Thesis Re-Visited

[It’s] a popular notion, that it is exclusively suffering that produces good work, or insightful work.  I don’t think that’s the case. I think in a certain sense, it’s  a trigger, or a lever. But I think good work is produced in spite of suffering, and as a response, as a victory over suffering.

Leonard Cohen

I had the idea to read through my thesis, and post excerpts on my blog; I may still do that.  As always, I hesitate; I think that some of this work is of high quality, but I wonder how it will be received. I talked about my thesis and agonized over it for so long, that I’m not sure anything I could have created would have been worth the fuss I made about it. Then again, the only arbriter that really matters at the end of the day – my supervisor – gave me an A- on it. So I’m not really sure what I’m worried about in that regard. I suppose putting one’s work out there will always feel like an act of incredible vulnerability.

Reading my thesis in preparation for posting it reminds me of how far removed I am from the academic world; I admit that this reminder is somewhat disheartening. I’d have to read and study for months before I would become as well-versed in the theoretical language and literature as I was when I wrote the thesis. Furthermore, I don’t see myself having the opportunity to write something like that and become immersed in the acts of learning and creation anytime soon; I may not have an opportunity like that ever again.  I suppose my hesitation to post my thesis is borne from that sentiment as well, which isn’t exactly regret; I’ve just become aware that there’s a gap between where I am, and where I want to be, and I’d rather not think about it.  At the present time though, I’m a still a little too weary from the struggle to get through school to knit that yarn into motivation to go back.

Although there are ideas and passages in this piece that I wish I could have developed further, in some ways, that doesn’t really matter; what matters most to me about this work is that I finished it at all. I wrote it during a tumultuous time in my life, during which I was suffering from clinical depression and anxiety disorders. Hence, the Leonard Cohen quote above: this work is important to me for its merits as a piece of undergraduate-level scholarship, and because I see the completion of this project as a “victory over suffering.” I may always struggle with my mind, but this serves as a reminder that I can still (with a hell of a lot of effort, time, and support) complete the work I set out to do.

That’s what I’ll remember this piece for; this piece, with all of its glorious imperfection. Maybe one day I’ll regard the time of my life during which I wrote it as being “gloriously imperfect” as well.

——————————

After thinking and writing about it, I’ve decided to post excerpts from my thesis after all. These can be found on the following pages:

Dance Macabre: Women’s Experiences in Burlesque Excerpt 1 (Introductory Chapter)

Dance Macabre: Women’s Experiences in Burlesque  Excerpt 2 (Research Methods Chapter)

Status Update

I’m inching towards the finish line on my thesis (slowly, somewhat mindfully at times, and accompanied by my “study buddies” at others). But still. Progress is being made, and I can look at some of my writing without wondering what the hell I was thinking and wanting to puke at sight of my own supposed scholarly inadequacy.  When I read through a few of the passages in my text, I sort of half-smile while wishing I had a bit more time to develop my thoughts.  That might not count for much to some people, but if in the process of evaluating work I don’t experience nausea and simply wish to do more, I know I’m getting somewhere (this means that I’m essentially thinking, “my work doesn’t suck as badly as it used to! Hooray!” Yes, I’m discussing my feelings of inadequacy and sense of self as “mediocre” in therapy).

Moreover, for anyone in the audience who is familiar with Steven Pressfield’s concept of “resistance,” I do believe I kicked its ass soundly today. I know it’ll still be there ringing in my ears tomorrow, but maybe when I sit down to write then, I’ll be like an action-flick heroine; I’ll be well aware that it wants to do me in, and I’ll give it its due. But I’ll also soar into the ring on a happy cloud made up of my previous successes, perform a 35+ move combo and a killer finishing move, and run its ass into the ground. That will happen. But now I’m going to bed.

Great Work Provocations: The Inner Critic

Every weekday, I receive a note in my inbox from Box of Crayons, an organization that develops productivity tools for businesses and individuals.  Their daily notes, called the “Great Work Provocations” consist of a phrase or two that is designed to get you thinking about your goals and work habits. Today’s “Provocation” was particularly relevant to my work situation, and it looked like this:

“We all have our own ‘inner critic’, whispering things like, “don’t try it” and “who do you think you are?” and “you’re going to be found out” and generally beating you up. Awareness that this is not the truth just a voice in your head is half the battle. What’s your critic saying today? What’s the alternative perspective?”

My critic is surprisingly quiet today, but it seems to have become louder now that I’ve sit down with the intention to actually do something.  It provokes physical anxiety and tension: fidgeting, the desire to get up and do something else, held breath, and a furrowed brow.  Today it likes to tell me that I’m wasting my time, and that I’ll never accomplish what I want to; I’ll never be a writer, and I’m certainly not a creative person.

What is the alternative perspective? I could say that I am a creative person; I’ve had quite a few ideas already today, which is why I was motivated to sit down and write in the first place. They weren’t specifically related to my paper per se, but I did think of ways to organize the information I was reading yesterday, and I could draw connections between concepts presented in multiple texts. I even thought of ways to relate my “academic” reading to a more enjoyable text on BDSM.  This text, The New Topping Book by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy, has been particularly thought-provoking, since it’s one of the few books I’ve seen that frames BSDM play in a quasi-feminist ethos, while admitting (and delighting in) explorations of one’s “dark side” in a coherent manner.  The dominant discourse on kink/BDSM seems to be characterized by gender essentialism and post-feminism, so this was a refreshing take on the subject.

Now the voice inside my head is chastizing me for taking a little while to get my thoughts on that book out there, and is once again criticizing me for procrastinating and wasting my time. To which I say, “How am I wasting my time? I’m starting to think about the topics I want to explore in my more “serious” writing, in a low-risk format. That seems like a great idea to me.”

In the meantime, my body beckons for sustenance, so I’m going to call a “time out” on this internal battle to deal with that.

Dance Macabre: Performances of Gender and Sexuality within Sub-cultural Spaces

Proposed Topic of Study

I am interested in studying “burlesque” subcultures to determine why local women are engaging in a practice that can alternatively be read as a “simplistic display of the flesh” or a form of social critique (Nally, 2009, p. 622).  Arguably, the local burlesque subculture does both; it is exemplified by groups such as the Fake Moustache Drag King Troupe, and those involved in the annual variety show “Demonika’s Symphony of Horrors.” Although some burlesque troupes perform gender in more or less “straightforward” ways, others take up the art form’s historical use of satire, “performing” gender in ironic, “campy,” exaggerated, or “humorous” ways to critique gender norms (Nally, 2009, pp. 622 – 3,631 – 3). I am interested in understanding why local women are engaging in these practices. Do they offer a form of “freedom” from conventional femininity, allowing women to embrace “composite” sexualities and explore their desires (as some theorists claim)(Nally, 2009, p. 628)? What are these performances intended to signify within these subcultures, and how are they taken up by those outside the subculture (ie, by friends outside of these subcultures, co-workers, authority figures)? How do women negotiate their sexualized “subculture” identities with other social roles? Although “burlesque” groups in the UK and United States have received some attention from academics (and feminists), this project presents an opportunity to understand how local women are engaging with broader cultural trends.

Working Literature Review

From the literature I have reviewed so far, it seems like the topic of “sexualized self-presentations” (typified in neo-burlesque, as well as websites such as Suicide Girls, God’s Girls, etc) tend to be studied from a “post-structuralist feminist” and/or “critical race feminist” perspective (Magnet, 2007, p. 577; Nally, 2009, p. 622). Many of these perspectives discuss possibilities for agency within these “cultural” practices, yet express anxiety about the “libratory” potential of such practices when “subculture identities” have become commodified, and “meaning-making” of women’s identity work is an intersubjective process (and thus not entirely within individual women’s purview) (Magnet, 2007, p. 593, Nally, 2006, pl 621; Pitts, 2003, p. 73). On the other hand, the study of “body modification” itself is not always explicitly framed in “feminist” or “post-structuralist” terms; some approaches to the study of body modification “de-emphasize” these “politicized” readings, to focus on the ways in which “body projects” facilitate and gain meaning within social “figurations” (Atkinson, as cited by Pitts, 2004, pp. 382-3). Of course, there are also interesting perspectives from feminism and queer theory (Pitts, 2003, p. 87). The concept of the “queered body” might provide a useful way to read some of the more “non-heteronormative” gender work I might come across in my study (Pitts, 2003, p. 91).

Preliminary Research Questions:

  • Do these women’s  “performances of femininity” constitute a self-conscious “performance” of gender?
  • What meanings are encoded onto burlesque performers’ gendered, sexualized, and possibly modified bodies?
  • How are these messages “read” by women themselves, other subculture participants, and those outside the subculture?
  • Are these projects/performances indented to “subvert” the male gaze?
  • Are these women engaged in “stylistic,” “discursive” or “behavioural” resistance, or some combination of all of these (LeBlanc, 1999, pp. 17 – 18)?
  • Do they “succeed” in doing so (and what constitutes “success”)?
  • How and why do women engage with “grotesque” representations of femininity (Braunberger, as cited by Magnet, 2007, p. 581)?
  • Do women experience burlesque performances as acts of sexual transgression or eroticism (Pitts, 2003, p. 99)?

Preliminary Methods:

Qualitative Interview:

  • Population: women involved in body modification and burlesque subcultures in Calgary
  • Sampling method: Purposive/judgmental or snowball sampling; ie, “word of mouth”, postings on Facebook and mailing lists ) (Baxter & Babbie, 2004, pp. 134 – 5)
  • Obtain 3 – 5 participants
  • One semi-structured interview with each participant, one hour in length (Baxter & Babbie, 2004, pp. 329 – 330)
  • Topics: how do they define/describe themselves, personal or social significance of body modification, experiences within either the “burlesque” or “body modification” subcultures, gender identification, whether or not gender is important in one’s “embodied practices,” how they feel about their social location (as a “woman,” “performer,” “body modifier” etc.), experiences of sexual harassment/abuse as a result of their “different” identities (presuming they describe themselves as such)
  • Possible questions/prompts:
    • Can you tell me about experiences within (a particular “scene”)? (Baxter & Babbie, 2004, pp. 329 – 330)
    • How did you develop/create (a body modification or performance)?
    • Tell me more about (an experience/concept the participant identified) (Baxter & Babbie, 2004, pp. 329 – 330)
    • What does (a symbol such as an article of clothing, a particular body modification, or an event such as a performance) mean to you?
    • How do you think women typically experience (a scene, body modification, performance)?
    • Do you think women tend to experience sex/sexuality differently than men? In what ways?

Working Bibliography

Baxter, L.A., & Babbie, E. (2004). The Basics of Communication Research. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Leblanc, L. (1999). Pretty in Punk: Girls’ Gender Resistance in a Boys Subculture. Piscastaway, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Magnet, S. (2007). Feminist Sexualities, Race, and the Internet: An Investigation of SuicideGirls.com. New Media and Society, 9(4), 577 – 602. Doi: 10.1177/1461444807080326

Nally, C. (2009). Grrrly Hurly Burly: Neo-Burlesque and the Performance of Gender. Textual Practice, 23(4), 621 – 643. Doi: 10.1080/09502360903000554

Pitts, V.L. & Atkinson, M. (2004). Review Symposium: Health and Body Modification. Health: An Interdisciplinary Journal for the Social Study of Heath, Illness, and Medicine, 8(3), 373 – 386. Doi: 10.1177/1363459304043479

Pitts, V.L. (2003). In the Flesh: The Cultural Politics of Body Modification. New York, N.Y.: Palgrave Macmillan.

The Death of the Lover.

I just saw a production of Miss Saigon for stage, and I am trying to work through my reactions to it. The first act played as an ordinary “waiting for your prince” drama, except with some racist/anti-communist overtones as well. The second act seemed to problematize the first; it played like a Greek tragedy in that all of the characters seemed less like racist/gendered stereotypes, and more like ordinary people who were trying to do the best they could with the information they had, in a situation that could not add up to a happy ending. In the end, I appreciated the efforts to problematize some of the patriotism evident in the first act and some of the gender stereotyping (even if some of the racism wasn’t really dealt with; I seem to remember something in my sociology text about Vietnamese Canadians protesting the way they were portrayed in a Toronto production of Miss Saigon, so I don’t think I’m too off the mark when I suggest that that the racialized characters were stereotyped).

I alternatively identified with and despised the heroine; she falls in love with an American GI after inspiring him with her innocence after he had resisted being corrupted by the seedy underbelly of Saigon. He promises to return to her so they can consummate their love and live happily ever after, even proving his masculinity in the face of her racialized betrothed. She waits for him; after singing many songs about how he (and another man/boy, their son) is all she lives for, she bravely (?) speaks of her hopes for her future, and the redemptive power of their love. She waits for him; at one point I thought to myself, “let me know how that works out for you,” anticipating that she would somehow sacrifice her life while hanging on to something that would never materialize. In the end, it never does because her man convinces himself that he can start over with his American wife (whom I also identified with, as the “other woman”). Our heroine sacrifices herself through suicide; in the closing act the main characters hang their heads as Scylla and Charybdis look on. Who didn’t see either outcome occurring?

Of course, this is a (fairly straightforward and underdeveloped) critical/feminist analysis of the play. What most struck me was how almost all of the women in the play were either sex objects or victims; the racialized women (and men) simply had even fewer choices than say, the American GI and his wife. While some would say “that’s what happens in a war,” I would say, yeah, it does – but why does this have to happen at all, and how does the play perpetuate the idea that This Is The Way Things Have To Be? What bothered me the most was the heroines’ insistence that “love would conquer all,” although I am not certain if the play ultimately endorses or questions ideologies of Romantic Love. Although most of the play seemed to be trumpeting the redemptive powers of love (and American idealism) in the face of corruption, the death scene in the end could be read as a confirmation of this ideology (she dies, but their love lives on in the child that is saved) or refutes it (look what happens when you believe in this sort of thing). Similarly, by portraying an American GI as a hero (and the betrothed as easily corruptible and power hungry) the play seems to be lamenting the “tragedies of war” without really criticizing the Americans’ role in constructing this tragedy in the first place (while the Vietnamese, on the other hand, are either corrupted or “pure” and in need of the American’s “salvation,” which is where the charges of “racism” apply. Of course, this isn’t to suggest that I think the Vietnamese were entirely in the right either; some “leftist” interpretations of the Vietnam war – as one of Imperialistic aggression – are problematic/overly-simplistic as well). On the other hand, even our hero makes calculations that the play positions as selfish (while the married couple want to blindly start over in the US with Kim’s child, the “chorus” – the GI’s friend – warns them that they are being selfish by choosing to forget about our heroine Kim).

In the end, although our hero does fall victim to hubris, yet I am not sure that admitting to the individual soldiers’ moral failings adds up to a criticism of the US’s role in the war in and of itself; the fact that Vietnamese are never really portrayed as anything but helpless or corrupt puts doubt into my mind that this is a critique of “the US’s involvement in the Vietnam war” or just “the tragedy of war” itself. My gut feeling, and the bit of analysis I have done, leads me towards the latter conclusion. I suggest that our hero’s moral failings make him a hero in the sense that Achilles was – his “humanity” is there to make him seem like someone to whom the audience can relate, but it is not a vulnerability that calls the American’s involvement in the war itself into question.

I kind of want to go back to my reaction to the play’s endorsement/possible questioning of ideologies of romantic love; although I was critical of portrayals of communists as mindless and racialized “others” as victims, my reaction to the idea of “love” in the play was definitely coming from a more emotional place. I initially dismissed the relationship between the American GI, Chris, and the heroine, Kim; in one night of passion they fall in love and dream of building a life together. Oh please, I thought to myself; although I could appreciate how one could fall in love in an obviously desperate situation, I was already thinking that their long-term prospects were pretty grim. To compare possible outcomes, I submit the film Hedwig and the Angry Inch. For those who don’t know the film, our hero from the wrong side of the Berlin Wall is a beautiful young boy with an abusive mother and few prospects in life. He falls in love/lust with an American GI, and goes through a sketchy sex-change operation so he can marry the GI and leave Berlin. Hedwig ultimately finds her/himself abandoned in a trailer park, confused about her gender identity, and betrayed by the American dream when she finally arrives in the USA (no doubt, this film is playing with the ways in which gendered relationships are portrayed within more “conventional” films about war; this more cynical/critical reading of the American imperialistic wars and relationships between the genders definitely suits my sensibilities a bit more). However, when I realized that my reaction to Miss Saigon had something to do with my own experiences with Romantic Love and was not entirely made on intellectual grounds, I decided that I would consider the possibility that our heroine’s death could be read in a few ways (although there is definitely a reading I favor).

I’ll discuss the emotional reaction soon; this reaction notwithstanding, my final verdict on “gender in Miss Saigon” is similar to that of my (underdeveloped) analysis of race. It is not much of a stretch to imagine that a film that generally portrays women as helpless victims who need to be saved by American men and only find a sense of agency when they align themselves with men is *actually* trading on gendered stereotypes and re-enforcing ideologies of romantic love instead of problematizing these. I do believe that the original play was made a number of years ago, before it was so common to portray gender roles and relationships in an “ironic” or cynical fashion (Hedwig does this brilliantly, IMHO); for that reason, my “straightforward” reading seems to be the more plausible one. Considering the other possibility (as I said I would), it seems to be a bit of a stretch to imagine that the death scene in the end is suggesting that women shouldn’t wait for their hero, when most of the dramatic and emotional content of the movie comes from her longing, not any sense of agency she might have. It would be a different movie, if say, she tried to start over in the same way as her man did (granted, I am not entirely sure what her options would have been in that situation; maybe waiting for him was her best choice, and my underdeveloped feminist analysis should therefore rest in peace as well). It is difficult for me to imagine that this play isn’t saying anything about love that hasn’t been repeated again and again within Western culture – and like Romeo and Juliet, they do find themselves together in the end, if briefly.

My final verdict? This is a play about the power of love between a man and a woman in the “modern” setting of the Vietnam war (making a critical analysis based on race possible); yet it doesn’t seem to be offering any ideas about love that we haven’t seen before. It suggests that Love has the power to “redeem” the corrupt or emotionally damaged, yet in order for it to persist someone (usually a woman) must sacrifice herself for the other (others have noticed that this “self-sacrificial love” is a very “Christian” form of love as well; I will not get into that reading in much detail, simply because I don’t feel like I have the background in religion to make a compelling case for interpretation as well. I bring that reading up because it is definitely related to the gendered analysis above inasmuch as some readings of the Bible can be said to be responsible for some of the ideas we have about gender now).

For the time being I am going to hold off on getting to involved in analyzing the “emotional” aspect of my response to this play. However, it is probably obvious to anyone who knows me that my cynicism towards Romantic Love is not entirely unrelated to my own experiences believing in the self-defeating ideas the heroine of Miss Saigon held. In short, I believed that I also sacrificed a bit of my life as I held on to something that would never materialize. I appreciate the play for being honest about what that belief will do to a person of any gender, even if it doesn’t suggest any alternatives (ie, holding onto the idea that someone is going to come along and save you is probably going to end up in a wasted life – metaphorically or literally – and a broken heart). Quite honestly, I really liked the ending (and the entire second act) because although it wasn’t obviously critical, ironic, or cynical, it did seem to call the purpose of the war and at least some of the American’s idealism/hubris into question (even while trading on racialized and gendered stereotypes). Quite honestly, while death is a Romantic ending as well (and it is Romanticism I doubt), I preferred that to another possible ending (the GI and the heroine move to the USA and live happily ever after). Quite honestly, I would have thrown up or laughed uproariously if that had happened, and no one would have wanted that.

To a certain extent, I don’t expect to see a love story that plays into my sensibilities and thinking on Love because I think most people want to believe in True Love, even if I’ve rejected the possibility. A story that casts doubt on the possibility of “True Love” would be a story so depressing I wouldn’t even want to watch it (at the end of the day, even I want to think I experienced it, even if it was painful and ended terribly). I write about these issues because I am time and again reminded that I have become deeply cynical, and even I am surprised by this. I am starting to think that my own experiences with Romantic Love changed me in ways that probably aren’t reversible, and that’s a bit of a scary thought. At the same time, as a Canadian woman who is not trapped in a war, I realize that I have the opportunity to analyze my past and make choices. I don’t have to re-live victim scripts; although I am severely emotionally fucked-up, I hesitate to claim that I am a “victim” per se (if only because I realize that I am fucked up; a realization that lends itself to the possibility of agency, even if I have no idea about what to do about it yet. That’s probably why I’m looking for answers in plays and movies, come to think of it). At any rate, it is ironic (or inevitable?) that the ideology of Romantic Love has taken yet another female victim (even an unwilling one), and I realize that experience and my subsequent rejection of this ideology informs how I see and act in the world (including how I analyze media). If I were a modernist thinker, I would say something about this experience indicating the existence of some sort of paradigm, but I am not arrogant enough to think that my situation has much to do with that of actual Vietnamese women. Of course, I may have a bit in common with the “Vietnamese Woman” as constructed through hegemonic discourses (but only the “woman” part, not the “Vietnamese” piece); to the extent that women are constructed through these discourses as passive victims, I could be occasioning some sort of “survivor identity” in a misguided, artificial act of resistance (I’m sure there is a Lacanian analyst out there who has come up with one that applies to me).

At this point, I should be applying my critical thinking skills and my tenuous grasp on post-modern thought to my assignments. For anyone who might be hoping for it, this means I am not going to do any more probing into my emotional state (at least, I won’t be writing anything I care to make public). Part of my “act of resistance” (or, alternatively, evidence of complicity with a victim script) is a disavowal of anything approaching vulnerability. What I’ve said here is about as good as it gets in terms of any “willingness to be human.” I could write something about an unwillingness to be vulnerable indicating an internalized sense of misogynist self-loathing; alternatively, I also suspect that my entire analysis and the feminist perspective it articulates may be an example of slave morality, in the Nietzschean sense. However, those are pieces for another time.

Creating discourse, not debate.

The following is a response to itinerantink‘s reflections on the role of a peer mentor. According to her, although teachers and mentors should encourage genunine learning, contemporary educational institutions encourage students to “compete and perform” to promote the school’s reputation and provide workers to industry. She argues that the latter objective constraints teachers, creating classroom settings that discourage intellectual curiosity and produce anxiety and fear of failure among students. This resonates with feminist concerns about “othered” groups who are “silenced” within mainstream discourses and institutions, including academia, so I explored the parallels in a response to her post, which I am reproducing here.

“Random Thoughts” (the blog of Louis Schmier, cited by Itinerantink) reminds me of an article I’ve read in Women’s Studies, called “Negotiating Power Within the Classroom: The Example of Group Work” by Linda Briskin. She claims power dynamics exist within the classroom because teachers and students come into the classroom with particular experiences based on their gender/racial/ethnic/national/sexual identity, and have various levels of physical and intellectual abilities. These characteristics shape how and what they were taught, and how they interact with members of uniquely-identified classmates. Although conventional educational models fail to recognize these differences in order to promote “equality” within the classroom, she argues that this approach re-enforces privilege instead. Although Shmier doesn’t claim that students become different from one another because they are situated within various systems of oppression, he arrives at a similar conclusion: in order to create a classroom in which students feel valued and free to share ideas without fear, they need to be treated as individual human beings, with life histories, personalities, talents, and limitations.

Briskin also develops a couple of strategies to promote a “safe” classroom, advising teachers to “name” power dynamics when they occur. Not only should teachers discourage sexist/racist language and encourage silent students to speak, but the class in general – and the “louder” students in particular – needs to engage in discussion and reflection in order to determine why some students feel a entitled to dominate the discussion, and others do not. She also suggests that teachers should allow students to work in same-sex groups, arguing that female students tend to develop more confidence and take more risks when they work this way (she supports this with empirical research). She doesn’t say that everyone within these groups will get along; it often happens that the differences in power along other lines become more apparent. But once these differences are recognized and students actually get a chance to see how they play out, students can begin to reflect critically on who they are and begin to question what they’d taken for granted. When students understand that everyone else is not the same as they are (and nor should they be) they can ideally engage in constructive, creative discourse.

My experience in Women’s Studies classrooms resonates with her analysis. I’ve grown far more as a researcher, critical thinker, and become more creative since I’ve changed my major and worked in classes dominated by female students. Although that’s likely part of a “growing up” process that would have occurred anyways, I attribute a lot of that growth to the safety, encouragement and sense of belonging I’ve found in Women’s Studies classes. The space Shmier describes exists in these settings. There is a unspoken agreement within these classes that all students should be respected, and individual voices matter. There’s an understanding that competition/debate does not facilitate intellectual curiosity, but turn classrooms into a contest in which the only people who speak are the confident/charismatic – which in our culture, tends to be men/majority races or the disproportionately smaller number of women who were socialized to be this way. I find it unfortunate that I have never enjoyed this space to really be myself and find my “academic voice” within a classroom, and therefore agree with Shmier’s point – there is no reason this environment couldn’t exist within classrooms that teach more “conventional” subjects.

However, the experiences of the sessional instructors I’ve known suggests that there isn’t much room within the academy for the critical pedagogue. Like Shmier, Briskin addresses the institutional factors contributing to silence/lack of safety within the classroom. She argues for policy changes to address discrimination and what would probably be diversity/sensitivity training/instructions in critical pedagogy for teachers.

This purpose of this comment isn’t to review my text material, but draw parallels between oft-maligned (not by you, but by many others!) feminist thought and ideas that do not explicitly employ a critical perspective but arrive at similar conclusions. Her points about the merit of same-sex groups and naming suggest practical ways to develop “substantive” equality within the classroom. It’s notable that these ideas contradict a lot of the practices we experienced in the classroom; in the interest of treating everyone the same, many talented and troubled students were overlooked in order to get them off to the next grade to become another teacher’s problem. The practices are disappointing, because arguably, that’s how many students come to see themselves: as inconveniences. I see this in you and I, and the many students who are afraid to speak up in class, apologize before making a comment, and become quietly disillusioned with a university education that promised far more than it delivered.

You expressed interest in becoming a teacher here, and I’ve considered the idea as well; but you’ve likely also wondered how much difference one teacher can make within an institutional framework that encourages grade-grubbing, has little time for critical thinking activities, and awards degrees to those who enter the institution with privilege more frequently than those who do not. At the same time, there is an idealistic side of me that sees the potential in teaching, and would be happy to become a “Dr. Dube” to students who may otherwise fail to see why their education matters. It’s a position that asks one to challenge their own beliefs about who they are, what change they can affect, and what their responsibilities to other people should be within a world that honors uniqueness and creativity. I think it would be exciting to become that person who offers the space for “deep learning” that our experiences largely failed to provide. Now that I have a greater appreciation for where you and I once were, and what we’ve managed to achieve, I’m know I want to validate that understanding within the work that I do; teaching (with a critical perspective) would provide a means of doing so. If I can resist the urge to run off and join the circus or become a dirty traveling hippie instead, teaching is a viable option – institutional constraints be damned.

My final point is this: speaking of dirty traveling hippies, have you noticed a co-relation between “being an awesome teacher” and “having a history as some sort of social misfit”? I can probably think of ten Robin Williams movies based on that premise alone, so that association must have something to it (and like any Comms student worth their student loan, I know that if any sort of social phenomena shows up in popular culture, it must be significant)!

Reflections on “A Room of One’s Own”

In “A Room of One’s Own,” Virginia Woolfe’s employs a narrative of her travels throughout London articulate her explanation for the paucity of female writers throughout history, and the lack of great masterpieces among those that did have the opportunity to set pen to paper. She argues that women have never engaged in creative projects because throughout history, they have consistently lacked appropriate space, sufficient material resources, and the social support necessary to become geniuses. Although Woolfe idealizes the act of creation as a path towards transcendence, for women in particular the creative process as a consistent struggle against one’s own intellectual and emotional limitations, as well as material constraints. In this essay, I will outline Woolfe’s opinions regarding the preconditions to creativity, and the significance of favorable external circumstances to finding one’s own voice. I found her discussion about the importance of confidence and material stability in the creative process to be particularly illuminating in terms of my own experiences as a writer; her observations have confirmed some of my suspicions about why this has been a personal struggle. Since writing is such an integral component of academic work, I identified with the difficulties inherent to finding one’s own voice, yet I agree with Woolfe’s assertion the struggle is necessary for the development of culture and is worthwhile on an individual level as well. Woolfe’s analysis of the creative difficulties faced by women is as relevant today as it was in her time.

By discussing female writers of the past, Woolfe illuminates the effects of that intangible quality of confidence on the creative process; one must have a strong belief in themselves before they can even attempt to create. Studying in empty libraries until the late hours of the morning can feel like a lonely process even one is not actively discouraged from undertaking such projects; Woolfe herself understands how writing can seem futile when the wider culture doesn’t take one’s views seriously. However, in Woolfe’s time male writers, as well as many women, mocked intelligent women or encouraged them to graciously accept their inferiority. The pressure and rewards of conforming to such opinions would have been close to impossible to avoid, and it would have been easy to lose oneself in the midst of such animosity. In the present time, it is still difficult for women to achieve material wealth and enjoy creative freedom, but our culture tends to accept that women will make the effort and often encourages this. One can take the present situation for granted quite easily. Woolfe unapologetically admonishes women who fail to take advantage of the opportunities they do have to learn and create. Although her lecture may be a bit unfair to women then and now that still struggle to become materially independent, as a writer I appreciated how strongly she believed in women’s capacity to make that commitment to themselves. Many of the precursors necessary to independence are difficult for women to obtain, since some material circumstances are beyond individual women’s control (her treatment of class is limited to that extent; not many women are fortunate enough to receive an inheritance, and structural conditions inhibit women’s earning potential). However, it’s worthwhile to remember that despite circumstances, women can access an inner resolve that can help them through the difficult process of creation. This opinion resonates with my experience; although social support is important, I have learned that I ultimately have to believe in what I do if I am going to create anything that might matter to others. I appreciate how she respects women enough to ask them to take responsibility for their art; if women can choose to believe in themselves, they can move beyond feeling victimized by circumstance and create their own reality instead.

I found it difficult to reconcile Woolfes idea of “feminine knowledge” with her emphasis on elemental truth. By encouraging women to write of their experiences with integrity, Woolfe attempts to revalue women’s experiences, perhaps to inspire confidence among her contemporaries. She catalogues the unexplored corners of women’s experience with excitement, and even argues that if given enough time, women writers would eventually develop their own language and literary devices to articulate their experiences and perspectives. But as long as a mind retained any semblance of a “gendered” perspective, it would seem to lack the objectivity that Woolfe admires in the writing of Shakespeare or Austen. With her notion of the androgynous mind, she appears to argue that there are at least two essential truths, masculine and feminine, that achieve “incandescence” only when tempered with attributes of the opposite sex. But her argument leads to a differentiation of the sexes on an epistemological basis, instead of a union. She also suggests that women’s increasing material prosperity and independence would enhance the development of a separate form of feminine knowledge, literature and communication techniques; yet women and men would discard the sex-consciousness that she feels limited artistic work of her time. Men and women of the future would think differently, but they would not be so concerned with justifying themselves. History since her time seems to indicate that this is not the case; women who enter the public sphere may achieve material success, but they still struggle to maintain their integrity in a world built on masculine values. Sex-consciousness is at least as relevant for both genders today as it was in her time. If the androgynous mind can most accurately apprehend truth, our culture has yet to develop a method for both genders to move past their own particular prejudices, despite the affluence of our culture in general. Perhaps this is a result of the inequalities that remain; the material condition of women has improved, but perhaps not enough to move beyond the phase of mutual animosity between the genders.

Her idea of transcendence is a form of unity that respects differences in perspectives and experience among men and women. Although our culture hasn’t achieved this ideal, the possibility that women can achieve creative success and maintain their sense of self is an attractive promise. She encourages her contemporaries to believe that their experiences and ideas have an important relationship with a deeper truth. It’s unfortunate that such a positive evaluation of women’s experiences is still so necessary within our culture today. She acknowledges the difficulties of maintaining integrity within an apathetic or hostile culture; her examination of the resulting inner struggle resonated with me. Until one is materially independent it is easy to unconsciously fear the disapproval of caretakers and confidantes, and take that fear into all of life’s activities. Writing in particular can be particularly emotionally problematic if a person lives in such fear; in my experience writing has become a way to become aware of those internal limitations and change those beliefs. Woolfe addresses process of self-awareness when she contemplates the limitations of women’s work, and notices how her perspective towards men changed when she became materially self-sufficient. She became less angry and resentful, and acknowledged men for their humanity. But confidence and self-respect are so integral to understanding; until one accepts their own humanity they cannot begin to appreciate another’s. In my opinion, this is one of Woolfe’s most profound insights; you cannot even begin to apprehend elemental or historical truths until you truly believe you are an important part of this reality.

Woolfe’s work has some limitations; for example she claims that the English woman is so insignificant that no one would even want to “civilize” a black woman according to that standard. That comment seemed racist, but her analysis of gender and class disparities suggests a writer who was attempting to look beyond the limitations of her culture. Although she didn’t always succeed, her analyses of gender and class disparities were often insightful. By applying these insights to the creative process, the limitations of gendered understandings and class experiences seem personally relevant. She speaks as a woman who genuinely understands the struggle to create and achieve freedom from one’s illusions, and suggests that this is possible – but only if one is willing to fully invest their heart and spirit into the process.