Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Guest Post: Podcasting CanLit

In her post about Unpacking CanLit, Jennifer Andrews writes about the spaces we occupy as critics and asks what it might mean to “[step] outside of the institutions which prop us up.” In the ramp up to the same conference Jennifer is writing about, I was stepping outside myself, walking through the streets of Dublin and listening to podcasts that, I think, exemplify publically engaged and politicized Canadian literary criticism. As I walked, I listened, and I thought: what are these podcasts doing that makes them so much more thrilling than other forms of cultural criticism?

I find myself talking a lot about podcasts these days, and not only because I listen to so many of them. Cheap, intimate, mobile, manipulable, interactive, and participatory: the podcast, I think, is an ideal medium for public scholarship. So why don’t we see them saturating academia? The problem lies in how they’ve been used. Academic podcasts are mostly lecture recordings, which is disappointing, because podcasting can do so much more than that. It can upset the binaries between scholarship and pedagogy, professor and student, producer and listener, opening up space for different kinds of critical dialogues. It might even be able to push a new kind of public scholarship, one that goes beyond the abstraction of our work into bite-sized pieces. We—academics—often presume that the real scholarship happens in the university and is then disseminated out to the public. But what if, instead of just thinking about public scholarship and public pedagogy as forms of dissemination or knowledge mobilization, we instead thought of it as public first? What are the real barriers that are preventing us from thinking publicly as the default mode of our work—and how can start to tear those barriers down?

I want to tell you about the two podcasts I was listening to in Dublin, and how I think they build public engagement with Canadian literature and cultural production beyond the academy. I want to talk about how they model different kinds of engagement that can teach us something about how academics could use podcasting differently.

“Everything Is Weird Here”: Can’t Lit



Dina Del Bucchia and Daniel Zomparelli’s Can’t Lit is a monthly podcast birthed from the literary magazine Poetry Is Dead. In each episode, the hosts have an author on to talk about books and feelings and CanLit feuds. Sometimes they play games; frequently they make fart jokes. As the hosts explained in an interview for Discorder Magazine, their goal is to make Canadian literature both less insular and less serious. Says Zomparelli:

It’s important because people are having these conversations like the ones we’re having in the podcast, but they’re not recording them. We’re able to create some sort of a record of what’s going on in Canadian literature.

Del Bucchia and Zomparelli emphasize the conversational informality of the podcast as a genre, the way it can break down perceived cultural barriers between potential listeners and this thing called literature.

That informality registers at multiple levels, from the clear friendship of the hosts to the inclusion of laughter, tangents, and mistakes. Listen, for example, to the opening of their sixth episode, with guest Wayde Compton:

Zomparelli and Del Bucchia embrace the messiness of a medium that must go on no matter how flawed. The promise of seriality as a contract with the listener produces something more raw and immediate than academics are used to. Sure, many of us have learned to embrace the classroom as a space of productive failure and unpredictability, but our public performances are so scripted. As Lucia Lorenzi recently discussed on Twitter, the academic drive towards perfection and polish often shuts down conversation, even in spaces like the conference where conversation is supposed to be the point.


Read the whole thread by Dr. Lucia Lorenzi (aka @empathywarrior) here.

The possibility for goofiness, profanity, and, of course, error is what makes podcasts in general, and this podcast in particular, so appealing. Now take note of how Tintin Yang of Discorder Magazine describes this appeal:

By placing emphasis on the more relatable, less academic perspectives on literature, Can’t Lit follows a similar mandate to Daniel’s project, Poetry is Dead: “If it’s not fun, don’t do it.” Can’t Lit is one solution addressing the problem of framing Canadian literature in an inaccessible and pedagogic way.

That’s academic, pedagogic, and inaccessible on one side, and relatable and fun on the other side. And part of being relatable and fun is also being enthusiastically flawed. Listen to this clip of Vivek Shraya and Del Bucchia in episode 34:



Imperfection isn’t a side effect of seriality: it’s the point. In order for Can’t Lit to break down barriers between listeners and the culturally intimidating construct that is Canadian Literature, it needs to embrace a little messiness. Imperfection is the starting point of letting people in.


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“Listen, We Should Be Making Things”: Red Man Laughing


Imperfection is also embraced in Ojibway/Metis comedian Ryan McMahon’s podcast Red Man Laughing. Red Man Laughing is part of the Indian & Cowboy Indigenous Media Network, “the world’s only listener supported Indigenous podcast media network.” McMahon describes Red Man Laughing as “conversations, investigations and pontifications about the collision between Indian Country and the Mainstream,” embracing both the openness and the orality of podcasting as a medium to highlight indigenous artists, thinkers, and creators. Guests have included Tanya Tagaq, Wab Kinew, Lee Maracle, Christi Belcourt, and, in the episode I’ll talk about here, Anishinaabe/Métis games designer and scholar Elizabeth LaPensée.

McMahon and LaPensée’s wide-ranging conversation should be required listening for every academic, particularly for its focus on the experience of working in the academy as an Indigenous scholar. But the real reason I’m focusing in on this episode is how LaPensée frames the value of what we might call maker culture. “Can we just make some things,” she exclaims at one point. “Can we just do that? Fuck! Who wants to come make some games?”

These thoughts obviously resonate with McMahon, who opens the next episode, on Indigenous comic books and graphic novels, with the statement “Listen, we should be making things.” Specifically, according to LaPensée, indigenous creators should lean into the pleasures of smaller projects and their shorter development cycles. Here’s what she has to say:
The shorter development cycle is key to the sustainability of creation. This is especially true for creative work that challenges the ideas of success and legitimacy promoted by institutions like big gaming companies—or universities.

LaPensée and McMahon’s discussion of podcasting as a form of experimental and community-driven creation contrasts the podcast with the university. One is a pleasure-motivated expression of real cultural values, while the other is a Kafka-esque bureaucracy that presents a series of hoops to jump through in pursuit of a credential.

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I don’t think it’s particularly radical to say that the university in general, and humanities education in particular, is at a crossroads. One might even call it a crisis. The precaritization of our workforce, in particular, is driving many of us to ask what the point of higher education in the humanities actually is. I’m not claiming, by any means, that podcasts offer a solution to this crisis. That would be absurd. What I’m saying is that podcasts, like animals, are good to think with—and I'm saying that the rise of public-facing cultural criticism podcasts like Can’t Lit and Red Man Laughing offer us an opportunity to think about what the university is for, and what academics are for.


Hannah McGregor is an Assistant Professor of Publishing at Simon Fraser University, where her research and teaching focus on the histories and futures of print and digital media in Canada. She is particularly interested in Canadian middlebrow magazines, podcasting as public scholarship, and the histories of structural racism in the Canadian publishing industry. She is also the co-host of Witch, Please, a feminist podcast on the Harry Potter world. 

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Beginning, Endings, and Transitions

I'm not good with transitions.

I am, in fact, really lousy at transitions. I'm late for nearly everything because that liminal space in between being here and being there somehow paralyses me. Sometimes I sit on the edge of my bed, fully dressed, for 20 minutes because while I want to be in my pajamas and in my bed reading, I just can't handle the whole routine of getting undressed and changed, and taking out my contacts and removing my makeup and brushing my teeth, and finding the dog, etc. See also: me in the driveway half in and half out of my car, and me in my office wearing a coat and holding my keys in my hand, but idly browsing Facebook.

I'm no better at big transitions. My dear love has packed up our shared domicile for big moves three times while I either left town (twice!), or cowered in corners, crying (memorably, once). Never mind we were always moving somewhere better, happily. Moving in always involves moving out, and that's sad.

As the song has it (and I'm embarrassed this is my reference here, but it's what popped into my head), "every new beginning feels like some other beginning's end." Well, because it is.

This week, I'm the Associate Chair for Graduate Studies in my department. Next week, I am ... not Associate Chair for Graduate Studies.

It turns out my feelings about this are pretty complicated. I volunteered for this role, took it on with passion and purpose. I worked very hard and achieved some of the goals I had, important goals, big goals. I am proud of my work: I made money appear out of nowhere, solved some structural problems, recruited and supported some great students, learned a lot. I also have regrets: I'm still no good with paperwork and barely competent at email and my calendaring skills result in me occasionally missing meetings, to my deep shame. Sometimes I procrastinate on overwhelmingly nitpicky tasks. I'm going out with a bang: we've had to produce an enormous program review document summarizing the past seven years of work, and it's been a gargantuan task that I'm barely going to get finished, and certainly procrastinated on. I don't feel super great about that. It's not a secret that the last year has been hard for me: I've been overworked and burnt out.  I thought I would be glad to be done.

I am, but, it turns out, I'm somehow really sad, too.

It just hit me Monday night. I'm in transition. Sitting in my driveway with the engine off, not going anywhere but not really arrived, either. Resentfully still doing grad chair work, but not particularly energetically. Writing hard-ish toward a deadline, but exhaustedly. Took a vacation day, but didn't really unplug, without really staying plugged in, either. Neither here nor there.

Perhaps you are in transition, too. Here in Canada, July 1 is an important academic date--it's when many positions officially start, when administrative roles change hands, when milestones are marked.  I started here as an Assistant Professor on July 1, 2004; I got tenure and promotion to Associate on July 1, 2011; I started as Associate Chair, Grad Studies on July 1, 2014. Some of you are starting new jobs and new roles and new ranks on July 1.

But some of you, like me, are not so much starting something new on Saturday, but rather ending something. Returning to regular ranks, leaving a position, retiring. Or maybe you are watching others begin new roles while you ... do not. These endings and non-startings are important, too.

I needed, for myself, some kind of ritual, that I haven't really allowed myself yet, to end this period of my work. I've decided to just use this week to transition, emotionally and mentally. I've asked for an extension on the writing deadline so I can let that work go for the week so I can just really work on ending my time as grad chair this week. I met with our incoming grad chair, and handed over my master key: we had cocktails, we traded wisdom, I sincerely wished him well and offered him my help. It's his master key now, the email becomes his on Monday, the sign moves from my office door to his. I'm trying to tie off loose ends with my coordinator. I'm also, honestly, just kind of wallowing and feeling my feelings. My feelings of relief and regret, of pride and frustration, of sadness and hope.

I'm on vacation next week. My email autoresponders have been set. I teach in the fall and then will begin a 12 month sabbatical. All things to happily plan for, to look forward to, to dream about. And I have been, and I will.

But for now, this: something is ending, and it's okay to spend a few days just sitting in the discomfort of the transition. Really taking the time to let go before finding joy in picking something else up. Whatever you are transitioning into and out of this summer, I hope you, too, will find a moment to feel that pivot, between then and now, here and there, what you have been, and what you will become next.

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.