Thursday, January 31, 2013

'Tis the season

I’ve worked on weather and climate history, off and on, over the past ten years (it was the subject of my MA and is also the focus of an on-going research project). In that time, I’ve moved from an interest in how historians can contribute to past climate reconstructions, to curiosity about how our social and cultural experiences of weather, climate, the seasons, storms, droughts, floods, shape our lives and histories. I continued to be fascinated learning about the complex environmental consequences of past climate change (like the climate changes at the end of the last major glaciation that caused a shift in seasonality – shorter and more abrupt seasonal shifts – that likely contributed to global species extinctions) and horrified at the models of future climate predictions and their implications. Nevertheless, as a historian my interests in climates past and present lie not with what people can tell us as objective observation stations about the changes in climate and environment around them, but how we feel the weather, and what that makes us do, and more broadly how have we gotten ourselves into our current mess when it comes to unprecedented, and potentially catastrophic climate change. (As I argue elsewhere, the problem we face is not excess CO2, it’s ourselves.)

As an environmental historian, I also love the fact that where I live helps me to understand our relationships with the rest of nature, climate included. Close to a decade living in Toronto and Vancouver helped me to understand urban environments. Living in Edmonton? I now get the place of daylight in the seasons. (Note that I don’t say Edmonton helps me understand urban environments!) I used to find that February was my low point of the year, when I was tired of dirty roads, cold weather, my winter wardrobe, and always running out of time. Now, it’s December-January. December, I’m always surprised by how bleak I feel as sunlight becomes a precious commodity. This year, I was taken aback at one point at how dismal my mood had become, until I remembered that it was December, which cheered me up considerably. January is worse, even though the days start to lengthen (we now get to drop our son off at daycare with some daylight) because it’s also the start of a new semester which I’m invariably much less prepared for than the fall semester. This, of course, speaks to the intersection of cultural and natural seasons. My husband loves March and April, because it’s still winter in the mountains, and long sunny days make for great skiing. As part of my research I now understand why daylight and moonlight figure as prominently in historical experiences of climate in the North, as do cold and ice – the more conventional representations of northern climate. I also better understand why Olaf Eliasson’s Weather Project at the Tate Modern was one of the most compelling exhibitions I’ve ever been to.

So here’s to the end of the January! Good riddance.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Feminist Solidarity with IDLE NO MORE


I wanted to share this statement from Concordia University's Idle No More Movement, issued yesterday as part of the movement's day of global action.
The statement prompts me to think about how to better integrate decolonizing methodologies and pedagogies into my teaching practices. As Linda Tuhiwai Smith has pointed out, despite the ways in which Western culture likes to imagine its own history, language, and theory as neutral and value-free, these practices carry colonialist assumptions that construct both Western subjects and its Others, and have and continue to be used in the service of imperialism.


The following text can also be found here:
Statement of Feminist Solidarity with the IDLE NO MORE Movement

On this day of global action, we, the representatives of students, faculty, staff, Fellows, and Research Associates of the Simone de Beauvoir Institute pledge our full support for the IDLE NO MORE movement.

We stand in respectful solidarity with Chief Theresa Spence and with Quebec’s Michèle Audette, the current President of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, as well as with the similarly inspiring women who launched the movement, Sheela McLean, Sylvia McAdams, Nina Wilson, and Jessica Gordon. We recognize this movement as an extension of a long history of inspiring women who have been on the frontlines of First Nations and indigenous movements in Canada, including Ellen Gabriel, the late Patricia Monture-Angus, and so many others. We understand that in addition to challenging the Canadian Government, women leading the IDLE NO MORE movement are also seeking changes within First Nations/Indigenous organizations to implement decision-making practices that better respond to the demands of women, youth, and those working at the grassroots level in their communities.

We strongly oppose the legislation proposed and passed by the Canadian Government, including Bill C-45, which provides administrative procedures that are undemocratic, such as the Aboriginal Affairs Minister being able to ignore a Band Council resolution against designating reserve lands for unsustainable resource extraction. Such procedures allow for the redefinition of Indigenous land and, as such, raise critical questions of whether the Crown is respecting the spirit and intent of treaty rights. We are dismayed about this government’s disregard for environmental protection laws and by their repeated failure to deliver on commitments made under the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the 2012 Crown-First Nations Gathering. We are particularly concerned at the inaction or negligence in providing immediate and effective measures that ensure the safety of Indigenous women, particularly given that hundreds of indigenous women have gone missing or have been murdered in recent years.

As members of a Canadian University built on Mohawk territory, we recognize the reprehensible ways in which educational institutions were systematically used to destroy Indigenous communities as well as the existence of systemic and persisting barriers to post-secondary education. We hereby pledge our commitment to educating ourselves and others on the ongoing colonization of Indigenous lands within the borders of Canada and the treatment of Indigenous peoples on colonized lands everywhere. To this end, we commit to continuing and enhancing our programs in the following ways:

· Give students opportunities to learn about anti-colonial movements and Indigenous activist strategies locally and globally, including the IDLE NO MORE movement.
· Assist our students in developing an understanding of the gendered dimensions of colonial relations of power and resistance both in historical and contemporary contexts.
· Assign and use materials, methodologies, and writings by Indigenous women in our teaching.
· Actively support the struggle for Indigenous sovereignty by taking part in teach-ins, protests and demonstrations, and community events.
· Demand an end to violence against all women, in all its forms.
· Recognize the IDLE NO MORE movement as integrally connected to efforts to end occupations, economic exploitation, environmental degradation, and militarism, and to seek justice worldwide.

Simone de Beauvoir Institute
Concordia University
January 28, 2013

Please Circulate
Media relations: Gada Mahrouse, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Simone de Beauvoir Institute
514-848-2424 x 2378 or Gada.Mahrouse@concordia.ca


Déclaration de solidarité féministe envers le mouvement IDLE NO MORE

En ce jour d’action mondiale, nous, représentantes des étudiant-e-s, professeur-e-s, employées, Fellows et Chercheur-e-s associé-e-s de l’Institut Simone-De Beauvoir, exprimons notre appui inconditionnel au mouvement AGIR MAINTENANT (mieux connu sous le nom de « IDLE NO MORE »).

Nous sommes respectueusement solidaires de la Cheffe Theresa Spence et de Michèle Audette, la présidente actuelle de l’Association des femmes autochtones du Canada, ainsi que des femmes inspirantes qui ont initié le mouvement IDLE NO MORE : Sheela McLean, Sylvia McAdams, Nina Wilson et Jessica Gordon. Nous reconnaissons que ce mouvement est le prolongement d’une longue histoire de femmes inspirantes qui ont été à l’avant-plan des Premières Nations et des mouvements autochtones au Canada incluant Ellen Gabriel, feu Patricia Monture-Angus et plusieurs autres. Nous comprenons que les femmes à la tête du mouvement IDLE NO MORE, en plus de confronter le gouvernement canadien, demandent aussi des changements au sein des Premières Nations et organisations autochtones pour instaurer des pratiques de prise de décision qui répondent mieux aux demandes exprimées par les femmes, les jeunes et les personnes qui travaillent à la base dans leurs communautés.

Nous nous opposons fermement à la législation proposée et adoptée par le gouvernement canadien, incluant la loi C-45, qui dicte des procédures administratives antidémocratiques, par exemple, en donnant le pouvoir au ministre des Affaires indiennes d’ignorer une résolution adoptée par un Conseil de bande contre la désignation de territoires protégés pour l’extraction de ressources non-renouvelables. De telles procédures conduisent à la redéfinition du territoire autochtone et soulèvent des questions fondamentales au sujet du respect par la Couronne de l’esprit des droits issus des traités. Nous sommes préoccupées par l’absence de considération de ce gouvernement pour les lois sur la protection de l’environnement et devant les nombreux exemples de refus de donner suite aux engagements découlant de la Déclaration des Nations Unies sur les droits des peuples autochtones et de la rencontre tenue en 2012 entre la Couronne et les Premières Nations. Nous sommes particulièrement inquiètes devant l’inaction ou la négligence à apporter des mesures immédiates et efficaces pour garantir la sécurité des femmes autochtones, surtout que récemment, des centaines de femmes autochtones sont disparues ou ont été victimes de meurtre.

En tant que membres d’une université canadienne érigée sur un territoire Mohawk, nous reconnaissons les pratiques abusives qui ont été utilisées par les institutions d’éducation pour détruire les communautés autochtones ainsi que l’existence de barrières systémiques et persistantes en ce qui a trait à l’éducation post-secondaire. Nous nous engageons à nous renseigner et à éduquer les autres au sujet de la colonisation des territoires autochtones à l’intérieur des limites du Canada et sur le traitement des peuples indigènes en territoires colonisés partout ailleurs. À cette fin, nous nous engageons à maintenir et à améliorer nos programmes d’éducation et à :

Donner aux étudiant-e-s l’occasion d’en apprendre davantage au sujet des mouvements anticoloniaux et des stratégies locales et mondiales d’activisme autochtone, incluant le mouvement IDLE NO MORE.
Aider nos étudiant-e-s à comprendre les dimensions genrées des relations coloniales de pouvoir et de résistance dans les contextes historiques et contemporains.
Assigner et utiliser des matériaux, méthodologies et écrits de femmes autochtones dans notre enseignement.
Soutenir activement la lutte pour la souveraineté autochtone en prenant part à des séminaires d’enseignement, des manifestations, des démonstrations et des événements communautaires.
Demander la fin de la violence sous toutes ses formes contre toutes les femmes.
Reconnaître que le mouvement IDLE NO MORE est intégralement lié aux efforts pour mettre fin aux occupations, à l’exploitation économique, à la dégradation de l’environnement et au militarisme et en faveur de la justice à l’échelle de la planète.

Institut Simone-De Beauvoir
Université Concordia
28 janvier 2013

Prière de faire circuler 

Relations publiques: Geneviève Rail, Ph.D.
Directrice et Professeure, Institut Simone-De Beauvoir
514-848-2424 poste 2372 ou Gen.Rail@alcor.concordia.ca

Monday, January 28, 2013

Bird by Bird

I ran 16 kilometres yesterday. Even though it was my feet hitting the pavement, my breath making clouds in the cold air, that statement still shocks me a bit.

You see, it was only a little more than a year ago that I started running at all. I was out of shape (life of the mind, and all that) and just so envious of all of the local runners I saw out and about. I wanted to do that--to be a long-distance runner--and I was genuinely unsure if I could. Would I hate it? Would I be terrible at it? Would I fail?

Like any good student, I did the obvious--sought out a teacher. I enrolled in a Learn to Run class with the Running Room. Goal race: a Christmas 5k. The idea of running 5k was intimidating. It seemed unattainable. But we started small--we ran for one minute and walked for one minute. Then two and one. Then five, and eight, and ten minutes, with a one minute walk in the intervals. And we just kept stringing together those ten minute intervals. 3k. 4k. 5k. 6k.

I ran my 5k race, and had a blast doing it. Then I ran a 10k, and loved it too. And now I'm training for a half-marathon. I ran 16k yesterday. But what I really did was run for ten minutes, then walk. Over and over. Little by little, I ate away at those kilometres until there weren't any left. The idea of running 23k (our longest training distance for the half-marathon) is still terribly intimidating, but ten minutes? I can do that.

It look me awhile--and the purchase of Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird--to realize that in my running was also the answer to my search for a sustainable academic writing practice. With my dissertation proposal approved, the idea of writing an entire dissertation was terribly intimidating. All those pages! All those ideas! I found the scope of it difficult--and sometimes paralyzing--to wrap my head around.

But reading Bird by Bird (which I feel like I was the last writer on the planet to do) made me realize that ten-and-ones worked just as well for writing as for running. For those of you who haven't read it, the key message of Bird by Bird is to break down large writing projects into small chunks--tiny ones, even--and tackle them one-by-one. It seems commonsensical, but when faced with writing a book, common sense sometimes flies out the window. But I got it--I didn't have to write a dissertation. I just had to write for twenty-five minutes--one Pomodoro. And then do it again. Little by little, I'm eating away at those pages until there won't be any left. The idea of writing an entire dissertation is still terribly intimidating, but writing for twenty-five minutes? I can do that.

So I'll keep writing my Pomodoros and running my ten-and-ones. And little by little, my dissertation will get done, and my kilometres will add up. And who knows? The dissertation is definitely a marathon, but maybe I'll run an actual one of those too.

What about you? What strategies for a sustainable writing practice do you use? How do you tackle projects or goals that are ambitious or intimidating?

Friday, January 25, 2013

Designing good courses

Coincidentally, I'm picking up Aimée's baton, and thinking about how to design a good course. I have more questions than answers. Like, how do you design a good university/college course? What you do when you start thinking about what should fill the syllabus, the lectures, the seminar discussions, the assignments? Do you think in terms of learning goals? Do you have a narrative? What makes it a "good" course in your mind? Your excitement for it? Putting your own research interests in it?

Oh, yes, and I have yet more questions, but I think I have made my point. In fact, these questions have been on my mind as I have been navigating the job market and investigating the department offerings. I go on the website, check out their courses, and dream about which of them I'd like to teach. And then how I'd like to teach them. It's a fiction, just like any other document/exercise in applying for jobs, and it adds to that emotional investment applications demand. But it's a very exciting fiction: putting myself in those classrooms, interacting with those imaginary students, talking with them about texts that interest us all (one is allowed to take the dream wherever one wants, no?). What texts would I put on the syllabus and why? What's is the connection between them? What's the single most important idea or skill or connection or digression I'd like the students to leave the course with? What kinds of conversations would I like the students to engage in? What would I like to hear from them? Yes, I know, I'm killing you with the questions here.

I have been teaching first-year English for a few years; long enough to know what works and what doesn't, to build in that flexibility that allows for alterations after the course has started, so I can tailor it better to the group. This term, however, is the first time I'm teaching a 200-level course. I am relishing the opportunity. I spent a *lot* of time thinking about the texts, the assignments, the day-to-day, or rather class-to-class content. Basically, I've been trying to find answers to the questions I asked you earlier.

The good news is that the class is amazing, mostly because of the students, who are interested, engaged, smart, and very generous in their contributions, their interpretations, their connections, their digressions, and their interactions. Everybody I had talked to told me it would be so in a 200-level course: no longer the overwhelmed or lost first-year, not yet the jaded fourth-year, these students are enthusiastic in my friends' experiences as well (although I do have quite a few fourth-year students, and they are just as generous). However, even if this class ends up as a resounding success, I am still unsure I'll know the secret and how to replicate it.

And that's why I'm turning to you, dear readers. What do *you* do when you design a course? What do you look for when you take a course? I loved it when Jessica mentioned she liked those instructors who came undone just a little bit, but I'm not sure one can build it in as a strategy. So, how do you repeat success and weed out fiascos?


Thursday, January 24, 2013

Best laid plans...


This past Tuesday, I was up early to complete a job application. I have overcommitted myself this semester and have too many articles to write, so when an interesting job posting came up, I had to schedule myself time to work on it. My hope, that early Tuesday morning, was to get a jump on my day. Sadly, things did not go to plan. While groggily pouring hot water into my tea mug, I accidentally overflowed it. Boiling water then poured over the counter and down my pant leg. Ouch! Once recovered, I sought out the milk from the fridge, a 2-litre, yet un-opened carton, which I promptly dropped on the kitchen floor. The bottom burst out of the carton and started spraying 1% all over the place. With the spilled milk mopped up and many milk-filled containers cluttering up the fridge, I finally sat down to complete my job application.

Face wash on the left, shampoo on the right.
Once submitted, I hopped in the shower, and for reasons that I will never fully understand, managed to inadvertently wash my face with 2-in-1 shampoo and conditioner! That actually happened. I should note, that the face wash and shampoo containers in my shower DO NOT in any way resemble one another (see picture). Despite all of my eagerness and my careful planning for my productive day, the whole thing went to pot before 9am. 

The cliché that comes to mind is best laid plans….

I had a true taste of best laid plans falling apart last term while teaching. For some reason, I decided mid-semester that my students were going to learn something. Not just the regular course material stuff that we expect them to pick up, but an actual academic skill that would be of use for the rest of their academic careers and hopefully beyond. I decided that they would a) learn how to use academic sources, and b) use proper citation style. Now, I know technically our students are always required to do this, but this time I meant it. These components of the assignment were weighted heavily in the rubric and they would lose significant marks if they did not achieve this learning objective.

I brought in the librarian who gave a clear and concise elaboration of what constitutes an academic source, why they should use them, and how they can narrow their database searches to ensure that the sources they choose are in fact academic. I also took the entire class to the computer lab where they completed an extensive training program on proper citation style complete with video explanations, quizzes, and a certificate of completion (which they were required to show me). 

I handed out the rubric weeks before the assignment was due and diligently drew their attention to the academic references and citation style sections in which it was made clear that failing to complete these elements of the assignment adequately would result not in a C (as is usually the outcome of poorly researched, poorly referenced undergraduate work), but a failure. “You will fail if you do not use proper citation style” – I can still hear my words ringing in the air.

Admittedly, I was taking a pretty big risk. With so many assignment grades allocated to the completion of a few very simple tasks such as having 5 academic sources (no matter how well they were used) and MLA style (do it exactly like it tells you to in the book), I worried about how inflated my grades would be. With this system in place, a C paper could easily be turned into a B or even an A simply by having the right number of sources and a clean citation list.

Sadly, my grades were not inflated.

A sampling of a graded Works Cited page,
with 0.5 marks removed for each error.
As I began grading, it quickly became clear that I was going to have a big problem on my hands. If I deducted grades, as I had promised that I would, many of my students would fail the assignment, and most would receive grades in the D and C range. I should note, that I also had more A grades than usual. About ¼ of my students did really, really well. But what about the others? Surely I couldn’t just let them fail. They would hate me. I would hate myself. My learning objectives were not met, and failing so many students would not change that. 

So I dug in my heels. I had decided that these skills were essential, and by God, come hell or high-water, like it or not, they were going to learn them!

I gave them their failing grades, but also gave every single student the opportunity to rewrite, re-edit, and resubmit. We (again) spent an entire class going through appropriate citation style, how to recognize academic sources, how to select sources, how to edit. They were shocked to find out that there are different kinds of books, such as edited collections, which require different citation formats. They simply did not understand that edited collections have both editors and chapter authors, and that you should not cite the editors in-text (although, I did mention this repeatedly in lecture in relation to their edited textbook...but I digress). The whole day was filled with anxiety, anguish, and constant “ah-ha” moments.

The following week, I re-graded many, many, many works cited, as well as a pile of annotated bibliographies (which was my consolation assignment for students who did not use academic sources the first time around).

My initial plan to front load my work on the assignment by teaching them all about citations and sources fell through. And re-grading over 100 assignments was a bitter pill. Not everyone “got-it,” of course; a very few resubmitted citation lists that were equally ill-formatted as the first time around. But most of them did get it. My grades were, in the end, inflated for that assignment and my workload management plan was blown to smithereens, but my learning objectives were also met.

It didn’t go to plan. It was a tough slog. Would I do it all again? Probably.

Incidentally, I have to admit that my 2-in-1 actually did wonders for my dry winter skin, and now that my milk is already poured into individual glasses I’ve really upped my calcium intake. Disasters do sometimes have their perks.

What were some of your recent best laid plans?

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A challenging classroom

This semester, I am trying something new with my graduate class, and something unexpectedly surprising has happened. I'm surprised! It's unsettling! But it's what I wanted, maybe!

Let me explain. For the past several years I've been teaching graduate "seminars" that featured rooms overstuffed with more than 15 students. Sometimes 16. Sometimes 18. It's a lot. Not really seminar-y anymore, arguably. But there wasn't a lot of arguing going on. What was happening was that I was assigning really important reading making interesting links between different domains ... and ... it ... was ... landing flat in class. With such a big crowd, we seemed to get into a dynamic, much of the time, where two or three people talked an awful lot, and others seemed to not have done the readings at all. I would launch questions into the room--a room of more than 15 eager bright young minds!--and we would all watch it thud to the ground, flail a bit, and then suffocate.

And then I would mostly lecture, quite a bit, then complain to my friends about having to lecture.

It was grim.

What I figure is, like a crowded New York City subway platform, when someone falls down and needs help, everyone knows there are a lot of people who could help. But then when everyone has that thought, no one actually helps.

So this year I wanted to ease the crowding on the platform, to reduce the idea that since everyone might answer a question, no one person actually had to.

I made groups of four or five. I assigned each group different readings, reading the other groups weren't doing. I asked them to tweet primary texts, to add references to our database, to post summaries on our blog, to come to class with a chunk of the lesson plan assigned to them. They were going to teach each other, and I was just going to manage it.

Well.

This is our first week in full throttle group work. The summaries were fantastic, the tweeted materials fascinating, the level of preparation excellent. I was amazed.

But what happened in class was this: I tried to teach. We're all unused to this kind of classroom, and since I screwed up my iPhone timer, I started class by leading a big discussion myself for 45 minutes, when I'd wanted them to discuss it themselves for 20. I kept making the big leaps in response to them, thus undermining the material individual groups had come prepared to write about. I (oh, the fail!) seemed to be quite comfortable sliding right back in to that lecture mode I swore up and down I wanted to get out of.

I asked them, in short, to step up--but I didn't think about how I would have to step back.

Oops.

So this is my challenge now. I've given them all this responsibility--now I have to let them take it. Maybe I'm not supposed to thread everything together for everyone, since I've asked them to come prepared to do that work. Turns out I like my world changing ideas to only change the practices that don't affect me! I don't know how to teach like this--but I guess I'm going to learn. It's scary for me too.

Have you ever completely tipped over your own research or teaching or learning apple cart inadvertently? And how did it turn out?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Value of Becoming Undone

I cannot tell you what I wore on the first day on my undergrad, but I can guarantee that it was brand, spankin' new.
I promise that I had a backpack that was sans a sales tag less than 24 hours and I had 5 different binders with crisp dividers and an arsenal of unused writing pens and tightly capped high lighters.
I sat nervously in seminars over the first year, raising my hand at needless intervals (participation marks!) and reiterating information from the text that I had poured over the night before. In short, I was the cliché of the eager, ungifted first year student.

As I continued through my under grad experience, I cast aside the habit of back to school shopping and began ferreting used pens from the junk drawer before heading to my classes. I focused on the relationships and the connection between what was happening in the text and the world around me. I didn't do all my reading, but I thought a lot more about what I did read with fresh, critical thinking. I relaxed. I became more open to letting my studies flow into every aspect of my life, rather than compartmentalizing it into a structured, efficient environment.

In short, I became undone.

I was recently talking to a friend who was lamenting a new professor in her faculty. She is nice, professionally dressed, crisp and efficient. She has structured lectures that are everything a lecture should be, but she's missing a vital ingredient - being undone. She is openly nervous when conversation veers off of the lesson plan and is uncomfortable with unplanned questions or comments arise.
Again, nothing wrong per say, but the absolute best professors I have ever had were the ones that had a personality that shone though their lectures. Who swore when it was necessary. Who openly wept when they lectured on the inequality of women, both past and present. Who made jokes about their hips, pierced their eyebrows, sat on their desks to lecture, talked about their families and listened to their class.

Those were the professors that were undone. Who were willing to let their personality, interests and professionalism collide and to help shape their students beyond the classroom. Many of the readers on this site are professors just like this and I send a giant cheer your way.

Thank you, for being undone.

What steps did you take as a professor or student to relax and let your personality and your work meld into one? Did it come naturally for you?

Monday, January 21, 2013

Things I've Learned from P.K. Page

I have just finished reading Sandra Djwa's biography of P.K. Page, which bears the title Journey With No Maps. While I am not generally a fan of biography -- I mean, how can you convey a life? -- I surprised myself by being profoundly moved by this book. Indeed, after I moved past the scholarly appreciation for the meticulous research, and my frustration over the necessarily arm's-length tone of the biography as a genre, I discovered I was riveted by the life of a woman I had only met on the pages of Canadian Literature anthologies.

Page is a foundational Canadian poet. She was born in England, a child in Alberta and the Maritimes, a young woman during the Second World War, and came of age in Montreal just in time to play a key  role in developing an important literary magazine. She travelled the world. She struggled with depression. She loved, lost, carried on, and wondered. Above all, she was an artist who made her work her friend. It would seem, in short, that she lived a full, rich, and inspired life. At a time of year in which my own anxieties, uncertainties, and frustrations about the future feel very much like unmapped and impossible terrain, I find that I've learned a few helpful things from the inimitable P.K. Page. Here's a selection:

1) Fall in love with your work:

Page began writing poetry as a young woman, and she ultimately published more than two dozen books. When she found that she couldn't write, she turned to other mediums. She was a prolific and well-respected painter. She studied an immense variety of techniques, from oil painting, to water colour, to etching and working with gold leaf. Djwa's biography notes that Page had periods of profound loneliness in her life. Yet, if she could, Page would work to immerse herself in her craft as a way of creating a path through the loneliness. Several times she describes her work as a consistent and ever-evolving relationship.

2) Cast your net wide:

Page's husband Arthur Irwin was a Canadian diplomat, and they lived internationally for many years. While she initially felt lonely and isolated upon moving, Page eventually threw herself into her work and into developing her relationships with her new and old communities. She befriended painters, artists, diplomats, and housewives. She wrote letters. She threw parties. She had a pet monkey. It seems to me that Page had an incredibly diverse and rich network of people across the world.

3) Spirituality comes in many forms, and happiness is work:

While she was not religious, Page developed a life-long spiritual practice. She was introduced to the teachings of Sufism in her mid-life and quickly developed a Sufism study group. She continually refined her affective and emotional sensibilities, and to apply her knowledge to her sense of self, her relationships, and her craft. Here is an excerpt that details her growing consciousness and approach to work (where "work" means the development of your own consciousness)"

                    It's very difficult to explain. [A fellow learner] gave me a totally new concept of love
                    as is I have never understood the definition before; she made me understand "waiting" --
                    that nothing can happen outside its own time (and I mean understand emotionally -- I
                    had understood intellectually before). And she made me understand that one aspect of the  
                    work is being happy -- not apparently happy -- but happy. That you cannot "work" from
                    unhappiness. (203)

4) Don't ever say "I'm too old for...":

Page began painting in mid-life, she constantly learned new forms of poetry, and her studies of Sufism were constant; she worked up until her death in 2010. A dear friend of mine, EB, had the profound experience of helping to pack up Page's house. When she was in the kitchen she noticed that Page had magnetic poetry on her refrigerator, and there were several poems clinging to the door. Imagine!

Djwa's biography of this remarkable woman has not alleviated my stress and anxiousness around employment, nor has it provided me a map, but reading about P.K. Page's life has reminded me that there are no maps. The journey is the thing entire.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The value of now

How's the follow-through on those resolutions, my friends? Coming along nicely? Or have they already devolved into anxiety-producing, self-esteem-bashing, flaming failures? Not making resolutions is similar to being a pessimist by choice: If I don't have high hopes, I won't be disappointed. What am I droning on about? Resolutions are too much about the future, just like everything else in an academic life, and I want to discover how to dwell in the now. How do you dwell in the now? Practically, I mean?

No, I'm not going all Eckhart Tolle-ish on you now. I know meditation and yoga are all about awareness in the moment, and I wish I did more of both. I'm not alone. But it just doesn't work for me. You see, I could go to the yoga studio in my "neighbourhood" tomorrow, which means getting there by  10 am for a wonderful class of yoga flow of 90 minutes or thereabouts. Are you kidding me? That will take up my whole morning. Or I could use one of the yoga apps I bought and have used exactly twice. Two time. I keep promising myself one of these days I'll actually buy one of those cables which link my (old, first-generation) iPad to the TV, and will thus have a wonderful yoga experience. You know as well as I do consumerism is not going to get me dwelling in the moment. So I call bullshit on myself and move on.

On to more anxiety about the deadlines and how I will make them. Because make them I will. There is no question about that. The question is always about the price and what gives. And those are further reasons for anxiety. So, what I do is work. I find actually starting working--even if it means merely making a plan, an outline, a list of tasks, reading the first five pages of an article, basically anything that implies actual labour and not rumination--takes some of that anxiety away. Major projects become more manageable and I begin to envisage their unfolding in time. They become more material, rather than staying in the abstract and nebulous plane of existence.

That's my living in the now: putting pen to paper, eye to screen, and mind to tasks. I wish it more spiritual, new-agey, and overall posh. But it's not. I'm a worker bee, and my solution to curbing the anxiety about work is work itself. That way, I can actually take worry-free breaks. Because I know the work, broken down in clear tasks, will be there tomorrow or after lunch, too.

What about you? Can you give me your key to doing more yoga and meditation? Cause I really want to do more yoga and mediation. #noreally #nosarcasm

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Taking care of business

Process is key to issues of equity in the academy. It should be obvious, but I nevertheless feel compelled to state the point because it is remarkable how, time and again, since I have been a graduate student and now a faculty member, process (or the lack thereof) has been a recurrent problem.

And it’s not simply process that is key to equity, but clear, well-communicated, effective, and readily adaptable processes. They are tools for change.

One example: a couple years ago, my department chair, who was new to the position and to our institution, asked if we, as a department, could draft a document that laid out some of the governance structures within the department. I piped up that I thought this was a great idea because I too was relatively new and I figured that making such a document available would help new faculty understand how things worked and how to get things done. To my surprise, a number of my senior colleagues then expressed strong opposition to this suggestion on the grounds that such a document would ossify procedures that were at that time relatively flexible and only create unnecessary bureaucracy.

This point about unnecessary bureaucracy was one that I had heard more than once before, and it twigged that there was something more at play here than keeping our work lives “simple.” I had previously been accused of trying to create unnecessary bureaucracy by seeking clearly laid out governance rules when part of an initiative that was required, as part of its larger responsibilities, to do just that, establish a governance structure. (Funny that!)

Now I get that a governance structure can essentially be a non-governing structure. That for governance you can say, for example, that everything will be at the director’s/chair’s’/board’s discretion. That is to me essentially a non-governing governance structure, or perhaps more simply a non-democratic governance structure, and therefore one that I don’t want to participate in creating or then have to be involved with after the fact.

The argument against process on the grounds that it creates “unnecessary bureaucracy” is remarkably effective in academia. Many of us, not in administrative positions, struggle to keep our service responsibilities at an appropriate level (i.e. at 20% of our work time, in the typical 40:40:20 model). Referring to process as “unnecessary bureaucracy” communicates the notion that not only are you wasting your time in constructing or setting out procedures, but that in doing so you are further burdening your colleagues with new responsibilities they neither want or need. A pretty heavy charge.

Plus, we all hate bureaucracy, don’t we? Two things I don’t like: (1) filling out long, detailed paperwork and (2) being told that something is not possible because it goes against a policy that was not obvious or clearly articulated to me.

But that said, I’m also fine with rules. Part of it is a personality thing. My dad is very much a rule person. When my sister and I were teenagers, she found out that you could use a UK 10 pence piece in parking metres and it would mistake it for a loonie. We were going out to dinner, and when my dad parked the car, she dropped the 10 pence piece into the metre, crowing how about we were saving money. My dad then got back in the car and drove to the next available metre because what my sister had done was wrong. Now, were I to find myself in that situation, I would most definitely not move the car. In fact, if that trick still worked, I would save up 10 pence pieces for parking. But, I will say that his outlook has influenced my own, and I am not averse to rules, especially thoughtful ones.

And I would argue that most of the people who I have heard under whatever circumstances express generalized opposition to rules or procedures are people who are also operating with a certain amount of privilege in these same circumstances – whether that privilege is bestowed by gender, race, class, or seniority. This is different from finding a particular process or rule arbitrary, ineffective, or otherwise problematic. This is about being opposed to creating or formalizing a process in the first place.

This is, I think, a key equity issue. Without process, getting things done becomes about who you know. If you are in a position of privilege, for instance, or have people in power who are mentoring you, then you can effectively navigate the byzantine structures in place at all stages of university careers, from entering graduate school, to promotion to full professor.

There is a lot in academia that is never explicit, that isn’t obvious, but that is really important to succeeding. And if you don’t have someone to whom you can put these questions in a casual setting, or who will advise you about things you wouldn’t have even known to ask about in the first place, your path is a lot harder.

Too often, when someone says, “bah, rules just get in the way,” what they mean is that rules only get in the way of working the system to their own advantage. Business as usual.

Clear, well-communicated, effective, and readily adaptable processes make the inner workings of academia more transparent, flexible for everyone (not just those in the know), and responsive. With such processes in play, if you see inequity, or unfairness, or ineffectiveness, you have the tools to respond and by contributing to building such processes, you can help to likewise build better universities.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Conference Paper? Or Conference Presentation?

I laughed my ass off when I read this in the Chronicle. Professor Cebula's inner monologue so neatly matches my own experience at conferences: early hope and enthusiasm turning to bored dread culminating in surreptitious smartphone tomfoolery and aimless stream of consciousness daydreaming ... ending with published rants about crappy conference talks. I have zero tolerance for conference presentations that fail to meet a minimum standard of listenability.

However, where the Cebula and I part company is right here: he hates when people read papers from a prepared script. He prefers a more extemporaneous, a more spontaneous, a more conversational delivery, and like many people offering comments on the article, seems to think a prepared script and an engaging delivery are mutually exclusive.

Many, many, many commenters in fact make this distinction pretty clear, writing versions of this idea: "Stop reading your paper! You should do a presentation instead!"

This is silly. Knock it off.

What is the appropriate or normative format for the delivery of research at a conference varies by discipline. In English, my discipline, the done thing is to write out the whole text and to read it--arguably (that is, I am arguing) that in this field, our main evidence is the very sentences we construct to frame our interpretations of this, that, or the other. In other fields, it is normal to have one Powerpoint slide for every minute of presentation, with bullet pointed text on it. In other fields, the presentation consists of a couple of graphs or tables on Powerpoints, which are described in a more off-the-cuff manner. Other presentation formats include the round-table, or the panel discussion, or a Q and A.

Whether you read from a paper, describe one graph, or elaborate on bullet points on a series of slides is, mostly, a matter of what discipline you work in. It's not really helpful to say that reading a paper is bad and showing lots of slides and talking from index cards is better. We've all seen brilliant presentations where the speaker is obviously working from a prepared text. And we've all seen really awful presentations with slides and no script. It's not the format. It's the skill.

So this is a defence of the conference paper. Yeah, a 3000 word essay, 10 pages of script that I'm going to print out and then hold somewhere in front of me while I talk to you, all six of you or sixty of you, out there in an audience. I read my papers. And I'm an awesome presenter. Ain't nothing in the paper format that makes it inherently deadly. I mean, actors work from scripts on stage and on film, and they don't crush us with boredom, right?

The main problem with papers I believe I have identified in an earlier post. It's too much content crammed into too little time, which forces rushing or complaining or confusion or running too long.

If you want to craft an effective presentation from a "paper" you need to address three things:
  1. the text needs to be written for a listening rather than reading audience
  2. you will need to perform the written text, using your voice and body to add in the structure and emphasis and pacing marked visually by paragraph markers, bolding, sections, or bullets
  3. you need to practice. In advance. More than once.

A good text should: feature a variety of sentence lengths, employ conversational language, signpost what's coming, and reiterate what's passed. Repetition and simplicity is key. Here's the opening paragraph of a conference paper I gave at Theorizing the Web last year in Maryland:
In asking every user, as it does, “What’s on your mind?” Facebook’s status update feature elicits personal disclosure, short bursts of self-narration that add up to a kind of autobiography. But how, exactly? The ways that compliant subjects answer the question demonstrate how their practices are shaped by the coaxing technologies, both discursive and material, afforded by the moment of interaction between status update interface and human user. Much of the scholarly investigation into "social network sites" focuses on the social and the network aspects: that is, why people interact with one another in these spaces and with what effect. But interpersonal relationships on Facebook are a second order interaction: fundamentally, the user at the computer is interacting with Facebook, first and foremost. This interaction remains to be explored. Employing the theory of “affordance” drawn from visual perception studies, as well as that of “coaxing,” drawn from auto/biography studies this paper offers a modest proposal for how to understand the relationship between social software and human user.
Delivery is key. A good text will get you nowhere unless you can deliver it. Good delivery involves: using gesture to demonstrate structure. Employing vocal tone and volume to indicate emphasis. Slowing down for the important bits. Paying attention to audience reaction, and leaving yourself enough room to work with that, even if just a "I know, right?" or "Wait, I'll get to where I think you're getting anxious about, you in the corner!"

Here's me reading that same paragraph, like I would at the conference, except in my pyjamas in my dining room. Listen for how I perform the structure and emphasis in the text of my script (it's a little weird to do it for a camera in close up ...):

video

(You also can't see that I've got slides to emphasize key words. That'll be another post ...)

You have to practice to do this well: know the text enough to be able to look up, and importantly, not to read your own sentences incorrectly because you don't quite know where they're headed. If you don't practice--you can screw up the delivery of even a good text, thus:

video


Omigod, right? And I don't mean "Omigod, right? I totally shaved 12 seconds off the delivery time, so I can keep those extra 300 words at the end!"

Anyhow. The moral of the story is this: it is possible to craft an effective reserach presentation from a written script, delivered text in hand, by reading. It is. Don't write off the paper. It's a matter of skill in authorship, skill in presentation, and the discipline to finish the script in a timely enough manner to allow you to rehearse it.

Thoughts? Gripes? Rebuttals? 

Monday, January 14, 2013

Collaboration in and Outside the Classroom: Some Thoughts

I have been thinking about the questions Margrit posed on Friday. She asked how we spent our holidays, and more specifically, she asked if we have plans for making space in our lives. It is that second part that I want to address, but I will do so by telling you about about how I spent my holiday.

Some brief context: Of the seven courses I am teaching this calendar year one of the ones I have been team teaching is a year-long Canadian Studies course called The Idea of Canada. My co-teacher and I have spent a great deal of time thinking through how to structure such a class: what do we want to convey to a group of second-year students with diverse national, ethnic, racial, and class back grounds? What kind of pedagogical methods are most effective for teaching not just history and culture, but the ways in which history and culture are formed? While I will admit that this is precisely the kind of theoretical and methodological challenge that thrills me, it is also true that I am staggered by the immensity and urgency these questions, especially when they are undertaken in a course that operates under the sign of the nation-state. My co-teacher, TVM and I have decided to focus our attentions on thinking about the ways in which the Canadian government has structured its (broken) relationship with First Nations peoples as a central arc that is followed through the course. 

Now, while it is not something that I think is absolutely necessary for anyone else, I also need to tell you that I feel compelled to activate my political and social stances for my students. I do this not to indoctrinate them into my own beliefs, but rather because I feel fundamentally responsible to put my politics where my pedagogy is, for lack of a more elegant way of stating things. 

This brings me to mid-December: I am in downtown Halifax with a former-student-turned-friend. We are taking part in the first Idle No More rally. We march along the Treaty Day parade route behind the Easter Eagle drummers. It is a beautiful sunny day. We are surrounded by the scent of burning sage. We stand with a few hundred people in Grand Parade, we listen to youth speakers address the Conservative omnibus bill C-45, and we hear them express fear for their treaty rights to traditional cultural practices. I am struck by the way in which these young people articulate so clearly the kinds of knotty historical, theoretical, and cultural conundrums that I attempt to work through with my students. As I am standing amongst this group of people, one young woman reads a poem written by her sister. I recognize her sister's name: she is a student in the Idea of Canada course. The poem is a lyric intervention into discourses of nation. It soars and dips. It asks hard questions. It is a clear-eyed, strong-voiced poem. 

After the rally, I go looking for the poet/student/woman to tell her what a wonderful piece of work she offered us. I find her, we chat, and I ask her if she and her sister  (who are doing much of the local Idle No More organizing) need any help. She says yes. And so, I do what I can. Mostly, this meant helping to write press releases for the informational sessions held in Halifax, for the flashmob round dance held in the Mic Mac [sic] Mall. It meant tweeting, posting information on Facebook, and sending emails to my colleagues at Dalhousie. It meant doing an interview with Sun media -- despite my discomfort with that forum -- while the central women organizing INM here were with many people in Millbrook and Eskasoni doing a traditional four-day solidarity fast in support of Chief Spence. And most recently, it meant speaking about settler-colonial history and unlearning at a teach-in held at Dalhousie

What does this all mean, and what does it have to do with Margrit's question? I haven't worked out all of my feelings and thoughts in a grand scheme yet, but in the short term I can say this: I spent my holiday getting out of my comfort zone. Too often my radical pedagogy stops at the classroom, or in my writing. Too often it doesn't get activated outside the university, and while activation within the university is crucial the university remains a site of privilege. Moreover, too often I feel as though I have little to offer, and I think that sense of having too little to offer is actually a way of facilitating my own fearfulness. Fear of saying the wrong thing, fear of taking up too much space, fear of being wrong.  I have written much about the challenges of being a member of the precariate, someone whose own sense of the future is too often bound up in fear for myself. I am coming to realize that my own future is bound up in my the future that my students are heading into, it is bound up in the future of treaty rights, it is bound up, in other words, in things that go far beyond my own small horizons. 

So I spent my holiday trying to use the relative power I have to make space. I'm fairly certain that is going to be a life-long practice. 

Friday, January 11, 2013

How was your break?

Or, more to the point, did you even have a break? Do you feel refreshed and ready to tackle the New Year? Are your syllabi all in a row? Is your brand new writing schedule ogling you passive-aggressively from the corner of your (real or virtual) desktop? How about those resolutions?

Sorry if I'm redundant, but how is it only January 11? I'll tell you how: big breaks are not good for ya! They come with huge expectations and pressures we put on ourselves. (I'll have time for yoga! running! knitting! reading for pleasure! [insert your favourite pastime here]!) And all they do is destroy the routine we academics fight so hard to construct in order to be able to juggle the interminable projects, the teaching, the life (what life? the one you'd been postponing until the big Christmas break).

Big breaks are no good, I tell ya! They aren't for me, and I'm willing to be they aren't for you. Yes, it was lovely to see family, friends, and the neighbour's dog. How long did you travel for it? Did you make all of your connections? What bugs did you pick up along the way? Now, I'm not trying to be a grinch, but to advocate for something different, and hopefully less stressful. When your holidays become more stressful than your work, something's gotta change.

How about just taking time off in-between, as part of our routine? How about building leisure time in the daily schedule? Yes, yes, the cynical in me also says I'm only talking such nonsense because it's the beginning of term, and hence the possibilities seem endless. But really, think about it: take a calendar (paper, Google, iCal, Outlook, whatever your preference) and write in it your favourite pastime: are you a yoga-at-sunrise kind of person or a wind-down-with-a-good-book (whatever that means for you, I'm not asking or judging) people? Write it in, I say! Don't forget weekends, either. Schedule some good times in there as well, or else, you'll think you've discovered a gold mine of possible work time. Even better, do not work on weekends! I know that might seem revolutionary (and I haven't been able to do it last term, not completely), but some people can do it, and why should we not strive for more leisure and less working time?

Yes, there are always exceptions, but if you make taking breaks the rule, you might become more efficient, less of a procrastinator (I know the carrot's coming in a couple of hours, so I'll just plough through this last little bit), and a happier person altogether.

What do you say? How's "taking more breaks" for a New Year's resolution?

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Remind me I'm a feminist

A few weeks ago, I completely forgot about the anniversary of the Montreal Massacre. My forgetting was of course short lived as my numerous social media feeds started trending with memorial posts, but the point is, for a very brief few moments, I completely forgot about the anniversary, about the event, about violence against women...

In discussing this with friends, a few of them joked that what every good feminist needs is an email reminder that they are a feminist. Maybe an online service [www.remind_me_i'm_a_feminist.com] that would compile all of the important dates and events and send out email alerts and news digests.

The darkly comical element here is that one shouldn't need reminding. Our feminist consciousness should never be that far away. And yet, sometimes we will it into the background. I am sure I am not the only feminist out there that has had her friends complain about a propensity to make every social event/pub night/movie outing into some kind of "feminist thing." My powers of feminist observation are never far from being unleashed at any given time and place. However, I have also learnt to choose my battles, and that not every event welcomes such politics. This has been a hard lesson to learn, and I've definitely alienated a few friends and family members who - for their own reasons - are not particularly enthused by feminist politics.

What I am trying to come to terms with is the difference between "choosing my battles" and forgetting them. There is a certain social convenience that comes with overlooking our feminist politics. What dates like December 6th (or horrific events like the shooting of Malala, or protests like Chief Spence's hunger strike) reinforce is that the personal needed to become political for very good reasons. Our feminist foremothers knew what they were on about. It may seem easiest at times to push aside our politics for the sake of our everyday sanity, but it is in the everyday that these politics are most profound - in the fight to go to school, to walk the streets unharassed, and  to live with dignity in a safe, warm, and permanent home.

I'm resolving to re-engage with my everyday feminist politics. To remember more forcefully that the personal is political.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Be it resolved

If nothing else, being an academic allows one to indulge in New Year's Resolutions at least twice a year--certainly, September brings about a strong desire to articulate new goals as surely as it prompts the purchase of new pencils with which to write them down, and January offers us a culturally sanctioned do-over if our resolve has wavered as the fall semester waned.

And so I find myself making all new resolutions, again. I don't mind so much that I didn't live up to all the plans and schemes and goals I hatched sometime around Labour Day. For me, the very impulse to even make resolutions is a cheering reminder of the fundamental optimism of the human spirit. What can be more life-affirming than an ever-renewing set of desires keyed toward self-improvement, even if these desires do not always lead us to the improvements we aim at. Isn't is good for the soul to think that at least we want to ... change? Improve? Optimize? In any case, it all feels very hopeful

My resolutions go as follows:

  • Lights out at 10:30
  • Get outside every day
  • Be kind to my family, but not at the cost of my own sense of self
  • Keep doing my yoga
  • Meditate more
  • More home cooked meals, featuring more green things
  • Clean up the kitchen before I go to bed
Mah kitchen! Tuesday night, 9:45 pm!

I'm basically trying to be healthy, right? For work, I'm thinking:
  • 20 minutes of writing on my book project every weekday
  • 20 minutes of reading on same
  • Remember the 30 minute miracle, and stop frittering time
  • Prepare in advance, but not too much
  • Answer my emails
  • Try to maintain the 40/40/20 balance of work
  • Respect deadlines
Which are all work-health goals. Clean living for everybody!

Probably the one thought I return to every New Year's day is one my dear friend Lesley Peterson shared with me way back in grad school in Edmonton, to wit: "This is not a crisis. This is your life." All my resolutions come back to this: each day brings what it brings, and I can approach it with grace, and humility, and a sense of being fully present. Or, I can run around like a chicken with my head cut off, utterly heedless and without agency. I prefer the former. It requires calendaring:

Is this not the cutest thing ever? My daughter's agenda ...

Have you made any fancy or prosaic goals for the new year? 


Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Why My New Years Was Worse Than Yours

I want to talk a little bit about something that was an essential part of my university experience, but sorely overlooked because of the extreme mundane nature of it all - the commute or rather, the car that made the commute possible. 

I live close within driving distance to the University where I did my undergrad and I drove the 45 minutes every day, rain or shine. As I did not live in town, my car became my closet, change room, dining table, library and junk drawer. After over 4 years of university and over 8 years of driving the little blue Toyota Echo every day, it began to feel like an extension of who I was. 

The dashboard became littered with parking stickers and I proudly bore my university window sticker in the back as I made the daily commute. Never mind that it didn't have power steering, automatic anything or air conditioning, it was mine and it was the perfect place to plan what I was going to say in my seminars on the way into school and the best way to process the day on the way home. 

New Years Eve, my little car (name: Serendipity Elizabeth) died in action after hitting a patch of black ice and it felt like the end of an era. 


This was my university car. I graduated this summer and had a thousand different plans ready for the moment that I paid off that ever present student debt. Instead, I begin 2013 with the frantic search for a new vehicle and the promise of new memories to be made in grad school or who know where else. 

Thankfully, I survived the accident unscathed, save for some bruises and whip lash but it made me realize how much I depend on my car. And yes, I will be giving my new car a name. 

Any suggestions? (For both the name and new car)

Anyone else have a commute every day? 

Monday, January 7, 2013

Seeing Women: Reflections on a New Year


It has been an eventful few weeks, to say the least. When I signed off on behalf of my fellow H&E writers I was anticipating a quiet holiday with a little reading, a little visiting, and a lot of unplugging. Things didn't quite work out that way. Instead, I found myself glued to the Internet keeping track of the news. More specifically, I found myself confronted once again with the ways in which women are systematically erased and effaced. I found myself thinking about how I might better address the quotidian nature of violence against women, and I found myself overwhelmed. What follows is an attempt to think through four disparate and yet interconnected and recent instances where women have been central news stories, and yet simultaneously and problematically absent.

In the last few weeks four women I have never met have been in the news. I can name two of them, the other two women's name has been withheld from the media. The women I can name are Malala Yousafzai and Chief Theresa Spence. The women whose names I don't know have both been in the news because they have been victims of violent sexual assault. One woman's name is being withheld because of the laws in her country regarding naming victims of sexual assault. The other woman's name is being withheld to protect her privacy.

If you have managed to miss the news since October, Malala is a fourteen-year-old Pakestani women's rights activist. She is known for speaking about women's right to education. She was shot in the head and neck for speaking out on behalf of women's rights. Just a few days ago she was released from hospital in Britain where she has been recovering since the fall. Chief Theresa Spence first made national news in Canada in the fall of 2011 when she declared a state of emergency in Attawapiskat. Rather than address the issues in Attawapiskat, the Canadian government effectively ignored her requests for aid and, as Chelsea Vowels and others have noted, mainstream media continued to publish inaccurate egregious misrepresentations of First Nations communities and their relationship with the government and the Crown. On December 11th Chief Spence travelled to Ottawa to begin a hunger strike as a last-ditch effort to seize and arrogant government by the lapels and demand -- wait for it! -- a conversation with First Nations leaders. When Prime Minister Harper finally announced that he would meet with First Nations leaders he made no mention whatsoever of Chief Theresa Spence, who was on the twenty-fifth day of her hunger strike. 

I can't speak the names of the other two women, because I don't know them.  One woman was a twenty-three year old physiotherapist. She was gang-raped by six men on a public bus. She was tossed from the bus naked and bleeding. She died on December 29th. The other woman whose name I don't know is from Thunder Bay. She was violently and sexually assaulted because of her race. Indeed, her assailants intimated that they were assaulting her as a kind of response to the peaceful, grassroots #IdleNoMore movement.

These four women have been in the news, but their presence in the news underscores -- for me, at least -- a pernicious and violent cycle of erasure. While all four of these women come from different contexts and are in the news for different reasons what strikes me as undeniable is the ways in which they have been erased by the media. What do I mean, besides the obvious lack of naming? Carol J. Adams has an evocative term for explaining the ways in which systematic violence covers its tracks. This happens through what she refers to as the function of the absent referent, which is a radical severing of the referent from view. Adams' example comes from the ways in which the language around butchering renders an animal into an object, thus obfuscating the violence needed to render "cow" into "hamburger." Patriarchal society works the same way, she argues. Gendered violence gets turned into a singular act. Atrocious? Yes. Lamentable? Definitely. But rather than look closely at the ways in which inequity and systematic gendered, raced, and classed violence are built into the fabric of social life these acts of violence are made singular anomalies. 

So what do we do?

While I certainly don’t have a singular and finite answer for these pernicious and systematic violences, I have found some important cues in the kinds of coalitions that have come from the #IdleNoMore movements. Here are a few things I have learned or been reminded of in the last month:

1)   Form coalitions and teach others about solidarity.
2)   Share knowledges
3)   Articulate clear aims, and clearly articulate your grievances and concerns
4)   Be preemptive, be public
5)   Stand firm against oppression, and stand with friends and allies.

So, after a holiday season that reactivated my activism outside the classroom, I am resolving to return to teaching with a renewed sense of purpose. Pedagogy is for me a site of profound possibility and responsibility, and the classroom is a site of potentially radical change. I am returning to the classroom with a renewed sense of resolve to articulate, address, and discuss difficult issues with my students.

Welcome back, y’all. Let’s make this a truly new year.