Welcome back to the live-blogging series. At part eighteen we’re on the final stretch — only four weeks left after today! If the comments I’ve been getting are any indication, folks have been enjoying the project. Do drop me a line (feministlibrarian [at] gmail [dot] com) or leave suggestions in comments if you have any recent works you’d like to see given similar space for conversation here. I think anthologies work especially well — since there are discrete pieces — but I’m open to other ideas as well.
This week, I’m offering reflections on Diandra Jurkic-Walls’ essay “Mistakes I Didn’t Know I was Making,” which reflects on her experience in a Master’s program in Women’s Studies at a university in Canada after completing her undergraduate degree in Canadian History. As you’ll see below, she found her ability to bring together her feminist methodology with the framework demanded by the university system frustrating and, ultimately, unsuccessful. As someone who just finished a grad program myself — with a lot of ambivalence about academia along the way — this piece was close to my own experience in some ways, and very divergent in others. Like Jurkic-Walls, my coming-of-age as an adult feminist was intimately tied to my experiences in undergraduate school, and the struggle I had to legitimize my work within the framework of academic expectations. She writes:
I felt like I spent much of my time in conflict with what I was being taught (and how it was being taught to me). I didn’t understand how I was supposed to fit in, or even if I should.
It was being in this space, she argues, “that helped me define who I was as a feminist, especially because it gave me something to define myself against” (138-139).
MISTAKES I DIDN’T KNOW I WAS MAKING: OR ‘A PORTRAIT OF A FEMINIST AS A YOUNG ACADEMIC,” OR EVEN, “BATTLESTAR ACADEMICA”: A SHORT ESSAY ABOUT MY TIME IN GRAD SCHOOL WHERE I WAS TRAINED TO COME UP WITH LONG WITTY TITLES FOR MY WRITING (AMONG OTHER THINGS) by Diandra Jurkic-Walls (pp. 137-148).
p. 138 – “I’m supposed to believe from these shows [i.e. Gilmore Girls] that it’s my destiny to attend [college] and more importantly that I have ready and easy access because I am white.” While I’m not sure being white is the only criteria for easy access to college (she’s talking here, too, about prestigious colleges particularly) … but I do think there’s an interesting conversation to be had about norms and expectations regarding college and familial expectations by race, by class, by gender — and perhaps a similar conversation surrounding graduate school. As a third-generation college student, I definitely took for granted that I could access a college education if I wanted one. I also had a grandfather and an aunt in my family who had multiple advanced degrees, and it was seen as normal (and non-gendered) to pursue graduate school. In both college and graduate school I was confident I belonged there. The whys and wherefores of this confidence are situated in a complex matrix of cultural privileges.
p. 139 – “An introductory [Women’s Studies] class geared towards straight-out-of-high school teeny boppers who ‘know nothing’ about the oppression of women … when, really, high schoolers could teach everyone a thing or two about oppression.” Age-based oppression is one of my hobby horses, so I’m glad she brings it up here. As a teenager entering college I definitely drew parallels between children’s rights and feminist activism — more than feeling marginalized because of my gender, I knew the feeling of marginalization in my bones because of adult suspicion of and dismissive attitudes toward children. It would be fascinating, I think, to begin a “feminism 101” course by talking about discrimination against youth. It would be one type of marginalization guaranteed to be shared by all your students, no matter their background.
p 140 – “I thought that all activists, all young women, and all feminists held these ideas, but what I didn’t realize until graduate school was how different these beliefs could be applied … or not applied at all.” The diversity within big-tent feminism can be really frustrating when you first encounter them. My personal favorite version of this is when I am challenged to “defend” certain feminist beliefs that, yes, some people hold in the name of feminism, but which I don’t believe are compatible with my own understanding of feminist philosophy or practice. And I really hate feeling helpless to stop someone dismissing feminism en toto for the sins of one sub-group — sins I agree are sins, but don’t believe represent feminism as a whole. Like lesbian separatism, transphobia, feminism that is hostile to care-givers or others with “feminine” roles in society, feminism that believes men can’t be feminists — and so on. It’s maddening to have people with what you see as poisonous beliefs on your team. (Hanna and I have recently developed the idea of trading un-desired team members for those we wish were on our team but aren’t — sort of like trading players in baseball. But obviously in real-life it doesn’t work like that!)
p. 141 -“I chose third-wave feminism because I feel/felt it is/was the kind of feminism I identify with.” What kind of feminism do you identify with, Harpies? I paused at this point, curious for myself, because I’m not sure what kind of feminism I feel most at home with — at least in terms of the usual groupings that get bandied about. I like sex-positivity in my feminism, as well as a healthy dose of queer-friendly politics. I want a strong emphasis on human rights and inclusion of folks based on philosophy and practice, rather than their external trappings or body type (men and trans folks most emphatically included!). Because I came to feminism through theology and history, I enjoy having a strong emphasis on ethics and an awareness of change through time. I most emphatically enjoy feminist thinkers who are radical — challenging the things we think we know about sex, gender, and what is “natural” or “given” at a fundamental level. But I don’t really have a quick-and-dirty label for that cluster of beliefs other than “feminism,” which just loops us back to where we started.
p. 141 – “Even though I passed my defence [sic], I feel like the changes I was asked to make to my final copy, and the manner in which they were requested somehow re-traumatized me to remember all the non-cool things that happened while I was in grad school.” I think it’s really hard when you’ve been an on-paper success at something (e.g. graduate school) to convince people you’re serious about being miserable with the experience. I certainly had this throughout my academic career, since I was able (without visible effort) to exceed the expectations of my faculty mentors while still carving out a space for myself in the programs I worked within. I rarely experienced the negative feedback Jurkic-Walls did — certainly not at the level of my master’s thesis — and yet I still felt a chronic alienation through the experience. That’s something which is very difficult to articulate when outsiders see your “success” and can’t understand your negative emotions.
p. 142 – “My general approach [in grad school] went something like this: ‘this is me, I’m a kid, I’m a feminist, I’m an activist, this is the third wave, I identify as third wave … hey ‘man’, can you accept me on my terms?’ And the obvious answer is ‘no.’ ” This is something I struggle with constantly — because I’m both an uncompromising idealist and a fairly fatalistic pragmatist. I think of this as the William Stringfellow side of my personality — the part of myself that continues to act with the radical “as if” the answer could be “yes,” but is profoundly un-surprised when the answer is, in fact, “no.” I walked into graduate school prepared to use the resources of graduate school to — as much as possible — get where I wanted to go: to do the research I wanted to do, and end up working where I wanted to work. I wasn’t interested in getting faculty buy-in with my goals (the enthusiasm I encountered was an additional perk) beyond being allowed to pursue my work, and I had no illusions that the graduate program I was in cared about the type of educational experience I was interested in — their commitments lay elsewhere, and I was just using them in counter-indicated ways.
Perhaps it would have been much more depressing to pursue an advanced degree in Women’s and Gender Studies? To attend graduate school in anticipation of finding fully-like-minded comrades there? I think I had my moment of disillusion on that score back in my first year in undergrad, as sad as that is to acknowledge.
p. 143 – “Women’s Studies (and any other department that studies oppression) is continuously isolated and ghettoized in the Academy … other departments didn’t consider us Gender Studies students as “real” academics when we were floating or teaching in other departments.” The WS program in my undergrad was made up almost entirely of cross-listed courses and faculty whose primary appointment was in another department. The director of the program was, if I remember correctly, only 1/3 FTE Women’s Studies — meaning she taught the intro course and was the de facto Department Chair and adviser for all WS students. This meant both that the WS courses were less liable to be defunded (they were cross-listed with more widely-supported departments, like English and History) and that WS-specific events and courses were vulnerable, and our Chair and the WS Council had to fight hard for dedicated resources. I’ve been invited back to campus next March to help them celebrate the 20th anniversary of the program, and I’ll be interested to see what the support on campus is like these days.
Those of you who took WS courses at any level — what was the support for it like on your campus?
p. 143 – “You cannot be a young feminist activist AND an academic. It’s the ultimate oxymoron.” What Jurkic-Walls is talking about here, I think, is that the rhetoric of activism is designed to elicit emotional buy-in to the cause: the example she uses is the use of “we” and “our” to refer to the collective experience of oppression. It’s a rallying cry for all of the people who identify as “we” to gather and push back. Whereas her professors challenged her to use precise, individualized language: “How could I say that I was trying to subvert and challenge the dominant patriarchy and then also rely on grouping feminists together to find an agreement on something … ?” The tools for solidarity, Jurkic-Walls felt, were being sacrificed in academia for the sake of specificity and the fear of speaking for anyone other than the individual author and her particular experience(s).
p. 144 – “It’s really hard to be a kid and go to grad school.” I was struck, throughout the piece, by the continual identification as a “kid,” despite the author being in her twenties. I’m fascinated by the slippery categories of “girl,” “woman,” “boy,” “man,” “kid,” “grown-up.” My age-mate friends and I are now in our late twenties to early thirties, yet we still continually talk about “grown-ups” as if they were people-not-us. This probably deserves a post (or several) of its own, but I think the personal, political, and cultural markers of youth and adulthood are complex and worthy of further thought.
p. 145 – “I was pretty much accused of being racist at my thesis defense and I definitely felt like I was being lambasted out of left field: how come no one in the four years of my being in grad school … suggested what I was tackling was way more problematic than I conceived it to be?” I thought this section was a really important one to the piece — possibly the most important, in that it’s an example of “how not to do it” for anyone who is involved in any way with the supervision of students. I echo Jurkic-Walls’ question: You challenged a student at her thesis defense about the premise of her entire thesis being racist? How in hell did this not come up before?? Clearly the faculty of her program failed in a major way in not helping her consider these issues during rather than at the end of her tenure as a student. WTF.
p. 147 – “Even though I developed positive relationships with second-wave feminist academics, the third-wave is still blamed for creating the divide between the old battle axes of feminism and the young ones.” Can I just say I wish this was a meme that could DIE. I loathe it. While I found the generations-based framework for dividing feminism to be of limited use in the late ’90s, I find it to be even more absurd today. The divisions within feminism — in both theory and practice — cut across the generations: there are sex-positive feminists in their seventies, there are radical anti-pornography feminists in their twenties; there were feminists in the 70s who focused on popular culture, there are feminists in college who are working hard to gain entry into male-dominated politics or join corporations and become high-profile CEOs. More and more I think the relevant divisions within feminism are in the realm of values and practice, not age or identity: it’s not who you are, but what you believe and how you live, that (I think) ultimately brings people together.
That’s all for this week. Join me next Tuesday for Jocelyn Formsma’s “My Journey to Indigenous Feminism,” where we’ll talk more about how identity and practice interact.