The semester began with the shadow of a threat. Under the username “Kill Feminists,” comments were made on a blogTO comments thread (now deleted), and captured by a reddit forum.
Do my feminist friends and colleagues at the U of T feel better about going to work now? Does a discredited threat neutralize the bad affects of the threat itself?
I’ve been thinking about these questions and about the shadows that fell on my first September as a professor way back in 2004. It was my first real job and I felt enormously lucky and privileged to have it. I still do. One of my courses was a large lecture course. There were about 150 students enrolled in it. To be honest, the whole thing was terrifying. I had all the usual fears about screwing up. As everyone who has ever been in front of a classroom will recognize, teaching, in the best of circumstances, is its own exercise in vulnerability. It was, after all, just me up there. But then the terror ramped up to a whole new level.
I started receiving emails sent from an anonymous hotmail account. The writer identified himself as a student in my class. He told me that he knew where I lived, where I bought groceries, the route I took to get to campus. He said other things but I don’t remember them anymore. I think I tried to forget them. I only remember being scared.
I took these emails to the chair of my department who told me to take them to campus security. We never talked about this issue again. I wonder now if I really seemed that brave to him? I must have because he certainly never followed up. And I didn’t want to be the new girl making trouble and not getting along in her new courses.
I went to campus security. They told me that the only way to do anything about these emails was to report them to the police and to open an investigation. I don’t remember precisely how this conversation went, but I remember feeling as though it would be such a huge drag to go to the police. That it probably wouldn’t be worth my time. Or that tracking this guy down was such a huge, insurmountable problem. I don’t believe that this is what campus security necessarily meant for me to think, but the result of that conversation really was that
I left knowing that they could not help me.
I called the phone company and told them that I no longer wanted my number to be public. I was mad that I would have to pay $4.95 a month for that privilege.
I considered doing other things, but they felt futile and silly. And that was a big problem. I felt dumb for even feeling scared. The whole thing felt weirdly embarrassing. I’m pretty sure that, aside from the department chair and campus security, I didn’t talk about these emails with anyone else.
The worst part was walking into that lecture hall twice a week, looking out at the sea of faces, and knowing that someone out there was going to leave class and send me another abhorrent email.
It was just me up there.
I would like to say that there was some kind of lightening clear resolution. But there wasn’t. I kept showing up. I kept trying not to be scared. One day, the emails stopped.
It was just me up there.
And I’m sure I am not alone in this.
The problem with threats is that they remain threatening long after other people tell us that we don’t have to be scared. They cast a long shadow. They leave us feeling vulnerable long after they have been declared to be nothing more than shadows.
We remember that it is okay to not be okay.
Or, as Sara Ahmed tells us about feminist hurt, “We are not over it; it is not over.”
I don’t want to feel vulnerable. But, as Wendy Chun reminds us, “we’re most vulnerable because we think we’re safe.” Chun refers to how the internet can become a series of gated communities where portals enclose us in seemingly private spaces. As Chun noted in her ACCUTE keynote address this past May, we shouldn’t conflateprivacy with security. I have no desire to live in a home where the window screens are outfitted with trip wires, and where the house keys are attached to a “panic button” that I am encouraged to keep next to the bed. That is also not how I want to live on-line, and not how I want to feel on campus.
I don’t want to feel vulnerable, but I also don’t want to be locked down against students, against the possibilities that feminist hurt allows. I’m not kidding myself. This is not a good place. Wouldn’t it be nice if it were not the case that the histories that bring us to feminism are often histories that leave us fragile? But it is the place where we are and we are going to make something good out of these vulnerabilities. It is okay and not okay.
It’s mid-semester. We’re all a little tired, cold, and overworked. Today, as I race against yet another dissertation deadline and feverishly inscribe as many mid-semester tasks as possible into my dayplanner, I want to take a moment and remind us all to……:
I used to be such a daydreamer, and those moments of thinking and reflecting and just sitting on the couch, staring into space, or going for long walks in the neighborhood, allowed my mind to wander and explore in a way that is becoming increasingly unavailable now that I’m constantly scrolling through my iPhone, oh that accursed piece of wondrous technology.
The Bored and Brilliant project begun by New Tech City has been asking listeners to think hard about our relationship to our devices, now that 58% of American adults own a smartphone. Our smartphones make us connected and entertained, NTC observes, but also dependent and addicted. (I write this as someone who has, on multiple occasions, worried that probably this person is really very angry with me–or, worse, annoyed or indifferent–because he/she has not responded to my text from three hours ago. AND I SAW THE BUBBLES.) At the risk of sounding like a crotchety luddite, I’d suggest that in this digital world, we are losing the capability of being idle; and “idle minds lead to reflective, creative thoughts,” according to this project and the research behind it. How often, during a spare moment, do you fill your mental space by grabbing your phone and scrolling through Facebook or Twitter? When was the last time you let your mind wander? When was the last time you got lost in a work of art, or just freewrote for a few minutes–about anything? Or just sat with your eyes closed, headphones in? (Spotify has some great mood playlists; I’m partial to “Deep Focus”).
I want to emphasize that I’m not advocating for slowing down primarily because it will, ultimately, increase your productivity when you speed up again. Such mentality feeds into a neoliberal need to produce, and to serve the all-consuming academic system to which we are
hopelessly bound. You should slow down for you, because you are awesome and have cool, creative, independent thoughts that don’t always need to overlap with academia or the primary work you do. Because “academic” is not the sum-total of your identity. Because this is not about productivity, this is about self-care.
Related to the power of boredom is the “power of patience” (article of the same title here), and decelerating can constitute part of our classroom practices as well. Harvard art historian Jennifer L. Roberts believes that educators should “take a more active role in shaping the temporal experiences” of students, learning to guide practices of “deceleration, patience, and immersive attention.”* Exercises that require students to slow down, to meditate on the material at-hand and allow it to open up to them in its singularity, counter that which in the eyes of some critics has become a modern impulse toward distraction, shallow reflection, and superficial thinking. Roberts in particular requires her students to position themselves in a museum and gaze at a work of art for a veeery long period of time (though I have to say that three hours seems a little excessive…), reflecting on their experience afterwards. Colleagues of mine have had success with this exercise, and I look forward to trying it with my students in March. Do you have any other thoughts on how to guide the temporal experiences of our students, and encourage them to practice creative idleness?
So, feminist friends, let this be a reminder to you to slow down today, even just for 10 minutes. And the night-owl in me is going to practice what I’m preaching right this moment and head to bed.
*For this article, as well as the “slow looking” exercise that accompanies it, I am thoroughly indebted to Julie Orlemanski; thanks, Julie, for a particularly generative–and generous–Facebook post!