The faculty at Mount Allison University — my university — are on strike. My colleagues at the University of New Brunswick have been on strike for several weeks now. This means that half the public universities in my new home province are on the picket lines.
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.
I’ve been thinking about role models lately. In our graduate professionalization seminar this week, we were talking about issues related to teaching: practical issues like classroom management, broader issues like different pedagogical theories relating to the teaching of writing, but also bigger, structural questions of “What does a career teaching in the academy look like, going forward?”
You probably know from your own experience that most university teachers are passively trained: we pick up a teaching style from being taught, mostly. We then model ourselves consciously or unconsciously to resemble teachers we admired: these are, literally, our role models. This applies to our research and service work as well: we learn how to do library research in a pretty programmatic way, perhaps, but the practices relating to books versus articles, how many submissions per year, what kinds of conferences, how to select and do university service (or avoid doing it), how to comport ourselves in meetings, all of that we kind of … make up as we go along, deliberately or accidentally modeling our behavior on what we’ve seen from others, usually senior to us.
The academy is changing. Fast, and a lot. Bigger classes, more diverse students, online teaching, greater research expectations, expectations related to seeking and securing outside funding, collaborative service work, higher stakes administrative work, politicization and austerity, and globalized classrooms.
It’s possible that some of those more senior scholars we most admire actually work in a version of the academy that doesn’t exist for junior scholars. An academy where teaching loads keep going down, to promote a research agenda. Where all the students speak English as a first language, or you can let someone else deal with that. Where SSHRC actually funds non-targeted research. Where teaching online is a hobby, or something you can do for extra money. Where you can ignore, mostly, the external climate of anti-intellectualism and academy-bashing, because you’ve still got lots of majors and enough government money. Where mentoring PhDs involves writing them reference letters for academic jobs.
Life on the ground in the profession looks different now even than when I started here, almost ten years ago. It’s worlds different from when I started as a student at York, in a first year English seminar, with a cap of 12 students and taught by a senior professor.
I like the academic social media space in part because it allows us to find role models among academics of our own generation: a kind of lateral modelling where we can figure out the structural realities together, as they operate today. We can become colleagues in arms, building horizontal relationships to give context and nuance, maybe, to the vision of the life of the mind we pick up from our traditional role models or mentors, who tend to be senior to us.
Who are your role models? IRL, when I was a grad student, and of course since then as well, my role models have included Heather Zwicker (my dissertation supervisor) and Susan Brown (my MA supervisor). Heather showed me that you can be assertive and sassy and smart and get ahead on your own terms. Susan showed me how to be a feminist and a digital humanist at the same time, in a literature department. And what it might be like to start a family on the tenure track.
I have some new and different role models now. Erin Wunker is teaching me about what it means to be an academic in the new world of LTAs and increasing contingency: a teacher and researcher with incisive smarts and grace, clear-eyed and articulate. Lee Skallerup Bessette is teaching me about loud and proud contingency, about changing research areas without real institutional support, about building community through networking and public writing. Adeline Koh is teaching me about weaving a thorough interrogation of race and gender into digital humanities work, about building alliances and calling bullshit and being thoroughly engaged across scholarly and para-scholarly platforms: this is what integrity looks like. I hope to be learning more from Melissa Dalgleish about post-academic careers and what a new kind of life of the mind might look like.
I’m trying to cultivate mentors and models from across the ranks, and across the wide range of academic lives: I feel the richer for it, humbled by the various kinds of excellence I am lucky enough to witness. I feel empowered from these examples to continue to learn to be the kind of academic that I can become.
What about you? Can you share some of your role models? We’d love to hear about them.
Remember that song “Hot Topic” by Le Tigre? I sure do. The first time I heard it was in Chapel Hill, North Carolina at the Cat’s Cradle. I was just about to finish my undergraduate degree. Kathleen Hanna was jumping up and down and shouting out the names of women who have been of the utmost influence in her life. Behind her, JD Samson and Johanna Fateman were rocking out and adding names of their own. It was one of the last shows I saw before I left North Carolina and moved back to Canada, and I think of it often. Hearing Le Tigre give shout-outs to women was revelatory for me. Here were women celebrating other women. Here was a joyful and empowering naming of names, a series of affirmations and citations bound together with a refrain of “Don’t stop! Please don’t stop! I can’t live if you stop!”
I have had “Hot Topic” on my mind a great deal for a few reasons in the last few weeks. First, it is nearing the one-year anniversary of the founding of Canadian Women in the Literary Arts. A cause for both reflection and celebration, the nearing anniversary has come with several mentions in the news. In some cases, those mentions are positive. In other cases, they come with an undercurrent of dismissal towards CWILA’s mandate. I find myself thinking through the reasons for these multifaceted reactions to the crucial volunteer work being done by CWILA members.
I also think of “Hot Topic” and the importance of giving shout-outs and solidarity to women who speak out in public forums. Sina Queyras aka Lemon Hound is currently fundraising for a prize for the best piece of critical writing by a woman. Recently, Lemon Hound published Zoe Whittall’s poem “Unequal To Me,” a poem that calls attention to the ways in which men review women’s book. It went viral. That same week Jon Paul Fiorentino wrote a piece for the Huffington Post on sexism and silence in the Canadian literary scene. I am still thinking through my response to the reason Fiorentino needed to write the post, but what I do know is that solidarity matters, and being vocally supportive in public matters. So much.
So here is the beginning of my shout-outs. In the spirit of Le Tigre I offer the beginning of a list of women who have been and continue to be formative in my life. This is just a start, I’ve limited myself to people I have seen, spoken with, or whose texts I have read in the last month, otherwise I would never finish the list:
Sina Queyras, Gillian Jerome, Jade Ferguson, Heather Zwicker, Susan Bennett, Carrie Dawson, Smaro Kamboureli, Laura Moss, Afua Cooper, Marina Young, Shelley Young, El Jones, Tanis McDonald, Aritha van Herk, Emily Ballantyne, Anne Carson, rita wong, Marie Clements, TL Cowan, Nicole Brossard, Erin Moure, Marjorie Stone, Larissa Lai, Tasha Hubbard, Vanessa Lent, Natalie Walschots, Martha Radice, Christl Verduyn, Peggy Phelan, Toni Morrison, Susan Brown, Claire Campbell, Kaarina Mikalson and a million more. As Kathleen Hanna says: don’t stop! Please don’t stop!
Today’s guest post is the first in an at least two-part conversation around the challenges — old and new — of the Academy. Next week I will post a response to Jade Ferguson’s piece that continues the conversation.
A recent Think Tank brought scholars from across Canada to the TransCanada Institute to discuss the continuous defunding of the university, the increasing denigration of intellectual work, and the anxiety-ridden conditions faced by emerging scholars.* Some of the critiques of the neoliberal devaluation of post-secondary education were notable for their deployment of the discourse of race struggle. The embedding of market-logic and corporate-style management into the academy was likened to the degraded conditions of a “plantation economy.” This was not my first time hearing senior faculty describe management as “overseers.” Jo-Anne Wallace’s “wishful allegory of university administration” employs Leslie Fiedler’s well-known and controversial reading of the racial relationship between Huck and Jim (18). She writes, “it is we [faculty] who are the dreamers, the Jims, who call out … I won’t say to ‘our oppressors’ … to come back to the raft again, come back to the breast, to the dream of emancipation that is at the heart of real education” (18). I want to take up the issue of race in the struggle against the corporatization of the university by examining “the problem of the color line” (W.E.B. Du Bois’s pithy formulation for discussing race relations in the early twentieth century) and the public feeling of sadness in the academy.
One of the central objectives of the Think Tank was to devise some concrete means that may help provide mentorship and sustainability for recent doctoral graduates. Nine emerging scholars (4 part-time/contingent/contract faculty and 5 full-time/tenure- track faculty, all of whom teach and do research on Canadian literature) bravely provided stories about their precarious existence in the university. These stories outlined the pervasive conditions of unprotected work and invisible exploitation faced by recent graduates. Despite this “shared precariousness,” an underlying tension quickly emerged: 4 of the 5 tenure track faculty were people of colour and all 4 contract faculty were white. Rather than reducing this racial division to happenstance, this local instantiation of the colour line reflects in part the new racialized conditions of emerging scholars in the Canadian academy. In contrast to the anxiety-ridden conditions of the job market described by white emerging scholars (at the Think Tank and on blogs such as Hook & Eye), it often appears as if people of colour are “the beneficiary of policies that provide jobs, fellowships, and other support” (Cvetkovich 124). Like the other junior faculty of colour, I was hired ABD. I did not experience a long and arduous struggle for employment. However, as Ann Cvetkovich astutely notes, “what often goes invisible in the polite world of bureaucratic culture are the casual forms of racism or lack of understanding that make this condition of so-called privilege one that is also pervaded by anxiety and stress” (124).
The four faculty of colour each expressed their own complex affective stories about what racism in the academy feels like. My ongoing sense of alienation and disenfranchisement as a black scholar has made it impossible for any easy sense of belonging in the academy, and the burden of this untenable existence has created an inconsolable sadness that affects all levels of my everyday experience. However, I was not the only one who was sad. The university-in-crisis is an emotional catalyst for sadness on both sides of the divide. Erin Wunker uses Lauren Berlant’s notion of “cruel optimism” to describe the “affective bind of precarious employment,” but “suspended agency” is perhaps most affectively accompanied by forms of sadness that descend “when the belief that one should be happy or protected turns out to be wrong and when a privileged form of hopefulness that has so often been entirely foreclosed for black people is punctured” (Wunker, Cvetkovich 116). While listening to their stories, I found myself unwilling to fully attend to the depth of this white sadness; after all, I told myself, “their forms of sadness were incommensurable with those of the historically disenfranchised, an incommensurability that is lived affectively as alienation and hopelessness” (120). The difficult discussion chillingly revealed “the emotional color line” that separates (my) black sadness and (their) white sadness (116).
The Think Tank opened a discursive space to “dwell in sadness” (117), which our ideas for possible concrete political action in the concluding session were woefully unable to address. The turn to immediate concrete political action seemed to circumscribe the call for political uncertainty that had previously been expressed. Engaging with David Eng and Shin Hee Han’s suggestion that “melancholy’s negativity might in fact be a productive corrective to a naïve politics of hope,” Cvetkovich argues that “tending to feelings means the disruption of politics as usual” (117). Central to this work, she argues, is a “sense that we might not know what politics is,” and thus, we “need to slow down in order to see what these feelings might be” (117). The challenge left before us is to explore “the full measure” of this public feeling of sadness “without seeking immediate redemption…[or] giving up a hopefulness that remains stubbornly faithful for no good reason in the midst of despair” (117). I abruptly left the concluding session of the Think Tank because I was unable to tell my colleagues, without collapsing in tears, that despite the chasm of mis/understanding I still had hope. In our struggle to preserve the “dream of emancipation that is at the heart of real education” (Wallace 18), a more nuanced coalitional politics and political rhetoric must emerge. We are not all Jims.
Jade Ferguson, University of Guelph
Cvetkovich, Ann. Depression: A Public Feeling. Durham & London: Duke UP, 2012. Print.
Wallace, Jo-Ann. “Come Back to the Ranks Ag’in, Huck Honey!” English Studies in Canada 37.3-4 (Sept/Dec 2011): 17-20. Print.
Wunker, Erin. “On Doubt.” Hook & Eye. 18 March 2013. Web. 7 April 2013.
Dr. Afua Cooper is the James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies at Dalhousie, here in Halifax. She is a scholar, a poet, a performer. I first encountered her through her scholarship when I read The Hanging of Angelique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal. This historical biography not only tells the story of Marie-Joseph Angelique, a slave woman who was convicted and killed for the suspected arson that destroyed a large portion of Old Montreal, it tells one story from Canada’s history of slavery. Cooper pulls Angelique from the darkness of the archives, and Angelique brings with her a portion of Canadian history that has been all but occluded from cultural memory and dominant historical narratives of the nation.
Erin’s most recent post, on the gamble that is the leap off the cliff from graduate student to … whatever … comes … after … is compelling for several reasons. The awkwardness of the situation–of being neither here nor there, one of us or one of them, or the question of how to become member of a tribe as yet undetermined, the looming unknowns of money of travel of location, of permanence and impermanence or lock-in versus flexibility–stresses the body, the soul, the wallet. It hampers the vision of the future; it colours the present, usually in greyish tones. The gamble has high stakes; it plays out over years.
But I’m struck most forcefully by the bind that Erin articulates in the comments: how can she write honestly about any of this when she’s still in between? How to be anything but positive, a good team player, before all the teams are chosen and you’re still hoping to be picked? How to talk about teaching when your experience is thin enough that generalizations don’t protect the innocent or the guilty? How to take yet more risks when standing on the knife-edge between in and out?
I don’t know. She can’t, I guess is the short answer. Nor can many of you, those of you who are contingent or temporary or contractually limited, or who are students, and thus have very little weight to throw around. Maybe Heather can’t either: she’s Vice Dean now and her words have, maybe, too much weight. Maybe she’s bigger than herself, in the ways that those of us who lift up the institutional mantle to carry it forward necessarily become first person plural.
Who’s left, then?
Me, probably. Tenured, but still young. Wising up to the way the institution and the profession works, without yet having been sucked up into actually making the machinery operate as an administrator. I’ve often heard of the particular and heavy burden that the mid-career (that is, tenured) associate professor faces: a ton of committee work, some administration, a lot of peer review and evaluation. But I think it’s less a weight right now than a power. Can you even imagine? With tenure part of my responsibility is to promote those ideas I think are the absolute best ones, damn the torpedoes. And I’ll still have a job if I do draw enemy fire. Academic freedom protects the process and products of my research from any kind of interference, but the model of collegial governance under which universities are organized extends this privileged capacity to speak–this responsibility–to more mundane and consequential questions of how the work we do gets done, and by whom, and under what conditions or circumstances.
I’m in the sweet spot. Tenured and in full possession of my academic freedom, without the weight of all the necessary balancing of interests that a chair or a dean or administrator might have to deal with. I already serve on committees where I get to advocate for graduate students, for our curriculum, for what kinds of computers the labs should get, for whom we should hire. The trick now is to expand my view, to try to take in the interests of all those members of my department, my institution, who can’t express their needs with as full-throated a job-protected, academic-freedom granted volume as I can muster. And I can muster it, believe me, effective or not.
So. The job falls to the associates now: it’s our job to call bullshit, our job to notice when the emperor has no clothes, or when those clothes have been created from skinned graduate students and sessional labourers (figuratively, of course). We’ve got the biggest, least fractured, best protected voices on campus, and we should use ’em. We must use ’em.
Are you an associate professor? How do you see your role in speaking up for those without your privileges or access? Not an associate professor? What gaps in my knowledge should I address to better serve the interests of all the members of the university?
I’m in the sweet spot. And I’m willing to be cranky on your behalf. Bring it.
It is hard to be a teacher in November. The grading seems never-ending. The strange emails from students who have not been in class since September start trickling in. Research deadlines for the semester creep closer and closer. And there are still two and a half weeks worth of lectures to be written. Oh yes, and did I mention the grading? But recent and ongoing events have reminded me once again that these are small (albeit pressing) parts of my job as a teacher. There are global lessons to be learned. They are unfolding before our eyes, and they are being taught to us by students.
Like many of you I have spent the weekend watching in horror as students sitting in peaceful protest on the ground are sprayed directly in the face with pepper spray. I have watched as professors stand with their students in peaceful protest, and I have watched as they too are thrown to the ground. I have read one of the most powerful examples of speaking truth to power in Assistant Professor Nathan Brown‘s open letter to University of California Davis Chancellor Linda PB Katehi calling for her resignation. And when that Chancellor finally left the safe confines of her office I have watched as hundreds of students employ the powerful tool of silence. I have watched this all from my computer screen in my home in Canada where on November 10th police were called onto the campus of my alma mater and pepper sprayed students who were in peaceful protest against tuition hikes.
I have been enraged by these occurrences. I have been disheartened. I have been moved to tears. But most importantly, I have been moved.
Sure, some of those students who demonstrated incredible restraint while Chancellor Katehi walked to her car have handed in late assignments, skipped class, or sent emails signed ‘respond ASAP!’ Or not. No doubt some of the students on the McGill campus sit in the back of class and text throughout lectures. What I mean here is that these are not perfect people; they are people whose lives are affected by policies, economies, and now by pepper spray.
As Cathy N. Davidson and others suggest, those of us who teach in the university space have a responsibility to our students that extends beyond coming to class prepared with well written and well conceived lectures.What I am saying moreover is this: there is a profound connection between standing in front of students in a classroom and standing beside students on political and ethical grounds. It is a connection I am going to work harder to remember as I walk into the classroom, and as I manoeuvre through the minutiae. We occupy positions of relative power, even those of us in sessional or part-time positions. We owe it to our students to let them know that we support them, that we care about their issues, and that we will stand with them in protest against injustice.
We owe it to them. We owe it to the future we want to occupy.
Thanks to TVM, MJH, and MRE. Thanks to Judith T. for telling me she was also moved.
This week I have had the luxury of a four day weekend, or rather I have had four days in a row where I have been able to focus on work. What’s more, I’ve been happy to hunker down in my little flat making pot after pot of tea and work chip away at the monstrous To Do list that haunts my every waking moment. Not since I was an MA student living alone with neither roommates nor partner have I had such a solitary and focussed weekend. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t–couldn’t–work like this all weekend every weekend, but this was a rare and welcomed gift of time + space + focus = productivity. Amazing!