accomodation · administration · bad academics · race · slow academy · solidarity · structural solutions · turgid institution

Accomodation: Where We Waver

The Toronto Star reported the story late last week: in the fall term, Sociology professor Paul Grayson received a request for religious accomodation from a student in an online course. The student, referencing an unspecified religious tradition, expressed an unwillingness to do the one (collaborative) on-campus exercise where he would be placed in a group of other students, if that group included women. He asked to be allowed an alternative assignment. Grayson’s impulse was to say ‘no’, on the basis of gender equality. Sensing that this was likely to be a controversial request and decision, he forwarded it up the chain to his dean, and the dean to the in-house human rights committee.

Amazingly, the dean of arts, Martin Singer, while expressing “unwavering commitment to gender equality and sincere regret,” claims to have had “no choice” but to grant the accomodation, as reported in the Globe and Mail. York President Mamdouh Shoukri released a statement on the matter as well, after the matter drew public comment from Conservative MP Peter McKay, Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair of the NDP, and Liberal MPP and Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities Brad Duguid. Shoukri is struck by the “complexities” of such requests while asserting that “We must always safeguard rights such as gender equality, academic freedom and freedom of expression, which form the foundation of any secular post-secondary institution.”

Marina Nemat, an author and educator who fled Iran for Canada because her defense of women’s rights put her in danger, discusses the York issue in an op-ed entitled “I expected this back in Iran, not at York University.” Sheema Khan, a regular columnist at the Globe who served as chair of the Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations in the early 2000s is similarly clear in her dismissal of the York decision, in a piece entitled “What York University Forgot: Gender Equality is Not Negotiable.”

I wanted to flag this controversy here, as well as the particular issues that resonate with me.

First, this is a case study in intersectionality and its supposed discontents. It comes out more like helpless postmodern relativism rather than a clear-eyed balancing of the needs of a diverse population. York’s administrators see competing but somehow equal interests here: various “minority” viewpoint that require “accomodation.” There seems to be as much risk-aversion as ignorance involved. Remember, the student’s particular religious requirements are unknown: it is not allowed to ask a student to identify his or her religion, so the request for accomodation remains vague. Grayson, unsure what to do, consulted researchers at York who worked on both Muslim and Orthodox Jewish questions of faith and practice, trying to guess at the student’s religion from his (redacted) last name: neither scholar could think of any doctrinal or scriptural basis for granting such a request.

York administrators seem to have consulted case law. They are acting in ignorance and fear, which is hardly the point of accomodation. A truly accepting and open (secular) institution could respect and understand its students, all of its students. This legislated accomodation seems more a knee-jerk lawsuit avoiding strategey–particularly since one of the reasons stated for granting it was that a student studying overseas was allowed to opt-out of the on-campus group work. Um, what?

Second, it seems pretty clear that Dean Singer’s commitment to gender equality is not at all unwavering. It wavered, and collapsed, at the very first challenge. If Singer imagines that the accomodation granted is not a significant erosion of women’s rights on campus he seems beyond help. I probably needn’t paint this picture in terrible detail for you: you live it. Women are tainted. Women are to be avoided. Women are a sinful distraction. Riiiiiiiight. How on earth can anyone not see this as an existential threat to women’s right to full participation in public life?

Third, there’s a kind of accomodation poker being played here, with the variously marginalized equity-seeking groups (women! “blacks”! “muslims”!) are each invoked to raise the stakes in the rhetorical game of chicken everyone is playing. The game goes something like this: the student doesn’t want to work with women … but what if it was blacks he requested to be apart from? What then? Or, religious accomodation is very important, but think of the women! Whose rights are paramount to us (this from the Conservative MPs). This game is disingenous. In human rights trump card bingo, only one player out of the marginalized participants can win a zero sum game whose moves are made by the powerful. In many comments I’m reading a strategic defense of women’s rights to demonize “Muslims” and their “beliefs” that makes me profoundly uncomfortable. I’m scare-quoting because, remember, we don’t know what the student’s religion is, or what beliefs the proposed group work contravenes. This rhetorical game pits every one against each other and when the powerful then throw up their hands in the face of its (rigged) unwinnable nature, they even try to accrue bonus points for caring so much to balance rights. Bullshit. You might have heard something about why we are constantly at war with religiously-defined organizations in various parts of Asia; they want to trample women’s rights, you know. The about face is stunning: both word-games are at least as dangerous as they are disingenous.

Fourth, this controversy points up the massive scale of my own ignorance. I know a fair bit about women’s rights. I know something about trauma, about mental health, about medical accomodation. I know very, very little at all about religions other than the one I was raised in. This is shameful. I’m trying to learn more about different faith traditions, different sacred days and sacred practices. Because if as student made a similar accomodation request from me, I might not be able to accurately assess it. Which makes me more like a York administrator than the intersectional feminist I aspire to be. Alas.

You know what? Grayson told the student his request was unreasonable. The student thanked him for his consideration of the request, and consented to participate, understanding the competing interests at play. There’s a lesson in that human-scale interaction, I think.

classrooms · community · fast feminism · slow academy

New Year, Old Work: Some thoughts on the long game

January. For many people working in academia this month is the second opportunity to assess where one is, where one wants to be, and perhaps to think about how one might get from here to there. January is often a month of resolve: less of this, more of that. In previous years we have reflected on personal goals and professional aspirations. Last year, after a particularly formative December, I wrote about my resolve to see women. Rather than seek some new resolution I want to reaffirm and recommit myself to a version of that resolution I made a year ago.

December 2012 brought acts of national and international public activism that were flash-mobbing the country. Idle No More instigated actions, moments of solidarity, resistance, and possibility for a more just and sustainable future. It was a vital moment, and it was a moment in a long history of Indigenous resistance and activism in the midst of a country that still refuses to take responsibility for its colonial history. One of the crucial lessons I learned working with students, community members, and colleagues in the past year is that tenacity and resolve are fundamental to long-term change. Long after the media has turned to some new story the work continues.

For me, December 2013 brought another kind of reminder of the tenacity needed for the long game; of fundamental and deep changes that are needed in the fight for social justice. I was reminded in a much less public way of the necessity of seeing women. Discussions and arguments about gender and literary culture in Canada didn’t sweep the front pages of news media this winter, and they shouldn’t have. Not in the way that the work of Idle No More did. But reflecting on some of the events of this December and last December I am reminded of the resolve, dedication, and relentless actions big and small that are required of us if we are truly going to change this world.

Of course — and relatedly — January for me also means the beginning of a new semester. More so than ever I begin this new semester with the acute awareness that it may be my last one teaching for a while or, possibly, forever. Never mind the hysterics, this is realism: each month I watch more brilliant peers choose to leave this profession because there is no room for them in it. Their choices are sometimes deliberate and conscious, and they are sometimes simply choices that are made for them by outside forces. One of these days I will choose too, or the choice will be made for me when the work simply dries up. I used to be of the (narrow) mind that the pedagogical work I have been trained to do only functions in a classroom space. How wrong I am. Knowledge isn’t only made in a classroom, not by a long shot. It is passed down through conversations with elders and mentors. It grows through connections with people, with place, with land. In Canada the classroom is but one recent and all too often myopic space that is inflected with its long history of colonial imperatives, but it doesn’t have to be. It isn’t always. It is also a space for radical generosity and difficult urgent work. I resolve to continue learning.

I was also wrong in my former thinking that the professor is the conduit of knowledge. I forgot that a conduit is a container and that energy, or water, or knowledge can flow different ways. So this year as I finish my syllabi I have added a new component for myself and my students. I have the rare opportunity to collaborate on a syllabus with one of my colleagues and I have borrowed his template for an Academic Contract. The premise is simple and timely: both teacher and students write short resolutions to dedicate themselves to the necessary work of critical thinking in the service of intellectual freedom.

 As I walk into a classroom tomorrow, meet a new group of students, and work through the scope of the classes we’ll be experiencing together, I will also offer them my resolve to do the hard, vital work of critical pedagogy inside the classroom and outside it as well.

fast feminism · slow academy

Reflections On Risk and “Running with the Pack”

There is a certain exhaustion that comes with teaching within a field. As a scholar trained in the field of Canadian literature I periodically find myself tired of the eternal return to the question “what makes it Canadian?” But that exhaustion is soon replaced with a redoubled sense of urgency and resolve. If students are coming into university classrooms asking these same questions year after year then this becomes an opportunity to unpack assumptions, address stereotypes, and support new critically engaged writers. That same exhaustion that comes from consistently returning to the same question ceases to be as edifying and refreshing when it happens outside the classroom and instead occurs amongst peers.
This fall has proved once again that the questions “why does gender matter?” and “why does feminist epistemology matter?” have to be answered yet again. Indeed, it would seem that those questions, which are so often rooted in the ways that narrative and discourse have been harnessed to produce particular and partial representations of the nation, have to be addressed yet again within the field of Canadian literary production.
Events in the last few months would suggest that a persistent issue with literary critical culture in Canada is at best a serious myopia and at worst misogyny. I am of course referring to David Gilmour’s statement that he “doesn’t love women writers enough to teach them,” and that he “only teaches serious heterosexual guys.” I am also referring to Tim Bowling’s recent interview with poet and critic Carmine Starnino in CV2 in which Starnino refers to the work undertaken by CWILA (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts) as not the “real work” that literary culture needs, but rather merely an “annual ‘count’” that produces “panicky responses.” Each of these statements betrays fundamentally gendered and dismissive language, yes. And gender discrimination—not to mention discrimination at the level of race and class—are systematic and entrenched inequities in Canada, not just Canadian literary production. Both Starnino’s and Gilmour’s claims reveal how very much work there is yet to do. My fundamental concern here is neither Starnino nor Gilmour per se, but they provide useful and recent examples of what does concern me. In what follows I focus first on Gilmour’s statements, then Starnino’s in order to unpack and address the larger structural inequities and misogyny their statements represent.
I’ll start with Gilmour, because his statements went viral to a degree that I suspect Starnino’s will not. The fact that Gilmour’s statements went viral matters because the comments sparked a revitalized debate about misogyny in Canadian literary culture. It also matters that Starnino’s statements were made after the Gilmour debacle. Gilmour’s remarks were offensive on a number of levels. First, I find it deeply concerning that a professor—with all the rights and privileges that come with that position—sees no misogyny, racism, or homophobia in his statements. Gilmour’s remarks about not teaching literature by women, people of colour, or queer people (which he suggests slantwise when he says he prefers to teach “serious heterosexual guys”) reveal his own fundamental discrimination. It would be one thing if he only revealed his own biases and prejudices, but when you are granted the privilege and opportunity to teach students at a public institution you have a responsibility to act in an ethical, critically engaged manner. Imagine what it must feel like to be a woman, person of colour, or queer person in one of Gilmour’s classes. What is specifically upsetting and perniciously damaging about Gilmour’s blithe remarks is that they reveal the ongoing presence of misogyny, racism, and homophobia in our culture right now.
I am a board member for Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA). It is a non-profit organization that seeks to promote and help enact equity in Canadian literary culture. CWILA has proved two years in a row now that gender discrimination exists in at least one key arena of Canadian literary culture. What we have learned through the process of enacting The Count (a census of thousands of literary reviews in Canada, that census which Starnino suggests is “not the real work”) is that it is extremely difficult to quantify “sexism” “racism” and “homophobia” in how people choose to review literature and whose texts they choose to review. Gilmour’s comments deriding the work of women writers, writers of colour, queer writers, and indeed any writer who is Canadian doesn’t undermine CWILA’s work, it validates it! One of the reasons we at CWILA feel that Gilmour’s remarks have gone viral is that they make explicitly concrete the sexism, racism, and homophobia that exists in otherwise nuanced and abstract ways.
Indeed, I for one am glad that Gilmour made his remarks in such a public forum, because while they are hardly isolated in their myopia they served to remind us what kind of vigilant action is required. Action is being taken in response to Gilmour’s remarks. I see action in response to Gilmour’s statements happening in two interconnected ways: First, his comments have incited a positive internet backlash that is generating crucial conversations around critical pedagogy, sexism, racism, and homophobia in the classroom. People are talking about what kind of damages are wrought when critical practice is not brought to bear on the creation of a syllabus.
The second way action is being taken is a bit more complicated and might tell us more about the culture of inequity in which we live: Gilmour has received primetime space on television and in all kinds of news media—not to mention blogs and Twitter. Indeed, that platforms like Sun Media are now interested in hearing from CWILA is a by-product of the complicated ways in which privilege works. Sun Media contacted us because of what a privileged, white, male ‘professor’ at the University of Toronto said to a reporter he denigrates as being “a young woman looking to make a name for herself.”[i]So the media’s reaction to Gilmour—especially those media sites that have gone to Gilmour to give him more space to speak—are functionally validating his position that the only voices worth listening to are “serious heterosexual guys.” Ultimately, I am not interested in whether or not Gilmour shifts his rhetoric. I am interested in what the larger Canadian culture decides to learn from another example of misogyny.
Gilmour’s statements around only teaching what he loves are offered as an explanation for the narrowness of his syllabus. His comments that suggest professors should not be made to teach outside their areas of expertise to satisfy “political correctness” make me deeply uncomfortable. Of course, I am a woman who teaches Canadian literature, writing by queer writers, and writing by people of colour. But what genuinely concerns me about Gilmour’s statement here is that it suggests that professors should only teach what they know, and what they recognize. We are literature professors who operate in the Humanities, he and I. And the Humanities are an unfinished project. This is what I mean: in their classical iteration the Humanities were conceived as enriching human existence. Similarly, in its most basic iteration the Enlightenment cast Humanity in the realm of the possible: if only humans worked hard enough to broaden their minds, strengthen their bodies, and exercise their imaginations, then the possible was infinite. The concomitant problem with this aspiration was definitional but real: who or what is human? Who makes the decisions regarding access to knowledge production? Who decides what kinds of knowledges areknowledges as such? Find the answer to those questions and you’ve come to the answer of why Gilmour’s statements are so problematic.
The definition of who and what counts has never been as open within the Humanities as it could be, and thus those of us who fall on the outside of the definition in practice, if not in theory, come from long and varied histories of working outside the dominate sphere of legibility. To my mind then, Gilmour’s comments underscore a particular type of myopia: an inability to see beyond one’s own privilege.
How does Gilmour’s rather blatant misogyny help us think through the more pernicious gendered iterations of Canadian literary culture? How can the statements of an individual serve as a means of addressing pernicious and systematic discrimination in the field of Canadian literature?
Specifically, how might the “Gilmour affair” help us read Carmine Starnino’s recent comments on Canadian poetics as indicative of larger structural inequities and not simply as a smug diagnosis of gendered representation in the Canadian literary scene? What can we learn from Carmine Starnino’s positioning of himself as a writer, reviewer, and public intellectual? In his interview with Tim Bowling in CV2 Starnino recounts his difficulty in finding female reviewers. “I cajoled, wooed, flattered,” he writes. While some “didn’t see themselves as qualified” others “the majority… believed they were too opinionated to survive the experience.” Furthermore, he closes by suggesting that websites such as Sina Queyras’s Lemon Hound have been successful because “female contributors feel like they’re part of a pack, like they have cover.” Starnino’s point is two-pronged. On the surface he posits that women need strength in numbers and that sites like Lemon Hound facilitate that numerousness. But look closely: when does one need cover? When you’re already under fire. There is an implicit acknowledgement that women who take up public space in the Canadian literary scene are always-already at war. Further, by utilizing “pack,” especially in reference to a site with “hound” in its name, Starnino elides women with animals rather than with a literary school or coterie. Women are under siege and they’re just a pack of bitches.
A few things are happening here, and they all hinge around damaging myopias in Canadian literary culture. Let’s table for a moment his own privilege as a white male critic in Canada and focus instead on the poet-critic’s use of language. Indeed, let’s start with that term poet-critic. Typically, the term refers to a poet who is also a critic rather than, say, the relationship between a poet and a critic. In other words, a poet-critic is someone whose authority as a commentator is rooted in a very particular subjectivity. The poet-critic works from a position of both privilege and risk as someone who both creates and critiques. The privilege here is much different than Gilmour’s; here, privilege comes from the implicit suggestion that writing poetry makes one an authoritative critic. I am not particularly interested in considering the potential issues of this assumption. Rather, I want simply to point these additional issues out. What interests me is the risk of this subject position: the poet-critic risks myopia when he or she rejects a broad readerly audience and speaks only to a narrow coterie. I am not a poet-critic. I am a critic and teacher who works in a university setting and who writes literary criticism that is typically about gender, poetry, and poetics in Canada. When I write literary criticism it is true that I often write for a specific audience. That audience is generally a literary one, but it is also, always, with a pedagogical purpose in mind. My work is grounded in the fundamental belief in the necessity of critical pedagogy for the creation of a sustainable future audience. Thus, when I write, my critique, my explication, my contextualization is aimed at building discourse, or at least providing the information for future discourse. As an educator my responsibility is to a current and future public. I work with students, yes, and I write towards an academic and non-academic public. I am not a part of a group, a school, a circle, or a movement of writers. Or at least not in the same way a poet-critic may be. What Starnino’s rhetoric first underscores is not only a divide between critical practices in Canada, it also points to a question of naming: when is a group of like-minded or similarly-politicked, or aesthetically-conversant people a “school,” “circle,” or a “movement,” and when is it just “a pack”? In short, there are structural differences in Canadian literary culture—especially at the level of where criticism happens—that might begin to explain limiting blind spots that curtail the development of a flourishing critical literary discourse. Indeed, we cannot assume that there are not deeply ideological underpinnings inherent in the very forums in which we want to practice our criticism.
However, these structural differences do not go far enough here to explain the degree of gendered violence inherent in some of the language used by both Starnino and Gilmour. How should we read Starnino’s dismissal of a national organization (which is only in its second full year) as the “they” to his “we” in the following exchange?
                       TB: What do you feel about CWILA [Canadian Women in the Literary Arts?]
CS: They’ve done a lot of good – and the numbers (both for books reviewed by women, and reviews of books by women) appear to be on the rise this year. They should feel proud to have played a role in that. But, for me, the real work is much larger than an annual “count” and the panicky responses around it. We need to embolden young women.
Here, Starnino implies another gendered division between serious critics, not-yet-serious critics who are still too “young” to be serious critics, and people involved with CWILA. It takes neither a literary critic nor a language-attentive poet to identify “us” versus “them.” Echoing his earlier use of gendered language in his description of “cajol[ing], woo[ing], and flatter[ing]” would-be female reviewers (are they the “young women” he suggests need emboldening? Is that how he imagines emboldening? Is this the same “young woman” Gilmore suggests was just “looking to make a name for herself”), Starnino makes clear his derision for CWILA’s work and the feminized responses it apparently produces. Moreover, the implication of Gilmour’s and Starnino’s emphases on youth suggests that young women are the only women who are worthy of “emboldening.” Feminism 101 teaches us that misogyny, like homophobia, racism, and other forms of inequity, is structuralin its form and function. It affects everyone—young, old, in-between—albeit in differing ways. What is more, the statement that CWILA “should feel” rather than be  “proud” underscores the paternalism of these remarks.  Given that poetry is at its most basic an attentiveness to language and given that Starnino is an advocate for precise language, it seems impossible that he is unaware of the tenor of his diction. While these statements are troubling on their own, when taken alongside some of his other writing directed at CWILA – and especially the writer Jan Zwicky – another troubling trend emerges, albeit banal in its eternal return.
In a 2012 post entitled “Cue the Violins, Folks” Starnino writes that “Michael Lista speaks truth to stupidity.” He’s referring here to a very public exchange that emerged between Zwicky and Lista shortly after CWILA republished Zwicky’s essay “The Ethics of the Negative Review.” Briefly, Zwicky argues that the ethical role of the critic is to engage with the work itself rather than engage in evaluative criticism. Lista’s lengthy response can be found online, as can Zwicky’s rebuttal and a host of revealing commentary. What troubles me is not the charged discussion that emerged but rather the ways in which that discussion was so deeply and perniciously gendered. Under an excerpt of Lista’s response Starnino writes, “I’m not sure what good Lista’s riposte will do. Zach Wells tried to knock some sense into Zwicky’s essay when it first appeared. And I did my damnedest in my introduction to A Lover’s Quarrel.” Knock some sense? Really? And what, then, do we make of Zach Wells’s attempt to “knock some sense” into Zwicky’s article if we then turn to his 2009 post “CITRIC BITCH’S THINKING IS SHIT”? In this post Wells clearly references writer, critic, and teacher Sina Queyras’s Lemon Hound, a site that was Queyras’s own literary blog in 2009, but has now evolved into a multi-authored literary quarterly, aka the pack. Here’s an excerpt:
                     Citric bitch thinks: “Litcrit is sick—I’ll fix it!’
                     Sic ‘im, citric bitch, sic’im!
                     Citric bitch is yipping.
                     Citric bitch is griping.
                     Drink piss, dimwit citric bitch,
                     Kiss this critic’s nightstick!
Unlike, for example, F.R. Scott’s “All Spikes But the Last” which clearly calls out E.J. Pratt in an attempt to correct his racial myopia in “Towards the Last Spike,” this is hardly poetic innovation in the service of critiquing myopic literary production (especially given the odd inhabitation—mocking? Or flattering?—of the identical poetic constraints used by Christian Bok in Eunoia). Indeed, I am hardly the first to address this poem. For example, Jon Paul Fiorentino’s “Sexism and Silence in the Literary Community,” or Brand Cran’s open letter reference Wells’ poem to address the larger structural issues I am pointing at. Instead, Wells’ piece is an excellent reminder of the ways in which gender violence operates in language. Let’s not forget: language makes things happen. Language is what we use to identify personhood. Allusion, metaphor, synecdoche, all of these literary devices create and sustain inequitable and violent relationships. “Knocking sense” into an essay hardly masks the violence of the implied synecdoche. “Kiss this critic’s nightstick” doesn’t even bother with figurative language or the absent referent, it is a threat couched in poor verse. When this “poem” is read in conjunction with Starnino’s commentary and diction, Gilmour’s dismissals, and, yes, CWILA’s growing statistical research it seems clear that there is much work to be done. Again, I am far less interested in whether or not individual poet-critics recognize or shift their violently gendered discourse. This is not about the individual poet-critic. This conversation is about recognizing, articulating, and unpacking malignant myopias in Canadian literary and cultural production. Yet again.
Canadian literary criticism will thrive with more engaged and rigorous discourse, of course. If we want a sustainable and future-oriented Canadian literary culture, it will require an ever-evolving attentiveness to the work of production and the work of criticism. But if the events of this fall have done anything they have served as a clear reminder that the existence and expansion of organizations like CWILA are vital to the ethics of that work.
Works Cited
Bowling, Tim. “An Interview with Carmine Starnino.” Contemporary Verse 2: The
Cran, Brad. “Lazy Jerkism: An Open Letter to Carmine Starnino.” Brad Cran.
Fiorentino, Jon Paul. “Sexism and Silence in the Literary Community.” The Huffington Post.
Starnino, Carmine. “Cue the Violins, Folks.” The vehicule press blog.
Wells, Zachariah. “CITRIC BITCH’S THINKING IS SHIT.” Career Limiting Moves.

[i] It is worth noting that the University of Toronto Department of English Acting Chair Paul Stevens publically circulated the following message:
A message from the Acting Chair of the English Department, Professor Paul Stevens.
Dear Colleagues:
Like all those of you who have seen David Gilmour’s comments in the Hazlitt magazine on teaching literature at U of T, I was appalled and deeply upset. They constitute a travesty of all we stand for. I will be pursuing the matter further today. There seem to me two points that immediately need to be emphasized. First, David Gilmour is not a member of the Department of English at the University of Toronto, and second, his ill-informed and offensive views could not be less representative of the passionately held values and actual practices of the Department. Please feel free to circulate this message as you think appropriate.
Many of you have already been trying to set the record straight — many thanks to Nick Mount, Heather Murray, Alex Gillespie, Michael Cobb, Holger Syme, and Katie Larson.
Best, Paul
Paul Stevens Professor and Acting Chair Department of English University of Toronto

administration · physics · scholarships · slow academy

Women in Physics: the 13%

One of the best parts of my job is helping students prepare their applications for major scholarships: the Fulbright, the Rhodes, the Vanier, the Trudeau. I’ve spent the last seven years in grad school learning how to identify and write to generic expectations, and it’s very rewarding to help students see that research proposals are a genre, with very specific expectations, and then help them master that genre. And as someone who often daydreams about what life would be like if I had decided to study in a wildly different field, it’s a ball getting to read brilliant and exciting research proposals from students in mathematics, or visual art, or architecture, or chemistry, or theoretical physics.

It was a moment when working through a proposal from that last field that recently gave me pause. The application was written by perhaps the smartest student I’ve yet encountered, one who has gotten an A+ in every single graduate course she has ever taken, and yet has managed to find time to also be a gifted athlete and a committed volunteer. She also happens to be a woman, and a woman in the field with perhaps the worst track record for gender equity; as the American Institute of Physics notes, “women make up about 13% of faculty members in all degree-granting physics departments, and there are physics departments with no women faculty members at all.” This is in stark contrast to my discipline–according to a 2009 report by the MLA, women make up 43.3% of faculty at the rank of professor in the modern languages, and 67.4% of the faculty at the rank of associate professor. In a meeting with a number of people involved in putting together her scholarship application, we were discussing the goals this outstanding student wanted to set out for the tenure of her award. As part of her leadership statement, which asked students to set out goals quite distinct from their research project, one of the students’ goals was to institute a mentorship program for female students in her department, providing them with additional support and guidance in order to improve the chances that they would stay and succeed in the field. When someone suggested that the student might want to consider emphasizing her plans for this seemingly very necessary work, or expand the scope of what she might accomplish in regards to promoting gender equality in physics, a female senior physics scholar called a stop. “I don’t,” she said, “want this student to emphasize that she is a woman in physics.” 

And my question was–why not? 

I’ve been trying to figure out the motivation behind that statement, and what it says about the state of gender equality in physics, or in the hard sciences more generally. Was the senior scholar concerned that the student would face discrimination as a woman in physics during the judgement of her scholarship application, and so wanted to downplay her gender? Did she feel like the student’s interest in promoting equality and in nurturing younger students was unscholarly? Did she feel that working toward gender equality in her field was unnecessary, or futile? Why not write an application that forced readers, some of whom might carry the biases that have led women to be so outnumbered in physics, to acknowledge that women are of the best and brightest in the field? And that proposed real ways to start challenging those biases and inequities? 

I’m pretty much of the belief that whatever we can do to promote gender equality, wherever we can do it, however we can do it, we should do it. But–sure, I come from the same field as David Gilmour, but that’s also a field where the vast majority of undergraduate students are women, and the majority of faculty are too. It must be a very different world, being part of the 13%. 

What say you, dear readers? Where have you met resistance to challenging gender inequality from the women in your field? Any ideas where that resistance comes from, or what we can do to combat it?  

classrooms · faster feminism · slow academy

What Is a Feminist Classroom?

We have been thinking a great deal about pedagogy in the last few weeks here at Hook & Eye. Aimée recently wrote about her experiences in a graduate seminar on public feminisms, Jana wrote a guest post that reframed reactions to David Gilmour’s statements as evidence of both theory and praxis, and a few weeks ago I thought about addressing misogyny, racism, and inequity in the classroom. Each of these posts were inspired by events happening outside the classroom space, and each of these events ask or argue for the importance of a pedagogical approach that is influenced by feminism. This has me thinking: what is a feminist classroom?

The answers will vary depending on who is asked the question, of course. If you asked my cousin’s class for first year students at a university in southern Alberta he would tell you that their reply was silence: they weren’t sure or weren’t willing to say. If you ask my third-year women’s literature course at Mount Allison you’ll get a variety of responses that will reference not just feminism, but anti-racist and post-colonial theories. And on and on the variations go. Given the number of egregious things that have happened in the first month of a new school year on campuses across Canada, I find myself wanting to think again about what a feminist classroom might look like, because here’s the thing: at its root feminism is about activism. It is about articulating inequity and working for generative solutions to those inequities. It is about education and about learning the ways in which we have — all of us — been influenced and informed by the inequitable systems in which we live. September 2013 on Canadian university campuses has been a month filled with rape chants, racist chants, and myopic views about Humanities education. It is a good time to rethink and reactivate discussion about feminist classrooms.

I have spent the better past of the last decade and change in university classrooms. Some have them have been clearly demarcated as feminist spaces, others not, and some in-between. Here is the start of a list of challenges and markers of the feminist classroom:

1. A feminist classroom acknowledges difference. In her post Aimée wrote about an experience of being in a classroom about feminism and how that classroom turned into an aggressive space. I had a similar experience in graduate school: the students in my class–myself included–were confronted our own assumptions in a devastating way. Few of us left the class unscarred, fewer of us finished the class without having broken down crying in the class itself. This is not always necessary or useful. A feminist classroom needs to teach its students how to acknowledge difference without translating it, without reifying it, and without vilifying it. This might seem obvious, but it is far far more challenging that I would like to admit. 

2. A feminist classroom is intersectional. This builds on point one: feminism–for me, at least–is a starting point for broad-scale activism. It functions as a starting point from which to address racism, classism, and sexuality. It is a site from which to think about the nation, globalization, and local concerns. It is not the only point nor is it always the best point, that’s why feminism it intersectional: it is a methodology that requires multiple lenses.

3. A feminist classroom is not a pulpit. All feminists are not concerned with the same things. All students do not have the same experiences. The feminist classroom is ideally built to provide students with the tools to analyze the social spheres that we live and operate in, but the feminist classroom is not a failure if all students don’t identify as feminists. Again, this seems to be obvious but it is another incredible challenge. My role as a teacher is to introduce students to tools and methodologies of analysis. My role is to provide a challenging and safe space for discourse. My role is not to convert anyone, much as I would love to have every student leave my classroom aware of and fighting against gender, racial, and sexual injustice and inequity. That’s not my job, and it requires that I check my ego at the door. 

Marusya Bociurkiw recently wrote a post for entitled “Six Reasons Why Calls to Fire David Gilmour Miss the Point.” Reading it was for me another iteration of what a feminist classroom looks like. You can find her list here. You can add your lists in the comments section.

Like Bociurkiw, like Melissa, and like Jana I am ultimately heartened by the opportunity to remind myself why I am a feminist and how I can take that research and activism into the classroom as praxis. And like Aimée I am acutely aware of how challenging that pedagogical move can be.     

backlash · sexist fail · slow academy · teaching

Why We’re Here (Or, the Inevitable David Gilmour Post)

As you’ve probably heard, there are still professors out there who say things like this:  

“I don’t love women writers enough to teach them. That’s all I’m saying. What I teach are guys. If you want women writers, you go down the hall.” (David Gilmour)

“I got this job six or seven years ago, usually the University of Toronto doesn’t allow people to become professors without a doctorate. You have to have a doctorate to teach here, but they asked if I would teach a course, and I said I would. I’m a natural teacher, I was trained in television for many years. I know how to talk to a camera, therefore I know how to talk to a room of students.” (David Gilmour)

“But I can only teach stuff I love. I can’t teach stuff that I don’t, and I haven’t encountered any Canadian writers yet that I love enough to teach.I’m not interested in teaching books by women. Virginia Woolf is the only writer that interests me as a woman writer, so I do teach one of her short stories. But once again, when I was given this job I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love. Unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women.” (David Gilmour)

And then blame any offense on misinterpretation, or bad intent, or being distracted by a Frenchman:

“And this is a young woman who kind of wanted to make a little name for herself, or something…” (David Gilmour)

“I’m sorry for hurting your sensibilities…” (David Gilmour)

“Quite frankly, I was speaking to a Frenchman, so I was more concerned with my French than I was with what I was saying to this young woman. But I think anybody who teaches Truman Capote cannot be attacked for being an anti-anything.” (David Gilmour)

But provide opportunities for smart and open-minded critics to say things like this: 

“I’ve got a dare for you, David Gilmour. I dare you – I fucking dare you – to spend six months reading nothing but writers who aren’t white cis males. Read female writers. Read Chinese writers. Read queer and trans and disabled writers. Read something that’s difficult for you to love, then take a deep breath and try harder to love it. Immerse yourself in worlds and thoughts and perspectives that are incredibly different from your own. Find a book that can change you and then let yourself be changed.” (Anne Thériault)

“I now believe that professors have an ethical responsibility to show their students the world, as best they can. I’m not calling for quotas, and I’m not saying bad books should be taught through affirmative action. I am calling for those in positions to influence the understanding and discussion of literature to think bigger and better, to see farther and wider. To, quite simply, do better. We’ll all benefit.” (Jared Bland)

“Let’s implore all those ‘girl’ students who have had the misfortune to enrol in Gilmour’s class to keep walkin’ “down the hall.” That’s where they’ll find the trained underemployed Ph.Ds who know how to teach a diversity of great books, even if they don’t speak to their own narrow middle-aged guy perspective.” (Cheryl Cowdy)

“‘And I said, “No, I tend to teach people whose lives are a lot like my own, because that’s what I understand best, and that’s what I teach best.’ Oh, oh, but he feels qualified to teach Tolstoy and Chekhov? He probably has a Russian soul, that one. … Completely unable to reflect on what he is actually saying. Translation: I feel that a nineteenth-century Russian male serf-owner is more like me than a North American woman who is my contemporary. What a prince. Not a sexist bone in his body indeed.” (Наталия Хоменко)

And call attention to the ongoing necessity of organizations like this, and blogs like ours:
“Every time Gilmour opens his mouth, you’ve got a reason to support CWILA’s work for gender and racial equality in Canadian literature.” (CWILA)
In the end: 
That there are still university syllabuses that include only straight, cissexual, white, able-bodied, neurotypical men;
That there are universities who hire the people who design those syllabuses and teach those courses over those who are open-minded, inclusive, and skilled as both readers and teachers; 
That being offended by casual and blatant sexism and racism still invites accusations of oversensitivity and overreaction;  
That men are always men but women are often “girls”; 
That students are still walking out of some university classrooms with the impression that women, non-Caucasian people, transgender people, queer people, differently-abled people, neuroatypical people, Canadians, are third-rate writers and unworthy of our attention and of having us experience their perspective for as long as the story lasts (and hopefully long after);
That’s why Hook & Eye exists. So thanks to David Gilmour for demonstrating how vital our project really, and still, is. And for showing just how big the community of pro-diversity, good humoured, literature-loving, brilliant, and student-centric people really is. It wasn’t what he intended, but as he claims not to have intended much of what he said in his original interview, it seems apropos.

Note: “Don’t read the comments” doesn’t apply here–the comments on both of Gilmour’s articles, the transcript of the interview, Bland’s article, and Theriault’s post are incisive, supportive, and heartening. And for a special treat, check out The Toast’s “The Life of Virginia Woolf, Beloved Chinese Novelist, As Told By David Gilmour.” And, of course, there’s Twitter.
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.

kindness · mental health · slow academy · you're awesome

To Connect or to Disconnect

I came to Facebook rather late, and it was as much a reluctant step as it was a strategic one. I joined once I had handed in my dissertation, and people who knew I was on the job market started sending me postdoc opportunities and such that were posted on Facebook. If that’s the way the cookie crumbles, I thought, then I’m not making a stand here, really, by opting out, but merely depriving myself of opportunities. That was in 2010.

It turns out, my then line of thought finds itself in good company, and it is no coincidence. Apparently, famous business women like Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer. I haven’t read Lean In, but it would be highly surprising if a Facebook executive would be advocating anything other than staying connected. Marissa Mayer–of the no-Yahoo-employees-shall-work-from-home-and-I-only-take-three-weeks-mat-leave-cause-I-can-build-a-nursery-in-my-office-bitcheeez fame–also advises us to stay permanently connected if we wish to succeed. The “we” here comprises the usual audience of such dicta, I assume, and I’m not sure I would count myself included. However, it’s no coincidence that social media corporate executives urge connectivity for the ideal neoliberal subject. But I digress. Anyhoo, I’ve decided to opt out most of the time, and to stay disconnected as much as possible, especially when compared to my previous presence and usage.

You see, between Facebook, Twitter, email, Pinterest, and the like, and enabled by my smart phone, I have developed an addiction. I’m not using this term lightly: if I had a moment free, e.g., on my way to the bathroom, or waiting for my coffee to brew, or walking towards my office, I would check any and all of the above. And if I didn’t have a free moment, I would make one. I was enough aware of the extent of the problem that I abstained from getting a data plan. Honestly, I knew I’d check email/social media anywhere, and there would really be no stopping. Plus, I told myself, there’s wifi everywhere these days. Even Safeway. Which means, every time I’d get into a store/coffee shop, first thing I would do is check email/social media. Stuck on the right word during a pomodoro? Check FB. Feeling low? Check Twitter. Yeah, like that’s gonna get my spirits up.

gratuitous picture of the Columbia Icefield

And that was exactly my tipping point: the realization that I was looking outward instead of inward. No wonder I felt like I lacked direction. I was expecting other people’s status updates, tweets, emails, to bring me calm, serenity, and happiness. And you know how often that happens. I was putting stumbling blocks in front of my already-wobbly legs. Whenever I was writing, I would mentally check in with myself, thus breaking my own advice, not to mention my flow. “Hey, I’m doing pretty well here, and I’m sure I’ll be able to pick it up after a brief FB break. I deserve it: I wrote a whole 100 words.” You probably know as well as I do that a “brief FB break” turns into an epic read-athon of updates and interesting articles that my wonderful friends post, and that I simply have to read the moment I encounter.

It’s not productivity or its lack that I’m worried about here. No. It’s mental health. Breaks, true breaks, are good for me. In fact, my brain needs down time in order to process stuff. I used to feel really bad when I was writing my dissertation, because I spent a lot of time doing nothing with a palpable result (read: words in a document). But then I’d sit down to write, and words would flow, because, you see, while I thought I had been doing nothing, my brain was actually working, mulling ideas, finding its way in a maze, synthesizing research, compiling evidence, putting ideas together and articulating them to the overarching concerns, etc.

gratuitous picture of a pine cone

You will notice I used the past tense and its variations a lot in the previous paragraphs. It’s been about a week–I’m not a big fan of milestones, so I didn’t write down the day that I actually started–and things are going well. I’m much calmer, and I’ve been managing the withdrawal with more exercise, more actual down time, and more reading of books that are printed on paper. And other stuff, which I’ll list here. Things like

Read a poem
Read a book (or part of it)
Do a quick savasana (I won’t tell anyone if you take a nap)
Take a nap
Get a coffee/tea/water while looking into the distance
Walk your dog
Pet your cat
Sit/stand while looking in the distance
Pull weeds
Do other gardening
Listen to your favourite music with your eyes closed (I won’t tell anyone if you take a nap)
Go for a walk/run
Play an instrument

I can’t think of any more, but please do add your own suggestions for alternatives to social media procrastination.

grad school · guest post · health · kid stuff · slow academy


Today’s post comes from Jana Smith-Elford, PhD Candidate in English at the University of Alberta.

We have reached the end of April. 

My fellow Edmontonians understand that this is serious cause for celebration. A horrible month of snow, snow, and more snow, interspersed with a handful of sunny days of futile hope, followed by several more days of soul-crushing snow is finally over. Goodbye flurries of snow, goodbye horrifically icy roads, goodbye indoors-only playgrounds, goodbye cooped-up, house-bound, over-energetic child. 

This was my view just a couple of days ago:

But two days ago, the first day of May! Sunshine! Somehow, no more snow in my front yard for the first time all winter! My daughter ran around our backyard for the first time in her life! Climbed up the steps of the deck! Chased a ball around the trees! In the matter of a couple of days, temperatures went from the negatives to plus eighteen.

It kind of felt like when the page of the calendar turned to May, someone pressed a giant reset button on the weather.

Lately I’ve found myself wishing I had the ability to press a giant reset button on my life.

I just finished a long, exhausting winter semester: candidacy exams (passed), language requirement courses (completed), and an entry for The Orlando Projectresearched, written, and submitted. I’ve read additional texts suggested by examiners at my candidacy, started writing my introduction, began to explore more deeply the theoretical side of my project. I’ve helped train new research assistants with Orlando, continued testing for a new visualization tool developed by the project, and prepared to attend an upcoming conference on vizualization tools. All good things. 

But I’ve also been sick four times in four months: laryngitis, cold, cough, flu (often multiples at once). My office mate probably feels I should just constantly wear one of these. In the month leading up to the candidacy, my dear daughter had the norovirus twice, and consequently slept through the night only once that entire month. I did a poor job of taking time off after my candidacy. I visited a dear friend in New York sans baby, but brought work along with me. I’ve found the cuts to post-secondary education in Alberta to be demoralizing and unmotivating. I’ve been plugging away for a few months, but I’m tired. 

We’ve talked a lot here about how April is often an exhausting month for women in the academy. Aimée wrote just last week about overcommitting and disastrous ends of term. And Erin wrote an inspiring post about attempting to reengage and reinvorate despite term-end fatigue. But, with an absense of vacation serenity (or with no vacation in sight), how do you maintain or re-gain momentum? After many months of hard and fatigue-inducing work, how do you reset your life?

For me, pushing the reset button has meant: 

1) Not working when I’m sick. It took three-and-a-half separate illnesses, but halfway through this last one I realized that I wasn’t going to get any better by going in to work, and despite how much work I needed to get done, I wasn’t going to do it well if I didn’t take time off. My productivity isn’t helped by plugging away on one cylinder for several weeks; it’s better to turn things off and then restart on all four. Especially at the end of term, when bodies are crashing and illness is rampant.

2) Taking care of myself. I decided to go to the doctor to check out my vitamin levels to make sure I don’t need to up my intake of any nutrients. And I commandeered the car in our one-car household for a week so I could sleep in, leave work early, and take some time to do some personal shopping. Sometimes it takes a bit of effort to organize, but in the end it’s important and definitely worth it. After the big push to complete term-projects, we need to take time to do all those things that we’ve been putting off.

3) Booking a weekend away at the end of term. I think sometimes a real break is necessary–a break without work. It took me a few weeks to realize, but I think it’s difficult to get a real reset without being away from my work, my house, and my child. My partner and I recently decided to leave our daughter with her grandparents and spend a few days in Jasper. Yay! Now to hold things together for the two weeks until we leave…

How do you reset after the end of term?

advice · balance · saving my sanity · slow academy · weekend

Fighting Burnout

Like most early career academic researchers, I’m busy. My official job duties are teaching a lot of courses and chairing a program. But, then there’s all the extra academic stuff that gets piled on top: applying for tenure-track positions; applying for research funding; writing reference letters; going to meetings; attending conferences; trying to think about writing something, as well as the non-academic life stuff on top of that: eating; making sure the laundry gets done; keeping up with friends; having a long-distance relationship; exercise (?); doing the dishes every once in awhile…
It’s a bit much. It’s too much, in fact. Even if I was a feminist superhero (and I couldn’t tell you if I was because it would jeopardize my secret identity), it would be too much.
There are particular times of year—and this is one of those times of year—that it’s pretty easy to start feeling burnt out. You might be reading an article and find that your eyes are glazing over; seeing a pile of essays might induce nausea; or you might just feel completely saturated. Here’s a few ideas for fighting burnout.
1. Clean Breaks
Are you one of those people who insists on bringing a laptop or pile of grading to a cottage? If you’re already feeling burnt out, take a clean and guilt-free break. It doesn’t even need to be a long break, but a break that involves you lugging four books around town while you “go out for a walk” is not a clean break. When you’re done working, stop working. For real.
2. Reading Detox

Try this experiment: do not read anything. No email; no lists of things to do; no articles or books, even for pleasure, for 24 hours. It feels impossible. It is not. Let your brain recover for awhile! Try occupying yourself in other ways: knitting; exercise (?); doing that pile of laundry; or anything else that strikes your fancy.
3. Have a Life Outside of Academia

One of the best things that happened for my academic career is that I made friends with people who aren’t academics. In my case, it was through playing music. Being friends with people whose lives don’t revolve around the university puts a lot of what we do in perspective, and this can help academic work feel much less overwhelming.
4. Acknowledge that You Won’t Do Everything Perfectly

This can be hard to do. As an academic, and maybe just as a human, I want to do my best all the time. Acknowledge that you are doing your best under the circumstances and try to avoid long sessions of beating yourself up for what you may perceive as “falling short.”
Finally, perhaps most importantly, sleep! Goodnight!