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If not you, then who?

“I’m so glad you’re talking about this in class, because none of my other classes do this.”

“You told us we could come talk to you, and I don’t know who else to go do.”

“I can’t believe I’m in fourth year and no one ever explained [something basic and important] to me before! Thank you so much for taking the time.”

“I really appreciate you letting me take more time with this. I’m just so frazzled with my job and all my other courses.”

These are some comments of a type I tend to get from students. They’re flattering, in a way: they mark me as someone special, someone particularly empathetic, or practical, or accommodating. Students like me, they are grateful to me. They come into my office and I read their drafts, explain tricky concepts, go over punctuation rules, give them contact info for counselling services, let them cry, share a joke.

But you know what? I’m not feeling super special, or empathetic, or practical, or accommodating. I’m feeling–can I be honest?–resentful and burnt out.

Read the comments again: what students are describing is not a situation in which I particularly shine, but rather, a situation in which I have seem to have wound up in the front of the line because many, many other people took at least one giant step back. “No one” else is talking about the campus suicide in any of their four other classes? I’m the “only one” of five profs students feel comfortable talking to? My fourth year students don’t know how to name the difference between humanities and social science research methods, or incorporate a quotation into flowing prose? No other profs grant extensions or workarounds to meet compelling student need? Really?

I’m doing the care work of five professors, by this kind of calculation, and it’s killing me.

There are two paths we can move down now, to resolve this dilemma. We might say: Aimée, you’re taking on too much, you can’t baby them, you need limits and boundaries, if they can’t manage work and classes that’s not your problem. That is, we can encourage me to be more like the other four professors: go to class, frame myself as a researcher and content expert, teach the stuff, grade the stuff, enforce the deadlines, let them sink or swim according to their own ‘merits.’

This has its appeal, believe me: it would way, way easier than what I do now. However, in my 13 years of professoring here, I’ve come to see my students as human beings and learners who need me to really teach them, and who also, importantly, need me to accommodate their humanity. This is matter of social justice and equity for me. And here’s the thing: my students really, really thrive under this kind of teaching. This is what they tell me in my office, this is what I see in how their last papers are better than their first, in their exams, in their confidence, in their happiness. I derive satisfaction from this, of course, but if I didn’t do it I would feel it as a dereliction of duty.

I’m proposing another path, then. MAYBE THE OTHER FOUR PROFESSORS NEED TO STEP UP. I’m truly beginning to feel that while some people are just kind of clueless, others are pretty deliberately designing courses and personas that say: this course is hard, life is hard, deal with it. Not my problem. That say: I’m too busy and important and I do not want you to talk to me about your problems. Not my problem. That say: the only thing that matters is what happens in the 180 minutes you’re in my classroom per week. Everything else is … not my problem.

Maybe what those professors are doing is not “not making more work for themselves” but actually and in reality simply transferring that very real and necessary work onto me. I don’t think students get through a degree without some exentions, without crying in someone’s office sometimes, without needing something explained in great detail, on on one, without mentoring and advising, without meaningful interpersonal contact. And if that’s true, then someone is always doing that labour. And I can say for certain that it’s not everyone and I have deep suspicions that the there is a strong gender and disciplinary factor in who actually is doing this work.

I can do this work, and I want to. But I can’t do it if my colleagues across the institution do not share the load with me. I cannot sustainably always be “the only professor” who does X or Y or Z. This results in me coming home from work and crying, sleeping for hours on my nominal research days, grading on the weekend and booking weekly office check-ins with at-risk students. I know many of my colleagues do this work to, and to a one we are burnt out and emotionally exhausted, giving up all our slack to accommodate our students’ real needs. Our own health suffers, our research suffers, we get really, really tired.

How can we change the culture of the university so that this care work is recognized and shared? How can we make people do it, how can it become part of the acknolwedged core work of teaching and professing? I see a vast need from students, reasonable and developmentally appropriate, and I don’t see enough people working to support them. And I see myself, daily, getting closer and closer to burning out and giving up and it’s just not sustainable.

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Winter Wrap-up: how to finish the term gently

After three months of winter coldness, t’s the final week of term here at Waterloo, although there is a little stub of it left on Monday, I’m pretty much done teaching today.

I’ve had a harder than expected term, and I know my students are pushed to their limits, too. So I’m trying something new this year, a reflective and possibly even graceful way to wind down the term without cancelling class or generally goofing around. I’m taking some time to create the space for students to tie a bow around their own learning, together with each other and with me. I’m also using these last few classes to prepare students for exams.

I offer this for discussion, two classes I’m teaching right now and two different strategies for Ending the Terms in a Meaningful Way Beyond Dragging My Ass Across the Finish Line (TM). This is what week 12 of teaching looks like, according to my experiment.

First year course: 

They have a final exam, as well as a paper, so I’m trying to help them use class time to do both those things, in a productive way.

Exercise: in-class draft workshop a week before the paper is due. This was a soft-landing from binge-writing at the last minute. A full week before it was due, they had a complete first draft, and they read each other’s work using a rubric designed from the way that I would eventually grade the papers, so they learned about what was important, and how I grade, and how hard it is to give good feedback to people. I sat at the front and answered content questions, reference questions, format questions.

Exercise: I give students the exam skeleton. There’s a section for terms and definitions, so I make them collectively brainstorm 50 relevant terms from the course. I’ll choose 15, they’ll define 10. There’s a section on technology history, so I make them brainstorm as many historical questions they can think of and how they relate to the course as a whole. There’s a section on approaches and theories, so I make them brainstorm all the different academic approaches to new media we’ve studies.

Exercise: The last quiz of the term concerns the Big Scary Essay Question on the exam, which will be to perform some kind of analysis on a news story about new media. So what they have to do to get full marks on the quiz, is find a news story about new media, and tell me why it would be a good one to use on the exam. I’ll then choose the top five and share those on the last day, and pick one for the exam itself.

What I love about this is that all this brainstorming can be done by riffling through the books and notes from the term, can be done on the fly, requires no prep from any of us, and consitutes a really good study session. I love as well that it gets us all, as a class, and together, to go over and review the material from the entire term. It’s a great use of class time, that doesn’t overwhelm any one. Show up, get something of value for doing it in real time. It’s worth coming, AND we tie the semester up with a bow.

BONUS: my students have effectively produced the first draft of the exam for me. I’m literally picking the actual questions and terms from the one’s they put together in class. I won’t have to spend more than 20 minutes putting the final together. That’s a classic win-win, is what that is.

Fourth year course

There’s no exam, and they’re busy finishing their papers, so I suspect that assigning them a lot of new reading at the end of term is frustrating and fruitless. So I did these things instead.

Exercise: Reflective writing, taking the expressed learning outcomes of the class from the syllabus, and assessing if and how we have met those goals, detailing assignments and readings and exercises that contributed to learning.

Exercise: Reflective writing, answering the following four questions: Most valuable thing learned, Most surprising thing learned, Most counterintuitive thing learned, Most wrong thing learned. This prompts them to review the whole of the semester and to rank and evaluate the ideas presented. They then made groups of three and shared ideas, then I made a Google doc and let people populate it in a discussion. We had a really good chat, and it was great feedback for me on the course design, actually.

Exercise: For the last day of class, when they are handing in their papers and photography projects, each student will take 2-4 minutes to present a brief abstract or example to their classmates. Why should I be the only who knows what great and diverse ideas they’re all working on?

BONUS: I have a lot of grading in hand right now, and these types of classes take zero prep, which gives me more time to finish the grading quickly.

As I teach these classes in these ways, I’m noting how good I feel about it. Not gloating over the lack of prep, but really enjoying this group process of processing the whole term, together, collaboratively. Taking a bit of time to see how where we’ve ended up is different from where we started, what we know now is different from then, how our skills have developed over time. We see where we fit, what we have done and what we have left to do. Celebrating our accomplishments and looking forward. I’m going to do this again.

Do you have end of term wrap up activities that work in your classes? I’d love to hear about them.

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Outside Smoke

Swimming is my thing. Sure, I’ll go for a run sometimes. But that’s only because I couldn’t get to the pool.
If I won the lottery, I would build a fifty-metre lap pool in my backyard and swim endless laps every day, many times a day, any time I didn’t have to be doing anything else. If it could be a magically (and, yes, terribly wasteful) heated outdoor pool where I could swim with the rain and the snow falling on my lips and ear every time I turned for a breath, even better. If you’ve never swum laps in an outdoor pool during a rainstorm, I’m not sure you’ve lived.
When I was in high school, I accidentally joined the swim team. I remember it being an accident. I think some friends suggested that we go to try outs. It was a lark. I could barely swim the length of the pool. I figured there was no way I would get on the team. I didn’t know that my high school swim team was the MOST democratic athletics team ever. They took everyone. My team won the city championships one year. Maybe two years in a row. I don’t really remember. I remember knowing that I didn’t do much to contribute to our victories and learning that, if the team is big enough, you can have a gold medal hanging around your neck and still not have won your heats (ahem, that was often me). You could lose individually, but your team will still pull through for a win.
That was one of the many, many things I learned, and am still learning, from swimming.
Like, how you only ever win a race by staying focused on what’s happening in your own lane. It was always so tempting to sneak a peak at the swimmers beside me, to see how I was doing compared to them, to see if they were pulling ahead. But that was always a mistake. It was completely wasted movement in a race where every millisecond counts.
For me, there is a lot about academic work that is like that. I can look over to see how someone else is doing (did I publish more than him this year? Are my teaching scores going to beat out the department average?) but I am only ever wasting energy that I really should devote to my own race, my own swim.
But it’s the whole idea of outside smoke that really gets me. In Swimming Studies, Leanne Shapton tells us that outside smoke describes an unlikely winner in a race:
The woman with the fastest time after preliminary heats occupies lane four. Second-fastest is in lane five, third in lane three. The rest, in descending order, are in lanes six, two, seven, one, and finally, eight. This placement accounts for the inverted-V formation that typically occurs during a race. A swimmer who leads from lane one, two, seven, or eight is often called “outside smoke.”
Swimmers who are understood to be less competitive are placed in the outside lanes of the big races. When you are in the outside lanes, you are at a disadvantage. The water is choppier on the outside. You have to deal with more drag. Being put in lane one or eight means that you are literally racing against expectations and that you will start from a position of disadvantage because of those expectations.
There is something about being outside smoke that seems especially relevant to thinking about difference in the academy. If you are a woman, if you grew up poor, if you’re not white, if English is your second language, if you are not able-bodied, if the circuits of your desires didn’t always line up with what dominant culture told you to want, you are swimming a race where you’ve already been put into the position of someone who is not expected to win. You are in lane one or eight. You might have a sense of structural disadvantages but you won’t always be able to name it the way a swimmer who is ready to leap off the block in lane eight will know, before the start gun ever sounds, that she has got to swim faster and against clear structural disadvantages if she wants to win.
Outside of the pool, you don’t even always know that you have been put in a crappy lane. At least in a real race, you can clearly see that you have been given a bad lane to start with. But part of the problem is that everyone tells you that the race to tenure is the same for everyone, when it really isn’t. Or you think you can go to a meeting and say something smart and be heard when what actually happens is that the (inevitably male) chair of the meeting doesn’t hear you and then, when a male colleague says the exact same thing a few minutes later, the chair of the meeting pauses thoughtfully and says, Great point! And then you want to gag or punch the table or both. Sometimes, there is SO much drag to get through before you hit the finish line.
But here’s the thing: you can still win. Remember: swimming has a sexy name for that kind of magic trick. Outside smoke. Here’s the other thing, I look around and I see all kinds of outside smoke all around. It’s amazing. There are so many of you out there, swimming these impossible races, coming up first even though you were given the worst lane to start with, and you are totally doing it. 

It’s March and a winter storm is about to descend even though I don’t think I can bear one more day in my winter boots. These last few weeks of term always seem so long. Already, twice this month, I’ve been so sick that I couldn’t get out of bed. I am staring down a lot of marking. And deadlines. And everything else. I know you are too. So, I just wanted to remind you, you are amazing. You keep hitting that finish line and beating all the expectations and you have to remember that even though every race you swim is your own, you’re on a big team and you’re not alone.
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The Internet I want to live in

Lindy West left Twitter yesterday. I noticed that around the time I was holding her book Shrill in my hands, so I could transcribe the title of an essay into the syllabus of one of my courses: “You’re So Brave for Wearing Clothes and Not Hating Yourself.” The essay is about the notion of ‘confidence’ and what it means, culturally and personally, to be a confident fat woman. It begins with body acceptance, and according to West, the chapter could be only sixteen words long and it would say this and be complete: “Look at pictures of fat women on the Internet until they don’t make you uncomfortable anymore.”

West reminds us that representation matters. She narrates the process of seeing, over and over, and then actively seeking out and voraciously consuming, photos of fat women, starting with Leonard Nimoy’s Full Body Project, and moving through blogs and hashtags. Seeing her own body type represented, over and over, and celebrated and loved and just simply being, cracked something open.

When West married, she produced this. This is the internet I want to live in.

However, the internet I actually have is a little different. It’s an internet where even after 10 years, Twitter’s best anti-harassment tool is to make is so those who are being abused can “mute” their harassers, whose hate everyone can still see. It’s an internet that Sherman Alexie also just left on New Years, tweeting “Hey folks, I’m leaving Twitter because its negatives increasingly outweigh its positives. Thank you for the follows.” Ta-Nehisi Coates is gone, too, though maybe temporarily. It’s a platform for fake news and gas lighting and hate speech and doxxing and dog-piling. It’s weaponized virality with the aim of silencing oppressed and minoritized populations. It’s developing its own vocabulary, even.

Maybe the internet was started by computer nerds–government funded misfits and model train builders and hippies and prodigies. Somewhere along the line–in Usenet groups, through Reddit and 4chan, and leaping onto the WWW and sites like Facebook and Twitter–the internet itself became a tool of oppression. And I think this was in direct proportion to its utility and effectiveness as a tool of liberation. The internet gave us #GirlsLikeUs, #BlackLivesMatter, #MMIW, #ILookLikeAProfessor and more, a platform that no one gave to us, but that we took. That internet is under attack, and we risk losing it.

To say we live in a moment of powerful backlash against acknowledging and celebrating the always-there-but-often-suppressed diversity and plurality of our shared world would be an understatement.

West deserves a break. Alexie, too. Leslie Jones deserved a break. Hashtag activists deserve a break. It’s time for those of us who have remained behind the front lines, benefiting from their cover, to step forward. We are going to have to fight for the internet we want, because it’s not a given. I’m collecting strategies and resources, and trying to do my part. You might start here, with Femtech Net’s Centre for Solutions to Online Violence. Or, if you you want to get down and dirty, consider something like Sleeping Giants. And, crucially, stay online. Stay on Twitter as a progressive. Stay on Facebook and keep reporting those fake news sites. Keep blogging, keep linking, keep sharing.

Representation matters. Women, people of colour, disabled people, immigrants, LGBTQ communities, rural people, the underemployed, we’ve enjoyed a really good run with online publishing tools, producing vast troves of amazing content, and cobbling together amazing communities. This is all at risk. Fight. And maybe someday Lindy West will come back.

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Take care, take time

Radical thought, oh my academic friends: take at least a week off this holiday break. Like, off off: don’t check your work email, don’t work on your syllabus, don’t try to revise that article. If you are someone’s supervisor or someone’s boss, for goodness sake, be explicit that you hope those who report to you do not work or check email or ‘get ahead’ or ‘work on a project’ over the break.

I hear the howls of protest already: but I’m so behind! It’s my only chance to not be interrupted! I need to get ahead! I have all these loose ends! Everything is on fire!  But I like working every day of the year!

No. I mean, let me try to be empathetic here: I know you feel a lot of pressure, but working straight through the holiday is only going to make it worse. Worse right away because you will feel lousy and exhausted and exploited. Worse later because people will expect you to be always working. Worse for everyone else who would really like work life balance because you are setting a precedent for not needing it. So, no.

Are you tired? Has the term been tough? Have you studied / taught / researched / served with all your might, juggled too many things at once, set lofty goals and not quite reached them, dropped a couple of things? Me too. Also, everyone else. Take a break, soften, rest.

Do you have a big term coming up at the start of January? Writing deadlines, new prep, admissions season, lofty goals you’re not quite sure you can reach? Me too. Also, everyone else. Take a break, build up a little cushion of restedness to be ready to tackle January when it comes.

The longer I do this the more I understand the values of boundaries. This job will take any amount of time you throw at it, and ask for more, and the work will still never be done. So I set boundaries: this amount of time for course prep and no more. A dedicated writing appointment every time for 60 minutes. No work emails after 5 pm (and if I write them after that, I wait until morning to send them). Take the weekends off (unless I am overcome by an urge to write). This makes me more productive and more relaxed–it’s true.

And I’m setting boundaries not just on a daily or a weekly basis: I’m setting semester boundaries. This means, particularly between Fall and Winter semesters, when my family celebrates Christmas, I take a break. Don’t work. Sleep in. Read novels. Go sledding. Drink mimosas at 10am. Hit the Boxing Day sales. Hang out with friends and family.

The best part is digging out my office keys on the first day back, walking down the hallway to my office, and seeing everything with fresh eyes. It feels like I’ve been away. It’s fresh, a little strange. I’m ready to go.

Everyone deserves this feeling.

When I was a grad student I used to fly home for the holiday with half a suitcase full of books. I never read them. They were heavy to carry. I felt an ambient looming guilt over not reading them when I was out walking in the snow or sipping egg nog. I felt regret when I dragged them all back to Edmonton unread, starting the semester feeling like a failure.

As as prof, I’m very, very careful to not give my own students anything to do over the break. No really late paper submission deadlines so that they write all through the holiday, no pre-semester reading list or assignments. No chapter revisions for my supervisees. Nothing.

You need a break. I need a break. I assure that I myself take one every year at this time and I’m still employed and relatively successful. And happy.

So my holiday wish for you is: visions of sugarplums, and not Zizek, dancing in your head, for at least a week. You can do it. You deserve it.

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Open Letters and Commitments to Equity

I was honoured over the last week or so to work with my colleagues Frankie Condon, Jay Dolmage, Jennifer Harris, Heather Smyth, and Vinh Nguyen to craft an open letter–as so many others have done!–expressing our disavowal of the politics of hate and division the recent US election seems to portend. We wanted to stake a claim for justice. And we wanted it to be local, and we wanted it to do something rather than just say something. So there are action items in here, that I am going to post on my office door for all to see, and on my office bulletin board to guide my actions every day.

Our letter, because we want it to be impactful, has to be local. If you are a UW staff, faculty, or alumni and want your name added, leave you name in the comments, or send me an email and I’ll add it.

If you like the letter but are not at the University of Waterloo, take what you will from it, and start a letter for your own institution.

Beliefs that are not voice have no impact; but statements without action are just as bad. We will hold ourselves to this, and try to make our little corner of the world a better place. We would love you to join us.

Please share widely.


Open letter to the University of Waterloo

We recognize that our feelings of anger, grief, and fear in response to the recent U.S. election are shared by many of our colleagues and students at the University of Waterloo. We condemn the hate crimes, hate speech, and everyday appeals to racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, misogyny, ableism, and trans- and homophobia across North America and abroad that have so marred our collective hope for more fully realized global social justice.

We are committed to racial justice, religious freedom, and social equality. We stand in solidarity with colleagues and students whose well-being is threatened in the current political climate especially with those who are racialized Others, who are LGBTQ2, who are Muslims and Jews, immigrants and refugees, Indigenous, or disabled. We acknowledge and accept our right and our responsibility to act on this commitment to solidarity in our classrooms, our offices, our meeting rooms, and in our research, as well as in our communities beyond the bounds of our universities.

We are committed to the work of creating a just future in which Othered and dissenting perspectives and voices are acknowledged and respected, in which the rights of all peoples to full economic and political empowerment are recognized, and in which rights to religious freedom are honoured. We stand together against the politics of racism, white supremacy, hatred, and misogyny. We call on our institutional leaders and our colleagues to join with us in challenging and dismantling hate in all its forms on our campus, in our communities, our province, and our nation.

We, the undersigned, commit to the following actions:

  • We will foster and sustain equitable spaces for discussion in the classroom 
  • We will craft inclusive syllabi that recognize the plurality of voices, traditions, and perspectives in academic work, as well as in our student body 
  • We refuse to ignore, normalize, or explain away overt racism, homo- and transphobia, misogyny and xenophobia in our teaching, service, research, or public work for any reason, including undue deference to position or institution 
  • We will work to create a more just, equitable, supportive, and inclusive university, from our classrooms, to our offices, to our faculties and the broader institution, through policy initiatives and daily action 

We call on our university to:

  • Indigenize, by taking the following steps: 
    • Prioritize and follow through on the hiring of indigenous scholars in every faculty and discipline 
    • Include territorial acknowledgement prominently on all public documents and public relations materials as well as on syllabi and online course materials
    • Create conduits for indigenous students at all levels of study to attend the University of Waterloo 
    • Encourage and support University initiatives that particularly focus on innovation that works WITH indigenous communities to address inequalities, injustices, environmental, economic, and political problems that particularly impact on indigenous peoples in Canada and around the world. 
  • Work harder and more visibly to create and sustain a university environment that is fair, equitable, and welcoming for students, faculty, and staff of all faiths, gender identities, abilities, ethnicities, races, and nationalities paying particular attention to and with particular care for the needs and interests of those most likely to face discrimination 
  • Publicly recognize and dedicate the university’s care and attention to the arts and humanities where the values of justice, equality, fairness, and inclusion, where the histories, philosophical and spiritual traditions, arts and cultures of diverse peoples are studied and told 
  • Publicly recognize and support public intellectualism across all faculties and disciplines; that is, value and support faculty and student engagement beyond the bounds of the university with social, cultural, political, and economic reform or transformation toward the goal of social justice 

Dr. Carol Acton, Department of English Language and Literature, St. Jerome’s University, University of Waterloo
Dr. Lamees Al Ethari, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Waterloo
Dr. Alicia Batten, Department of Religious Studies & Theological Studies, Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo
Dr. Lizbeth Berbary-Mohamed, Recreation and Leisure Studies, University of Waterloo
Dr. Kate Rybczynski, Department of Economics, University of Waterloo
Dr. Frankie Condon, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Waterloo
Dr. Bruce Dadey, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Waterloo
Dr. Jay Dolmage, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Waterloo
Dr. Marlene Epp, Departments of History and Peace & Conflict Studies, Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo
Dr. Robert Gorbet, Department of Knowledge Integration, University of Waterloo
Dr. Dorothy Hadfield, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Waterloo
Dr. Jennifer Harris, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Waterloo
Dr. Ken Hirschkop, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Waterloo
Dr. Sara Humphreys, St. Jerome’s University
Dr. Corey W. Johnson, Recreation and Leisure Studies, Applied Health Sciences, University of Waterloo
Dr. Ashley Kelly, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Waterloo
Dr. Victoria Lamont, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Waterloo
Dr. Shana MacDonald, Department of Drama and Speech Communication, University of Waterloo
Dr. John McLevey, Department of Knowledge Integration, University of Waterloo
Dr. Andrew McMurry, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Waterloo
Dr. Aimée Morrison, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Waterloo
Dr. Vinh Nguyen, Renison College, University of Waterloo
Dr. Jane Nicholas, Departments of History and Sexuality, Marriage, and Family Studies, St. Jerome’s University, University of Waterloo
Dr. Kathryn Plaisance, Department of Knowledge Integration, University of Waterloo
Lorna Rourke, Librarian, St. Jerome’s University, University of Waterloo
Dr. Vanessa Schweizer, Department of Knowledge Integration, University of Waterloo
Dr. Gordon Slethaug, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Waterloo
Dr. Heather Smyth, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Waterloo
Dr. Linda Warley, Associate Dean, Graduate Studies, Faculty of Arts
Dr. Vershawn Young, Department of Drama and Speech Communication, University of Waterloo

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Curriculum design for well-being

It’s late November, and final papers are coming due in graduate and undergraduate classes. Advanced doctoral and masters students are confronting the natural deadline of another term’s end–and the reminders and obligations to pay fees again. This time of year brings self-reflection, self-recrimination, stress, and, often, panic. Many are full of anticipatory regrets, some are in full avoidance mode, others are just trying to work harder and harder to meet impossible standards. Many become dramatically unwell from chronic or new mental illnesses: insomnia, anxiety, depression, and psychosis.

There’s been a lot of attention paid recently to the dire mental health issues facing students generally, and graduate students particularly. Here, have a look:

The Other Mental Health Crisis
Graduate School and Mental Illness: Is there a link?
The Mental Health Care Crisis on Campus
There’s an Awful Cost to Getting a PhD That No One Talks About

The most recent Berkeley study outlines 10 factors contributing to (or declining from) graduate students’ sense of well-being and mental health:

  1. career prospects
  2. overall health
  3. living conditions
  4. academic engagement
  5. social support
  6. financial confidence
  7. academic progress and preparation
  8. sleep
  9. feeling valued and included
  10. adviser relationship

This is a lot. Many of these factors, I would like to point out, affect everyone‘s mental health, no matter their career, not just that of students–but that many factors are artificially and/or structurally more awful for students, as a group: grad school is framed as career suicide, stipends are generally terrible, there is no possibility of security for the duration of training, and poor wages often lead to limited choice in living arrangements. We can and we should think more systematically about how grad school seems to be set up from the get-go to minimize students’ chances of maintaining well-being, and even to trigger mental illness.

I can’t fix that today, or by myself. However, as an adviser and instructor of graduate students, there are things I can do today, right now, by myself to address some of the issues, the ones I’ve highlighted above: academic engagement, social support, academic progress and preparation, and sleep.

I can do this through my syllabus design. And so can you. Let’s think about how. I think grad courses in general, at least in my discipline (English), tend to assign more reading than one human can do, set ambiguous or paradoxial expectations about what the course requirements actual are, clump the preponderance of course weight on an overly large capstone project or paper, and fail to give meaningful feedback when it is need (much earlier in the term, and more frequently). Oh, and when we design syllabi with reading lists still very heavily skewed to Dead White Guys, we are surely sending a message to students about whose voices matter and who is a proper academic subject.

A modest proposal, then, for discussion:

1. Be realistic about how much people can actually read. Here, students work 10 hours a week at a TA-ship or independent teaching. They take two or three courses per term. If I assume a work week of 40 hours, after the TA work, that’s 30 hours left. That would be 10 hours each to devote to three classes, and since three of those hours are the seminar itself, that leaves seven hours for work outside the class. That time will be for any reading, library and online research, writing, and office visits. If I use a course reading workload calculator, I can easily see that assigning a book of theory, even a slim one, and asking for a 2 page report, is going to take waaaaaaaaayyyy longer than 7 hours. This can address the question of academic preparation, in that students assigned a manageable workload can actually feel like they’re learning, and not like they’re drowning. And it can address sleep.

2. Short assignments, early and often, with meaningful and timely feedback. We grade students. They want to know what we want. We want them to develop as writers and thinkers and we need to know their strengths and weaknesses to help with that. Tell me again how having a 30 page final paper worth 60% of the grade is good pedagogy? If students only have a participation grade and maybe an oral presentation grade heading into it? In my classes, I assign response papers of 400 words in the first couple of weeks. I grade it and return it within a week–students get meaningful feedback on writing and argumentation and comprehension. Then they do two more, and they tend to get both better and more confident. And the final paper is broken into stages, with feedback and a grade on each. Heading into the end of term, the paper is already half written, and is probably not going to be worth more than 25% of the grade, because of the shorter assignments, and the proposal / bibliography / workshop stages. This fosters engagement (we are all writing and reading each other from the very beginning of term), preparation (students get explicit guidance and help throughout paper writing), and sleep (no last minute binge writing), and social support (these types of assignments draw a LOT of office visits, and we build relationships of trust that way.)

3. #inclusivesyllabus. Did you know that this year’s grad cohort in my program is 16 women and 2 men? And that we still run courses with 16 things written by men and 2 by women? Ask yourself what message that sends. Never mind the internationalization, queering, and un-whitenening of our students: this is not reflected in our syllabi either, often. I ask you please to consider what gates you are keeping, what exclusions you are (unwittingly) recreating when your reading lists are whiter, straighter, and duder than that world you live in, or the classrooms you teach in. Yeah, I know, the canon. But we are lifelong learners. Reach. I’ll be honest, it’s not easy for me to find new things to assign to read always. But it’s important that I try. This helps with social support, with engagement, and my own capacity to sleep at night.

Grad students are suffering, they really are. There are easy things we can do to help make this better, that in no way reduce the intellectual rigor of our programs, but might stop people from becoming ill, dropping out, suffering through it. Add your thoughts below, and please share: let’s work together.

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How to Resist: A Spatial Theory

Last week’s US presidential election foregrounded an always-there undercurrent of white supremacy, misogyny, xenophobia, queer- and transphobia, and ableism. With each new bit of news–troll-in-chief Breitbart new head Steve Bannon as chief advisor????–things seem to keep on getting more scary.

Like many people, I have been overwhelmed by my own feelings of sadness, fear, anger, and worry. I have felt selfish for being overwhelmed from my position of relative privilege, but I’m not able to reason or push these feelings away. I have been terribly worried for people I know and people I love who may suffer this régime much more directly than I can. I have felt guilty and culpable, particularly when I read that this travesty of an outcome is attributable not just to white people, but to white women, who voted in a majority for Donald Trump.

I have been paralysed. A deer in the headlights of history. I want to feel better so I can stop waking up with nightmares and insomnia. I want to act better so I can support others concretely. I want to act better so that I can push back this no-longer-sleeping giant of backlash against the gains of progressive politics over my lifetime.

Today I have an idea, a spatial theory of resistance. It starts to address all these questions for me, lifts my paralysis, assuages my feelings, connects me to others. Maybe it will help you too.

It’s a four point plan: give space, hold space, make space, and take space. I begin from the “ring theory” based on the premise of “comfort in, dump out” which describes a way of managing terrible events while recognizing that some people need more comfort and how it is appropriate to support everyone. Basically, you don’t make people worse off than you make you feel better about anything.

Got that? Okay. Let’s go.

Give Space

I was a wreck last Wednesday, crying and nauseated. My dear husband suggested I stay home and give myself space to grieve, turn myself over to it. That was a really weird day that saw me cleaning windows and then sobbing, baking cookies and then raging, raking leaves and then trying not to vomit. When I would start crying he would hold me, or he would let me talk, and he would just listen. Look, my husband doesn’t really follow American politics. He asked me about the Electoral College and what it was, he doesn’t really know much about Rudy Guiliani or Steve Bannon. But he held my hand and listened to me. He validated my feelings. He didn’t make jokes to make me feel better. He didn’t ask me to explain things to him. He didn’t want to ‘reason’ with me. He let me cry, and he offered me unconditional love.

Giving space to someone is an act of love and generosity that allows them to express big and scary and vulnerable and ugly feelings in a safe environment. It’s important.

Can someone do this for you? Can you do it for someone? Remember; comfort in, dump out. If someone is emotionally or practically or in any way suffering more directly from this, give them space. If someone is better off than you, maybe they can give you space.

Hold Space

Many Americans are worried about Thanksgiving, about what to do when that one relative, or all those relatives, starts talking about the glories of a Trump win. People don’t know what to do. They don’t know what to do when the barista is like “Oh, the election? It’s not going to be that bad, it’s just talk.” They don’t know what to do when they overhear a person approve of Trump’s immigration plans.

This is very important: if you have any kind of identity privilege at all, if you’re white, if you’re male, if you are educated or have money, you need to hold this space open for resistance. Because if you stay quiet, you tacitly condone the racist and sexist and other hate speech. You normalise it. Holding space means making it awkward: you do not let this kind of statement go unremarked. You remark on it. You say, “I reject white supremacy,” or, “I am afraid women’s rights will move backwards,” or “My queer friends are scared for their families and their rights,” or “I support liberal immigration policies.”

You hold open a space for progressive politics and social justice. This is crucial if you are walking around with identity privilege. It will be way too easy to normalise the politics that created this mess, if we don’t just keep being that burr in the side of hate. Trump’s win made white supremacy leap out into the open. We need to keep saying that’s not okay. People with less identity privilege can’t do this work: they are tired and they are scared. The privileged in those demographics that went for Trump? It’s our responsibility to push back, to leave less space for white supremacy, to hold more space for progressive and loving agendas. Push back.

Make Space

All over the internet, my friends report the heaviness of teaching the morning after the election. Even here in Canada, students were shaken and scared or nervous. Nearly everyone I know ditched their lesson plan and held an impromptu support session or debrief. Many report hearing thanks from students afterwards for this act. These teachers made space for people to express their ideas and their feelings, and to discuss these with others, in a supportive and structured environment. They modeled respect and love.

In my own work on campus this week, I have been deliberate in answering the question “How are you?” I answer, seriously, “I’m not well. This election scares me, and enrages me, and I feel very sad. I don’t know what to do to make sure life stays livable for people who aren’t white men.” When I do this, I notice, people kind of release a big puff of air and drop their shoulders. It turns out in speaking my truth, I am making space for my colleagues and my students to express their fears too, and we brainstorm how to keep working for the world we want, how to keep our friends safe.

This has been emotionally grueling, but incredibly rewarding. I have had so many rewarding conversations, generated new ideas and strategies, and given and received more hugs than I thought were possible. I needed all of it, and so did my friends and students and colleagues.

Again, to make space we have to be careful about relative privilege: do not ask for emotional or practical support from someone who suffers this outrage more heavily than you. But make space to support them. Be very wary of not exploiting people inadvertently: some dude last week asked me about my feelings about the election, but out of the blue, and in such a way that it felt like he wanted to see how miserable I was and what it felt like to be a woman on the cusp of the repeal of Roe v. Wade. That felt gross. Don’t do that to people. Make space by expressing your truth, and let people respond or not.

Take Space

It’s not enough to just try to keep the walls from closing in further on an interpersonal level. Something structural is required. The social justice and rights agenda must be enlarged, and not just defended, if we are to have any hope in the future. How?

Here again, relative privilege and power is key. In those areas you can act in, act. Are you a swim coach? Is your club disproportionately white? Ask why, and start an outreach. Keep fighting the All Male Panel at conferences. Demand that Twitter do something about blocking hate speech instead of just beefing up the ways you can choose to just not look at it. On your curriculum committee, keep pushing for the inclusive syllabus. In your classroom, foster equitable spaces and call out mansplainers, shut down stereotyped characterizations of marginalized groups.

I just got an email from my university yesterday, reporting on its strategic plan of ‘disruptive innovation,’ which to me reads like so much tech-bro nonsense whereby all the profits are skimmed from existing industries and labour protections and regulatory frames disappear. Disruptive Innovation makes Facebook the largest media company in the world that has no journalists or editors or professional standards. My university also has equity goals. I think I’m going to start making even more noise about how maybe these two goals are in conflict. I’m going to take some space back from the “burn it down” camp that I see putting tech companies and angry white American voters in the same ideological position of calling everything broken and using anarchy as a tool to make things better. It won’t. I’m going to take some space to let people work on that.

I can do that because of my own relative power in these structures. You might take space differently.

I send you all my love, Hook and Eye readers. If you need a hug, I will give it to you. We can and we will make this world a better place.

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Reflections on the End of the World

The night It happened, I was at a party. We had the TV on in the background but were mostly just drinking and chatting in a circle, all confident that even if there were some unnerving flashes of red across the screen, those were just temporary early results, and blue would soon pull through. We had the bottles of champagne all ready in the fridge once the first female president was announced. Personally, I was mostly ready to celebrate the election cycle being over. Over the months it had caused me deep anxiety, occasionally threatened to damage friendships, supplied immense distraction from work.  

It scarcely needs to be said that the party did not end well. By the end, we were drunk and in panic-stricken tears, hugging each other and making slightly incongruous comments about how it was a pleasure to survive the apocalypse together. My phone was blowing up with incredulous, terrified texts, with pleas from Canadians to come home. The days immediately following would feel like a long fever dream, a cycle of laying awake at night in a shaky cold sweat, waking up in the morning believing, for a moment, everything is fine, then feeling the physical impact of reality striking again in a nauseating scourge of red. Previously, I had no idea what a plastic, disingenuous, and almost threatening character normal everyday greetings like “how are you” and “I hope you’re okay” can take on during such times of emergency. I and many close to me have all experienced physical symptoms of illness. 
In March, my amazing radical partner had organized a rally against Trump at Columbus Circle, right outside the Trump International Hotel. Thousands of people came, and we thought we were fighting more broadly against the misogyny and xenophobia that Trumpism espoused, because surely he could not actually become president. Today (I am writing this on Sat., Nov. 12), I see that a year ago in my Facebook Memories, we had cheered on a black woman defiantly reading a book during a Trump rally. Her resistance mattered, we thought. In the months and weeks leading up to Nov. 8, already a time when I felt physical revulsion whenever I saw his face or his name on my computer screen, the New York Times and all major media polls were still predicting a Clinton presidency, even as high as 95% just days before. 
You know all this. But the facts—that the polls had all pointed to Hillary, that all in my circles had succumbed to the collective delusion of a female president–still confound me. On election day I was excitedly composing in my mind the leftist articulations of critique against the Democrats I would post on social media after she won, when it felt safe to do so again. 
I thought I was miserable and anxious a week ago; now there is a new order of misery. One that is spreading aftershocks of hate and racism and fear across the country and the world. One that is leading my students to break down crying in class and bring in books to read under the table because they needed to emotionally dissociate from the election conversation. One that is making misogyny, white supremacy, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and perhaps above all Islamophobia a routine and energizing function of the dominant political powers. One that is fracturing families, already causing people I know to cut ties with their loved ones and cancel holiday plans. I myself am very angry at white evangelicals.
Over the past few days, I’ve attended protests, I’ve cried, I’ve screamed, I’ve hugged, I’ve marched for hours, I’ve waved my fist in angry defiance at the Trump Tower alongside a crowd of thousands, enjoying a few brief moments of solidarity and hope. Not My President, we chanted, and Black Lives Matter, Pussy Grabs Back, The People United Will Never Be Defeated, My Body My Choice. Protesters waved signs that said things like “My Rapist Voted for Trump.” I have also given a talk on a medieval poem, The Isle of Ladies, that displays the necessity of feminized resistance to the dominant male regime, even when such resistance is materially futile. I’ve seen formerly apathetic liberals commit themselves to action, and academics awaken to the insufficiency of critical theory as opening avenues of possibility. I have found my only solace in unexpected hugs, caring and compassionate and unexpected texts and gestures from friends, and my students who are confused and scared yet desperately seeking answers and committed to act for change.
I’ve also seen the same people comparing Trump to Hitler on Monday claiming on Thursday that we must be acceding to work with him. I’ve started to glimpse how quickly normalization can happen, how once the rhinoceros storms through the city enough times, it becomes a part of the terrain. I can feel it happening within myself on an emotional level—because how else can one go on? But I resolve not to weaken my commitment to collective justice and working toward new possibilities for change in the coming years. Things are not okay, but within this not-okay-ness, perhaps other good things will emerge.

I mean, if these girls exist, there’s got to be some hope, right? (Taken/posted with permission)
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Five Concrete Things to Do in the Aftermath of the Trump Victory

I’ll admit it. I’m not always good at feeling my feelings. Today, I’m letting my feelings live where they live, under the surface, because letting them emerge into the light is too scary. And I’m sure my fear, sadness, and anger–the fear of a white, cis, middle-class, straight-passing queer Canadian woman–is nothing compared to the feelings of my friends to the south who share neither my privilege nor my remove.

The one thing I’m not feeling is surprised that Donald Trump is now the president-elect. If there’s one thing that being a student of human nature via my training as a humanist has taught me, it is that humanity has almost infinite capacity for bias, selfishness, short-sightedness, and lack of empathy. We Canadians should not feel smug about the results of this election and what we believe it says about the misogyny, racism, and classism of the United States. We too had the KKK and have an ongoing legacy of white supremacy and right-wing extremism. We too have hate crime and police violence. We have Kellie Leitch.

Since I’m not ready to face my fear of what the next four years may hold, I’m looking for concrete, actionable things I can do to deal with the Trump victory, and to do what I can to prevent the same climate of fear and entitlement from spreading across Canada and manifesting as the election of people like Kellie Leitch. Here’s what I’ve come up with.

Get out of your bubble

People have been expressing surprise that Trump won and tying that surprise to their lack of exposure to people with other viewpoints. This largely isn’t our fault: blame it on the algorithms. But we can: Read Kerry Clare’s great blog post about learning to understand American voters from following Reese Witherspoon’s Instagram feed. Read Anne Helen Petersen’s interviews of female Trump supporters. Read The Toronto (Edmonton, Calgary, Ottawa) Sun. Reverse our unfollows of that high school friend who loved Stephen Harper. Sit next to our conservative great aunt at Christmas dinner.

Teach

Share the Trump 2.0 syllabus with your students. Teach books that help them understand the lives and experiences of people unlike them. Give students who think differently than you an opportunity to share with your class about why they believe what they do. Take your classroom out into the world.  Get them listening to Active History.

Support people who are afraid and at risk

Reach out to your queer, women, indigenous, Black, Latinx, Muslim, Jewish, brown, trans, immigrant, poor, refugee friends. Shop at minority-owned business. Sponsor a Syrian refugee family. Donate to Black Lives Matter. Advocate to your local representatives for better access to abortion, safe injection sites, birth control, shelter space.

Understand and challenge your own biases

Listen to Colour Code. Read about white fragility. Do some implicit association tests. Learn about the history of race and immigration in your neighbourhood (this one is mine). Read the TRC report. Learn about Black Lives Matter. Check out the Lesbian and Gay Liberation in Canada digital archives.

Support small media

The same media bias that let people believe that Clinton’s emails = Trump’s myriad personal and professional violations exists here, but we can counter it by supporting ethical small media like GUTS Magazine, CANADALAND, Rabble, and others. They all have Patreon accounts or other ways to donate, and a few dollars (as well as your eyeballs on a regular basis) helps.