movement · risk · Uncategorized · writing

Trying Things that Scare Me

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Have any of you read Carol Dweck’s MindsetIt’s not a new book, and its basic points (or a corrupted version of them) have pretty well sunk into the popular consciousness, so you likely know about it even if you haven’t read it. Dweck argues that people bring two basic mindsets to the things they do (and often a combination of the two): a growth mindset that says that talent and skill are built over time and we can get better and smarter with practice, and a fixed mindset that says that intelligence and skill are innate and cannot be changed or improved with effort.

Tons of academics have a fixed mindset about their intelligence and their work. (It me, at least sometimes.) We’ve tied our identities to being smart, to being good at our jobs. Instead of trying radically new things, risking being bad at something, we can get stuck in the trap of doing what we know that we can do well. If I think that my intelligence and skill are fixed, I’m going to be more concerned about protecting my identity as a smart person (i.e. doing easy things that make me look smart) than doing new things that are going to help me grow (i.e. the hard things that I’m going to be bad at to start and might make me look less competent or skilled).

I’m trying to develop my growth mindset. While a fixed mindset is comfortable and safe, it’s boring. And, I know, false. There are lots of things I’ve gotten better at over time, things I value a lot like cooking, and writing, and friendship, and feminism. I just hate the being bad at things part, and I wanted to challenge myself to embrace the suckitude, to learn to get comfortable with being a beginner. To take pleasure in the process and not the product.

So, I threw myself into a bunch of things that I knew were going to challenge my fixed mindset. I started biking to work, which was something I was afraid of because the stakes for doing it wrong can be really high (Toronto drivers, amirite?). I’m teaching myself how to do Tunisian crochet. And I’m taking a creative non-fiction class where I have to write things pretty far out of my usual academic/blog/advice writing wheelhouse and read them aloud to strangers for critique. Yipes.

And so far, it’s pretty okay! I bike to and from work every day and I’m very comfortable being a city cyclist now. (It helps that the Bike Share bikes, which are what I ride most often, are tanks and I don’t ever have to worry about my bike being stolen.) My first creative non-fiction class was on Tuesday and I really liked being forced to write something fast without time to think or self-critique. Writing “growth mindset” in big letters at the top of the page was actually helpful in terms of reminding me that it’s okay to not be good at this. And the thing that’s the lowest stakes is proving the most challenging–I’ve started and ripped out my crochet project a half-dozen times now, and have put it aside because I’m finding that level of not-goodness challenging to deal with. I’m going to try again tonight, and remind myself that even if my scarf looks nothing like this, there’s enjoyment to be had in playing with beautiful fibres and, hopefully, in slowly getting better at something.

I might not like being bad at things, but I like the person I am when I let myself be.

 

 

 

 

risk · teaching

A pedagogy of provocation

Boyda’s excellent post from yesterday, on how to cultivate a healthy detachment in teaching, got me thinking about my own pedagogy of care. I’ve long since made the move that Boyda describes, of sticking to her guns and not over-explaining or apologizing for decisions on deadlines and readings and attendance policies.

Here’s something I’ve found, as I grew comfortable teaching that way. When the rules of engagement–the contractual parts of the course–are clear and consistent, it creates a boundary around the classroom and students come to feel more supported and more secure. Everyone knows there are going to be five quizzes and they’ll all be about the textbook. Everyone knows there is a final exam. Everyone knows that every day there will be informal writing, and group work. Everyone knows I’m actually really serious about having the reading done before class, and that I will in fact answer absolutely any question if someone bothers to come to my office hours to ask it in person.

From that security and predictability comes the possibility to push into what I call the pedagogy of provocation.

The pedagogy of provocation means pushing back against my students’ ideas, letting them work through contradictions, prompting them to consider alternative views, correcting them on facts, asking them to differentiate between opinion and scholarship, to name the methodology or theory from which they draw their arguments.

Yesterday, I provoked my first year Digital Lives students. Just for context, I will note that this is the first time I’ve taught it where the classroom demographic skews 90% to Math and Computer Science and Engineering students and the vibe in the room is palpably different. Much of the course content interrogates tech culture, from innovation to business practices to digital divides of various sorts to web culture to Silicon Valley. I’ve never taught a cohort who so clearly mark themselves as invested in the tech industry as programmers, entrepreneurs, or engineers.

We opened class with two questions I’d written on the board:

  1. What happens to your digital stuff after you die?
  2. What is “free speech” on Twitter? What is “criminal harassment”?

I gave everyone 10 minutes to write notes towards answers for these questions, and prompted them to think through some of the material we’d already covered: what do we know from the history of media technologies that sheds light on these questions? What are some different scholarly approaches to these questions? Are there technical answers, or legal answers, or regulatory answers, or geographically specific answers, or cultural answers?

And then we discussed.

The first question revealed that notions of “property” and “ownership” are complicated online, and that regulations about willing property to beneficiaries is not readily analogous to taking over someone’s iTunes library. Or that maybe I want to have my Facebook persist as a memorial after I’m dead, but I want some way to nuke my AshleyMadison.com account without my family ever knowing it existed. Students offered their ideas, and I pushed back (“Are you sure?”) or I grabbed keywords (“Aha! But you don’t ‘own’ your music on Spotify! How is subscription different from ownership?”). Some of it was frustrating: it turns out there’s no easy answer, and not one answer, and that different answers are more or less true in different ways on different services in different contexts.

The second question was a little more contentious. Many of us are free speech absolutists. Others pointed out that in Canada we don’t have free speech but rather “free expression.” Some were Darwinist in their belief that the strongest Twitter users should set the pace and tone of the service. Others wanted Twitter to act as arbiter in cultural norms disputes. Someone looked up the legal definition of “legal harassment.” And then we debated the fuzziness of “reasonable person.” I told them about my own Twitter experiences with hate speech, and those of my friends. “Why?” one student asked–“Because I am a lady on the internet, talking about ladies on the internet” I told them. People furrowed their brows, shot their hands up, nodded yes while scribbling. Some crossed their arms and snorted.

It was super difficult and it was great. The discussions managed to address most of the methodological and historical questions from the readings, through the lens of a contemporary controversy (or two). By the end more students were leaning forward in their chairs than leaning back. The material had become interesting and no one, in a first for the semester, began packing up their bags before I dismissed the class.

For me, it was hard. The stakes feel high when an 18 year old with an expressed wish to move to Silicon Valley and work with a startup tell me how progressive social media companies are and I answer “Why do you think that? Because Twitter has more guys named Peter on their board than they do women. And they have zero people of color.” I expose my own blind spots when a student from Eastern Europe puts a caveat on our discussion of libertarianism and what it is–a core belief in the freedom of markets is a feature particularly of North American libertarianism, not all libertarianism. Quite right.

There’s a chance, of course, that by constantly provoking my students like this I risk alienating them, losing them. They may find me disagreeable or biased (although I try to poke holes in my own favorite arguments as well). I hope to make this pedagogy feel a little safer for them by showing them how dependable, consistent, and fair I can be by crafting a detailed and full syllabus with all readings and tasks and due dates in advance, by having the quizzes and papers graded so quickly, by affirming everyone’s efforts, particularly those students who want to challenge something *I* have said. I never let myself get upset by things they say, but to always remain detached enough from my own emotional responses and preferred outcomes that I can stay attuned to what they need to say and to hear in order to learn.

So that’s my pedagogy of provocation. Make all the mechanics of the class, from reading to attendance policy to returning marks quickly, very very predictable and stable–but turn the classroom space into one where any idea might come up, and be thoroughly tested, and the outcome might be surprising.

#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.