Monday, July 23, 2012

This guest post, by Megan Dean, a masters student in Philosophy at the University of Alberta, reminds us that not all subjects move through the world in the same ways, nor are all technologies and practices "selfish" in the same ways. It reminds us as well that interpersonal interactions can be asymmetrical in ways that are scary. This is a useful reminder.

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At this year's meeting for the society for Existential and Phenomenological Theory and Culture, I attended a thought-provoking panel entitled "How Big is the Body?" Tracy Nicholls' contribution contrasted the disparate experiences of listening to music with others—described in rich and vibrant language as the expansion of the body through space—and listening to an iPod—characterized as an isolating experience that effectively limits the body, foreclosing possibilities for community by buffering the earbudded individual from others' “big bodies” which otherwise might “bump into” her. I was drawn to Nicholls' description of communal musical experience, to the feeling of being thrown out of oneself by music. At the same time, I was troubled by her description of the ipod as a technology that entails selfish or even rude disengagement from others.

I always carry an iPod. The central reason for this is not to provide a soundtrack to my day, but to lessen the personal impact of sexual harassment. Appearing as if I can't hear anything isn't always effective in preventing harassers from calling out or making comments, but at least I can pretend I didn't hear them when they do.

Two days prior to Nicholl's talk I had been sexually harassed while in the line-up for conference registration. The incident had left me flustered and upset, and I had spent the rest of that day alone in my room, wanting to avoid running into the harasser again or having to explain my emotional state to colleagues. The harasser's “big body” was one that I'd have been better off having never bumped into. 

Thinking through Nicholl's paper in light of this incident, I suggest that disengagement via iPod should not be dismissed as a selfish, community-degrading practice; while it sounds counterintuitive, I think self-imposed isolation deserves consideration as a useful strategy for building moral communities, or at least for supporting the sorts of persons who can engage in that work.

Some level of personal fortitude is important for political engagement, especially where one's politics is a fundamentally critical one. Such a politics suggests that one will be regularly disgusted, frustrated, and outraged by the everyday behaviour of institutions and individuals. Dissatisfaction, anger, and frustration generated by such encounters can be productive and motivate people to become politically active. It can also be dis-enabling and self-destructive. I draw strength from feminist colleagues and friends, whose support helps me withstand “bumping into” the bodies of “normal” individuals—normal meaning sexist, racist, ableist, and speciesist—without devolving into rigid bitterness, apathy, or ressentiment. Even with this support, the harassment left me upset and frustrated. The fact is that most of us are more than aware that sexual harassment exists and calls for a response. Being harassed one more time did little to enhance my appreciation of this. What it did do is undermine my confidence and lead me to withdraw from an important professional event. Having an option to strategically avoid, however imperfectly, situations like this one merits consideration as a tool for preserving personal well-being and avoiding some of the very real negative individual consequences of sexual harassment.

So while I am sympathetic to the imperative to open ourselves to others in the interest of building better, more equitable and just communities, and I am certain that in many cases, we should confront what (or who) is problematic face to face, we should consider the political and personal value of occasionally sticking the earbuds in and tuning those big, “normal” and unfortunately sexist bodies out.

Megan Dean

Monday, July 16, 2012

Reading Women

This summer there has been a flurry of discussion surrounding the reading and reviewing of work by women. In response to poor percentages of publications on women's work Gillian Jerome and a group of collaborators launched CWILA (more on that here). Sina Queyras aka Lemon Hound has been writing about and reviewing women (and others) for years, and she's launched a renewed effort on her blog. The discussion has had some detractors and some rockiness, but hey, at least there's a renewed engagement with women's writing happening in Canada.

 A few weeks ago Queyras asked people to post their favourite critical essay written by a woman. Though I can't link to it here (the list was on her FB page) I can tell you that in a few hours it was long, diverse, and wholly exciting list. In the spirit of her generative question, the work that CWILA is doing, and the aim of this blog--that is of creating a space for discussion across genres and disciplines--what follows is a list of five influential texts written by women. Influential to whom? To me. To my reading and my intellectual development as a feminist literary and cultural scholar. I offer not so much an annotated bibliography as an eclectic biographical reading map. Please, if you're so moved I would love it if you added a meaningful (for you) text written by a woman in the comments section. As a dear friend of mine said recently, we learn so much about one another when we talk about what we've read. I guess that's what Adrienne Rich called re-vision in an other context, huh? In no particular order then:

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. (published 1929, read 1999) I read this in my first feminist class in university. I was in my third year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and I was running out of English credits to fill. My friend suggested I take this course. I read Room, and it was not love at first read. Quite the contrary. It is hard to admit this, but I found myself aggravated, impatient, and often bored. When I said as much in class and the professor asked my why I didn't really have a good answer. "Woolf's sentences are too long," I offered, lamely. But what I meant was: I have never thought about masculine versus feminine syntax before. I had never really had to think about having space and time to read. Thinking about Woolf, thinking about the women who could afford to do all of these things, well, that meant thinking about the myriads of women who couldn't. And can't. Of course I knew this was the case, but for whatever reason, reading Virginia Woolf's long sentences at that particular moment in my life in that classroom introduced to me a consideration of my own class that I had managed to sidestep for far too long.

Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought. (published 1991, read 2001) The following semester I took a course on feminist political theory. It was single-handedly one of the most challenging courses in my undergraduate career. Collins's text introduced to me the concept of intersectionality as a mode of thinking about the ways in which different kinds of oppression interlock. Intersectionality was one of the first theoretical concepts that I could see in the world as well as conceptualize. The discussions we had in that course specifically, but not only, in relation to Collins's text (I read Gloria Anzaldúa for the first time that semester as well) nuanced both my thinking and my ability to situate myself in a larger, more complex dialogue about race, gender, sexuality, and class. This class also taught me to listen, to not take up space that wasn't mine, and to consider coalition politics as a genuine possibility for feminist action.

Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. (published 1993, read 2005) When I was studying for my comprehensive examinations one of my PhD committee members suggested (read: insisted) that I read Phelan's book. This text taught me the possibility of poetic AND theoretical writing that could be both complex in content and lucid in construction. Phelan writes about politics, contemporary events, documentary, and performance in this text. She draws from a vast range of theoreticians and knits together an ever-evolving argument about the politics of representation that is both theoretical and goose-bump-inducingly relevant in daily life.

Godard, Barbara. “Feminist Periodicals and the Production of Cultural Value: The Canadian Context.” (published 2002, read 2005) I came across Godard's essay when I was working on my comprehensive exams as well. I've written a fairly lengthy introduction to it here.

Kamboureli, Smaro. Scandalous Bodies: Diasporic Literature in English Canada. (published 2009, read 2010) I read Kamboureli's text when I was in the first year of my contract at Dalhousie. I was feeling overwhelmed with all of those things one becomes overwhelmed with in a new job. I was also feeling stuck. Call is post-PhD paralysis. I needed something to jar me out of my habitual modes of thinking. Like Phelan's text Kamboureli's offered a rhizomatic, discursive, networked reading of a wide range of texts in my field. She foregrounded her own reading and thinking practice in such a way that I found myself both provoked and inspired. The texts were surprising, the critical analysis unpredictable in the best possible way. I finished the text feeling as though I had a new critic with whom to converse.

Well, there you go. This is a preliminary and partial list of formative reading moments in my life. What about y'all? Who inspires you and why?

Monday, July 9, 2012

Scholarly Publishing is Broken

Scholarly publishing is broken--at least journal publishing, and at least in my experience--and I don't want to be complicit in this brokenness anymore, just because it serves some of my purposes, some of the time.

Most loftily, we scholars imagine that we are creating new knowledge, and that new knowledge is a good thing, that it can move our collective human project forward, in some small way. It gets moved only once this new knowledge is publicized. Hence, scholarly publishing.

Much less loftily, scholarship is a kind of labour that we exchange for tokens of esteem, power, and reputation, the currency of the academy. The recognized coin of this realm is peer-reviewed, published pages. Hence, scholarly publishing.

I know that I want to create new knowledge, and change the world! And if I can get a full professorship into the bargain, as well as win the disciplinary and institutional pissing contests by which goods are allotted within the Ivory Tower, well, all the better.

These goals can conflict.

And so it is that I find myself in the weird position of having an article scheduled to appear in Women Communication Scholarship (pseudonym) and am ambivalent, even angry, about it. My little story indicates at least one small way that scholarly publication is broken, and how some of it is our own damn fault. Is my fault.

What's making me angry is that I submitted to this journal because of its high reputation, its high rejection rate, its mass adoption by academic libraries ... and it turns out that they have a standing two year delay on publication. Let me be perfectly clear: once you go through the whole year of being reviewed and re-reviewed and your piece is accepted, your publication date will be TWO FURTHER YEARS IN THE FUTURE. I expressed some shock to the editor when she sent me my August 2014 publication date, in April 2012. She is shocked, too, having witnessed the creeping commercialization of this work over a generation of editorship. But this delay is their new standard. They have a perpetual backlog of submissions and accepted papers, because of their impact, and because they are published by a commercial publisher, who will not let them clear this out with some double print issues, they will have a TWO YEAR DELAY FOR THE REST OF THE WORLD.

Now, I work in new media. My article will be about three years old when it finally appears. Older, actually, because it's based on a survey that took some time to complete. It will be historical by the time it appears. It's going to be out of the page proofs stage by Labour day of this year, then SIT IN A DIGITAL DRAWER FOR TWO MORE YEARS before it gets printed. As the bemused editor wrote to me, the brave new world of academic editing of commercially-published journals "both requires that we publish scholarship and that we don’t publish scholarship."

This seems really, really wrong.

I consulted Twitter. My friends and colleagues in digital humanities were appalled. Some suggested pulling the article and submitting it somewhere with a faster turnaround. Some suggested back-door self-publishing--that is, use the citation information from the "forthcoming" journal and put the paper online somewhere so people could read it before it becomes irrelevant. I like this idea of guerrilla self-publishing.

I consulted my chair, who consulted my dean. They, by contrast, congratulated me on having my work "appear" in such a high profile venue, and told me to leave it there. I should not retract the article to publish it elsewhere with a lower impact factor, just to get it into readers' hands. I could put it on my CV, they said, and it would "count" this year. So I will get a raise for heaving my work into a deep well. I must confess I like this idea, too, of appearing successful and important among my peers, and getting a raise, to boot.

To summarize: I get lots of chest-beating institutional credit for this "publication." But no one actually gets to read my scholarship. It all leaves a very bad taste in my mouth.

This current publishing system is broken. It pits our desires for reputation and stature against a true public good, and removes the whole thing from academic hands to place it into commercial ones who have been quite canny at exploiting our desires for status and our lack of desire for detail work in marketing, bean counting, and publication.

As for me, I'm leaving the article where it is: this is the third journal I've submitted it to (it's interdisciplinary and I have had the misfortune of getting one glowing and one damning review every where else it's travelled) and I really want this work stamped with approval and circulating, however distant the future in which that happens. As a compromise between my ambitions and my scruples, I asked the editor if I could put a "pre-print" online, and she said it's technically not allowed but that she understands, informally, that many other people do it. Nudge-nudge, wink-wink.

I ask you: if an article falls into the Taylor and Francis journal system and no one gets to read it, is any new knowledge created? If we're all circulating these papers "pre-print" why are we bothering with these commercial publications at all, except for personal professional gain? And what should we do?