emotional labour · risky writing

Unspeakable

This weekend I saw a trailer for Sini Anderson‘s documentary about Kathleen Hanna called The Punk Singer. 


While talking about the emergence of the Riot Grrrl movement, Bikini Kill, and Hanna herself, one of the interviewees says “feminism was really good at critiquing pop culture, it wasn’t good at making it.”

I found myself immediately thinking about academic feminism, about being a feminist in the academy. As a self-identified feminist working in the academy I am very good at critiquing academic culture. I can talk about labour inequity. I can talk about the ways in which I understand marginalization to function from my own standpoint and I welcome the opportunity to have frank and challenging discussions with others about their own situated knowledge. But do I make academic feminism? What would that mean, and what might that look like?

I remember the first time I heard Bikini Kill. I was in grade eight in North Carolina. My parents and I had taken a drive into Chapel Hill, which was about an hour and a half from where we had moved when we left Ottawa two years previous. Chapel Hill seemed to me a bastion of liberal- and counter-culture in what, to my fourteen-year-old self, felt like a completely alienating new space. I didn’t fit in my new school (though who knows if I would have in my old school in Ottawa either). What I did know, standing in the aisle of School Kids Records, was that I had to have the album that was playing. This singer’s voice sounded something like mine: a bit childish, a bit young. But holy hell could she ever scream! And she was swearing and yelling and talking about sexism and sexuality and violence and women. I worked up my nerve to ask the impossibly cool sales clerk what it was, I bought the album, and I wore it out. I had to listen to it with headphones on because my parents would have been appalled at the language. I didn’t care. Here was a band full of women only a few years older than me, and they were calling out everything that they knew was wrong. They were doing more than calling it out! They were naming it. Amazing. I aspire to such truth-telling, I decided. I aspire to tell it like it is and call injustice by its name.

Watching the trailer and remembering fourteen year-old me got me thinking about those promises to yell in the face of inequity and systematic as well as subjective injustice. I’m now six years in to precarious labour and I often wonder: how much of that do I really do? In addition to critiquing academic culture, how much academic feminist culture do I make? How much do we all make? And how much of our individual experiences get silenced, left unspoken, or rendered unspeakable?

You can read between the lines, of course. The answer is that while I am good at critiquing academic culture I am not certain I am so good at creating it. In great part this disconnect is systematic: I am careful about critiquing the very system I want to make room for me. My care–more accurately, my trepidation–is in service of trying to make myself appealing and necessary for the system. But here’s the kicker for me, the kick in the pants, the kick in the teeth: any activism is activism against and within an unjust system. I know all this. I know it mostly because of my training in the very system I critique.

So often these last few years I have found myself writing posts about the working conditions of the academy. These posts are necessary, they make room for additional conversations about working conditions. But how often — and how?! — am I making academic feminist culture? How much do we all make? And how much of our individual experiences get silenced, left unspoken, or rendered unspeakable?

change · emotional labour · risky writing

Ch-ch-ch-changes: Contract to Contract

I am moving.

More precisely, I am moving from Dalhousie University where I have been a contract employee for four years. On July 1 I will take up a 12-month contract position as an Assistant Professor in the English Department at Mount Allison University in beautiful Sackville, New Brunswick. 

I am thrilled about the move, thrilled about working in this new department, and beyond thrilled to make my new home in the centre of the universe (The Black Duck! Sappy Fest! Struts!) I am truly excited about the possibilities that await me there. For example, in terms of teaching responsibilities for the first time in the five years since completing my degree I will be teaching less than 200 students in a term (indeed, in the whole year). In terms of my personal and social life there is more happening in Sackville than almost any other place I have visited. And in terms of my research I am hoping that the additional time, the presence of such a rich intellectual and artistic community, and the smaller professor-to-student ratios will allow me to finish the two manuscripts that I have under contract as well.

At the same time, it feels risky to leave a place that I have lived, worked, and developed communities in for four of the last five years. I am not leaving for a tenure track job, if I was my decision to leave Dalhousie would have been far less emotionally challenging.

The other piece that feels risky is writing about my shift from one contract to another, from one university to another. Yet, I’m emboldened by two things. First, since beginning to write for Hook and Eye I have tried to talk frankly and publicly about my own experiences as a precarious worker. Second, the job I’ve been hired for is Canadian literature and gender and literature. As Heather has written, we need to continue talking about work and women. So here I am telling you: I’m excited about my new contract, my new colleagues, my new home, and all the incredible benefits to my personal life as well as my professional life. And here I am telling you that I am sad that the conditions in the academy are such that the kind of leave taking I’ve just experienced are more than common.

That’s the thing about contract work, though: in addition to the constant scramble for employment, you also have to think about those things that fuel your ability to work. In other words, you have to think about balance and those things that help you breathe.

So here’s to change. Sackville, I’m yours.
in the news · literature · righteous feminist anger · risky writing · sexist fail

The Finkbeiner Test and What We Say When We Talk About Dead Canadian Writers

By now, it seems that everyone has heard about the almost-laughably sexist New York Times obituary of aeronautical scientist Yvonne Brill. You know, the one that describes her beef stroganoff, her sacrifices for her husband’s career, and her childcare arrangements before it notes that “in the early 1970s [she] invented a propulsion system to help keep communications satellites from slipping out of their orbits.” Douglas Martin, the article’s author, notes that “the University of Manitoba in Canada refused to let her major in engineering because there were no accommodations for women at an outdoor engineering camp, which students were required to attend,” but instead of critiquing the gender bias that prevented Brill from becoming an engineer, uses this circumstance as evidence of her resiliency. Martin, and the newspaper, have been roundly criticized for the article’s sexism, and yet it has been only slightly edited since.

Critiques of Brill’s obituary and mentions of the Finkbeiner Test, designed to avoid gender profiles of female scientists, have started to go hand in hand. To pass the Finkbeiner Test and stand as a profile of a scientist, and not a profile of a woman scientist, the article cannot mention:

  1. The fact that she’s a woman
  2. Her husband’s job
  3. Her child-care arrangements
  4. How she nurtures her underlings
  5. How she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field
  6. How she’s such a role model for other women
  7. How she’s the “first woman to…

While the test was designed to assess writing about female scientists, it works just as well for writing about professional women in any field, particularly in those where men outnumber women and women are often held up as trailblazers for their gender. My dissertation work is currently about Canadian poet and academic Jay Macpherson, who died in March 2012. As Cameron Anstee notes, her death was almost entirely ignored by the Canadian literary community, except by people who knew her. When a long and praise-filled obituary appeared in The Globe and Mail, albeit nearly six months after Macpherson’s death, I was initially pleased that a major publication had even remembered her. Never mind that it seemingly should have been a given, considering that she was for many years the youngest Governor General’s Award winner for poetry and one of the few Canadian recipients of the prestigious Poetry [Chicago] Levinson Prize. (I later learned that Margaret Atwood, one of Macpherson’s closest and longest friends, convinced the newspaper to run the obituary). But my pleasure largely disappeared when I decided to apply the Finkbeiner Test.

The title of Sandra Martin’s piece was the first red flag: “The nurturing nature of Jay Macpherson.” No mention of her brilliant poetic mind, her many awards, or Martin’s own newspaper’s statement, back in 1957, that Macpherson was Canada’s “finest young poet.” Indeed, no mention of the fact that Macpherson was a poet at all. Despite Macpherson’s choice to remain unmarried and childless, Martin still manages to construct an image of her as maternal which trumps her professional identity, suggesting that her poetic output was small because “she was a ministering angel to waifs and strays, often to the detriment of her own work and health.” Point 4. on the Finkbeiner Test: fail. Points 1 and 7 are spectacular fails in the first paragraph: “After winning the Governor-General’s Literary award for The Boatman in 1957, Jay Macpherson was asked to give a talk about Canadian poetry at Hart House at the University of Toronto. The invitation, which marked the first time the all-male Hart House student union had invited a woman to address its members, provoked such a fuss that women were barred from attending Macpherson’s talk.” And while Macpherson didn’t have a husband to mention, Martin can’t help but credit Macpherson’s success as “a collegial and hard-working member of the Canadian poetic community” to her prominent male mentors: “It didn’t hurt that as a very young poet, she had already attracted the attention of three key mentors and literary scholars: George Johnston, Northrop Frye and Robert Graves.” Let’s consider that a fail on Point 2. Even Macpherson’s work as the founder and sole editor of Emblem Books, which published collections by major Canadian poets including Dorothy Livesay and Al Purdy that Anstee argues are “surely among the most beautiful produced in Canada in the 20th century,” is construed as an act of charity rather than of literary labour: “Macpherson put her meagre financial resources into publishing other poets.” I could go on, but I won’t. [Note 1]

In contrast, The Globe and Mail just published the obituary of Milton Wilson, who was one of Macpherson’s first publishers and reviewers, as well as one of her doctoral supervisors. Unlike the title of Macpherson’s obituary, Wilson’s foregrounds his professional accomplishment: “Romantic poetry expert Milton Wilson ‘a truly civilized man.'” The early paragraphs focus not on his gender, as they do in Macpherson’s, but on his accomplishments; his family life doesn’t come in until well toward the end, and his wife is described only as “attractive.” But what bothers me most is that one of the first things he is praised for is his non-sexist hiring practices: “He hired women at a time when that was a rarity. Jill Levenson, who recently retired as an English prof at Trinity, remembers her job interview in 1967 at which Prof. Wilson asked only gender-blind questions about her professional qualifications and nothing about her personal life.” I find this paragraph problematic for a few reasons. Firstly, I object to the way the author, Judy Stoffman, uses this instance of non-sexism to whitewash the blatant gender-bias he displays elsewhere; this is a snippet of his review of Macpherson’s The Boatman, which was considered by many the signal collection of the 1950s in Canada: “Her palace of art is distinctly feminine, … her apocalyptic imagery, pervasive as it is, remains gratuitous and decorative, [and] her Atlantis is a pink cloud, not a prophecy.” Secondly, I can’t imagine that a female professor would ever be praised for asking nothing about a candidate’s personal life. Thirdly, there’s the fact that a lack of sexism should be a baseline expectation of decent human behaviour, and therefore not worthy of praise, whether it’s 1967 or 2007. [Note 2] As Kelly Williams Brown argues on her cult blog Adulting: How to Become a Grown-up in 486 Easy(ish) Steps:

Step 277: Do not expect kudos for being decent

Let’s say you are a non-racist, thoughtful-to-LGBTQA folks, non-sexist, bill-paying-on-time, recycling-sorting, never-kicks-puppies kind of person: To you I say, and mean it, congratulations. That is awesome. Take a second and feel nice about yourself. All done? Good. Because those are not things that make you worthy of praise. That shit is standard. Do not expect others to pat you on the back for a lack of assholishness. Pat yourself, and others, on the back when it is merited.

If there’s to be a test for profiles about men like the Finkbeiner Test, it needs to contain the rule that it must not include “How he didn’t discriminate against people with less power and social currency than himself.” As Brown says, “That shit is standard.”

I’m angry a lot about the state of CanLit, and the state of writing in general. There’s lots to get mad about: Brill’s obituary, Deborah Copaken Kogan’s stunning account of the sexism she’s faced as an author and war-photographer, the disparity between what we say when we talk about dead Canadian writers if they’re male or if they’re female. But there’s some to get excited about too: despite the fact that I can predict with near 100 per cent certainty that CWILA‘s national survey of book reviews–now underway, if you want to volunteer–will again reveal that women are seriously underrepresented as both reviewers and the reviewed, at least someone’s doing the counting. Hopefully the numbers will look better than last year:

And at least Brill’s obituary now lists “rocket scientist” before “beef stroganoff.”

What gets you mad about issues of gender in CanLit, or in the arts more generally? What gives you hope? 

***
Note 1: Sandra Martin’s piece is otherwise well-written, accurate, and positive; she’s also been generous with her time and knowledge in helping me with my own work, for which I’m grateful. I also don’t mean to suggest that her gender-bias is intentional; these sorts of gender profiles are far from rare in the genre, and we need things like the Finkbeiner test to alert us to our own blind spots as readers and writers.

Note 2: It pains me to note that when I raised my issues with a male colleague, I received a brisk dismissal; he did, however, later concede that he understood my point. I read his gaslighting, which I’m sure was unintentional, as a symptom of the normalcy of casual gender-bias. 

faculty evaluation · global academy · reform · research · risky writing · turgid institution

Scholarly Publishing is Broken

Scholarly publishing is broken–at least journal publishing, and at least in my experience–and I don’t want to be complicit in this brokenness anymore, just because it serves some of my purposes, some of the time.

Most loftily, we scholars imagine that we are creating new knowledge, and that new knowledge is a good thing, that it can move our collective human project forward, in some small way. It gets moved only once this new knowledge is publicized. Hence, scholarly publishing.

Much less loftily, scholarship is a kind of labour that we exchange for tokens of esteem, power, and reputation, the currency of the academy. The recognized coin of this realm is peer-reviewed, published pages. Hence, scholarly publishing.

I know that I want to create new knowledge, and change the world! And if I can get a full professorship into the bargain, as well as win the disciplinary and institutional pissing contests by which goods are allotted within the Ivory Tower, well, all the better.

These goals can conflict.

And so it is that I find myself in the weird position of having an article scheduled to appear in Women Communication Scholarship (pseudonym) and am ambivalent, even angry, about it. My little story indicates at least one small way that scholarly publication is broken, and how some of it is our own damn fault. Is my fault.

What’s making me angry is that I submitted to this journal because of its high reputation, its high rejection rate, its mass adoption by academic libraries … and it turns out that they have a standing two year delay on publication. Let me be perfectly clear: once you go through the whole year of being reviewed and re-reviewed and your piece is accepted, your publication date will be TWO FURTHER YEARS IN THE FUTURE. I expressed some shock to the editor when she sent me my August 2014 publication date, in April 2012. She is shocked, too, having witnessed the creeping commercialization of this work over a generation of editorship. But this delay is their new standard. They have a perpetual backlog of submissions and accepted papers, because of their impact, and because they are published by a commercial publisher, who will not let them clear this out with some double print issues, they will have a TWO YEAR DELAY FOR THE REST OF THE WORLD.

Now, I work in new media. My article will be about three years old when it finally appears. Older, actually, because it’s based on a survey that took some time to complete. It will be historical by the time it appears. It’s going to be out of the page proofs stage by Labour day of this year, then SIT IN A DIGITAL DRAWER FOR TWO MORE YEARS before it gets printed. As the bemused editor wrote to me, the brave new world of academic editing of commercially-published journals “both requires that we publish scholarship and that we don’t publish scholarship.”

This seems really, really wrong.

I consulted Twitter. My friends and colleagues in digital humanities were appalled. Some suggested pulling the article and submitting it somewhere with a faster turnaround. Some suggested back-door self-publishing–that is, use the citation information from the “forthcoming” journal and put the paper online somewhere so people could read it before it becomes irrelevant. I like this idea of guerrilla self-publishing.

I consulted my chair, who consulted my dean. They, by contrast, congratulated me on having my work “appear” in such a high profile venue, and told me to leave it there. I should not retract the article to publish it elsewhere with a lower impact factor, just to get it into readers’ hands. I could put it on my CV, they said, and it would “count” this year. So I will get a raise for heaving my work into a deep well. I must confess I like this idea, too, of appearing successful and important among my peers, and getting a raise, to boot.

To summarize: I get lots of chest-beating institutional credit for this “publication.” But no one actually gets to read my scholarship. It all leaves a very bad taste in my mouth.

This current publishing system is broken. It pits our desires for reputation and stature against a true public good, and removes the whole thing from academic hands to place it into commercial ones who have been quite canny at exploiting our desires for status and our lack of desire for detail work in marketing, bean counting, and publication.

As for me, I’m leaving the article where it is: this is the third journal I’ve submitted it to (it’s interdisciplinary and I have had the misfortune of getting one glowing and one damning review every where else it’s travelled) and I really want this work stamped with approval and circulating, however distant the future in which that happens. As a compromise between my ambitions and my scruples, I asked the editor if I could put a “pre-print” online, and she said it’s technically not allowed but that she understands, informally, that many other people do it. Nudge-nudge, wink-wink.

I ask you: if an article falls into the Taylor and Francis journal system and no one gets to read it, is any new knowledge created? If we’re all circulating these papers “pre-print” why are we bothering with these commercial publications at all, except for personal professional gain? And what should we do?

balance · enter the confessional · risky writing · writing

Booking

This weekend I had the opportunity to catch up with a dear friend who is an academic in my field. We had many things to talk about, but as it so often does the conversation inevitably turned to the profession. We are both in the early stages of our careers, my friend and I, and while my friend is on the tenure track and I am not, the stakes are relatively similar: publish publish publish! We spent a good deal of the evening discussing whether or not we would convert our dissertations into book publications. 
If you had asked me five years ago what I would do with my dissertation when I finished, my answer would have inevitably been ‘publish it!’ Indeed, I suspect that the majority of people moving through humanities PhDs are doing so with that advice in mind. What happens if the dissertation doesn’t become a book?

Four years ago this May I completed my PhD. It was momentous, certainly, but it was neither the best nor the most memorable day of my life. I was proud of my accomplishments, I was nervous and excited about the future, but mostly I was simply exhausted. Four years have passed, and I have not yet turned my dissertation into a book. I have published, yes, and I have been (very) busy with teaching, research, and service. However, this unpublished dissertation is both a source of shame and a site of extremely conflicted and confusing feelings for me. Given my propensity to mark time and my attempts to recognize my own emotional/professional patterns, I figure there is no time like the present to bring this conversation out of my head and onto the Net. 

Completing one’s degree is not unlike moving into a new phase of a serious relationship, I think. Indeed, the completion of my own PhD coincided with the end of my relationship with my then-partner who was also a PhD student in the same department. This was traumatic, to be sure, but though many of Gwendolyn Beetham‘s statements about her own trouble returning to the dissertation ring true for me, I don’t think my own reluctance to return and revise stems from the same place (it certainly is reassuring to hear someone else think through these issues though!) After the dust of the defense settled I went through the steps to publish my dissertation. I contacted a Big University Press, sent in a proposal and a revised manuscript and then stopped thinking about it entirely. I heard from the Big University Press about a year and a half later: the manuscript had been sent out and unfavourably reviewed by two reviewers (one advised heavy revision, the other advised that the thing should be burned) and so the editor did not feel as though the time was right to go forward with the project. Needless to say, I was devastated. Garments were rend, teeth were gnashed, wine was drunk, tears were shed. There was some yelling, and there was despair. I shelved the thing and did not look at it again for a year. I thought dramatically that there was no point. My career, I decided, was over before it begun.
Happily, I have a few mentors in my life who know how to walk that line between caring benefactor and cold authoritarian. ‘Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and do not tell me that this one bump in the road is enough to derail you,’ wrote one. And so, I did. I have published at least an article a year since my defense, and I am working on a new book project. It is slow going for all of the obvious reasons, first among which is time. But every now and then I look over to my bookshelf and wonder about my dissertation. Should I try to do something more with it? 
If you were to Google ‘dissertation to book’ one of the first articles to pop up is this one from the Chronicle of Higher Education. Leonard Cassuto’s article brings together advice from publishers as well as professors. The advice centres mostly around the perils of putting your dissertation online with ProQuest. Kathryn Hume offers similar cautions. While both of these articles are incredibly interesting, informative, and a little nerve-wracking they both focus heavily on the assumption that one will publish the dissertation as a book. Ultimately, it was Jo VanEvery’s advice that came closest to answering my seemingly inarticulable questions.  She suggests that while there are compelling and indeed career-mobilizing reasons for publishing your dissertation, you may not necessarily choose the manuscript as the ideal format. VanEvery notes that the dissertation is a “particular kind of document” whose primary purpose is to fulfill the requirements of the degree. Most importantly for me, she underscore the necessity of moving forward. 
I may return to the dissertation and heavily revise it. That said, I am really jazzed about the new manuscript project I have begun, so perhaps I’ll only pull a few more articles out of the thing. I am not sure. One thing I do know, however, is that moving forward is essential. 
What about y’all? Did you/will you publish your dissertation as a book?