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A tale of now many meetings (and some other musings).

Hello, Beautiful People–

I started this post in mid-August. Since then, since this meeting about which you will read, I’ve had two more meetings. Four more students have complained about me (you’ll see why, below), and many more have, in class, in emails and in person said “thank you”. But still. Big Brother is watching and everyone’s turning into a Rhinoceros–

August 9th I met with the head of our department and the associate dean of the faculty in which I teach. Two students had gone to them with concerns about my teaching. In 2012, I went to a similar meeting, with similar boss people, for very similar reasons.

Other than that, these two meetings were worlds apart.

In 2012, three men in my class went to the teacher education office and complained that I was “sexist against men” — they were angry with my approach, and they found my feminism distasteful. They didn’t say that last bit, but that was the essence of their complaint. I usually spend some time talking about sexism in my classes, and male violence against women, and structural inequalities based on the political categories to which we are born — namely, sex, race and class. We get into it. We read and talk about the dehumanizing effects on all of us of the reproduction of inequity that the institutions of education, law, medicine perpetuate (especially education, on account of they’re all becoming teachers). It’s difficult. Sometimes I am a bit heavy-handed, and was even more so then, when I was less experienced. I could’ve done things different. I have done since then. Different every time, every year, every class. Often my students disagree with me, and sometimes they won’t say what they think, but more often they will, and more often we can explore these contradictory and difficult ideologies, ideas, approaches, and questions as well as together feel nervous, relieved, angry or curious or any combination of those (and more) emotions.

I don’t remember now what the exact incident was, but I do remember a particularly uncomfortable day, wherein several men became accusatory — one said he didn’t like that I said “all men benefit materially from some men’s violence against women”, another told me he was my ally, and several women said, “i don’t think so…” (but only one said that in class–others came to me after). One man left the classroom and never returned, not for the rest of the semester (I don’t remember if it was that was the same day or later on). I was a teaching assistant then, and my faculty mentor received and graded his final project.

Anyway, at that 2012 meeting, with the head of the department, and representatives from the teacher ed office and one of the main creators of the course and my faculty mentor, they started with reassurance. “We have to discuss these concerns with you, but we know you are a good teacher, and we support your work here” they said. “In fact, that some students are rattled enough to come to us indicates that you’re doing some interesting work, that you’re on the right track.” They met me with generosity and respect. They worked to help me check my defensiveness and to help me plan how to return to my classroom and try to deal with the hurt feelings and conflict between me and some of my students, and between the men who complained about me and some of their colleagues. They protected, supported and educated me, helped me find my part. In so doing, they reinforced me and helped me become a better teacher.

Fast forward five years,

When the bosses emailed to ask me to meet them, they did not tell me what it was about, nor did they invite me to bring someone with me. I know that these people don’t bother with lowly sessionals unless we’re a real problem to them, so I was pretty worried.

I revealed my anxiety at the beginning of the meeting, and they responded with some ‘lighthearted’ joking.  “I’m a little paranoid,” I said, “I’m pretty sure you don’t ask sessionals in for meetings to tell us what a great job we’re doing”.

“Sometimes we do” replied the Associate Dean, “But we have some concerns”.  I know, and they also told me at the beginning of the meeting that they have to bring problems to my attention if students go to them.  That’s fine with me, though I would hope students will come to me first (one did. Another did not).

Once they got that out of the way, they proceeded with the accusations. Students won’t “feel safe”, they said. “You’re on record as saying you won’t use people’s preferred pronouns”, they said. And “You’re breaking the law”.

Of course I was delighted to finally have an opportunity to speak, with people in positions of authority in my workplace, about the contradictions between gender-identity and trans-inclusion and sex-based protections  in the provincial human rights code (sadly, I’m joking. I had no such expectations). I said that there is almost nothing in the curriculum about sexism and male violence against women and girls in schools. I said we discuss many controversial and difficult topics in class, and people are often uncomfortable. Including me. But no one is “unsafe”.  I want them to be uncomfortable, for all of us to agree to “stay in the discomfort” and to meet our feelings with curiosity, and each other with integrity and respect. We are looking at some powerful things here — policies designed to maintain the structures of domination and subordination — institutions that shaped us, and in which we have invested a lot. Criticizing those institutions and analyzing those policies is kind of risky. We have to, though. It’s part of our job as educators.

They said, “you have a lot of power over your students, you could fail them”. I said, “That’s true. I could. But I won’t fail them merely because we disagree. YOU have a lot of power over me, too. You could fire me.”

“That’s not exactly true” said one, “there are procedures…” which statement I found not at all comforting, for some reason.  Neither of them said, for instance, “we wouldn’t fire you because we disagree with you, we want to learn how to continue to speak to each other even though we disagree, and reach some understanding”. That would’ve been nice.

They offered no reassurances. Once, one of them said, “I am beginning to understand what you mean”, and I’m sorry now that I didn’t ask her to describe to me what that was.  At the end of the meeting I said, “I know we all want the students in our courses to have a rich educational experience, and we have their well-being foremost in our practice”, and they agreed. As I opened the door to leave, they thanked me for meeting with them. I said “you’re welcome. I know you’re watching me now”.

It was a terrible meeting, and shook my confidence. Sessional, (or Adjunct in the US), professors are not secure. We are not well-paid (especially, strangely, in Education. We are the lowest paid instructors on campus).  A full-time course load is considered 15 credits a semester which is 5 courses. It’s a LOT of work.

And I love it.  Love it. There’s something new every day, and each person is SO interesting–they come from everywhere and have with them so many stories and experiences…each class is a village. We hear each other’s stories. You can’t know someone’s story and not love them. So there’s lots of falling in love going on. Not like  necessarily, or agreement — but love. And the possibility of conversation and connection across difference and conflict. It’s wonderful and prickly and energizing. I learn way more teaching, too, than I ever did studenting. I hope I get to keep doing it.

One month later, now. A new semester. After the first day, another student complained about me, and then dropped the course. During that first two hours together, we reviewed the syllabus, read and analysed our first article, and did a quick introductory exercise. Then, I guess, she went and looked me up on the internet, found this blog, wrote a letter of complaint to the above mentioned boss people and dropped the course. So, here we go again.

This time, because I had, this time, a representative from the Faculty Association, and also sent them notes from our first meeting, wherein I described our conversation and behaviour, they did begin with perfunctory reassurances. I think the head of our department said that they would still offer contracts, that I am likeable and smart.  blah blah. So that was better. But the other one, the Associate Dean of the faculty, she was possibly even less hospitable than before. This time, they gave me a printed copy of some of the quotes from my blog the student had cherry-picked. This time, they invited me to bring a representative with me.

The woman from the Faculty Association read my notes after that first meeting, and looked up this blog and did some research. She`s lovely. Sensible, intelligent, kind and good-natured. I don`t know whether or not she agrees with my analysis of this whole mess, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is she’s in my corner. She is thoughtful about the points I bring up, and she applies some of the analysis we talk about to examples in her own life. She is not an academic, so she can still think, and ask questions, and take some time to consider things.

unlike, apparently, the associate dean of education or the head of the department for which I teach. We talked for an hour at our second meeting, and we again came to no resolution. They (the boss people) stepped outside for a bit and when they returned, they said that they would come up with some `guidelines for instructors`. And the head of the department said he would like to meet with me on my own (with my Faculty Association rep as well) to discuss some possible ways forward.

This is all so tiresome, I tell you what.  the week after, I had another meeting this time with the department head and the FA rep. He does not get it. Of course. We talked for an hour, which was about an hour longer than any of us has, and we came to no agreements.  At one point I said, “What about the majority of students who said, ‘thank you for letting us talk about this, we don’t know what to think, and we don’t feel there is anywhere we can discuss it.’ What about the students making room for their ideas and feelings?” His reply was, to the best of my recollection something like,  “That’s a good point. I didn’t think about that”. Which of course I knew. In the end he said, `perhaps you can address these topics in such a way as to not hurt anyone’s feelings`. To which I responded, “not likely”.

in late September, after that meeting,  I received from him a letter describing the department’s expectations of instructors (well, just me, really, but never mind that). It indicated, as I had already surmised, that those previous meetings were a giant waste of time. We are not closer to understanding than we ever were.  Here`s the second page:

Equal access to education includes access to the Department’s individual courses and classes. To be clear: it is not acceptable or available to suggest that particular students should choose, or would be better served by choosing, different or specific courses or teachers because they possess a protected characteristic. All students are entitled to access all courses, without discrimination.

A person does not have equal access to a course if one reasonably perceives oneself to be unwelcome to attend at, or access, the class or education because of a protected characteristic. This constitutes discrimination. As we discussed, reasonably and objectively feeling unwelcome is something different from subjectively feeling “offended” by academic dialogue. Reasoned, respectful discourse about social or political life does not create a climate of discrimination, but statements and behaviours which exclude, or create a climate of exclusion, do. Some examples of statements or behaviours which reasonably and objectively exclude are:

  1. Stating or suggesting that a protected characteristic is not real;
  2. Stating or suggesting that a protected characteristic is or should be socially unacceptable;
  3. Stating or suggesting that a protected characteristic is a product of disease or illness;
  4. Stating or suggesting that accepting a protected characteristic is a form of abuse;
  5. Stating or suggesting that a protected characteristic will not be recognized when providing the service; and
  6. Stating or suggesting that views or opinions supporting or acknowledging the characteristic are unwelcome

These statements and behaviours create a climate of exclusion which is contrary to the Department’s expectation that learning environments will respect the inherent dignity and self-worth of all. Not only do these types of statements attack the inherent self-worth and human dignity of anyone possessing a characteristic, they suggest that any person possessing the characteristic is not welcome or is less able to access the education, class or service. It is also the Department’s expectation that teachers, being leaders and directors of the classroom, foster this inclusive environment.  They are certainly not permitted to compromise it. The Department views a breach of this expectation as a serious offence

So. That’s how a feminist critique is understood. They decided from an out of context selection of quotes from my blog, and misunderstood paraphrasing of a few students’ memories of some comments from class that I am withholding a service and trodding upon someone’s human rights. And here we are.  They decide whether to offer me teaching contracts, and they decide how many. They can’t see that gender-identity protection contradicts protections based on sex, but in any case they have decided that gender identity is more important than anything else. Of course it`s more important to them, because addressing inclusion doesn’t challenge the sex-caste system that reinforces male dominion over women. Indeed, it reinforces patriarchy. Men are much better at being women than we are, because they know what men want in a woman. And when women reject their womanhood to `transition`, they are no longer a threat to male domination.

So I sent that letter to the Faculty Association representative, and I asked a friend and ally who is a lawyer to look at it too. Both of them agreed that it was threatening and heavy handed. My lawyer friend helped me find some compassion.

“There is no case law about this, no one wants to be the first” she said, “they’re frightened”. And they’ll throw me under the bus, sure as shootin’, if I step over the line to ask questions or offer a critique.

it’s not true that there is, (as he said in his letter), no hierarchy of rights or value. Gender identity is like religious or political belief — they are subjective. It’s fine for example, to critique Catholicism, or Marxism, or even post-modernism. But heaven forbid anyone should even question gender ideology. Which is a big shift from even five years ago.

Anyway, with the help of my lawyer friend and my Faculty Association friend, I wrote the head of the department a letter in reply to his letter. Here’s an excerpt:

I am writing in response to your letter of September 27th, which aimed to clarify your interpretation of the department’s expectations of instructors with respect to teaching and sections of BC Human Rights Code.

I would like to assure you that I understand there is so far almost no case law by which we can understand and interpret the new protected grounds of ‘gender identity’, and everyone (no matter where you stand in regard to your analysis of the merits or otherwise of this characteristic as protected) is kind of on tenterhooks about how to behave. As I have told you each time we have met, the students in my classes bring up the topic of gender identity every year. I do not bring it up, but once it’s in the room, I must, because of my political beliefs and pedagogical commitments, offer a feminist analysis of this form of identity politics.

This characteristic, “gender identity” is pretty subjective, as is political belief and religion. Unlike other protected grounds such as sex, race, ethnicity, these more subjectively defined protected grounds may be interpreted as in contradiction with each other. It seems that [our university] does interpret the relative importance of these protected grounds, as even asking questions about gender identity, or criticizing the ideology that informs this identity is subject to censure. Religion is also a protected characteristic. Yet there are many examples when it is entirely appropriate to invite students in the teacher education program to engage in critical analysis and expect challenging questions of some of the teachings of various religious traditions and organizations. […] I’m sure you would not prohibit, or warn an instructor away from offering students a criticism of ideologies or thought of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or Marxism. Indeed, [our university] has been quite public about its criticism of the religious instruction offered to students of the law program at [___], a private Christian university [we’ll call it PCU from now on].

So, in this sense, your statement in the fourth paragraph, “…there exists no hierarchy of importance or value” is not the way I see [our university] interpret the relative standing of prohibited grounds, in light of its position on [PCU] Law School graduates.

Also, and with due respect, I would like to draw your attention to Section 13 of the BC Human Rights Code which states:

(1) A person must not

(a) refuse to employ or refuse to continue to employ a person, or

(b) discriminate against a person regarding employment or any term or condition of employment

because of the race, colour, ancestry, place of origin, political belief, religion, marital status, family status, physical or mental disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or age of that person or because that person has been convicted of a criminal or summary conviction offence that is unrelated to the employment or to the intended employment of that person. (http://www.bclaws.ca/Recon/document/ID/freeside/00_96210_01#section13–emphasis added).

I don’t think it is unreasonable of me to interpret your letter as a form of censure of my expression of political belief, and therefore could be considered a contravention of Section 13 of the BC Human Rights code. Certainly, case law on competing rights is constantly evolving and we cannot predict outcomes with certainty. […]

I have never denied a student entry into my class for any reason, nor discriminated against them. I am not contravening the new law when I suggest that perhaps a student who is firmly invested in their beliefs (about gender-identity, Christianity, or any political or religious belief that may be scrutinized in the classroom) may be more comfortable with an instructor who will not question or criticize these beliefs. Indeed, when I was a student, I would sometimes not enroll in courses because I knew I would find the professor’s politics distasteful or offensive. In the case you spoke to me about, the class in which the student was enrolled is over-subscribed, and there are many sections of the same course available at the same time. In other words, I did not deny her access to the class, (in fact I told the associate dean that I would certainly teach students who identify as transgender, you may remember that exchange), and she had many other options from which to choose when she decided to change classes.

I will not teach something that I find abhorrent. If you decide that I am not to offer a feminist critique of transgender ideology, or a feminist analysis of the social construction of gender, then I will advise my students that we will not be discussing that topic in any of my classes. It pains me to do that, but I won’t agree to offer only one view of this issue, and I think that I would not be acting with integrity were I to act as if the ideology promoted in the university is beyond criticism.

In conclusion, please be assured that I have the utmost respect for the people in my classes, and I am committed to providing my best to them in terms of instruction, investigation, opportunity to explore difficult and challenging material, and expectations for their success. We do not have to agree about anything, but I hope everyone has the opportunity to express their thought and emotion and to stay together through discomfort as we develop new understanding together.

The response the head of the department sent was merely, “thank you for sharing your response”. I don’t know if he even read it.  So now, we’ll see if they will offer me any more work in the spring or next fall. I love teaching. I love teaching in this program, but I don’t like the constant and increasing scrutiny and thought-policing to which we’re subjected.

Fortunately, I am now a certified personal trainer, so if this whole under-paid, insecure sessional gig does dry up, I have a plan B — under-paid, insecure personal trainer. At least barbells and kettlebells don’t have a gender identity. yet, anyway.

sigh.

 

Give yer head a shake…

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The world has lost their ever lovin’ minds. This city, anyway. i swear to god. okay, so we had a field trip last week, my college students and I*. We went to a shelter and housing program for street-entrenched youth. That was fun. Every time I take a class there, we all leave inspired and hopeful. A very good woman who has been with the organization since it opened here gives us a tour and explains their work and history, and tells us stories about some of the youth who move through their programs – from street to home, marginalized to belonging. It’s a great program, seems like. At the end of the tour and talk, one of my students asked a question, “what about LGBT youth (as if they’re all the same, as if we have ANYTHING in fucking common)?” He didn’t mean any of the acronym except the “T”, though, it was clear. No one does anymore. She replied, “well, we just happen to have a young man who wants to move into their longer term housing program, and he is in the process of going on hormones and looking at surgery, he’s seeing doctors and therapists for transition, and after a lot of discussion with the staff, we have decided to let him move into the women’s floor. She referred to him with masculine pronouns because, she explained, he hadn’t been through the chemical and surgical alterations yet [she didn’t use those exact words].

There is a whole floor of apartments in a building separate from the shelter for young women who are going from the shelter to the housing program. They each have a small bachelor apartment with a small kitchen with ‘fridge and microwave, their own bathroom, a bed, a table and chairs, some shelves — and there are common areas–a big communal kitchen where they can all sit for a meal together, an area where they can play board games, watch TV or whatever. There is another floor for young men. Youth can live there, paying rent, as long as they are attending school or working, until their 25th birthday. When they move out, the rent they have paid to the organization is returned to them, so they have something to start out with. It’s a great idea, and there are staff who provide some guidance, like parents would do, and other kids in similar circumstances.

Our guide had explained to us that since they separated the boys from the girls in the short term shelter, they have noticed there are some striking differences between the issues they face. The boys are mostly in trouble with drugs and addiction–there is some involvement with gangs and with other criminal activity, and some of them suffer from depression. The girls, now, overwhelmingly the girls are coping with the legacy of incest and other forms of male violence and sexual abuse. They often have eating disorders, they cut themselves, they have a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder. The staff has to be very sensitive about boundaries and consistent with rules — they have to find a number of ways to reduce and eventually help these girls stop these self-destructive behaviours. Help them return to and care for their bodies. Give them a sense of belonging and having some autonomy — bodily, intellectually, spiritually.

But if a boy moves in who is going to modify his body in unnatural ways, (much like cutting or starving himself), he wil be encouraged. Not only encouraged, but in his case he will be offered the assistance of doctors and therapists and pharmaceuticals. This is cognitive dissonance. The girls who are suffering from dysmorphia because of whatever reason are encouraged to care for themselves, learn to love and respect and tend to their bodies and figure out how to be an authentic person among those with whom she has common cause. The boy who is suffering in a similar way is, on the other hand, given a message that yes, indeed, his body is wrong. And he is expected to place himself into the care of the institutions of medicine and psychiatry for the rest of his life in order to become right. This is abusive.

Earlier that week we also had a guest speaker come in who is a teacher in an alternative high school. She works with kids who have been pushed from mainstream schools, and gives them her best – all of her heart and love and hope until they have their own to share. She talked mostly about her work with girls. She is passionate and concerned about her students. She loves her work and finds the school system a racist sexist classist institution, and does all she can to give the kids in her classes the love and attention they do not get in the mainstream schools (because they come to her class believing they are all wrong, and pissed about it too — Aboriginal, poor, female, all of the above). She showed us a list of all the things that are in the way of her students gaining a good education. Not one of those things was “SEXISM”. She had written heterosexism, homophobia and transphobia, but not fucking sexism (which is what all those other things are, HELLO). And she told me that her students want a girls-only school that will also not be transphobic. I said, “wait, what? So if it’s only for girls, does that mean FEMALE only, and M-F trans will not be admitted? or does that mean gender — so M-F will be admitted, but girls who think they are or want to be boys, F-M won’t be? what’s the rule here?” and she said, “that’s what we heard from the kids.” And said it would be a longer conversation. Sigh.

My question, though, wasn’t “what do you hear from the kids?” My question was, “what will your criteria be? Who will decide what “girl only” means? Does it mean those youth born female who are ‘transing’ will be denied access? Does it mean that those youth born male who are transing will be allowed? When in the medicalization of their political unrest and adolescent confusion will they be accepted? Do you have a map, a chart a series of graphs? What the hell are you talking about, really?”

Anyway, no matter what she or we hear from these young people– and it’s important to hear them, and care about their opinions and ideas, of course it is – there is genuine science that says that the human brain is not fully formed until up to about 25 years of age. They need us to be consistent and boundaried and to guide them. Do you not remember the decisions you made as a teenager or young adult that you grew to regret — DEEPLY regret, by the time you were 30? Taking up smoking, for example, getting your boyfriend’s name tattooed on your forearm, or trying heroin to lose weight — those kinds of things. Remember? Or when you thought that women who married abusive men had made their own bed so should lie in it, or that the immigrants and refugees from South East Asia were “taking our jobs” — remember when you believed the stuff that you read in the newspaper? And when you got your sex education from your peers on the playground and thought you couldn’t get pregnant unless you had sex while you were having your period? This is the same. The same. But ever so much worse because adults are encouraging this delusional thinking.

I knew to the core of my being that I would grow up to be a boy. I knew it. When I was 10 or 11. I told my mom, too. I told her i had read about this tennis player who had got surgery to become a woman. I thought, “That’s the answer! I can get surgery to become a boy!” I didn’t know what that would mean. But I said, “When I grow up, i will get that surgery too.”

And my mom started to cry, and she said, “Oh, no Erin, you won’t, say you won’t”. I backed down in the face of her tears — she didn’t cry in front of us very often, and it was very distressing. I never mentioned it again, but I harboured that fantasy for years. Pretty much until I became an adult, and learned about feminism, and started hanging out with and reading and talking to feminists. I became a feminist and a lesbian at about the same time, and I never thought about becoming a boy again. But I tell you what, if i had been born even ten years later, i may have been in the same kind of danger as the boy at that youth shelter. Indeed I might be dead by now. There are no long-term studies on the effects of puberty blockers and hormone treatments and so forth. I might have been placed on puberty blockers and testosterone shots and had a hysterectomy and mastectomy before I realized how GREAT being pre-menstrual is. I’m not kidding, either, I love being pre-menstrual – I’m so alert and focused and sensitive – and super strong too. I don’t have many more pre-menstrual times to go though, I’m at the age when the unborn children are packing it in, setting up the retirement home for eggs that have dodged the bullet (never mind that there hasn’t been a bullet in decades…).

I hope to god someone tells that boy to at least wait. And tells the rest of the young men in the men’s part of the housing complex to welcome him, and embrace him as one of their own–because he is. He is a male, and doesn’t have to be masculine to be a ‘real’ man — any more than I had to be feminine to be a ‘real’ woman. i hope that for him, but I don’t expect it. dammit.

*I teach short intensive courses in a private college, they train people to become ‘small p’ professionals. It’s a racket, that whole thing, another blog post will come eventually about that whole stinky business. Maybe…

Holy smokes, it’s 2014 now! I began this post in the spring of 2013, I think. Just noodling away while my right foot healed from bunion surgery. Now I’m still a lesbian, but my right big toe is straight! I’ll just let this post stand as I’ve written it, but by bit over the past number of months, a sentence here, a paragraph there, write, delete, write, save draft, move on…here ya go:
In part, I’m not posting on account of I have this dissertation to finish. Most of my cohort has graduated now. Two others, like me, are not yet done, but both of them lost their mothers early in our program, and took a leave to help with their care and after. They have also added children to their families, as have most of the rest of my cohort. I don’t know how they do it — babies and jobs and publishing papers in peer-reviewed journals and teaching classes and presenting at conferences and ‘networking’ and then they all got academic jobs before or when they finished.
Then there’s me. Not getting a hair cut ’till i’m finished at least a full draft. hair’s pretty long. tangled and wild, just like the inside of my head. I am now working on my THIRD draft, but I didn’t get my hair cut because Mom wanted to brush it when I went home for Christmas. Plus, to tell the truth, now I kinda like it…and as I said, it is a fairly true representation of the knots and split ends and tangles my thinking often is — Harm reduction, women’s liberation, prostitution, front-line work, activism, law enforcement, legislation, compassion, education, learning and thinking and practice and theory — whose voice counts and for what? I have it, i have it all right here, but it’s still in piles or shards, and the finish line is shimmering in the distance like a mirage on the broad desert of libertarian individualism– choice, agency, consent, voice, sexwork, oppression, justice — what the hell do the proponents of legitimating prostitution mean by “justice” or “choice” when they argue for legal brothels? What do the women on the front-lines of feminist anti-violence work, or street-based health care, or social service advocacy mean when they talk about the application or meaning or uses or harms of harm reduction? How do we meet each other where we are, how do we see through the fog and cacophony of “best practices” and “evidence-based” and “respect for their choices–constrained though they may be” and hang on to each other as we look together for a way out?
It’s so easy to go off in several directions, and then i get kinda stuck and end up–well, here, fiddling with yet another draft of yet another blog post that I may not even post at all.  fits and starts, fits and starts. story of my life…
There are always reasons that i’m not done yet. Death, birthdays, grieving, celebration, work, love, fighting, worrying, fretting over this and that–but not delving, you know? not flinging myself wholly into one thing or another– just falling into the messiness of everything and thrashing about. There’s a difference. Falling in, you just get all covered in mess, and it takes a long time of kicking and flailing and sinking to make sense of it. Sometimes you only get covered in ick.
Purposefully leaping in, on the other hand, means you have to look where you’re leaping–even if you don’t see IT exactly, you know the spot to aim for. It’s good, too, to know to dive–close your eyes, tuck your head, raise your arms above your head, palms together, your body a spring–you’ve been training for this, you know what to do–once you’re in the air you have to have faith– and never lose your focus or your nerve.
One of my mentors (I have a few, most have come to me from surprising places) said to me, “Well, you have been dealing with a deadly disease, after all, don’t underestimate how hard that is”. I had, of course. Underestimated, that is, — how hard it is to figure out how to live as fully human after twenty years of hiding inside a case of beer (I preferred good single-malt scotch, of course, but it’s more expensive. And in truth it’s wasted on me. I would just chug it anyway).  There is NO WAY I would be where I am now were I still drinking. No way. Even though I think I’ve had a pretty smooth road, I have indeed worked pretty hard over the last nearly six years just on living sober. I go to these meetings, and I write about my resentments and anxiety and my part in it all, and talk to other women who “go to my church” so to speak, and I ask for help and I help others and I do things that I don’t want to do like pray and meditate (I’m an atheist, but I know I’m not alone. I don’t understand a whole bunch of stuff, so if I talk about it to my grandma, or to my dad or to ancestors who’ve gone before me, and then just shut up and sit still for a bit, an answer will come). So, you know, that’s a lot of talking and listening and writing and doing that just gets me to zero, right? It just gets me to where most people who aren’t addicted begin.
Of course I am still critical. I always chicken out at the last minute. I start, I train, i write, I read, i take my pen and my paper, my books right there, the notes from discussions there, the timer set and — “oh, one game of solitaire won’t hurt” — then before you know it, it’s gone from solitaire to email to that video about [‘well, it’s kind of related to my research…]  to Angry Birds (dear god, what have I become?) — and by the time i pick up my pen again, or open the file on my computer, I’ve lost my nerve. I have to prepare again, breathe deep, review my notes, set the timer — On bad days, I’m covered with ick, have cleared two levels or won three out of umpteen games of solitaire, read two or three articles about whatever, answered the phone, written three emails, checked my email 235.3 times, and —
on good days, all that, plus written one five-sentence paragraph. it’s exhausting. The self-trashing alone–i tell you…
It’s time i learned, though. There are three things in my life that I have to dive into with my whole self–One is living sober. I can’t do jack about anything else if i’m hammered or obsessing about altering my consciousness. I can do anything if i’m staying sober and helping others achieve sobriety. Anything.
One is my dissertation, and what the hell to do with it after — i must not let it gather dust on a shelf–or whatever the digital equivalent of that is—i’m sure it has something to offer, and sixteen women told me the truth about their lives and work–The PhD, jesus. it’s so intimidating.
And one is my, um, primary intimate relationship. I’m not sure what exactly to call it–‘partner ship’ sounds kinda too much like business, ‘love affair’ doesn’t sound committed or serious enough, and ‘relationship’ isn’t specific enough. We’re friends, lovers, political allies, family, home — and in all that sometimes comfort, sometimes discomfort — it’s a journey and a place–a project and a lifework–it’s play and solace and sometimes it’s not — and she has children, too, two happy, healthy, confident and beautiful boys. I think they will grow up to be good men, even with all the pressure to become gendered (and they are that too, of course), but because of their mother and her friends, and their father’s devotion to them, they will always know who they are—and what they can achieve.
We had a deal for the first two years that we would not, during disagreements or fights, go to the “let’s just break up” option. We could revisit the agreement to be together around our anniversary date, make a new deal or keep the same one. Of course some painful stuff has come up, we have had hard moments so far. So it was comforting to have that agreement– it meant that we wouldn’t go to that in haste, we’d evaluate other options first. We don’t have that deal anymore, it was important when we made it, but we have to come up with something different now, more nuanced—something that accounts for what we’ve learned about how we are together and what we understand now about each other. It’s hard work this. I don’t mind (mostly). It’s sometimes a bit, well, anxiety-provoking and difficult — but so are most worthwhile commitments and adventures. She is brilliant and funny, impatient and demanding, she has really good politics (that’s hot), she’s uncompromising and generous, disciplined and impulsive, fiercely loyal and tenacious – she won’t give up on me IF I never give up. I love being with her. She is absolutely worth the work I have to do to be open, compassionate, thoughtful, generous and gracious.
Sometimes, even knowing that, I fail. I’m impetuous and petulant, sometimes lazy, defensive, liberal, self-seeking, thoughtless. I am learning, though, however slowly. All three of those big important things are all about learning and putting what i’ve learned to practice. Trying and failing and learning and trying again and succeeding and asking for help and…

non-sequiter coming right up–
I had a meeting with my committee recently, and when we started up, the first thing i did was cry. It wasn’t because i was afraid of what they would say about the six chapters i’d sent them. I worried they would say that I am not worthy, it’s not good, it doesn’t make sense, the arguments don’t hold together–but they didn’t say that. They said it needs a lot of work yet, but also that it’s substantial, remarkable, inspiring (!). Which is also frightening, but in a way different way.
**************************************************************************************

On December 20, 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously agreed to strike down most of Canada’s prostitution laws.

The decision is suspended, however, and the VERY Conservative government has one year to draft new legislation that will not infringe on the human rights of “sex workers”, as did the previous laws. Those laws were meant to criminalize such activities as, establishing and profiting from escort agencies or brothels, procuring women for the satisfaction of men’s sexual appetites and communicating for the purposes of prostitution–all laws which could have been (but were not) used to interfere with and constrain men’s demand for sexual access to women.

We went to an open house January 1st, my lover and I–a small New Year celebration of friends who live around the corner from me. We enjoy our friends–they are smart, interesting and generous. It was good to spend the first day of the Gregorian calendar with fine women and good food. There were lucky black-eyed peas and lentils, boiled cabbage and corned beef, cornbread and pecan tarts, and few other women at first. A couple who play bridge with one of our hosts, another neighbor who is a doctor of Chinese medicine, and a co-worker of one of the hosts — then more came.  Including a woman I used to know when we were on a steering committee together, and some other shared projects of the feminist variety.  Now she’s a local politician, or she was. We were never friends, really, though we were at one time allies. Not now, though, and not for a long time.

She’s a little older than I am, and as a young woman was part of the Abortion Caravan in 1970 — women from all over Canada, beginning in Vancouver, traveled together to Ottawa to demand legal, free abortion on demand. Wonderful, brave action, and part of a world-wide movement of women that was rising strong in those days. She was an organizer, and she was interested in women’s liberation from male domination. She would say she is still.

Anyway, she came to the party and sat next to me. She asked what i was doing now, and I told her that i am finishing my PhD. She asked what I was working on, and I told her, “front-line anti-violence workers, their engagement with harm reduction in relation to their work with women in prostitution”. She said that sounded interesting, and I said, “yea, timely too, now.” Then she said, referring to the Bedford decision, “What a great day that was”.

Sigh. People do not pay attention. I don’t know how she could NOT know my position on this.  Anyway, she does now. I said, “oh, Ellen, you and I are not on the same side on this issue at all. Of course women in prostitution, those selling sex must be decriminalized –“

“yes, of course” she said.

“But the pimps, the procurers, the men who buy sex–they’re the problem–the demand must be stopped. It is a big mistake to decriminalize them.” I looked at her, “Big mistake.”

She looked uncomfortable (I think), and then my girlfriend tapped me on the shoulder, “We should make room now for the new people coming,” and I was happy to do so.  Ellen nodded hello to her and we all smiled stiffly at each other. Then we kissed our hosts good bye, wished everyone a happy new year and walked into the grey rainforest afternoon.

We should be allies with ALL of the women who were there that afternoon, and more, besides. Especially women who organized in the 70s, who took such brave risks to ensure my freedom. But the best I can hope for from her now is that she will get out of the way. I don’t think she will–we are equally committed to our positions, it would appear. Perhaps she thinks I am in her way, as well.

Never mind. I just have to finish this damn thing, and then find out how to put it to use. It’s almost there, so close now, the culmination of many years of work. Yet still only a small part to add to the work of so many women before me, beside me and the women who will lead in the future. It is a hopeful beginning.

It’s 2014. Time to grow up.

about that last post…

I made some mistakes. if you got it, please don’t circulate it. I’m going back to the drawing board.

foundations

In the summer, i’m going to teach another Education course. This time, it’ll be a three week course on the social foundations of education.  Five days a week, 2.5 hours a day. It’s the same number of hours as the other courses I’ve taught (all two of them), but in a configuration that’s MUCH more challenging, I think.  i dunno. I’m more than a bit jittery about teaching. But this is much better than  cold-sweats-heart-palpitations-terrified. So, you know, things are improving.

social foundations of education. three weeks–I think it’ll be one of the final courses for them before they go and get teaching jobs (or try to). My students will be high school art teachers. I don’t know jack about art. i expect we’ll get along.

I also got the evaluations from my fall class. 42% of ’em filled one out.  That’s 13 out of 32 people better than the course before. One person mentioned that sometimes the discussions became a bit defeatist.  Yea. That’s one of the problems, eh. I have great respect and admiration for teachers–it’s one of the most important jobs ever. Right up there with parenting, health care and radical feminist activism.

But the education system? not so much. it’s constraining, conservative, rigid and dehumanizing. Like ALL the institutions of power–Medicine, Law, Religion–designed to keep the power in the hands of the powerful, and maintain the dominated at the bottom–a raw resource for the human services industry.  Big “E” Education is designed to reproduce systems of inequality–to reinforce racism, sexism and classism. To reward mediocrity and stifle creativity. And all the good intentions of those beautiful people in my classes, they’re not gonna amount to a hill of beans when faced with that big ol’ machine.

Or will they?

Why am i doing this, then, if I don’t think things will change?

Hah! Busted!

Of  COURSE things are changing. Though the changes are glacial, they are indeed changing. Lookit, I’m an obvious lesbian from a working-class (not poor) background. I’m not supposed to be teaching university classes. I’m not supposed to be talking to future teachers about sexist harassment in schools. But I am, and I do, and I have started to talk to future teachers about sexist harassment in schools..

Speaking of which, you know what, NO ONE talks about sexual harassment by boys, of girls. There’s lots of stuff about generic bullying, and quite a lot about homophobia, and there is research too about racist bullying–(but it’s not called racism–it’s called “ethnoculturally-based bullying”). In fact, you’d be hard pressed, as you dig through the research, to find anyone who calls attention to the systems of domination (you know, patriarchy, for example) that are socially approved and reinforced in myriad ways. These systems, within which we all operate, provide the permissions and methods by which children (and adults) bully, harass and intimidate.

There’s this campaign to combat bullying, right–all the ‘good’ kids wear pink, to signal their commitment to end homophobia.Pink is  the colour for the campaign because only girls and gay boys wear pink. Boys are not supposed to wear that colour because that means they’re faggots. Girls ARE supposed to wear that colour because, well–that’s all there is for girls to wear, isn’t it? No one is bullied fro wearing olive green, or navy blue.  Girls who  decide to wear khaki and blue and black, like boys, they’re not gonna be bullied because girls who dress like that can kick yer ass. But boys who wear pink, now, fair game.

Because they are like girls.

And girls are weak. and disposable. or at least interchangeable–when we’re all in pink, we all look alike.

When i was young, i remember saying, and hearing, that ‘older men are set in their ways, they don’t understand that women are liberated now’. We let our dads and our grandpas off the hook because they grew up during a time when there were different expectations, sexism was stronger.

Well, now, you know what, i hear women say that exact same thing about men MY age! “oh, my dad, he’s just that way because that’s all he knows”.

No, no it is NOT all he knows! He was rewarded with all this power and room to move because he was male. All the women in his life, all those women who tried to tell him that WE are human, too, and he has to make room for us — we are just so many gnats buzzing in his ear. The call of the patriarchy is much louder and more compelling than the quiet determined resistance of the women. So he learns how to keep that power.

The ‘bad guys’ will physically intimidate and attack women who dare to question them. There are relatively few of them. But the ‘nice guys’ who would never dream of hurting women, they don’t stand up to the bad guys. they don’t sanction them. They might keep their distance from the bad guys, but they’re not likely to confront them, and tell them to stop. They’re not likely to step in between a man who is a bully and the woman who is his target.

I was at a dinner party once, a long time ago now. It was a gathering of artsy type folk, we had done some theatre together. One of the women who was starring in a play the next week, she was there with her husband. I was there with my lover. I wore a t-shirt from a take back the night march a few years earlier. The husband guy, he said to me, with a smile, “so, you want to kill all men, do you?”

I was taken aback. and i took the bait. I said, “of course not, what are you talking about?” and then realized he was referring to my t-shirt. It’s a great shirt. All these women, and female gods and historical figures are rushing together over a hill that is glowing yellow like the moon and stars in the sky. There are no male figures in the picture.

I guess that bugged him. He kept on me and on me, telling me that feminists hated men, and wanted to kill them or enslave them. I don’t remember now if i replied, “oh, like men do to women now?” I doubt it. I should have. I remember his wife beside him, looking down, looking uncomfortable. I remember our friend, Francine, trying to argue with him, too, trying to pull him off me (metaphorically). I remember feeling as if he was terrible knight in black armour, thrusting at me with his sword, swinging at me with his mace, and i had no defense. i was inarticulate in the face of his frightened rage.

And the men all moved to another side of the room. The nice men all stayed silent and pretended to talk about something else.

Later, Doug told me, “he had no right to attack you like that. He was totally unreasonable”.

“Why didn’t you help me?” I asked him, “He might have listened to you. Or at least backed off.”

I don’t remember Doug’s answer.

But that’s how the individual bully props up systemic sexism.  The bully is left alone. No one confronts him in the moment, and later his actions are decontextualized as just some mean things he does. Or maybe his behaviour is pathologized–and we hear that all the time, too. “he’s a sick man”. No he’s not. He knows exactly what he’s doing. Were he truly ill, or disordered in some way, his choice of target would not be nearly so predictable. He went after the women. He targeted me. His wife. our friend Francine. And the men let him. The system stayed in place, his position of dominance, the one wearing the boots, the boots placed on our necks, everything in its place.

This took place a long time ago, and we were all of us in our late twenties and early thirties at the time. “Things are much better for women now”, we said, “men understand better now than they did”, we said. All evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

Things have changed. At least now it’s NOT okay to say out loud (if you are a man) that you expect your wife to have dinner ready for you every night when you come home. At least it is not okay to growl at your wife, “One-a dese days, Alice, one-a dese days….Pow! Right in da kisser!” as Ralph Kramden said to his wife Alice 1950s sit-com “The Honeymooners”.  In some places, it’s not okay to post pornographic pictures on the lunchroom walls, either.Things have changed.

ah, but it is glacial. Women are still routinely harassed and dismissed in non-traditional jobs (i rode my bike past a construction site last week, and the one woman working on the site wore a bright pink hardhat. I was so angry…); everywhere you look, women and girls are stuffed into pink (more and more, i’m pretty sure) and boys are draped in khaki. Women are invisible in public. Movies, radio, tv shows, art galleries, music, business, science–even when there are more women than men in the science programs and the PhD programs and business schools, it is overwhelmingly men in the good-paying jobs, the seats of power, the heads of state. And of course, pornography STILL proliferates–in lunch rooms (maybe not as many, now–but too many, all the same), on TV, in store window displays, billboards, the internet, everywhereeverywhereeverywhere….

We have our place. We’ve learned where we belong. We learned it in school. We learned it from each other, from our teachers, from our families, from the world around us. But we can un-learn it, too. and we can make something else instead. When i teach “Social Foundations of Education”, I want us to figure out together how that foundation was laid, and what we might do to use it as a base for liberation rather than complacent acquiescence.

So. Sexism and sexual harassment is one thing we’ll focus on. The other thing will be the teachers strike. here in BC, public school teachers have been on strike for the whole school year.  They all go to work every day, they just don’t do anything extra. No  report cards, no recess supervision, no after-school sports. It’s frustrating for everyone. the Education Ministry has been chipping away at the BC teacher’s federation since 2001, when the Liberals were first elected. They declared teaching an essential service, effectively limiting teachers ability to legally strike or engage in job actions that would have an impact; they passed bills that removed class sizes, class composition, specialist support (‘educational assistants’, or other support staff), and hours of work from the teachers collective agreement. In April of 2011, the BC Supreme court found these limits (Bill 27 and Bill 28) violate teachers charter rights to bargain collectively. And now they’re trying to impose a contract that would see teachers salaries essentially frozen (The state calls it “net-zero”– it means i think, increases of 1% each year for three years or something like that).

We could have some interesting times dissecting labour relations, educational and union politics, sexism in the hallowed halls…three weeks. I’m a bit nervous about it. But it’s exciting, too. we can do a lot together, meeting every day like that. just have to have a plan…

anyway, I started this post about three weeks ago, and it’s time to move on.

what IS teaching, anyhow?

The other day, I wept in front of my class. We are reading a bunch of stuff about pornography and gender and how girls and boys get into gangs and how they organize themselves (or are organized) within those gangs, and lot of other stuff. Lots of difficult reading, and stories of suffering and confusion. We also read a couple of chapters from Robert Jensen’s book, Getting Off: Pornography and the end of Masculinity. And an article that talked about how to educate for gender equity. It’s an old article, from the late 90s, and it talked about ‘hallway politics’, with a description of how girls are sexually harassed by boys in the hallways of schools.

It is difficult to read this. And difficult as well to live it. Women become used to it. We learn from infancy how to either ignore or attract the male gaze. We learn from infancy how to be ‘girls’. Even when we would rather be boys.

I asked them to take five minutes and write out their emotional responses to the material we had just been reading and discussing. Not judgments, just feelings. “Keep your hand moving,” I said, “keep writing ‘I don’t know what to say’ until something emerges. It will. Just write. If you are more comfortable writing in a language other than English, please do that, no one will read it.”

Then after that, i handed out different coloured construction paper. “Okay, here I want you to write the dominant feeling that emerged for you. One word, or two. And put it up on the wall, and then look at what your colleagues were feeling too.”

Anger. Confusion. Frustration. Fear. Anxiety. Rage. Anger. over and over again the word “Anger”. One man wrote “Relieved (because I am a man)”. I walked around, I read them aloud. I looked at my class, at these women and men who are embarking on careers as teachers. They looked back at me. Was it my imagination or did some of them look a bit shook up? Was it my imagination or did the men drop their gaze when i met their eyes? I said, “Oh, thank you. Look at this, ‘anger’, frustration, confusion’–I,…” and then the tears came. I felt all of it, all at once. All of that frustration and rage and sadness they wrote out and tacked onto the walls. There it was.

See, this is what we feel all the time, I think. Women, anyway. We are always angry. How can we not be? Everywhere we go, everything we see, every place we go, we see our imperfections reflected back at us, writ large. We see we are never safe. We are never in charge, and we are never safe. Even the women who are in charge, the few CEOs and politicians and the judges, for example, the school principals and the school board chairs; they are still in charge of a man’s world, which is, in turn, in charge of them. And they too are always subject to the male gaze. and the implicit threat of violence if they refuse to ‘play nice’.

How can we dismantle this? how can we imagine living without the constant presence of fear and rage? Mine lives right here at the base of my neck, and right here, behind my eyes. What would I see if it were removed?

I am teaching teachers. They are, WE are, all of us entrenched in the big reproductive machine–the Education System–we think we can change things. Education is important, you can make your way with an education, you can make a change with an education. That’s what we believe, that’s what we’ve been told. But the system makes us.

Meanwhile, boys still sexually harass the girls with whom they are in class; and men everywhere learn they are entitled to look at us a certain way and expect us to bend to their will, in myriad subtle and not subtle ways. And the system grinds away and we say to younger women, “well, it was worse when I was younger”. But I don’t think it was.

Maybe I’ll write a post about why I am optimistic in spite of all that. Fueled by rage and fear, their is a light that shines like the sun through the clouds of evening.

Influence

I don’t know what i’m doing, but i’m having so much fun doing it. I’m teaching again, another gang of new teachers, and oh! I love them. They handed in their first assignments to me last week, autobiographies. You cannot know someone’s story and not love them. I heard that from some storyteller or other  a long time ago and i’ve tested it out since. it’s the first assignment i give to my students, and each time I am amazed, and inspired and moved by their candour and hope and confidence and suffering.

They are going to be teachers. They will influence young people everywhere. Maybe they think they can make some lasting change that they will recognize in their lifetime. Maybe they just want summers off. Do any of us know what we’re doing? I give that assignment partly so I can know them a little and find a way in, so i can see them–and partly so they can know themselves, in the context of their lives, their social location. Are you working class or upper class? How has your gender training influenced how much power you hold (or share, or reach for, or don’t have) in the world? What did your parents do? Who are they? what shaped you? How do you shape the world you are in? Hard questions, unanswerable in some ways. Why do you want to be a teacher, what influenced your decision?

The answers were astonishing and mundane and monumental and trivial. Radiant and flawed. Human.

What does it mean to learn and to teach?

Last night, I went to a meeting, and this guy told a story. I missed the story, ’cause i went to the bathroom just as he started talking, but other people told me about it later (including him). Here’s the story he told:

It was summer. His life had become a country and western song. His girlfriend had died in his arms two weeks previous, he had injured his back while moving, he was broke, (there was something about his cat in the story too–it had run away or died or something, I don’t know), and he had had enough. Enough. He resolved to go to the liquor store and get hammered. All the way to the liquor store, he talked himself into drinking, told himself no one would know, he wasn’t hurting anyone, he was in pain, people would understand, of course he had to drink, this was unbearable. And all the way there, he took back alleys so no one would see him. And all the way there he prayed to god to give him a sign, to let him know whether or not he was doing the best thing he could do, or show him some way.

Then he saw me. And that was enough. He saw me, he took that as his sign and he went home and started painting pictures.

He told that story, and just finished telling it when i came out of the bathroom. He looked at me and everyone laughed, and he said to me, “Thank you”. My friend leaned over and said, “you saved him. I’ll tell you later.”

Of course it wasn’t me who saved him. He had heard me speak at meetings, and we had seen each other around. I didn’t see him on that afternoon, in that alley. He saw me and remembered where it was he knew me from, and remembered something I had said and something I often say is, “you are worth better. you matter. We all do.” But i was only repeating some things that i had learned, and that made sense to me. So it wasn’t me who saved him. We all did.

That’s what i am trying to teach, mostly. See, it’s like working out, learning is. If you know how to do a few key things, it will give you the foundation to do anything. I love squats, for example. Wonderful exercise, squats are. They give you legs like oak trees, explosive power, core strength and can even help increase your lung capacity. When i started lifting weights, i was weak, asthmatic, couldn’t run or swim. It took a few false starts, but i found that i loved pumping iron. loved it. And i became strong. Really strong. And I started to run, and swim and i rode my bike everywhere, and i used my asthma rescue meds much less and I could do much more.

Learning is like that. If you explore one thing really thoroughly, you can use that exploration to inform other intellectual pursuits. See, i love Bourdieu’s theories of cultural reproduction and how domination and inequality are reinforced, and even though he’s hard to read and understand, once you find a way in, you can use your understanding of his thought to figure out how all kinds of things work. I can reject some of his concepts, too, in certain contexts, but then find some other way to understand what’s going on. And I can read other theorists, too, and figure out what they are talking about. It’s making sense, too– one little bit at a time.

It’s parallel to regular workouts. I have done the leg presses and the stretching and the warm ups and the building up from using light weights at first, to 200 lbs for one rep* (barefoot, no wraps, no belt). And i can breathe better and run faster and think better than I could before. One little bit at a time.

Does that make sense? See, if when you’re teaching, you give people a range of ideas and means by which they can investigate and understand these phenomena then they can find a way in. If we can wrestle with these ideas in a way that will spark curiosity, maybe they will gain the confidence to read further, and deeper and change their practices to see if the theory can make it better. But if you just go, “yea, this is how you write cursive” or”this is the life cycle of the fruit fly”, maybe that’s not enough–that’s more like using only machines to work out and not barbells and body weight.

Where is this going? I don’t know. I do know that everything we do matters. We all have moments of inattention, but if we have a big vision of what we want to achieve and if we try to do the next right thing, and try to be intentional, then we will both grow stronger and have some affect on the world around us. We all have some influence in how things go. We are all teaching. We may never know, though. I might never have known that i had any influence on that guy who told the story of the sign he got from god.

If there is a god, it has a great sense of humour, sending as a sign a radical feminist lesbian atheist to the suffering alcoholic.  Good one, God.

*that’s when i’m pre-menstrual. I’m always strongest in the week before I bleed.