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Resilient Pedagogy: Collaborative Class Notes

In my last post, I discussed how I put students into semester-long groups. When groups are responsible for completing a task, the course becomes more resilient because no one student is directly and solely responsible for one thing, and the whole of the group can flexibly arrange its work around the shifting constraints of its members. Also, not everyone has to be good at everything in a group: people can activate their strengths, or, they can choose to try to build up an area that challenges them–so groups offer students a little more agency in getting the work done. Groups are great for me as a teacher, because it allows me to batch up a group of 35 individuals into, instead, 6 units of multiple students I can work with together.

If Lulu is in your group, you’d best believe everything is going to be proof-read

One of the things that groups do is take collaborative class notes. Here is the TL;DR on it:

  • I don’t have to have “lecture notes” to give to absent students
  • I don’t have to take notes during class to remember what happened
  • It obviates the need for “volunteer notetakers” for access requests
  • It allows almost all students to not have to take notes in class, just to listen and engage
  • It is a “real writing” case, where student writing (note-taking, editing, document and information design, adding extra resources) serves a real world purpose, getting put on the main content pages of our CMS for everyone’s use for study or recall.
  • It offers opportunities to learn to work in a group to produce a deliverable in a timely way

Collaborative class note taking means that my class prep consists of creating a Google doc that has a title and four bullet points in it, because that’s my actual lesson plan but then four students (one group) fill it all in as we go, capturing what actually happens which is often very surprising even to me. Before class (sometimes 5 minutes before class) I put the link in the day’s lesson on the CMS. Sometimes, I will add in some links in the document to material I will want students to look at in class: it supports my style of Just-in-time teaching (TM). Sometimes I add in a “curiosity corner” question at the bottom of the doc, for students to add anonymous feedback in, and this is always wild and delightful or insightful or ridiculous. Anyone can edit the doc, and then after a few weeks, I lock it.

Here’s an example from my fourth year honour seminar in Rhetoric of the Selfie this winter. But I do this with my first year academic writing class, and my grad classes, and all my classes, at all levels.

The class notes produce a fulsome record of class for students who could not attend–and also for those who can attend but can’t take notes while listening. And it doesn’t come from me, so students don’t have to email me and ask for it. Nobody has to make up a story or share personal details about why they missed class and why they deserve my notes only for me to tell them I don’t have any. It has obviated the need for ‘volunteer notetakers’–I make very clear that group members don’t all have the same talents, and that some people can’t type and learn at the same time, or take notes at all–but those people might be excellent at reformatting free-flowing text into hierarchical bullets and headings, or at proofreading and editing, or at chasing down links and sites referenced to add them in. Everyone is a volunteer notetaker, and also, everyone has notes taken for them. So in class, no one else has to take notes at all, they can just listen.

The classroom notes are also where I make in-class group work do their reporting–we often don’t have time to have groups 1-8 orally report what they did in their ten minutes, but they DO have time to put their work in the doc, where everyone can benefit from it whenever they want. Each group can work on different questions; we get more done. This keeps groups on task, because even if they don’t report orally, their work answers a question the whole class needs to consider, and so it matters whether they do it or not.

The classroom notes are an excellent resource for me: I can see what they did or did not understand, what they thought the Main Point were, which groups really gave their all during in class groupwork. In classes with exams, this is the main resource I use to remember what the hell we actually learned so I can write relevant questions. We often return to a prior week’s notes to do a meta-critical analysis of what they thought was the point of the class, versus what I thought the point of the class was. Sometimes, at the end of a unit, we go back and rewrite the earlier notes, like we are making a textbook that is also reading notes that is also an exam prep kit. We iterate.

Unexpectly, the class notes supported me in an unexpected way this year. I knew that they would take all the nonsense of notetaking accommodations, and detailed lesson plans, and handouts for absent students, and trying to remember what I did in class out of my life, and that made a huge different. But then, this semester, my mom died. A series of incredibly kind and skilled colleagues covered six weeks of classes for me. They got oriented to the work in part from the collaborative notes the students had produced, each new teacher able to build on the knowledge already there, orient themselves to the course and the students, and keep a record for when I came back. This system is so powerful, the teacher doesn’t even need to be there. Right before the university shut down, a guest instructor showed up to class with some rapid onset respiratory symptoms after travel. There were presentations scheduled, so she sent everyone away except the presenting students and prepared for them to present to her alone, tucked in at the back of the class. But then? The group assigned to do notes raised their hands: “Can we come in, too?” they asked. “We are supposed to take notes, and we can do that so that everyone can at least read about the presentations after.”

I’m not crying, you’re crying.

This assignment is a classic win-win-win-win: it produces a classroom where disability accommodations do not need to be asked for, it makes my life as a teacher a lot easier, it calls forth a sense of ownership and responsibility among students, it allows for a greater number of resources to be shared and documented. And if the main teacher has to disappear for four weeks, and then the whole shit show has to suddenly move online? Well, most of the record of the course is already there, waiting, ready to be picked up by whomever is able, as they can.

Next time: one-page reading summaries.

Uncategorized

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.

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.

VK author photo sushi
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.

 

BCG

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.

Uncategorized

Guest post: Being alone together; Solidarity and grad school life

This post is by Joy Shand.

I started my day the way I start most of my days: staring blearily at my phone, turning off my alarm, and taking several minutes to gaze at the patchy light coming in through my bedroom window. The yellow curtain makes me feel hopeful – Spring is properly on its way now. I wonder why I continue to bother with my alarm, since I have nowhere to be and nothing to do but be at home. I remind myself that even though waking naturally feels better, sleeping late does not. I once again conclude that it’s better to stick with my alarm.

I dreamt last night I had finished a new chapter of my thesis. Only 28 pages, but still.

As a graduate student, I’ve been alone for what seems like forever. Long before lockdown proper, I worked from home or from the library, reading and writing, hoping that at some point I might make contact with peers I’m familiar with. Some days I did more sleeping and less reading, or more Netflix watching than writing. Some days I didn’t do any “real work” at all, allowing myself to bedistracted by my job, friends, volunteer work, hobbies. Frequently those were the days when I was overwhelmed with anxiety, thesis notes floating in the back of my brain, an ever-present tension. Occasionally, I would have a Very Productive Day(!), and spend the following days and weeks marveling at it, aching as I tried to replicate the magic. I plodded on, working in parallel to many other people and with no one else at all.

And then, the COVID-19 pandemic came to Nova Scotia, and we all went into lockdown. With all the changes that have occurred over the past weeks, I can’t help but think to myself: what does social isolation mean when you’re already deeply isolated?

In Canada, the pandemic has dramatically reshaped public life, as we make a collective effort to flatten the curve and slow the spread of Coronavirus. The people around me are feeling the effects of working from home, where the workday loses its structure, and where their attention is constantly pulled in multiple different directions. They feel the strain of distance, of isolation, and they miss the people they usually spend time with. And yet, as a grad student, things aren’t actually all that different for me. I have lived in this (more or less) solitary mode for months.

The small differences that I do feel in my work life intrigue me. In a way, social isolation has been easier for me – not only because there isn’t much of an adjustment, but because we’re now isolated together. I have found a solidarity during the pandemic that startles me whenever I stop to think about it. My roommates work from home now, so I have new officemates. There are often people reaching out to check in, say hi, and have a chat about how things are going. How are you coping? Working from home is hard, isn’t it! So many distractions. It’s okay if you aren’t being 100% productive all the time though, we’re all just doing our best. I stop to think about how our world might be different if we employed this kind of generous dialogue always, rather than reserving it for times of crisis.

As the number of COVID-19 patients in Canada increases, it seems that our understanding of community is tested. Yet, I observe myself and the people around me drawing new strength from small and simple acts of caretaking, in the service of our neighbours, friends, and family. We feel ourselves building resilience as we reach out (virtually) to hold one another. As a society, it feels like we fear for each other in a way we didn’t think we remembered how to.

I worry about whether this new sensibility of care for each other will last, or if I’ll soon be alone again. It’s a very curious kind of feeling – but then, so much of what I feel right now is just plain odd. It’s been about two years since I’ve seen the people in my graduate cohort, with a couple of exceptions, and most of the people in my program have graduated and moved on. It sometimes feels like the year we spent in class was time that I imagined. The land I inhabit now is one of paper, ink, keyboards. It is my own little thought experiment, a brainchild that I grow and tend to, an island of evidence and arguments mixed with the occasional dream.

Perhaps in the After Times, when the pandemic has ended, we will see each other more fully. Maybe we’ll demand less and check in more – allow productivity to look like lots of different things, or even to not matter at all.

I gaze at the patchy light and the yellow curtain makes me feel hopeful. Spring is properly on its way.

 

Joy Shand

Joy Shand is a Master’s candidate in the History Department at Dalhousie University, where her thesis research focuses on the public discourse surrounding immigration to Nova Scotia at the time of Confederation (1862-70), and the construction of institutionalized settlement programs in Canada. Outside of grad school, she is an engaged political activist, a crafter, and a lover of great books. She currently lives in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia (Punamu’kwati’jk).

guest post · health · mental health · Uncategorized

Guest post: Feeling Certain: Optimization culture, Productivity, the Pandemic, and Me

This post is by Katie Clarke.

We like answers and our brains like shortcuts. Especially right now, as everything seems indeterminate, unanswerable and interminable. Brain shortcuts, known in Psychology terms as “heuristics,” allow us to function despite the constant influx of stimuli to our five senses, not to mention the additional emotional reflexes that accompany these inputs. Heuristics help pare down and sort information that’s useful to us and keep the information that keeps us safe, happy, and healthy.

However — and this is a big however — I have been thinking about how all this shorts out in times of crisis.Human perfectibility culture, or “optimization,” is the everyday aspiration to complete knowledge of ourselves and our psychological states, to the end of being more “efficient,” “productive,” and ultimately, “happy” under the capitalism of today. As the COVID-19 epidemic escalates and we continue to support our communities, health workers and other essential service workers by staying home, we are bombarded by the productivity/optimization rhetoric. Productivity culture is telling us that we have all sorts of “free time” at home (which we don’t, really, but that’s a whole other essay).

While the biological and functional use of heuristics makes sense, I often wonder why this “shortcut culture” so much a part of our day to day lives. Self-help books are some of the best selling and highest grossing works put out by publishers in North America. These are alongside a genre I’d like to call “optimization lifestyle reads”: anecdotal insights into “human nature” as such, like those put out by Malcolm Gladwell and Daniel Pink. These books slip in optimization buzzwords like “scientific” and “research-based” (which they often are, it’s true!). But this alluring language of objectivity can provide a false sense of certainty. This research/storytelling hybrid genre is captivating: often well-written, engaging and relevant to the culture of perfectibility and search for ultimate self-understanding that is taken up by our brains and bodies from the day we’re born. While social isolation measures are in place, some folks might have a little extra time to pick up a book. Why not make it something “useful” like an optimization lifestyle read? That’s where my brain went, at least, two days after stopping university classes and trying to juggle a multitude of academic and professional commitments which had “simply” slid into the online realm. I figured that if I was going to read “for pleasure” for once (and I love reading, I really do), it should be “productive.” And don’t get me wrong, I can get behind some of these bestsellers, but I felt inclined to self-examination and optimization, rather than any semblance of true relaxation or distraction from the situation at hand. The pursuit of perfection and self-regulation, foregrounded by self-understanding, is a pervasive urge — one cemented by productivity culture.

To me, productivity culture is the product of both an ingrained scientific tradition and the perils of (you guessed it!) advanced capitalism. Physicist and Philosopher of Science Evelyn Fox Keller deconstructs how modern science reinforces our urge to optimization and self-understanding in her collection of essays, Reflections on Gender and ScienceShe identifies a complex interplay of autonomy, objectivity, knowledge and power in a distinctly masculine scientific custom. Keller demonstrates how a search for individual autonomy and power over the self distances the “other” or object of examination — the subject of scientific inquiry, for example. Objectivity holds the “other” at arms length and asserts that the subject (viewer, scientist, supposedly self-aware human being) can access total and complete knowledge of the object (task, schedule, body, brain), being separate from it. Power over the self, self-control, is quickly manipulated into a totalizing theory of certainty. In the current pandemic, science is incredibly important — finding a vaccine will be a feat of biology, technology and medical expertise, among a multitude of other fields. However, recourse to capital-S Science as the measure of all things is not a straightforward capital-S Saviour. Future access to a COVID-19 vaccine will also rely on innumerable number of social, organizational, political and communal resources, not to mention a tremendous amount of community support and care.

Yes, we do live in an era of extraordinary scientific advancement. However, this period is structured by an age-old scientific system held in place by market interests and economic stakeholders in those scientific developments. Under the guise of optimization and productivity, work becomes a project of certainty and perfection, a race to make the most money in the least amount of time with the least mistakes. In self-isolation and under physical distancing protocols, this urge to self-improvement is incubated in our living spaces: bathed in the blue light of our devices, the irresistible glow of social media, news and self-optimization.

Jia Tolentino, journalist and author of the 2019 essay collection Trick Mirror, wrote an op-ed for the Guardian titled “Athleisure, barre and kale: the tyranny of the ideal woman.” Tolentino describes the “ideal” young professional woman as one who’s body and mind are organized, who’s schedule is flawless, who flies between barre workouts and kale salads and an endlessly productive workday only to end the day and tap into a seemingly limitless social sphere. This hard work, then (prescribed, organized) play atmosphere tends to harden our bodies and our immune systems and our emotions into recognizably adverse, highly regulated networks. I feel I can lean in to the “organized” discomfort that over-regulates my brain and body because it’s much more cohesive with the optimization-first structures that surround me. This is what makes me valuable under capitalism. I’ve been taught to fear mess and disorganization above all else. Tolentino’s optimized woman is another kind of artificial, scientifically crafted and genetically optimized nightmare: wouldn’t we all want to be like her, if we could?

No, it’s not likely that we’ll abolish capitalism for a local trade and barter system anytime soon (although the more time we spend in isolation, the more it seems possible, and the more microcosms of this possibility become visible…). But how do we imagine novel futures that do not ask us to optimize our bodies and minds like machines? Our deviant and unruly bodies are some of the first things to be regulated in this perfectibility culture — as feminist scholar Hannah McGregor comments in one episode of her peer-reviewed podcast, Secret Feminist Agenda. McGregor laments the pervasiveness of deterministic diet culture, citing a diet-enthused relative: “’in an ideal future, when we really perfect nutritional science, we’ll be able to do bloodwork, and know exactly what each person should be eating’ — what a eugenicist nightmare you are painting!” (SFA ep. 4.10 20:30–20:43). While this might seem dystopian, the idea of a genetically perfected and predictable human being is not so far from our everyday consciousness. In social isolation, the internet seems to be reminding me of my existence in my body/as a body more than usual. Diet culture, too, is incubated in our now smaller spaces, with incredibly harmful effects. I found this comicby local Halifax artist Mollie Cronin an excellent response to an influx of fatphobia and diet culture on the internet.

Neural networks (artificial intelligence programs modelled on the human brain) are another modern “optimization” tool which can provide incredible mechanical and economic benefit. However, neural networks are another force of technological and economic development that encode the rhetoric of human perfectibility in our day to day lives. The masculinist “rationality” of neural networks is (at least in part) incompatible with the human brain — which is not deterministic or wholly rational at all. Stoic, masculine science presents “ideal” form of human intelligence which rests in the potential of artificial intelligence. While perfected models like artificial intelligence and neural networks can prove incredibly useful — essential even — for research and medical care, their presence as psychological models or standards can lead to a dangerous reductionism and self-effacing “objectivity.” In this pandemic, vaccine research and medical treatments are linked to our advanced technological abilities, likely including the use of artificial intelligence. However, I would argue that most of the life-saving care work that’s going on is done by human beings — nurses, doctors, care workers of all kinds, people offering to support one another remotely. Who knew? We’re not surviving on big tech or big science alone — but on interpersonal care and trust (even if it’s from a distance). As we strive to become more and more like our perfected, rational, machine counterparts, we’re becoming dangerously enamoured with the surreality of masculinist perfection — doing violence to our soft, emotive, critical, failing, irrational brains.

Feminist scholar Donna Haraway counters the allure of objectivity in her essay “Situated Knowledges”: “feminists don’t need a doctrine of objectivity that promises transcendence, a story that loses track of its meditations just where someone might be held responsible for something, and unlimited instrumental power. We don’t want a theory of innocent powers to represent the world” (579). We are not innocent; we are angry and flawed and we make mistakes. But we should make mistakes. The genetically, technologically and socially optimized human being of perfectibility culture is a product of statistical averages. In statistics, the centre of a curve or the “average” is non-existent — as an average of everyone, it corresponds to no one in particular. The average, the perfected, the wholly optimized human being does not exist. To blindly seek out and imitate this speculative, flawless form is to destroy our precious partiality.

Now, more than ever, we (feminists, working from home, still on the front lines at the hospital or grocery store, kids, parents, students, families) can fight against the optimization or standardization or our brains and bodies. We cannot know or control everything (and at this point it’s hard enough controlling our own daily schedules). We can contribute to our communities, we can start to heal or help others heal, we can rest, we can lean into our individuality and our partial vision, while listening to and learning from others who see things differently. We can begin to create routines and space for ourselves in this crisis. We don’t need a sense of obligatory or additional productivity in a pandemic. But we can make space for creativity and creation (in whatever unique, situated form it may take) in crisis.

Katie Clarke

Katie Clarke is a student at the University of King’s College in Halifax, studying Psychology and Contemporary Studies a LORAN scholar. Passionate about women’s rights and mental health, she uses poetry and playwriting as a medium for feminist activism. In her spare time, Katie runs the Oxfam Society at Dalhousie University, and she volunteers as a literacy tutor with newcomer and immigrant Canadians.

 

Works Cited

Fox Keller, Evelyn. Reflections on Gender and Science. Yale University Press, 1995.

Haraway, Donna. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies, vol. 14, no. 3, 1988, pp. 575–599. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3178066.

Lewontin, Richard. It Ain’t Necessarily So: The Dream of the Human Genome and Other Illusions. New York Review of Books, 2001.

McGregor, Hannah. “Our Categories of Knowledge Suck with Tina Sikka.” Secret Feminist Agenda, 20 Dec. 2019, https://secretfeministagenda.com/2019/12/20/episode-4-10-our-categories-of-knowledge-suck-with-tina-sikka/

 

 

 

guest post · Uncategorized

Guest Post: What Are We Talking About When We Talk About ‘Care’?

 

 

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Image: “mutual aid (still here)” by the wildly talented Dr. Lucia Lorenzi who describes it this way “Five drops of ink fade down like the scratches of nails. A handprint, tendrils of gold ladder the fingers together. Perhaps what is traced by falling water are matches, what revolution ignites.” Used with permission with thanks and gratitude to the artist. 

Today’s post is by Dr. Hannah McGregor

There’s an awful lot of talk about care these days. I’m paying attention to it, because I’m a scholar who has worked quite a bit on care as both a feminist ethical framework and, frankly, a problem

In the broader field of normative ethics, an ethics of care is a feminist intervention that grapples generally speaking with the problem of the other and how we ought to treat them. There are different approaches to producing a normative ethics—an idea of how we ought to be towards one another—such as utilitarianism, which holds that we should make choices that benefit the greatest number of people. The feminist force of an ethics of care lies how it values the kinds of emotional labour and care work that build and sustain networks and that are often responsible for keeping the most vulnerable—those who might be tossed aside in a utilitarian model—alive. 

But care has also been the subject of much critique, particularly by Black and Indigenous scholars who have pointed out how feelings, especially feelings that cluster around the concepts of compassion, empathy, and care, can be used as justification for great violence. Care is often the name in which children are separated from parents, in which state power is extended into the lives and homes of BIPOC and disabled people, in which power decides whose lives matter. The capacity for empathy is the name in which white women extended the guiding hand of colonialism and imperialism that encoded white supremacy in churches and libraries and schools and hospitals. 

This is the context in which I find myself paying particular attention to how we’re talking about care right now. I keep thinking about Dr. Bonnie Henry, the provincial health officer here in B.C., crying at a press conference in early March. An act that, perhaps, in another time, might have been leveraged against her, a woman in a position of medical authority, was instead praised as a welcome sign of compassion and empathy. These are times, we all seem to agree, when we need a lot more compassion and empathy. These are times when knowledge and expertise, necessary though they may be, come accompanied by feeling. 

That’s as true in the university as it is in public health. In this moment of global and (unequally) shared crisis, the idea that intellectuals and experts need to model disinterestedness or unemotional objectivity is crumbling around us. Academics insisting on a business-as-usual adherence to traditional notions of rigour look more and more out of touch. In the spaces of the university, our classrooms and our conferences and our associations, calls for care are being sounded everywhere. Those of us who teach at universities and colleges are suddenly, unavoidably being reminded of our students’ humanity and our own, in the context of institutions that are invested in us becoming a little less human so we can be a little more efficient. Where a utilitarian approach to the current crisis in post-secondary education might celebrate the efficiencies of digital pedagogy or the “free time” some academics seem to be finding right now, calls for an ethics of care emphasize the networks of connection that make our research and our teaching possible and encourage us all to nurture those networks, even if it’s at the expense of efficiency and utility.  

Suddenly, everywhere, it seems like care trumps structure. Deadlines, grades, and rubrics have become laughable, their arbitrariness impossible to ignore. And these transformations are not unique to the university. As the Canadian government implements wage subsidies that underline the need for a guaranteed basic income, telecommunication companies are suddenly waiving overage fees—all in the name of care. BC is finally opening pathways to a safe supply for drug users, seeming to recognize at last, as so many advocates have been arguing for so long, that drug users are part of our community, and that we cannot let some parts of our community suffer without all of us suffering. In the university, as in the world, we are perhaps realizing that our institutions, our systems, our rigour will not save us. We are being collectively called upon to reimagine these systems in terms of an ethics of care. 

But care as deployed by corporations or by the state in the interests of oppressive systems will not save us. We need to be suspicious when institutions claim to care, and when care is being used to maintain, rather than dismantle, fundamentally dehumanizing systems. As the many inequities and injustices in and beyond the university are being laid bare, care may be leveraged as a way to patch over them. What if we refuse this? What does it look like, as Christina Sharpe puts it, to “think (and rethink and rethink) care laterally, in the register of the intramural, in a different relation than that of the violence of the state”? What forms of care might we enact that are not economized by the state or the university or for-profit ed tech companies? 

Alongside calls for care and empathy, we need to be asking: what does this care look like, and where might it be, to quote Billy-Ray Belcourt, actually in service of the settler colonial state’s “economization of emotion”? We might also ask: who does the burden of care fall on, and how might a depoliticized call for empathy be invisibilizing the very real inequities this crisis lays bare, particularly the urgency of the many forms of underpaid, precarious, and often gendered and racialized front-line work, and care work, that has been declared urgent and essential? Is our care 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?

 
Blog post:

McGregor headshot_Christopher M Turbulence

Dr. Hannah McGregoris an Assistant Professor of Publishing at Simon Fraser University and the host of Secret Feminist Agenda, a podcast about the mundane and radical ways we enact our feminism in our daily lives. She lives in Vancouver on the territory of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations.

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Art (used with permission):

Dr. Lucia Lorenzi (B.A. Hons, Simon Fraser University; M.A. Simon Fraser University; PhD, The University of British Columbia) is a scholar, activist, and writer based out of Vancouver, B.C. Her current academic appointment is as SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University, working under the supervision of Dr. Amber Dean. She specializes in trauma theory and Canadian literature and drama, with a broad focus on sexualized and gendered violence in literature and other media. Her dissertation project was a study of the literary and dramatic uses of silence as a subversive technique for representing sexual assault. Her current research focuses on representations of the figure of the perpetrator, with a specific emphasis on perpetrators’ own narratives. Lucia’s research has been published in West Coast LineTOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, and Canadian Literature. You can find her art on Instagram @empathywarrior

 

 

going public · grief · health · ideas for change · Uncategorized

Shifting Strategies

What happens when an interruption goes on for a long period of time? I find myself thinking about this question from different angles, daily. For, while our current conditions of social or physical distancing, quarantine, and isolation are certainly unprecedented there are many ways that people’s lives have been and continue to be radically interrupted.

What happens when those interruptions go on and on and are global in their scale? What happens when there isn’t an end in sight?

While I don’t have answers to any of these questions, I am finding some comfort in writing them down.

When, a mere seven days ago, I wrote that this was not business as usual I was in a state I can only describe as high alert. My muscles were tensed. I couldn’t settle down. I wrote a million emails an hour. I drew family schedules. I woke up early to work out in the mornings, and went for a jog in the afternoon while our daughter napped. I did this not because I am having a physical transformation self-isolation moment (tho good on you if that gets you through). Nope. I was doing all this because I was in a panic. Adrenalized. Vibrating.

A few days into self-isolation, which, for clarity, I am doing with my partner, our four-year old, and our dog (whose mannerisms are, alas, much like mine) something shifted. I went for a walk and found myself crying. Then, I lay on the floor instead of going for walks. On social media it looked like people were developing home organization projects, or becoming Montessori teachers for their children, or writing their new projects. Not me. I couldn’t wait until 9pm when, almost certainly, I could watch television and zone out until I crawled upstairs to go to bed. Yes, I was still answering emails to students. Yes, I was getting the bare minimum done, but that frenetic energy that was so useful for multitasking and producing? That vanished. Poof! Gone.

I have conveyed some of my shifting feelings to my students as we correspond about final assignments. I do this in small ways, for while I think it might be useful for them to know I am struggling with this too, they don’t need to hold space for my grief. It is good, though, to acknowledge that this–our longue durée of interruption–is difficult. That it can teach us things. There is room, I am reminded, again and again, to meet each other in our shared humanity and to be kind. To recognize that this is a strange and particular moment of shared upheaval, and in that recognition, to look one another in the eye and say ” how are you doing?”

In that same spirit, and with Lily’s post in mind, I am working to notice, record, and remember how I am feeling and what I am thinking and doing now and in the coming days and weeks and months. As I make the shift from panic, to global grief, to something else–what is that something else?–I find my relationship to time is changing. There are some anchors in our household that mark the shape of a day, but on the whole I’ve noticed we’re moving to planning for an hour or a two at a time, rather than the whole day. This is good. It seems to suit three people’s needs and moods a bit more generously. And, as there is no space for the kinds of focussed deep scholarly work that my partner and I do in other contexts, it means we’re changing our daily practices too. I can’t write an article when our four year old needs companionship and conversation. I can, however, pay attention to what she is interested in. Usually, I rush us out the door. Now, as my body settles into the reality that there is simply nothing to rush for, some of my panic dissipates (sometimes). As my partner and I trade taking and hour here or there for reading, or emails, or grading, or a tiny bit of writing (or just the intent to write), we are learning new ways to communicate.

I stepped away from most social media several years ago. The current state of things has marked the first time in years I’ve thought about returning. But instead of that, which causes me a good deal of panic or FOMO or any other myriad crunchy affects, I have been sending texts and emails and DMs to check in on friends and acquaintances. Rather than wonder “does this person want to hear from me?” I’ve been thinking “would I appreciate a check in?” My answer is always yes, so I have been checking in. I let people know there’s no need to respond, and that I treat texts (etc) like post cards and just send them into the world. And I keep doing it, because it helps me feel connected.

I’ll keep sharing my coping strategies, and I’ll keep trying to mark the shifts in emotion. This kind of record keeping feels at once deeply personal, and perhaps one of the first instances in which I want to do that thinking in a kind of public space. There, that’s another shift, isn’t it?