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Resilient Pedagogy for Fragile Times

Teaching is a practice, not a perfect. This is a lesson that nearly all of us are currently working through, as near-universal campus shutdowns mid-semester pushed everyone suddenly and completely out of the classrooms we knew and into emergency remote teaching. Spring semester for many has been some hybrid of emergency and intention, a steep learning curve managing curricular expectations with the fallout of a near-total economic shutdown, waves of illness and displacement, the collapse of our support systems for everything from personal care to child care.

I don’t know about you, but as empowered and fortunate as I am in my life, my personal resilience has been sorely challenged by our Current Situation. It’s hard to transform my teaching when I can hardly manage to answer an email some days–and many of my students are in the same boat, that’s got a leak, and their bailing bucket is a thimble. I have to find a way to make it work, flexibly and compassionately and nimbly.

A discussion of resilient pedagogy is flowering online this week, like some kind of strawberry plant whose dormant rhizomes invisible under the soil all spouted up into the light at once, distinct and individual but still connected.

Like here: https://twitter.com/joshua_r_eyler/status/1270049889678999552?s=20

And here: http://www.cal.msu.edu/about/longview/imagining-resilient-pedagogy

And here: https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/learning-innovation/preparing-future-disruption-hybrid-resilient-teaching-new-instructional

And here: https://twitter.com/aktange/status/1270328802820984833?s=20

I think I might be a strawberry plant, too–I recognize in some of the blind underground grasping I’ve been doing to transform my own teaching over the past several years might in fact be part of a larger, coherent set of practices we could collect under the resilient pedagogy umbrella. Spurred by my own mid-career ADHD and ASD diagnoses into a re-evaluation of my work practices and beliefs, and a growing attention to the necessity of a teaching praxis rooted in universal design–a teaching focused on a much broader kind of accessibility and inclusion for all rather than accommodations for individuals–I have been rebuilding my courses from the ground up. And it turns out that I have been building resilient courses.

There are some things I’ve never been good at: answering a bunch of specific emails; writing lectures; getting everything completely arranged in advance; having “lecture notes” to share with students; tracking daily details; remembering thing; managing my out-of-class time to produce things for class. There are some things I’ve always been very good at: lively in-class interactive activities; responding to current events in real time and producing lesson plans incredibly quickly; motivating students. And so, I started rearranging my teaching to mitigate my weaknesses and play to my strengths. At the same time, this offered a lot more flexibility and utility to students. Then I won a big fellowship that necessitated a lot of mid-semester travel, which reduced my ability to be physically present, often. And then my mom’s terminal cancer entered its end stages, which greatly impacted my emotional and cognitive availability, and also sometimes required trips with no notice.

What I came to, in the most general sense, was that the goal of my relationship with students was to empower them to become literate in a given domain of knowledge so that they could eventually direct their own learning, as curious critical thinkers. It struck me that creating a new course and then teaching it was the main way that I learn new material: I decided that course prep is probably the highest value learning activity of a given course, and that I would stop hogging it to myself and start downloading it onto students. So I would have way less prep to, could be a lot more available for interactions, and would empower students to come into their own critical literacy. As it turns out, I turned a highly bottlenecked and teacher-dependent classroom into a mesh network of massive parallel processing where the burdens of teaching and learning were distributed much more diffusely across participants, across the span of the semester, and across modalities. I built resilient teaching.

Here are some things that I do, that give a lot more flexibility for everyone to do their best and learn the most, even when disaster or absence or illness might knock one or some or all of us of course, more or less severely. Forthwith, one post on each topic, because I HAVE A LOT TO SAY ABOUT THIS STUFF.

  • Stable, semester long groups
  • Collaborative class notes
  • One-page reading summaries
  • Short assignments, different modalities
  • Short assignments, not sequence
  • Flipped classroom: pedagogy of gentle provocation
  • Meta-cognitive classroom: teaching the teaching

Today I’ll write about the stable, semester long groups

At the beginning of the semester, I put students in groups of 3-5 people, depending on the class size, so that I wind up with 5-8 groups of students. These groups are stable over the term. They are crucial to everything that follows. Groups chunk grading; groups become a small network of accountability and support for students in them; if one member of a group cannot participate in a given activity, others can cover; groups allow students to focus on their own strengths as they negotiate roles with group members; groups help shy students feel safe in discussions because they’re smaller than The Entire Class; groups make learning social and peer-driven; groups are easier in all ways for me to manage than atomized students.

This is where it gets exciting, though: the kinds of work I assign to groups. Yes! It brings out my strengths and theirs, covers my weaknesses and theirs, and is both decentralized, redundant, and robust. WINNING!

I’m bad at planning detailed lessons in advance, but I’m good at producing frameworks. At the beginning of the term, the main topic and readings of each week are laid out. I teach social media, so that means I assign the scholarly readings for the whole term in advance, but explicitly leave space for me to chuck in all the primary texts week by week, based on What The Hell Is Happening On The Internet Today. I am also good at producing lesson structures. I know that each week in my selfies class, for example, each of the secondary readings will need a one page summary (produced by a group), each topic will need some relevant primary texts (found and shared by a group), each class meeting will require a detailed set of lecture notes (captured, organized, and edited by a group). Each group rotates through each activity at least twice, and the dates are set on day 1, so they can all mark them in their planners. And then we spend half a class discussing how they might organize and apportion the work, how they can publish their documents to the course CMS in the proper lesson, and how they can get help from me.

For example, group 1 might have four students in it. In week 2, they might be taking class notes. In week 3, they might produce a structured one-page summary of a critical reading. In week 7, they might be responsible to find three examples of Instagram influencers who suffered backlash over undisclosed #sponcon. At the end of the term, each group member reports on their own participation and role in the group, and assesses their group mates.

We explicitly learn how to work in groups, how to assess the strengths and challenges of each group member, and how to negotiate communication modalities, communication styles, work flow, and roles. We discuss how to accommodate one another and how to build each other up into a group that is greater than the sum of its parts. We discuss the power of both diversity and inclusion in group work, how many hands make light work but many brains make better ideas.

I am always going to do this forever. First of all, these are writing assignments that have actual real world value: these documents the groups produce are useful to and used by everyone in the class, including me. The materials they produce are embedded in the actual content pages of the CMS, not dropped into the black hole of a dropbox to be read and graded by me. This is living writing. Second, this has greatly increased the course accessibility, for all of us, because it reduces the responsibility of any given individual to need to perform in any class, and spreads the work around. Thirdly, it means any or many of us can flame out of any given day, lesson, or assignment, and the course rolls on, fully functional, even if, as happened this winter, the instructor leaves the class for six weeks, mid-semester, on a short-term disability leave.

How? Well, tune in for my next post, on the collaborative class notes assignment that groups complete.

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Faster Feminism Spotlight: Dr. Lynn Jones & Archiving as a Means of Liberation

If you’re not familiar with the incredible life and work of Dr. Lynn Jones, then hold on to your seat. Or your hat. Or just let go and listen.

Last Friday Dr. Jones was the guest speaker for the Dalhousie Feminist Seminar Series. The Dalhousie Feminist Seminar Series is a series of informal discussions about feminist scholarship being conducted by faculty and students at Dalhousie University, our colleagues at other universities, and community members. Founded in 2015, the seminar series provides opportunities for socializing and conversation among those interested in gender and women’s studies. Until this year we were a committee of two. Dr. Catherine Bryan and I are delighted to be joined by Dr. Asha Jeffers, Dr. Eli Manning, and supported and in formal collaboration with Dr. Liesl Gambold and the GWST programme here at Dalhousie. 

Given the, ahem, constraints of this particular year, we feel fortunate to be able to move the series online. We’re especially grateful, because when the speaker’s grant us permission, I will be archiving the talks here so that more people can access them. Let me introduce you to Dr. Lynn Jones.

Dr Lynn Jones is a community and labour activist who grew up in Truro, Nova Scotia. 

From the time she was a child, she struggled against racism and segregation. She protested against the Vietnam and Nigerian Biafra War in university, and advocated for better access to post-secondary education for Black and Aboriginal students. 

Jones became a strong labour activist with the Public Service Alliance of Canada, and then became the first woman of colour and African Canadian to be elected Vice President of the Canadian Labour Congress.  

Throughout her life, Lynn has been active in the pursuit of justice, working tireless for many causes and organizations that seek to eradicate racism, secure human rights, and achieve fair labour practices. She has been active in the environmental racism and justice movement and helped craft the first environmental racism bill in Canada. 

In 2016, she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Humanities from Acadia University. On Friday Dr. Jones revealed that she’s recently been granted another Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters from Mount Saint Vincent University.

Currently, she is working to obtain reparations for Afrikan People & highlighting the crimes that occurred during and post Trans Atlantic Slave Trade. She has created the Lynn Jones African Canadian & Diaspora Heritage Collection (LJACDHC) at Saint Mary’s University, which is available to the public including researchers, community members tracing a family tree, educators and students, and community organizers.

The title of her talk is “Archiving as a Means of Liberation

Dr. Lynn Jones gave this talk on Friday November 27th as part of the 2020-2021 Dalhousie Feminist Seminar Series.

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Faster Feminism Spotlight: Dr. Marquita Smith

One of the great joys of my work-life has been (& is) co-organizing the Dalhousie Feminist Seminar Series.

The Dalhousie Feminist Seminar Series is a series of informal discussions about feminist scholarship being conducted by faculty and students at Dalhousie University, our colleagues at other universities, and community members. Founded in 2015, the seminar series provides opportunities for socializing and conversation among those interested in gender and women’s studies. 

Until this year we were a committee of two. Dr. Catherine Bryan and I are delighted to be joined by Dr. Asha Jeffers, Dr. Eli Manning, and supported and in formal collaboration with Dr. Liesl Gambold and the GWST programme here at Dalhousie. 

A silver lining of our current covid-context is that we get to extend invitations to thinkers who are beyond the geographical proximity of Halifax–and this brings me with delight to the point of this post. Each time one of our speakers gives us permission, I will post their talks here to share with you all!

On Friday November 13, 2020 our speaker was Dr. Marquita Smith. Dr. Smith graduated from Rutgers University, Newark with a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in English, and she received her Ph.D. from McMaster University in 2015. Her book project, Through the Glass: African American Literature and Carceral Feeling, offers an exploration of how contemporary African American narratives represent the impact of carcerality on the intimate, interior lives of vicarious carceral subjects—those not imprisoned yet deeply affected by its power. Her published and forthcoming work on the intersections of sexuality, race, and gender in African American and Black diasporic literature and culture appears in venues such as Postcolonial TextJames Baldwin ReviewPopular Music and SocietyThe Routledge Research Companion to Popular Music and GenderPopular Music and the Politics of Hope: Queer and Feminist InterventionsThe Puritan Magazine, and The Black Scholar. Her teaching and research interests include African American literature and culture, hip-hop studies, gender and sexuality, and critical race studies. She was awarded a Career Enhancement Fellowship by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation in 2018. ​

Her talk for the series is entitled “[Black] Bodies Remember: Black Women Writers and Strategies of Survival.” You can watch it here! Thank you, Dr. Smith!

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So…how are you?

Last week my friend S. sent me this meme and a message that said “Sending you love and laughs, friend.” I wrote back “OMG. Amen.” I felt so seen, and so in commiseration with her. Why? Because S. is a student, and I am a professor.

Here is a bit of context: S. and I met because our kiddos went to the same daycare. We learned, after a while, that we’re at the same university. She is in the sciences, I’m not. I’m a prof, she’s a student. She has classes on neuroscience and I teach creative writing and literature courses. In many ways it might seem we’ve not got a lot of commonality, but let me tell you: it feels good to compare notes. When we aren’t chatting about kids and their experiences this fall, we’re talking about how challenging it is to be on either side of the classroom this year. She is taking all her classes online. I am teaching all my classes online. We laugh about the difficulty of navigating bizarre and clunky pedagogical platforms (and then usually deferring to zoom in the end). We talk about how unexpectedly draining it is to talk to a computer screen (me) or stare at a talking head on a computer screen (her). And more than anything what we are noticing is that the increase of screen time and the near to totally deficit of face-to-face instruction is depleting.

I knew that the move to online teaching would be difficult. Unlike many of my colleagues, and indeed many regular Hook & Eye readers and contributors, I am not a particularly digitally-situated pedagogue. I rely, I realize, on the kinds of teaching tools that I haven’t yet found ways to translate into the online platform. I knew, though, that in many (most?) ways, online teaching would be more work. For example, my courses are all asynchronous. It is important to say that this is the case for really good reasons: students are taking them from all over the world, meaning time zones are a real factor in accessing the material. Some students don’t have enough bandwidth for synchronous teaching. Accessibility is an issue across a range of specificities. And, unlike with synchronous and in person teaching, this means that my lectures are scripted, with slides. It is just a fundamentally different mode of teaching for me, and it takes a lot more time to prepare a lecture. These are just a few very small examples, but suffice to say I knew this would be different and that it would be more work.

I did not anticipate some of the ways in which it would leave me feeling both over extended and, strangely, simultaneously feeling isolated. I think students are having similar experiences, at least some of the time.

In the coming weeks we’ll have a suite of guest posts from writers who are focused on the nuances, complications, opportunities, and silver linings of this online year. Stay tuned, and let us know if you would like to pitch a post. I, for one, am keen to connect.

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Becoming “The Man”: Our own Lily Cho is interviewed by Hannah McGregor on Secret Feminist Agenda!

So, did you know that friend of the blog and sometimes-contributor Dr. Hannah McGregor hosts a peer-reviewed feminist podcast? She does. It is called Secret Feminist Agenda, and you can catch up on all the incredible interviews here.

Last week, Hannah interviewed our own beloved and brilliant Lily Cho about mentorship. Here’s how Hannah describes the interview:

“In this episode I sat down (virtually, of course) with Lily Cho to talk about feminist mentorship, the importance of boundaries, and trying to make change from within institutions. What if mentorship wasn’t based on intimacy but on clear boundaries and structures? What if the best way to transform the university is to really understand how it works? What if you clicked on these links?”

Give yourself a gift and listen to this conversation. Then, give yourself another set of gifts and listen to all the episodes!

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We’re Here: A Welcome and a Welcome Back

Every September, for the past ten years, we’ve been blogging here.

That’s right. Ten years of a feminist academic blog.

We’ve experienced enormous personal change. We’re not the same we who began this blog a decade ago. We’ve been many regular writers and many more guest writers. We’ve been precariously employed, unemployed, and in different stages of tenure track careers. We’ve left faculty positions for administrative ones. We’ve left academia entirely, and not always (or often) on our own terms. We have had children. We have lost loved ones. We have written, often in personal and vulnerable-making ways about out struggles, hopes, and concerns. We have raged. We have protested. We have despaired. We have hoped. We have written articles, and we have written posts about not writing. We have made mistakes. We have begun again, resolved to keep learning. We have held each other up. We have hoped, feared, and worked for and with students.

And now, this September, amid the Covid-19 pandemic, amid climate crisis, amid the intersecting pandemics of racism and hate, we are here again. And we will try to write and think and rage and hope and cry and worry and research and teach here with you.

Ten yeas ago “slow academe” was an idea linked both to sustainable slow food movements, and resisting the neoliberal imperative to produce. Now, here, in all the places and particularities that make up our divergent and necessary lives, “slow academe” might be a place to return our thinking. We’re here, and we hope you’ll meet us here from time to time, too.

For surely we need one another now as much as ever.

academic publishing · academic reorganization · collaboration · Uncategorized

A little good news! The Radical Publishers Alliance

Hi folks — today a PSA in lieu of a post: Fazeela Jiwa, amazing book-editing human and friend of the blog has alerted us to The Radical Publishers Alliance. This newly-formed coalition of left-wing publishers have joined together to support each other during this global pandemic.

___________________________

Here is a bit about the Alliance from their press release:

With the entire book industry in jeopardy, the only response can be one of unity and solidarity.

Independent radical publishers struggle for survival in the best of times and with the book industry facing huge challenges as a result of COVID-19 and the economic shutdown, a group of radical publishers in the US, UK, and Canada have come together to share advice on publishing during the crisis and to encourage readers to support radical presses.

Left publishers in the Alliance share online promotions and author events of fellow presses, work together on virtual panels and book launches, and maintain an online hub for readers to find their next great radical read from a left publisher. You can find all of the publishers participating in the Radical Publishers Alliance, along with their discounts for readers, on the Left Book Club partners page .

The first initiative of the Radical Publishers Alliance is #RadicalMay , an online radical book fair featuring panel discussions, talks, and teach-ins with authors from 50 radical publishers from the US, UK, Canada, France, Spain, Catalonia, Basque Country, Italy, Germany, Argentina, and Indonesia. The book fair, held in partnership with LITERAL , a radical festival of books and ideas that’s held annually in Barcelona, kicked off May 1 and will continue throughout the month.

Participating English-language publishers include AK Press (US), PM Press (US), Verso Books (US and UK), Haymarket Books (US), The New Press (US), Seven Stories Press (US), Beacon Press (US), The Feminist Press (US), O/R Books (US), Between the Lines (Canada), Pluto Press (UK), New Society Publishers (Canada), Fernwood Publishing (Canada), Myriad Editions (UK), Repeater Books (UK), and The Evergreen Review/Foxrock Books (US).

More information about #RadicalMay as well as a schedule is available here .

As the Radical Publishers Alliance Writes:

In this moment of crisis, the need for critical left thinking is more urgent than ever. Our aim is to lift up the voices challenging our broken social and economic systems and to come together around radical ideas for a more just and equitable world. By supporting fellow left publishing houses during this dark time, we hope to emerge from the crisis intact and more organized for the long fight against capitalism still ahead of us.

If you are able, support your local booksellers and small presses! And, regardless, if you’re curious go check out the events that are available through #RadicalMay

 

adjuncts · affect · careers · guest post · inconvenience · Uncategorized

Guest post: Reflections on Adjunct Labor, Feminism, and other Inconvenient Truths

This post is by Virginia Konchan.

I’m an American citizen with Canadian permanent residence since 2014. I moved to Halifax from Montreal in December 2019, and while I am not teaching this semester (I was formerly teaching part-time at Concordia University), I have been corresponding frequently with several former students I had in various literature and creative writing courses over the years, in the US and Canada.  One is moored on a writing residency in Finland, working on his novel; another, a gifted poet, is quarantined in Boston, doing marketing and PR remotely for a health insurance company:  her days are consumed by new policy changes, telemedicine, and Zoom meetings about how to offer emergency resources to customers struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues.  And a third, also a poet with tremendous talent, is teaching a full-time academic course load at a college in Washington State as an adjunct professor; yet several others are in graduate school, working toward degrees in poetry, literature, and the humanities.

My former student who is adjuncting and I have recently been sharing adjunct war stories and new poems.  Her experience of adjunct life was so painfully reminiscent of my own life as an adjunct in the States, and as a sessional instructor in Canada, that it made me cry. I cried out of deep sympathy for her plight, and those of all academics with precarious, non-tenured positions.  And to add to that endless, non-remunerative academic labor, the isolation and loneliness of quarantine.  And to that, the fact that her hundred or more students that she is now conferencing with through Zoom (while dealing with system crashes and delays) don’t understand the difference between her academic rank and that of tenured professors, and thus impatiently expect her prompt email responses, thorough feedback, and emotional support.  While the adjunct crisis remains a culturally ubiquitous topic to the point of redundancy, it may bear repeating, especially now in our global and financial meltdown, if only with the hope of underscoring just how broken and dehumanizing our capitalist-driven institutions of higher education are, particularly after the waves of privatization, corporatization, and the latest statistics on academic contingent labor (non-tenure-track positions of all types now account for over 70 percent of all instructional staff appointments in American higher education:  the Canadian figures are better, but not by much).

So, while just one more voice to the chorus, I know my former student’s Sisyphean deadlock situation well because I’ve only ever had itinerant stints in academia myself, despite having been on the North American job market for over five years, with a PhD and three published books, searching for a tenure-track professorship or even full-time appointment, as a lecturer.  I know what it feels like to feel completely expendable, to rely desperately, without any governmental or family safety net, on that $20k/year salary, only to have your course load slashed or reduced to zero the following semester with no notice, and to always wonder what other colleagues are discussing in faculty meetings, where adjuncts aren’t allowed.  To duck my head in the hallway or at the copier in embarrassment to avoid making eye contact with other, more important faculty, and lastly, to try, with a kind of fruitless passion known only to other supplicants, to rise to the challenge every day, greet students with a smile, field their queries, and prolong my “office” hours (at most of the universities where I worked, I shared a makeshift cubicle space with dozens of other adjuncts, a constant influx of students and faculty making a quiet conversation impossible), despite the fact that by semester’s end, an adjunct’s intellectual and emotional reserves are beyond spent:  sometimes irrevocably so.

I realize this mental, emotional, and spiritual depletion I am describing is not unique to adjuncts, yet it’s worth noting that the last few posts on Hook & Eye have been by only one tenured professor, and the rest by students (one other by an adjunct and alt-ac laborer).  Yet all these posts suggest, regardless of the writers’ academic positions, that academe, perhaps globally, is undergoing a structural crisis revealing how, in the words of Hannah McGregor, our care is “being leveraged to ensure that the university maintains its institutional and imaginative force in the midst of this crisis, rather than being exposed as a site of neoliberal profiteering,” and wherein, as Brenna Clarke Gray puts it, paraphrasing Samuel Beckett:  “I am trapped between an intellectual awareness of my own exploitation (I can’t go on) and an emotional need to enact care on behalf of those who are owed it from an institution that cannot pay its debts (I’ll go on).”

I can only speak on behalf of my own last 13 years in academe, as a student, graduate student instructor, and adjunct, but it seems both that the crisis of which others are speaking, and which I myself have always felt in the low rungs of the ladder I occupied, is both particular, and universal, and a pressure felt uniquely by women in academia, regardless of their position or rank.  I have routinely seen, in the various Ivory Towers where I studied or worked, female faculty members shoulder greater administrative burdens than their male faculty counterparts; take on a lion’s share of the emotional labor and care work that is part of what can make teaching so rewarding, at least in theory; and suffer greater consequences as a result.

My female colleagues in the States and Canada have shared horror stories with me (I, too, relate) ranging from a variety of stress-induced conditions (sudden hair loss, rashes, insomnia, OCD) to alarming situations where Title IX complaints they filed against male coworkers poisoning the department with sexual harassment and veiled threats were either dismissed or not supported by HR and other faculty members, regardless of gender.

At this point in the history of neoliberal academy, and given the crushing immediacy of the pandemic, might our current broken moment of systems collapse provide a uniquely valuable time to evaluate these forms of brokenness, and seek a way forward: collectively and personally, intellectually and somatically?  It seems less and less relevant (especially now, when questions not just of safety and survival, but situated value of academic labor and publishing loom large), what buzzwords we use to describe these various forms of exploitation: invisible or shadow labor, ghost work, zombie capitalism.  The ugly facts remain that while articles appear regularly (scholarly and in pop culture) on the adjunct crisis (referred to by poet and professor Catherine Wagner as a “sharecropper estate” in her 2010 essay “I Am a Poet and I Have”in the Poetic Labor Project, a term usefully reworked into David Perry’s 2014 essay in Chronicle Vitae, “Sharecroppers.  Migrant Workers.  Adjuncts?”),every single agent who is imbricated in the system, from students paying $100k/year in tuition, on loans, to university presidents, seem helpless to stop the bleeding, or stop the system in its tracks.

We live in a globalized, and increasingly automated and roboticized world, where all human labor, academic and otherwise, is constantly threatened to be “phased out” by machines (I personally cannot stand the term “labor-saving device,” as that labor is usually not “saved,” it’s simply transferred onto a more flexible worker, willing to work for less and under more hazardous conditions, until everything is mechanized).  And yes, there are marked differences between the structure of higher education in American and Canada:  for example, I was paid nearly triple as an adjunct at Concordia than what I made per class in the US (it differs radically in Canada by province:  in Atlantic Canada the pay is similar to the lower end of the US scale),though was only granted one course per semester because of part-time union restrictions, and thus my annual salary was even less.  But whether late capitalist or quasi-socialist, the imperatives of higher ed remain the same:  publish or perish; don’t complain; and follow the relentless pursuit of industry, efficiency, speed, and utility until you die, or until we face a global pandemic, as we are now, trying to imagine a path forward from this institutional calamity.

Lately, I find myself thinking in particular about affectual relations, and moments of bonding or connection that supersede Sianne Ngai’s concept of spectacle-induced “stumplimity,” particularly in speaking to my professor friends who share stories with me of their students’ plights, efforts to complete coursework, and moments of wisdom, hilarity, and poignancy online (my cousin’s entire class failed to show to a schedule Zoom conference last week, and the one student in attendance wouldn’t speak a word, instead merely staring at her while she peppered him with questions for as long as both could bear it; another friend cites “actual fear, working with/for parents, taking care of others, not caring whatsoever, knowing their grade cannot go down, being actually ill, not having access to school, bouncing around from home to home, and sheer ennui”) as reasons for her students’ lackluster attendance on Google Classroom.

I have also been re-reading Naomi Klein’s excellent book The Shock Doctrine(2007), recently, as, along with stumplimity, and outbursts of compassion, fear, uncertainty, and joy, I think our current moment is, affectually speaking, marked by the aftermath of shock (Klein speaks of it in reference to psychiatric shock therapy and the use of “shock and awe” as war tactics in the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq), as we begin to realize anew just how deeply embedded our psyches and even central nervous systems are by the 24/7 news cycle, our vicarious experience of tragedy, and the various forms of cultural mediation through which we experience the world, including social media self-curation, which tends to set our consciousness and being apart from the representations of ourselves we are presenting.  For me, over time, these processes have resulted in what Freudian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich refers to as “character and body armoring”:  learned coping mechanisms of obedience and thralldom that obstruct a more expansive, energetic, spontaneous interaction with ourselves, our world, and our here and now.

To say nothing of sensitivity to our or another’s pain:  last week, for example, with my to-do list far outpacing my now-scattered attention span, and my emotionally-deregulated sensibility causing me anxiety, I instead chose to maniacally clean my house from top to bottom for 8 hours:  the furor of my labors even scared my cat. At the end of the day I sat down and looked at my hands:  they were badly cracked and bleeding from the scrubbing and harsh chemicals, but I largely felt indifference toward my own injuries and the trauma-fueled nature of my frenetic cleaning spree, as they were self-imposed.  They didn’t even feel like my own hands.

Is this the nuclear fallout of what we all came to academia seeking:  a life of the mind?

British writer and journalist Laurie Penny, author of several books including Meat Market: Female Flesh Under Capitalism, and Bitch Doctrine:  Essays for Dissenting Adults, in her recent Wiredarticle “This is Not the Apocalypse You Were Looking For,”writes with great clarity about the awful truth that the most vulnerable among us, whose lives are sacrificed during the pandemic, are not the monied, insured, and protected:  they are the healers and carers, the nurses, doctors, cleaners, and drivers, those “whose work is rarely paid in proportion to its importance.”

Capitalism, writes Penny (who has also written cogently on related topics of self-optimization, and panic, pandemic, and the body politic, for Wired) “cannot imagine a future beyond itself that isn’t utter butchery,” and that is why, over the last two months, “There has been no vision, because these men never imagined the future beyond the image of themselves on top of the human heap, cast in gold.”  Personally, I don’t want to live in a world where the talking heads of global capital suggest that “a certain amount of brutal death is a reasonable price for other people to pay to protect the current financial system,” yet that is the world I was born into and now inhabit.  But the pandemic cannot be—imagine that!—solved by state-sponsored eugenics, violence, militarism, or any other handy tricks of capitalism to erase the fearful other.

So where does that leave us?

In a similar “desert of the real” that the other writers on this blog have described, and yet, to quote Penny one last time, “The end of the world has never been quite so simple a mythos for women, likely because most of us know that when social structures crack and shatter, what happens isn’t an instant reversion to muscular state-of-naturism. What happens is that women and carers of all genders quietly exhaust themselves filling in the gaps, trying to save as many people as possible from physical and mental collapse . . . emotional and domestic labor have never been part of the grand story men have told themselves about the destiny of the species—not even when they imagine its grave.”

I’m not a necromancer of any kind, even with regard to capitalism’s malaise, but this statement brings me a measure of peace because it’s not in direct opposition to my body’s own intelligence, my mind’s own form of logic, and my multifaceted emotional life, the way capitalism so often is.

So while I myself am not in any position to offer a critique or way forward, necessarily, at this juncture, any solace I’ve found over the last month has been born of this:  the knowledge that, to quote Hamlet, “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” There is no quick fix, nor one-size-fits-all solution:  no one really knows.  But there is, perhaps more now than ever, a growing awareness of a natural order of things in the natural world, and while not a model (ideological, aesthetic, economic) one can seek to follow in a societal sense, perhaps that’s what makes the small inroads we are all making day by day, from within a revisited ethics of care and solidarity, the best (albeit anti-theoretical), position of all.

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Author of two poetry collections, Any God Will Do and The End of Spectacle (Carnegie Mellon, 2018 and 2020); a collection of short stories, Anatomical Gift (Noctuary Press, 2017); and four chapbooks, as well as coeditor (with Sarah Giragosian) of Marbles on the Floor:  How to Assemble a Book of Poems(University of Akron Press, 2022), Virginia Konchan lives in Halifax.
academic reorganization · change management · feminist health · guest post · Uncategorized

Guest post: “Fetch the Bolt Cutters!” Or, How Fiona Apple Gave Me the Freedom to Rage

This post is by Myra Bloom.

There seem to be two main ways of dealing with the end of the world as we knew it: some people are conjuring an illusion of normalcy. They’re leaning extra hard into schedules and routines, maybe even cultivating new ones – working remotely, palpating sourdough, dialing into digital yoga classes, closely observing the behaviour of birds. Others are of the “chuck it in the fuck it bucket” school, to borrow a phrase from my friend Kristina. We might call this the ‘quarantinis-and-Tiger-King’ approach. A quick Google will furnish guides for maximal productivity(King Lear, they admonish you, was written under quarantine) or non-productivity(your desire to write King Lear, they admonish you, is your internalized domination by capitalism).

Until recently, I was an adherent, if not a card-carrying member, of team productivity. I was ‘teaching’ remotely (lol). I was pumping out Alison Romandishes, getting my daily unit of state-sanctioned exercise, wearing structured pants. I was, I thought, doing quarantine right. But as the days dragged on, the edges started to fray: a pair of leggings here, an extra handful of snacks there. I stared constantly at my laptop screen, waiting for something other than grim stats to happen, and when it didn’t I turned anxiously to my little screen, hoping something was happening there. I found only my haggard face reflected back at me in a black pool unmarred by notifications of any kind.

I started this essay one early afternoon. I was still wearing rumpled pyjamas, my body unwashed, the dog unwalked. Ordinarily, I would be horrified by the lassitude. I love order, stability, routine. Years of hustling in a precarious job market have honed me into an edgy shark, swimming for my life. There’s always something to chase in academia, where the resources are lean and mean. I sometimes personify academia as my bad boyfriend: he barely pays attention to me and doesn’t really seem to care how I’m doing, but when he smiles at me it’s like sunshine. And at first, I have to admit that I was pretty happy we were self-isolating together. When people would ask if I was “lonely” living “all by myself” (ugh, and plus, give the dog her due), I’d reassure them that, au contraire, I was keeping very busy. Maybe I didn’t specify exactly how much time I was spending with Boris, my sexy manuscript.

Lately, though, I’ve gotten a little sick of Boris. To be frank, I’d rather just eat chips. So, in the words of Fiona Apple, “fetch the bolt cutters!” By which I mean, blithely discard that which worketh not for thee.

I had a prof in grad school who once said to me, koanically, “Sometimes saying no, Myra… is saying yes… to the self.” I’ve been trying to channel that energy a lot this past year, my first in a tenure-track job. A joiner by nature, I felt flattered and gratified by all the opportunities that came my way, until I started to feel crushed under their weight. Now, I’m finding new power in a kindly but firmly stated ‘no’. Never has this advice felt more timely. Civil society is crumbling into the very earth, and yet my inbox is replete with dispatches from the university encouraging me to improve my digital pedagogy. My students are literally fleeing to their home countries, cowering terrified in crappy apartments, freaking out about their parents working on the front lines, and I’m supposed to get them excited to do an online poll? I would prefer not to.

You know who else would prefer not to? Fiona-effing-Apple, who has officially unseated Alison Roman as my quarantine guru. Step aside, rustic salad! It’s time to RAGE. For those of you who haven’t been playing her new album on repeat, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is a big FU to the micro and macroaggressions women face in a patriarchal, conformist society. Apple directs her righteous fury at the bullies, rapists, and other general assholes who have tried to hold women back over the years. Enough playing nice. The time has come to “Blast the music! Bang it, bite it bruise it!”

Fetch the Bolt Cutters is a work of genius, but what makes it“the unofficial album of the pandemic”is its purposeful imperfection. Apple recorded it at home in Venice Beach, and you can hear her dogs, some weird sounds that might be coming from outside, and even her own mistakes: on the final track, she drops a line, swears, waits a few bars, then picks the song right back up. It’s the perfect musical accompaniment to these days of awkward Zooming, where the angles are unflattering and the dog farts audibly in the middle of the meeting (true story). This homespun humbleness could not be any farther from Drake’s “Toosie Slide,” also released this month, whose autotuned braggadocio put me in a funk that took several days to shake. While Drake’s gilded palace (watch the video) is a monument to capitalism’s monstrous logic, Fetch the Bolt Cutters gives us the tools to dismantle the master’s house. It reminds us, by way of contrast, that every shimmering surface is an illusion built on the backs of unsung labourers hauling a lot of garbage. I happen to know this firsthand: I used to drive by Drake’s McMansion-in-progress on my way home from work.

Remember that video from the Before Times of Prof. Robert Kelley’s children storming into his BBC interview, chased by their frantic mother? Besides the children’s impeccable timing, the punctum of that video was the domestic intrusion. The invisible labour of Prof. Kelley’s wife, Jung-a Kim, was suddenly visible, as she struggled to keep her family out of her husband’s frame. These days, we’re seeing a lot of people’s private lives as they broadcast to us from their home offices and bedrooms. It makes people seem a lot more human when we encounter them in the context of their worldly detritus. To me, the visibility of the domestic sphere, and of the invisible work that happens there, is one of the possible silver linings of the pandemic. In late March, the BBC describedthe “unintended consequences” of Malaysia’s decision to permit only the ‘head of the household’ to do the grocery shopping: namely, that men lost their minds in a labyrinth of leafy greens. I like to think that these men will ask themselves what other secret knowledge gardens their wives cultivate.

Another form of invisible labour that is being recognized in this moment is the chronically “underpaid and undervalued” work of women in “essential” sectors, including the service industry and healthcare. The New York Times reports that because women are overrepresented in these sectors, women suddenly outnumber men in the American workforce. As they put it, “the soldier on the front lines of the current national emergency is most likely a woman,” and even likelier a woman of colour. It’s likely too optimistic to say that the situation will change when the dust settles on the economy: structural inequalities stemming from issues like race, class and gender are too deeply rooted. To make a historical comparison, the women who entered the labour force during the First and Second World Wars were largely pushed to its margins when soldiers returned from the front. Nonetheless, their visibility in historically masculine roles gave them a platform from which to advocate for rights and opportunities. It’s in this more modest sense that I’m hopeful that gains might be made in the future.

So I guess what I’m driving at here is that Fiona Apple’s aesthetics of imperfection is also an ethics. In daring to put something imperfect into the world, she reminds us that the slick veneer that coats all our cultural products masks the rot festering just beneath the surface. Like Greta Thunberg, or Tarana Burke, or the Wet’suwet’en land protectors, she invites us to raise a collective middle finger to the status quo, and to build something wilder, fairer, freer.

Fetch the bolt cutters! Turn off the computer! Blast the music! Let’s get to fucking work.

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Myra Bloom is an Assistant Professor in the English Department at York University’s Glendon campus. She teaches and studies Canadian literature, confessional writing, feminist aesthetics, and Quebec language/identity politics.

 

 

 

 

compassion · emotional labour · feminist digital humanities · guest post · Uncategorized

Guest Post Pedagogy of the So Stressed: Pivoting to Digital with an Ethics of Care

This post is by Brenna Clarke Gray.

 

I am just so tired.

Eight months ago, I started a new role as a faculty educational technologist. It didn’t occur to me that within the year of starting I would be a key member of a small and scrappy team leading a university-wise pivot to digital in the midst of a pandemic.

 

Good thing I love my job.

 

And I do. Really. But I am also just so tired. I know we all are. I know many of us wrestle with an anxious privilege around acknowledging our tiredness: we are so, so lucky to be working; those of us who caregive are so, so lucky to have our loved ones close. We know these are deep, profound privileges, that the peanut butter smear occluding the videoconferencing camera is really a gift. And yet.

 

I tell you these things as context for who I am and how I come to talk about care and educational technologies. I’m not sure how aware most people within the university are of the work of educational technologists; a lot more aware now than eight months ago, I would reckon. What has surprised me in this role is how easily I took to it as care work, and how that phrase means something very differently all of a sudden as we enter this strange new moment in the life of the university.

 

Educational technology is care work on a number of fronts. When I support faculty, I absorb a tremendous amount of anxiety, anguish, fear, and stress. I don’t actually know how to do this. I feel ill-equipped for how sad and scared my colleagues are, and I feel ill-equipped to be their first line of defence. But I do it anyway. And while I help them digitize their course content, we chat about their families and their students, how to manage their stress levels, how long this all might last. Like anyone who seeks out instructional support work, I love solving problems and I work hard to be approachable. I want to be seen as caring and competent, and if I’m honest, it’s in that order that I hope those characteristics are seen.

 

But more importantly, I want to help faculty make teaching and learning decisions around technology that enact care for students. That has never been clearer to me than in this pandemic, where my key role has been to advocate against synchronous, timed exams; against lengthy video lectures; against requirements of synchronous participation; for asynchronous participation options; for reflective writing and other open-book assessment strategies; and for generosity and compassion in course design. I spend far more time discussing pedagogy than I do pushing the buttons, and the pedagogy I work hard to enact is one that acknowledges the once-in-a-century shitstorm we are living through and asks for compassion. It is a pedagogy rooted in an ethics of care.

 

This work, in this moment, is infinite. For the first few weeks, I answered emails and phone calls and video chats and support tickets twelve or fifteen hours a day and never found the bottom of it. I don’t do that anymore, most days, but I could. There are more questions than answers, more people to help than helpers, and every time we think we’re at the end of it — that we’ve levelled off or are gaining ground — we find out we’re wrong.

 

As Hannah McGregor rightly points out, this labour serves to protect the institution; because individuals care, the institution itself doesn’t have to. Our care and goodwill allows the university to go on. If individuals take on this work, the institution can continue to ignore issues of care, or to present the difficult labour of individuals as the united mission of the institution. Neither option is sustainable for the human beings on the ground. Increasingly, in the intellectuals circles within which I move, I hear repeated calls to “let it break,” to refuse this labour. Pencils, pens, and emotional labour down.

 

And yet, I have no idea howI am supposed to do that. The university cannot love, but I can. And I do. Because the individualization of care within the university means that I know and love the people who will pick up this fight if I drop it, and I know and love the people who will be most impacted by a failure of support.  I work on a team of individuals trying desperately to enact care in an increasingly hopeless-feeling sector-wide climate. A choice to resist calls for my emotional labour is also a choice to kick the ball down the road to someone else, someone who may not have the privileges of security and academic freedom that my faculty position — tenure-track only, to be sure, and thus precarious in its own way — affords me. Those of us who work in universities are hearing about the imminent budget crises that will befall the institution in the wake of Covid-19. Is there an ethical way to refuse to undertake this labour of care, of activism and agitation, from my position under these conditions? And if no one else continues the fight, if we do all revolt, is there a way for that to happen that doesn’t leave students and truly precarious faculty as collateral damage, left to flounder without adequate supports? I cannot see one.

 

I am not saving lives. I tell myself this every night as I fail to clear my brain enough to meditate, as embodied reminders of unanswered emails circle through me viscerally, jolting me into alertness over and over and over. I am not saving lives. I am not a frontline worker. I am not intubating patients or keeping the grocery store open or keeping vulnerable populations alive. There are so many more important ways actual lifesaving care is enacted, and I think too about the institutions that structure and obfuscate and absorb credit for that care, too.

 

But this work of mine is still urgent. It is urgent because we have no evidence that the institution, left to its own devices, will enact an ethic of care without the individuals who take on the labour. And the people left in the wreckage are real people. So then what? I am really asking. Because until I figure it out, I am trapped between an intellectual awareness of my own exploitation (I can’t go on) and an emotional need to enact care on behalf of those who are owed it from an institution that cannot pay its debts (I’ll go on).

 

I am so tired. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.*

 

*The author confesses that she previously tortured Samuel Beckett in an earlier blog post collecting some of these thoughts.

 

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Brenna Clarke Gray (MA Carleton, PhD New Brunswick) is a literature scholar by training, a comics scholar by practice, and an educational technologist by trade. Her research interests include open pedagogies and ethical approaches to educational technologies. She is the Coordinator, Educational Technologies at Thompson Rivers University and is currently at work tracing the history and imagining the future of open tenure processes.