Thursday, February 16, 2017

How to: Defend Your Dissertation (like a Superstar) in 10 Easy Steps

Of all the academic things I turned out to be good at, defending my dissertation is perhaps the most surprising. I was not awesome (to put it mildly) at the oral defence portion of my comprehensive exams, and I've had at least one job interview where I bumbled questions like a nervous wreck. But I KILLED my dissertation defence. Best people ever saw-level killed it. And now that it's been six months and I've got some perspective on it, it's time to share my pearls of wisdom so that you too can have the snake fight of your life.

(Caveat: I'm in the humanities, so this advice might not exactly apply to people in other fields. You know what the deal is in your discipline, so adapt as necessary.)

1. Put it in Context 

We all hear about this mysterious, terrifying thing called the dissertation defence all the way through our PhDs, but without real context. It's not the same as a qualifying exam, or even as a proposal defence. Is it like a chalk talk or a job talk? Is it really like McSweeney's snake fight? And what do people mean by defend--is that just a euphemism for poking holes and grilling me until I cry?

As a humanities PhD, the best advice I got was to think of the defence as a meeting with a book publisher who you might want to publish your academic monograph, and who wants to know more about the project. And they're going to ask you to explain and expand on your choices (that is, defend them) so that they can understand this project and its contribution to knowledge in your field. Why did you make the methodological and theoretical choices you did? Why did you choose the parameters you did for this study? What made you want to pursue this research in the first place? How is this work different from that other people in your field are doing, and why? What's the most important contribution to knowledge this research makes?

2. Know the Boundaries

The defence is, first and foremost, about the work your committee has on the table in front of them. It is about defending and justifying the choices you made in doing that research, and just that research. Don't worry too much about questions that take you outside of your project. Those might come up, mostly in the context of how this research fits into and contributes to your field more broadly, but 90% of your discussion is going to be about the work you did and how and why you did it the way you did. Focus your preparation on your dissertation--on knowing it well, on being able to explain and justify your choices, on being able to identify its limits--and not on trying to know everything about your field that an examiner could possibly ask you.

3. Set the Terms 

In many fields, an opening presentation at the defence is mandatory. In some, like mine, it's optional. Do one. The opening presentation is your opportunity to set the terms of discussion in your defence, to frame the conversation in a way that works for you. Your examiners, especially your external, will have questions prepared, but the presentation is a golden opportunity to set the terms of engagement. Preparing it is also one of the best ways to prepare for the defence, because it forces you to see and talk about the big picture of your project before you delve into the nitty-gritty of preparing answers to specific questions.

If you're working in a lab, ask your recently graduated labmates or the new postdoc if they would share their presentation. In the humanities, you might find a colleague who is willing to share their script (or slides, if they had them). I found this one a good starting point.

Another way you can set the terms of engagement for your defence is to have a say in where it happens. Because I worked in the Faculty of Graduate Studies at my university, I knew what rooms were typically used for defences, and I knew about ones that were available but rarely used and SO COOL. So, I decided to defend at Hogwarts, a.k.a. the York Room.




4. Know your Audience 

The questions your examiners are going to ask you don't need to be a mystery. They are people with specific interests and biases, and happily there's lots of evidence out there--in the form of their scholarship and public writing--that can give you insight into what those are. Read a bunch of stuff written by your external examiner, and refresh yourself on the work of your committee members. Identify the places where their ideas conflict with yours, what is of significant interest to them that intersects with (or didn't get much time in) your work, where your work significantly overlaps. And learn what you can about your external as a person--is s/he prickly or friendly? is s/he defensive or open to being challenged? what does she care about as a researcher? Given the size of our academic networks, there's a good likelihood that you or your supervisor knows someone who knows your external well--talk to them!

5. Fill the Bank

This one is both the easiest and the hardest: find a useful list of common defence questions for your discipline, and prepare answers to them. Use what you've learned about your defence committee, and the framework you prepared in developing your opening presentation, to guide your answers. Don't be afraid to research your answers a bit. And then review those answers a bunch before the defence. Make your labmate/partner/cat listen to you deliver those answers out loud. (I drove my husband a bit crazy with this, as I spent the weeks before my defence constantly monologuing about my research. But it worked!) You should also ask your supervisor and other committee members to share with you, to the extent that they can, the areas of your work on which you should focus your preparation.

Doing this works. There were almost no questions that I hadn't anticipated in advance, and I pulled answers to some of the trickier ones almost verbatim from my mental bank of prepared responses. Those were the answers that most impressed my committee. (The one I personally liked the best answered a challenging question from my supervisor about an unusual, and often-denigrated, approach I take in my research by pointing out, with specific examples, that her widely acclaimed work also sometimes takes the same approach, just more subtly. My preparation and knowledge of my committee paid off--I was sure she was going to ask me some version of that question, and I prepared a strong answer that directly referenced her own scholarship.)

6. Know to Stop

It's two days before your defence. You've prepared your statement. You've anticipated the questions your committee will ask and you've practiced your answers. You feel confident in your ability to defend the choices you made in conducting this research.

Time to stop.

There's nothing more you can do. It's time to give your brain a rest and be confident in not only your preparation, but in the years of work you did to get to this point.

7. Choose your Gear

You can, however, choose your clothes and the other things you're going to bring. The defence outfit is crucial, and it must meet three key standards:

  • It must make you look like a colleague, like a fellow academic, not like a graduate student. 
  • It must be utterly and totally comfortable. If any part of your outfit pinches or rubs or needs adjusting, chuck it--your clothes cannot be a distraction. 
  • It must make you feel AWESOME. 

I defended in the still-steamy part of September, and my power outfits always blend femme and more masculine pieces, so I wore a skirt, a short-sleeved blouse, and a blazer. (No piece of clothing makes me feel more powerful than a blazer, and I wear one just about every day despite my work dress-code being rather more casual than that.) It ended up being too warm to wear the blazer during the defence, but I had strategically chosen the rest of my outfit so that it didn't matter whether I wore it or not. I felt smart and powerful and comfortable and it was perfect. 

Other things to bring: 
  • a bottle of water 
  • paper and a pen for writing down notes (you can also buy yourself a little time in answering questions by writing them down) 
  • a copy of your dissertation with the key sections you might want to refer to -- methods, results, a key experiment or analysis--flagged 
  • anything else your department or supervisor tells you that you must bring -- it can vary
  • a person or people (if you can and want to) -- STEM defences are almost always public, but humanities ones are often in principle but not in practice. My partner attended my defence, and it was great. He's been there for all the rest of the process, and I wanted him there for the last part. (One of my committee members also used to be his babysitter, so it was a bit of a reunion.) 

8. Get your Mind Right

Mindset plays a major part in determining how you're going to do during your defence. I knew that my external examiner had a reputation for being prickly. I knew that my supervisor was a superstar who can theorize me under the table any day. But I decided frame the defence in my mind as a rare and valuable opportunity to spend a few hours discussing my research with six brilliant people who were going to help me make it better. I was going to be happy and excited to be there and delighted to answer questions that were going to help me think about my project more deeply.

I also--and you should to--figured out where the room was, got there early, got everything set up, and was calm cool and collected by the time the rest of the committee arrived. The scientific validity of power poses is hotly contested, but they work for me, so I did a bunch. You do you.

9. Have Fun

All my preparation, practical and mental, totally worked. I had a TOTAL BLAST at my defence. As my committee came into the room and we started talking, the atmosphere became more and more celebratory--a tone I set. Between my determination to have a good time and my preparation, I got my brain to interpret all questions as helpful and supportive, even when they were hard and prickly, and answering them was no.big.deal. when I came at them from that place. You too can have a good time at your defence, if you're prepared and and you come at it as a discussion that's intended to make you and your research better, not as a moment that's intended to trip you up, or make you look stupid, or poke holes in your work.

10. Drink the Champagne

You deserve it! Congratulations!

With my husband immediately post-defence. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Embracing and Resisting Mediocrity

It has been twenty-five days since Donald Trump was inaugurated as 45th President of the United States. We've already seen a spate of hateful and discriminatory decrees perpetrated by the Trump administration in rapid-fire succession, and a beautiful uprising of resistance manifesting in a variety of forms, including mass protesting, calling representatives, donating to the ACLUPlanned Parenthood, or CAIR, disrupting town halls, punching nazis, and other acts of defiance. Źižek, whatever you might think of him, certainly had a point when he said the election would spark a kind of awakening; imagine how apathetic we'd all be if Hillary Clinton were elected president, even as she in all likelihood furthered Obama's mandate of arresting and deporting undocumented immigrants and dropping 26 171 bombs on predominantly Muslim countries. I've seen many of my liberal friends transformed into progressivist activists, and the Women's March I attended in NYC was full of newbie protesters whose outrage was expressed more through their signs than their chants. At the same time, in spite or perhaps despite of these developments, studies are showing that productivity has been decreasing across the board.

I feel that. Like some of my cobloggers, I've had to back away from social media a little bit because it was filling my head with too much despair (ok, really, I deleted Facebook from my phone a week ago and now can't seem to redownload it, so not all of this distancing has been by choice...). And how can I reasonably focus on writing about dream interpretation practices in the late fifteenth century when the mothers of fourteen-year-old girls are being deported? (speaking of dreams...I hope you all read Lily Cho's beautiful post from yesterday)

But who am I kidding, I haven't even been trying to work on my own stuff. I've been teaching three classes, all entirely new prep, and continuing to apply for jobs. Dealing with the emotional toll of continuing not to have any idea where we'll be next year, even which country, requires quite a bit of scheduled downtime---reliance on friends, intentional social or cultural outings, TV ok. I simply can't work 12 hours a day like I used to...and nor, of course, do I think anyone should.

I don't feel like I'm doing much right at all these days, I thought to myself as I tried to brew up an inspirational post for this esteemed blog.  I've been teaching well, and even getting liiiiife from teaching, but by this point I've settled into enough of a routine that I have no major streaks of inspiration to write about. I can't blog about the job market, except to say that, uhh, I'm still on it. I keep meaning to do more yoga, more meditation, more blogging, more (or any) creative art projects, more leisure reading, more protest-y things. All of these mores that accumulate and weigh on my psyche, making me feel unaccomplished and worthless. Maybe you've been feeling that way too.

So I guess I'm back to that classic lesson about the good enough professor - maybe mediocrity, or less-than-perfectionism, is sometimes okay. For me, now, this means simply accepting that what I'm already doing is good enough, and recognizing and honouring the things that are going well. I may never be able to do a handstand at yoga, but at least I'm there, wildly kicking my feet in the air and spending some meditative time in my own head. I've been prepared for all my classes, getting the grading done in a reasonable amount of time, submitting applications, and cultivating some meaningful relationships. And I've been doing what I can to resist political normalization, aiming for one Thing a day, big or small. Sometimes that can just be sending a friend a text to see how they're doing.

Paradoxically, if I accept that I'm already good enough, an unintentional side-effect might emerge of becoming better. Wallowing in guilt and productivity FOMO doesn't get us anywhere; it fills us so full of self-hatred that we keep refreshing Twitter or pressing snooze. So being realistic about goals and grateful for the opportunities and achievements that naturally unfold throughout the daily realities of life might just boost my spirits enough to help me find time for more of the things whose absence I've been ruing.

Something that's rarely mentioned when self-care strategies are discussed is that self-care can actually help you become more intentional about taking action in other areas, perhaps without you even realizing it. It helps you become more grateful, a better person. I hate to hover near the productivist argument that being kind to yourself will help you become more efficient, but...it's true? Or, at least, it will help you better identify and reward the tasks and hurdles you are completing, to realize a more concrete schedule that will allow time for care, time for work, time for protest. Again, I don't think becoming better should necessarily be the goal--because then you're caught back in the trap of unreasonable expectations and disappointments. Perhaps embracing mediocrity can also count as a form of resistance against it.

And I want to echo some of the thoughts of Margeaux Feldman's post about the Women's March and intersectionality. Just as we need to struggle through our mistakes to land at a more inclusive movement, we need to fight against our tendency to judge others on their chosen mode of resistance. To be sure, everyone should be resisting in some way. I am not okay with apathy or wait-and-see-ism, not while people are being deported (to our Canadian readers: you too can make phone calls! You too can be vigilant against injustice! Surely I don't need to cite certain recent events to underscore this point). The time to wait and see has long passed if it ever existed in the first place. But for those of us who are stretching ourselves to make a difference, I echo the words of this smart post by Mirah Curzer:  
The movement works as a coalition of people focused on different issues, so don’t let anyone convince you that by focusing your energy on one or two issues, you have effectively sided with the bad guys on everything else. Ignore people who say things like, 'you’re not a real feminist if you aren’t working to protect the environment' or 'you’re betraying the cause of economic justice if you don’t show up for prison reform.'That’s all nonsense. There is a spectrum of support, and nobody can be everywhere at once.
Focusing on the things where you have leverage and the possibility of shifting policy (even at a local level) requires not getting involved in everything. And we all make our choices and don't owe the world our reasoning--if you're out at a protest and you see your friend posted an Instagram of her cat at home, try not to jump straight to the conclusion that she must not care enough to come out; perhaps she was feeling fatigued and is focusing her energies elsewhere.

Be kind to yourselves and each other, readers! And thank yourself for the awesome humans you are, fighting for manifold worthy causes during a difficult and uncertain time. In sum, this blog might not be the best blog I've ever written, but I'm happy to have pushed past my uncertainty to produce something. And this counts for my daily Thing right? :) Thanks for reading.

Thanks to Christopher Michael Roman for this timely image share. 



Monday, February 13, 2017

Bad dreams


Lately, I’ve been having been have bad dreams. I am not the only one. Mine aren’t all that interesting, but I’m interested in how so many of us seem to be having them. They aren’t necessarily about the political moment but they probably aren’t disconnected from it either.

Sometimes, lately, I’m just scared. I mean, I find a lot of courage and balm-for-the-heart-and-soul in all of the resistance and in the knowledge that this resistance is working. But, just for a moment here and there, I’m also scared. There is no real reason except for, oh, you know, all the reasons.

It feels sometimes like there are no grown ups around. Even though I’m a real grown up (that’s what I keep telling myself), it’s hard to shake the flash of vulnerability that these bad dreams open up. As Aparna Tarc writes in her beautiful essay on the nightmares of a Fatima, a Syrian child who witnessed so much horror, "A Child is Dreaming": “ we all were once children with nightmares, we may still be too close to the violent truth of feeling vulnerable at the mercy of grownups in charge of a big scary world.”

This disquiet, this vulnerability, reminded me of the dreams of terror that Charlotte Beradt collected, with considerable difficulty, in Germany between 1933 and 1939. I found myself rereading them last week. These are the dreams of ordinary people who knew that something bad was happening even if they couldn’t quite pin down what that bad thing might be. This structure of anticipatory knowledge, of knowing before knowing, strikes me as something to hang onto in a time when things can feel really scary really fast.

And when things happen so fast, it’s hard to hang on to the small moments where something bubbles up, reveals itself to us, especially when they don’t feel that great. I’m not a fan of waking up from a bad dream and staying with all those bad feelings. But maybe we can recognize that this disquiet is also a kind of knowledge. As Sharon Sliwinski so brilliantly recognizes in Mandela’s Dark Years: A Political Theory of Dreaming: “Dream-life is one of the key points of contact with this unconscious knowledge that each of us carries but does not quite possess.” Sliwinski’s distinction between possessing and carrying knowledge is important here. There are some things that we know and we know them because we will carry them, maybe only for a while, but we don’t have to keep them. Possession is its own kind of entrapment. We don’t have to fall in. We might just need to hold on for a bit.

Hold on and also remember that there are other dreams too. I had been driven to reread the Beradt dreams of terror because I wanted to remember that one is not alone in one’s bad dreams. Then I remembered that there was another great collection of dreams out there that connect, albeit obliquely, to this moment. During the 2008 US Democratic Primaries, Sheila Heti collected “real dreams that people have had about Hillary Clinton.” I reread a bunch of these too and remembered how funny and charming this project was back then and thought about how strange it was to read them now. It is tempting to fall into nostalgia, to feel as though these dreams captured another, sunnier, time. But we all know better than to think that the past is ever really just about the past. I don’t have a grand theory about the dreams Heti collected but I do know that they helped me remember that not all dreams are bad. I know that seems obvious. But, when you’re scared, even the obvious can seem stupidly out of reach.

Waking up from a bad dream is one of the loneliest things I’ve ever known. And then I lie there in the dark and remember that we are all dreaming and it is not all bad.



Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Guest Post: The Perks of Saying Yes in Grad School

A few months ago, a mentor offered me the chance to speak with three established scholars about Bob Dylan’s recently awarded Nobel Prize in Literature at a small gathering in New York. Instantly, my stomach began to turn. Beyond basic pop culture exposure (hello, “Soy Bomb”), I didn’t know much about Dylan. I don’t study the great American songbook, lyric poetry, or contemporary artists. There was too much room for error and there were too many gaps in my knowledge. It felt like a no in my bones.

Instead, I said yes. After stalling for a few days, I came clean about my reservations with my mentor and asked for his guidance to make the right decision. He told me that in his experience there are two types of academics, “the ones who say, ‘I don't know, I don't think I can do that...’ and the ones who say, ‘Sure, why not, let's give it a try.’ I have many friends who are the former, but the ones who are most successful are the latter.” After that email, I had no choice but to put my nerves on hold. 

My initial anxieties were just that. During the talk, it became clear that the audience members, many of whom were scholars, weren’t Dylan experts (just like me). These were members of The New York Society for General Semantics, people who get together over wine and cheese every so often to discuss and learn more about the contingency and formation of meaning, symbols, and knowledge. Dylan fans, seasoned academic professionals, and a smattering of undergraduate and graduate students filled around 25-30 seats. I invited my father, who dutifully sat in the front row. I realized that my role was to give this diverse group something to riff off of—throw out some new notes that might harmonize with their own memories and knowledge of Dylan and literature. 

Dylan’s win, and his initial silence after the announcement, had created definitive buzz, especially since he is the first American songwriter to take the prize (which includes $900,000). The New York Times said that the selection “redefin[ed] the boundaries of literature,” while others sounded off angrily on Twitter. There was plenty of debate already circulating for music lovers and literary scholars alike, so, to prepare for the evening, I reflected on the questions provided on the event flyer and decided which one’s I could speak to confidently. 

I started with “What is the literary value of Dylan’s lyrics?” and drew on my knowledge of the history of literary criticism to give an overview of different ways that artists and critics have determined what makes poetry worthwhile. After a few weeks of listening to Dylan during my commute, I picked out what I felt were his most compelling and challenging lines. To answer the question “What is the meaning and significance of the Nobel Prize?” I thought back to conversations in my survey courses regarding the politics of canonization and reviewed trends in the Nobel’s literature award, briefly scanning past selections. I came up with some reasons why I thought Dylan deserved it, but also reflected on the fact that most of my generation would be more familiar with the Beatles rather than Dylan’s songbook.

I was honest with myself about my limited knowledge, which pushed me to uncover interesting research finds and make connections between Dylan and all of the things I do know about literature and literary criticism. Being honest with my audience about my “outsider” perspective made the environment more welcoming and inclusive. No one batted an eye when I flubbed the title of Dylan’s ode to Johanna or read from a prepared cheat sheet of lyrics. They didn’t care if all the notes were right, only that there was talk about music filling the room. I kept my preparation time under control, and in the end, I had fun. That night reinvigorated my enthusiasm and appreciation for what I do every day, largely because so many people appreciated my willingness to join in a conversation with them. I also have a wider net of contacts in a supportive intellectual community that I can reach out to.

Saying yes when it seemed easier to say no reminded me that the life of the mind is not just about finding a niche, but also building communities of learning. The more I insulate myself from opportunities because they don’t align specifically with my research, the farther away I’ll be from the most rewarding part of my chosen career. These realizations extend to my approach to the job market as well. When search committees request an immense repertoire of specialties, it’s easy to assume that my lack of expertise in one or more areas will disqualify me from consideration. (Generally, men are more likely to apply for these kinds of job listings, whereas women tend to balk, not wanting to appear unprepared.) As a hiring committee chair at a small liberal arts college recently shared with me, committees know that candidates can’t always tick all the boxes: they want to see that you’re willing to extend yourself and your research interests to fit their needs. They want to know that you’re willing to say, “Sure, why not, let’s give it a try.”

Graduate students (and particularly women) have been taught a repertoire of maxims to live by so that they can navigate a long and often arduous road to degree: Practice self-care; you can’t always say yes; know your limits. From completing a dissertation, to teaching our students, to braving the job market, and caring for our friends and families, we are also taking on additional tasks that can complicate an already overburdened schedule, often without compensation or the promise of professional rewards attached. We are, for example, writing recommendation letters, volunteering for committees and organizations, attending students’ games and concerts, dropping by department functions, applying to grants and conferences, and trying (repeatedly) to get published. If dissertation writing is the healthy regimen we are supposed to be sticking to, graduate school is an all-you-can-eat buffet of distraction. Learning to say no is important, and it can save you hours, semesters, and even years of putting your research on the back burner.


In the past, I wouldn’t think twice about saying no to things that didn’t align with my current research project or specialization. It turns out that impostor syndrome is an effective way to free up our schedules, but doubting our own potential can also keep us from opportunities that stand to benefit and invigorate us more than the things we end up saying yes to with ease. 

For the sake of my sanity, my dissertation, and my students, I will, of course, continue to say no. But for the sake of my outlook on academia and my career, I have a new perspective on when and why to say yes. 


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Callie Gallo is a fourth-year PhD candidate in the Department of English at Fordham University. She worked in broadcast television for a number of years, and is much happier now just watching TV from the comfort of her couch. Her research focuses on new technologies and gender in nineteenth-century American literature, more specifically looking at how people talk about bodies at work in modern industries and economies. She is thinking about taking up karaoke again as a means of coping with the state of the universe and loves a good DIY project.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Guest Post: The Grad School Decision: Thoughts and Advice for Students, Professors, and Mentors

Last weekend, I took a two-day workshop on active listening organized by my campus’ student union.

The workshop was geared towards supporting survivors of sexual assault and harassment, but needless to say the skills could be widely applied. I started thinking about the conversations I have with my friends and family, especially regarding personal difficulties or decisions, and how I can be a more effective support person. Specifically, I started to notice that people were coming to me seeking certain things, whether they (or I) realized it: sometimes they need hard, clear advice; sometimes they need commiseration; and sometimes they just need someone to listen deeply, and to leave the analysis and decision-making up to them.


To be clear: these needs aren’t always mutually inclusive, and it’s ok for me (and others) to mistake one conversation for another. Communication is hard, and as they reminded as in the workshop, there is no ‘right way’ to support someone. But the very act of stopping, listening, thinking, and setting your own concerns, experiences, and judgments aside can be as valuable as it is challenging.


So why is this post about choosing to continue grad school?

Well, it’s February. The applications for scholarships and programs are submitted, or about to be. Grad committees are meeting. And students everywhere are seriously contemplating whether or not they should go to grad school, and where. And though many students may not have heard back on their applications, the decision starts to press in from all sides (especially if your lease expires in just a few months).

In this post, I hope to offer two things: reassurance to my fellow students or would-be students; and advice to profs, supervisors and mentors who will be consulted on this major decision.

To students and potential-students:
· It’s ok to want to go to grad school, even if you don’t see a job at the end of it.

· It’s ok to not want this (anymore), even if you’ve worked towards it. It’s ok to feel worn down, or like you aren’t up for this, or like you want to put your energy elsewhere. You are so wonderful, and you will be valuable no matter where or how you work, fight, and love.

· It’s ok to feel weird at any/every stage of the process. I felt sick to my stomach when I got my acceptance. I’m not the only one.

· It’s ok to prioritize family, community, health, comfort, geography, and financial stability in your decision-making. You are more than just a student, and your program will go smoother if you let yourself know this.

· It’s ok to think short-term: does your funding package appeal because it’s more than you make at your retail/service job? Does student-status look better than precarious work or unemployment? It’s ok if this is your motivation, rather than a passion for research and teaching. Maybe your motivation will shift, maybe it won’t. 

Which brings me to this:

· It’s ok to imagine yourself dropping out or not finishing. Sometimes, just the knowledge that you can leave is the only thing that keeps you going. (Shout out to RM and MK: one or both of you told me this when I felt full of despair).

· It’s ok to leave. Whether that means turning down that offer next month, or leaving your program mid-way through.

· And above all: this decision affects you most of all, so centre yourself and your needs. No matter what your decision, your supervisor(s) will be fine. That helpful grad coordinator or administrator will be fine. Your best friend in the program will be ok. You’re the one who has to live with this decision, so listen to yourself.

To the faculty, advisors, supervisors, professors, and mentors:*
This is when my thinking around active listening comes in. I can imagine it’s incredibly difficult to provide emotional and professional support to your students. Maybe you feel invested in them, or maybe you are too busy to be the kind of helpful prof that you had or needed or wanted. But if you know you’ll be a part of these conversations, my primary advice is to apply the basic principle of active listening: wait, listen, think, and try to gauge what the student actually needs from you.

· Do they need information? That could be straightforward. Maybe they just need to be put in touch with a grad coordinator. Maybe they need that kind of tacit knowledge Aimée has discussed. Or maybe they need the kind of information that feels like gossip but is actually vital. If you don’t feel comfortable telling them that that star academic probably won’t give them the support they desire, try and put them in touch with a grad student or colleague who can speak honestly with them.

· Do they need advice? This is tricky. First of all, do they need advice from you in a professional capacity or as a friend? Does this difference mean something to you? More on advice-giving below.

· Do they need reassurance? Don’t we all. If you’re not able to give the kind of emotional support they need, especially during that awful period of waiting-to-hear-back, then just ask them “Do you have someone you can talk to about this?” This can help to signal that maybe you are not that person, and can remind them about that other student going through the same process, or the career counselling services on campus.

· Do they need space? Then please give it. Note if you are always the one starting the conversation about [ominous tone] next year. Note if they try to change the topic. Give them back control: remind them that you are available to talk, and let them start these conversations when and if they need them.

Some general advice:

· Your student is not you. What was right for you won’t necessarily work for them. They can’t follow your trajectory–times have changed and so has tuition.

· No matter what decision they make, they will never be wasted. Yes, professors have told my friends that if they don’t go to grad school, it would be ‘a waste’ of their ability; this can sting. If your student is talented, intelligent, passionate, and skilled, they will bring that spark to any job, career, program, or path they choose.

· You don’t need to know their personal context in order to respect it. Maybe they are hesitant to move away: they don’t need to disclose to you that they want to be near a sick relative, or that their partner’s job is a priority, or that they need to prioritize adequate mental health services. You just need to recognize that geography is a major concern for them.

· Money is personal. They may need more–or less–than you did. Again, they may not want to disclose that they are supporting dependents, or dealing with debt, or accounting for the cost of healthcare, divorce, family planning, a long distance relationship, etc.

· We all value different things. Some people prioritize prestige or reputation more than others. If they signal that they don’t share your values, that’s not a judgment on you. Rather, it’s a sign that they know themselves pretty well.

· Just because the academy needs them, doesn’t mean they need the academy. Shout out to HM for this. This applies especially to students who are marginalized within institutions. Yes, we need more Black and Indigenous students. More students of colour. More queer and trans students. More disabled students. More students from working class backgrounds. But it’s not on your student to make diversity happen. If they fought to earn a degree or two from institutions that aren’t built for them, then they are fierce as hell, and you can remind them of this. But if they are ready to leave and put their energy elsewhere, that’s ok too. Back to my first point: they will never be wasted. And if you feel like they would have stayed if the university didn’t have oppression built into its very old, very white bones, then let this be your motivation to make the institution better for the next student.

*I came to my PhD with the support of some amazing professors and fellow students. The advice offered here is modelled off of supportive behavior I have witnessed, and should not be taken as shaming faculty and instructors for being imperfect. Your efforts are so valuable and so deeply appreciated.

Kaarina Mikalson is in her second year of her PhD in the Department of English at Dalhousie University. She doesn’t regret it (yet), though the initial decision made her nauseous and weepy. She reads CanLit and comic books, and currently researches the Spanish Civil War and labour in literature. She plays roller derby, sews and embroiders, and now owns a soldering iron, so she’s ready for the apocalypse.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Guest Essay: A Canadian Feminist in Washington


Note from Hook & Eye Managing Editor Erin Wunker: This post by Margeaux Feldman is long--it is an essay. We here at the blog feel it is important to read it in its entirety, and so we will leave stand as the sole post for this week. Take your time. Follow the links. Think with Margeaux and with us. 

In solidarity, 
Erin, Melissa, Aimée, Lily, Boyda, and Jana


I. Preamble; or the Work of Situating.

When I woke up on November 9th to find out that Donald Trump was the President Elect, I was in shock. It felt like someone had died unexpectedly and I was in the beginning phases of grief. And then I read an essay by Courtney Parker West, “On ‘Woke’ White People Advertising their Shock thatRacism just won a Presidency.” In the essay, West addresses all of those “white people whom I often love,” and tells them how “advertising your shock and surprise that racism, sexism, xenophobia, and bigotry are pervasive enough to hand that man the Presidency is a microaggression. Please stop.”

Reading her words, I had to admit that I was one of the folks she was addressing. For folks of colour, for immigrants, and Muslims, and members of the indigenous community, Trump winning the election wasn’t a shock. It was a confirmation of the racist, xenophobic, homophobic, transphobic, and sexist world that people of colour inhabit daily. As a privileged white woman, and one who lives in Canada, I had to confront just how privileged my shock was.[1]

So I interrogated my shock and tried to figure out how to mobilize. But I felt stuck.

Overwhelmed by the sheer immensity of the work ahead. And again I had to encounter the privilege of being able to inhabit a space of stuckness. I was left wondering, as Erin Wunker does in Notes From a Feminist Killjoy: “Where do we being when the work of deconstructing, dismantling, and burning down oppressive systems seems so immense?” (39). Wunker’s response to this question: “First, we situate ourselves. Then, we widen the scope of our looking. Then, we situate ourselves again. And repeat.”

There is something hopeful in the repetition of this act. And something forgiving.

When I fail at being a feminist killjoy, when I refuse to speak up when I see racism and misogyny taking place, and worse, when I say or do or think something racist, it’s all too easy to get caught in a shame spiral, to inhabit that space of stuckness. But if I can situate myself as a feminist who is striving to be intersectional,[2] then I need to confront my shame, my humiliation, and my failure, then “widen the scope of [my] looking,” and figure out how to do better next time.

Trump’s win forced me to think about how my allyship needed to grow and shift. I decided upon two different actions that I would take:

1. The first was to educate myself.
Specifically, I would educate myself so that I could do the work of educating other white women and men. And I wanted to do that work outside of the neoliberal university that supports transphobia and racism (see: Jordan Peterson’s refusal to use gender-neutral pronouns; see: theanti-racism protests at Ryerson that the director of the School of Social Work to step down). I put out a call on Facebook, asking if anyone else might be interested in joining a reading group where we exclusively read work written by authors who are indigenous, black, or from other POC groups; who are disabled; who are Muslim; who are part of the queer community, especially from the trans community.

In other words, we will not read anything written by a cis white man. And if we read anything by a cis white woman, we will, as I state on the group’s page, “interrogate why that voice and not another. I would prefer that we ask ourselves how reading something by a white woman will help us become better intersectional feminists. Is that author intersectional in her approach? Does she provide us with an example of how we can live our intersectional feminist politics?”

This group is a space where we are actively working to interrogate our white privilege, where we can address the ways in which we are racist because we have been raised in a racist world, and where we can figure out what it means to be an ally. This is a space where we can say, “I’m trying and I’m failing, and I’m continuing to try.”

2. I would go to more protests.
Taking up space in the streets is a necessary act for me because it feels unsafe and thus forces me to go outside of the comfort zone of my white privilege. It means that I might have to place myself in a zone of conflict, and I don’t do well with conflict. (My brother and I had a pretty volatile relationship growing up and conflict was a constant in our home. I was taught that it was safer to say nothing than it was to stand up for myself and deal with the screaming and slamming of doors and silence from my father. I’m still dealing with the trauma.) And yet, women of colour find themselves time and time again in conflicts that they haven’t chosen, conflicts that have been forced upon them just because of the colour of their skin. They don’t get to choose this discomfort – but I can.

I decided that I would try to go to the Women’s March on Washington. My best friend and I talked about driving down together, but unfortunately the plan fell through and I basically gave up on the idea and decided to attend the sister march in Toronto. But then a woman in a Facebook group that I’m a part of posted that her bus had a few empty seats and I jumped at the opportunity. We would drive overnight on Friday, arrive Saturday morning, attend the rally and march, and then get back on the bus Saturday night, arriving back in Toronto Sunday morning. It would be an intense trip, but it felt like it was meant to be.

The reasons it was “meant to be” were much different than I had anticipated.

I thought that I would go and feel overwhelmed by all of the solidarity amongst the feminists in attendance. And that did happen. To see so many folks who support feminism and women’s rights was a truly incredible experience. And I went aware of the issues within the organization, from the fact that it first took its name “The Million Woman March” from the 1997 protest of black women, to the erasure of a line in support of sex workers from their Unity Principles.

The March both produced a feeling of solidarity and it revealed just how divided feminism is – and just how much more work I need to do if I want to consider myself an ally.

II. Learning How to Do Better

i. The Future is…Female? 

Okay, it’s called the “Women’s March” and so automatically we’re talking about a particular gender identity, one that doesn’t account for those gender-queer and gender non-conforming individuals who don’t identify as “woman” or “man”, “girl” or “boy,” “male” or “female.” I put these words in scarequotes because, following Judith Butler, I believe that these gendered and sexed categories are products of the social world that we live in and that they are not fixed categories.[3]

And yet I packed my “The Future is Female” sweatshirt for the March – a slogan that I love and feel ambivalent about, for it privileges the biological category of “female” over the socially and historically constructed category of “woman.” I’ve tried to tell myself that it just sounds better to say “female” (I can’t count the amount of times I’ve tried to write a sentence using “woman” instead of “female” and felt frustrated by the ways in which “female” reads much more smoothly). But this ambivalence over the trickiness of language is trumped by what I see as the slogan’s utopian vision: a world that isn’t run by the patriarchy.

It is this utopian vision that was at the forefront of the Women’s March, a vision that is desperately needed in the face of a President who has openly promoted rape culture with the words “Grab her by the pussy.”

Throughout the March you saw signs that read “Not this Pussy” or “Pussy Grabs Back.” And all around you was a sea of pink and red Pussy Hats. I was one of many wearing a Pussy Hat. My decision to wear one came about by accident. My friend’s mother was making one for herself and asked if I wanted one and I said “sure, why not?” It wasn’t until after the March that I started to read people’s criticisms of the hats for being transphobic: because trans women do not have pussies – biologically speaking – and because pink is a highly gendered colour.

While I’m all for utopian visions of the future, especially ones in which the patriarchy has been dismantled, I think that we need to take a moment and realize how utopias can be exclusionary. It is useful to think of queer scholar José Muñoz’s definition of abstract and concrete utopias. In Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, Muñoz argues that abstract utopias are “are akin to banal optimism,” while concrete utopias “are the realm of educated hope” or what Muñoz calls “critical idealism” (2-3). In not thinking about how all of the pussy signs and hats were exclusionary, all we have is an abstract utopia, one in which banal optimism evokes utopia’s definition as a “no place.” And those on the margins are forced to occupy the “no place” in very real ways.

One way that we can think about the different between abstract utopia and concrete utopia is by looking at this viral photo taken at the March. 


Angela Peoples holding sign (photo by Kevin Banatte)




The three white women in the background can be read as representing the abstract utopia, in which it’s enough to show up to the March, put on a pussy hat, and call it a day (to be fair, I know nothing about these women and their lives and so I speak of them, in this moment, as representing the white feminism that refuses to be critical of its own complicity in racism).

Angela Peoples, who stands wearing a hat that says “Stop Killing Black People,” holding her sign that reads “White Women Voted for Trump,” presents us with a different form of utopic vision, one that is critical of the current state of things, one that calls attention to the truths that white women would rather not acknowledge.

As Peoples explains in an interview, most women responded to her sign by saying, “‘Not this white woman,’ or ‘No one I know!’ I’d say, ‘[Fifty-three percent] of white women voted for Trump. That means someone you know, someone who is in close community with you, voted for Trump. You need to organize your people.’ And some people said, ‘Oh, I’m so ashamed.’ Don’t be ashamed; organize your people.”

I’d like to turn back to the pussy hats. In an essay for The Establishment, Katelyn Burns explains her own response, as a trans woman, to the overwhelming presence of pussies at the March: “I understand the impulse to use your vagina as your protest image, especially in the face of a president-elect who has boasted about grabbing vaginas, and an administration seemingly hell-bent on stripping women of their reproductive rights — but the fact of the matter is that when you do so, you subtly let trans women know that their place isn’t in your protest. You’re letting trans men know that you don’t see their gender, because your idea of gender is seemingly based exclusively on genitalia. Wearing pussyhats, or chanting about vaginas, lays out a hierarchy based on genitals that is exclusionary and painful.”

In other words, in the pussy-filled landscape of the March, there is no place for those whose genitals do not match their gender.

Upon realizing just how exclusionary these symbols were, I felt horrified.

How could I, as a queer woman and educator, who has been with gender-queer folks and has many trans friends, have not realized how this symbol was trans-exclusionary and therefore transphobic?

When I attempted to process these feelings with a friend of mine, she very gently pointed out how my question could be read as another version of the claim “I’m not racist because I have X number of black friends.”

Ouch. Necessary truths hurt.

My surprise, to borrow the words of Wunker, “is an example of just one of the ways myopias work” (30). Wunker continues: “Situating your knowledge means that you have to start recognizing the ways in which your knowledge has been shaped—for better or worse—by external social forces. It also means opening yourself to the truth that you don’t have access to every experience” (30).

As a friend of mine phrased it, racism and transphobia are so deeply internalized “that when they come up it’s almost like you’re vomiting.”

I want to take a moment to admit that I’m struggling with where to go from here, from this knowledge that the pussy hats and all of the signs depicting women’s reproductive organs are transphobic.

I’m left wondering, is there a way that I, as a cis woman who had an abortion, can connect with these symbols without excluding others? Is it okay to read “pussy” more figuratively? Can “pussy” be detached from its literal connection to the female body and be read differently, as a representation how patriarchal violence is enacted upon cis and trans-gendered bodies? Can “pussy” serve as a metonym for the bodies that have experienced violence at the hands of men?

I ask these questions earnestly, and from a position of privilege: I am a queer woman and a literature scholar – two different forms of privilege – who thinks about the ways that we can queer language, can shift and change the meanings that oppress into meanings that can challenge those systems of oppression.[4] I ask this question and I acknowledge that I’m not the one who has the right to answer it.

For Katelyn Burns, “maybe womanhood is more about the fight and not about the flesh. Maybe vagina symbolism can be more symbolic than exclusionary.” But before that can happen, she notes, we need to focus on creating language that is trans inclusive, we need to acknowledge how the right to surgery that would enable a trans woman to have a pussy is one that we must continue to fight for.

First we situate ourselves: I wore a Pussy Hat. A hat that is meaningful for me as a woman who has experienced sexual assault and who has long thought of the word pussy as a dirty one because I was taught that my body and my sexuality were dirty.

Then, we widen the scope of our looking: I failed to think about how these symbols are tied to female genitalia, and thus work to exclude trans women.

Then, we situate ourselves again: It is my privilege as a cis woman that enabled me to not see how there is more than one way to read this symbol. I can do better. I must do better. I will do better.

And repeat.

ii.  Unity versus Intersectionality: A False Binary

The scene is this: I’m standing in a crowd of people during the rally. I’m many blocks away so I have to rely on speakers and jumbo screens. Based on my location I can’t see the speakers, but I can hear what they’re saying. Beside me there is a short stone partition, and on it stands a sea of white bodies that are able to see one of the coveted jumbo screens. They can see and they can hear. The people standing are mostly women, but some men. And I think, with so much anger, “Don’t these men understand how their choice to stand on this ledge is the perfect manifestation of their white male privilege? Why don’t they get the fuck down and offer their spaces to other women?”

And yet I said nothing.

An hour or so passes and an interruption occurs: a Muslim girl finds her way to the top of the porta potties on the other side of this stone partition. And then this happens: the sea of whiteness protests. “Get down from there! You can’t be up there! You’re blocking our view!”

And I begin to run through all of the reasons why their protests are totally effed up:
1.     This is a rally, not night at the opera! You are choosing to stand on the stone wall, thus blocking other people, and so she can get up on the porta potty.
2.     Could you be a better example of white supremacy??? This Muslim girl spends her whole life being blocked from seeing, being silenced, being called a terrorist. And now she faces the threat of the Muslim registry! And you’re telling her to get down?!??!

This scene reminds me of Sara Ahmed’s theorization of walls on her blog feministkilljoy.com. She discusses how diversity work can feel like you’ve come up against an institutional brick wall, because the institution (in this case the university) does not want to acknowledge that it is racist. For Ahmed, a wall “is what you come up against. It is a physical contact, a visceral encounter. When I write this, I might not at first be talking of literal walls. A wall is an effect of coming up against.” 

This girl jumped over a literal wall that was being created both by the porta potties and by the white people who stood behind her, who told her to get down. And then she stayed up there. She tried to figure out how she could position her body so as to not totally block the sightlines of the white sea behind her – but she still stayed up there. She turned herself into a wall: “a wall as material resistance to being changed by force.”

She was this force all on her own.

I, the person who saw the racism she was experiencing, said nothing.

And this is what it looks like to be complicit in racism.

The day after the March I read a Twitter thread by Sydney Rain, in which she describes “one indigenous woman’s take” on the Women’s March on Washington, “in a sea full of white women.”[5] Rain describes how when she left the prayer circle she was a part of, white women (WW) snapped photos of her and best friend, Ashley, in their regalia without asking permission. When Rain and Ashley started to chant, “You’re on stolen land” she tells us how “WW shot us ugly looks. One shouted in her face, ‘We know but it isn’t our fault!’”

While the Tumblr account has cut out all of the responses to Rain’s thread, there was one that summarized all that is wrong with white feminism (and since the thread has been made private, I’ll have to paraphrase): “we need unity not intersectionality.” This line has been repeated by countless others, including HeatherWilhelm of the Chicago Tribune who called the Women's March an “intersectional torture chamber.” And an essay on Feministing cites responses to a diversity statement on Facebook, in which women wrote, “‘No woman, no matter what race you are is ‘privileged’ in this culture … This division has to stop;’ another white woman chimed in, saying, ‘I will march. Hoping that someday soon a sense of unity will occur before it’s too late.’”  

I’m having a difficult time parsing how and why this false binary has been set up. How and, more importantly, why is acknowledging intersectionality antithetical to unity? Perhaps we can return to the distinction Muñoz makes between abstract and concrete utopias. The unity being proposed by all of these white women is akin to the abstract utopia wherein optimism becomes an excuse for refusing to acknowledge the power and privilege we hold. And so intersectionality is read as cynicism.

Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza notes how “cynicism cannot build a movement.”  In a moving, and to me, a very generous response to the criticism surrounding the Women’s March, Garza describes how “Checking my social media feed that evening, I read comment after comment dismissing the march — an experience that was transformative for hundreds of thousands of people. I wondered what would have happened if, instead of inviting people in, I’d told people to fuck off and go home. Would they come back? Did it matter if they didn’t?”

Garza asks those who are committed to radical politics to hold space for those whose politics are new and thus far from perfect: “Hundreds of thousands of people are trying to figure out what it means to join a movement. If we demonstrate that to be a part of a movement, you must believe that people cannot change, that transformation is not possible, that it’s more important to be right than to be connected and interdependent, we will not win. If our movement is not serious about building power, then we are just engaged in a futile exercise of who can be the most radical.

As Garza offers a much needed intervention in the conversation about unity and intersectionality in the wake of the March, she holds space for us to fail – without falling into a shame spiral – and acknowledges that being political is always a process of learning how we can do better.

III. Conclusion: Towards a Critical Utopia

“There’s still so much work I can do to accept my privileges, explore the opportunities I have to use my abilities and access to help myself and others. This is a commitment we can all make for our self-care – because self-care is about nourishing ourselves, not necessarily comforting ourselves.” – Dom Chatterjee, “The Healing Power in Owning Our Privileges”[6]

Where to go from here? What does it look like for me to return from Washington with a newfound sense of my inner white feminist? How can I move forward, towards the critical utopia that Muñoz proposes?

As a PhD candidate and educator, I can use my knowledge of feminism and anti-oppression to teach others how and why we must acknowledge our privilege. I can harness my commitment to a pedagogy of non-mastery to hold space for others to be vulnerable – because encountering one’s privilege is a vulnerable act, and recognizing our complicity can feel devastating. But it need not destroy us. Our privilege can harm others and it can be used to heal others and ourselves.

First we situate ourselves: I am privileged. I can do better. And this is hard work.

Then, we widen the scope of our looking: I can educate others and myself. I can go to protests and speak up.

Then, we situate ourselves again: The work might not always feel doable, but I don’t have to do it alone.

And repeat.

Margeaux Feldman is a PhD Candidate in English and Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto and she holds a certificate in Community-Engaged Learning. Her dissertation, “The Hideosity of Adolescence: Refiguring Intimacy and Sexuality in America” draws upon feminist, queer, and critical race theory to analyze representations of adolescent girls in contemporary literature, film, and popular culture. Her essay “Undutiful daughters: growing up in feminism and psychoanalysis” was published in Psychoanalysis, Culture, and Society in 2016. Margeaux also runs the blog Floral Manifesto, which is committed to talking about the intersections of fashion, feminism, and feelings.





[1] I think that it’s crucial to critique the rhetoric of “things are so much better in Canada.”
[2] This term was first coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in her 1989 essay, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” For Crenshaw, when we discuss systems of oppression, domination, and power (such as the patriarchy, neoliberalism, capitalism, systemic racism), we MUST consider how different aspects of our identity make us more or less vulnerable than others. For a further discussion, you can checkout my blog post “Defining Our Term: Feminism 101”
[3] In Butler’s seminal text, Gender Trouble, she argues that Butler wants to challenge the traditional feminist argument that sex is a biological category while gender is a historic and social category. Butler does not believe that sex is anatomically defined; for example, if one of the characteristics of being a female is your ability to procreate, then what do we do with those women who are unable to do so?

[4] I shy away from using the word “empower” (i.e. “meanings that empower”) because of the ways that neoliberalism has co-opted phrases like “girl power” (see the essay “Girl power and ‘selfie humanitarianism’” by Gill et al) and the ways in which “empowerment” is the privileged cite for thinking about feminist sex, one that, as I argue in my dissertation, refuses to hold space for sex that is more ambivalent, that lies in-between sex empowerment and sexual assault.
[5] Rain has since protected her Twitter account, but her thread has been archived Tumblr.
[6] I want to acknowledge that Chatterjee’s essay isn’t dedicated to or for white people. As a disabled trans man of colour, Chatterjee is talking to those who experience privilege and oppression, and while I am a woman, I want to be careful to acknowledge my own power and privilege as I use his words. You can find the rest of the essay here.