teaching

The Western Gazette Gaffe: On Holding Student Journalism Accountable

It’s that time of year again: as the dog days of summer wind down, Canadian universities are preparing to welcome a whole new cohort of incoming students. The now-empty quads and concourses will soon be abuzz with throngs of students kicking off the start of their university careers with the wide array of activities and services designed to ease their transition into the post-secondary experience. From BBQs to clubs days, from pub nights to residence and faculty-specific orientations, students are being introduced to both the academic and extra-curricular cultures specific to each university campus.

Yet, the start of the 2014-2015 school year isn’t necessarily footloose and fancy-free. Numerous post-secondary institutions in Canada are still dealing with the fallout of many notorious incidents on their campuses in the previous school year.

Image from the Ubyssey's  coverage of the rape chants at UBC-Vancouver.

Image from the Ubyssey’s coverage of the rape chants at UBC-Vancouver.

  • In September 2013, both Saint Mary’s University and the University of British Columbia came under fire when student orientation leaders were discovered to have led students in rape chants and anti-Indigenous chants as part of “team-building” exercises, chants which ultimately were found to have been a part of some orientation traditions for many years. In the wake of condemnation by both the public as well as university administrators, many student leaders resigned, and others were compelled to take part in anti-violence training.
  • From April 2013-October 2013, a total of six sexual assaults on female students occurred at the University of British Columbia. The perpetrator responsible for these attacks remains at large.
  • In January 2014, the McMaster Redsuits (students from the McMaster Engineering Society) were suspended over a FROSH songbook that included “around 25 cheers and includes multiple references to violent rape, murder, incest, bestiality and sex with underage females. It is also rife with misogynistic and homophobic slurs” (Campbell & Ruf). The suspensions have barred the MES from participating in 2014 Welcome Week events.
  • In Feburary 2014, a female candidate in student elections at the University of Ottawa, Anne-Marie Roy, was the target of sexually explicit commentary by fellow students. As Diane Mehta of The Canadian Press reported, these messages “included references to sexual activities some of the five individuals wrote they would like to engage in with Roy, including oral and anal sex, as well as suggestions that she suffered from sexually transmitted diseases.”
  • In March 2014, the University of Ottawa men’s hockey team was suspended over allegations of a sexual assault perpetrated by two of their players. As the Ottawa Sun’s Danielle Bell reports, the head coach was aware of the sexual assault, but failed to report it to university officials: as such, the team has been suspended for the 2014-2015 season, and the coach has been dismissed. Recently, the two players – David Foucher and Guillaume Donovan – have both been charged with one count each of sexual assault.

Clearly, it’s been a tough year, for students, parents, faculty, staff, and administrators. Addressing issues of sexual violence and the normalization and trivialization of sexism and racism has been a complex undertaking. In addition to sanctioning student leaders who promote sexism (even under the guise of “jokes”), and rightly punishing students who commit acts of sexual violence, several universities have put together task forces in order to try and create best practices for addressing these issues, including an increase in the availability of safety measures and support services for students, staff, or faculty who have been harassed or assaulted.

Given the widespread coverage that the past year’s incidents have received, I had been hopeful that FROSH 2014 would take on a different tone, and that undergraduate students would be encouraged to create community and solidarity – to break the proverbial ice – around anything but sexism, objectification, harassment, or violence. 

Yet, as this school year begins, students, staff, faculty, alumni, and administrators at a Canadian university are finding themselves dealing yet again with a student-led initiative that uses sexual harassment as a basis for creating a welcoming environment for incoming students.

Screen shot 2014-08-26 at 7.33.51 PM

As part of their special FROSH-week edition, the undergraduate student newspaper at Western University, The Western Gazette, included a “satirical” article written by Robert Nanni, entitled “So you want to date your TA?” Among the “tips” that Nanni provides, he suggests that students a) Facebook “stalk” their TAs and get to know their personal interests; b) dress provocatively in order to gain attention; c) use office hours in order to score alone time with their TA. Finally, Nanni writes, students should know when to stop their pursuit of their TAs: they may have to resign themselves to not getting laid. After all, “they may not be giving you head, but at least they’re giving you brain. Don’t be too disappointed though – after all, there’s always next term.” 

Professors and Teaching Assistants may be chili-pepper worthy on RateMy Prof, but they're still professionals with a job to do - a job they take very seriously.

Professors and Teaching Assistants may be chili-pepper worthy on RateMy Prof, but they’re still professionals with a job to do – a job they take very seriously.

Shortly after the article’s publication on August 20th, teaching assistants, alumni, students, and professors alike expressed their staunch criticisms of the piece. A commenter named Kelly writes: “This is disgusting. Teaching Assistants are employed, as experts in training, by universities to facilitate student learning. It is a job, and this kind of behaviour from students is not tolerated and should not be encouraged. I would report a student immediately for inappropriate behaviour like this. As a teaching assistant and PhD Candidate, I find it insulting and inappropriate to publish this, because it implies a lack of professionalism from TAs and undermines their authority and knowledge.”

Another commenter, “TA/Adjunct,” commented: “As has been mentioned, many TAs at Western are women who must battle against a sexist university culture that insists they are not as smart as men, or that they are only here because they have something to prove. I’ve seen this with my female colleagues many, many times. Too many to count. I was also on the receiving end of very unwanted and unwelcome sexual advances by a student. It put me in an unbelievably precarious position, even more than I already was a low paid TA.” 

Despite the backlash against the article (including a letter penned by Dr. Janice Deakin, Western U’s Provost & VP-Academic), the paper’s editor-in-chief, Iain Boekhoff, maintains that the article is, quite simply, a piece of satire, despite compelling evidence (especially by TAs themselves!) that the satire fails miserably in hitting any sort of humourous mark. 

The problems with the article have already been well-commented on, and I agree wholeheartedly with the criticisms. TAs are professional members of the university community, ones who are bound by a series of professional codes and boundaries, and who deserve much more than being objectified and sexualized by the students they are meant to teach and mentor. 

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed that Boekhoff refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the criticisms, the seriousness of sexism and harassment, and to acknowledge that perhaps, the paper might have erred in publishing the piece. Even though he maintains that this is an opportunity for the paper to learn and do better in future, he stands by the piece being published, and refuses to take it down from the website. However, there are two main reasons why I’m really disappointed in Boekhoff’s reaction, and why I think his statements do a disservice to university communities: one, they resort to the tired old stereotypes of those who dare to call out sexual harassment and sexual objectification; two, because they make excuses for a lack of accountability within the campus community, and within student journalism more broadly.

As reported by Mike Donachie in the Metro News, Boekhoff dismisses the outrage as the product of a small group of clearly over-reactive individuals: “I had one complaint late Sunday night which is after three days of people losing their minds on Twitter,” he said. “This thing is entirely Twitter.” I can’t say I’m surprised that Boekhoff would choose to say that the measured criticisms, including those by prominent professors and community members, are tantamount to people “losing their minds.” After all, the discourses of “craziness” are so often-applied to those who protest against harassment and sexism that it is almost to be expected. When news of the rape chants broke last year, there was an incredible amount of condemnation of the complainants on the basis of their apparent “lack of reason,” namely that they were oversensitive, unable to take a joke, or simply so unstable that they would take offense even at the most mild forms of humour. Not to mention, of course, that Twitter activism has often been maligned in the same manner, that those who react to incidences of sexism are merely keyboard warriors, whipped into a hashtag-fueled, emotional frenzy, who have nothing better to do than point out the fault in seemingly-innocuous media. By creating a divide between “official” complaints and those offered on the website’s comment section and via Twitter, Boekhoff is essentially suggesting that there are less legitimate (and therefore, less reasonable) forms of complaint and criticism – forms which ultimately, are not to be taken as seriously.

In an interview with Zoe McKnight at the Toronto Star, Boekhoff turned his attention yet again to the ways in which his critics simply lacked a sense of humour or an adequate interpretive lens: “The role of the student press is different from the role and standards of the mainstream press … Students view things from a different vantage point than adults or university administration.”

In suggesting that the role of the student press is different than that of mainstream media outlets, Boekhoff is seemingly suggesting that student writers and editors are not professionals who are capable of being both respected as well as being held to account in the same ways as “real professionals” are. However, student newspapers are not underground or anonymous zines, nor are they views expressed on personal blogs or webpages. They are organizations that are funded by students’ tuition fees, and ones that thus bear strong affiliations with the universities themselves. And so, when the employees and students of the institution on your masthead have a serious issue with the content you’re presenting, especially when it so clearly contravenes the policies of safe workplaces, it is deeply unprofessional to pull the “we can’t be held accountable like the grownups/professionals are” line. This is not to say that university papers, including their individual writers and editors cannot ultimately choose to stand by their work, no matter how profoundly others disagree. Yet, in asserting that they ought not to be held to the same standards, they thus also give up the right to be given the same respect as professional media outlets, which is an insult to the hundreds of committed student journalists and editorial team who work to produce these papers. 

Student newspapers, just like student-led orientations, organizations, and athletics teams, are a vital part of a thriving campus community. A university newspaper provides not only a way for students to keep on top of the current events on their campus, and an opportunity for budding journalists to cut their teeth in the business, but also gives students a way to expose the problems and issues within the community, and in doing so, keep the community accountable. Indeed, news of the rape chants at UBC were first broken by Arno Rosenfeld, a reporter with The Ubyssey, who conducted a thorough series of interviews and investigations into the issue, even after the story had been picked up by major news outlets. Because the staff of these papers are students’ peers and representatives, there is an powerful bond of trust that goes along with working in student journalism: student reporters often have connections within the campus community that outside media do not, and the peer-bond can often make these reporters and editors feel more trustworthy. 

In pointing out the issues with FROSH orientation events, or athletic teams, or student organizations, or student newspapers, critics, especially those from within the campus community, are rarely out on a mission to collapse, defame, or destroy these parts of campus culture. We are not rallying to eliminate Greek life, protesting to shut down all Orientation events, or stopping the presses at university papers. Rather, we are recognizing that these parts of campus culture are important enough, and provide enough positive sources of community-building and leadership that we want to work together to ensure they aren’t made unsafe by misguided and deeply offensive articles, racist or sexist chants, or actual instances of sexual violence, harassment, or sexism.

Works Cited

Bell, Danielle. “2 Ottawa U hockey players charged with sexual assault.” Ottawa Sun. 22 Aug. 2014.

Chapman, Julia, and Cory Ruf. “McMaster student group suspended over ‘sexist, violent, degrading’ songbook.” CBC. 23 Jan. 2014. Web.

Donachie, Mike. Western University student newspaper runs article on how to ‘stalk’ teaching assistants.” Metro News. 25 Aug. 2014. Web.

McKnight, Zoe. “Western University paper stands by controversial article.” Toronto Star. 26 Aug. 2014. Web.

Mehta, Diane. “Ottawa student leader denounces ‘rape culture’ on Canadian campuses.” CTV News. 2 Mar. 2014.

Nanni, Robert. “So you want to date a teaching assistant?” Western Gazette. 20 Aug. 2014. Web.

PSAC Local 610 Executive. “So you want to treat your TA like a human being?” PSAC610.ca 26. Aug. 2014. Web.

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Write Where It Hurts: On Literature, Death, and Suffering

CONTENT WARNING: This post discusses death, blood/needles.

It’s mid-November. The daylight hours are becoming more and more scarce, and so I am pleased that the large lecture hall for this semester’s English 110 class has a large row of windows. The sleepy students need all the sunlight they can get, especially as the term winds down and the long nights of studying and last-minute paper-writing start to catch up with them. They clutch mugs of tea and coffee, trying to keep warm and awake.  From my perch at the back of the lecture hall, sitting alongside my fellow teaching assistants, I see the students crack open their books, flip open their laptops, and settle in for the day’s lecture. A few of them fiddle with their cell phones. I try not to be annoyed that they’re texting in class, or checking Facebook, but it’s their tuition dollars that are being spent, not mine. I open my own notebook, uncap a pen.

As the clock strikes eleven, Dr. Moss starts in on her lecture. Today, we’re talking about bioethics and medicine. Perhaps not what you’d expect in an English class, but you see, we’re reading Vincent Lam’s collection of short stories, Bloodletting and Other Miraculous Cures (2006), and weaving in questions of literature with questions of culture, gender, race, ethics, and science. Lam, who is an emergency room physician at Toronto’s East General Hospital, published his stories to great acclaim, including Canada’s most prestigious literary award, the Scotiabank Giller Prize. The stories, based on Lam’s experiences as a medical student, trace the journeys of four students—Chen, Fitzgerald, Ming, and Sri—as they navigate the emotional, intellectual, and interpersonal challenges of becoming physicians. We’re reading a selection of stories from the book for the class. One of the earliest stories, “Take All of Murphy,” details the four medical students as they perform an autopsy. We’re reading about death, in all of its cold, surgical reality.

I should probably note at this point that I’m not squeamish. When it comes to any medical show or documentary about surgical procedures, you’ll find me glued to the screen, though I know those aren’t people I love or know and that makes it easier to disconnect. I do like to watch when I’m getting my blood-work done, watch my platelets and red blood cells and plasma fill up those little vials.

I should probably also note at this point that people I’ve cared for have died. I’ve never been to a put-the-body-in the ground funeral, but I’ve been to memorials. I’ve never actually watched someone die, but I know what grief is like. When I was 15, the younger sister of a childhood friend died of a particularly nasty form of cancer. She was only 12 years old. In my apartment building, I’ve seen the elders I’ve known and greeted for years die off, one by one. My aunt, whose dementia is worsening, will likely not live another five years. Dying while forgetting is a terrible way to go. My mother worked in geriatric psych nursing for years, and so death was just a part of the stories she came home with from work.

So with all of this, it somehow takes me by surprise that while I’m sitting in this class, listening as Dr. Moss lectures on various aspects of this fictional autopsy, my heart is racing. I mean, I’m feeling really sick. I’m sitting in class and my head is spinning and I can’t stop thinking about the fact that in the past three weeks, two people I have loved – people from formative parts of my life – have died.

Two of them. Dead. Just like Murphy in the story. Corpses.

My former French teacher died suddenly, at the end of October, on a hiking trip in Japan. Totally unexpected. He was an avid long-distance walker, every day, back and forth to school, during his 30+ years as a teacher. Beloved, dedicated. Just a few months earlier, I’d run into him on the path near my house, and we’d had a lovely chat about teaching and life. And then, at the age of 62, less than a year into his retirement: myocardial infarction. A heart attack. And now he’s gone.

A dear friend from theatre school died in November, one day before her 29th birthday, when the cancer finally caught up to her. A lump in her breast, discovered three years earlier. She was well again, for a while. The walnut-sized lump had shrunk. Her hair grew back. She traveled to India. But all those metastasized cells eventually consumed everything in its path. I’d just talked to her, a few days earlier. “Hospital birthday!” she’d written merrily on her Facebook wall as she prepared to be admitted. And now she’s gone.

Back to class.

Dr. Moss is still lecturing.

I’m trying to listen, real hard. I straighten up in my seat and I focus on holding my pen. I listen to Dr. Moss’s voice. I try to find comfort in its familiarity, the lilt and phrasing I’ve come to know well.

In the story, the body they’re autopsying has all these tattoos. When it comes to making a incision, the characters debate whether or not to cut through a tattoo, or to cut around it.

“It’s bad luck,” said Sri. “Cut around here.” He traced the ornate heart with the handle of his scalpel.

“It’s a nice cross,” agreed Chen.

“You guys.” Ming didn’t look up. She traced the incision lines on the arm. “It’s not going to work. Don’t you want to see the bicipital groove?”

“You should respect a man’s symbols,” said Sri. “My mother told me that. Look at his arm. These are his symbols. (Lam 43)

My friend Ali had plenty of tattoos, gorgeous ones, a whole gallery of art on her skin. I start to feel sad that the art has died with her. When people say that tattoos are forever, and that as a result, you’ll regret it, they’re lying. They’re lying and they’re in denial because they don’t want to admit that one day, body-canvases will be dead. And buried. Embalmed. Maybe burned to ashes. There is no forever, so you really don’t have to feel to badly about that Tweety-Bird tattoo or the name of a former lover that you etched into your arm. Everything comes to an end. Sometimes sooner than later. I start to think about their cold bodies. I have a hard time not seeing them just sleeping, in my imagination. When I picture them, I think that their eyes will fly open and it will all be as it was.

It’s noon, and we take a 10-minute break.

I find myself in the bathroom downstairs, sitting in the salmon-pink stall, and I’m trying to weep quietly. It’s not because I’m worried that someone else will come in—after all, most everyone uses the upstairs bathroom just a few paces away from the lecture hall, rather than this secret one near the loading dock—but because crying alone in an echoey bathroom just sounds so fucking sad. It’s one of the loneliest, most pathetic sounds I can think of. When it’s time to head back to lecture, I dab my eyes and blow my nose, arrange my hair around my face so that it doesn’t look like I’ve been crying. Fuck death, I think. Fuck this PhD. Fuck teaching. Fuck reading this story about cutting into dead bodies when I can’t get the thoughts of people I love just being cold dead flesh. I’m an atheist and I don’t believe in an afterlife but you know that would actually be really fucking comforting right now but I still don’t and so death is just death there is no after. Fuck death and fuck life and fuck everything.

I have a teaching evaluation a few weeks later. It goes well: I enjoy teaching, and my tutorial is full of brilliant thinkers. My students hand in their final projects and papers. I mark exams. I cry in the bathroom stall during lecture-breaks a few more times. The people I love are still dead, and I have work to do. Life goes on, but when I see Vincent Lam’s book on my shelf, I try to hide from its gaze. That book has undone me, in more ways than I even know.

〜〜〜〜〜〜〜〜〜〜〜〜

There are two reasons why I’m finally writing about all of this.

First, it’s been long enough that my grief has started to temper itself. I can think about my dead beloved ones without bursting into tears, although I still sometimes walk the river-path near my house and half-expect to run into Jacques-André on his familiar route, and I still expect Ali to announce that she’s off on some wondrous adventure around the world, sleeping on beaches in Australia or building cob-huts in Mexico. In late November, I attended a beautiful memorial for my teacher. This summer, I planted a tree for Ali on my property in the country. I’m dealing with the anxiety I have about more people I love dying, and accepting the fact that death is inevitable. 

Second, I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways that literature impacts our lives, how we can reach out to it for comfort, or wander unknowingly into it and finding ourselves bruised and battered, full of shock and awe, as I did, facing the blustery chill of Lam’s prose. In the year following the deaths of my beloved ones, the activist and academic worlds have been embroiled in an impassioned debate about the value and necessity of so-called “Trigger Warnings,” or ways of flagging that disturbing or graphic content may lie ahead for readers and viewers. From Inside Higher Education to The Chronicle to The Globe and Mail to The Guardian, students, professors, and cultural critics alike have waded into the debate. On the one hand, the inclusion of trigger warnings is seen as censorship or coddling; on the other hand, understanding the effects of graphic depictions of violence is understood to be a necessary part of acknowledging the need for sensitivity, and beyond that, the ways in which mental health issues (especially Posttraumatic Stress Disorder) can be aggravated by having to read or view difficult material. As Melissa McEwan writes, “The only reason I can imagine resistance to trigger warnings, or whatever variation, is that their ubiquity will create an expectation of sensitivity with which people can’t be bothered. The sort of people who say that people who need trigger warnings are too sensitive, rather than conceding that maybe it is they who are simply not sensitive enough.” McEwan continues: “Trigger warnings don’t make people “oversensitive.” They acknowledge that there is a lot of garbage in the world that causes people lasting harm. If for no other reason, I defend my use of content notes on the basis that to fail to use them is to abet the damnable lie that everything’s pretty much okay for everyone, and people who have been harmed are outliers” (“Triggered”, n.p.)

As someone who studies Canadian Literature, as well as trauma and sexual violence in particular, the use value of trigger or content warnings is not lost on me, even though I am not generally affected by graphic content. Whether it’s simply a result of intellectualization, or of desensitization, or who knows what else, I don’t feel anything visceral when I read about rape or torture or most forms of violence. I just don’t, and sometimes I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. But I do feel other things, with regards to other subjects and other forms. I feel anger. I feel outrage. I feel sadness. Canadian Literature, true in some ways to the analyses that Northrop Frye, Margaret Atwood and John Moss made more than 40 years ago, is a difficult literature, full of victims and survival and bleakness. “SadLit,” I sometimes call it. Canada, like all countries, has a difficult history. And beyond that, humans have difficult histories. Even when literature is not directly reflecting the violence and trauma of so many nationalisms, including our own here in Canada, it is reflecting the human condition, and that can be a terrible thing to write and read about. We are haunted by stories.

I recognize the lump in the throat and the racing thoughts, the thump-a-thump of the heart as our eyes scan the page and the story unfolds, leaks onto us, cuts into us. I see and hear my students and colleagues wrestle with hard words, words which seem to have a literal hardness: the sharp edges of language. The syllables of colonialist violence, the letters of sexual trauma, the alphabets of absolutely awful things. We all know that these are representations, not actual incidents of violence. Even when the representations are of real-life experiences, we ultimately know that these are just splotches of black ink on white pages. And yet.

And yet…we are undone. I am undone. You are undone. We are undone. To various extents, of course. Some of us have to turn the page, skip a scene, or close the book outright. Some of us choose not to read at all. Some of us read onwards, knowing the sting that will come, bracing for it, yet never quite managing to outwit the sharp sting. Some of us lash out. Some of us don’t flinch. It all depends on who we are, where we are, and what is happening to us. The moments of confluence between life and literature can be wholly unexpected.

I’m not angry at the books or stories that don’t envelop me in some sort of fantasy world, which don’t soothe me or provide me with happy endings. In fact, I’ve learned that I’ve come to love them in a strange way. For all my weeping and wailing and stomach-turning while reading Lam’s story, I know, I do, that he is just describing it the way it is. Amidst the backdrop of clinical sterility, “Take All of Murphy” illustrates that death is more than just one thing: it is a fact, it is the object of scientific study and progress, it is a source of philosophical confusion. It is. And I know, too, that in any other time and place, perhaps the story would have had no impact on me at all.

In any case, I am grateful. I am grateful that because of Lam’s story (for which I was obviously prepared, but one can never be fully prepared, can one?) I was able to let my grief spill out. Perhaps it was more necessary than I ever realized. I am grateful for conversations with my students, with whom I talk about some really, really fucking hard stuff, and we do so with respect. I am grateful for generous lectures by the professors with whom I have had the privilege of working, lectures which do not sugar-coat, but offer at least some cushions for the hard blows.

〜〜〜〜〜〜〜〜〜〜〜〜

It’s mid-August. I try to remember my beloved ones’ bodies as they once were: vibrant, alive. Each walk I take, I can walk it with the memory of Jacques-André in my footsteps. I trace the tattoo on my arm, think of Ali’s adorned skin. I re-read a poem she loved and taste its words in my mouth as she once did in hers.

I still dream about them sometimes. But I am, as they say, trying to move on.

Works Cited

Lam, Vincent. Bloodletting and Other Miraculous Cures. Toronto: Doubleday, 2006. Print.

McEwan, Melissa. “Triggered.” Shakesville. 4 Mar. 2014. Web.

Lost in Translation: What the Vancouver Transit Police Advertisement Teaches Us About Language Use

grammar_policeWhen I recently told an acquaintance that I study and teach in a Department of English Language & Literature, they commented that I must be a real stickler for grammar and vocabulary. In some ways, that’s true. Part of my job is to teach my students to write well and to communicate their ideas effectively. The truth is, however, that I’m much less interested in perfect grammar and spelling than I am in whether or not an idea or argument is conveyed as unambiguously and clearly as possible (especially in academic writing!). After all, even in my own academic and personal writing, I often flout the usual rules or expected usages of grammar. I often start sentences with coordinating conjunctions such as “and” or “but.” I don’t always use semi-colons or dashes properly (although I do try). Ultimately, however, the goal of my writing – and the ways in which I teach my students to write – is to make sure that as much as you can, you try to make sure that your audience knows exactly what you mean to say.

Sometimes, part of clear and unambiguous communication does indeed have to do with grammar, as this wonderful and popular example illustrates.

A wonderfully-designed version of the meme via the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

A wonderfully-designed version of the meme via the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Sometimes, part of clear and unambiguous communication has to do with sentence structure and phrasing. It’s this type of issue, I believe, that lies behind the issues with a recent campaign by Vancouver’s Transit Police, as part of their ongoing series of campaigns and services designed to address harassment on public transportation. As you can see in this photograph, the poster suggests that “not reporting sexual assault is the real shame” – a phrase which seems to suggest that a failure to report assault is a primary source of shame.

Advertisement by the Vancouver Transit Police. Photograph by Anoushka Ratnarajah.

Advertisement by the Vancouver Transit Police. Photograph by Anoushka Ratnarajah.

Vancouver-based artist Anoushka Ratnarajah brought attention to the problems with the poster’s message via an Instagram post, and the story was soon picked up by Ms. Magazine, The Huffington Post, and various other news outlets. The Vancouver chapter of Hollaback!, an international organization dedicated to ending street harassment, issued a powerful statement to the Vancouver Transit Police. Playing on the phrasing of the poster itself, Hollaback! Vancouver’s response was that “we see something, and we’re saying something.” In the end, the Vancouver Transit Police issued an apology: as the CBC reports, they will be taking these posters down, and replacing them.

As was to be expected, perhaps, many of the commenters on social media have painted this pushback against the poster as just another example of “oversensitive feminazi crusading,” arguing that we live in a oversensitive and critical culture where even good-hearted gestures by authorities are being overly-harshly criticized. Just like the recent debates about whether or not so-called “trigger warnings” are useful or necessary, especially in a world where triggers and violence abounds anyway, it seems to be the case that those who have complained or criticized (many of whom are survivors of sexual assault and harassment, including incidents which have taken place on transit) are being characterized as merely reactionary, ungrateful, or sensitive.

To be clear, many of these commenters are missing the point, or choosing to ignore the ways in which activists have suggested that it is not the entirety of the poster, nor all of the Vancouver Transit Police’s initiatives that they take issue with. As Hollaback! Vancouver clearly states: “This is the text from a See Something Say Something Campaign, the real-time, easy-to-use, confidential, texting initiative launched in April by the Vancouver transit police. Transit users can report harassment by texting 87-77-77 and police are notified and can investigate as early as the next stop. This initiative is an important piece in supporting victims, but we hope transit police will reconsider the victim-blaming message sandwiched in their ad.”

More importantly, I think that many people are missing the fundamental problem: despite the VTP’s intentions, the ad is clearly not…well, clear. A very brief close reading – the kind I’d have my students do in my classroom – shows just how these ambiguities work, and how/why the critiques of this poster were justified.

1) Who is the audience?

The advertisement seems to be targeting both victims and bystanders, and does not necessarily make it easy to understand who is being addressed. While “if it doesn’t feel right, it’s wrong” can apply equally to victims and bystanders, the third line seems to focus primarily on the victim: “nobody should touch, gesture, or say anything to YOU.” The last line, the “see something / say something” slogan, seems to suggest that the bystander (the person who may be witnessing an assault or instance of harassment) is being addressed.

2) What is the source of shame? Who is it placed on?

Because there are two different audiences being addressed, it becomes confusing as to who, exactly, the shame is meant to be placed on.

  • Is it meant to be the bystander, who sits/stands by and does nothing?
  • Does this assume that the bystander CAN or should intervene physically? Or is the shame, as phrased, in not reporting after the assault?
  • Are bystanders meant to feel shame for not reporting an assault on a passenger?
  • Is shame actually a productive way of forming a community of care?
  • Or, as many others, including myself, have pointed out, is it intended to reach the victim? Should victims feel shame for not reporting their assaults, and, presumably, not “helping to prevent” future assaults?
  • Again: is shame a productive or useful way to get victims to report or seek help?

I hope it’s evident, at this point, that you can unpack a lot of issues with audience and intended meaning just from one short phrase. That, after all, is the power of language: a lot can be said with very few words. The next step, however, is to figure out how this poster can avoid some of these communicative problems.

3) A simple question: how can we modify or re-write this phrase in order to have a less ambiguous and potentially harmful meaning?

A simple suggestion: “There is no shame in reporting sexual assault.”

As you can see, we haven’t taken shame out of the linguistic equation. We’ve simply rearranged it. After all, the problem isn’t using the word “shame”. Rather, it’s how, when, why, and where we use it. Articulating the fact that victims of sexual assault or harassment often feel shame is incredibly important to acknowledge. When it comes to street harassment, or incidents that are often perceived as “minor,” it’s easy for victims to feel ashamed, to worry that they won’t be taken seriously, to wonder if they provoked it. Shame and sexual violence too-often go hand in hand. As you can see, if you read through many of the stories collected by the Vancouver initiative “Harassment on Translink,” feelings of shame and guilt still abound.

It’s our job (all of us, including the authorities) to make an effort to make sure that we are recognizing the possible experience of shame, rather than suggesting (even inadvertently), that sexual assault survivors should feel a sense of shame for their inaction. We all want sexual assault and harassment to end, and we acknowledge that reporting can be, and clearly is, a part of that effort.

But I cannot say it enough: reporting sexual assault is NOT a victim’s DUTY. It is one option, and it is the absolute right of the survivor to choose whichever option is safest and best for them. It is all too easy for those who have never had to report, or for whom reporting may have been relatively easy and/or offered justice/healing, that it is a simple and necessary task.

Ultimately, what I take away from this incident is a difficult truth: despite the fact that we use it every single day—no matter which language we speak, read, or sign— language is a very tricky business. Whether it be from one language to another, whether it be from one context to another, whether it be from the way we understand something to the ways that others read, hear, or interpret it, we have all been in situations where our words have missed their mark. We all know what it’s like for something to get lost in translation. Sometimes, of course, we don’t realize it until someone’s pointed it out to us.

When we call others out for their use of language (whether their words are explicitly or implicitly harmful), many of us do it because we believe that change can happen. We believe that we can help to educate, to re-frame, or to re-think through a particular problem in how ideas are expressed. As the CBC’s interview with Constable Anne Drennan notes, this is precisely the outcome of the critiques and feedback that individuals and organizations offered:

“When the complaints began to arrive, they started looking at the ads from a different perspective, Drennan says.

“We [could] see where they are coming from,” she says.

The ads will be taken down over the coming days as cars return to service yards, Drennan says, and will be replaced by new posters with wording approved by an advisory council that includes representatives from women’s support groups. (CBC)

The old adage that “sticks and stones can break our bones, but words will never hurt us” is, as most of us know, patently untrue. We know the degree of injury can vary, depending on the language used, and depending on the individual who reads or sees the language in question. We know that our “intended” meanings may not necessarily be the received meanings, and it’s important to recognize that good intentions do not devalue or cancel out the harm that can be done. However, I firmly believe that with a greater understanding of the immense power of language (as well as the ability to speak and write about, well, how we speak and write!) we can use our words for great acts of compassion, education, and justice. sticksandstones

 

RESOURCES:

If you have a story to share about harassment/need resources:

Vancouver: Hollaback! Vancouver & Harassment on Translink

Vancouver Transit Police – check out their OnDuty App & find out about reporting via text message

Hollaback! International

Everyday Sexism

Stop Street Harassment

Running the Gauntlet: Thoughts on the Legacy of the Montréal Massacre

Marker of Change Women's Monument. Thornton Park, Unceded Coast Salish Territories (Vancouver, B.C.)

Marker of Change Women’s Monument. Thornton Park, Unceded Coast Salish Territories (Vancouver, B.C.)

Today, Canadians mark the 24th anniversary of the day that a gunman walked into the campus of the École Polytechnique in Montréal and carried out a brutal massacre that left 14 women dead, and another 10 injured. Like the numerous school shootings that have followed in the intervening years, both in Canada and in the United States, the gunman’s actions demonstrated a shocking level of violence and callous indifference to life, though what made the École Polytechnique massacre unique was the gunman’s explicit hatred of the gender of his victims. His suicide note, which was only released to the press months after the incident, clearly revealed the anti-feminist reasoning behind the attack: “Would you note that if I commit suicide today it is not for economic reasons…but for political ones. […] Because I have decided to send the feminists, who have always ruined my life, to their Maker […] I have decided to put an end to those viragos.” It was revealed, too, that the perpetrator had been previously rejected from the École Polytechnique, and especially resented women who occupied fields that had been traditionally dominated by men, such as the numerous young female engineering students who were the casualties of his assault.

The Montréal Massacre left an indelible mark on Canadian history, and sparked national conversations about gender violence. The national day of commemoration—known as the Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women—recalls the tragic deaths of these 14 women in order to bring attention to a variety of forms of gender violence, from domestic violence to sexual assault, from workplace harassment to the murders of sex workers.

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As a scholar who studies sexualized and gendered violence, the École Polytechnique massacre has always held a particular professional interest for me. As a young female academic, however—now around the same age as many of the victims were at the time of their deaths—I find myself inevitably reflecting on the legacy of gender violence that still haunts post-secondary institutions in Canada, a legacy that directly impacts the lived experiences, as well as the professional pursuits, of both myself and my female colleagues. While this is a subject that should merit reflection at any given time in discussions of post-secondary education, literary production, or intellectual life, this particular historical and cultural moment has been saturated with incidents that have renewed and intensified the discussions around gendered oppression, unequal representation, sexism, and misogyny. This September, at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, and at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, undergraduate students at frosh week events participated in chants that made light of the rape of underage girls. Weeks later, Canadian writer and instructor David Gilmour stirred up controversy when he declared that he “[doesn’t] love women writers enough to teach them, that if [students] want women writers, [they can] go down the hall. What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys.” And, perhaps that which is most unsettling and representative of the legacy of December 6th, over the past six months, a series of sexual assaults on female students at The University of British Columbia has served as a reminder that aside from the intellectual or social forms of oppression, there are ongoing violent physical assaults perpetrated against students on the basis of their gender.

december6_DSC_2918And so, on this day of remembrance and action, I sit with the following questions: what are the ways in which female students and scholars still face gendered violences or oppressions? In which spaces, and by which means are these violences enacted? How are women made to feel unsafe, unwelcome, or devalued? 

I have had the strange feeling, at times, that because women are not currently being murdered on our campuses, and certainly not targeted in mass murders, that it is easy to believe that they are safe and welcomed into institutional spaces. It is easy to believe that if women comprise 50-60% of the post-secondary student population, if they are occupying spaces in classrooms, in offices, in workshops, at conferences, presidential positions, and on athletic teams, that they are not under siege. But perhaps the greatest disservice of the legacy of the December 6th massacre is precisely to ignore the myriad ways in which women’s safety or welcome in academia continues to be compromised, not only physically, but emotionally, mentally, intellectually, and spiritually. Too often, I have spoken with students and colleagues who have a spectrum of stories to share, whether they are about being silenced in the classroom, being made to feel uncomfortable in social spaces, or being subjected to outright sexual harassment and belittlement. Whether it is a pregnant faculty member whose body has been appropriated for public commentary at a conference, where fellow scholars elide her intellectual contributions, a graduate student who is assaulted by her classmate, an instructor who is sexually harassed and objectified by her student, students who are subjected to hearing rape chants, or any number of female scholars who are called “passionate” instead of “compellingly argumentative”, who are patronized, patted on the head, and shrugged off. Queer women, trans* women, and racialized women face further marginalization and oppression within these spaces. The stories of violence, of dehumanization, of humiliation, of frustration, of belittlement are seemingly endless.

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: some of the most egregious acts of oppression occur within the institutional and social spaces we have often considered to be the most sacred, the least likely to be sites of violence. We cannot continue to be surprised that such incidents occur in academia, as if somehow our educational spaces are immune from the problems that plague the rest of society. We cannot continue to label inequity, casual misogyny, and violence as “isolated incidents” on our campuses.

I have to break my composure here to admit that at times, I am very frightened. I am frightened about the state of higher education and its social and institutional policies and practices regarding gender. I’m frightened that our sisters in the United States, who are filing Title IX complaints, are having to fight tooth and nail against administrations that covered up numerous sexual assaults and rapes. I’m frightened that sisters like Malala Yousufzai are under threat of death for even pursuing education. I’m frightened for many of my colleagues, with whom I have conversations about the incredible frustrations they have faced on the basis of their gender. I hear the stress, the sleepless nights. I hear the righteous anger. I’m also frightened for my students. I want them to go through their educational careers unscathed. I want to them to maintain some of that idealism, to pursue their goals, to thrive. I want them to feel as though they have voices in their classrooms, and that their ideas will be judged on their own merit alone, rather than on the gendered (and sexualized and racialized) bodies from which they spring. I’m frightened for myself. I have days where I am incredibly skittish and fearful on my campus. I sometimes sit in the common room where I was assaulted, and I feel unbearably sad that a place where I now experience so much joy and connection with colleagues is also a place where I once felt utterly petrified and helpless.

But I believe that change is possible. I see it happening. There are so many absolutely incredible acts of activism that are being undertaken for women’s rights in academia and in intellectual life.

Following the rape chants at SMU and UBC, numerous campus activists, with support from the community, and from many faculty members, have organized rallies and and community events to address sexual violence on campuses, to petition school administrations, to call for more safety initiatives. At Carleton University in Ottawa, a team of activists have finally secured support and funding (after a nearly seven-year fight) for a sexual assault centre on campus. And these initiatives are not limited to oppression on the basis of physical violence. For instance, for the past two years, CWILA (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts) has undertaken a count that documents gendered representation in literary arts and literary publications; their timely work seeks to address the gender gap in Canadian review culture, and to create strong critical communities and alliances for female scholars, critics, and writers working in Canada.

And beyond these larger acts of solidarity, I am grateful, each day, for the sisterhood and solidarity that I have found. Brave women, phenomenal women (as Maya Angelou might say!), women who remind me not only of how hard-won our places in the ivory tower have been, but also of the contributions that we are making. These are the women with whom I collaborate, who I learn from, whose shoulders I cry on, whose laughter I share, whose sorrows I share, whose words I treasure.

1441307_10151724417901829_1385872681_nBut ultimately, today, I am thinking of the fourteen women who were murdered on that day in 1989. I think of Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, Barbara Daigneault, Anne-Marie Edward, Maud Haviernick, Maryse Laganière, Maryse Leclair, Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier, Michèle Richard, Annie St-Arneault, Annie Turcotte and Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz. I think of how, in their memory, I must never take for granted what it means to be a woman, a student, a feminist. I sit with sorrow for their lives cut short by cold-blooded violence, with sorrow for the knowledge that for so many, the threat of violence is always present, by virtue of the bodies we inhabit. I think of their families. I think of their classmates, those who survived.

Much has changed in the past 24 years, but much has yet to be done. We must ensure that the deaths of these fourteen women was not in vain, and that each day we bring their legacies alive again through our desire to make our places of education also become places of refuge and revolution.

“Go Down the Hall”: A Response to David Gilmour

The internet has been abuzz today, following the publication of author and teacher David Gilmour’s provocative and contentious interview with Hazlitt Magazine’s Emily Keeler. In the interview, which has since gone viral, Gilmour states that he is “not interested in teaching books by women,” and that, by teaching only novels that he “truly, truly loves,” by “serious heterosexual guys” like Tolstoy and Chekhov, he is teaching “only the best.” If students want to read works by female (or, presumably, queer, or racialized writers), they can, as Gilmour says himself, “go down the hall” to his other colleagues at the University of Toronto.

Understandably, literary and academic communities (especially in Canada, since Gilmour claims that he hasn’t encountered any Canadian writers that he loves enough to teach) have responded with sharp criticisms of Gilmour’s seemingly-exclusionary attitudes towards what constitutes literary “greatness” and what is deserving of time and attention in his classroom. Over at The Globe and Mail, Jared Bland writes that only teaching white, male, heterosexual authors does a disservice to students. Feminist writer and blogger Anne Thériault, in an open letter to Gilmour, calls for him to critically examine why he upholds these texts as the pinnacle of literary greatness, and challenges him to spend six months reading anything that isn’t a text by a straight white male.

In response to this backlash, Gilmour did an interview with Mark Medley of The National Post, in which he attempts to both explain and apologize for his words.  Claiming that there isn’t “a racist or sexist bone in his body,” and that he is sorry that “people are offended by it.” Furthermore, he claims that the interviewer, Emily Keeler, is a “young woman who wanted to make a name for herself,” assigns his carelessness in his words to being more concerned with another conversation he was having in French at the time of the interview, and points out that his apology is largely motivated by the fact that he doesn’t want his teaching reputation to be besmirched, nor to lose female readers. Gilmour’s latest novel, “Extraordinary” recently made the longlist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s most prestigious literary award.

I could go into my own lengthy analysis of Gilmour’s words. I find his attitude towards Emily Keeler to have been dismissive at best, his “surprise” at how people “take offense” to be narrow-minded and representative of his privilege, and his attempt at an apology to be wholly insincere. I could talk about how people with Gilmour’s attitude are not an anomaly in academic worlds, but part of a deeply embedded structure that still privileges the voices, stories, and histories of certain individuals over others. I could talk about the ongoing sexism and racism in university settings, and how they manifest themselves not just in chants at undergraduate frosh events, but in the boardroom and in the classroom. I could talk about how Gilmour’s views of the critical thinking skills of undergraduate students is not rare, and that many professors still believe that age and experience are the necessary gatekeepers to knowledge. I could talk about how Gilmour seems to privilege one type of literature, and seemingly condemns all other “2nd and 3rd-rate literature” (and the colleagues who study them) to occupy space “down the hall,” far away from the intellectual enclave in which he works and thinks. I could talk about how Gilmour’s ability to “teach what he loves” and his need to “only teach books he emotionally connects with or represent his interests” demonstrates a particular kind of privilege in teaching and a curious lack of empathy or interests in others, as if we should (or can) only ever teach the texts with whom we personally identify.

While I don’t believe that equity in academia means that we can no longer specialize in a field, or that we all need to become generalists, I still find myself troubled by Gilmour’s assertion that the literature he reads and teaches is “the best,” and his inability to recognize that these longstanding works of well-regarded literature are framed by a long literary history that has often not consistently encouraged, published, or privileged other works, especially those by women, queer writers, and writers of colour. 

What I want to do is to take an active, optimistic, and collective approach.

This is what I propose: let’s take David Gilmour’s suggestion that students merely “go down the hall” to find those who can teach things he’s not personally passionate about or don’t speak to his own lived experience and turn it into a way of strengthening our own academic communities.

  • Go down the hall to take a course in a different department, especially if you’re an undergraduate student. If  you have to take courses in different areas as part of a requirement, see it as an opportunity to look at something new. See how you can bring your skills to a completely different discipline or set of texts.
  • Go down the hall to the library, and read a book by someone who doesn’t represent your own lived experience.
  • Go down the hall to speak to your fellow graduate students. Form reading groups, writing circles. Don’t let the competitiveness of academic life and funding opportunities shut those conversations down and keep you isolated, thinking only about your own work and interests.
  • Go down the hall to see what your colleagues are researching, writing about, thinking about. Ask them if they have any new recommendations for texts. Have a coffee, talk about what you’re teaching next term. Swap out a text or two. Change it up. Include a text that you don’t necessarily love, but one that challenges you, frustrates you, or provokes discussion.
  • Go down the hall and take a pedagogy workshop. Remember that teaching is a process, and that speaking to students is not the same as speaking to a television camera or even a group of your peers. Ask for feedback. Ask your students what they want to learn.
  • Go down the hall to a classroom and listen in to what students, especially undergraduates, are talking about. Realize that they’re having brilliant, intellectual conversations. Don’t underestimate their abilities to read complex literary or theoretical texts.
  • Go down the hall at a conference to attend a panel that doesn’t necessarily have something to do with your field or your favourite author. See what you learn there. Meet new people.
  • Go down the hall and see which projects are engaging the issue of literary representation and politics. See how you can contribute to creating an equitable field in the teaching of literature, the writing of literature, and the reviewing of literature.

And finally, perhaps most importantly: go down the hall, open the door, and walk out of the ivory tower, at least once in a while. Look around. Attend community events, speak to people who aren’t “scholars,” people whose life experiences are their body of scholarship, people whose literatures are the stories of their lives, their families, and their cultures. See what kids are reading these days. Open a different chapter, listen to a different or a new story, and you might find that you learn more about yourself and the world than you ever thought possible.

A VERY BRIEF AND INCOMPLETE LIST OF RESOURCES

Interested in Canadian Women’s Literature?

Canadian Women in the Literary Arts

Canada’s Early Women Writers Database

Interested in Asian Canadian Literature?

Ricepaper Magazine

Interest in Queer Canadian Literature?

Casey The Canadian Lesbrarian

Interested in Indigenous Literatures in Canada?

CBC’s 8th Fire: Suggested Reading

Interested in Black Canadian Literature?

African Canadian Literature Database @ York U

Caribbean Tales

Interested in Québecois Literature?

Government of Quebec – Literature

PLEASE ADD MORE LINKS IN THE COMMENTS SECTION FOR OTHER GREAT RESOURCES ON A VARIETY OF LITERATURES (NOT JUST CANADIAN!)

It Happened On My Campus, Too: Rape Chants at UBC

Just two days ago, I published an article  (which was also republished on Rabble.ca) detailing my concerns about having heard misogynist lyrics being played loudly on campus during frosh week at UBC. The song, which was played at a booth run by an off-campus nightclub, right near the Student Union Building, described—repetitively—being here “for the bitches and the drinks.” I expressed my frustration at having to be exposed to such misogyny in this environment, especially when we know that sexual assaults (especially those facilitated by drugs and alcohol) and sexual harassment run rampant on so many post-secondary campuses.

Shortly after I posted my article on my blog, national news services began sharing coverage of an egregious frosh-week incident at Saint Mary’s University, which involved 80 student orientation volunteers leading a chant that promoted underage sex and rape. Every major newspaper and television station in Canada has carried the story, featuring interviews with SMU students, SMU frosh leaders, the SMU president, women’s centre and sexual assault centre staff, and concerned community members. While there have been a predictable number of individuals who have dismissed the incident as a mere moment of “juvenile ignorance,” or, as former SMU student union president Jared Perry put it, something that just happened “in the heat of the moment,” many have been quick to condemn the behaviour. SMU president Colin Dodds, in an interview with CTV Atlantic, expressed his shock at the situation, even apologizing to the family of Rehtaeh Parsons (the Halifax teenager who took her own life after being sexually assaulted and viciously taunted) for the likely impact it would have on them.

Despite my anger at the situation in Halifax, I also felt somewhat relieved. While my article about hearing misogynist music was referenced in a GlobalBC article about SMU and rape culture on campuses, what happened at SMU wasn’t happening on my campus. I mean, if the worst thing that happened at my campus at frosh week was an off-campus nightclub blasting a song about “bitches and drinks”, rather than student representatives of a university actively cheering about underage sex and sexual assault, then it couldn’t possibly get worse, right? Right?

Wrong.

Late this evening (September 6), my university’s student newspaper, The Ubyssey, published an article revealing that the exact same thing had happened during Sauder FROSH, the “long-running three-day orientation organized by the Commerce Undergraduate Society (CUS)” (Rosenfeld, Ubyssey). Not only was I appalled to know that the same chant apparently had a long history of being used at frosh events here at UBC, but even more appalled to hear the reactions of the FROSH co-chair and other students. Co-chair Jacqueline Chen reported to The Ubyssey that previous complaints had been articulated about the chant, but that its use during frosh week had not been prohibited. Rather, Chen says, “We let the groups know: if it happens during the group, it has to stay in the group” (Rosenfeld).

Beyond the disgust and shock that I feel towards the fact that this chant is clearly widespread among university campuses (and who knows which other university frosh weeks have also used it), I am quite literally sickened by the attitudes towards this chant. Rather than the seeming-remorse and regret expressed by SMUSA president Jared Perry, UBC students who participated in the chant do not seem particularly concerned with the fact that it was brought to light. Indeed, unlike what we heard at SMU, the UBC students interviewed seem perfectly aware of the troubling and offensive nature of the chant, but opted to keep it under wraps, or argued that it was fine since it was only chanted in less-public areas.

I am going to make it very clear why this is a problem: using secrecy to legitimize violence and sexism is precisely the tactic used by abusers and assailants themselves. Suggesting that things are “okay” so long as they are not brought into the public eye is exactly how domestic abuse continues to be perpetrated and excused. Informing people to “keep a secret” is one of the top tactics used by abusers to silence their victims.

It is reprehensible that the same rhetoric and the same dynamics of power are being used in this context.

It is shocking that at UBC, a place when students will be excused from classes on September 18th to attend events at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—which focus on the legacy of horrific abuses, including the physical and sexual abuse of Indigenous children in residential schools—that callous and casual attitudes towards sexual violence are being openly flouted.

As a survivor of sexual assaults, including one that occurred on the UBC campus, I am tired of this.

As someone whose research focuses exclusively on language and its importance to cultures of sexual violence, I am tired of this.

As someone who wants a safe campus community, for my colleagues, for my mentors and supervisors, and for my own students, I am tired of this.

I am tired of living in a world where even the youth that we expect will be educated leaders of the future are engaging—and actively encouraging others to engage—in the mockery and dismissal of violence.

UBC’s motto is “Tuum Est,” which translates to “it is up to you.”

It is up to the UBC students who participated in this chant, to take true responsibility for their behaviour, and to understand why it is not even remotely something to joke about.

It is up to UBC, as a institution, to draw a line in the sand about what kind of behaviour will and will not be tolerated on campus.

It is up to UBC, as a community, to come together to stand against sexual violence. We must empower our students to call each other out when they hear or observe statements or actions that support or condone violence, so that this chant does not get simply pushed back underground, to be repeated again outside of the watchful eye of the university. We must offer support to those who may have been re-traumatized by this kind of behaviour.

For nearly 4 years, I, like many other students, have proudly called UBC my home. It’s time to make it feel safe again.

  • If you would like to contact me about this article: llorenzi@alumni.ubc.ca

Articles Referenced:

Tucker, Erika. “Difference between SMU and chants of froshes past is these students got caught.” GlobalBC. September 6th, 2013. 

Avalon Sexual Assault Centre – PRESS RELEASE: Frosh Week Chant Validates and Perpetuates Rape Culture 

Willick, Frances.  “SMU rape chant a mistake ‘heat of the moment’.” The Chronicle Herald. September 5th, 2013. 

“SMU president calls sexual assault chant ‘biggest mistake I’ve made.'” CTV Atlantic. September 5th, 2013. 

Rosenfeld, Arno. “‘N is for no consent!’ Sauder first-years led in offensive chant.” The Ubyssey. September 6th, 2013. 

Other Resources and Articles:

UBC Sexual Assault Support Centre

List of Vancouver Sexual Assault Support Centres/Crisis Lines

Draw The Line Ontario (explore your attitudes/responses to various types of sexual violence)

Red Ink & Green Envy: Rethinking Failure and Success

I don’t know if it’s because this attitude is becoming more prevalent, or because as an educator and graduate student, I’ve started leaning in and listening more carefully to what people say, but I often hear complaints about how our society has moved away from valuing success to tolerating mediocrity and failure. Some complain about how elementary schools have taken away the element of competition, offering “participation medals” to all who are involved in activities like Sports Day. Some bemoan the attitudes of “poor losers,” pointing out that instead of the gracious acceptance of defeat, people are simply lashing out at those who win, succeed, or do better than them. Some find issue with parents who only want their children to be “good enough,” rather than wanting their children to excel, to go above and beyond in any given pursuit. Some suggest that we’ve gotten too lenient with grading practices, and that the corporatization of education (combined with the effects of policies like “No Child Left Behind”) mean that students believe they’re entitled to a better grade simply because they’ve paid for their studies, and that educators are afraid to (or not allowed to) fail a student because it’s believed that being held back in a particular subject or grade will damage their self-esteem.

Naturally, I agree in part with some of these criticisms. As a teaching assistant in a post-secondary system, where students pay tuition, I have observed students who do feel entitled to the grade they “paid for.” As a child who grew up playing sports in school, albeit certainly not as a talented athlete, I amassed a number of ribbons for anything from 7th to 3rd place, never 1st or 2nd, and don’t believe that these should be dispensed with completely in favour of “participation.” As someone who often struggles with issues of procrastination and a lack of motivation, I most certainly understand wanting to encourage our children to learn to harness their capabilities, to develop good work habits, and to experiment in pushing themselves beyond their comfort zones. As someone who has observed how jealousy and envy can manifest themselves in surprising and upsetting ways, I agree that there needs to be a better way of dealing with the accomplishments and lives of others.

winner-loser1However, I patently disagree with statements that condemn “bad losers” and “people who just don’t succeed/try hard enough/want it enough/spend enough time on something/care enough/don’t value success/drop out/quit” to one half of some absurd binary about human potential and accomplishment: winners vs. losers. I wholeheartedly oppose the mindset that posits success as a simple result of individual work, of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps and bloody well getting on with it. Because as I’ve observed, in my own life and in the lives of others, both failure and success are never so simple as we would like them to be.

  • What happens when you grow up with a parent who emotionally, verbally, or physically abuses you when you don’t achieve good grades? What happens when you’re shamed in a classroom by a teacher? What happens when your classmates call you stupid, slow, or clumsy? How might that develop into an absolute fear of failure later on in life? How might individuals who have suffered that kind of shaming and abuse go on to replicate those attitudes in their interactions with others?
  • What happens when a child simply does not have the physical or intellectual capability to achieve the same goals as their parents, siblings, or peers? What happens if they try their very hardest in math class, but struggle with things like spatial reasoning? What if there’s not adequate support for students with learning disabilities?
  • What happens when your definition of success simply differs from others’? What if you value the pursuit of art over the pursuit of financial security? What if success is simply getting through the day when you’re struggling with severe depression or anxiety?
  • What happens when you have to choose between some nebulous pursuit of success and the very real need for daily survival? What if you can’t afford to pursue higher education? What if you have to drop out of school to take care of your family?
  • What happens when you’re willing to pursue success at any cost? When you’re willing to look past ethics as a means to an end?
  • What happens when our culture associates male identity with the accrual of capital and romantic partnership? What happens to you, as a man, when you lose your job, your house, and your partner? What if you have to declare bankruptcy?
  • What happens when the expectations placed on you because of past successes become impossible to deal with? What if you’re a child prodigy who buckles under or refuses to deal with the pressure? What if you don’t want to have to keep on living up to the expectations of others?
  • What happens when the various systems that endorse racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, or classism make it structurally impossible (if not at least very, very difficult) to enter into, let alone succeed in various environments? What if you have to choose between your safety and sanity or your success?

Look, I understand how difficult it is, I really do.

I know how hard it is to talk about the expectations we put on ourselves, and onto our children. I know how badly we want the best for our children, how much we want them to see their potential, to know their limits and to realize their strengths. I know how much fear there can be when we think about our children having to struggle financially, socially, romantically, intellectually, emotionally, or physically.

I get how difficult it is to understand that just because something is easy or simple for us, that it may not be simple or easy for others, that when we have a talent, a skill, or an ease with something, that it’s often taken for granted.

I feel the agony of reconciling our own limitations and impasses with various structures and institutions. I know how helpless that can make us feel, and for that reason, I empathize with those who turn to narratives of individual agency and effort as the means to success. To deal of structural oppression and constraint is agonizing at its worst, and uncomfortable at best, when it forces us to talk about things like privilege.

I see how notions of failure and success play into the pursuit of meaning in our lives, how we associate our accomplishments with blessings and proof of how special we are, how we might live on in the memories of others, how fame and recognition are profoundly linked to self-worth and identity. I see how the concept of failure can make people feel abandoned by their god, by their community, by their partners, by their families, and how it can make people feel invisible, small, and meaningless.

Despite the complexity of failure and success as concepts and as lived experiences, I do believe that there are ways of mitigating the impact that they have on our lives.

We can stop using the word “failure,” or, at the very least, make an effort to find alternative words to describe our experiences. We can remember, as trite as it may sound, that having taken the risk to apply for that scholarship or that job, to go on that date, or to enter that sporting event takes a hell of a lot of courage and vulnerability. We can understand that, as opposed to the wisdom of internet memes and bullshit gurus like Tony Robbins, that failure and success are not polar opposites, but part of the same process of discovery and knowledge formation. We can talk, instead, about setbacks. Moments of frustration. Queries, questions, puzzles, mysteries.

Spectator Code of Conduct from Port Moody. Image from CTV News.

Spectator Code of Conduct from Port Moody. Image from CTV News.

We can start to enjoy things for enjoyment alone, rather than as part of a culture of competition. We can pursue education for the love of learning, sports and dance for the love of movement, relationships for the purpose of connection, jobs for the purpose of fulfillment and engagement with others, fitness for the purpose of health. We can find pleasure in process, not in an end result.

We can learn techniques and strategies to mitigate the experience of criticism or critique. For instance, as a teacher, I rarely if ever mark in red pen. Some might tell me that not marking in red pen plays into the culture of “well, we can’t hurt their precious feelings,” but if you honestly believe that red does not have practical, oft-reinforced associations with fear or hesitancy, you might check your own heart rate when the light suddenly turns from amber to red. I mark in purple – it’s just as easy for me to do. I also use a marking style that is conversational, and that expresses my experience as a reader. I make notes about what the “essay” does, not about what the “student” does. I try to remember, as Dr. Janet Giltrow suggests, that for many of my students, this work is new for them, and that learning is a process.

We can remember that our own attitudes about failure and success necessarily impact those around us. When we say that we’re failures, that we’re pieces of shit because we left a PhD program or because we had a relationship that broke up, that has an effect on our loved ones, especially when we say “well, no, YOU’RE not a failure for leaving your program or not being married yet, it’s just totally DIFFERENT for me.”

We can take ownership of our decisions without labeling them as good or bad. We can decide that a school or a job wasn’t the right fit for us, and that it was healthy for us to leave, even if a colleague or a friend decides to stay. We can acknowledge that we all have different limits, abilities, tolerances, desires, and goals, and that we make different choices as a result.

We can start talking about privilege. We can talk about all the things we don’t want to talk about, like how the majority of the people who talk about success and failure have the financial privilege and the cultural capital to be able to do so, and how they rarely if ever talk about social injustice, inequity, oppression, and its relationship to things like neoliberalism and capitalism.

This is REALLY hard work. It’s as hard to examine the language and attitudes about failure and success from as it is to examine any other set of thoughts and beliefs. It’s difficult to balance our needs and desires to learn from our setbacks, and to take credit for things that we’ve done well. It’s painful to embrace our limitations and to fight back against oppression. I don’t have all the answers. I’m still working through all of this myself. What I do know is this: instead condemning those who criticize failure, instead of praising those who value success above all, let’s listen to the stories that shaped those attitudes and beliefs. There may be a lot more behind the red ink and the green envy than we think, and it’s only by going into those uncomfortable spaces that we even approach the possibility of equity and opportunity, support and understanding.