being undone · feminist communities · solidarity

Surviving Our Questions

we learn from those who help us survive our questions by inviting us into their own

— from Gila Ashtor, “Two Girls2″

 

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I think maybe my whole life as an academic has revolved around asking questions, or trying to ask the right questions. But, until I read Gila Ashtor’s essay, I don’t think I realized that there is also, always, the question of surviving my questions. I didn’t know that my questions — the ones I wanted to ask and the ones I was afraid to ask and the ones I finally got the guts to ask — were something that I had to live through, endure, move past.

I knew that asking a good question, the right question, could disturb, unsettle, intervene. I worked hard at doing that. I tell my students that they should try to ask good questions. That such questions can make a real mark whether they are posed at the end of a lecture or whether the are the beginning of what will be a doctoral project or book or lifelong intellectual investigation. In this sense, I thought of questions, my good ones anyways, as something unambiguously good. And if they unsettled or disturbed people or fields of study, then good.

But I never stopped to think that such questions exact a cost and demand that a burden be borne. I did not understand that asking a question was also about testing my own ability to survive the act of asking.

I love the turn that Ashtor takes in this densely beautiful essay on relationality, Mary Gaitskill’s novel Two Girls, Fat and Thin, and Lauren Berlant’s essay on that novel, queer affect, pedagogy, and so much else. It is a turn that finds solace in a kind of doubled questioning: we survive our questions by learning from those who invite us into their own. Surviving our questions is all about finding a way into the questions of others. And those others need to be generous enough to invite us into their own questions.

Reading Ashtor somewhat out of context, I have been thinking about how to survive the questions that have been unleashed in the wake of the deeply complex waves of recognition and sadness and awfulness and solidarity that is #metoo and everything that came before and everything that will come.

What now? You too? Can we say the names? Are you scared? How can we stop being scared? When do I stop being so enraged and exhausted?

Who will invite us into their questions so that we can learn how to survive these questions? I thought a lot about this and, because I work in an institutional context, I immediately thought about feminist leaders, senior academic allies, women who will know stuff. But then I realized, yes, them (and how lucky we are to have them), BUT also: us. We have turn, more than ever, to each other. We have to invite each other into our questions.

And it is going to be hard and we will only survive if we can find what is transformable and be ourselves transformed:

To the extent that “history” is not only what “hurts,” it is also in no small part a result of whom we meet and what, because of who they are, we find transformable, and transformed, about ourselves. (Ashtor)

Let’s keep asking our questions and do it knowing that we can survive them because we have to keep inviting each other in.

advice · compassion · solidarity

Embracing and Resisting Mediocrity

It has been twenty-five days since Donald Trump was inaugurated as 45th President of the United States. We’ve already seen a spate of hateful and discriminatory decrees perpetrated by the Trump administration in rapid-fire succession, and a beautiful uprising of resistance manifesting in a variety of forms, including mass protesting, calling representatives, donating to the ACLUPlanned Parenthood, or CAIR, disrupting town halls, punching nazis, and other acts of defiance. Źižek, whatever you might think of him, certainly had a point when he said the election would spark a kind of awakening; imagine how apathetic we’d all be if Hillary Clinton were elected president, even as she in all likelihood furthered Obama’s mandate of arresting and deporting undocumented immigrants and dropping 26 171 bombs on predominantly Muslim countries. I’ve seen many of my liberal friends transformed into progressivist activists, and the Women’s March I attended in NYC was full of newbie protesters whose outrage was expressed more through their signs than their chants. At the same time, in spite or perhaps despite of these developments, studies are showing that productivity has been decreasing across the board.

I feel that. Like some of my cobloggers, I’ve had to back away from social media a little bit because it was filling my head with too much despair (ok, really, I deleted Facebook from my phone a week ago and now can’t seem to redownload it, so not all of this distancing has been by choice…). And how can I reasonably focus on writing about dream interpretation practices in the late fifteenth century when the mothers of fourteen-year-old girls are being deported? (speaking of dreams…I hope you all read Lily Cho’s beautiful post from yesterday)

But who am I kidding, I haven’t even been trying to work on my own stuff. I’ve been teaching three classes, all entirely new prep, and continuing to apply for jobs. Dealing with the emotional toll of continuing not to have any idea where we’ll be next year, even which country, requires quite a bit of scheduled downtime—reliance on friends, intentional social or cultural outings, TV ok. I simply can’t work 12 hours a day like I used to…and nor, of course, do I think anyone should.

I don’t feel like I’m doing much right at all these days, I thought to myself as I tried to brew up an inspirational post for this esteemed blog.  I’ve been teaching well, and even getting liiiiife from teaching, but by this point I’ve settled into enough of a routine that I have no major streaks of inspiration to write about. I can’t blog about the job market, except to say that, uhh, I’m still on it. I keep meaning to do more yoga, more meditation, more blogging, more (or any) creative art projects, more leisure reading, more protest-y things. All of these mores that accumulate and weigh on my psyche, making me feel unaccomplished and worthless. Maybe you’ve been feeling that way too.

So I guess I’m back to that classic lesson about the good enough professor – maybe mediocrity, or less-than-perfectionism, is sometimes okay. For me, now, this means simply accepting that what I’m already doing is good enough, and recognizing and honouring the things that are going well. I may never be able to do a handstand at yoga, but at least I’m there, wildly kicking my feet in the air and spending some meditative time in my own head. I’ve been prepared for all my classes, getting the grading done in a reasonable amount of time, submitting applications, and cultivating some meaningful relationships. And I’ve been doing what I can to resist political normalization, aiming for one Thing a day, big or small. Sometimes that can just be sending a friend a text to see how they’re doing.

Paradoxically, if I accept that I’m already good enough, an unintentional side-effect might emerge of becoming better. Wallowing in guilt and productivity FOMO doesn’t get us anywhere; it fills us so full of self-hatred that we keep refreshing Twitter or pressing snooze. So being realistic about goals and grateful for the opportunities and achievements that naturally unfold throughout the daily realities of life might just boost my spirits enough to help me find time for more of the things whose absence I’ve been ruing.

Something that’s rarely mentioned when self-care strategies are discussed is that self-care can actually help you become more intentional about taking action in other areas, perhaps without you even realizing it. It helps you become more grateful, a better person. I hate to hover near the productivist argument that being kind to yourself will help you become more efficient, but…it’s true? Or, at least, it will help you better identify and reward the tasks and hurdles you are completing, to realize a more concrete schedule that will allow time for care, time for work, time for protest. Again, I don’t think becoming better should necessarily be the goal–because then you’re caught back in the trap of unreasonable expectations and disappointments. Perhaps embracing mediocrity can also count as a form of resistance against it.

And I want to echo some of the thoughts of Margeaux Feldman’s post about the Women’s March and intersectionality. Just as we need to struggle through our mistakes to land at a more inclusive movement, we need to fight against our tendency to judge others on their chosen mode of resistance. To be sure, everyone should be resisting in some way. I am not okay with apathy or wait-and-see-ism, not while people are being deported (to our Canadian readers: you too can make phone calls! You too can be vigilant against injustice! Surely I don’t need to cite certain recent events to underscore this point). The time to wait and see has long passed if it ever existed in the first place. But for those of us who are stretching ourselves to make a difference, I echo the words of this smart post by Mirah Curzer:  

The movement works as a coalition of people focused on different issues, so don’t let anyone convince you that by focusing your energy on one or two issues, you have effectively sided with the bad guys on everything else. Ignore people who say things like, ‘you’re not a real feminist if you aren’t working to protect the environment’ or ‘you’re betraying the cause of economic justice if you don’t show up for prison reform.’That’s all nonsense. There is a spectrum of support, and nobody can be everywhere at once.

Focusing on the things where you have leverage and the possibility of shifting policy (even at a local level) requires not getting involved in everything. And we all make our choices and don’t owe the world our reasoning–if you’re out at a protest and you see your friend posted an Instagram of her cat at home, try not to jump straight to the conclusion that she must not care enough to come out; perhaps she was feeling fatigued and is focusing her energies elsewhere.

Be kind to yourselves and each other, readers! And thank yourself for the awesome humans you are, fighting for manifold worthy causes during a difficult and uncertain time. In sum, this blog might not be the best blog I’ve ever written, but I’m happy to have pushed past my uncertainty to produce something. And this counts for my daily Thing right? 🙂 Thanks for reading.

Thanks to Christopher Michael Roman for this timely image share. 

#womensmarch · fast feminism · solidarity

Guest Essay: A Canadian Feminist in Washington

Note from Hook & Eye Managing Editor Erin Wunker: This post by Margeaux Feldman is long–it is an essay. We here at the blog feel it is important to read it in its entirety, and so we will leave stand as the sole post for this week. Take your time. Follow the links. Think with Margeaux and with us. 
 
In solidarity, 
Erin, Melissa, Aimée, Lily, Boyda, and Jana
I. Preamble; or the Work of Situating.
When I woke up on November 9th to find out that Donald Trump was the President Elect, I was in shock. It felt like someone had died unexpectedly and I was in the beginning phases of grief. And then I read an essay by Courtney Parker West, “On ‘Woke’ White People Advertising their Shock thatRacism just won a Presidency.” In the essay, West addresses all of those “white people whom I often love,” and tells them how “advertising your shock and surprise that racism, sexism, xenophobia, and bigotry are pervasive enough to hand that man the Presidency is a microaggression. Please stop.”
Reading her words, I had to admit that I was one of the folks she was addressing. For folks of colour, for immigrants, and Muslims, and members of the indigenous community, Trump winning the election wasn’t a shock. It was a confirmation of the racist, xenophobic, homophobic, transphobic, and sexist world that people of colour inhabit daily. As a privileged white woman, and one who lives in Canada, I had to confront just how privileged my shock was.[1]
So I interrogated my shock and tried to figure out how to mobilize. But I felt stuck.
Overwhelmed by the sheer immensity of the work ahead. And again I had to encounter the privilege of being able to inhabit a space of stuckness. I was left wondering, as Erin Wunker does in Notes From a Feminist Killjoy: “Where do we being when the work of deconstructing, dismantling, and burning down oppressive systems seems so immense?” (39). Wunker’s response to this question: “First, we situate ourselves. Then, we widen the scope of our looking. Then, we situate ourselves again. And repeat.”
There is something hopeful in the repetition of this act. And something forgiving.
When I fail at being a feminist killjoy, when I refuse to speak up when I see racism and misogyny taking place, and worse, when I say or do or think something racist, it’s all too easy to get caught in a shame spiral, to inhabit that space of stuckness. But if I can situate myself as a feminist who is striving to be intersectional,[2]then I need to confront my shame, my humiliation, and my failure, then “widen the scope of [my] looking,” and figure out how to do better next time.
Trump’s win forced me to think about how my allyship needed to grow and shift. I decided upon two different actions that I would take:
1. The first was to educate myself.
Specifically, I would educate myself so that I could do the work of educating other white women and men. And I wanted to do that work outside of the neoliberal university that supports transphobia and racism (see: Jordan Peterson’s refusal to use gender-neutral pronouns; see: theanti-racism protests at Ryerson that the director of the School of Social Work to step down). I put out a call on Facebook, asking if anyone else might be interested in joining a reading group where we exclusively read work written by authors who are indigenous, black, or from other POC groups; who are disabled; who are Muslim; who are part of the queer community, especially from the trans community.
In other words, we will not read anything written by a cis white man. And if we read anything by a cis white woman, we will, as I state on the group’s page, “interrogate why that voice and not another. I would prefer that we ask ourselves how reading something by a white woman will help us become better intersectional feminists. Is that author intersectional in her approach? Does she provide us with an example of how we can live our intersectional feminist politics?”
This group is a space where we are actively working to interrogate our white privilege, where we can address the ways in which we are racist because we have been raised in a racist world, and where we can figure out what it means to be an ally. This is a space where we can say, “I’m trying and I’m failing, and I’m continuing to try.”
2. I would go to more protests.
Taking up space in the streets is a necessary act for me because it feels unsafe and thus forces me to go outside of the comfort zone of my white privilege. It means that I might have to place myself in a zone of conflict, and I don’t do well with conflict. (My brother and I had a pretty volatile relationship growing up and conflict was a constant in our home. I was taught that it was safer to say nothing than it was to stand up for myself and deal with the screaming and slamming of doors and silence from my father. I’m still dealing with the trauma.) And yet, women of colour find themselves time and time again in conflicts that they haven’t chosen, conflicts that have been forced upon them just because of the colour of their skin. They don’t get to choose this discomfort – but I can.
I decided that I would try to go to the Women’s March on Washington. My best friend and I talked about driving down together, but unfortunately the plan fell through and I basically gave up on the idea and decided to attend the sister march in Toronto. But then a woman in a Facebook group that I’m a part of posted that her bus had a few empty seats and I jumped at the opportunity. We would drive overnight on Friday, arrive Saturday morning, attend the rally and march, and then get back on the bus Saturday night, arriving back in Toronto Sunday morning. It would be an intense trip, but it felt like it was meant to be.
The reasons it was “meant to be” were much different than I had anticipated.
I thought that I would go and feel overwhelmed by all of the solidarity amongst the feminists in attendance. And that did happen. To see so many folks who support feminism and women’s rights was a truly incredible experience. And I went aware of the issues within the organization, from the fact that it first took its name “The Million Woman March” from the 1997 protest of black women, to the erasure of a line in support of sex workers from their Unity Principles.
The March both produced a feeling of solidarity and it revealed just how divided feminism is – and just how much more work I need to do if I want to consider myself an ally.
II. Learning How to Do Better
i. The Future is…Female? 
Okay, it’s called the “Women’s March” and so automatically we’re talking about a particular gender identity, one that doesn’t account for those gender-queer and gender non-conforming individuals who don’t identify as “woman” or “man”, “girl” or “boy,” “male” or “female.” I put these words in scarequotes because, following Judith Butler, I believe that these gendered and sexed categories are products of the social world that we live in and that they are not fixed categories.[3]
And yet I packed my “The Future is Female” sweatshirt for the March – a slogan that I love and feel ambivalent about, for it privileges the biological category of “female” over the socially and historically constructed category of “woman.” I’ve tried to tell myself that it just sounds better to say “female” (I can’t count the amount of times I’ve tried to write a sentence using “woman” instead of “female” and felt frustrated by the ways in which “female” reads much more smoothly). But this ambivalence over the trickiness of language is trumped by what I see as the slogan’s utopian vision: a world that isn’t run by the patriarchy.
It is this utopian vision that was at the forefront of the Women’s March, a vision that is desperately needed in the face of a President who has openly promoted rape culture with the words “Grab her by the pussy.”
Throughout the March you saw signs that read “Not this Pussy” or “Pussy Grabs Back.” And all around you was a sea of pink and red Pussy Hats. I was one of many wearing a Pussy Hat. My decision to wear one came about by accident. My friend’s mother was making one for herself and asked if I wanted one and I said “sure, why not?” It wasn’t until after the March that I started to read people’s criticisms of the hats for being transphobic: because trans women do not have pussies – biologically speaking – and because pink is a highly gendered colour.
While I’m all for utopian visions of the future, especially ones in which the patriarchy has been dismantled, I think that we need to take a moment and realize how utopias can be exclusionary. It is useful to think of queer scholar José Muñoz’s definition of abstract and concrete utopias. In Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, Muñoz argues that abstract utopias are “are akin to banal optimism,” while concrete utopias “are the realm of educated hope” or what Muñoz calls “critical idealism” (2-3). In not thinking about how all of the pussy signs and hats were exclusionary, all we have is an abstract utopia, one in which banal optimism evokes utopia’s definition as a “no place.” And those on the margins are forced to occupy the “no place” in very real ways.
One way that we can think about the different between abstract utopia and concrete utopia is by looking at this viral photo taken at the March. 

Angela Peoples holding sign (photo by Kevin Banatte)

 

The three white women in the background can be read as representing the abstract utopia, in which it’s enough to show up to the March, put on a pussy hat, and call it a day (to be fair, I know nothing about these women and their lives and so I speak of them, in this moment, as representing the white feminism that refuses to be critical of its own complicity in racism).
Angela Peoples, who stands wearing a hat that says “Stop Killing Black People,” holding her sign that reads “White Women Voted for Trump,” presents us with a different form of utopic vision, one that is critical of the current state of things, one that calls attention to the truths that white women would rather not acknowledge.
As Peoples explains in an interview, most women responded to her sign by saying, “‘Not this white woman,’ or ‘No one I know!’ I’d say, ‘[Fifty-three percent] of white women voted for Trump. That means someone you know, someone who is in close community with you, voted for Trump. You need to organize your people.’ And some people said, ‘Oh, I’m so ashamed.’ Don’t be ashamed; organize your people.”
I’d like to turn back to the pussy hats. In an essay for The Establishment, Katelyn Burns explains her own response, as a trans woman, to the overwhelming presence of pussies at the March: “I understand the impulse to use your vagina as your protest image, especially in the face of a president-elect who has boasted about grabbing vaginas, and an administration seemingly hell-bent on stripping women of their reproductive rights — but the fact of the matter is that when you do so, you subtly let trans women know that their place isn’t in your protest. You’re letting trans men know that you don’t see their gender, because your idea of gender is seemingly based exclusively on genitalia. Wearing pussyhats, or chanting about vaginas, lays out a hierarchy based on genitals that is exclusionary and painful.”
In other words, in the pussy-filled landscape of the March, there is no place for those whose genitals do not match their gender.
Upon realizing just how exclusionary these symbols were, I felt horrified.
How could I, as a queer woman and educator, who has been with gender-queer folks and has many trans friends, have not realized how this symbol was trans-exclusionary and therefore transphobic?
When I attempted to process these feelings with a friend of mine, she very gently pointed out how my question could be read as another version of the claim “I’m not racist because I have X number of black friends.”
Ouch. Necessary truths hurt.
My surprise, to borrow the words of Wunker, “is an example of just one of the ways myopias work” (30). Wunker continues: “Situating your knowledge means that you have to start recognizing the ways in which your knowledge has been shaped—for better or worse—by external social forces. It also means opening yourself to the truth that you don’t have access to every experience” (30).
As a friend of mine phrased it, racism and transphobia are so deeply internalized “that when they come up it’s almost like you’re vomiting.”
I want to take a moment to admit that I’m struggling with where to go from here, from this knowledge that the pussy hats and all of the signs depicting women’s reproductive organs are transphobic.
I’m left wondering, is there a way that I, as a cis woman who had an abortion, can connect with these symbols without excluding others? Is it okay to read “pussy” more figuratively? Can “pussy” be detached from its literal connection to the female body and be read differently, as a representation how patriarchal violence is enacted upon cis and trans-gendered bodies? Can “pussy” serve as a metonym for the bodies that have experienced violence at the hands of men?
I ask these questions earnestly, and from a position of privilege: I am a queer woman and a literature scholar – two different forms of privilege – who thinks about the ways that we can queer language, can shift and change the meanings that oppress into meanings that can challenge those systems of oppression.[4]I ask this question and I acknowledge that I’m not the one who has the right to answer it.
For Katelyn Burns, “maybe womanhood is more about the fight and not about the flesh. Maybe vagina symbolism can be more symbolic than exclusionary.” But before that can happen, she notes, we need to focus on creating language that is trans inclusive, we need to acknowledge how the right to surgery that would enable a trans woman to have a pussy is one that we must continue to fight for.
First we situate ourselves: I wore a Pussy Hat. A hat that is meaningful for me as a woman who has experienced sexual assault and who has long thought of the word pussy as a dirty one because I was taught that my body and my sexuality were dirty.
Then, we widen the scope of our looking: I failed to think about how these symbols are tied to female genitalia, and thus work to exclude trans women.
Then, we situate ourselves again: It is my privilege as a cis woman that enabled me to not see how there is more than one way to read this symbol. I can do better. I must do better. I will do better.
And repeat.
ii.  Unity versus Intersectionality: A False Binary
The scene is this: I’m standing in a crowd of people during the rally. I’m many blocks away so I have to rely on speakers and jumbo screens. Based on my location I can’t see the speakers, but I can hear what they’re saying. Beside me there is a short stone partition, and on it stands a sea of white bodies that are able to see one of the coveted jumbo screens. They can see and they can hear. The people standing are mostly women, but some men. And I think, with so much anger, “Don’t these men understand how their choice to stand on this ledge is the perfect manifestation of their white male privilege? Why don’t they get the fuck down and offer their spaces to other women?”
And yet I said nothing.
An hour or so passes and an interruption occurs: a Muslim girl finds her way to the top of the porta potties on the other side of this stone partition. And then this happens: the sea of whiteness protests. “Get down from there! You can’t be up there! You’re blocking our view!”
And I begin to run through all of the reasons why their protests are totally effed up:
1.     This is a rally, not night at the opera! You are choosing to stand on the stone wall, thus blocking other people, and so she can get up on the porta potty.
2.     Could you be a better example of white supremacy??? This Muslim girl spends her whole life being blocked from seeing, being silenced, being called a terrorist. And now she faces the threat of the Muslim registry! And you’re telling her to get down?!??!
This scene reminds me of Sara Ahmed’s theorization of walls on her blog feministkilljoy.com. She discusses how diversity work can feel like you’ve come up against an institutional brick wall, because the institution (in this case the university) does not want to acknowledge that it is racist. For Ahmed, a wall “is what you come up against. It is a physical contact, a visceral encounter. When I write this, I might not at first be talking of literal walls. A wall is an effect of coming up against.”
This girl jumped over a literal wall that was being created both by the porta potties and by the white people who stood behind her, who told her to get down. And then she stayed up there. She tried to figure out how she could position her body so as to not totally block the sightlines of the white sea behind her – but she still stayed up there. She turned herself into a wall: “a wall as material resistance to being changed by force.”
She was this force all on her own.
I, the person who saw the racism she was experiencing, said nothing.
And this is what it looks like to be complicit in racism.
The day after the March I read a Twitter thread by Sydney Rain, in which she describes “one indigenous woman’s take” on the Women’s March on Washington, “in a sea full of white women.”[5]Rain describes how when she left the prayer circle she was a part of, white women (WW) snapped photos of her and best friend, Ashley, in their regalia without asking permission. When Rain and Ashley started to chant, “You’re on stolen land” she tells us how “WW shot us ugly looks. One shouted in her face, ‘We know but it isn’t our fault!’”
While the Tumblr account has cut out all of the responses to Rain’s thread, there was one that summarized all that is wrong with white feminism (and since the thread has been made private, I’ll have to paraphrase): “we need unity not intersectionality.” This line has been repeated by countless others, including HeatherWilhelm of the Chicago Tribune who called the Women’s March an “intersectional torture chamber.” And an essay on Feministing cites responses to a diversity statement on Facebook, in which women wrote, “‘No woman, no matter what race you are is ‘privileged’ in this culture … This division has to stop;’ another white woman chimed in, saying, ‘I will march. Hoping that someday soon a sense of unity will occur before it’s too late.’”
I’m having a difficult time parsing how and why this false binary has been set up. How and, more importantly, why is acknowledging intersectionality antithetical to unity? Perhaps we can return to the distinction Muñoz makes between abstract and concrete utopias. The unity being proposed by all of these white women is akin to the abstract utopia wherein optimism becomes an excuse for refusing to acknowledge the power and privilege we hold. And so intersectionality is read as cynicism.
Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza notes how “cynicism cannot build a movement.”  In a moving, and to me, a very generous response to the criticism surrounding the Women’s March, Garza describes how “Checking my social media feed that evening, I read comment after comment dismissing the march — an experience that was transformative for hundreds of thousands of people. I wondered what would have happened if, instead of inviting people in, I’d told people to fuck off and go home. Would they come back? Did it matter if they didn’t?”
Garza asks those who are committed to radical politics to hold space for those whose politics are new and thus far from perfect: “Hundreds of thousands of people are trying to figure out what it means to join a movement. If we demonstrate that to be a part of a movement, you must believe that people cannot change, that transformation is not possible, that it’s more important to be right than to be connected and interdependent, we will not win. If our movement is not serious about building power, then we are just engaged in a futile exercise of who can be the most radical.
As Garza offers a much needed intervention in the conversation about unity and intersectionality in the wake of the March, she holds space for us to fail – without falling into a shame spiral – and acknowledges that being political is always a process of learning how we can do better.
III. Conclusion: Towards a Critical Utopia
“There’s still so much work I can do to accept my privileges, explore the opportunities I have to use my abilities and access to help myself and others. This is a commitment we can all make for our self-care – because self-care is about nourishing ourselves, not necessarily comforting ourselves.” – Dom Chatterjee, “The Healing Power in Owning Our Privileges”[6]
Where to go from here? What does it look like for me to return from Washington with a newfound sense of my inner white feminist? How can I move forward, towards the critical utopia that Muñoz proposes?
As a PhD candidate and educator, I can use my knowledge of feminism and anti-oppression to teach others how and why we must acknowledge our privilege. I can harness my commitment to a pedagogy of non-mastery to hold space for others to be vulnerable – because encountering one’s privilege is a vulnerable act, and recognizing our complicity can feel devastating. But it need not destroy us. Our privilege can harm others and it can be used to heal others and ourselves.
First we situate ourselves: I am privileged. I can do better. And this is hard work.
Then, we widen the scope of our looking: I can educate others and myself. I can go to protests and speak up.
Then, we situate ourselves again: The work might not always feel doable, but I don’t have to do it alone.
And repeat.
 
Margeaux Feldman is a PhD Candidate in English and Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto and she holds a certificate in Community-Engaged Learning. Her dissertation, “The Hideosity of Adolescence: Refiguring Intimacy and Sexuality in America” draws upon feminist, queer, and critical race theory to analyze representations of adolescent girls in contemporary literature, film, and popular culture. Her essay “Undutiful daughters: growing up in feminism and psychoanalysis” was published in Psychoanalysis, Culture, and Society in 2016. Margeaux also runs the blog Floral Manifesto, which is committed to talking about the intersections of fashion, feminism, and feelings.


[1]I think that it’s crucial to critique the rhetoric of “things are so much better in Canada.”
[2]This term was first coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in her 1989 essay, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” For Crenshaw, when we discuss systems of oppression, domination, and power (such as the patriarchy, neoliberalism, capitalism, systemic racism), we MUST consider how different aspects of our identity make us more or less vulnerable than others. For a further discussion, you can checkout my blog post “Defining Our Term: Feminism 101”
[3]In Butler’s seminal text, Gender Trouble, she argues that Butler wants to challenge the traditional feminist argument that sex is a biological category while gender is a historic and social category. Butler does not believe that sex is anatomically defined; for example, if one of the characteristics of being a female is your ability to procreate, then what do we do with those women who are unable to do so?
[4]I shy away from using the word “empower” (i.e. “meanings that empower”) because of the ways that neoliberalism has co-opted phrases like “girl power” (see the essay “Girl power and ‘selfie humanitarianism’” by Gill et al) and the ways in which “empowerment” is the privileged cite for thinking about feminist sex, one that, as I argue in my dissertation, refuses to hold space for sex that is more ambivalent, that lies in-between sex empowerment and sexual assault.
[5]Rain has since protected her Twitter account, but her thread has been archived Tumblr.
[6]I want to acknowledge that Chatterjee’s essay isn’t dedicated to or for white people. As a disabled trans man of colour, Chatterjee is talking to those who experience privilege and oppression, and while I am a woman, I want to be careful to acknowledge my own power and privilege as I use his words. You can find the rest of the essay here.

adjuncts · blacklivesmatter · gradschool · phdchat · solidarity · structural solutions · unions

On the Recent NLRB Ruling in Favour of Grad Student Unions

Definitions matter. It’s a lesson I teach my Composition students every year: define your terms. Redefine old terms. Assert your intimate understanding of the topic and sculpt out the contours of your study at the outset. Writing a paper on gentrification? Identify and describe what that term means right away, so you can prove you’re in control and the reader can trust you as guide her through the paper.

In Canada, graduate students employed by the university have been allowed to unionize since a 1975 decision by the Ontario Labour Relations Board in the case of a graduate association at York University. Most major Canadian universities contain at least one student union, though it is important to note these unions are not the same as legally recognized collective bargaining units (*thanks for this important correction by the anonymous commenter below). These are not all affiliated with a larger national union, but as often funded and subsidized by the government, they retain autonomous power over their working conditions and ability to speak and act as a collective. The Canadian Federation of Students exists in order to represent the graduate employee needs of publicly funded universities. I’m not always on-board with the idealization of Canada that happens down here in the States, but this is one issue where I’m like – omg, yes.

In the US, public universities function under state law, and most of the major ones were unionized by the end of the twentieth century. Prior to 2000, and between 2004 and 2016, graduate students at American private universities were defined primarily as students rather than employees, blocking their ability to unionize on the basis that any labour conducted for the university serves as mere apprenticeship, training students for our future jobs. But, in this precarious academic climate, students are no longer satisfied with treating graduate school as a holding period for a future that may never come. In 2015, the super awesome graduate workers at New York University (many of whom I’m proud to count as friends) set the precedent for altering the NLRB’s ruling, and Columbia’s appeal for official recognition for private universities has just, in late August, been approved, reversing the Brown University ruling from 2004, and dispensing of an Amicus Brief submitted by a number of leading Ivy League universities voicing their opposition to the proposed ruling (using the dubious reasoning that collective bargaining would detract from the educational experience).

The Board Decision, found here, states in no uncertain terms that “student assistants who have a common-law employment relationship with their university are statutory employees under the Act,” countering the Brown University Board claim that graduate assistants are “primarily students and have a primarily educational, not economic, relationship with their university.” This is a victory of definitions–of better defining who is and isn’t an employee, who is and isn’t an employer, and what it means to be both a student studying to enhance the mind and a labourer working to enhance the university. It is both/and, not either/or. Already, in response to this decision, universities like Columbia have crafted subtly anti-union websites to try to dissuade students from acting on this decision (not linking, for obvious reasons). The campaign against graduate student workers has moved from a national to a local level.

Many grad students, especially those in the first years of the program, are beset by an innate sense of gratitude and obsequiousness toward their superiors; I remember this. Just the other day an anxious facebook status popped up in my Timehop wherein I bewailed the accidental sending of an email about graduate student business to a number of faculty members as well. I remember being afraid to speak up about conditions that seemed latently unfair, because hey – I’m tough, we’re all in this together, that person seems worse off than I am, I can handle being asked to work a few extra hours a week beyond my contract, right? Wouldn’t want to stir the pot and risk creating enemies.

But unions can give collective voice to these individual grievances, rendering instances of injustice both less personal and more urgent. And faculty should be on our side too–happier working conditions for us means happier working conditions for faculty.

Some believe that we should be grateful for the luxury of engaging in ideas of the mind, that this work is inherently fulfilling, and besides: we are not coal miners, whose working conditions are objectively worse than ours. According to such positions, by barely making above minimum wage, we are participating in a centuries-old tradition of the suffering monk, bent over his poorly lit desk and scratching away at parchment until the wee hours of the morning. There is a beauty and a nobility in that. But as a medievalist, I know that even these monks sometimes scribbled exasperated comments in the margins; they probably deserved and desired better working conditions, too! And as for the coal miner: true, we don’t experience the physical and mental duress and possible health risks of working long hours in a dingy mine. But we do face rampant mental health issues that we can’t even talk about for fear of demonstrating unfitness for the very conditions that have made us this way, and some of us confuse self care with actual care, neglecting to look after our basic needs. The presence of extreme suffering in the world does not negate the hardship we might also face, but on a relatively smaller scale.

A quick read through any of the extant graduate union contracts shows that graduate student unions empower the graduate community, giving them some control and autonomy over the precarious working conditions that enable institutional exploitation of cheap labour. But they also do more than this. Grad student unions can help us reach outside the bounds of the academy and partner with existing social movements in order to advocate for broader social change, examples of which are the grad union votes around the BDS movement, or actions against police unions inspired by #blacklivesmatter. Hillary Clinton, to her credit, praised the NLRB decision on Twitter, but elsewhere condemned BDS. The conversation is becoming more heated and more urgent, and as the new school year rolls into full swing, and election day draws (looms?) ever closer, I’m eager to see how the conversations will shift.

Definitions matter. I speak the voice of “we” and of “us” here, but technically I’m not part of the student body anymore – definitionally speaking. Like now Doctor Melissa (yay!!!!), it has been 25 consecutive years since I’ve entered the Fall semester not as a student, having successfully defended my dissertation in late August. But I still care about students’ rights, and I care about social movements that can mutually thrive and grow together, like the fight for graduate employee representation at private universities, the fight for more fair and equitable treatment of adjunct workers and other contingent faculty, and even the fight for just treatment of permanent faculty, who at Long Island University in Brooklyn have recently been locked out alongside their sessional brethren (ousted from their positions the day before the semester, deprived access to their university emails and health insurance, and replaced by temporary workers of dubious origin). Graduate employee, adjunct professor, and tenure-track professor alike, we’re all in this together.

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js Other works cited: 
Zinni, Deborah M., Parbudyal Singh, and Anne F. MacLennan. “An Exploratory Study of Graduate Student Unions in Canada.” Relations Industrielles / Industrial Relations 60.1 (2005): 145-176. JSTOR.  

#BeenRapedNeverReported · #BelieveSurvivors · social media · solidarity

Sweaty Concepts & Solidarity

All last week I walked around in a clammy, sweaty fog. I was getting over a cold, yes, but there was more to it than that. My jaw ached from clenching. My stomach jumped. I was distracted and tired and short-tempered. And I was that terrible kind of hot/cold all the time.

As I sat at my kitchen table on Thursday morning, trying to hit my word count before the baby woke up from her nap, before I had to get ready to go to campus and teach, before all of that, I could feel beads of sweat rolling down my back. Drip drip drip. I sat there, tense and typing. My jaw ached. That muscle between my thumb and forefinger was tight and sore. My hips hurt from tapping my feet while I worked. My eyes were having trouble focussing.

As I sat there, writing and sweating, I listened to the radio. CBC Radio 2, to be precise. I had been up since about seven that morning, so I had heard three rounds of the hourly news by this point. My ears pricked up each time the bom-bom-bom! sounded on the hour. I noticed right away, at seven, that instead of  the usual male voice saying “it is seven o’clock, and this is CBC News,” that today it was a woman making the announcements. Interesting, I thought. Savvy choice, I thought.

It was a woman, who, at eight o’clock, announce that “some women’s groups were upset by the Jian Ghomeshi trial proceedings.” Some women’s groups? Fuck you, CBC, I thought. Do better, I thought.

It was a woman’s voice who, at ten o’clock, announced that the judge would be reading the proceedings beginning at eleven.

And then, at noon, while I sat at my kitchen table, it was a man announcing the news. A man telling me that the verdict was “not guilty on all counts.” It was a man. Someone, somewhere at CBC thought to make that shift–women preparing listeners for a verdict, a man to give it. Huh, I thought. Sinister choice, I thought. No small thing, these micro-aggressions.

After I listened to those five words–not guilty on all counts–my ears started ringing. I tried to split my attention between my daughter, who was awake and clamouring for a bottle, and the sound bytes from the judge who decided it was a good idea, a fine plan, to verbally attack the three women who came forward as witnesses in this trial. This judge, this man, took it upon himself to try and tear down all the work these women had done. It was them, their bodies, their words that he disrespected.

As I stood in the kitchen feeling like the floor was getting further and further away my phone started to buzz. Friends and acquaintances were reaching out to each other, trying to make sense of the vertigo and nausea we were all feeling.

It was me, you, my daughter who got called into question with the judge’s monologue. That’s what I was thinking as I stood in my kitchen, shaking. Don’t talk to me about the law right now, I thought, I get it. I am another reasonably intelligent woman. Talk to me instead about how you hold up someone’s story and say no, this doesn’t count. Your experience is wrong, questionable, doesn’t matter. And then talk to me about metonymy, because this judge wasn’t just talking about the three women in that courtroom. No. He was saying “don’t trust any survivor.”

Listening to him filled me with an electric and incandescent rage. I had to sit down. I was so angry and shocked I could hardly see. Another example of words being weaponized. That’s what this judge gave us.

These women, oh, how I have thought of them in the past year and the past month. Their bodies had to carry their words and their stories into that courtroom. What would that feel like? When I am nervous and have to speak in front of people my voice shakes. I get tunnel vision. I break into a cold sweat. This happens a lot, because I am a lecturer. But the difference between my physical reactions to public speaking is that I, ostensibly, am the one in power in the classroom. Not these women. No, despite their bravery, and despite all we know about how we don’t fully know what trauma does to memory, despite all of this they were not the ones given power and agency in that room.

Sarah Ahmed’s notion of “sweaty concepts” is my guide here, as I try to think about embodiment and survival. As I try to think about embodiment and survival and solidarity. For Ahmed, the phrase “sweaty concepts” is a way of demonstrating how the work of description and exploration is labour. 

Here she is:
A concept is worldly but it is also a reorientation to a world, a way of turning things around, a different slant on the same thing. More specifically a “sweaty concept” is one that comes out of a description of a body that is not at home in the world. By this I mean description as angle or point of view: a description of how it feels not to be at home in the world, or a description of the world from the point of view of not being at home in it…. 

When I use the concept of “sweaty concepts” I am also trying to say we can generate new understandings by describing the difficulty of inhabiting a body that is not at home in a world. 

Sweat is bodily; we might sweat more during more strenuous activity. A “sweaty concept” might be one that comes out of a bodily experience that is difficult, one that is “trying,” and where the aim is to keep exploring and exposing this difficulty, which means also aiming not to eliminate the effort or labour from the writing…[1]

Trying to write about living in rape culture is exhausting. It makes me sweat and shake. Trying to write as a way of witnessing is, as Ahmed articulates, difficult. For every brilliant piece of writing about rape culture I read, I wonder what it cost the person who wrote it. How much sweat? How much shaking. 

And yet, they keep coming. The stories keep coming. The narratives are intersecting, and points of connection–between sexual assault, rape culture, transphobia, racism, and the failures of the carceral system–are becoming more and more clear. 

The cost of writing, and of speaking, seems to be far smaller than the cost of holding it in. Not everyone can talk about their experiences, I know that. I believe survivors who don’t report (I didn’t), who can’t speak up (I couldn’t). What I mean is this: things are shifting. Survivors, supporters, and allies are doing the hard, sweaty labour of thinking and writing their stories in public. We are writing through the sweatiness and shaking

It is difficult, this trying, but we are doing it. 

Need some inspiration and fuel for your resolve? Give yourself the gift of reading all the links in the GUTS Sunday round-up for this week

And know you’re not alone. 

feminist communities · grad school · making friends · mental health · solidarity

Healthy Friendships Within Academia

Departing from the Women, Academia, Sport theme for a minute – I am so not the person to write about such things, though the posts have been excellent! 

Have you noticed? There’ve been a string of articles recently about the value of female friendships, and how they supply alternatives and perhaps stronger bonds than marriages and romantic partnerships (or how they themselves can offer to straight women a different form of romanticism). There was this one in NYMag about a stormy “friendship affair” between two women; this one about love that sits outside of friendliness and sex and “both inside and outside of ‘family'”; and most recently, this one in the NYT about what friendships offer women outside of love (written by the author who writes about single women dominating the political landscape in America). Maybe this is following on the wake of Elena Ferrante frenzy (there is now a TV series in the works!), or maybe it just reflects a general across-the-board questioning, broadening, and even dismantling of traditional marital structures.

Personally, I have always been deeply reliant on friendships, perhaps because I do not have an especially large or close family. Maybe I expect my friendships to supply the permanency associated with family, and so find myself struggling–like, a lot–when friendships fade, when people move away, when I realize it’s been a minute since I’ve had a quality conversation with someone.

As I’ve discovered, academia presents particular difficulties to strong friendships.  This cleverly diagrammed listicle by Tim Urban from Wait But Why offers what I think is a stimulating system for thinking through the healthiness quotient of friendships. Consider this graph:

If you’re in the first stages of a PhD program, I would especially urge you to consider this graph, because these are some of the times when you’re likely to achieve the first-tier brother- and- sister-like friendships described in the Urban article, due to what sociologists identify as the ideal environment for making lifelong friends: “proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other” (generally associated with undergrad degrees, but I’m a late bloomer). At the beginning of a grad program, you’re taking the same classes, writing the same papers, gossiping over which professors are in touch with and available to students, or who gives minimal feedback on papers and holds office hours only by appointment. Together you are excited and proud to be enrolled in the graduate program, and eager to form new friendships that bridge the personal and the professional. Perhaps you hold area reading groups, language groups, writing workshop groups, you organize meals and drink dates together, and schedule regular coffees to talk through that final paper. You’re in the process of exploring yourselves and each other. You share hotel rooms at conferences and sometimes even plan vacations together, and you practice-test each other in the months leading up to oral exams. Together you build a uniquely generative and intimate intellectual community of scholars and buds.

Years later, when you’re still waiting for those letters to appear after your name and some of the prestige of being a budding PhD has worn down, when you’re unsure how you’re going to pay the bills the following year, when you’re competing with colleagues for courses and even jobs and facing the harsh reality that writing a dissertation is perhaps the most psychologically demanding thing you’ve ever attempted in your life, things change. The paths of you and your friends are diverging, perhaps in ways you don’t even realize. Sometimes, friendships end for reasons that are somewhat mysterious. Inherent in romantic relationships is an expectation that you provide some kind of explanation when things go awry. Not so with friendships.

So, if you’re an early graduate student, I’m here to offer you a couple tidbits of advice as you form bonds with the grad students around you.

  1. Be cautious when developing close friendships with people who tend toward excessive gossip or cattiness toward other people in the department. If you spend most of your time talking shit about other people, chances are the some day you’ll be talking shit about each other. I mean c’mon, Mean Girls taught us this. 
  2. Don’t feel you need to accept all offers of friendship presented to you. Is there something about this person that attracts you to them as well? Do you find him/her inspiring in some way? Or are you just feeling pressured to enter an academic clique? 
  3. Be intentional about reaching outside your institution and forming connections with other people, either at other institutions (if you are in an area with multiple universities), or outside academia entirely. Join a basketball league! Find an online community with shared interests or a hobby you’d like to develop! Take an art class! One of my favorite circles is the feminist book club I’m a part of which is composed mostly of nonacademics. In addition to ensuring that the sum total of your identity is not tied to academia, and helping you maintain a healthy work-life balance, these connections may open up inspiration and creativity in ways you don’t expect. And, with friends outside your department, the stakes are lower. I can celebrate my friend-outside-Fordham’s Teaching Excellence award with nary a twinge of jealousy–to which, let’s face it, we all fall prey.
  4. Be thankful for the lasting, genuine, tier-one and -two friendships that you have. These are the friendships that contain minimal suspicion and jealousy; regular, reciprocated enthusiasm; excitement and positive vibes. With these friends, you’re on the same team–and that is truly beautiful. Any kind of relationship that relies upon effort and enthusiasm rather than contractual obligation to enhance some aspect of our lives should be celebrated. And in that vein, why not pick up your phone and shoot off an expression of gratitude to someone dear to you right now!
#friendshipgoals
What about you, readers? Have you struggled with friendships within your academic environments, or found them to be generally fruitful and positive? Any advice you’d like to add?

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perpetual crush · solidarity

I Heart Academic Administrative Staff


Some things that my (yes, I think of her as mine even though I know she isn’t mine at all, but I can’t help feeling a little possessive) Research Officer has said to me over the course of assisting me as I lurched towards clicking the “submit” button for my SSHRC grant application:

“Naughty, naughty for trying!”
I tried, twice, to sneak something into my budget that is not permitted.
“sigh, ‘hope’ appears again.”
One may anticipate or expect to do things, but, really, there is no hope.
“You didn’t sleep last night, did you?”
When I couldn’t remember my password and was two attempts away from being locked out with only hours to go before the submission deadline.
“We were worried about you.”
For a while there, every budget document turned to magical mush in my hands.
It is no exaggeration to say that, without the support of my RO, and the coordinator of the research unit that hosts my application, I would not have submitted this application. Aside from little old me, no one cared more about my application than Janet and Alicia aka Goddesses of Research Support. I cannot think of the last time anyone read anything I wrote line by painstaking line and edited it with so much care, again and again and again and again and again.
They also insisted that I sing my own praises more fully. It seems so obvious now, but it never occurred to me to include positive quotes from reviews of my book when I was asked to think about the impact of my research. It wasn’t even modesty, false or otherwise, that made my first draft of the attachment that talks about my record as researcher so lame. I honestly just didn’t know that one could include reviews. I needed someone who had seen a lot of applications to tell me.
In the days before the deadline, I got more emails (each one action-packed with stuff that helped me along) from them than I got from my husband in the heady, early days of our courtship. The day before the deadline, when I showed up at their offices clutching my laptop with that quiet air of desperation that only SSRHC can engender in me, they asked me how I was feeling and I was so grateful that they thought to ask, that they knew exactly where I was at – right down to the number of characters I still had to cut on one of my attachments – that I almost cried. The night before the application was due, they emailed me to let me know when they would be stepping out for a few hours, and when they would be back on email to help me through any last minute crises that would erupt. They were totally there for me. They had my back.
Yesterday, Aimée wrote about the pivoting that is part of being a midcareer feminist academic. In the quiet hum of panic that preceded the hours before I submitted my grant application (I blame that feeling almost entirely on the countdown clock on the website which made me feel like I am in a boring academic version of 24 where the logic of the ticking clock leads me to moments of intensifying absurdity), I was thinking about her post and how incredible it is to be in a career where there are unbelievably brilliant and competent people whose whole job is about making me look good, or at least less of the dope that I would be if left to my own devices.
Hook & Eye has known about the power of academic administrative staff for a long time. We are lucky to count among our crew someone who is, among many other things, an outrageously awesome Research Officer. When Melissa wrote recently about the challenge of unconscious bias in reference letters, I was reminded all over again about the kind of crucial behind-the-scenes work that academic administrative staff do every single day. In a lot of ways, they know the stakes better than most of us because they see so much that academics just don’t see. Melissa reads thousands of reference letters a year. She lobbies funding agencies on our behalf for anti-bias practices and guidelines. She is totally there for us. She has our back.
We are a long way from Administrative Professionals’ Day (April 27, 2016 – put it in your calendar to buy some chocolate) but, in the hazy glow of my post-application submission moment, I want to remember how much we owe to the people who are at work every day making our jobs easier and better, who actually make our universities run, who make us look good because they are so freaking good.
And, of course, this is a feminist issue. It has not escaped my attention that the people who had my back with my latest research hurdle are women. Overwhelmingly, academic administrative staff members are women. There are vulnerabilities and actual silences for academic administrative staff in general. But, because we are really talking about a group largely made up of women, we have to attend to how these vulnerabilities are gendered too.
Of course, we also know that you cannot separate gender from class. Last week, I was at a Faculty Council meeting where the Provost and Vice-President of Finance for my university presented a new budget model. But it was also a presentation of our many budgetary crises and a general narrative of the need for more austerity. At one point, it was pointed out that “there was a lot of duplication” in the ranks of academic administrative staff. I thought about that comment, and how any of the staff members I work with would feel about the view that there wasn’t enough work for them. So, we as tenured academics, were being told that we were spending more money than we had, and that we had more staff (who have significantly few protections than tenured profs) than we need. We talk a lot about precarity on this blog, but it tends to be in the context of Contract Academic Faculty. Let’s also remember that academic staff live with precarities too.
Last spring, when the strikes by CUPE 3903 were over but still fresh in the minds of everyone on my campus, almost no one I knew was aware that the academic staff association was also in bargaining and that the bargaining had been going very badly. They were going to a strike vote. No one I knew who was not a staff member seemed to be aware of it. I remember talking with a staff member about what might happen, about how hard it was for them to communicate to the public, and to students in particular for whom staff are often the face of university administration, their position. Thankfully, it never came to a strike and an agreement was signed. But the shadow of that near-miss, and the realization of the way in which staff are so often caught between competing institutional agendas, remains with me.
So. Let’s be there for them.
broken heart · emotional labour · silence · solidarity · systemic violence · women and violence

Vulnerabilities


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.


The University of Toronto notified the university community of the threat via email on September 10, 2015. This response has been criticizedfor its lack of specificity. On September 11, 2015, the Toronto Police announced that the threats were not credible. The investigation is ongoing.

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.
Suddenly, things that seemed awesome were actually awful: I lived alone; I rode my bike to work; I was starting a new job in a new city where I didn’t know really anyone; I had my phone hooked up (remember when we all had land lines?) and was fine with having my phone number (and thus my home address) published in the phone book; I had just moved into the cutest little house and had the security system dismantled because I didn’t want to feel like a prisoner in my own house; I went to the grocery store all the time.

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.
But it took me a long time to stop feeling vulnerable. I still do sometimes. A lot of the time. Over the years, things like this still happen once in a while. I used to keep it all in a file somewhere and then I stopped because it felt like weight that I no longer wanted to carry.

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.
So, what do we do with these vulnerabilities? 


We keep showing up. We find solidarities. 

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.”
Meditating on where we can go when the hurt is not over, Ahmed reminds us that the response to repugnant acts is not to stifle the suffering. “We might need to attend to bad feelings not in order to overcome them, but to learn by how we are affected by what comes near, which means achieving a different relationship to all our wanted and unwanted feelings as a political as well as life resource.”

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.
change · guest post · solidarity · women and violence

Guest Post: On Violence in the University and Still Trying to Live With a Loving Heart

Today’s guest post is by Dr. Dory Nason of UBC’s First Nations and Indigenous Studies and the Department of English. Mighty thank you to you, Dory! 
_______________________________

In thinking about what I could share in this blog post, I am aware that I hold a tremendous responsibility, as a scholar, as a teacher and as an Indigenous woman, to confront the subject of settler colonial violence, a gendered, racialized and political violence that displaces and dispossesses us all from a better set of relationships. While I struggled to think of something more uplifting to discuss, such as mentorship, my upcoming sabbatical or what it’s like to be Indigenous and a woman in the academy (the good parts!), I couldn’t turn my mind away from what I have been feeling these last few months, indeed these last few years, as a faculty member witnessing story after story of violent acts perpetrated against women on campus, often by fellow students.

For a list of examples, one need only turn to the news stories of assault that has taken place on my campus over the last two years, and its underreported statistics. Or the trouble another young Indigenous student faced in receiving aid after she was the victim of numerous domestic violence assaults while she lived in campus housing. My campus to its credit has worked to address these situations through calling attention to them in press conferences and in convening task forces such as this one: UBC’s task force on Gender-based Violence and Aboriginal Stereotypes, which released its findings in 2014. 

You might ask why the addition of Aboriginal stereotypes to this important task force? The answer is, in addition to the “rape chants” exposed in the business school’s Frosh week culture, there were also reports of a “Pocahontas” chant students joyfully sang as spirit building exercises, that when exposed caused an uproar on our campus and others across the country.  The Pocahontas chant consisted mainly of the words “white man, steal our land.” While this exercise was meant to bring together incoming business students in a “fun” activity, it served to also remind Indigenous women on this campus how little has changed. It served to underscore that what still holds together settler camaraderie is a culture of gendered violence and dispossession  that still hunts us to this day.

But this is only the context of what I want to discuss. My title suggests that I do not wish to dwell on a culture of violence but that I want to live, teach and work with a loving heart that is not overtaken by this darkness. I believe this can only be accomplished by confronting the violence, naming it and setting a path out of this destruction in order to live better and more just relationships.

Not just a better set of relationships but a more loving set of relationships: to our communities, homelands, the land, human and non-human peoples, to ourselves, and, most of all, to a way of being in the world that in Anishinaabeg philosophy is referred to as Mino Bimaadiziwin, or simply the Good Life, or as my great uncle Paul Buffalo has described it, the way you live your life in the service of life. I often turn to his ethnography for inspiration and for memories of a different time and place where my ancestors flourished.

Paul grew up in a place and a time where he could attend to this philosophy in his own language, on Anishinaabe territory, and with a worldview that saw power in all things and required deep knowledge of a specific territory and its beings. He could draw on vast networks of knowledge passed down from elders, and for my Uncle, much of that knowledge came to him from his mother Margaret, my great grandmother on my father’s side.  Though I would never meet her, except in the stories my father tells, or that I read in Paul’s words, I think about her often as a woman of great resilience and skills.

Margaret was an herbalist, a mid-wife and apparently an excellent doctor of horses. She lived from sometime before 1880 and died in 1958, a period of time of great change and struggle for her community. She was a religious woman, and told Paul to remember the “Indian way of life,” and to practice it, telling him someday people would come and want to learn it from him and to write it down. This task consumed the last 13 years of his life working with a professor of anthropology to record his teachings.

I end with this story, because it situates me, and yet embedded in it, are all the forms of violence that I spoke of before. Yet at the same time, what I chose to foreground is the steadfast commitment that both Paul and Margaret had to ensure the continuance of cultural practices and a philosophy that valued life and creation over personal power and gain.  Resistance in their lifetime was to not allow powerful forces of boarding schools, allotment, or racism to remove them from a way of thinking and a set of life-affirming relationships that constituted an Anishinaabeg world.  It is a story of resistance familiar to all Indigenous peoples the world over.

I also think of my mother’s story, a joyful Mexican woman who came from a family of migrant farmworkers and who I remember as always working, laboring in restaurants, factories and retail shops in a small Nebraska town filled with anti-immigrant racism. And yet, she had so much generosity, often bringing home new immigrants who needed a place to stay or a warm meal.

These intersections of immigrant and Indigenous inform who I am. The violence of settler colonialism and anti-immigrant racism converge in ways that for me have always been experienced as gendered violence. This informs the work that I do but not in the ways that dwell at this convergence. In my research and teaching, I have tried to focus on the creative acts of resistance that Indigenous women have made in bringing back into view a better way of relating to the world and to each other. I look to stories and artistic practices that create connections and hold us up. That is not to say, these writers and artists shy away from the violence, in fact they are incredibly incisive in describing its varied forms, permutations, and hegemonic nature. 

What I am interested in however is how stories and artistic practices recall and recast Indigenous philosophies that express heart knowledge, a radical love and resistance and offer ideas about decolonization, resurgence and better ways to be in solidarity with each other.  With that brief explanation of what I do, I thought I’d close my ramblings with a few words from my Uncle Paul in a passage that comes from his discussion of power. For him real power is accessed through attentiveness to one’s well-being, the well-being of others and one’s understanding of the natural world around her. In this excerpt, he explains the importance of not dwelling in sadness in order to maintain a sense of empowerment.  I think this is an important and difficult task for a lot of us who study these important yet difficult things:

He says:

Don’t cry. If you do cry maybe it will be cloudy again, and that means trouble in your life. You’ll cry tears and then you can’t see a brightening when it’s there. When you don’t cry you show appreciation to the sun and the moon that brightens up, gives you light, makes things grow–like vegetation, and the stuff you eat. You have to appreciate what nature’s doing for you. The spirits, the Great Spirits, are doing all these things during the rest hours at night. You have to rest too, and if you do then there’s no drawback that you can cry over.

You’re given life on this earth and it’s up to you to go around and appreciate it. By appreciating that life, you have to thank for what you have got. You have to appreciate it by speaking to yourself and your heart saying that you appreciate what has been done in the past. That’s what I do. I do that. And the trees are living and birds are singing. Birds sing too, they sing, and talk amongst themselves. If we did hear them talk we couldn’t understand them anyhow, but we know they’re singing. It’s nature, of all things! Oh, this is the world to study! It is the answer to your life. When you practice this with your friends you’ll see a good life. (Roufs)

Dory Nason is Anishinaabe and Chicana and a proud member of the Leech Lake Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe.  She is a grateful guest on Coast Salish territory where she teaches at UBC in First Nations and Indigenous Studies and the Department of English in the fields of Indigenous methodologies, literature and feminisms. Her research focuses on Indigenous women’s creative activism and intellectual history on Turtle Island.  She is currently at work on her book, Red Feminist Criticism: Indigenous Women, Activism and Cultural Production and the co-editor of the forthcoming volume Tekahionwake: E. Pauline Johnson’s writing on Native America with Broadview Press.

Works Cited
Roufs, Timothy. “Power, Chapter 28.” When Everybody Called Me Gah-Bay-Binayss, “Forever-Flying-Bird”: An Ethnographic Biography of Paul Peter Buffalo.  Available at 
#alt-ac · academic reorganization · administration · contract work · enter the confessional · jobs · risky writing · solidarity · strike

Crossing the Lines

I’m taking a break from the #Alt-Ac 101 series this week to talk about the York University and University of Toronto strikes, a topic near and dear to my heart. Despite those strikes being weeks old by this point, I haven’t felt able to address them until now, in large part because I work for York University. More specifically, I work in the Faculty of Graduate Studies, for a Dean who is a key member of the employer-side bargaining team. It has felt distinctly unsafe, in and out of the office, to take any but the party line on the current “labour disruption,” as the university likes to call it. Indeed, any language I use about the strike in the office is prescribed by the university. But I will be a York University employee no longer after today–I’m moving over to the Hospital for Sick Children, where I’ll be running award and professional development programming for the students and postdocs in the hospital’s research division–and so I can now speak as I like.

I had been a PhD student for all of three months when we went on strike in 2008. York University’s CUPE 3903 represents graduate students and contract academic faculty, and it was largely for the benefit of the latter that we went out that year. We knew precarity when we saw it, we knew that the system could do better, and we knew that we were the ones who had to force it to. We struck for months, in the bitter cold, and while we did the university shut down almost entirely. The only cars coming onto campus were those of staff members, or delightful friends bearing sandwiches, thermoses of coffee, and scrap wood for burning. We continued bargaining, although when no agreement could be reached we were legislated back to work and into a new collective agreement. We did at least win some gains in the conversion program, which saw contract academic faculty positions converted to tenure lines. I ended the strike feeling exhausted and disoriented, although far savvier about what lay ahead of me if I ended up becoming CAF myself, and far closer to my program colleagues than I had been before the strike started. I had to trash my parka, because it was so deeply impregnated with smoke from the fire barrel that I couldn’t get the smell out. After months of eating them cold and soggy out of a mittened hand, I could never face the Grad Cafe’s channa masala wrap again. 
This time around, I’m crossing the picket lines daily, because I’m forced to. If I don’t, I lose my job. Students have been given the right to refuse to cross, and faculty can stay away as long as classes continue to be suspended (and are making a case that being forced to resume teaching without TAs compromises academic integrity, and so refusing to is a matter of academic freedom), but I have no choice. I walk quickly, with my hood up, my headphones in, and my hands in my pockets. I want to join my graduate colleagues, to wave and shout encouragement, but from my side of the sidewalk I worry it would look like mockery or a threat. At the office, I’m required to refer to the strike as a “labour disruption,” to point students to statements like “Regrettably, two units of CUPE 3903 representing Teaching Assistants and Graduate Assistants (Units 1 and 3), rejected the University’s offers and remain on strike,” when the only thing I think is regrettable is the lack of solidarity among units. I sit in my office and watch my colleagues be threatened with gun violence on the lines via YouTube, and follow along on Twitter as Senate, amidst strenuous opposition, decides to resume classes while the strike is ongoing. I watch the lines of cars get longer and longer as more people try to enter campus. I watch tempers flare. I watch administration decide that resuming classes is more important than resuming bargaining. I watch the employer-side bargaining team withhold, withhold, withhold until the night before the strike deadline, when miraculously something resembling a decent offer shows up on the table. I watch administration invite Unit 1 and 3 members to return to work despite the fact that they are on strike.

What neither university seems to understand is that this strike is not really about wages. Nor is it about seniority, or benefits, or childcare, not really. It is about the fact that graduate students and contract academic faculty, in Canada and elsewhere (see Boyda for a New York perspective) recognize that the academic employment (and teaching, and research) system is broken. It is about the fact that they feel as though they are the only ones who are going to attempt to change it. It won’t be tenured faculty. It won’t be undergraduate students. It will be graduate students and CAF, or no one, and their chance is now. This is their chance to say “you want to pretend that I only work 10 hours a week and prohibit me from taking any outside employment? Fine–pay me enough to live on.” This is their chance to insist that at least a few of their ranks–a minuscule number, considering that York employed nearly 1800 CAF last year (as compared to not quite 1400 t-t faculty)–have the chance to enjoy at least some measure of job security. This is their moment to seize what is a miraculous surge in positive public opinion and require our universities to be accountable, to step up, to do better. 

Our universities, the people they are made up of, can do better. 
But not by forcing their graduate students to choose between their education and their jobs. Not by using rhetoric that suggests that the only students who matter are the undergraduates, when graduate students are students too. Not by putting them in danger on the picket lines by inviting thousands of people to cross them daily. But by recognizing that once, they as administrators were the graduate students they’re vilifying, the CAF they exploit while hiring ever-increasing numbers of questionably necessary administrators (me included). They can do better by recognizing their own privilege, and their responsibility as those with power to enact change. They can do better by attempting to understand, rather than dismissing. They can do better by getting back to the bargaining table and bargaining in good faith. 
I’m not going to miss crossing the picket lines. But at least now I can speak about it, instead of just watching.