by Marie Carrière
I am on a half-sabbatical leave from my university. And lo and behold, I am working on a book! In a nutshell, my reflection focuses on our present, or late, feminist moment that I call metafeminism. Here is how I am defining metafeminism: I find the idea ensconced in the prefix meta central to understanding this moment; it delineates the reflections and deflections of the several recognizable faces of feminism with which Western culture has grown familiar. Such vacillation of feminism’s tropes, waves, and manifestations is at the heart of my understanding of metafeminism.
But I want to slow down, and I want to write differently.
In Feminism is for Everybody, bell hooks argues that revolutionary feminist theory – meant to inform masses of people and transform the societies we live in – is not, ironically enough, readily available or accessible to a non academic public. It “remains a privileged discourse,” hooks writes, “available to those among us who are highly literate, well-educated, and usually materially privileged.” This is more than a fair point. But unlike hooks’ work here, my essay cannot claim to address anybody other than those already with an interest in feminist thought and writing. I cannot claim nor do I want to pretend that the book I’m writing is not an academically driven project. It stems from my long-standing research into contemporary feminism, especially of the late twentieth century and new millennium. But I am looking to break with the monographic tradition that continues to render so much academic writing, including my own, relevant only to… academic reading and yet more academic writing… I look to also speak to skilled readers and certainly to students curious about feminism’s trajectories through thought and literature.
Of course I am not writing in a generic vacuum with no history. The French essai is a literary genre of writing that comes close to what I have in mind for my book. I’m not sure that “essay” is the most accurate English equivalent. But for now, I’ll take it, with a few qualifications. The online Larousse defines the French term essai as follows:
ouvrage regroupant des réflexions diverses ou traitant un sujet qu’il ne prétend pas épuiser; genre littéraire constitué par ce type d’ouvrages […] action entreprise en vue de réaliser, d’obtenir quelque chose, sans être sûr du résultat ; tentative.
This definition appeals to me. Not only does it help me understand how I might distance my work from the comprehensiveness of the standard academic monograph. It helps me imagine how a personalized (but not, in my case, intimate or confessional) academic essay might take shape and give rise to a different form of scholarly writing.
Simply put, how might I say I in my academic writing?
So “simply put,” that when I read out this last sentence to S., my 13-year old daughter, she replied, “It’s not hard, Maman. We learn that in first grade.”
What I haven’t yet explained to S. is that figuring out how to say I, as a woman, within the academy, even from a tenured, white, cis gender privileged position like my own, is not that simple. Although writing in the first person as a woman will not, of course, automatically produce more accessible scholarship, I still hope that in this essay it might give rise to a different form of scholarly writing. How might I say I in an academic book project and write from a place of intellectual feeling, of literary sensation, and of feminist care? How might I tap into what Audre Lorde describes as a “disciplined attention to the true meaning of ‘it feels right to me’?”
Ann Cvetkovich’s remarkable 2012 book, Depression: A Public Feeling is, unlike my own, partly written in the form of the academic memoir, laying out her personal struggle with depression. Of note is what I would call the metafeminist “rapprochement with legacies of 1970s feminism such as consciousness-raising, personal narrative, and craft” that Cvetkovich recognizes in her blending of memoir and criticism. As in metafeminism, there are in fact multiple sites of influence in Cvetkovich’s work. She also acknowledges the legacy of a generation of feminists including bell hooks, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Jane Gallop who have continued the trend of personal academic writing. And she harks back to the influence of a more marginal feminist confessional zine culture of the early 1990s.
And so, perhaps that’s the big deal (with affection, ma fille): I too would like my own personalized essay to be a kind of rapprochement to these different expressions of feminist thought. To recall a context closer to home, the fiction theories (or fictions théoriques) practiced by feminist and queer Québécois writers in the 1970s (Bersianik, Brossard, Théoret) and their Anglo-Canadian counterparts in the 1980s (Brandt, Marlatt, Tostevin) also serve as my models.
(A girl can dream, especially during a thought experiment.)
I discovered these texts during my undergraduate studies in my early twenties, delving deeper into them in graduate school. Bringing together anglophone and francophone influences has allowed this bilingual feminist room to dream across borders and boundaries. In a sense, these texts have been my feminist super-egos, my propédeutique to literary understanding, my entry into feminist ethics. With their blend of female subjectivity, feeling, creative reflection, and aesthetic experimentation, these authors started to write at an exceptional time in Québécois and Canadian literature, which I examined in my first book (a monograph!). Since then, some, though not numerous, Canadian works of more recent personal criticism by women (Lee Maracle, Catherine Mavrikakis, Andrea Oberhuber, or Erin Wunker) have followed in this vein. Finally, just as Cvetkovich’s turn to the confessional in her critical work on affect fittingly sets out to raise public consciousness through the expression of personal experience and emotion, my own personalized essay, like metafeminism, hopes to fittingly oscillate between various manifestations, or waves, of feminist theory and practice.
Further to the resistance of academic exhaustiveness in my adoption of the personalized essay is perhaps the issue of exhaustion itself. Attributing the appeal of personal memoir in criticism to humanities scholarship’s affective turn (Clough; Gregg and Seigworth), Cvetkovich entertains the idea of personalized academic writing “as a sign of either the exhaustion of theory or its renewed life.” I find the idea very provocative. But I’m also a bit loathe to pigeonhole theory in those terms. I refuse to believe that theory is exhausting, exhausted, or even exhaustive.
Theory, I try to reassure my students (to a variable degree of success), is just theory: a thought experiment, a set of principles, a string of ideas; it’s always historical with a material context, and to an attentive reader willing to take a few risks and work a little harder, it should be no more daunting than any other narrative. But I do think there is room for deeper thinking about why more open forms of theoretical writing, that draw from intimate experience and personal understanding, might be apt at this time in feminist, indeed metafeminist, work. I’m thinking especially of theory that draws from intimate experience and personal understanding, and adopts a jargon-free, intelligible, fathomable language. In what is still a profoundly scholarly meditation on the socio-cultural aspects of depression, Cvetkovich’s book, particularly its “depression journals” segment, is as personal and readable as it is intellectually engaging.
This work also falls in line with other recent turns to academic memoir, such as Maggie Nelson’s brilliant feminist “autotheory” in The Argonauts, at the heart of which she traces her relationship with her fluidly gendered partner, her experience of queer pregnancy, and her realization that pregnancy is queer. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s personal essay We Should All be Feminists, adapted from her TEDx talks of the same title, is in turn an attempt to free feminism from stereotypical notions that Adichie grew up with in Nigeria and still encounters in American culture. (And this is before that orange fuckface entered politics.) Wunker in turn writes, in her own words, at the “interstices of critical and literary theory, pop culture, and feminist thinking” in Notes from a Feminist Killjoy. She posits her use of the pronoun I as a personal and intellectual gesture of positioning herself, textually and socially, as a white privileged woman writing about feminism in Canada today. Most recent is Sara Ahmed’s highly anticipated, Living a Feminist Life, an academic memoir that Ahmed began to construct through her ongoing blog, feministkilljoys.com.
To my mind, these works are not exhibiting theoretical exhaustion. They are brazen, filled with admirable feminist boldness, as they pursue the more open forms of writing that may, from a neoliberal standpoint, be slowing them down, and that the neoliberal university may not be ready to fully acknowledge. But these are forms that feminism today – whether intersectional, queer, or oriented around affect studies – fully warrants. Given the accumulation of its multiple variables and directions, metafeminism, to hark back to hooks’ argument, “needs to be written in a range of styles and formats.” I would love to continue to see feminist writing that loosens, as do the works mentioned above, age-old boundaries separating the academic and the personal, or the scholarly and the accessible. I believe such efforts can address the need for stylistic diversity and enrich both a common reading experience and a more specialized scholarly one.
It’s difficult not to notice as well the early second-wave mantra of “the personal is political” being powerfully re-invoked by works like Nelson’s or Cvetkovich’s. Hence my argument that my book, my personalized essay is an attempt, my attempt, at a metafeminist form of academic writing. This project is also an attempt to figure out how my scholarly learning, which is always in process, can breathe life, or let life breathe, into forms of expression that fall outside of strict or standard academic norms of writing. Finally, and maybe this is (too) brazen on my own part, but could these personalized moments in my writing be a form of queering such norms? Through Nelson’s own take, I recall Sedgwick’s controversial notion of queer as encompassing various kinds of disruptions and subversions. “Queer is a continuing moment, movement, motive – recurrent, eddying, troublant […] relational, and strange,” writes Sedgwick, to which Nelson adds:
She wanted the term to be a perpetual excitement, a kind of placeholder – a nominative, like Argo, willing to designate molten or shifting parts, a means of asserting while also giving the slip. That is what reclaimed terms do – they retain, they insist on retaining, a sense of the fugitive.
Meanwhile, Sedgwick also acknowledged the danger of dematerializing the term through this removal of “same-sex sexual expression” from queer’s “definitional center.” As Nelson again adds: “In other words, she wanted it both ways. There is much to be learned from wanting something both ways.” (29).
That’s what metafeminism, by the way, is all about: reflecting and deflecting; having it both ways.
Writing about feminism today, at least for me, craves a suppler form than the monograph allows. One that’s less exhaustive and less exhaustible, one that’s fugitive perhaps, and maybe even queer. One that wants it both ways. To write, then, an academic personalized essay. To take the unfinished wave of a scholarly attempt, and to chase the tides of feminism’s first, second, third, and even fourth movements in the texts of Canadian women writers today. Maybe a personalized essay is the only form possible for an academic study of metafeminism. Vast and extensive in historicity as well as content, metafeminism encompasses what has been referred to for some time as feminisms in the plural; it denotes those shifting parts of sexual, racial, gender, and trans identities articulated beyond the normative categories of a very old and very persistent patriarchal tradition. Perhaps metafeminism’s breadth, multidirectional texture, and ambivalences, indeed its queerness, already resist the monograph – the highly detailed, authoritative, legitimized account of a single thing.
Perhaps only the essai personnalisé, with its open process and its desire to give academic discipline the slip, will do.
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.
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.
BECAUSE we need to acknowledge the land where we gather
Liz Tetzlaff is an MA candidate in English at Dalhousie University, and running coach for Running Room, where in addition to coaching, I give outreach talks around the city encouraging others to get involved in the running community. My research interests mainly focus on poetry of the female Great War poets and their engagement with radical pacifist movement. In addition to running and war poetry, I enjoy playing with puppies, listening to Sarah McLachlan, and watching BBC mini series.
A few years ago I outed myself as a church-goer to some graduate students and colleagues over drinks at our campus pub. My students reacted with a predictable mixture of shock, bewilderment, and thinly-veiled contempt. Confessing to my church habit was like admitting I had an addiction, with a twelve-step program that included weekly church attendance and a cannibalistic ritual of eating a dying man’s flesh and drinking his blood.