guest post · Uncategorized

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

 

 

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

Today’s post is by Dr. Hannah McGregor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
Blog post:

McGregor headshot_Christopher M Turbulence

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

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Art (used with permission):

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

 

 

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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

emotional labour · outreach · possibility

Showing Up: A Manifesta

Guest post by the fabulous Sydney Tran!

Last year, I was at a conference where many of us lamented the state of the world in presentations, roundtables, and those deeply honest late night conversations that feed your soul. It was a conference with lots of scholars who work in the humanities, and so we theorized about problems and solutions with overuse of words like “neoliberalism” and “utopia” and spoke a language so many other people wouldn’t understand. We did a lot of talking.

There was one session, though, that wasn’t about talking and more about doing. We were offered a workshop about how to handle sexual violence on campus, led by a Facilitator who works with survivors and those who have done harm within university communities. We covered the nuances of consent, how to handle disclosure of harm, and how to think through policies of sexual violence. No one said the word “neoliberal” or the word “utopia”, but also very few people showed up. And one year later, I’m still trying to work out why.

There’s no question that thinking and theorizing and talking are hard work. But what does it really mean to “show up”? When I was teaching and researching as a graduate student, I thought about my role as a curator of new ideas. The beauty of a university, for me, was the new knowledge students received and created in a classroom—knowledge about the state of a world that often blows their minds. The hope for so many of us, of course, is that a post-secondary education is not just informative, but transformative; we want to shift a social consciousness by sharing the gorgeous, complex, and mystifying structures of cultures. We want help students think through that darker underbelly of a society to in turn, make it better.

In my own undergraduate education, I took my first cultural studies class in the winter semester of my second year. At the end of the term, I sat in my professor’s office asking “So now that you’ve exploded my idea of the world, am I just supposed to go home for the summer like everything is fine?” He looked at me shrugging and said, “Sydney, I’m not your therapist.”  I continue to hear echoes of this all the time: faculty members reminding each other and other university staff that they aren’t trained to do care work. And they’re right, most faculty aren’t trained that way—but when offered a training session on how to care for a student in an acute situation (like disclosure of sexual violence), these are often the faculty members who don’t show up. And even when we do carve out a minute to attend, we are as distracted by devices as our students are—emails that can’t wait, projects that have deadlines—we “multi-task.” In other words, academics are choosing not to be trained with these skills, instead choosing to do something else (another conference session, a grant proposal, etc…). The critical act of “showing up” is not simply in being present though, it is making the choice to go in the first place.

Naturally it’s more complicated than I’m making it out to be. With competing demands on time and energy in academia, no one can do it all. But then I have to wonder whose responsibility it is to take care of students who are suffering, specifically students whose suffering is often connected to their studies or related to campus culture? University counselling services are buckling under the volume of students requesting support, disability services offices are chronically understaffed, and campus sexual violence centres are increasingly trying to function beyond their capacity. The faculty I see engaging in any type of student support are often those who are already over-committed to service work and are desperately exhausted. To be frank, I’m exhausted from watching the disproportionately high number of women and queer folks do the majority of the care work in the university—and still be asked to do more (but that’s for another blog post).

Instead of simply thinking about epidemics of anxiety and having looping conversations about trigger warnings, I wonder what we can start doing to create a stronger community of support for our students. As we see increasing numbers of students who enter university suffering with mental health, and others who experience the first onset of a mental health condition while enrolled, we might try showing up in a different way than we have in the past. We may consider that there could be value in learning what we don’t know, or gaining skills we haven’t already mastered, to create a stronger network for our students—and each other.

 

Sydney Tran is a learning and transition specialist, with a current focus on accessible, post-secondary education. She manages a variety of initiatives, projects, and programs for students and faculty.  She spent many of her own school days in the hallway rather than the classroom, after teachers removed her from their class because her talking was disruptive: Sydney is someone who likes to “talk to think.” Collaborative by nature, she finds herself on wonderful teams of people supporting individuals that require nuanced forms of care. In her few solitary moments, she continues to work toward a Ph.D. in English Literature studying feminism, theatre, and asking why the world is the way it is.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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.

academic work · research planning · saving my sanity · writing

An hour

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Last Friday I went to the reading room in Special Collections at the university library. When I arrived, I was the only person there save for the librarian. I requested my little trolley of books, wheeled it over to the table near the window, and began to set up my things.

This doesn’t sound like a big deal, and it isn’t. Not really. What is significant for me is this: I went to special collections to do research work when I had a little over an hour of time.

I unpacked my laptop and charger, my notebook and pencil, and my dsayplanner. I set the timer on my phone (on vibrate, I’m not a monster). I felt a bit like a parody of that scene from Fleabag when a customer comes in, charges a laptop, a phone, an e-reader, and some headphones, then asks for an extension cord and continues to unfurl gadgets while refusing to purchase anything…except that I was in the library.  This–unpacking and setting up to do my work–this was part of  my job.

I have been putting off a trip to special collection for the better part of a semester. It isn’t that the library is an onerous trip from my office. In fact, it is across the street. Nope, my problem is that I have fallen back into the dangerous (for me) calculus in which writing productivity = time + space10

…which is great, except I don’t really have time + space. Who does, really? As for me, my schedule is I think fairly normal for a full-time professor. I’m doing the usual full load of teaching (which I will forever and always remind myself is 50% less than what I did as a contract worker). I’m on the usual service load of committee work at the departmental and university levels (hello, Senate). I’m supervising three Phd students at various stages of their work, as well as two undergraduate honours students. I’m in the final editorial phase of a collaboratively edited project. And, the I get home I have humans and a dog to whom I want to give my full attention. As it turns out, that’s enough stuff to fill a day (and the day after and the day after that). In short, the expanse of time I think I need to work simply doesn’t exist. So, what to do?

What I did was simple: I went to the library. I didn’t go for long, I didn’t get a great deal done, but there in special collections for one hour and seven minutes on Friday last week I worked in quiet and with full attention. I worked with no email. I worked, and took notes, and sometimes I looked out of the window to process what I had read, and what I was trying to write. Moving my body out of my office into a different space focussed my attention and left me feeling in my project, rather than my usual feeling of hovering above it in a kind of frothy anxiety.

I usually feel as though I need–or want–an expanse of time to really get into a research and writing project. But I am reminded that time rarely exists these days. And so, I will take the hour, or the forty minutes, or the half an hour and I will build them into a method. And that? That feels good.