Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Open Letters and Commitments to Equity

I was honoured over the last week or so to work with my colleagues Frankie Condon, Jay Dolmage, Jennifer Harris, Heather Smyth, and Vinh Nguyen to craft an open letter--as so many others have done!--expressing our disavowal of the politics of hate and division the recent US election seems to portend. We wanted to stake a claim for justice. And we wanted it to be local, and we wanted it to do something rather than just say something. So there are action items in here, that I am going to post on my office door for all to see, and on my office bulletin board to guide my actions every day.

Our letter, because we want it to be impactful, has to be local. If you are a UW staff, faculty, or alumni and want your name added, leave you name in the comments, or send me an email and I'll add it.

If you like the letter but are not at the University of Waterloo, take what you will from it, and start a letter for your own institution.

Beliefs that are not voice have no impact; but statements without action are just as bad. We will hold ourselves to this, and try to make our little corner of the world a better place. We would love you to join us.

Please share widely.

--
Open letter to the University of Waterloo

We recognize that our feelings of anger, grief, and fear in response to the recent U.S. election are shared by many of our colleagues and students at the University of Waterloo. We condemn the hate crimes, hate speech, and everyday appeals to racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, misogyny, ableism, and trans- and homophobia across North America and abroad that have so marred our collective hope for more fully realized global social justice.

We are committed to racial justice, religious freedom, and social equality. We stand in solidarity with colleagues and students whose well-being is threatened in the current political climate especially with those who are racialized Others, who are LGBTQ2, who are Muslims and Jews, immigrants and refugees, Indigenous, or disabled. We acknowledge and accept our right and our responsibility to act on this commitment to solidarity in our classrooms, our offices, our meeting rooms, and in our research, as well as in our communities beyond the bounds of our universities.

We are committed to the work of creating a just future in which Othered and dissenting perspectives and voices are acknowledged and respected, in which the rights of all peoples to full economic and political empowerment are recognized, and in which rights to religious freedom are honoured. We stand together against the politics of racism, white supremacy, hatred, and misogyny. We call on our institutional leaders and our colleagues to join with us in challenging and dismantling hate in all its forms on our campus, in our communities, our province, and our nation.

We, the undersigned, commit to the following actions:
  • We will foster and sustain equitable spaces for discussion in the classroom 
  • We will craft inclusive syllabi that recognize the plurality of voices, traditions, and perspectives in academic work, as well as in our student body 
  • We refuse to ignore, normalize, or explain away overt racism, homo- and transphobia, misogyny and xenophobia in our teaching, service, research, or public work for any reason, including undue deference to position or institution 
  • We will work to create a more just, equitable, supportive, and inclusive university, from our classrooms, to our offices, to our faculties and the broader institution, through policy initiatives and daily action 

We call on our university to:
  • Indigenize, by taking the following steps: 
    • Prioritize and follow through on the hiring of indigenous scholars in every faculty and discipline 
    • Include territorial acknowledgement prominently on all public documents and public relations materials as well as on syllabi and online course materials
    • Create conduits for indigenous students at all levels of study to attend the University of Waterloo 
    • Encourage and support University initiatives that particularly focus on innovation that works WITH indigenous communities to address inequalities, injustices, environmental, economic, and political problems that particularly impact on indigenous peoples in Canada and around the world. 
  • Work harder and more visibly to create and sustain a university environment that is fair, equitable, and welcoming for students, faculty, and staff of all faiths, gender identities, abilities, ethnicities, races, and nationalities paying particular attention to and with particular care for the needs and interests of those most likely to face discrimination 
  • Publicly recognize and dedicate the university’s care and attention to the arts and humanities where the values of justice, equality, fairness, and inclusion, where the histories, philosophical and spiritual traditions, arts and cultures of diverse peoples are studied and told 
  • Publicly recognize and support public intellectualism across all faculties and disciplines; that is, value and support faculty and student engagement beyond the bounds of the university with social, cultural, political, and economic reform or transformation toward the goal of social justice 

Dr. Carol Acton, Department of English Language and Literature, St. Jerome’s University, University of Waterloo
Dr. Lamees Al Ethari, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Waterloo
Dr. Alicia Batten, Department of Religious Studies & Theological Studies, Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo
Dr. Lizbeth Berbary-Mohamed, Recreation and Leisure Studies, University of Waterloo
Dr. Kate Rybczynski, Department of Economics, University of Waterloo
Dr. Frankie Condon, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Waterloo
Dr. Bruce Dadey, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Waterloo
Dr. Jay Dolmage, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Waterloo
Dr. Marlene Epp, Departments of History and Peace & Conflict Studies, Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo
Dr. Robert Gorbet, Department of Knowledge Integration, University of Waterloo
Dr. Dorothy Hadfield, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Waterloo
Dr. Jennifer Harris, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Waterloo
Dr. Ken Hirschkop, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Waterloo
Dr. Sara Humphreys, St. Jerome's University
Dr. Corey W. Johnson, Recreation and Leisure Studies, Applied Health Sciences, University of Waterloo
Dr. Ashley Kelly, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Waterloo
Dr. Victoria Lamont, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Waterloo
Dr. Shana MacDonald, Department of Drama and Speech Communication, University of Waterloo
Dr. John McLevey, Department of Knowledge Integration, University of Waterloo
Dr. Andrew McMurry, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Waterloo
Dr. Aimée Morrison, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Waterloo
Dr. Vinh Nguyen, Renison College, University of Waterloo
Dr. Jane Nicholas, Departments of History and Sexuality, Marriage, and Family Studies, St. Jerome's University, University of Waterloo
Dr. Kathryn Plaisance, Department of Knowledge Integration, University of Waterloo
Lorna Rourke, Librarian, St. Jerome’s University, University of Waterloo
Dr. Vanessa Schweizer, Department of Knowledge Integration, University of Waterloo
Dr. Gordon Slethaug, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Waterloo
Dr. Heather Smyth, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Waterloo
Dr. Linda Warley, Associate Dean, Graduate Studies, Faculty of Arts
Dr. Vershawn Young, Department of Drama and Speech Communication, University of Waterloo

Thursday, November 24, 2016

From the Archives: Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me During My PhD

The new school year is well underway, and so is the work I do with our Career Development Committee, a group of graduate students, postdocs, and research associates (who are very much like the STEM world's version of contract academic faculty). The CDC's mandate is to provide career development education that helps students and fellows find awesome non-academic careers, and they're very good at it.

Their big fall event, Career Night, is happening tonight. They bring in 10 alumni or other graduate-trained people in their networks and then do what is in essence a series of short informational interviews. This time, we have everyone from an assistant provost to an academic acquisitions editor, with people from regulatory affairs, government policy, small-business ownership, research administration, and industry science also in the mix. A small group of students and fellows chat with one of the invitees for 25 minutes about their graduate training, their career path to the present, and what advice they have for others looking to move into a non-academic careers, and then they switch, and switch again.

By the end of the night, each person has had a chance to talk with three professionals, and to mingle and network with as many more as they want during the open part of the event. I wish I had access to a similar event during my PhD, and that I had gotten some of the good advice I know my students and fellows are going to get during Career Night. I know I'm not the only one, so here's what I hope people learn tonight that might also be useful to you, or your students.

***

1. Be Realistic, and Open, About What Comes After Grad School

In the recent America-wide survey by Duke University graduate student Gregory Brennen, the data showed that 83% of graduate students started their PhD expecting to become a tenure-track professor. This is in stark contrast with the current data on how many PhDs actually end up in tenure track jobs—most estimates suggest that fewer than 50% of PhDs end up in any kind of academic job (that includes contract teaching) and that only between 15% and 25% ever secure tenure track jobs. Given this reality, graduate students need to prepare for, and embrace, the multitude of possibilities open to them after they complete their degrees. And they need to remember that being an academic is just a job, and that the are tons of interesting, fulfilling jobs doing other things. Mine is a good example.

2. Make Strategic Decisions About What You Do During Your Degree

As a friend kindly reminded me after I kept claiming that I got lucky in ending up in my job, we make our own luck. What seems random is actually, when you look back, a series of strategic decisions that lead to a whole host of post-degree opportunities. In my case, that strategic decision was to take a research assistantship in lieu of teaching during the fourth year of my PhD. While many PhD students fund their studies by teaching, and that's a wonderful opportunity for people who are looking for careers in education, that may not be the best choice for people who are looking to do other things and need a different set of skills. These other opportunities are also extremely useful academically. Research or graduate assistantships are a big one to consider, as is doing an industry-partnered internship with Mitacs. So might be going on an international exchange, or selecting a graduate co-op program (which UBC now has in English, and Aimee tells me Waterloo is going to develop.) In my case, the research assistantship, researching graduate student professional development programs, let me develop the skills, knowledge, and experience that got me my job as a Research Officer.

3. Take Advantage of the Resources Available on Campus

As grad students, it’s easy to believe that most of the student support services available on campus are there for undergraduates, but that is emphatically not the case. There are a myriad of resources available on most campuses to help graduate students make the most of their degrees, to help them navigate the academic job market, or to help them transition out of academia or into an #alt-ac or #post-ac career. The Career Centre is a great place to start, and they can provide assistance with academic and non-academic job searches; Advancement can often connect grads with alumni in the fields they're interested in; most Canadian universities now have graduate student professional development programs that offer a whole host of workshops and seminars; Mitacs offers a full suite of free transferable skills workshops; and many faculty members can, sometimes surprisingly, provide guidance and support in the search for jobs in and outside of the academy. It can be scary talking to faculty about plans to abandon the tenure track--believe me, I know--but the culture of silence around #alt-ac and #post-ac transition isn't going to disappear until we all start talking about it.

4. Consider Creating A Shadow C.V.

One of the most important things graduate students can do to demonstrate to people outside of the academy that they have the needed skills is to have evidence that you're capable of working outside of the academy. Especially for PhDs, the assumption that we're overeducated and lacking in practical skills can be hard to overcome without demonstrated outside experience, and having at least one example of non-academic work experience to put in a resume can go a long way toward helping graduate students mentally connect the skills they've honed as a graduate students with those that crop up on job postings, and to help overcome the feeling that there's nothing they're qualified to do but be a professor. People have started calling experience developed alongside academic work, but not included in academic documents, a “shadow C.V.” In my case, I took a year off between my Master’s and my PhD to work in publishing and continued tutoring and editing throughout my degree. Other people I know have done summer placements, taken part-time jobs, done industry-partnered internships, or created web-based consulting and writing firms that allow them to work on their own time.

6. Learn How to Talk About Your Skills and Research to People Outside of Academia

Academese and English can sometimes seem like two different languages, and this is a major barrier to people with graduate degrees trying to make their qualifications and research make sense in contexts outside of the academy. It’s only natural. Communicating highly specialized research to non-academics isn’t a skill that most academics at any level practice all that much, other than the inevitable attempts to explain your work to your mother, or to someone you meet at a party. This is certainly changing, though. But opportunities to practice do exist, and graduate students should take advantage of them: compete in the Three Minute Thesis; take workshops on clear language writing; practice translating research into non-specialist language. Doing this can seem very non-intuitive for grad students, especially for those who have been academe for a long time, but once they learn how to do it, the relationship between what they do as academics and what shows up in job postings often becomes painfully obvious, as does the potential impact of their work outside the academy. This is, as a side benefit, and increasingly strong focus for many granting agencies, a number of which also now require clear-language or lay research summaries.

7. Think About What You Really Want to Do

Many PhD students are committed to being professors without actually knowing what the life, and the job, of a professor is really like. Our archives here at Hook & Eye can be pretty illuminating. Parts of it match up closely with the starry-eyed dream, but others definitely don't. Meetings are endless and often frustrating. Grading is a slog. The pressure to publish and get stellar teaching evaluations can be debilitating. Students are disengaged. Service takes up far more time that people realize, and there's never enough time for research and reflection. Graduate students should be figuring out what it is they really love about academia, and thinking about other jobs that might let them do those things more. The book So What Are You Going to Do with That? includes some fantastic exercises, ones that helped me realize that the things I love to do and am good at doing--coordinating, facilitating other people's work and success, communications, writing, mentorship--are key components of all sorts of #alt-ac and #post-ac jobs, including my current one.

8. Think About What You Really Don’t Want to Do

As PhDs, we're indoctrinated to believe that we should be willing to give up everything for a tenure track job. At some point, I shrugged that indoctrination off and made a list of the things that were more important to me than tenure: I didn’t want to move, wait until I was 40 to have kids, spend most of my life grading papers, spend multiple years as a contract professor, or write things that no one would ever read. For me, those were pretty convincing reasons to give up on the idea of becoming a professor, which requires total mobility, limits reproductive choices, requires far more teaching than research for most people, and mostly values journal and book publications that most people won’t read. The most important thing I had to convince myself of--and that we must tell graduate students, over and over--is that choosing where to live, desiring to have a child without worrying about compromising doctoral work or chances at tenure, refusing precarious employment, are totally legitimate life choices that are okay to voice aloud, despite the tendency of academia to suggest that if you aren’t willing to sacrifice your whole life, even your whole identity, to being an academic, you’re a second-class citizen. It broke my heart, in a good way, to have a whole gaggle of female Queen's students come up to me after my talk and thank me for saying out loud that my desire to have kids before I was 35 was a factor in my decision making. It is for many people, and that's something that should be discussed openly.

The other important part of this equation is to get graduate students talking to people they know in academia and outside, and find out from them what their jobs are really like. So long as we perpetuate the belief that academia is the only worthy place of employment, and that a professorship is the only truly fulfulling and engaging job, graduate students will ignore a whole host of career possibilities that might be a much better personal and professional fit.

9. Don’t Conflate Who You Are With What You Do

This is an obvious one, and a hard one to avoid--but if graduate students can avoid the trap of believing that they are academics, and that if they don't get to continue to be academics they'll be nothing, they'll save themselves a horrible and painful identity crisis if the time comes that the professoriate becomes an unobtainable dream. A professorship is just a job. It is not a vocation, or an identity, and graduate students are so much more than the single career option the academy tells them is worthy. 

10. Enjoy the Ride

Getting paid to read for comps. Taking classes totally outside of your area because you can. Auditing things purely for interest. Debating theory over far too much wine. Style-stalking your favourite professor. Choosing conferences based purely on location. These are some of the best parts of grad school, and they should be relished, and they often aren't because PhDs are too busy conferencing and publishing and professionalizing and shadow-CVing and comparing themselves to all of the other PhDs they know. Yes, those things need to get done (minus the last one) but statistically speaking, the chances of getting to stay in academia on a permanent basis are slim. Enjoy the ride while it lasts.

***

So, dear readers, what do you think? What advice would you give to current graduate students facing the reality of a terrible academic job market? What advice do you wish you had gotten during your PhD?

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Curriculum design for well-being

It's late November, and final papers are coming due in graduate and undergraduate classes. Advanced doctoral and masters students are confronting the natural deadline of another term's end--and the reminders and obligations to pay fees again. This time of year brings self-reflection, self-recrimination, stress, and, often, panic. Many are full of anticipatory regrets, some are in full avoidance mode, others are just trying to work harder and harder to meet impossible standards. Many become dramatically unwell from chronic or new mental illnesses: insomnia, anxiety, depression, and psychosis.

There's been a lot of attention paid recently to the dire mental health issues facing students generally, and graduate students particularly. Here, have a look:

The Other Mental Health Crisis
Graduate School and Mental Illness: Is there a link?
The Mental Health Care Crisis on Campus
There's an Awful Cost to Getting a PhD That No One Talks About

The most recent Berkeley study outlines 10 factors contributing to (or declining from) graduate students' sense of well-being and mental health:
  1. career prospects
  2. overall health
  3. living conditions
  4. academic engagement
  5. social support
  6. financial confidence
  7. academic progress and preparation
  8. sleep
  9. feeling valued and included
  10. adviser relationship
This is a lot. Many of these factors, I would like to point out, affect everyone's mental health, no matter their career, not just that of students--but that many factors are artificially and/or structurally more awful for students, as a group: grad school is framed as career suicide, stipends are generally terrible, there is no possibility of security for the duration of training, and poor wages often lead to limited choice in living arrangements. We can and we should think more systematically about how grad school seems to be set up from the get-go to minimize students' chances of maintaining well-being, and even to trigger mental illness.

I can't fix that today, or by myself. However, as an adviser and instructor of graduate students, there are things I can do today, right now, by myself to address some of the issues, the ones I've highlighted above: academic engagement, social support, academic progress and preparation, and sleep.

I can do this through my syllabus design. And so can you. Let's think about how. I think grad courses in general, at least in my discipline (English), tend to assign more reading than one human can do, set ambiguous or paradoxial expectations about what the course requirements actual are, clump the preponderance of course weight on an overly large capstone project or paper, and fail to give meaningful feedback when it is need (much earlier in the term, and more frequently). Oh, and when we design syllabi with reading lists still very heavily skewed to Dead White Guys, we are surely sending a message to students about whose voices matter and who is a proper academic subject.

A modest proposal, then, for discussion:

1. Be realistic about how much people can actually read. Here, students work 10 hours a week at a TA-ship or independent teaching. They take two or three courses per term. If I assume a work week of 40 hours, after the TA work, that's 30 hours left. That would be 10 hours each to devote to three classes, and since three of those hours are the seminar itself, that leaves seven hours for work outside the class. That time will be for any reading, library and online research, writing, and office visits. If I use a course reading workload calculator, I can easily see that assigning a book of theory, even a slim one, and asking for a 2 page report, is going to take waaaaaaaaayyyy longer than 7 hours. This can address the question of academic preparation, in that students assigned a manageable workload can actually feel like they're learning, and not like they're drowning. And it can address sleep.

2. Short assignments, early and often, with meaningful and timely feedback. We grade students. They want to know what we want. We want them to develop as writers and thinkers and we need to know their strengths and weaknesses to help with that. Tell me again how having a 30 page final paper worth 60% of the grade is good pedagogy? If students only have a participation grade and maybe an oral presentation grade heading into it? In my classes, I assign response papers of 400 words in the first couple of weeks. I grade it and return it within a week--students get meaningful feedback on writing and argumentation and comprehension. Then they do two more, and they tend to get both better and more confident. And the final paper is broken into stages, with feedback and a grade on each. Heading into the end of term, the paper is already half written, and is probably not going to be worth more than 25% of the grade, because of the shorter assignments, and the proposal / bibliography / workshop stages. This fosters engagement (we are all writing and reading each other from the very beginning of term), preparation (students get explicit guidance and help throughout paper writing), and sleep (no last minute binge writing), and social support (these types of assignments draw a LOT of office visits, and we build relationships of trust that way.)

3. #inclusivesyllabus. Did you know that this year's grad cohort in my program is 16 women and 2 men? And that we still run courses with 16 things written by men and 2 by women? Ask yourself what message that sends. Never mind the internationalization, queering, and un-whitenening of our students: this is not reflected in our syllabi either, often. I ask you please to consider what gates you are keeping, what exclusions you are (unwittingly) recreating when your reading lists are whiter, straighter, and duder than that world you live in, or the classrooms you teach in. Yeah, I know, the canon. But we are lifelong learners. Reach. I'll be honest, it's not easy for me to find new things to assign to read always. But it's important that I try. This helps with social support, with engagement, and my own capacity to sleep at night.

Grad students are suffering, they really are. There are easy things we can do to help make this better, that in no way reduce the intellectual rigor of our programs, but might stop people from becoming ill, dropping out, suffering through it. Add your thoughts below, and please share: let's work together.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Students Respond to the Adjunct Crisis


Adjunct professors have been described as part of the “working poor”: the highest educated and lowest paid workers in the United States. They are group of contingent labourers who work at poverty-level rates, shuttle between multiple campuses, have little to no job security, and struggle to climb themselves out once they enter the sessional circuit. Critiques of the increasing “adjunctification” of universities usually focus on the plight of the adjuncts themselves, collecting stories of overwork, despair, and uncertainty. But the undergraduate students for whose education these adjuncts are responsible are often left completely ignorant of the hierarchical system, assuming all professors are paid relatively the same amount, a sustainable and permanent salary. Why keep them out of the loop when the crisis has such an indelible affect on them, their education, and their futures? 

My two current Composition II classes read and discussed this Atlantic article about the issue, and most were shocked. Here are some of the tweets that emerged from that discussion (remember, my class tweets). 

(Siiiiighhhhh to that last one...)

In addition to tweeting, some students compiled this collective statement including a few personal anecdotes: 

As undergraduate students, we are very concerned with how the increasing reliance on temporary workers, who are paid per course and granted no financial security, is affecting our education, especially since we pay an exorbitant amount in tuition dollars.

Professors and adjuncts are the backbone of secondary education, but full-time professors should not be treated better than adjuncts. University students pay an incredible amount to attend private schools such as Fordham and adjuncts should be earning more out of that tuition. 

Adrianna Kezar, head of the University of Southern California’s Delphi Project, stated that “institutions that have large numbers of adjuncts or students that take lots of classes with adjuncts have lower graduation rates.” This is a one way that the adjunct crisis is affecting us as students, and how it could potentially affect our futures. What could be the possible reason for this? 

In addition, as a student paying a considerable amount for my education, it pains me to see that the school I chose and attend treats its employees with such unfairness. How can some faculty make a six-figure income, while some adjuncts are earning a salary of $20,000? Ultimately, I’m supporting an institution that is capable of fixing this crisis, yet chooses not to.

"One of my favorite professors this semester revealed to us that he is an adjunct.  He always goes out of his way to keep class interesting and even planned a class trip to the New York Philharmonic.  When describing being an adjunct, it was evident that he was discouraged with his current situation, for he has an Ivy League education and it seems that he is/was hoping for more permanency in his occupation."

“I was recently talking to one of my friends about the adjunct crisis. As a chemistry major, she told me she was interested in doing research with her chemistry professor this year. However, when she asked her professor if there were any opportunities available, he told her since he is an adjunct professor, he does not have a lab to work in and therefore cannot allow students to conduct research under him. This situation shows that hiring professors as adjuncts ultimately leaves students at a disadvantage, as students are deprived of opportunities to learn and research due to the lack of resources given to adjuncts.” 

According to BBC, Uber drivers in the United Kingdom are entitled to holiday pay, rest breaks, and the National Living Wage. Uber drivers are entitled to benefits, but the professors and educators teaching the next generation are not? 

As students at a University it can often seem like the adjunct crisis is out of our control. The grand structure and distribution of jobs and wealth come from the control of a higher power. But these are our professors, and this is our education. As a student body we should stand in solidarity with adjuncts and work together to make our voices heard.

-----

Let's keep talking with our students, listening to our students, and as they themselves have said, building broader solidarity with each other and with staff and faculty at all levels of higher education--across Canada and the US alike. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

How to Resist: A Spatial Theory

Last week's US presidential election foregrounded an always-there undercurrent of white supremacy, misogyny, xenophobia, queer- and transphobia, and ableism. With each new bit of news--troll-in-chief Breitbart new head Steve Bannon as chief advisor????--things seem to keep on getting more scary.

Like many people, I have been overwhelmed by my own feelings of sadness, fear, anger, and worry. I have felt selfish for being overwhelmed from my position of relative privilege, but I'm not able to reason or push these feelings away. I have been terribly worried for people I know and people I love who may suffer this régime much more directly than I can. I have felt guilty and culpable, particularly when I read that this travesty of an outcome is attributable not just to white people, but to white women, who voted in a majority for Donald Trump.

I have been paralysed. A deer in the headlights of history. I want to feel better so I can stop waking up with nightmares and insomnia. I want to act better so I can support others concretely. I want to act better so that I can push back this no-longer-sleeping giant of backlash against the gains of progressive politics over my lifetime.

Today I have an idea, a spatial theory of resistance. It starts to address all these questions for me, lifts my paralysis, assuages my feelings, connects me to others. Maybe it will help you too.

It's a four point plan: give space, hold space, make space, and take space. I begin from the "ring theory" based on the premise of "comfort in, dump out" which describes a way of managing terrible events while recognizing that some people need more comfort and how it is appropriate to support everyone. Basically, you don't make people worse off than you make you feel better about anything.


Got that? Okay. Let's go.

Give Space


I was a wreck last Wednesday, crying and nauseated. My dear husband suggested I stay home and give myself space to grieve, turn myself over to it. That was a really weird day that saw me cleaning windows and then sobbing, baking cookies and then raging, raking leaves and then trying not to vomit. When I would start crying he would hold me, or he would let me talk, and he would just listen. Look, my husband doesn't really follow American politics. He asked me about the Electoral College and what it was, he doesn't really know much about Rudy Guiliani or Steve Bannon. But he held my hand and listened to me. He validated my feelings. He didn't make jokes to make me feel better. He didn't ask me to explain things to him. He didn't want to 'reason' with me. He let me cry, and he offered me unconditional love.

Giving space to someone is an act of love and generosity that allows them to express big and scary and vulnerable and ugly feelings in a safe environment. It's important.

Can someone do this for you? Can you do it for someone? Remember; comfort in, dump out. If someone is emotionally or practically or in any way suffering more directly from this, give them space. If someone is better off than you, maybe they can give you space.

Hold Space


Many Americans are worried about Thanksgiving, about what to do when that one relative, or all those relatives, starts talking about the glories of a Trump win. People don't know what to do. They don't know what to do when the barista is like "Oh, the election? It's not going to be that bad, it's just talk." They don't know what to do when they overhear a person approve of Trump's immigration plans.

This is very important: if you have any kind of identity privilege at all, if you're white, if you're male, if you are educated or have money, you need to hold this space open for resistance. Because if you stay quiet, you tacitly condone the racist and sexist and other hate speech. You normalise it. Holding space means making it awkward: you do not let this kind of statement go unremarked. You remark on it. You say, "I reject white supremacy," or, "I am afraid women's rights will move backwards," or "My queer friends are scared for their families and their rights," or "I support liberal immigration policies."

You hold open a space for progressive politics and social justice. This is crucial if you are walking around with identity privilege. It will be way too easy to normalise the politics that created this mess, if we don't just keep being that burr in the side of hate. Trump's win made white supremacy leap out into the open. We need to keep saying that's not okay. People with less identity privilege can't do this work: they are tired and they are scared. The privileged in those demographics that went for Trump? It's our responsibility to push back, to leave less space for white supremacy, to hold more space for progressive and loving agendas. Push back.

Make Space


All over the internet, my friends report the heaviness of teaching the morning after the election. Even here in Canada, students were shaken and scared or nervous. Nearly everyone I know ditched their lesson plan and held an impromptu support session or debrief. Many report hearing thanks from students afterwards for this act. These teachers made space for people to express their ideas and their feelings, and to discuss these with others, in a supportive and structured environment. They modeled respect and love.

In my own work on campus this week, I have been deliberate in answering the question "How are you?" I answer, seriously, "I'm not well. This election scares me, and enrages me, and I feel very sad. I don't know what to do to make sure life stays livable for people who aren't white men." When I do this, I notice, people kind of release a big puff of air and drop their shoulders. It turns out in speaking my truth, I am making space for my colleagues and my students to express their fears too, and we brainstorm how to keep working for the world we want, how to keep our friends safe.

This has been emotionally grueling, but incredibly rewarding. I have had so many rewarding conversations, generated new ideas and strategies, and given and received more hugs than I thought were possible. I needed all of it, and so did my friends and students and colleagues.

Again, to make space we have to be careful about relative privilege: do not ask for emotional or practical support from someone who suffers this outrage more heavily than you. But make space to support them. Be very wary of not exploiting people inadvertently: some dude last week asked me about my feelings about the election, but out of the blue, and in such a way that it felt like he wanted to see how miserable I was and what it felt like to be a woman on the cusp of the repeal of Roe v. Wade. That felt gross. Don't do that to people. Make space by expressing your truth, and let people respond or not.

Take Space


It's not enough to just try to keep the walls from closing in further on an interpersonal level. Something structural is required. The social justice and rights agenda must be enlarged, and not just defended, if we are to have any hope in the future. How?

Here again, relative privilege and power is key. In those areas you can act in, act. Are you a swim coach? Is your club disproportionately white? Ask why, and start an outreach. Keep fighting the All Male Panel at conferences. Demand that Twitter do something about blocking hate speech instead of just beefing up the ways you can choose to just not look at it. On your curriculum committee, keep pushing for the inclusive syllabus. In your classroom, foster equitable spaces and call out mansplainers, shut down stereotyped characterizations of marginalized groups.

I just got an email from my university yesterday, reporting on its strategic plan of 'disruptive innovation,' which to me reads like so much tech-bro nonsense whereby all the profits are skimmed from existing industries and labour protections and regulatory frames disappear. Disruptive Innovation makes Facebook the largest media company in the world that has no journalists or editors or professional standards. My university also has equity goals. I think I'm going to start making even more noise about how maybe these two goals are in conflict. I'm going to take some space back from the "burn it down" camp that I see putting tech companies and angry white American voters in the same ideological position of calling everything broken and using anarchy as a tool to make things better. It won't. I'm going to take some space to let people work on that.

I can do that because of my own relative power in these structures. You might take space differently.

I send you all my love, Hook and Eye readers. If you need a hug, I will give it to you. We can and we will make this world a better place.


Monday, November 14, 2016

Reflections on the End of the World

The night It happened, I was at a party. We had the TV on in the background but were mostly just drinking and chatting in a circle, all confident that even if there were some unnerving flashes of red across the screen, those were just temporary early results, and blue would soon pull through. We had the bottles of champagne all ready in the fridge once the first female president was announced. Personally, I was mostly ready to celebrate the election cycle being over. Over the months it had caused me deep anxiety, occasionally threatened to damage friendships, supplied immense distraction from work.  

It scarcely needs to be said that the party did not end well. By the end, we were drunk and in panic-stricken tears, hugging each other and making slightly incongruous comments about how it was a pleasure to survive the apocalypse together. My phone was blowing up with incredulous, terrified texts, with pleas from Canadians to come home. The days immediately following would feel like a long fever dream, a cycle of laying awake at night in a shaky cold sweat, waking up in the morning believing, for a moment, everything is fine, then feeling the physical impact of reality striking again in a nauseating scourge of red. Previously, I had no idea what a plastic, disingenuous, and almost threatening character normal everyday greetings like “how are you” and “I hope you’re okay” can take on during such times of emergency. I and many close to me have all experienced physical symptoms of illness. 

In March, my amazing radical partner had organized a rally against Trump at Columbus Circle, right outside the Trump International Hotel. Thousands of people came, and we thought we were fighting more broadly against the misogyny and xenophobia that Trumpism espoused, because surely he could not actually become president. Today (I am writing this on Sat., Nov. 12), I see that a year ago in my Facebook Memories, we had cheered on a black woman defiantly reading a book during a Trump rally. Her resistance mattered, we thought. In the months and weeks leading up to Nov. 8, already a time when I felt physical revulsion whenever I saw his face or his name on my computer screen, the New York Times and all major media polls were still predicting a Clinton presidency, even as high as 95% just days before. 

You know all this. But the facts—that the polls had all pointed to Hillary, that all in my circles had succumbed to the collective delusion of a female president--still confound me. On election day I was excitedly composing in my mind the leftist articulations of critique against the Democrats I would post on social media after she won, when it felt safe to do so again. 

I thought I was miserable and anxious a week ago; now there is a new order of misery. One that is spreading aftershocks of hate and racism and fear across the country and the world. One that is leading my students to break down crying in class and bring in books to read under the table because they needed to emotionally dissociate from the election conversation. One that is making misogyny, white supremacy, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and perhaps above all Islamophobia a routine and energizing function of the dominant political powers. One that is fracturing families, already causing people I know to cut ties with their loved ones and cancel holiday plans. I myself am very angry at white evangelicals.

Over the past few days, I’ve attended protests, I’ve cried, I’ve screamed, I’ve hugged, I’ve marched for hours, I’ve waved my fist in angry defiance at the Trump Tower alongside a crowd of thousands, enjoying a few brief moments of solidarity and hope. Not My President, we chanted, and Black Lives Matter, Pussy Grabs Back, The People United Will Never Be Defeated, My Body My Choice. Protesters waved signs that said things like “My Rapist Voted for Trump.” I have also given a talk on a medieval poem, The Isle of Ladies, that displays the necessity of feminized resistance to the dominant male regime, even when such resistance is materially futile. I’ve seen formerly apathetic liberals commit themselves to action, and academics awaken to the insufficiency of critical theory as opening avenues of possibility. I have found my only solace in unexpected hugs, caring and compassionate and unexpected texts and gestures from friends, and my students who are confused and scared yet desperately seeking answers and committed to act for change.

I’ve also seen the same people comparing Trump to Hitler on Monday claiming on Thursday that we must be acceding to work with him. I’ve started to glimpse how quickly normalization can happen, how once the rhinoceros storms through the city enough times, it becomes a part of the terrain. I can feel it happening within myself on an emotional level—because how else can one go on? But I resolve not to weaken my commitment to collective justice and working toward new possibilities for change in the coming years. Things are not okay, but within this not-okay-ness, perhaps other good things will emerge.


I mean, if these girls exist, there's got to be some hope, right? (Taken/posted with permission)










Friday, November 11, 2016

Guest Post: Why my feminist teenage daughter should not despair on the mornings after 8 November 2016.

This is a first in a series of posts about concrete actions we can post-US election take as feminists working in the Canadian academy. We need intersectional and intergenerational feminism now more than ever. 
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My daughter turned 15 about a week ago, and she is a feminist. I love my daughter just for being, and I love her for many reasons, and I also love her for her integrity and her passion and her bravery.  My daughter’s world, High School, is largely closed to me much like her room. When the doors to that world open slightly, I get a whiff of the misogyny, racism, ableism, homophobia, ageism, and every other conceivable exclusionary sentiment that reeks in that hot bed and that structures the lives of teenagers in the western world today.  Into that world, my daughter walks every day and proudly declares herself a feminist. She wrote articles to the school paper on sexual harassment, sexism and violence against women. She joined a group advocating for the rights of LGBTQ people on campus. She joined an environmental club. She gets into regular confrontations with “racists” and “xenophobes” and refuses to allow them a free pass, ever. On weekends she volunteers with the public library youth advisory group and with Amnesty International. She is an advocate for social justice. Politically and socially, she is every progressive parent’s dream child.

When America entered this election cycle and my daughter took notice, she identified strongly and predictably as a Bernie supporter. She knew the figures and the positions, downloaded every John Oliver clip on the elections, pulled out a few hairs every time she saw or heard Donald Trump. But with a wisdom, or perhaps cynicism, beyond her years, she reflected on the irony of wishing for the loss of the first credible female nominee in the democratic presidential primary.  When Bernie lost the democratic nomination to Hillary, she was devastated. Then she did some soul searching and came out strongly in support of Hillary Clinton. She bought her autobiography. She became more and more frightened of Trump and of his America. But it was his misogyny, more than anything else he represented, that repelled her. She believed that Hillary must win.

Last night, like millions the world over, she went to bed defeated, broken, incredibly sad. In the coming days, my daughter will be forced to confront the aftermath and navigate her way through this historic slap in the face America has delivered. I can already taste her outrage: how could women, blacks, Hispanics, Muslims vote for Trump? But women especially—how could they?

I steel myself to field her questions and help her walk her way through the oncoming piles of discursive crap, with her passion and her commitment and her feminism intact. How do I acknowledge not only her outrage but more importantly her heartbreak? She is not only angry, she is hurt, betrayed by fellow humans and fellow women she trusted would know better, would choose differently. For she imagined her community: a community of well-informed even if not progressive voters, of committed even if not politicized women.


There is no doubt that the election results are frightening. Support for Donald Trump reflects an America that is comfortable with intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and other exclusionary phenomena. It also reflects an affinity for a brash irresponsible populism that is deeply worrying in the leadership of the most powerful country on earth. Hillary Clinton’s political history is troubling as well: ruthless and hawkish internationally, elitist and opportunistic nationally. Her career is sustained by incriminating ties to the military industrial complex  driving international conflict, and the banking and finance sectors and multinationals fueling rising inequality at home. But at the level of discourse, she presented a vision of America that was more conciliatory, less abrasive, discursively (if not economically or politically) more inclusive. There is value in that. And yes, it would have been a significant achievement for the United States to finally catch up with the many countries all over the world from India and Sri Lanka to Chile and Brazil who have known female leaders for decades now. For many girls and women in the US today, the disappointment must be crushing. In her concession speech, Clinton proved again that she could be articulate, wise, graceful and generous. Adjectives one would hardly extend to the president-elect.


Much will be said in the coming days about the need to reflect on the shortcomings of what stands—only in America perhaps—as the left, or more accurately the center right represented by Hillary Clinton’s democrats, and on the need to listen to the silenced majority in rural areas and non-coastal states. Experts will pontificate on Trump’s instinctual control of and affinity for the dynamics of reality television, and of the increasing tilt in American politics towards populism. As in the shocked and humbled voices that rose after Brexit, some will call for a deeper understanding of the roots of anger against a political system dominated by elites.

But what about the women of America? And what about feminism in America? Overall Clinton won among women by a margin of 54% to Trump’s 42%, a respectable margin but not exactly impressive. Among white women, however, Trump beat Clinton by 53% to 43%, and among white women with no college degree by 62% to 34%. Why did the white women of America not only reject one of their own, but give their votes to a man who openly and proudly denigrates women in almost all spheres of life?

Many commentators are thrown by the fact that Trump’s overt sexism did not repel women voters. Many women, many feminists, are today outraged, dumbfounded, unmoored, despairing. The results are mad, crazy, incomprehensible. I heard all three words over and over from friends as the results started coming in late last night. The words also dominated Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. The words dominate my daughter’s world today as she struggles to lift her head up and find her voice. I hope that the voice she finds in this cacophony of hurt indignation is not that of the enraged despairing feminist, but of the committed curious one.

The charge of madness is silencing and dehumanizing, and, as women especially have known for centuries, it is a handy patriarchal charge. The political act of those who voted for Donald Trump, but especially the political act of the women who chose Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, cannot be dismissed as mad or incomprehensible. If we find it so, it is because we are unable to comprehend, we do not have the knowledge or the tools to read that act and recognize its context. It is because we, the ones whose feminism is fixated on breaking glass ceilings in Washington may well be unaware of who walks the grounds of the cities and towns beyond Washington’s radius, and the conditions that structure the reality and the imagination of those women who rejected Hillary Clinton.

And ultimately, it is because as feminists, some of us are unable or unwilling to concede that different women in different places and in different times have the right to comprehend their own reality and prioritize their own goals differently. It is because as feminists, some of us are still unwilling to accord respect to women who may code their struggles for justice in language other than that of educated middle class feminists. Women who may see their struggles against racism or neoliberalism or imperialism, for example, as constitutional of their feminism, but not to be subordinated in its name. Women who have the right and the awareness to strategize their engagement with the political spheres of their communities and country.

Many feel today that Hillary Clinton lost the election because she is a woman. We could note, and take comfort even, that 80% of black men voted for Hillary. 62% of Latino men voted for Hillary. I am not sure of the numbers but I would guess that the majority of Muslim men in the US also voted for Hillary. While gender may have certainly been a factor, for us to insist that Hillary lost because she is a woman is to reinstate a worldview bleached of race and possibly class as well. Only in a posited non-racial world would we discount the votes of the majority of non-white men and women in the US who voted for a woman. If we only see that Hillary lost because she is a woman, then we do not see those who voted for her regardless of her gender or because of it, and more importantly, we do not hear their voices, we do not consider their political act, we do not give credence to their fears.

I do not necessarily know what reasons the majority of white women who voted for Trump have for doing so. But I extend them the respect to recognize that they must have their reasons and that those reasons are varied. And those reasons may ultimately turn out to be regressive, or at the very least unsavory, even plain wrong. Perhaps. I do not know. And if I want to know, I should go find out. I hope my daughter tries to find out. Despair follows from incomprehension. We despair when we no longer know what is to be done, when every effort has been spent and yet no enlightenment has been reached, no change is forthcoming. We have not yet spent every effort to understand. In some cases we may not have even begun. This is not the day to despair. I hope that today of all days my daughter is filled not with a desire to drown out the madness of the crowds but the drive and determination to ask questions and listen and learn. For women, a lot of women, in the US, have spoken. As feminists, we need to listen. 

Maisaa Youssef has a PhD from the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta. She works in international development and her research is in the areas of biopolitics and social justice.