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’?

 

 

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

 

 

mental health · shifting perspectives · theory and praxis

Affording Attention: Pandemic Reflections in the Fourth Week

“Nothing is harder to do than nothing.”

This is the opening sentence of a book I started back in September. This fall, in the middle of a hurricane-induced power outage, I began reading Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. I came to it with curiosity. I hadn’t heard of it before and the cover drew me in. I liked the colours and the design. I appreciated how the bright flowers were slowly growing over the title, the subtitle, and the author’s name. It felt clear, subversive, and a little delicious.

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It’s nice, right?

I assumed that I would be getting a meditation on the effects of social media and, to a degree, I wasn’t wrong. Odell, who is an artist, writer, and teacher, is primarily interested in where and how we give our attention. To this end, there are reflections on the ways in which social media platforms are designed to draw us in and keep us there. This doesn’t feel like new information. But Odell doesn’t stop, or even primarily rest in the effects of social media (and email and, well, capitalism) on our attention. Instead, what caught my [ahem] attention was her writing about how our material conditions structure what kind of attention we can afford. While this again feels obvious it resonates with me deeply. Especially now. Though, I think it will stay with me beyond the pandemic we are experiencing together. I will work to keep this knowledge in front of my eyes and in my attention.

*

Here in Nova Scotia we are heading into the fourth week of social distancing and isolation measures. We, of course, extends beyond my family of three humans and one very anxious old dog (who, frankly, is in love with what is happening right now. Never has he been so coddled, attended to, and doted upon with quite this fervour). We is everyone in our radically different positionalities and experiences of our own lives. We is us in geographic proximity, whether we’ve been able or chosen to interact at all.

Last week I wrote about my shifting strategies in this particular longue durée (which, for your humour, is worth knowing my computer keeps trying to auto-correct to longue purée). Last week I was working to pay attention to things and here is what I have noticed: I do seem to be developing a bit of focus. I am craving work, which for me and my blue-sky thinking, would ideally be research and/or writing. It would be reading. And I am starting to do the tiniest bit of that. I have noticed that I am getting marginally more articulate–for myself and others (the two humans + one dog)–about what I need. Indeed, I don’t think it is talking out of turn to say we all are. The four year old is very good at saying what she needs wants. This is a good reminder. I am noticing that I seem to have one or two “good” days, and then a not so good day. Good for me in this context means mood. My despair and irritation are not gone, but they are themselves shifting. I have also noticed that fresh air is good, regardless of weather. This kind of freedom of movement–as restricted as it feels–is not available to everyone. Not everyone can afford this kind of action. I thought of this today as I worked to keep my distance from other people, out, moving.

*

I still don’t have sage thoughts about research or writing. You’re certainly not going to get a Ten Steps On How To Optimize Your Social Isolation for Academic Research post from me. Right now, what I can tell you is that I am reading a bit more in the last week. I am watching slightly less Netflix on some evenings. I have started keeping a journal, which I have done on and off since elementary school (& usually in times of duress, which leads to an archive of navel-gazing yet hilarious and sometimes insightful reflections on how life is hard, boring, devastating, fun, and exhilarating. Sometimes it is these things in the same week). I crave writing a little bit. Just a bit.

And you? How are you?

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?

administration · being undone · change management

Inside a State of Emergency, the University Edition

What you were doing ten days ago? Hugging a friend? Meeting someone at a talk and shaking their hand? Teaching inside a classroom? Doing research in your lab or at the library? Going for coffee or lunch somewhere?

So much has changed so fast. And we are still living with so much uncertainty. But I want to take you inside the last ten days for me. I can hardly remember what happened and I want to remember.

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“The loneliest place in Toronto.” Ross Building, York University, 4.31pm on March 20, 2020. Huge thanks Eve Haque for permission to use this image.

I am an Associate Dean at my university.  That means that I make some decisions, but I also am in charge of seeing that the decisions that the people higher up than me in the hierarchy (and there are a lot of them — dean, associate provost, provost, vice presidents, president) are made real. I am not in the highest level rooms where decisions are made, but I am definitely at other tables and rooms where we have a little — or a lot, it depends on who is in charge and what the issue is — of influence on the big decisions.

The Province of Ontario, where my university is located, declared a State of Emergency on March 17, 2020. Let me take in you inside the last ten days of an emerging state of emergency, and its immediate aftermath. A lot of what follows has to do with international students since looking out for them is a big part of my portfolio but also because I don’t think we’ve paid enough attention to how especially hard this situation has been for these students.

March 12 — three hour meeting with the dean, two hour meeting with department chairs, two hour meeting with Faculty Council where we (the dean’s office) try to say, we have not yet moved to canceling face-to-face classes but please, please start to prepare for this possibility. One of the other assoc deans and I sit down after that meeting and write out a quick guide for “going digital” for our colleagues. Just in case.

March 13 — dean texts all assoc deans and other key folks at 7.43am to say, I’m sorry but I’m calling an emergency teleconference for 8.30am. We learn that the announcement to move courses online will be coming. We ramp up our planning work. Lots to figure out. For example, we have exactly 12 spare laptops for a Faculty that has 650 faculty members, hundreds of TAs, and three hundred staff members. How to rent laptops for everyone who will need one? We put our “going digital” guide up on a website. At least we got ahead of that. How to help our 21,000 students? What will they need?

We wait and wait for the official announcement to come from the president. It was supposed to come at 11am but doesn’t. It is agonizing to know that this is coming but not be able to do much until the official word drops.

Finally, late in the afternoon, the official word is out. We send out mass email to faculty colleagues to talk about next steps. We send out an email to all our students telling them that we are here for them. In this email, we also ask international students who have questions or issues to email me (my portfolio is global & community engagement and working with international students is a big part of it).

My email is flooded almost immediately by students who are frantically trying to leave the country because they have heard that borders are closing and flights will be grounded.

They knew. The Canadian Minister for Foreign Affairs would not advise Canadians to come home until the next day. But these students already knew that the borders were closing. That if they were going to get home, they needed to get on a flight immediately.

I immediately ask our IT genius to set up a separate email account so that I can at least track the torrent of emails by cc’ing them to that account. It’s a quick hack but proves invaluable later because I can ask others to go into that inbox and start helping me track the needs and respond to them.

Friday night and wee hours of Saturday spent trying to help hundreds of international students. I start to feel that I can’t leave my computer for even a few minutes because the students need to make decisions now.

March 14 — the emails from terrified and anxious international students keep coming. Hundreds of them. Often one every minute. I get so many that my email starts bouncing emails because of the sheer volume.

I start to hear things before they are reported on the news. Ukraine is closing its borders. India is asking its citizens to come home and will soon close the borders to them if they don’t make it. For many students, whether to stay or go is a wrenching decision.

I call the dean on Saturday night and say, we need to send a message to our students to say that we know that they that they are grappling with these decisions and a lot of uncertainty and that if they decide to get on the next flight home to be with their family during this crisis, we will absolutely support them and figure out how to help them finish their courses from wherever they are. He calls the provost for approval. I text our director of communications. We write as fast as we can. We call up a staff person who has to access the student contacts. We call our IT genius. I am ruining everyone’s Saturday night but it is worth it because we get the message out.

The Minister of Foreign Affairs tells Canadians that if they have to come home “while commercial flights are still available.” It’s not reported in Canadian or US news, but other governments are giving their citizens the same message. Come home or you will be stranded.

March 15 — the messages asking for helping are still coming fast. I have been answering them day and night for 36 hours. I have a bleary-eyed Sunday zoom meeting with staff from my team and we figure out a way for them to share the load even though I am now ruining their Sunday and I feel terrible about that. But these students are under so much pressure and they need answers and they can’t wait for the office to open on Monday. We only decided to take courses online a day ago. The profs still don’t know what their courses will look like, whether or not there will be in-person exams etc. I tell the students, if you want to go, we will support you. Be where you feel safe. Don’t worry about the academic pieces. We can sort that out. That seems like the only humane thing to say even though I don’t have the power to make any colleague teach or give exams in any particular way.

March 16 — Canada announces the first border closures. I hear a rumour from students that flights will be grounded by Wednesday. It was only Monday but they knew. They were right.

Please, if you take nothing else from this, listen to your students. They know things.

Emergency meetings with assoc deans across the university. We keep checking texts and email because every ten minutes, things change and we have to decide again the thing we thought we had already decided.

The new normal is to write emails and official memos that begin, “Because this situation is fluid and changing very rapidly…”

March 17 — emergency meeting where we try to think about how to help international students who were supposed to start classes in summer semester now that there is a travel ban that denies them entry into Canada.

Still torrents of email from international students who have to make tough decisions. But now it’s worse because, if they leave, I don’t know when they can come back.

Ontario declares a state of emergency.

March 18 — after hours of agonizing waiting, we move to required-services-only mode which means we can finally allow staff to work from home and close libraries and services. I am happy that this is happening but so sad for the international students who will be even more alone on campus.

At 11.01pm the provost releases a memo telling everyone that university buildings will be closing and that if they want access to campus, they should email the Associate Dean for Research in their Faculty.

That’s me, too.

In addition to being Assoc Dean, Global & Community Engagement, I have also been pinch-hitting as Interim Assoc Dean, Graduate Studies &  Research since January.

I suddenly get a surprising number of requests from colleagues who don’t want to stop going to their office, don’t want to shut down their labs, don’t want to lose access to the computer room etc.

March 19 — huge fights about accessing buildings. These go for hours across many platforms — email, zoom meetings, text. Back and forth and back and forth.

I become a little hysterical. Maybe because I am tired. But I also feel an enormous responsibility for helping to break the virus’ chain of transmission [nyt link] and that means urging colleagues to stay home and telling them that accessing buildings after the official closure will jeopardize the health and safety of the person who wants to go into the building, and that of our security staff who will have to escort them in.

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Image via New York Times

March 20 — still a lot of back and forth about when and how to close the buildings. I am waiting for decisions from higher up. I tell colleagues, please, just plan on not going to campus, please.

Our IT folks have rented and set up 1500 laptops for staff and students who urgently need them. They did all this while helping hundreds of faculty colleagues put their courses on-line. There are a lot of heroes in this story, and the IT folks are definitely among them.

People across the academy are shutting down labs and research centres and losing millions of dollars of research. They are going to be without their libraries and research equipment. There are costs to the rapid shutdown that we are initiating. I feel it.

March 21 — here I am, with you.

A friend told me that you can’t write about a hurricane when you’re inside it. So what I’m sharing is just a view from a place where everything is whirling too fast.

As Erin Wunker tells us, this is not business as usual. Our lives are changing. This is changing us. We are not going to be the same and we will not go back to business as usual. I don’t know how we will change yet but I can feel it. You feel it too, right?

 

 

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

 

administration · faster feminism · hope · perpetual crush · popular culture

Cho on Oh: thoughts on The Chair

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Left: me, as Chair of English, on the threshold of my future office

Right: Sandra Oh, future Chair of English as seen in The Chronicle

(same difference, right?)

This week, we learned that there will be a flashy new mini-series starring my forever Asian Canadian Kween, Sandra Oh, as the Chair of English at a major university. Like all of you, I had a lot of thoughts. And feels.

As a former Chair of English at a major university, here are a few of mine.

The GoT Connection [with apologies to those who haven’t watched and don’t care]

Let’s get this one out of the way. Knowing that the show will be produced by the same people who gave us Game of Thrones, it is impossible to resist re-mapping university hierarchy with the landscape of the Seven Kingdoms even though I know this show will not be a David Lodge-George RR Martin mash-up. But still, I imagine:

  • The Iron Throne is clearly the Dean’s Office (because the White Walkers have to be all the folks with the power of fast ice zombies — and I mean this with much respect since the Night King is one of my fave characters — the Provost, President, Board of Governors)
  • The English Department is Winterfell (doomed but noble despite a few bad seeds);    Casterly Rock is the School of Business (obvs)
  • The Red Wedding in this series will be when the English department and Media/Film Studies celebrate a successful merger only to discover that both units will be swallowed by the Business School resulting in the majority of the English, Media, and Film faculty specialists re-purposed into teaching courses on Business Communication; a few English profs will survive the merger/massacre and will spend the rest of their careers trying to re-establish English as an independent department

If you like, please insert your variations on this theme in the comments. I might be totally wrong about Tywin Lannister and the Dean of your Business School.

Departmental minutes as plot lines

Read over the last set of minutes. Rewrite with Kween Oh talking about hiring and the crisis of adjunctification. Consider going to department meetings again.

This show will do for undergraduate enrollment in English what CSI did for Criminology

It’s a fantasy. Let me have it.

This show will make being a feminist academic look good totally glamorous and real

It’s a fantasy. Let me have it.

But, seriously, my time as Chair (and especially a Chair who was also a woman of colour who was also the second-most junior faculty member in her dept at the time) taught me that chairing while feminist is an elaborate exercise of perceived power enmeshed with a surprising lack of structural power.

The real surprise: how often male colleagues who, by virtue of the accident of age and gender, were the most privileged people in the whole of academia, persistently insisted upon their victimization, powerlessness, and entitlement to more privilege at precisely the moment when more women are being promoted to academic leadership. The real drama/trauma: how many male colleagues were feminists until I made decisions they didn’t like.

I love that The Chronicle ran the story of this new show with an image of the future Chair in sequins and feathers. But I know that feminist chairs past, present, and future, have stood on the threshold of power with hard hats and steel-toed boots in hand because chairing while feminist is still work that is very much in progress.