Monday, June 26, 2017

Unpacking: A CanLit Special Series



Although the blog has been on summer hiatus, we have decided to re-open the blog for a moment in order to take up Jennifer Andrews’ guest post. First, though, a short introduction from Lily and Erin.



For many of us here in Canada, the spring conference season is finally winding down. For Lily, as with a lot of other literature academics, the season began with Black Like, rolled into Mikinaakominis/ Transcanadas, then right into Congress where she ran madly between incredible panels at Congress 2017 from ACCUTE, ACQL, and CACLALS. Erin began in Dublin at Untold Stories, then went to Toronto for Mikinaakominis/ Transcanadas, and, like Lily, right into Congress 2017. (We both collapsed after that but we know that for a lot of you out there, the conferencing continued and might not even be over yet.) Throughout these post-conference weeks, we’ve thought a lot about what just happened? Indeed, we’ve been in touch with one another more regularly than ever before—texting, emailing, and writing to one another and asking how are you? What about this thing that happened? And, how are you feeling and what are you thinking now?

We’re in agreement: we don’t normally think these kinds of questions after conferences. But these conferences have been some combination of the most generative, fraught, difficult, and complicated ones we have ever attended. Since then, we’ve been talking to each other over coffee, in snatched moments in the hallway, on email, on the phone, on limited social media channels. In our experiences, these have been private conversations thus far, but it is clear to us we also need to have a lot of public dialogues too. There is a lot to unpack. Hook & Eye will only be one place where this happens.

This post, sent to us by Jennifer Andrews, is about a set of conferences that happened in Toronto and that mostly concerns folks working in Canadian literary criticism. Each of these things – Toronto, CanLit crit – can be, and often is, its own bubble. But these bubbles—the interconnected spheres of power and relations— need to be named. And the issues that have come up and out of these conferences are about much more than Toronto and literary criticism in Canada. Jen’s post is also very much about the spatial dynamics of institutional power, of the ways in which whiteness and masculinity are reified in the very buildings and cities where we gather to work. As Jen’s post highlights, there is without a doubt a LOT that happened in CanLit this year that those of us in the field need to keep talking about. Additionally, as Jen writes, there is a wider and equally urgent need to think hard not only about the conversations we have, but also where we have them.

This isn’t just about what rooms are in, but also about the kind of room we need to make. One of the greatest things to come out of this year, as Jen notes, is the Emerging Indigenous Voices Literature Award (if you haven’t already kicked in, and want to, it’s not too late!). This award gets us to all the rooms that are going to emerge from indigenous voices that will be supported by it.

But there’s a backstory to the award that is also about feminism and making the rooms that we want. The campaign for this award is put together by a lawyer, Robin Parker, who is a partner in a newly formed feminist law firm, Paradigm Law Group, LLP. When The Precedent, wrote about the firm, Angela Chiasson, another partner, said, “This is not a female-only space… but this is a no-bullshit space.”

So, here’s to a LOT more no-bullshit spaces. What we’re aiming to offer here at Hook & Eye is an interim no-bullshit space to think through power and space in the academy through the context of CanLit.

Let’s unpack.


Unpacking Transcanadas


I recently returned home from a Canadian literature conference held in my old hometown of Toronto in a state of disillusionment, frustration, and anger.  Usually I attend conferences after a long semester of teaching, looking for a glimmer of inspiration and motivation to jumpstart my research and writing but most importantly to engage with other scholars and to see what is happening in the areas that I write about and teach—in this case, Canadian literature.  This semester was a bit different.  I am working on a project that examines how American fiction writers perceive of and write about Canada; the motivation for this came from a longstanding interest in and commitment to exploring how Indigenous writers straddle, contest, and as best they can ignore the imposition of the Canada-US border as something that has been imposed upon pre-existing communities.  All this to say, that I have spent most of my time over the last few years reading and writing about American fiction and I was eager to see what is happening in Canadian literary criticism.

The months and weeks leading up to the conference were filled with turmoil within the Canadian literary establishment.  The termination of Stephen Galloway, the #UBC Accountable letter and counter-petition (the latter of which I signed), the rightful probing of Joseph Boyden’s ability to speak for and about Indigenous peoples, the recent horrifying debacle of Write: The Magazine of the Writer’s Union of Canada in which the white male editor published the work of Indigenous authors while simultaneously including an editorial that mocked the very serious questions of appropriation, without prior disclosure of the contents of the editorial to the writers being included in the issue.  The one good thing to come from these events is the viral success of the Emerging Indigenous Voices Literary Award which now totals over $110,000; I was thrilled to contribute and watch it grow.  So given all of the possibilities that could and might have come out of a Canadian literary criticism conference at this juncture, why was I left feeling so depressed and embarrassed by this experience.

Full disclosure: I am one of the lucky ones in spinning the roulette wheel of the job market.  I am a white, middle class woman who did my graduate work at the University of Toronto with full-funding, held a SSHRC post-doc for seven months, and then received my first tenure-track job offer at UNB.  I have no right to complain.  I have the stability and security to do my research and teaching in a supportive and nurturing environment, to apply for grants and hire graduate researchers to help move my projects forward, as well as creative and academic freedom to teach a wide array of texts.  Over my career, I served a decade as co-editor of Studies in Canadian Literature, a role in which one, like it or not, contributes to canon formation, while also hopefully making room for new ideas, approaches, and texts.  In other words, I have institutional clout.    

I’ve been fully employed ever since, albeit far from my birthplace and hometown of Toronto in Central Canada, a move that I made because I wanted a job but have grown from in so many ways.  While the Fredericton campus of UNB is a bucolic place, as evidenced by the work of the white, male Confederation Poets, many of whom are deeply tied to the city of stately elms, I have also learned a great deal about checking my own privilege and unpacking what lies beneath those elms—deep-rooted classism and racism.  I have watched my spouse struggle with over-education and underemployment in a region of Canada where work is difficult to find, resources are scarce, and the challenges faced by a small population are all too often dwarfed by the desires of Central Canada.  Many of my students are first generation university goers, working multiple jobs for minimum wage, and overwhelmed by an institution that appears alienating and exclusionary; for those who leave their rural homes, coming to a city of 50,000 is a big step.  I have embraced my life in Atlantic Canada and my research reflects that interest—I regularly work on, teach, and write about the rich literature from the region, including a plethora of incredible African-Canadian and Indigenous texts, many of which remain unknown nationally.

So coming to Toronto now has its own baggage for me, claiming a geographic, cultural, economic and political clout that I did not recognize or critique when I lived there.  Moreover, the conference was held in Hart House on the University of Toronto campus, an all too familiar locale from my time as a graduate student, primarily because it housed a very fancy restaurant on its second floor that my grandmother treated me to several times.  Built in 1919 and gifted by the Massey Foundation, its Beaux Arts Gothic Revival style is intimidatingly beautiful with Italian travertine flooring and wood paneling.  The Great Hall is described on the Hart House website as the “showpiece” of the building.  It was also the primary location for the majority of the conference, housing the plenary sessions and literary readings, despite the fact that it is a difficult place to hear people speaking because of grandeur of its size without renting an extensive and doubtlessly expensive sound system; to be able to hear people’s voices and see their faces is critical yet challenging and virtually impossible without extensive equipment in such a locale.  Its vaulted ceiling and enormous stained glass windows are reminiscent of a church, and symbols of empire and institutional status abound, with the “coats of arms of the Royal Family and degree-granting universities of the British Empire” from the era of its construction located on the south wall.  Among the decorative features of space, the north end of the hall displays “shields” representing 74 universities of nations allied with Britain and Canada in 1919” and large portraits of the Hart House wardens, as well as university chancellors and governors are visible throughout the room.  In other words, the Great Hall conveys a great deal of White, male, heterosexual authority and privilege by virtue of its history and thus perhaps, could or might have been the perfect place to engage with “Literature, Justice, and Relation,” key conference themes, in new and productive ways.

Yet, institutions are notoriously hierarchical, resistant to change, and eager to hold onto established practices, often because it ensures that those at the top don’t have to surrender their power, which is all too often tied to disciplinary turf.  It takes enormous courage and self-reflexivity to break free of—or into—those ivory towers and it is especially hard to do so when a conference is itself framed physically by a building that represents the very essence of empire, at least in the context of Canadian education, as an iconic building on the largest research university in the country, located in a city that has constructed itself as the financial centre of the nation.  Perhaps I have it wrong, or maybe I am just misguided.  Nor would I have read the situation this way had I remained in Toronto, or even another large city as a professor.  And sometimes there is no rhyme or reason as to why conferences work or don’t, despite the best intentions and efforts of the organizers.  But I do believe that reflecting on what constitutes Canadian literary criticism, at least for professors, may mean stepping outside of the institutions which prop us up, whatever the level of discomfort or unfamiliarity of moving off campus.  This may offer one small step toward making Canadian literary studies more accountable to those who work within and outside of academia and turn frustration, anger, and disavowal into the beginnings of new kinds of dialogues that acknowledge the ways in which institutions and those at the top (me included) all too often dictate who teaches Canadian literature, what they teach, and how they teach it.  


Jennifer Andrews is Professor of Canadian Literature at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. She has published book chapters and articles in a variety of scholarly journals including American Literary HistoryESCAmerican Indian QuarterlyECW, The Canadian Review of American Studies and The Journal of Commonwealth Literature. Her co-authored book, Border Crossings: Thomas King’s Cultural Inversions, was published by the University of Toronto Press in 2003 and her SSHRC-funded book on Native North American women poets, titled In the Belly of a Laughing God, was published by the University of Toronto Press in 2011. 




Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Announcement

Hi everyone,

We are taking a break for research, conference season, recalibration, and vacation. Hook & Eye will be back at it with a whole new website in August. We can't wait to show you what our designer has been working on for us! Until then please consider sending a guest post to our Managing Editor Erin Wunker. You can reach her at erin.wunker at gmail. Please put "Guest Post Pitch" in the subject heading.

Take care of each other!

Love,

Hook & Eye

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Try on Someone Else's Life


I get asked to do informational interviews pretty frequently, and I think they're one of the best tools out there for doing on-the-ground research about the kinds of jobs people with similar backgrounds have and how they ended up in them. But it can be hard to convince other people of their value, especially people who are shy, uncertain about where to start with career exploration, or convinced that anything remotely resembling networking is gross. In my latest article over at Chronicle Vitae, I suggest reframing informational interviewing as a way to try on someone else's life and see if it fits, using the idea of life design conversations developed by Dave Evans and Bill Burnett: 
After a series of these life-design conversations, Evans and Burnett argue, you will eventually have prototyped your way to a career (and a life) that feels right to you. You'll sit down with someone, and find that imagining doing what they do — living how they live — feels … right. You'll have landed on the career path you want to pursue in earnest. 
Check out the full article over at Chronicle Vitae!

Image, Anna Levinzon, Creative Commons

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

If not you, then who?

"I'm so glad you're talking about this in class, because none of my other classes do this."

"You told us we could come talk to you, and I don't know who else to go do."

"I can't believe I'm in fourth year and no one ever explained [something basic and important] to me before! Thank you so much for taking the time."

"I really appreciate you letting me take more time with this. I'm just so frazzled with my job and all my other courses."

These are some comments of a type I tend to get from students. They're flattering, in a way: they mark me as someone special, someone particularly empathetic, or practical, or accommodating. Students like me, they are grateful to me. They come into my office and I read their drafts, explain tricky concepts, go over punctuation rules, give them contact info for counselling services, let them cry, share a joke.

But you know what? I'm not feeling super special, or empathetic, or practical, or accommodating. I'm feeling--can I be honest?--resentful and burnt out.

Read the comments again: what students are describing is not a situation in which I particularly shine, but rather, a situation in which I have seem to have wound up in the front of the line because many, many other people took at least one giant step back. "No one" else is talking about the campus suicide in any of their four other classes? I'm the "only one" of five profs students feel comfortable talking to? My fourth year students don't know how to name the difference between humanities and social science research methods, or incorporate a quotation into flowing prose? No other profs grant extensions or workarounds to meet compelling student need? Really?

I'm doing the care work of five professors, by this kind of calculation, and it's killing me.

There are two paths we can move down now, to resolve this dilemma. We might say: Aimée, you're taking on too much, you can't baby them, you need limits and boundaries, if they can't manage work and classes that's not your problem. That is, we can encourage me to be more like the other four professors: go to class, frame myself as a researcher and content expert, teach the stuff, grade the stuff, enforce the deadlines, let them sink or swim according to their own 'merits.'

This has its appeal, believe me: it would way, way easier than what I do now. However, in my 13 years of professoring here, I've come to see my students as human beings and learners who need me to really teach them, and who also, importantly, need me to accommodate their humanity. This is matter of social justice and equity for me. And here's the thing: my students really, really thrive under this kind of teaching. This is what they tell me in my office, this is what I see in how their last papers are better than their first, in their exams, in their confidence, in their happiness. I derive satisfaction from this, of course, but if I didn't do it I would feel it as a dereliction of duty.

I'm proposing another path, then. MAYBE THE OTHER FOUR PROFESSORS NEED TO STEP UP. I'm truly beginning to feel that while some people are just kind of clueless, others are pretty deliberately designing courses and personas that say: this course is hard, life is hard, deal with it. Not my problem. That say: I'm too busy and important and I do not want you to talk to me about your problems. Not my problem. That say: the only thing that matters is what happens in the 180 minutes you're in my classroom per week. Everything else is ... not my problem.

Maybe what those professors are doing is not "not making more work for themselves" but actually and in reality simply transferring that very real and necessary work onto me. I don't think students get through a degree without some exentions, without crying in someone's office sometimes, without needing something explained in great detail, on on one, without mentoring and advising, without meaningful interpersonal contact. And if that's true, then someone is always doing that labour. And I can say for certain that it's not everyone and I have deep suspicions that the there is a strong gender and disciplinary factor in who actually is doing this work.

I can do this work, and I want to. But I can't do it if my colleagues across the institution do not share the load with me. I cannot sustainably always be "the only professor" who does X or Y or Z. This results in me coming home from work and crying, sleeping for hours on my nominal research days, grading on the weekend and booking weekly office check-ins with at-risk students. I know many of my colleagues do this work to, and to a one we are burnt out and emotionally exhausted, giving up all our slack to accommodate our students' real needs. Our own health suffers, our research suffers, we get really, really tired.

How can we change the culture of the university so that this care work is recognized and shared? How can we make people do it, how can it become part of the acknolwedged core work of teaching and professing? I see a vast need from students, reasonable and developmentally appropriate, and I don't see enough people working to support them. And I see myself, daily, getting closer and closer to burning out and giving up and it's just not sustainable.