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’?

 

 

Lorenzi 2
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.

Screen Shot 2020-04-16 at 8.00.45 AM

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?

reflection · shifting perspectives · Uncategorized

Not Business As Usual

Well.

Here we are. How are you doing? How are you feeling? Me, I’m moving from what I recently described to a friend (by text message) as full-body-panic to “something else.” I think that “something else” mightbe me beginning to metabolizing our emerging state of affairs. But frankly? I feel a bit in shock.

Last week in Nova Scotia, where I live, the state of affairs was relatively normal on Thursday morning. By Friday it became clear things were changing very quickly: the university had suspended classes for a week while faculty and instructors figured out how to move the last parts of the semester online (indeed for the foreseeable future). By Tuesday we were well into social distancing practices and had to remind ourselves that, yes, we could and should still go outside for fresh air and movement.

The shape of work as a professor has shifted radically, in certain ways. Starting next week the remainder of term will be delivered online. And, lest we forget, there are pedagogues who specialize in digital teaching, but we are not all those teachers. In my faculty we have been encouraged to keep the transition to online teaching simple and to foreground compassion for students where possible. In the two classes, I’ll be moderating questions and discussion online, though I suspect there won’t be much of that as students manage their complex and multifaceted lives. After all, we know students care-give, are parents, hold jobs (sometimes many jobs), and have many additional complexities that shape their learning and living conditions. Still, it has been interesting and often quite wonderful to correspond with them both individually and as a group in the past several days. Kindnesses seems to abound, at least currently. We’re all sad the term is ending this way; we’re all shocked by the abrupt changes in our lives. And we’re rolling with it, it would seem, as best as we can.

Of course, moving teaching, meetings, and research online now that universities and libraries are closed is just part of the change. Here in Nova Scotia, public schools and daycares are closed for a month at least. I imagine that will extend. For my household this means my partner and I are learning to be pre-school teachers as well as doing our own teaching, research, and service. Or rather, we’re trying to do a bit of each, and collectively fumbling towards something resembling structure. Frankly, it is impossible. Not in the ways that other things are impossible. Our current conditions are not structural oppressions. But trying to do my own work, which is the work of thinking and reflecting and creating (in addition to responding, corresponding, and commenting) requires space and time. And as any Early Childhood Educator knows (and if it is not clear let it be so now: I am in no way an ECE! May they all be paid a million dollars annually and showered with respect and universal benefits!) children need different kinds of attention and structure. Our kiddo likes to be with us, talking, all the time. So, while this is understandable–she’s gone from 20-some friends her own age + three teachers down to us + 1 anxious and somewhat aloof dog–it is also a lot. For everyone.

So what do we do? Right now, we’re still very much trying to figure it out. For my own part, I find myself trying to remember that care work is feminist work. I find myself trying to remember that being productive is an imperative that is often oppressive. I find myself trying to slow down and notice where we are…and let that sink it. I try to remember to take a deep breath. It isn’t easy, and we’re only a week into this new and changing reality. I find myself frustrated–just globally frustrated–multiple times a day. And that is okay. It is even understandable. It is where I am at, right now, though I don’t plan to stay in this place of frustration because, frankly, it feels bad. And so I will try, each day, with my partner and with our kid, to shape our days in ways that give each of us a bit of what we need. We’ll keep working to give each other space, and help each other think, and take some time to play or just be. Because this isn’t business as usual.

 

 

mental health · mindfulness · pedagogy · reflection · Uncategorized

March Reflections

I am teaching two courses this semester. One is a fourth year seminar//graduate seminar hybrid. The second class is a special topics class that has the blanket descriptor of “literature, society, politics.” Both classes have been giving me life all term. We’re reading exciting texts, asking hard questions, listening, and discussing. Responses are happening across the room! That kind of discursive cross-talk I hope for is a regular occurrence, and it has very little to do with me. The students are engaged in the project of reading literature, thinking critically about it, and discussing it with one another and me. It is great.

And, this week, we are all flagging. On Monday I walked into one of the classes which has about forty people enrolled, and there were less than ten present. There were similar numbers in the other class. Discussion proceeded, work was done, thinking happened. But I can feel the dip of energy in the room, and the absences are hard to ignore.

I get it, truly. March is for me always the hardest month of the winter term. It is long, the weather in Atlantic Canada tends to dig in its heels and hover around damp-cold-windy for another two months. And, while the sun is sticking around longer, this seems to be one of the times where I stumble into existential reflection. So, while my life is undoubtedly enormously different from the lives of the students in my classes, I have a great deal of empathy. We’re all just trying to make meaning as we move through the world.

I have no super cure for the kinds of questions that seem to arrive and orbit at this time of year including, but not limited to why do we do this? why do I do this? what is the point? (and, more personally but equally existential, why do fish have to die?–though this one was posed by my favourite four year old. Still, it seems to fit the theme: sometimes things are harder that it feels they should be). While I have no cure to offer myself or students, I do find it useful to think about the reasons we come to the classroom together.

A classroom offers space, a pause, an hour or two in real embodied time to sit with relative strangers and think together. It is a place in which pedagogy can happen, even if the efficaciousness of that pedagogical work is not immediately apparent. A classroom feels like it exists outside the space-time continuum. Time slows down (sometimes painfully so). Time speeds up. We don’t experience time in the same ways, and yet there we are, trying to think together.

This trying feels useful to remember. It is, for me, part of what draws me out of my house and into the world that is so very very difficult so much of the time. It is as necessary as the smallest and earliest of the green things, poking themselves out of the ground and working their way up to the sun.

photography of flower field
Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Pexels.com

 

academic work · balance · being undone · feminist health · kinaesthetic thinking · mindfulness · Uncategorized

Ready to sit

Usually, when we say we do ‘yoga,’ we mean asana, the physical limb of the larger practice, the yoga of happy baby and triangle and, if you’re feeling ambitious, bird of paradise. Less known is that the goal of this physical practice is to prepare the body for the rigors of meditation–asana, that is, is essentially the warmup routine for the main event, which is sitting down.

Yoga students often reverse this thinking, focusing more on the physical practice as an end in itself. Sometimes, we don’t really get to the sitting part at all, except in brief centring exercises, or the more passive release of savasana.

Academic life, by contrast, seems often to be nothing but sitting. But we’ve done no prep work for it. We probably should.

Many are the days that I am startled out of a slumped reverie by my Fitbit’s inactivity alarm. I often ignore this bip-bip, for hours: it’s the life of the mind, dammit, and cannot be counted by footfalls! When I eventually have to drag myself out of my chair, I usually experience some unpleasant sort of bodily creaking and discomfort. Sometimes an uncomfortable pressure on my bladder. Or I’m dizzy, or I discover one of my feet has fallen asleep. A headache makes itself known. I reflexively arch my back and lift my arms in a stretch. Every time I get up, I realize how borked up I am: is it even possible to produce good work in this state? And then I sit back down, feeling guilty for the interruption.

IMG_2704
Jasper, as always, setting a good example of embracing embodiment

You probably have similar habits, where your day is organized to get through the things that keep you out of your chair as fast as you can. Just as an example, the goal for me, working at home this morning, was to roll out of bed, get a cup of tea and breakfast, quickly tidy my morning mess and get into my chair as fast as possible, with the goal of remaining there all day.

But what if academic sitting is like meditation sitting: what if we thought of it as a kind of physical as well as mental trial, one that needed us to prepare in a more thoroughgoing way?

Quick question: what parts of you are uncomfortable right now? Neck at a funny angle? Weird deep sorta-cramp in one thigh? Ankle tucked under you funny? Contact lenses feeling a bit dried out and strainy? All of these little distortions and discomforts pile up, I think. They pick at the edges of our focus, our energy, our health. But I’ll bet you have no intention of getting up, taking a little walk around, doing some stretches: frivolous, inefficient, distracting. We let ourselves be reduced to brains on sticks, which seems efficient, but is a lie.

Feminist theory and feminist praxis have long interrogated the distinction of the life of the mind from the more material mundanities of embodied life. Standpoint epistemology or feminist materialism or intersectional theory remind us that ideas are attached to viewpoints that are constructed by our embodiments and our relations. But what if in a more immediate sense, the life of the mind–all that sitting!–is un-divorce-able from our embodied selves. Maybe it’s a new kind of feminist praxis not just to write about the materialities of ideas, to insist on textually embodying ourselves in our work, but also to allow ourselves the space to experience the life of the mind and its work itself as embodied. What if we allowed ourselves to get ready to sit–what if we considered the morning walk to the coffee shop, trudging through the slush and half-blinded by the diffuse daylight bouncing off all the snow, our rapid breathing, as an essential part of the work the life of the mind? We would start to insist on windows, maybe, or interrupt our own 3 hour seminars to get students to look out those windows at the farthest point they can see, while twinkling their fingers. We would stand up when we became aware–because we allow ourselves this awareness, as a gift rather than as a distraction–that our brains were fogging up and our ankles were getting crunchy, even if we just had 50 more words to write. Maybe.

This morning, I couldn’t seem to make myself sit. So I did a little yoga (and yeah, I mean asana)–sun breaths, forward folds, twisting sun breaths, a couple of balances to stretch out my quads, rolled my shoulders and my hips, standing pigeon. And I felt so strong! And so awake! Literally five minutes of gentle movements, standing on one small patch of carpet, in jeans and socks and a hoodie. I felt … alive. This post popped into my head. I looked out the window, felt my irises radiate in and out, took a breath. And started writing. I feel good.

Treat your bodies with care, friends. Sitting is hard. Embodiment and situatedness and affect aren’t just theories; feel it in your body, and take care. You deserve it.

best laid plans · new year new plan · slow academy · Uncategorized

Reflections on Slowness

I find myself thinking about slowness a great deal these days. It might be the shift to a new semester–I do love to reflect and reset each term–and it might be that zero on the calendar moving us into a new decade. I suspect, though, that my reflections on slowness might have more to do with the way we imagined the term back in 2010 when we gave it to the blog.

Fast feminism? That feels intuitive to me: fast feminism signals the need for attention and action. But slow academe? Well, I’ll admit that even in 2010 it didn’t feel intuitive so much as it felt illusory.

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Slow academe, as the originators (me included!) of this blog imagined it, took up slowness as the slow food movement describes it: good, clean, fair. Good, here, is not virtue signalling so much as it means quality; clean, according to the slow food movement FAQ page, means sustainable production that is good for the environment. Fair, meanwhile, means accessible in terms of price for consumers and in terms of way for workers.

Ten years later these feel like pretty solid touchstones for me in this project of public-facing academic feminist scholarship. And yet, as I look back (hastily, because I am posting late after a weekend that, while pleasant, was also filled with trying to fit in skating lessons, socializing, cleaning the house, admin work that spilled into the weekend, and, oof, our kiddo being quite sick), I see I have always struggled to put my finger on what slow academe meant to me. I have no idea if it ever were possible to engage in the slowness that the (semi-controversial) advocated by The Slow Professor. It certainly hasn’t been for me, at least up to this point. I wonder, genuinely, if a slow academe is possible in smaller, more micro ways.

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I spent the first seven years of my association with the blog as a member of the precariate. I wrote about it so much that I worried I had lost who I was in my own research. Whether or not that was true, it makes sense to me why “slow academe” was illusory as both concept and material reality. I didn’t know how to slow down, and the conditions in which I worked rewarded me (sometimes) for doing as much as I could. When I shifted into my tenure track position (& by shifted I mean something I can’t quite articulate even still) I didn’t do much to slow down. Not at first. And when a blip caused me to pull back from social media as a means of networking, connecting, and (frankly, for me), frittering my time away I didn’t so much slow down as I did spiral. Who was I if I wasn’t plugged into what was happening in my field? In my discipline? I didn’t have a good answer. I felt lost.

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This summer, while I was out jogging–the one activity I can truly say I always do slowly–I was listening to one of my favourite podcasts. It is called Keep Calm and Cook On, and let me tell you, Julia Turshen’s interview style (not to mention her voice) feels like free therapy. In this particular episode she was talking with Jia Tolentino.  The conversation was about how Tolentino came to be interested in cooking. I learned that she took it up as a life-sustaining hobby while doing her training for and work in the Peace Corps. Cooking was a kind of slow pause in the affective intensity of her work. On this slow jog down the same road I jogged on all summer, I also listened to Tolentino talk about optimization. Sure, I knew the term already (how could I not? After all, I was striving to be an HQP!) but listening to these two people be smart, serious, and funny sent me to the closest bookstore to get Tolentino’s book.

Trick Mirror has had a great deal of press, and in my mind that’s warranted, but I won’t rehearse it here. Suffice to say, I’ve been thinking about her essay “Always Be Optimizing” for going on six months now. In this essay Tolentino outlines the ways in which people have been streamlined into little self-regulatory optimization machines. Sure, its not a new theory (hello, Foucault!), but Tolentino makes our current moment sharp and hilarious (I dare you to read the section on the rise of barre class without weeping with laughter) and searing. I see myself in these examples, even as I chafe (while pliéing? Kidding.).

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In the first class I taught this term, I invited the students to keep me on task. The task, for me, is to consider slowness and intentionality integral to my pedagogical praxis. Intentionality is always something I am working towards, trying to hold myself to, striving for. Slowness? Not so much, as it turns out. Now, this might be a difficult term to take this on–never have I been on more committees than I am now, never have I over-committed myself to writing projects in quite the way I have this term. But as we spent the first ten minutes of that first class thinking about where and how we read, something kind of magic happened, for me at least. I started to become aware of how even with reading I tend to race. How many pages? How quickly? The pleasure of the text gets lost (hi, Barthes…!) in the reach for optimization.

So, as I work always and forever towards balance this semester I will try to keep thinking about slowness and the ways in which it might, gently, interrupt the optimization imperative.

If you need a place to go for some inspiration, might I suggest colleague, pal, and friend to the blog Dr. Hannah McGregor‘s Secret Feminist Agenda? The January episode on cozy reflections vs. resolutions was, for me, inspiring.

enter the confessional · new year new plan · Uncategorized

Baggage

It is common in the new year, of course, to take stock of what we have accumulated or built up or held onto in the year just past, peering into the drawers and crevices of our lives to examine what lurks there–this regret, that past-due jar of Oktoberfest mustard crusted shut, oh look an overdue library book–as we embark on our annual crafting of resolutions, deciding what we want to carry into the future with us.

Me, I’ve literally got some baggage to deal with.

In late November, unexpectedly, I found myself on a late-notice work trip to Montréal, the kind where you spend more time in vomitous, lurching, snarled-traffic taxis that have that cloying and taxi-specific stale-cigarette-and-aggressive-air-freshener-chemical-strawberry smell than you do in flight, the kind where the meeting you attend is complicated and important and brain-bending, the kind where you find yourself dragging your wheelie bag up the slush-and-salt encrusted roadway from the Métro to the Trudeau Foundation offices on Sherbrooke.

And then the wheels fell off. Literally.

Over the course of several blocks, and then across the full breadth of an airport terminal, one of the wheels on my bag just … disintegrated. Layers of rubberized plastic cracking, then catching, then peeling and flapping. I bump-bumped it along behind me, noisily askew and unpredictable, skiddering and halting and sliding and catching.

Same same, bag. Same same.

This 21″ Samsonite soft-sided bag is one of the enduring relationships in my professional life. I bought it in 1999, at Staples in Edmonton, because I needed a real suitcase, that I could bring on an airplane: I was starting to go to conferences. I was making an effort to grow up, and a rollaboard bag is grown up. I considered it an investment piece, because it cost me in the region of $150. “I will use this for a very long time,” I thought, as I shakily handed over the bulk of that month’s discretionary money. And I have.

Luggage means you are going places. This bag and I have gone places. And I find myself asking now: where am I going next?

I got my very first piece of luggage when I was four or five, a Christmas present to my sister and me from our paternal grandparents. Well, it was three pieces of luggage–a ‘carry on’ shoulder bag, small old-style suitcase with a carry handle, and larger suitcase, all tucked inside one another like nesting dolls. Orangey-tan faux leather for me, leisure-suit blue faux leather for my sister. We would be travelling as a family to visit my grandparents for the holiday, so the bags were immediately put to use. I felt so sophisticated. These suitcases travelled everywhere from Florida to summer camp to university with me, from 1977 until about 1997, actually.

Young teenager dressed for camping, standing outdoors, smiling and holding luggage
Me, going places in 1986.

In 1997, at the very end of my BA at York, I won a scholarship simply to travel to Europe (yes! isn’t it amazing?) in a classic backpackish style. But I had no backpack. I bought my own luggage for the first time: a black canvas MEC waterproof backpack–the kind where you can zip away the backpack part and hook on a shoulder strap to pretend like it’s a suitcase, but it isn’t. This trip was my first time on an airplane, my first major solo trip. I spent weeks practice-packing and practice carrying to get three weeks of clothes and necessities into this bag in such a way I could carry it around from train to train, hostel to hostel. I used this bag to travel to Edmonton later that summer, on a training trip for the Orlando Project, on which I had been offered a research assistantship to fund my MA at Guelph. My life changed a lot that summer. When I moved to Edmonton the following summer that was the bag that came on the plane, and that brought me home for holidays.

That Samsonite roller bag was the start of a new set of journeys for me, a bag for fast trips, a bag for rolling on smooth concourses rather than heaving into trunks or carrying over cobblestones, a bag that took up very little space and that I could live out of in a small corner in a shared hotel room or next to someone’s couch, a bag I could roll into a job interview and look appropriate. And those were the things I did, two or three times a year, for twenty years. I delighted in the ever-diminishing amortized cost of that bag, held tight to my sense of myself as that scrappy but forward-thinking grad student that was smart enough to buy it.

My life is changing again. That bag fell apart in the heaviest travel year I’ve ever had, at the end of a year in which I have been challenged to become the next version of the person I’m going to be. This past year, everything hit simultaneously: I came out of sabbatical to my first full teaching load in about five years, two new preps. I won a $100K SSHRC grant. I got a positive review on a book manuscript submission (that used to be my dissertation) that needs revision. I won a Trudeau Fellowship. I started a podcast, was nominated for two teaching awards, published my first piece in disability studies (and outed myself as autistic and ADHD in the very first sentence of it). I co-taught a grad course in a new area, went to a conference in a new field, and did a ton of media interviews (and appeared in a movie called Assholes: A Theory). In July, I hit my 15 year anniversary at the University of Waterloo. Fifteen years!

Mid-career hit with a mostly-positive thump. People invite me places. They assign my stuff to their grad classes. I find myself mentoring my own junior colleagues. I have a kind of clarity and sense of my own competence, which was unexpected and amazing. I have a travel and research budget that exceeds my capacity to quite comprehend. I am meeting diplomats and prominent academics who are somehow now my peers. Opportunities are multiplying.

But it’s still a thump. It feels kind of like Ms Pac Man, where I’ve munched a power disk, and while that makes it possible for me to rack up all the points and win, everything just got way louder and faster and I’m panicking about grabbing everything I can but still trying to methodically clear the level. It’s frenetic. It’s a mixed blessing. The wheels fell off my bag.

Things are changing.

Here’s where I went last year: Pittsburgh, twice, 4 days each, two different conferences; Vancouver, five days, Congress; Montreal, **three times**, each for two days related to Trudeau Foundation work; Mount Orford, Québec, for five days for Trudeau retreat; Yellowknife, for seven days, for the inaugural Trudeau Foundation Institute for Engaged Leadership.

Tomorrow, I’m flying to Washington for three days for Trudeau planning meeting. Six days after that back to Montréal overnight for an event. Washington again for a week in March, then Moncton for five days in May, Montréal for a week in October. Maybe more planning trips. This is without any conference travel, so who knows?

I bought a new bag for this new life. Even on Boxing Day it set me back more than $300, a 21″ rollaboard Travel Pro Platinum Elite Spinner, recommended for power travellers by Wirecutter. It’s this magical kind of suitcase with ten million weirdly useful pockets, including one for an external battery pack for my poor overworked devices, that somehow compresses time and space to make everything I pack 80% smaller than it seems to be before I put it in. It’s a kind of cranberry colour, sedate but a little distinct. I also: bought a tiny travel size hair straightener, tiny travel versions of my favorite toiletries, and I’ve dedicated a drawer in the guest room to Things That Travel With Me Every Time, like my little bag of first aid things, and extra chargers, and a case for my glasses. I’m ready to go at a moment’s notice, with less fuss. I feel 100% less stressed out about packing for all these trips now. Do I own two hair straighteners now? Yes. But I’m never going to be freaking out the morning of a trip waiting for my giant straightener to cool down before I try to shove it into a bag I wanted to have had ready at the front door 30 minutes earlier. This is who I am now.

I used to travel light, and cheap, and infrequently, and with a bit of panic and fuss at the outset. I’m not that person now. I still travel light, but I insist on the good parking and the good bag, and it makes sense to have doubles of things (and doubles of the things I like to use, the good stuff) because I spend so much time living out of my suitcase. It was hard for me to write out where I’ve gone this year and where I’m going because those paragraphs describe someone who is different from how I see myself, from how I want other to see me. I’m not sure how I feel about this new person yet: I have baggage, if you will, that I’m dragging bumpily behind me, wheels askew, not quite working but tinged with moral rectitude and thrift.

What am I going to wheel with you into 2020? Whatever it is, I hope the baggage rolls smoothly in the direction you set for yourself, whoever you may be or be becoming.

best laid plans · Uncategorized · work · writing

Book Projects Are Hard…and fun

I’m working on a new project and it is both exciting and terrifying!

While I have complete other writing projects before, including one creative non-fiction monograph, when I finish writing anything I tend to feel as though I will, surely, never write again. Something similar happens when I get page proofs back for articles. I read, sometimes I nod in agreement or surprise. Sometimes I am impressed with myself. Always–and I mean always–I wonder whether I wrote the thing in a fugue state. Who was that person who made this sentence? Who found that salient bit of research to support a close reading? Who was she and where has she gone?

Who was it that wrote “anyone who says they enjoy the writing process is a liar”? It isn’t that I dislike the writing process. Once I am writing I love it. It feels euphoric at best, or at the very least, it feels rhythmic, like the way I was taught to breathe while doing front crawl: stroke, stroke, stroke, breath. Repeat for an hour or so and emerge tired and accomplished. Stretch, shower, carry on with your day. I am a dilettante who is a little in love with routine and a little enamoured with a good challenge, so yes, I suppose liking writing makes sense. It is the project planning that has me in knots.

I remember preparing to writing my dissertation proposal. It was a bit of a nightmare. I had all these wonderful ideas–I practically could dream the whole project–but when I sat down to put pen to paper and plan it out? Nothing. Nada. Zilch save for the slow trickle of dread that starts at the back of my neck and creeps up into my mind and then yells you can’t do this!

It turns out that I could do it, of course. I wrote the dissertation, and sometimes had fun doing it. But gosh, I sure wish I had learned how to project plan a bit. There is, I think, a happy medium place between launching yourself into the writerly unknown and crafting a research project that needs to be a scholarly monograph when it is finished.

So, this new project I am working on is a chance to shift my writerly and research habits. I’m going to try and share with you what I learn, what I bump up against, and what is (I hope) also delightful. Here goes:

It turns out that while I have edited a few collections and written that creative non-fiction monograph I mentioned, writing a scholarly monograph feels a lot like writing a dissertation so far. I need to survey the field, figure out what I can add to it, and learn through writing and revising how to be generative in a field that has so much richness in it already.

However, unlike a dissertation, this book project has already had its first encounter with peer review. When I was approached to write the book proposal I learned that I would submit the proposal to peer review. What? Wow! Wonderful and intimidating (though intimidating only insofar as it is nerve-racking to have peers assess your work). I am so grateful for the anonymous commentary I received on the proposal. Three different people took the time to read it, comment on it, and make generous and useful suggestions. When I get stuck and worry about whether I should be writing this, I return to the peer review commentary and remind myself that no book is ever the last word. What I am aiming for, always, is contributing to on going discussion. The peer reviewers remind me of that, too.

I quite like what Donald Barthelme has to say: “the writer is that person who, embarking upon her task, does not know what to do.” Whereas in the past I would have read this and taken it as permission to flail around in a bit of a froth until I churned out several thousand words, I find myself approaching Barthelme’s observation a bit differently. Instead, I am working towards an end-goal inside a project plan with the knowledge that the project will shift as it needs to shift. Happily, the heart-pounding unknowing of writing is there, too.

Wish me luck! And please, feel free to share your long-project tactics and tips!