Hello, Gentle Readers,
here in this small, secret space that is my blog, we’re crammed together reading and writing away. If you’re reading this, you are among a small number of people who found me and asked to come in to read. Prior to the fall of 2017, anyone who stumbled across this could just come over and have a chat. Figuratively speaking.
Then things got a bit chilly over here, (due to the actions of my previous employer), and I had to close the doors. You can read about it, it’s not far back in the history of this blog, and I’ve barely added anything over the past year. I’ll tell you what’s happened since, though.
From May 2011 to December 2017, I taught, first as a teaching assistant, then as a sessional lecturer, in UBC’s teacher education program. In the spring of 2017, some colleagues nominated me for a prestigious teaching prize. I didn’t win, but one the adjutants wrote to tell me that I had a strong nomination and it was obvious that I was an effective educator. A credit to the school.
That didn’t last, as you know. From the summer to the end of the 2017-2018 winter term, I was relentlessly surveilled by a few of my students, arguably at the behest (or at least with tacit encouragement from) the dean of education, his minions — including the previously mentioned adjutant — an assistant dean, and other faculty (one in particular who was responsible for promoting trans ideology to public schools). That last guy encouraged students to come to him with complaints about me that he offered to then forward, anonymously, to the teacher education office.
The gist of the complaints was that my opinion that humans are a sexually dimorphic species was transphobic and potentially harmful to students; also unscientific. I said in class that ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are not the same. I said it was appropriate to refer to people by the pronouns that indicate their sex. I said that children are naturally curious about themselves and each other, and certainly may display tastes and behaviours usually ascribed to the opposite sex. This does not mean they are ‘born in the wrong body’. My students learned in other classes that the pre-frontal cortex is not fully developed until we reach our mid-twenties, so decisions that we make before that age, or beliefs that we hold, may change drastically in a short period of time. Nevertheless, they were also taught that children somehow know that they are ‘trans’ inside from a very young age. So it was jarring to these students who believed they heard bigotry when I and some of their classmates suggested that perhaps young people need a lot of space and guidance to explore who they may become. To say “No one is born in the wrong body” was considered particularly egregious by some people in the university. People with power included.
I knew they would not hear ideas like this anywhere else in the program. My students, most of them, were relieved to have a space to speak of their reservations and confusion about this new trend to ‘transgender’ children. A few, however, appeared to think that even questioning the ideology (as promoted in the school board’s ‘sexual orientation and gender identity — SOGI–policy) was bigoted and harmful. In these times, disagreement is seen as disrespect. Now, when students are uncomfortable about confronting ideas that are unfamiliar or unpleasant to them, they are encouraged to express outrage, not argument. Those who found an invitation to consider critiques and alternatives to transgender ideology unsettling went to the dean’s office and said they found me hateful.
I remember when i was a young woman, just discovering political activism. Glenn Babb, then the South African Ambassador to Canada, came to speak at my university. There were a few of us then who were budding “social justice warriors”. We would take up causes, without necessarily knowing anything much about them. We knew more about apartheid than we did about the residential schools. But we did know that Apartheid was modeled on Canada’s Indian Reservation system and the Indian Act. We went everywhere he was to speak and shouted so loud and long that he could not be heard at all. There were some African students, I remember, who wanted to hear what he had to say, but we didn’t listen to them. We shouted him down. I heard him speak about that time a few months ago on the radio. He seemed to me to be not much regretful about the system of which he was a part.
About ten years later, I was part of a (not very– but certainly more than the present) feminist collective at the Vancouver Status of Women. We were organizing a 20th anniversary celebration and had invited some of the founding members to speak. During our planning meetings, one of the women in our group told us that one of those women we had invited — a founder — had said something racist at a public event she had attended. I don’t know what she said, but, even though I knew little about the woman who leveled the accusation, I decided she must be right. We all did. So we un-invited the founder. I was chosen to deliver the news. I was a ‘good ally’, I supposed. When a woman of colour says something is racist, she’s right. Even though I didn’t have all the information, i did as i was asked. I was uncomfortable about it then, and I’m regretful still. I didn’t have the guts to ask for more details; or tell any of the other women about my discomfort and concern. I’m still embarrassed about that.
So, you know, I have some sympathy for the young people, the students who are swept up in the current ideological tsunami calling for ‘trans inclusion’ at the expense of women-only spaces. I remember that I had misgivings both of those times, and I was afraid to speak up. There was no room, in either of those situations, to say, “wait a minute, can we talk about this a bit more?” . There is no such room anywhere; not in the university, or at city hall, or ‘institutions of power’ in general, to stand your ground, or even ask questions. A number of students contacted me throughout the year to say they appreciated that I made space in my class (just once or twice, really, I had very little room to move) to discuss this. “We’re confused about it,” said one young woman, “I took a degree in sociology here, and we were not allowed to talk about it at all — it was ‘transwomen are women’ and no questions asked.” She didn’t know what to think about it, really, but she was glad to have had at least a moment when there was some light on the subject. Some open space into which they could discuss their concerns and ask questions.
I’ve got a new job now. UBC paid me a settlement and I resigned. I don’t really belong in an institution (I said that to my cousin in Saskatchewan last summer and she didn’t miss a beat, “oh yes you do”). Now I work at an addictions treatment centre. People come to get free of their addictions to drugs and alcohol. It’s much, MUCH different than teaching. More about relationships and discovering our shared humanity. It’s very hard work. And exhilarating. I’m going back to school, too. I have this PhD and all, but I need something different. A praxis of counselling.
Story of my life, eh. I spent nearly 20 years mocking academics before I became one — and it’s been at least that long also taking the piss out of therapy and so forth — and look at me go. Never too old for lessons in humility, I guess, eh?
Just yesterday I remembered a conversation I had with one of my students late in the semester my last year at UBC. He told me that my class was his favourite class; he really enjoyed the content and my teaching. “This is not the case for some of my classmates” he said. As I knew. He said that people talked about me in other classes, and not kindly. He related it to his relationship with his dad. They had some fundamental political disagreements. He was Jewish, and he and his dad were at odds over Israel and Palestine. They hadn’t talked in a long time. I expressed sorrow for him about this rift. I couldn’t imagine being estranged from my parents — that was a fear for me when I became a lesbian. He said it was sad, yes, but it got him out of the house, in the end, and propelled him to adulthood. So in a way, he was grateful.
I thought of that conversation on my way to work the other day. Leaving teaching–leaving UBC — was like leaving family. I belonged for most of the 15 years I spent there. I thought I did, anyway. I was wrong, obviously. It was great. I enjoyed grad school, and PhD school, I really did. I’m not great at research, but I loved the thinking and discussing and the presentations — giving and hearing them. Also, i’m a pretty good teacher, and I kept on because I thought, you know, I could teach a few courses a year, write a bit, work out every other day, do some shifts at my favourite feminist rape crisis centre, and have this life I had. A little teaching a little activism, a little rabble rousing here and there — until retirement or what have you…
But there is a cost to activism. Not that I really did any. After all, you can’t be part of the system you know you must subvert. What was I thinking? That I could continue to teach with integrity in an institution that exists to reproduce structures of domination and subordination? Every year, that’s what I told my students: “you are part of a system that functions to reinforce and reproduce the dominion of the powerful. You may make a difference in the lives of individual people, but you’re not going to address oppression in any meaningful way”. I said that. And I carried on as if I was throwing a spanner into the works, as if I was part of changing the system. Bullshit. I had no allies among the faculty — how could I have had, without working to organize? Of course I failed. I didn’t even begin. That was short-sighted of me.
By the time they were on to me, summer of 2017, it was too late. My academic career was already over (as if I’d ever started). The dean of the faculty, the associate dean, the head of the department — they harassed and surveiled me for the rest of the year. They encouraged another faculty member to gather ‘evidence’ from students about me. He was happy to do so. I was backed into a corner, and I was defensive. Two of my colleagues advised me to keep my mouth shut, that there were things they did not say, either. That I was too good at teaching for the school to lose me, and I would not be able to stay if I kept this up.
I was not politic about it at all. In the end, I have landed in a better place. And I am, like the young man who spoke to me at the end of the last term, grateful. I was anxious all year, and not so happy as i tried to appear. I wish I had the courage to try to organize with my colleagues — or at least to walk away earlier — when I still had a voice and a good reputation. I wish it had been my decision. I stayed too long. I was pretty shaken up, too. It was a very difficult year, that last one.
I tell you what. This is the end of this blog post. I started it last year sometime, and I haven’t posted it because I was in the middle of it all until recently — and my new job has been completely consuming. Plus, I’ve been coaching at a little barbell gym — when I lost my teaching work, the man who coaches me gave me some work. He’s been utterly loyal and generous — even when there was some threat that my political stance might have an adverse affect on his business. Anyway, so i’ve had two jobs since last summer, both of them a bit insecure for different reasons, and no time for writing. I hope to post more now, especially as I’m going to stop working at the gym. I am yearning to write, and to become more creative again. Between (anti) social media and the thumping the university gave me, i’m not as confident as I was. Downright scared, really.
who isn’t? So here. the first post of 2019, four-and-a-half months in. Here we go…