This morning my social media news feeds are a mix of reflection, rage, and resolve. Here is what I am seeing: Many of my friends and acquaintances were able to be in Edmonton for the last days of the hearings for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I’ve been reading their reflections and watching videos of speakers like Cindy Blackstock in order to learn and listen from here. This afternoon I’ll be teaching Marie Clements’s play Burning Vision. Here at home, though, I am altering my class lectures to make room for discussion about the editor of the local paper who made the egregious decision to run a photograph of a person in blackface on the cover of the paper.
What do these things have to do with one another? A lot. Specifically, I think that together they model or open opportunities to talk about responsibility, community, and learning. Who are your teachers? Who are mine? Who gets listened to when? Whose voices are consistently and often violently left out of conversations? And how might we–with all the diversity that collective pronoun might mean–start having those conversations.
As most of you know I do much of my teaching and research under the auspices of literary studies, so let me talk about Clements’s play in order to start to unpack what I mean by a model of learning as community and responsability.
Burning Vision is a play in four movements, and it is a play that moves across time and space and between cultures. It has been described variously as a complicated play, as a postmodern play, and play about environmental justice. It may be all of these; I want to suggest it is also a model for learning as community responsibility.
The facts informing the play are these: in the late 1880s a Dene Seer prophesies a burning vision that will come in the future. The timeline in the play depicts how his vision comes to be. Between 1898-1925 radium becomes a valuable commodity. Between 1931-1932 the Canadian government issues a publication that warns of the health hazards associated with radioactive ore. 1930: The LaBine brothers discover highgrade pitchblende stake on Great Bear Lake. 1932 Dene men are hired to carry ore out of the mine and transport it to Fort McMurray. 1938: The Nobel Prize is granted to Enrico Fermi who has discovered the fissurable properties of uranium. 1941: Japanese Canadians are required to carry identification cards. 1941 the US orders eight tones of uranium from Great Bear Lake to conduct military research. 1942: Japanese-Canadians are forced into internment camps. 1945: Atomic bombs are dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 1960: the first Dene miner dies of cancer. And in August of 1998 six Dene residents travel to Hiroshima to pay respects on the anniversary of the detonation of the first atomic bomb.
As I said, the play works across time, space, and cultures. It is about Canada’s colonial history and its historic and ongoing violence against First Peoples. It is about systematic racism. It is about ecological devastation and mass violence. And it is about building communities of responsibility.
What I hope to discuss with my students in the comping classes are the ways in which this play models community responsibility and demonstrates the necessity for learning as a life-long process. Here’s what I mean: Burning Vision brings together historical and cultural specificity. As readers (or playgoers) we encounter historic injustice from our own cultural, racial, and gendered experiences. Crucially, Burning Vision does not let us stop there. The play–which draws on fact–requires that readers engage with injustice, historic violence, and reconciliation in the present. Let me be even more direct: as a white reader this play requires me to check my privilege. It does not allow me to relegate injustice, racism, and violence to the past or to something I might want to pretend is in the past. It reminds me that my silence or my limited knowledge is a kind of complicity. It teaches readers–it teaches me–that learning history is an on going process and that teachers don’t always, or even often, stand at the front of a classroom. Burning Vision opens a space to talk about historic inequity in the present. It also opens a space to talk about learning as a collaborative practice.
Let me turn back to the third of my opening examples: what can be gained by talking about the local paper’s decision to run a photograph of a person in blackface? I’m not going to reproduce the photo here because, as El Jones made so clear on CBC this morning, turning the discussion about the racist history of blackface into a single talk about one person and one paper sidelines the bigger, more urgent conversations we need to have. If you are in a position of privilege–when that privilege is unearned (ie. whiteness, maleness, cisgenderedness)–it is your responsibility to listen. Listening is responsible engagement. Listening is learning.
Far too often ears are shut. Often, I find myself at the front of a classroom and realize that I’m not the teacher. I don’t have all the knowledge. In those situations it becomes my responsibility to make space for that knowledge to circulate.
I’ll close with an opportunity and an example of learning as a community project, as a project of building communities and of listening. Tomorrow #30daysofprisonjustice will begin. It is a collaborative teach-in happening on social media. It is being initiated by El Jones and is, as she notes, a collaborative project.
Dehumanizing language about prisoners will not be permitted (monster, evil, animal.) Respectful questioning and dialogue is encouraged in order to critique, clarify and understand. Everyone is encouraged to both teach and learn, with the recognition that personal experience, lived experience of prison/racism etc. should be respected and listened to. This list is only my list, others are encouraged to add. Teaching can take many forms as in posting videos, articles, beginning disucssions, asking each other questions, sharing stories, drawing attention to cases of injustice, etc. Grammar policing or classist/racist values of what proper discussion look like is not welcome – all are encouraged to post.
I guess the administration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign takes as dim a view of the dangers of wind chill as does the University of Waterloo. Students there complained much as students did here, only a significant number of UIUC students organized themselves into racist, sexist Twitter campaign under the hashtag “#fuckphyllis,” Phyllis M. Wise being the Chancellor who made the decision in question. Scott Jaschik reports on this in Inside Higher Ed; you can look up the hashtag yourself if you want but I’m not going to link it. Buzzfeed has screencapped some, and put together an overview.
I’m appalled but not surprised that the perhaps legitimate beef about the closure rapidly turned to to gender- and race-based expressions of hate. I’d like to compartmentalize that feeling and direct it at “American schools,” nice and far away from me, but I can’t. Because Waterloo has its own casual racism problem, it’s own casual sexism problem.
Did you know that a common nickname for my instutition among students is “Waterwoo”? I’ve had teenagers as well as adults reply with a laugh when I tell them where I work: “Oh! You’re at Waterwoo?” Har har. It’s got an entry in the Urban Dictionary. There is hashtag activity on Instagram, and on Twitter. This has mostly flown under the radar, but we could easily have a UIUC social media blowup on our hands, and in any case, shouldn’t we call this out as the structural issue it is, rather than wait for a crisis to tut-tut about, where we can satisfy ourselves by disciplining the more egregious outliers?
We should probably talk about “Waterwoo.”
There’s some complicated intersectionality at play: gender imbalance, racial sorting, privileging of some fields of study over others. Waterloo is considered to be a STEM powerhouse: mostly, math, computer science, engineering. These fields draw a lot of really smart kids, kids who work very hard all through high school. This includes many Canadian-born and international “Asian” kids whose parents place a premium on academic achievement, and particularly in these fields. The entrance grades are very high: “Asian students” are more likely to earn these kinds of grades. These fields, too, are more likely to draw male students, which also leads to the well-known fact that Waterloo is among the very few Canadian universities where male undergraduates outnumber female undergraduates.
You can see all these elements bubbling around the edges of a controversial piece by Macleans a few years ago. Originally titled “Too Asian?” but renamed “The enrolment controversy” after heavy social media panicking, this piece describes white, Canadian-born high school students picking their universities on grounds both explicitly and implicitly about race: lower entry requirements, better parties, which some come out and say means fewer hard-studying Asian students. Waterloo features prominently in the Macleans “Too Asian” article–indeed, we have a dour and studious reputation among our own students, who both mock the more fun-loving (and white) university 500m down the road from us, and try to attend their parties. They made a video. Then the engineers made a video. Our public relations department also made a video, responding to prominent PayPal co-founder Elon Musk, an engineer who chose Queens over Waterloo, because it had more women. For him to date, presumably, rather than to provide a more diverse and concomitantly richer set of study partners. The Macleans article references American conversations about high grades and the “model minority”–see also this article from Inside Higher Ed about how white subjects in one research study tie themselves into knots to maintain their own privilege in merit-based admission.
This usually simmers below the surface: the videos get respectable numbers of views but don’t go viral; the hashtags stay in use but never trend; the magazine retreats from actually having the conversation it started; coded language reframes issues of race around “study habits” or “party schools.”
How can we talk about this, taking everything into account? I’m not sure.
I wrote a piece about the no-win situation for women in engineering. That piece addressed gender and field of study, but not race. We have more serious issues of threatened violence against women as well, that Shannon Dea wrote about here. And in the fall I also wrote about the constant stream of men whose reasearch was featured on the university home page. I did again make explicit that they were all in the engineering, comp-sci and math fields. I didn’t note that they were mostly of Asian or South-east Asian descent. The preponderance of STEM research is what struck me as salient, while the race issue totally did not. But of course, it’s all linked in one messy intersectional soup: the neighbourhood where I live is overwhelmingly white, while campus is much more racially, ethnically, and culturally divers in ways I appreciate, but which are probably owing to our STEM dominance as much as our proximity to major immigrant diasporas in Toronto, Mississauga, and Brampton paricularly. What the (white) students complain about are inflated entry averages and a too-studious atmosphere and “accented” teachers they link to race. I am concerned about the humanities being devalued, and about the gender imbalances. It’s hard, ultimately, to tease all these issues apart.
I wanted to mark these issues, here and now, on the hook of an American controvery, before something blows up here. Maybe we can have a conversation oriented to structural, simmering resentments, exclusions, and stereotypes in a more programmatic and wide-ranging way. Before something goes viral, before something terrible happens.
The Toronto Star reported the story late last week: in the fall term, Sociology professor Paul Grayson received a request for religious accomodation from a student in an online course. The student, referencing an unspecified religious tradition, expressed an unwillingness to do the one (collaborative) on-campus exercise where he would be placed in a group of other students, if that group included women. He asked to be allowed an alternative assignment. Grayson’s impulse was to say ‘no’, on the basis of gender equality. Sensing that this was likely to be a controversial request and decision, he forwarded it up the chain to his dean, and the dean to the in-house human rights committee.
Amazingly, the dean of arts, Martin Singer, while expressing “unwavering commitment to gender equality and sincere regret,” claims to have had “no choice” but to grant the accomodation, as reported in the Globe and Mail. York President Mamdouh Shoukri released a statement on the matter as well, after the matter drew public comment from Conservative MP Peter McKay, Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair of the NDP, and Liberal MPP and Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities Brad Duguid. Shoukri is struck by the “complexities” of such requests while asserting that “We must always safeguard rights such as gender equality, academic freedom and freedom of expression, which form the foundation of any secular post-secondary institution.”
Marina Nemat, an author and educator who fled Iran for Canada because her defense of women’s rights put her in danger, discusses the York issue in an op-ed entitled “I expected this back in Iran, not at York University.” Sheema Khan, a regular columnist at the Globe who served as chair of the Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations in the early 2000s is similarly clear in her dismissal of the York decision, in a piece entitled “What York University Forgot: Gender Equality is Not Negotiable.”
I wanted to flag this controversy here, as well as the particular issues that resonate with me.
First, this is a case study in intersectionality and its supposed discontents. It comes out more like helpless postmodern relativism rather than a clear-eyed balancing of the needs of a diverse population. York’s administrators see competing but somehow equal interests here: various “minority” viewpoint that require “accomodation.” There seems to be as much risk-aversion as ignorance involved. Remember, the student’s particular religious requirements are unknown: it is not allowed to ask a student to identify his or her religion, so the request for accomodation remains vague. Grayson, unsure what to do, consulted researchers at York who worked on both Muslim and Orthodox Jewish questions of faith and practice, trying to guess at the student’s religion from his (redacted) last name: neither scholar could think of any doctrinal or scriptural basis for granting such a request.
York administrators seem to have consulted case law. They are acting in ignorance and fear, which is hardly the point of accomodation. A truly accepting and open (secular) institution could respect and understand its students, all of its students. This legislated accomodation seems more a knee-jerk lawsuit avoiding strategey–particularly since one of the reasons stated for granting it was that a student studying overseas was allowed to opt-out of the on-campus group work. Um, what?
Second, it seems pretty clear that Dean Singer’s commitment to gender equality is not at all unwavering. It wavered, and collapsed, at the very first challenge. If Singer imagines that the accomodation granted is not a significant erosion of women’s rights on campus he seems beyond help. I probably needn’t paint this picture in terrible detail for you: you live it. Women are tainted. Women are to be avoided. Women are a sinful distraction. Riiiiiiiight. How on earth can anyone not see this as an existential threat to women’s right to full participation in public life?
Third, there’s a kind of accomodation poker being played here, with the variously marginalized equity-seeking groups (women! “blacks”! “muslims”!) are each invoked to raise the stakes in the rhetorical game of chicken everyone is playing. The game goes something like this: the student doesn’t want to work with women … but what if it was blacks he requested to be apart from? What then? Or, religious accomodation is very important, but think of the women! Whose rights are paramount to us (this from the Conservative MPs). This game is disingenous. In human rights trump card bingo, only one player out of the marginalized participants can win a zero sum game whose moves are made by the powerful. In many comments I’m reading a strategic defense of women’s rights to demonize “Muslims” and their “beliefs” that makes me profoundly uncomfortable. I’m scare-quoting because, remember, we don’t know what the student’s religion is, or what beliefs the proposed group work contravenes. This rhetorical game pits every one against each other and when the powerful then throw up their hands in the face of its (rigged) unwinnable nature, they even try to accrue bonus points for caring so much to balance rights. Bullshit. You might have heard something about why we are constantly at war with religiously-defined organizations in various parts of Asia; they want to trample women’s rights, you know. The about face is stunning: both word-games are at least as dangerous as they are disingenous.
Fourth, this controversy points up the massive scale of my own ignorance. I know a fair bit about women’s rights. I know something about trauma, about mental health, about medical accomodation. I know very, very little at all about religions other than the one I was raised in. This is shameful. I’m trying to learn more about different faith traditions, different sacred days and sacred practices. Because if as student made a similar accomodation request from me, I might not be able to accurately assess it. Which makes me more like a York administrator than the intersectional feminist I aspire to be. Alas.
You know what? Grayson told the student his request was unreasonable. The student thanked him for his consideration of the request, and consented to participate, understanding the competing interests at play. There’s a lesson in that human-scale interaction, I think.
Today’s guest post is the first in an at least two-part conversation around the challenges — old and new — of the Academy. Next week I will post a response to Jade Ferguson’s piece that continues the conversation.
A recent Think Tank brought scholars from across Canada to the TransCanada Institute to discuss the continuous defunding of the university, the increasing denigration of intellectual work, and the anxiety-ridden conditions faced by emerging scholars.* Some of the critiques of the neoliberal devaluation of post-secondary education were notable for their deployment of the discourse of race struggle. The embedding of market-logic and corporate-style management into the academy was likened to the degraded conditions of a “plantation economy.” This was not my first time hearing senior faculty describe management as “overseers.” Jo-Anne Wallace’s “wishful allegory of university administration” employs Leslie Fiedler’s well-known and controversial reading of the racial relationship between Huck and Jim (18). She writes, “it is we [faculty] who are the dreamers, the Jims, who call out … I won’t say to ‘our oppressors’ … to come back to the raft again, come back to the breast, to the dream of emancipation that is at the heart of real education” (18). I want to take up the issue of race in the struggle against the corporatization of the university by examining “the problem of the color line” (W.E.B. Du Bois’s pithy formulation for discussing race relations in the early twentieth century) and the public feeling of sadness in the academy.
One of the central objectives of the Think Tank was to devise some concrete means that may help provide mentorship and sustainability for recent doctoral graduates. Nine emerging scholars (4 part-time/contingent/contract faculty and 5 full-time/tenure- track faculty, all of whom teach and do research on Canadian literature) bravely provided stories about their precarious existence in the university. These stories outlined the pervasive conditions of unprotected work and invisible exploitation faced by recent graduates. Despite this “shared precariousness,” an underlying tension quickly emerged: 4 of the 5 tenure track faculty were people of colour and all 4 contract faculty were white. Rather than reducing this racial division to happenstance, this local instantiation of the colour line reflects in part the new racialized conditions of emerging scholars in the Canadian academy. In contrast to the anxiety-ridden conditions of the job market described by white emerging scholars (at the Think Tank and on blogs such as Hook & Eye), it often appears as if people of colour are “the beneficiary of policies that provide jobs, fellowships, and other support” (Cvetkovich 124). Like the other junior faculty of colour, I was hired ABD. I did not experience a long and arduous struggle for employment. However, as Ann Cvetkovich astutely notes, “what often goes invisible in the polite world of bureaucratic culture are the casual forms of racism or lack of understanding that make this condition of so-called privilege one that is also pervaded by anxiety and stress” (124).
The four faculty of colour each expressed their own complex affective stories about what racism in the academy feels like. My ongoing sense of alienation and disenfranchisement as a black scholar has made it impossible for any easy sense of belonging in the academy, and the burden of this untenable existence has created an inconsolable sadness that affects all levels of my everyday experience. However, I was not the only one who was sad. The university-in-crisis is an emotional catalyst for sadness on both sides of the divide. Erin Wunker uses Lauren Berlant’s notion of “cruel optimism” to describe the “affective bind of precarious employment,” but “suspended agency” is perhaps most affectively accompanied by forms of sadness that descend “when the belief that one should be happy or protected turns out to be wrong and when a privileged form of hopefulness that has so often been entirely foreclosed for black people is punctured” (Wunker, Cvetkovich 116). While listening to their stories, I found myself unwilling to fully attend to the depth of this white sadness; after all, I told myself, “their forms of sadness were incommensurable with those of the historically disenfranchised, an incommensurability that is lived affectively as alienation and hopelessness” (120). The difficult discussion chillingly revealed “the emotional color line” that separates (my) black sadness and (their) white sadness (116).
The Think Tank opened a discursive space to “dwell in sadness” (117), which our ideas for possible concrete political action in the concluding session were woefully unable to address. The turn to immediate concrete political action seemed to circumscribe the call for political uncertainty that had previously been expressed. Engaging with David Eng and Shin Hee Han’s suggestion that “melancholy’s negativity might in fact be a productive corrective to a naïve politics of hope,” Cvetkovich argues that “tending to feelings means the disruption of politics as usual” (117). Central to this work, she argues, is a “sense that we might not know what politics is,” and thus, we “need to slow down in order to see what these feelings might be” (117). The challenge left before us is to explore “the full measure” of this public feeling of sadness “without seeking immediate redemption…[or] giving up a hopefulness that remains stubbornly faithful for no good reason in the midst of despair” (117). I abruptly left the concluding session of the Think Tank because I was unable to tell my colleagues, without collapsing in tears, that despite the chasm of mis/understanding I still had hope. In our struggle to preserve the “dream of emancipation that is at the heart of real education” (Wallace 18), a more nuanced coalitional politics and political rhetoric must emerge. We are not all Jims.
Jade Ferguson, University of Guelph
Cvetkovich, Ann. Depression: A Public Feeling. Durham & London: Duke UP, 2012. Print.
Wallace, Jo-Ann. “Come Back to the Ranks Ag’in, Huck Honey!” English Studies in Canada 37.3-4 (Sept/Dec 2011): 17-20. Print.
Wunker, Erin. “On Doubt.” Hook & Eye. 18 March 2013. Web. 7 April 2013.