m turning to you, dear readers. What do *you* do when you design a course? What do you look for when you take a course? I loved it when Jessica mentioned she liked those instructors who came undone just a little bit, but I’m not sure one can build it in as a strategy. So, how do you repeat success and weed out fiascos?

learning · reflection

Reading Women

This summer there has been a flurry of discussion surrounding the reading and reviewing of work by women. In response to poor percentages of publications on women’s work Gillian Jerome and a group of collaborators launched CWILA (more on that here). Sina Queyras aka Lemon Hound has been writing about and reviewing women (and others) for years, and she’s launched a renewed effort on her blog. The discussion has had some detractors and some rockiness, but hey, at least there’s a renewed engagement with women’s writing happening in Canada.

 A few weeks ago Queyras asked people to post their favourite critical essay written by a woman. Though I can’t link to it here (the list was on her FB page) I can tell you that in a few hours it was long, diverse, and wholly exciting list. In the spirit of her generative question, the work that CWILA is doing, and the aim of this blog–that is of creating a space for discussion across genres and disciplines–what follows is a list of five influential texts written by women. Influential to whom? To me. To my reading and my intellectual development as a feminist literary and cultural scholar. I offer not so much an annotated bibliography as an eclectic biographical reading map. Please, if you’re so moved I would love it if you added a meaningful (for you) text written by a woman in the comments section. As a dear friend of mine said recently, we learn so much about one another when we talk about what we’ve read. I guess that’s what Adrienne Rich called re-vision in an other context, huh? In no particular order then:

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. (published 1929, read 1999) I read this in my first feminist class in university. I was in my third year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and I was running out of English credits to fill. My friend suggested I take this course. I read Room, and it was not love at first read. Quite the contrary. It is hard to admit this, but I found myself aggravated, impatient, and often bored. When I said as much in class and the professor asked my why I didn’t really have a good answer. “Woolf’s sentences are too long,” I offered, lamely. But what I meant was: I have never thought about masculine versus feminine syntax before. I had never really had to think about having space and time to read. Thinking about Woolf, thinking about the women who could afford to do all of these things, well, that meant thinking about the myriads of women who couldn’t. And can’t. Of course I knew this was the case, but for whatever reason, reading Virginia Woolf’s long sentences at that particular moment in my life in that classroom introduced to me a consideration of my own class that I had managed to sidestep for far too long.

Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought. (published 1991, read 2001) The following semester I took a course on feminist political theory. It was single-handedly one of the most challenging courses in my undergraduate career. Collins’s text introduced to me the concept of intersectionality as a mode of thinking about the ways in which different kinds of oppression interlock. Intersectionality was one of the first theoretical concepts that I could see in the world as well as conceptualize. The discussions we had in that course specifically, but not only, in relation to Collins’s text (I read Gloria Anzaldúa for the first time that semester as well) nuanced both my thinking and my ability to situate myself in a larger, more complex dialogue about race, gender, sexuality, and class. This class also taught me to listen, to not take up space that wasn’t mine, and to consider coalition politics as a genuine possibility for feminist action.

Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. (published 1993, read 2005) When I was studying for my comprehensive examinations one of my PhD committee members suggested (read: insisted) that I read Phelan’s book. This text taught me the possibility of poetic AND theoretical writing that could be both complex in content and lucid in construction. Phelan writes about politics, contemporary events, documentary, and performance in this text. She draws from a vast range of theoreticians and knits together an ever-evolving argument about the politics of representation that is both theoretical and goose-bump-inducingly relevant in daily life.

Godard, Barbara. “Feminist Periodicals and the Production of Cultural Value: The Canadian Context.” (published 2002, read 2005) I came across Godard’s essay when I was working on my comprehensive exams as well. I’ve written a fairly lengthy introduction to it here.

Kamboureli, Smaro. Scandalous Bodies: Diasporic Literature in English Canada. (published 2009, read 2010) I read Kamboureli’s text when I was in the first year of my contract at Dalhousie. I was feeling overwhelmed with all of those things one becomes overwhelmed with in a new job. I was also feeling stuck. Call is post-PhD paralysis. I needed something to jar me out of my habitual modes of thinking. Like Phelan’s text Kamboureli’s offered a rhizomatic, discursive, networked reading of a wide range of texts in my field. She foregrounded her own reading and thinking practice in such a way that I found myself both provoked and inspired. The texts were surprising, the critical analysis unpredictable in the best possible way. I finished the text feeling as though I had a new critic with whom to converse.

Well, there you go. This is a preliminary and partial list of formative reading moments in my life. What about y’all? Who inspires you and why?