Academia

An Open Letter to VanCity Buzz regarding “Where to hook up at UBC”

To the editors at Vancity Buzz,

There are a few things I can count on at the start of every school year: struggling to navigate my way through rapidly-moving crowds on the busy walkways that were blissfully barren during the slow summer months; enduring long, languid line-ups at every student service building and food outlet; hearing the cheery sounds of music and chatter from the frosh-week booths that crop up all over campus. There is, of course, yet another predictable yet infinitely more frustrating and exhausting series of events that now seems to accompany the beginning of the academic school year: events or articles which seem to fantastically misunderstand that certain aspects of sexuality and campus life are perhaps not the ideal subjects for misguided attempts at satire or sensationalized clickbait.

We’ve seen our fair share of problematic publications come out of universities in recent years, from the sexist and racist chants contained within an Engineering songbook at McMaster University to articles from the Western Gazette TA Article – CTV (UWO) and The Ubyssey – How To Tell if Your TA Likes You (UBC) whose poor attempts at satire about seducing Teaching Assistants were swiftly condemned by students who work in these positions. All this comes, of course, in the wake of a larger discussion of incidents of harassment and assault on college and university campuses, one that continues to be a priority for many campus communities, particularly at this time of year.

While I often take a hard line on these publications and often swiftly call them out, a recent article by Lauren Sundstrom at Vancity Buzz gave me more pause than usual. In her piece “Where to Hook Up at UBC,” Sundstrom offers brief descriptions of what are alleged to be the top five places to have sex on campus. Prefaced by a brief disclaimer about consent, namely that it is imperative and that no means no, Sundstrom declares that while UBC may have achieved prominence in global university rankings, one of its unique strengths lies in the beautiful public spaces within which to hook up. Rounding off the top five places (which include, not surprisingly, libraries and washrooms, as well as the Aquatic Centre and the cliffs by Wreck Beach) was a strange and uneasy surprise: the graduate lounge in my own department. Sundstrom conveys information from a pseudonymous tipster named “Jonathan” that the English Department Graduate Lounge is an excellent place for hook-ups, given its relative isolation after hours.

hookup

            Many have been swift in their condemnation of the piece and its reference to the space. Far from merely tiring of the puerile humour of such frosh-week-style articles, which many critics will claim is “mere sensitivity” and the inability to take a joke, the criticism targets serious concerns about this type of public representation of and unsolicited invitation into a space that represents not only part of a professional environment and workplace, but a safe hub for a particular group of community members.

Admittedly, I have a bias about this space. I have been a member of the English Department for nearly six years in my capacity as a doctoral student, and I enjoy the comfort and convenience of the lounge every week as I enjoy a bite to eat between classes and engage in lively discussion with my colleagues and friends. Slightly-dated décor aside, the lounge is a space where design invites openness: the entrance to the room is constructed of glass, which allows passersby to see who is around. I cannot count the number of times I have seen a friend sitting at the table and have stopped by to chat when I would otherwise simply proceed onward to the computer lab; this gives me joy. Faculty members pass by and we wave. There is a modicum of privacy, too: the two couches are almost entirely obscured by a floor-to-ceiling shelf in the middle of the room, which allows a brief nap in semi-solitude. This is a space I have come to love. Recently, a few of my colleagues and I organized an impromptu shared lunch in the space; some faculty and staff joined us, and it was a lovely moment of community building.

Yet, it is also a space that makes me feel uneasy, a sentiment that I would never wish my other colleagues to have. Yet, in light of this article and its implications, I fear that some might. Several years ago, I was sexually assaulted in this same graduate lounge, by a former friend who had briefly and unexpectedly returned to campus. What distressed me most about what happened was the knowledge that aside from this one individual who had made the choice to enact harm in a space that so many of us consider safe, I had always felt at home there. It is not only about the physical space, of course, but about the community members who help to shape that space. Indeed, respect is a mandate of the lounge: clean up your dishes. Don’t leave food in the sink drainer. Refill the water jug. Pay for any tea or coffee you use.

But now, I’m fairly certain that I am not the only one who feels unsafe in that space, and the irony of having a space opened up without its occupants’ consent does not escape me, as both a survivor and a community advocate around issues of violence. It also does not escape me to think of what it means to offer unsolicited advice to disrespect community spaces, particularly in a university that occupies the unceded lands of the Musqueam people. It does not escape me that not all workplaces would be subject to such disrespect, including, I suspect, the workplaces of Vancity Buzz employees themselves. It does not escape me that such an article may cast undue and uncalled-for aspersions on members of the department, who conduct themselves with respect for others. Indeed, many of us have banded together to articulate our problems with Sundstrom’s article, whether through comments on Twitter, Facebook, on Vancity Buzz’s website, or through private emails to both Sundstrom and your editorial staff. Others have pointed out similar issues with Sundstrom’s other article regarding hook-up spots at Simon Fraser University, one of which is a washroom reserved for people with disabilities.

If we ought to have learned anything in the past few years, it is that conversations about consent, about sexual violence, and about safe spaces on university campuses and in workplaces are nuanced and that they require both careful thought and accountability. Consent is about more than “no means no.” Indeed, as demonstrated by numerous consent-focused campaigns in recent months and years, it’s about affirmative and enthusiastic consent. This isn’t to say, of course, that people have never unwittingly or accidentally walked in on others engaging in sexual activity. Indeed, sex in public places may be a thing for some people, but the basic rule of sex with healthy boundaries is this: don’t get anyone involved who doesn’t want to be. This is not about prudishness or the condemnation of sexuality, which I’m certain other critics may charge the complainants with. Rather, it is about the reality that when articles point out — indeed, promote — the enjoyment of the participants in sexual activity over the safety or the access of the people who work and live and rest in particular spaces, this violates some of the most basic concepts of consent.

After a day off from work, I will again return to the department on Friday to enjoy tea and conversation in the lounge with its orange chairs and its terribly-bright floral tablecloth. I will, however, now carry with me into that space a distinct sense of unease and worry, as well as a heavy knowledge that its boundaries were breached by someone who has likely never even stepped foot into it nor has met the vibrant community of individuals who call that space a little home away from home.

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“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!)

PhD Survival Guide: Mount Everest Edition

WARNING: THIS BLOG POST IS EXTREMELY LENGTHY. READ AT YOUR OWN RISK. THE AUTHOR MAY USE AN ANALOGY FOR THREE THOUSAND WORDS IN ORDER TO PROVE A POINT.

In my attempt to relieve stress and distract myself from my doctoral work, I often take up month-long self-directed studies on a topic of my choice. With Wikipedia and YouTube at my fingertips, anything is possible, and extensive information, fascinating documentaries, and elucidating interviews are never far from my reach. Last month, I was particularly captivated by astrophysics. The month prior, it was chemistry and elements. This month, it’s extreme mountaineering, from Mount McKinley to Mont Blanc, the Eiger to Everest.

Make no mistake, I am neither an astrophysicist, nor a chemist, nor, most certainly, a mountaineer. I’ve never even been rock climbing, and while I can attest to having hiked some wonderful local mountains such as Garibaldi, mountaineering is not a pursuit that I have any real desire to engage in.

Yet, in re-reading Jon Krakauer’s bestselling book Into Thin Air, and having watched several documentaries on various expeditions, I can’t help but think that one mountain in particular—Everest—looms as a meaningful metaphor for the dogged pursuit of ambition, excitement and thrill, even amongst deadly risk and extreme mental and physical suffering.

As I’ve learned more about the art and science of climbing Everest, the strategies and tasks involved in doing so, and the devastating illnesses and deaths that occur on the mountain, I find it hard not to look at the PhD through the lens of climbing the highest peak on earth.

I recognize that climbing an 8,848m mountain and doctoral work are not exactly the same thing. Yet, given that both are immense tasks, risky, and, more importantly, optional and inherently-privileged pursuits in life, I wanted to share my thoughts on how I am learning to tackle the looming peak in my own life.

THE MAP

The following map is an adaptation of a map of the Southeast route to the summit of Everest, a well-worn route that takes climbers through a vast array of dangerous terrain, with five main camps along the way: Base Camp, and Camps 1 through 4. At this time, you will note the “doctoral” landmarks with which I have replaced these camps.

It takes nearly two months to achieve a summit of Everest, and because the effects of high altitude can so quickly put the body into shock, a slow acclimatization process must take place. In a technique pioneered by George Mallory, a British climber who undertook three trips to Everest (eventually dying on his third attempt for the summit), climbers will ascend to each camp to acclimatize, then descend to the camp below to rest. This slow process ensures that climbers’ bodies will adapt to the air oxygen rates, which plummet, at the summit of Everest, to just 30% of the oxygen contained at sea level.

I want to pause here to note, that just as in a summit of Everest, as in a PhD, it takes an awful lot to make it as far as Base Camp. While there is a whole debate over inexperienced climbers paying their way to get to Everest (just as there is some debate over unprepared or under-qualified students ending up in doctoral programs), to have made it so far, to have completed a Bachelors’ and/or a Masters’ degree is no small feat in itself. It is, indeed, the foundation upon which doctoral work is built, and must be recognized as such.

CAMP 1: Coursework

By the time you get to your doctoral coursework, you’re already familiar with the demands of graduate level classes. Naturally, anxiety hits early, as the newness of the doctoral program, and the expectations (perceived or real), can make this stretch extremely precarious. You’re working to really prove yourself, and it is technically demanding to produce papers, presentations, and final papers at a level that is striving to make itself distinct from previous graduate work. Like traversing the Khumbu Icefall up to Camp 1 on Everest, the plentiful opportunities to fall into the surrounding narrow crevasses (the pressures for each small assignment) that make this stage particularly challenging. Don’t fall (into the trap of expending too much energy here). Watch your step!

CAMP 2: Comprehensive Exams
Comprehensive exams are shitty. They feel like the worst, terrible, stupid, bullshit torture that you’ve ever been through in your academic career, and you might start to develop paranoia that faculty members are gleefully laughing amongst each other, knowing that their students are suffering through what they once had to go through in their own training. (They’re not, by the way…I don’t think…)

If you’re in a traditional exam format, you might have to haul your ass up to Camp 2 with a few months of reading behind you and a week of sleepless and frantic writing that verges on complete madness. If you’re in a department like mine, you spend five months reading and writing two take-home papers, which is no less arduous, just that the writing is spread out over a longer period of time, and is a different kind of challenge. (In my case, you feel like you have more time to procrastinate about getting stuff written, and stay up late writing blog posts like this one.)

Because the exams mark the halfway point of the PhD, there is something very psychologically rewarding about making it through them. By the time people reach this stage, most wear their sleepless nights like a badge of honour. I should point out that I don’t agree with a lot of the mythos built up around the comprehensive exams. The week-long writing-frenzy rarely produces good and/or useable work, and the months-long take-home paper (to be written without consultation from the committee members) often gets students into a bind, at their defense, whereby five months of work can quickly be made obselete. A crucial misstep in the comps could have been pointed out, even subtly, during the process, if only small consultations were allowed, and can save the student from having to descend all the way back to Camp 1.

This stage also marks a very dangerous phenomenon: ISOLATION. Given that many Masters’ programs are coursework-based, and that the first year of the PhD is also generally coursework, once you’re into your comprehensives, you might face isolation in a way previously not experienced. You’re alone, reading and writing. A lot.  This is where “doctoral altitude sickness” can really start to develop, and rather quickly at that. Remember to leave your house, call people, and do things. Shower. Eat.

LOOKOUT POINT: Conference Crest

Oh, look, a delightful landmark so quaintly given an alliterative name! Conferences, by the time you’re halfway through a PhD, are expected to constitute a sizeable chunk of your C.V. Presenting your material to others is a difficult skill to master, and given that public speaking tends to put the proverbial fear of God into many people, it’s not to be taken lightly. I tend to be of the mind that one doesn’t need to freak out over them: they’re meant to be discussions, not public roasts. (And if anyone does start in on the roasting, then they’re either bad at giving criticism, or…they’re just assholes.)

CAMP 3: Prospectus

Back to the joyful ascent. If this were Everest, you’d be climbing up to a small ledge at 7,470 m (24,500 ft). The summit still feels quite far away, and to get to Camp 3, you’ve got to conquer the Lhotse Face, the “1,125m (3,700 ft) wall of glacial blue ice.” The prospectus stage of doctoral work sounds about commensurate. In the total vertical ascent, it seemingly only comprises a small portion of the total work (the prospectus ranges, usually, from 5-10 pages), and yet the demands are supremely high: a concise, clear roadmap of your dissertation. Some people breeze through the prospectus, but for others, it can be a formidable challenge, and the gateway to (what seems like) the liberation to finally just do what you’ve come here to do all along: WRITE YOUR DISSERTATION. The prospectus process does require patience. It’s all part of the same type of work, but a different format, one that will serve you well if you have to do similar summaries of your work, such as for book proposals. It is a relatively “small” task, but no less maddening and frustrating.

LOOKOUT POINT: Publications Pass

“Publish or perish,” that’s what they say. Given that one is getting close to the so-called “death zone” in our little metaphorical ascent Everest, I can’t help but cringe a little at how eerie that sounds. Publications, are, according to Ye Olde Academy, what will secure you a job.Well, a finished dissertation, and publications. You are expected to have at least one publication (in a good, reputable journal) by the time you’ve finished your PhD, and working on articles in addition to your other work will take up a lot of your time. Don’t get seduced by it. One, remember that published articles reach a limited audience, that the peer-review model is largely based on outmoded forms of hierarchy and “gatekeeperism,” and that what you want to aim for is that finished dissertation. Get the most mileage from your work: you can use chapters of your dissertation as fodder for your articles, and vice versa. And, please, for the love of your sanity, don’t take a rejection or a revise/resubmit too personally: they’re not anti-you, they’re just profs doing their job, and if one journal is unreasonable in their expectations, the problem might be the journal’s expectations, and not your paper. Send it off to another journal. As you can tell from my sarcasm, I’m quite firmly of the opinion that most publication and peer-review is, for the most part, a holdover from the old guard, and I much prefer the ways in which the internet and peer discussions have made idea-sharing and legitimation of ideas much more accessible and democratic. This is my advice: Don’t perish from publishing.

CAMP 4: Dissertation

This is the final push in the PhD, and while it is not perhaps the most technically demanding element (given that you have already gained all the research skills and paper-writing skills beforehand, and carried projects out in smaller scale), the biggest pitfalls in attempting to write the dissertation are the same as trying to summit on Everest: exhaustion and madness. On Everest, once you’re out of Camp 4, you’re in the death zone, the area above 8000m where the air is too thin to sustain human life. In addition to pulmonary and cerebral edemas at high altitude, hypoxia (the lack of oxygen) can cause delirium and poor decision-making. Coupled with the sheer physical exhaustion from climbing, it’s a wonder that more people don’t just accidentally step off the face of the mountain to their deaths.

Exhaustion and poor-decision making sound an awful lot like some of the stories I’ve heard from dissertation-land. You will find yourself staring at the same project, the same chapter, the same articles you’ve been studying for the past 4 years. Add in a fervent desire to summit and finish, because you’ve made it so far already, and very few people will opt to drop the PhD at this point. I truly have nothing but admiration for those who push through and finish, but I also have deep admiration for those who know their limits. Given the rates of depression and anxiety in graduate school, I don’t have to point out that burnout, stress, and academic pressure can culminate in severe physical and mental illness, and, in the worst cases, suicide. I’m not saying that these can’t occur at any stage in one’s career, but when the desire to finish is so close in one’s grasp, one can unwittingly find oneself in a very precarious position. I’ve seen people say that they just want to “take one more step,” write one more chapter, try one more time…and end up more exhausted and depressed than they ever needed to.

Finally, there is also a common misunderstanding that the dissertation is supposed to be refined enough to be a monograph, and that it will be THE CROWNING ACHIEVEMENT OF YOUR CAREER. It is neither. A dissertation is not a ready-to-publish monograph, and it is also only meant to be the first major project of your academic career (if you are continuing in that path). Everest is significant and amazing for climbers, but you can bet that they don’t stop climbing just because they’ve conquered it. (In fact, there are other mountains, such as K2, that are much more dangerous and technically challenging than Everest, but, obviously, simply not as high.)

The oral defense of the dissertation, too, is a sub-hurdle of the push to the summit that must be recognized for its own unique challenge. After all the work you’ve done, all the writing, it’s a time-limited, short, but ultimately extremely daunting task to undertake, especially when you’re exhausted and just want to be given approval to graduate. On Everest, this would be the infamous “Hillary Step,” a 40-ft rock wall that you have to scale right before approaching the summit. Must be fun to climb that when you’re exhausted and oxygen-deprived. (P.S: Always sleep and eat before your defense, and don’t hyperventilate: oxygen deprivation at sea-level sucks, too.)

All of the dangers and suffering aside, I will admit that the PhD summit is awesome. At the end of your dissertation defense and approval, you get to wear what amounts to wizard robes and an oversized beret with a tassle. You get (yet another) fancy piece of paper with your name on it! You get to be “Dr So-and-So”! There’s a lot of cool stuff about that moment when you finish.

But while you celebrate amidst all the hoopla of graduation, I want to warn you’re not finished yet. And I’m about to tell you why.

THE DESCENT

John Mallory, son of George Mallory (who, as I mentioned earlier, died while trying to summit Everest in 1924), said “to me the only way you achieve a summit is to come back alive. The job is only half done if you don’t get down again.” Sir Edmund Hillary, who became the first man to summit in 1953, echoed John Mallory by posing the following question:

If you climb a mountain for the first time and die on the descent, is it really a complete first ascent of the mountain? I am rather inclined to think personally that maybe it is quite important, the getting down, and the complete climb of a mountain is reaching the summit and getting safely to the bottom again.”

This, ultimately, is the true test of doing doctoral work. It’s not simply about finishing your dissertation and graduating. If you cannot descend–if you have deliberately left your health in a state of precarious disrepair, if you have lost your spirit to continue onwards, if you have left your relationships in a state of neglect or destruction–then I do not think you can call your doctoral work a success. Here, then are some alternative ways with which to measure doctoral success:

  • To be successful is to finish with enough energy to continue, whether it is to a post-doc or a job search in academia, or in the challenge and excitement of a career outside the academy.
  • To be successful is to feel as though you wrote something that you are proud of, not something that you felt pressured into writing by others.
  • To be successful is to finish without having neglected or destroyed your personal relationships because you are too consumed in your work.
  • To be successful is to finish with as much physical and mental health as is possible.
  • To be successful is to have to have taken care of others on the journey, and never to have benefited or looked away from others’ suffering. Much of our climbing is done roped-in to others, not alone….whether we acknowledge it or not.

The big question then, is this: do we all have to summit? Do we all have to pursue or complete our PhDs?

The answer, quite simply, is a resounding NO.

Two very close friends both knew their limits, and did not finish their degrees. Some might say that they quit; I say that they saved their own lives. Leaving the summit behind is not easy; many grieve for the lost dream that was so near, and I believe that it is appropriate to do so. And for those who might judge? If they are fellow climbers, I would tell them to realize how close they, too, tread to uncertainty, and that it may be by sheer luck or circumstance that they are still well. If they have not climbed, I would point out that they have not even yet set foot near the mountain, and as such, have no purview to be a jackass to you about your choice.

Only you can make the decision to start or finish this kind of work. And yet, if you dare to climb, here are some guidelines and necessary equipment as you begin or continue your ascent:

You will need the following:

  • A nutritious diet and plenty of exercise, both of which strengthen your brain, as it is your main tool – you wouldn’t climb Everest with a dull ice axe, would you?
  • A workspace conducive to productivity (whatever that may look like for you).
  • A comfortable resting space, preferably not in the same room as your workspace, or, if it is, set up so that you feel prepared to sleep well.
  • A good team of guides (your supervisory committee). Do not settle for any less than those who will work in your best interest, and be there for you at every step of the way. Do whatever you can to find these people. A good committee can absolutely make the entire process easier and safer. Do not, under any circumstances, tolerate guides who lead you off the path, completely ignore you, verbally abuse you, and so on.
  • Other guides. Your graduate program assistant, most especially, is going to be your best friend. Do not piss him/her off, and please thank him/her for all the work he/she does to make your journey easier.
  • Good relationships with fellow climbers (your colleagues). Professional networking is not the only thing to do with your fellow graduate students. Socializing and downtime, as well as sharing the struggles of the path…these are key. The friendships you cultivate here can make things bearable, even when everything else makes you cry endless or drink profusely. My colleagues listen to my struggles, the ones ahead of me in the program generously offer sage advice, and many of them also send me adorable cat videos to cheer me up when I’m sad.
  • Support people. Family, friends. Try, if possible, to carry on as usual with these folks. Remember to talk about things other than your work with them, too! Ask how they’re doing. Savour your time with them.
  • Things to do while you’re resting. Take up a hobby in your spare time. Volunteer. Do sports. Make art, play music. Find things that are life-giving and feel normal, things that comfort you and make you feel good.

I’m going to put this last one separate from the rest, because I believe that it is so, so important, and I don’t want it to get lost, as this is KEY. This is what this entire, lengthy, metaphor-milking blog post has been all about.

You must have the ability and the resources to reach out for help. Learn who you can talk to, both in your department, regarding academic issues, and in your personal life. If you are working with sensitive or triggering material, please remember that it might make you that much more vulnerable to burnout. Check in with people along the way. Learn the signs of stress and burnout in yourself, and ask others to look out for the same. If things get really bad, please call your local crisis hotline or visit counselling services on campus, or a private mental health practitioner, because this is what I want everyone to know and believe:

A PhD is thrilling, astounding and life-changing, but like summiting Everest, it is never truly worth dying for.

May you all be well. To those who have climbed and turned back, to those who still climb upwards, and those who have made it back safely: I salute you, and have been honoured to share this journey with so many of you. To those who support me in my own adventure: thank you. I love you more than you can possibly know.

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Installation – Ove Kvavik, The Descent, 2009

From the artist’s website: There are over 200 bodies on Mt. Everest, most of them died on the way down from the summit. On the engraving on the wall there is a quote from a surviving climber that says: “Those who die don’t die on the way to the summit, but on the descent.”

“Are You Fucking Kidding Me?”; Or, Teachable Moments in Blog Comments

I’m up very late, thanks in part to an ill-timed cup of coffee, which means that I had my email inbox open this evening when I received notification of a concise but nevertheless incredibly shame-inflected comment on my one of my blog pages, which, in its attempt to assert itself within a particular hierarchy of knowledge acquisition, grated on my nerves. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t experience a momentary reaction of an embarrassed cheek-flush, a symptom of my recognition that indeed, I had completely misused a theoretical concept without intending to. Mistakes happen, you see: even though I’ve been a graduate student for many years, I sometimes forget the very basics of my theoretical arsenal in my moments of haste, just as I can often forget rationales for grammatical logic, or the rules of verb conjugation. Shit happens, folks.

The joy of sitting with the discomfort of a mistake, and accepting its inherent humanity is what allows for that comment to be completely discharged of its intended affective power: shaming language, indeed, as all incidents of linguistic exchange, is as dependent of reception as it is on delivery. So, that being said, to my commenter: I’m sorry if you thought your signifiers had more affective power than they actually do.

While, as an adult, I may be able to understand such comments and language (i.e. “are you fucking kidding me?”) as particularly negatively inflected, it dawned on me that in my experience as a student, and in my current role as a teacher, that there are many individuals who do not know how to interpret these comments as anything but the  infliction of embarrassment, guilt, and shame.

As a student, I feel grateful that I have rarely been on the receiving end of these types of comments about my lack of knowledge: this may, in part, have something to do with my relative luck in being able to retain information well, but it also has a great deal to do with having had a majority of teachers who offered kind direction and re-orienting when I found myself adrift in a sea of misinterpretation or misunderstanding.

I have, however, witnessed and experienced first-hand, and have all-too-often heard second-hand through the tear-sniffled or enraged voices of my peers, some really horrendous tales of knowledge-related shame and abuse from teachers. It’s sad to say that this kind of behaviour hasn’t been limited to the grade school years, but seems to have intensified in the post-secondary sphere.

There’s a culture of intellectual elitism that is, I think, often mocked by those who are not in academia. It is almost laughably predictable how it operates: we do argue about theory, we do turn our noses up at those who misquote whichever theory or great critical oeuvre, and many of us do, if you’ll forgive my bluntness, talk shit about those who we claim are our respected peers or our treasured students. We do not often gently re-direct, offer helpful guidance or encourage careful re-reading. We (and I include myself in this we because I, too, am not impervious to this culture of intellectual shaming) give looks of disgust. We call undergraduate students out in the middle of large lectures or discussion groups for “clearly not having read the text” when they have already braved their own fear of failure to venture an answer. We tell graduate students that they obviously haven’t read Marx or Hegel or Spivak or Kant, as we rudely shove their papers back across our desks.

Many of these students leave, and sometimes, they never come back. They become an abrupt end to an otherwise-stellar attendance record, or, if they decide to stay, are transformed into a blank and mute face in the back of a room. They learn not to ask any more questions. They may drop a subject whose challenge they once loved, in favour of a field that offers less passion, but also reduces the possibility of having one’s self-esteem ripped to shreds. Most tragically, many of them learn to hate the process of learning.

Rather than condemn teachers outright, and paint them all with the same brush of “the heartless, dismissive, intellectual abuser,” what I want to suggest is that perhaps the impetus towards frustrated, angry, and shaming comments to students (whether deliberate or not), is simply because we ourselves have forgotten what it felt like to learn. We have forgotten what it was like to feel uneasy in our grasp of a text.

After you have read Marx or Chaucer or Faulkner for 20 or 30 years, or, unless you are unlike me and have an amazing grasp of everything, immediately and forever, you will have achieved a level of mastery that offers you the gift of relative amnesia about your own learning process. This isn’t a bad thing: it’s usually what inspires the confidence to really own the classroom, to be assertive, to let your students know that you are a trustworthy source of information. And yet, if you are not careful, if you do not harness that gift, it may explode in utterances such as “are you fucking kidding me?” and “you’re a stupid idiot,” or in the presence of a derisive tone, a sneering glance, a cold shoulder.

This doesn’t mean that we ought to sacrifice correcting our students for fear of treading on their tender little hearts. In a discipline such as English, which is often widely regarded by some as being “too open-ended,” it is important to acknowledge that while there may be room for interpretation in a poem, you can’t change the meaning of “post-structuralism” to really mean “structuralism.” Students absolutely do have a responsibility in their own learning process, and due effort is required and expected. It should also be noted that students will often react personally and quite emotionally to most criticism or correction: after all, most of us have a hard time disengaging our work from ourselves. If we didn’t, we’d never bother to spend time studying anything at all. My point, however, is that teachers, in their discipline and their criticism, have a choice whether or not to be firm, clear, and assertive, or total fucking assholes.

As I begin my new term of teaching a group of students who have probably not read or studied anything related to multicultural and Indigenous Canadian literature, this is a particularly valuable reminder to have had, a seemingly well-timed pedagogical refresher from the blogosphere (if not the universe).

While it is a fine balance to strike, I constantly strive to create a environment in which errors (my own and those of others) are not sites for the assertion of our own egos at the expense of others’, but in which teaching is truly both a practice that values its form, tone, and intent as much as it does its content.

And I’m not fucking kidding about that.

compassion and academia.

like hopeful monks
we young students tread the hallowed halls
clutching armfuls of books
bright-eyed and comforted
by the embrace of so many theories

eyes adjusting to the darkness
of the cavernous library
as elders teach us
reprimanding us
for dropping the sacred texts
to embrace the pulsing life
of friendship and our lovers
of children and our own aching hearts

this is life they say
as our hands become ragged and torn
by the violence of turning pages
this is suffering they say
as our hearts become encased
by abstractions

and when it all becomes too much
when the young disciples perch precariously
on the rooftop of the ivory tower
no longer comforted by idle speeches
or the promise of tenure
preparing to leap
to feel the freedom of descent
in spite of the knowledge of death

so many teachers
having forgotten the delirious joy of life
having anchored themselves in ink and paper
cannot move to embrace the trembling shoulders
arms and hearts too-full of the fluttering pages

look closely
as the bodies tumble down below them
some teachers’ eyes still fill with tears
knowing, too
how close they once stood