Author Archives: Tanya Rohrmoser

Before the Country: The Native Renaissance and Our Search for a National Mythology

With the recent reprinting of Before the Country, published over a decade ago now, we asked author Stephanie McKenzie to share how her book is still resonating with scholars interested in the study of the Native Renaissance in Canada.


I’m not sure how others might understand what I hope is the continued significance of Before the Country, a study of the literary, political, and social context of the Native Renaissance of the late 1960s and 1970s and non-Indigenous mythologizing that followed on the heels of this movement. I hope my monograph has increased interest in this body of literature.

The study is still very relevant to me and has spurred on further scholarship. Building on theories surrounding the study of oral literatures, I have now immersed myself in a consideration of the aesthetic markers in written literatures that grow out of oral traditions. This focus was at the heart of Before the Country when I turned to the theories of Milman Parry and Albert Lord to help make sense of writing produced by mature Indigenous voices during this Native Renaissance.

There was little-to-no criticism during the time I was writing to help understand why the poetry of Chief Dan George, to offer one noteworthy example, carried such distinct markings of an aesthetic that was fresh in Canadian poetry when post-modernism was beginning to take hold. Recently, I have turned to Parry and Lord’s fieldwork in former Yugoslavia where they studied the gusle and guslar traditions and tried to define the formulaic characteristics of oral literatures. Living in Serbia for three months in 2017, I took gusle lessons and also produced my fourth book of poetry, Bow’s Haunt: The Gusle’s Lessons. I thought that, perhaps, pragmatic study of this instrument and immersion in a culture might grow my theoretical insights.

I am belabouring an explanation of my own scholarly growth to highlight how Before the Country is still relevant to me and how I hope its assertions might still be examined by others. When I was writing Before the Country I was largely digging through boxes in the library of Victoria College at the University of Toronto. Many Indigenous texts of the late 1960s and 1970s lay buried in boxes with the exception of seminal works like Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed and Lee Maracle’s Bobbi Lee: Indian Rebel.

I believe that when Indigenous literature could no longer be ignored in the late 1980s and early 1990s and when academic units in Canada were scrambling to create courses and programmes for the study of Indigenous literatures, they immediately embraced what was before them – the writings of Tomson Highway, Jeannette Armstong, and Beatrice Culleton Mosionier, for example. They did not turn back to what I think is the most important body of Indigenous literature in Canada: the building blocks of what has become the most exciting creative writing in this country today.

Perhaps the academy’s omissions were due to a lack of time. Most certainly, the omissions had to have a lot to do with the fact that a significant amount of Indigenous writing of the 1960s/1970s was out of print. This is still true today.

I hope that a belief in the continued relevance of Before the Country leads to the following: the re-issuing of Indigenous texts from this time period; a serious revisioning of the Canadian literary canon, which needs to include these voices; a continued challenging of greatness in the study of poetry that still does not really account for notable aesthetics of Indigenous literatures during a foundational stage.

I also hope that the greatest fault of Before the Country – the lack of fieldwork – will prompt scholars to reconsider the essential role of ethnography and anthropology in literary analysis. When I was writing this study, I simply spread books in front of me, read and critically responded to texts in isolation. On the one hand, I think this was healthy as it solidified the fact that Indigenous literatures do not have to be handled with kid gloves. They grow from ancient traditions (albeit arrested during the residential school period) which can hold their own. They deserve intricate criticism.

On the other hand, though an understandable, if not virulent, avoidance of ethnographical research during the 1980s and 1990s, commensurate with the desire to efface a longstanding objectification of “the Indigenous,” is explicable, I don’t think this is healthy. It is important to understand what shapes voices and from where voices emerge. This is what the gusle has taught me and what Before the Country inevitably pointed to.

With the reprinting of Before the Country, published over a decade ago now, I would hope that people would still consider this scholarship relevant, even if that means to challenge, refute, or reveal weaknesses in the book. There are many. However, I would hope that the book’s existence underscores the relevance of Indigenous literature of the late 1960s and 1970s and the reason behind my commitments.

 

Stephanie McKenzie teaches in the Department of English at Sir Wilfred Grenfell College, Corner Brook. Listen in on Dr. McKenzie’s recent podcast, Poetry and the Gusle, in which she discusses her recent book and shares her research on the gusle, a musical instrument that accompanies epic poetry in Southeastern Europe. For more information see www.stephaniemaymckenzie.com.


Looking for more on the subject? You might also be interested in Cheryl Suzack’s Indigenous Women’s Writing and the Cultural Study of Law.

Human Teaching in Hard Times: An Interview with Dr. Alan Sears by Dr. Tonya Davidson

In this guest post, Tonya Davidson (Carleton University), sociology professor and co-editor (with Ondine Park) of the forthcoming book Seasonal Sociology, talks with Alan Sears (Ryerson University) about teaching in higher education during these dark times. From the cost of tuition to the challenge of making liberal arts relevant, and the search for a pedagogy that forges not just practical but human relationships, this wide-ranging discussion tackles the contradictions of teaching and learning in a neoliberal age.


In October 2018, Dr. Alan Sears visited Carleton University to be featured in the Department of Sociology-Anthropology’s Colloquium Series. He gave an excellent talk titled, “Resistance in Right Populist Times.”

Alan is an accomplished scholar of sexualities, left politics, social movements, and education. His writing includes Retooling the Mind Factory: Education in a Lean StateThe Next New Left: A History of the Future (Fernwood) and (with James Cairns) The Democratic Imagination: Envisioning Popular Power in the Twenty-First Century, as well as the now-classic A Good Book in Theory. While celebrated for his scholarship, Alan is also a very dedicated and thoughtful teacher. When I was his colleague at Ryerson University for four years, he was one of my key teaching mentors so I jumped at the chance to ask Alan to also be our guest for the first “Teaching Talk” of the semester in the Sociology-Anthropology Department. Predicting that his thoughts on teaching could easily find a wider audience than the group of colleagues gathered in our departmental lounge, I transcribed that interview and present it for you here.

TD: You proposed the title for this talk, “Human Teaching in Hard Times.” Can you tell us what hard times you’re referring to?

AS: I guess the hard times I am thinking of probably have geo-political origins. The long impact of neoliberalism and cutbacks and austerity have had a huge effect on what it is like to be teaching at a post-secondary level. One of the aspects of this is the stress that students are under because of tuition fees, because of the employment they are doing to get by, because of what housing is like now, and because of their deep anxieties about the future. The questions that are always in their minds are: what are they going to do with their degrees and what’s next in their lives?

And then the character of instruction is increasingly supposed to be efficient in content delivery with a real emphasis on information transfer. I think that the shift in the idea of what learning and teaching is supposed to be is increasingly to think of students as materials we are mass producing and the final consumer of what we are producing is the employer. So that has an impact on us in terms of metrics, which in post-secondary education means measurable outcomes in terms of what students could do before and after. Look, I think we can learn a lot by focusing on the learning that is accomplished rather than the teaching that we do, but I also think there is a whole human growth element in education that is flattened by a lot of outcomes discussions.

The scale, at least at Ryerson where I teach, is that most classes are 70 students or more. I teach our capstone course and it’s 100 plus students. The nature of that makes human relations very difficult. I think the most transformative part of any educational relationship, which are always mutual relationships if they work properly, is a human relationship.

TD: Students have always had anxiety to a degree. Have you noticed a change in your thirty years of teaching?

AS: Absolutely.

TD: How do you deal with that within your own institutional constraints? How do you deal with student anxiety?

AS: I find it a real challenge. I saw a chart recently that someone had developed showing the history of tuition fee increases in Ontario and the pay rates for summer employment. I was an undergraduate student at Carleton University in 1973 which happened to be the year that tuition in Ontario was at its lowest in real dollars. That corresponded with, because of government funding, relative ease at getting summer jobs that paid quite well, so I could earn enough money in the summer to pretty much cover my year, including tuition. Now tuition fees are higher and there are fewer summer jobs with decent pay. Students are working more hours for less pay, building up higher debts, and they are worried about their future given the difficulty of obtaining secure employment.

I think that is a formula for generating anxiety, and it’s really noticeable in all kinds of ways. We’ve never been particularly good at raising a discussion about what comes after a degree, but I notice it particularly now in a very sharp anxiety about what the relationship is between an undergraduate education in sociology and what follows.

It’s not like Harvard or Oxford are getting the question, “why aren’t you teaching more forestry?”

I think that the model we have is an elite model that presumes that when people graduate, their class-based networks that are gendered and racialized and have a lot to do with migration status, will surf them between graduation and wherever they’re going next. So if they’re interested in a job in so and so, their mother will call their uncle who works in that area. And that works for some. In the film The Graduate, the summer after graduation was spent by the pool with parents’ friends advising you to get into plastics or whatever was hot at the time. Very few students have the luxury of a summer by the pool or parents’ friends who can give them advice about various sectors, or who can afford a free internship, or who have a way of knowing about occupations that are different from what they’ve been exposed to so far in their lives.

So I think the anxiety is real, and I think it’s incredibly sharp, and it sometimes plays itself out as hostility towards us. I’ve noticed a certain tension around grades, a kind of a more hostile bargaining because that seems to be something that you can deal with more directly. And textbooks, that’s another pain point: “why is this book so expensive?” Sadly, for a lot of other things, like tuition fees or class sizes, there’s little active opposition because there is a feeling that you can’t do anything about it. I think the anxiety plays out in many ways.

TD: Professors have different attitudes about whether there is a place in a sociology program for teaching school-to-work transition skills, or other career-focused projects. How do you approach that, especially in your capstone course?

AS: This is one of the contradictions I continually negotiate. Because I am a committed political critic of the system, I understand when people talk about concern that the neoliberalization of the post-secondary system means, for working class people, a much more occupational focus, and there’s no doubt this happens. And yet if you look at what’s happening in Britain and the US for example, there is a desire to preserve liberal arts education, but only for the elite. It’s not like Harvard or Oxford are getting the question, “why aren’t you teaching more forestry?” That message is something that is very specifically aimed at institutions with a working-class clientele. And I think the concern is that a liberal arts education creates inflated expectations for everyone without differentiating between students with varying life trajectories. Policy-makers are interested in changing that system, particularly in Canada where the university system tends to be more social democratic, to create a more hierarchical system where liberal arts play a smaller role. This is especially the case in institutions that have historically included a higher proportion of working class and first-generation students, like Ryerson or Windsor where I have taught. There’s a part of me that thinks, well let’s resist that push and let’s fight and honour a liberal arts education. I really do believe that that’s necessary and I think the greatest bulk of a student’s education in sociology or anthropology or whatever they are taking should absolutely be in a proud liberal arts tradition that’s challenging students to think critically and so on.

I also think there’s a serious equity issue around being honest about the fact that the transition to work is difficult and we have really failed on our end. We feel like we’ve done our job by pushing them off a cliff at graduation and waving goodbye and giving them a certificate. I think we owe them more. I don’t think career integration needs to consume a lot of the curriculum. I think little bits of it, strategically inserted, can go a long way. We shouldn’t distort the curriculum.

We’re doing a pilot course this year called “career integration” for fourth-year students where they’ll get to do a job shadow experience in a workplace that’s of interest. We’re also building in self-advocacy around worker rights and the like, but also stuff like resume preparation, sample interviews, and how to claim a sociology education in a job interview so you don’t just say “well it’s because I hated English.” At the very least, it gives students a way of describing what they got out of their degree, or, in some cases, just creating space for them to figure out if they got anything out of it. I believe seriously that there’s a class, racial, equity, and migration justice built into this experiment. If we want to simply claim that we do liberal arts in a pure way, we are ignoring the socio-economic relations that surround the institution and the histories that inform our ideas about what a liberal arts education is.

TD: Have you noticed in shifting hard times, different types of student engagement with questions of free speech, bias, and felt that through hostility?

AS: I think I’m fairly fortunate that Ryerson is a downtown Toronto campus with a very high first-generation student body; roughly 60% of the students in our program identify as racialized. The nature of who the student body is means that a lot of the pro-equity ideas are taken for granted, and few students will stand up and challenge fundamental notions of social justice. And I think there’s some self-selection there too because our program is quite equity-focused. I think the students who are most likely going to be upset about that transfer out of our program. I personally haven’t faced it that much.

One of the things that’s happened is that we’ve made our “Indigenous Perspectives on Canadian Society” course required, and it is taught with a very Indigenous-centric perspective that presumes settler colonialism, presumes Indigenous sovereignty, and presumes that universities are colonial institutions. I would guess that course will be one of the litmus tests in our department. I would guess that will be one of the places where even people who know that they’re not supposed to say something racist might express discomfort. That’s the way that settler colonialism operates, it creates a kind of entitlement that may lead to a different order of challenges from students. Certainly, I know people who teach in the US, and other places in Ontario who talk about how much their students have been emboldened to challenge even the most basic equity stuff in classes, but so far, I feel like I’m in a little bit of a bubble around that.

TD: Those two initiatives at Ryerson – the “Indigenous Perspectives on Canadian Society” course as a mandatory course and the “Career Integration” course both sound like great responses, or pedagogical forms of resistance to these hard times. One of the things that has always struck me about you, Alan, is how you are simultaneously very critical of post-secondary education, and broader political and social structures, but somehow seem stubbornly optimistic. So my final question is: what do you find hopeful about teaching sociology in “hard times”?

AS: I think that most students are very perceptive and critical about the injustice in the world today. They do not have illusions that this is the “best of all worlds” or a meritocracy. They know someone is making a killing off of the precariousness and suffering so many face.

The challenge is that they might think that this is the “best of all possible worlds” – and that they do not see a better world as possible, particularly through their own actions. So there is a real base among our students for a new radicalization, if they can begin to realize the power they have to change the world. But that radicalization will not happen through the classroom, which even at its best is a site of alienated labour. For me, human teaching is about trying to reduce the damage done in post-secondary education while working outside the institution to build the movements and counter-power that can challenge these injustices.


For more on millennials, education, and social movements we suggest: The Democratic Imagination and The Myth of the Age of Entitlement.

 

How to be a Man: If Beale Street Could Talk brings a new generation to James Baldwin

“We were all men, all fragile and broken in some way, in need of love and grace and the salve of a mother or father or estranged lover. We were all Baldwin’s children. The fact of this lineage and the generosity of our father confirmed that we, his readers, were worthy of love.”

—Barry Jenkins, Esquire, December 2018

Barry Jenkins, director of 2016’s Academy Award-winning Moonlight, admits a feeling of kinship with James Baldwin’s readers, but also his characters: the exuberant Giovanni, the tortured David. Baldwin, the father, offers an emotional tutelage, guides boys into manhood, so that they too can offer a path forward for a new generation. And so: Jenkins’ new film, based on Baldwin’s novel, If Beale Street Could Talk.

Fittingly, Jenkins’ talk of fragile men and Baldwin-the-Father is written for Esquire, a magazine with a long relationship to Baldwin. It was in Esquire that Baldwin published some of his most famous essays, such as “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy” and “Fifth Avenue, Uptown.” While tackling what was then called “the Negro Problem,” the always shrewd Baldwin tied his writing on race to issues of masculinity, seeking a common understanding with the presumably white, middle- or upper-class readers of a magazine subtitle “The Magazine for Men.” So it is that in “Black Boy,” Baldwin writes:

I think that I know something about American masculinity which most men of my generation do not know because they have not been menaced by it in the way that I have been. It is still true, alas, that to be an American Negro male is also to be a kind of walking phallic symbol: which means that one pays, in one’s own personality, for the sexual insecurity of others. The relationship, therefore, of a black boy to a white boy is a very complex thing.

The lengthiest and most compelling of Baldwin’s Esquire pieces is a 1968 interview, published shortly after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., in which Baldwin addresses social unrest, Stokely Carmichael, and the ideas of whiteness and Blackness. Central to the interview is Baldwin’s appeal that white men acknowledge and confront their history.

Esquire may give Baldwin space to make his appeal, but the magazine does much to undermine it. For example, the cover of the magazine reads “James Baldwin tells us how to cool it this summer.” The image is of seven stylishly dressed, cool Black men lounging on ice blocks. “Cool it” is immediately associated with its demotic or vernacular use—perhaps Baldwin is going to tell readers about his favourite nightclubs or albums. Within the magazine, however, the interviewer uses some version of the phrase “cool it” six times. In the context of the interview, “cooling it” refers to relaxing racial tensions; the cover, and the rest of the magazine, diminishes the seriousness of this situation. One need only flip a few pages to discover a feature offering “Advice for Summer Drinkers: Cool It!” Here, the idea of “cooling it” is not about riots, but a suggestion for how to prepare drinks. Altogether, this single issue offers Baldwin’s compelling critique of masculinity and whiteness to the exact audience who needs to hear it … and then seemingly takes steps to dismantle that critique. The magazine offers contemporary readers a glimpse into the push-and-pull of the cultural politics of race, class, and manhood.

And now, 50 years later, Esquire offers up space to Jenkins to promote his own film, based on Baldwin’s work, and to discuss the author’s influence on his own life and career. In so doing, Jenkins is able to reach out to a similar audience (not identical, but similar enough) to the one Baldwin addressed decades ago, and offer them his own take on the intersection of race and masculinity, his own take on how to be a man.

 

 

Brad Congdon received his PhD from Dalhousie University, where he is an Instructor in Gender & Women’s Studies and English. He is the author of Leading with the Chin: Writing American Masculinities in Esquire, 1960-1989.

 

 

Hashtags and Rabbit Holes: Confessions of an Academic Writer

To kick off the University Press Week Blog Tour (November 12-17), our Social Media Specialist, Tanya Rohrmoser, reflects on the many ways in which social media can be used as a vehicle for communicating research in the arts and humanities.

“Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” – Alexander Pope

“I want you to take a Post-It and write, ‘Don’t write like an academic.’” said my new Digital Communications professor. “Stick it on your desk, your wall, your computer. Anywhere you’re working. And don’t forget it.”

I blinked. But, ever the conscientious student, I slowly wrote it out in my notebook. (Yes, in ink, on paper.) I underlined it twice.

As a mature student, I had enrolled in Humber College’s Professional Writing & Communications post-graduate program. I came armed with 6 years’ experience as a teaching assistant in Brock University’s English department, and a Master’s degree which had focused on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British literature and gender studies. I loved studying that period, where manicured sentences wound long and lush as a garden path, heroic couplets were the chosen form of intellectuals, and you could stand on a Richardson novel to change a light bulb. Sadly, no one ever did beat down my door after graduation to discuss Judith Butler or Mr. Darcy’s masculine performance in Pride and Prejudice. So here I sat in this classroom, fluorescent lights buzzing, debt accruing, determined to bridge the distance between the ivory tower and the landscape beyond.

And, over the next eight months, my writing changed. Write for screens! Know your audience! Drop those adjectives! Bullet points! I ducked red pens and track changes, as my clauses fell away like petticoats. Watched as my murdered darlings dropped breathless to the floor, certain I’d never recover from the sacrifice. In time, I learned to step over them.

But if I bristled at changing my writing, I positively shut down when I was told to sign up for Twitter. As part of a generation that has recently been dubbed the “Xennials,” I grew up with the luxury of picking and choosing the parts of digital life in which I participated – and Twitter wasn’t one of them. I dutifully claimed my handle, but certainly didn’t see how I would ever need it in the workplace.

Is a tweet different than a heroic couplet? Yes, that’s a silly question. And no, it’s not silly at all. Alexander Pope may not have constrained himself to 280 characters, but he did know how to pack a nice, salty punch into two short lines. I made my peace with the fact that a tweet is a similar burst of information, deliberately chosen to display its author’s worldview. As with any writing, both form and content are debated. Some are written poorly. Some are politically charged. Some will send you careening down a bot-peppered rabbit hole into chaos. Some are profound, impactful, and memorable.

When finally, happily, I was hired by the Journals Division of the University of Toronto Press, it was as their Digital Marketing Coordinator, where one of the largest parts of my job was to run their social media accounts. And I was pleased to learn along the way that Alexander Pope and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu both have hashtags, and that a “Swiftie” not only refers to songstress Taylor, but satirist Jonathan.

I slid back into the academic world like a hand finds its glove. I knew this world. I loved this world. What was different now was that I knew how to promote this world. And I also knew that, in some ways, it would be a challenge. Part of each day was spent finding contributors on social media in order to market their articles and gain a wider reach. I searched for the handles of their university departments. I tracked down and promoted the work of grad students. Though they are often quite sparing with their words, I tried to get scholars talking on Twitter, and I discovered an active, robust academic community that was happily leaning in to it, and using social media to their advantage.

And, in perhaps an even odder twist, wrung from the student who once turned her nose up at the prospect of having a Twitter account, I’m now the Social Media Specialist for UTP’s Book Publishing Division.

As humanities majors, we’re told we have a wide variety of skills; we just need to market them. But we’re rarely taught how, and many of us are more comfortable curled up with a good book than we are singing our own praises. One week into my job at UTP, I went home to my own academic, a quiet historian who’s writing his dissertation, and told him to make sure he uses social media to promote his research. That when the time comes to apply for one of those coveted academic positions, to show not only that he can write, teach, and produce, but that he can help promote the department on its digital platforms. Useful advice? Academics on hiring committees would know more than I.

Is the debate about writing for social media similar to the heated debates about the potential dangers of the novel when it first appeared? Poetic license with the sonnet? The modern, post-Victorian aesthetic?

Today, I saw a man reach out to another we follow on Twitter: “It grieves me that I’ve had to degrade myself to contact you over Twitter. Is there really no other way to reach you?” I trust that by this point you know I understand the sentiment, but here is the truth, the raw truth for those of us who, as author Tim Bowling puts it, are “dragging the bloodied pelt of the twentieth century” behind us: social media is simply an exchange. A hand reaching out across a shrinking globe to create and participate in community. How does Alice not fall down the rabbit hole? If I ever find out, I’ll let you know. Sometimes I feel like I’m leasing space down there.

But here is what I also know to be true, as the academic world shifts shape into something new: there is a way to marry the two, and still retain the integrity and traditions of the former.

Last year, I was in Washington at the American Historical Association meeting, and my colleague was attending the Modern Language Association convention in New York. As I followed the conference hashtags, what struck me was just how many academics were reaching out to each other in kind and positive ways. During the worst of the January storms, there were offers of child-minding services for presenters if daycares were closed, promises to post grad student papers online if they couldn’t attend their sessions, and gentle reminders to tenured professors that a drink and a chat with a vulnerable adjunct can go a long way.

Can you fall down the rabbit hole, Alice? God help you, yes.

But you can also find support in an online community that will help you find and market your research, provide career advice, and offer opportunities to form new collaborations – often with a little humour thrown in for good measure. You just need to make sure you’re opening the Twitter handle to the right door.

To continue on Day One of the University Press Week Blog Tour, check out posts by these other fine university presses:

MIT Press
Blog: https://mitpress.mit.edu/blog
Twitter: @MITPress

Athabasca University Press
Blog: http://www.aupressblog.ca/
Twitter: @au_press

Rutgers University Press
Blog: https://www.rutgersuniversitypress.org/category/news/
Twitter: @RutgersUPress

Yale University Press
Blog: http://blog.yalebooks.com/
Twitter: @yalepress

Duke University Press
Blog: https://dukeupress.wordpress.com/2018/11/09/how-partnerships-with-museums-help-build-a-strong-art-list
Twitter: @DukePress

University of Minnesota Press
Blog: uminnpressblog.com
Twitter: @UMinnPress

Thank you for supporting university press publishing!

The Sound of History: A Chronicle of Captain Eddie McKay

University of Toronto Press commemorates 100 years since the end of the First World War by curating a selection of new and recent books that remind us of our nation’s history, courage, and sacrifice. Notable amongst these titles is One in a Thousand: The Life and Death of Captain Eddie McKay, Royal Flying Corps by Graham Broad.

Broad’s lively chronicle of Eddie McKay, a varsity athlete at Western University, who flew with the Royal Flying Corps, doubles as an engaging meditation upon the historical process. The biography ends with four unsolved events in McKay’s life. These mysterious tales remind us that even the most detailed account of a person’s life is never complete.

We’re proud to present a recording of Broad reading perhaps the most dramatic of these tales, “The Woman.” The short mystery has been divided into several instalments. Like the radio serials that were all the rage in McKay’s time, we will post a new audio track every day leading up to Remembrance Day – so you can enjoy the sound of history.

Introduction

Part One: The Woman

Part Two: Who Was Maud Palmer?

Part Three: An Unexpected Possibility

Part Four: A Case of Mistaken Identity

Part Five: The Mystery Returns

Part Six: It’s Not Impossible

Coda