‘Tis the Season for Academic Shame

It’s mid-February: although the winter here on the West Coast has been unseasonably cold, spring is near, a hopeful thaw on the horizon. As the hours of daylight increase and the crocuses start to bloom, academics across the country are losing sleep, some with nails bitten to the quick, others with churning stomachs. Spring means SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada) and graduate-school-acceptance announcement season, and with it, either a quick dashing of dreams or a buoyant sense of relief once students and postdoctoral hopefuls open their letters.

This isn’t my first SSHRC-rodeo. One Masters’ application, five PhD applications (one successful!), and two postdoctoral applications later, I’ve gotten used to the inevitable long wait through autumn and winter and have even gotten used to the stomach-churning anxiety I always face when I am about to tear open that envelope. I am, happy to say, much better at dealing with the disappointment of unsuccessful applications. I can finally say, without pretense or posturing, that I think I do good work, and that my work matters. The more I’ve learned about the scarcity built into the academic system, and after having seen so many fellow brilliant scholars find themselves coming up empty-handed in funding cycles and in job applications, the easier I’ve found it to sigh and grumble about how the system is the problem, rather than me and my inherent failings as a scholar or as a person. Last year, only 156 out of 851 applications received postdoctoral fellowships. I know, in my heart of hearts, that it’s not “personal.” I know that it’s not about “me.”

Note that I said “easier,” not that it has become entirely easy. Like most academics, the lengthy time that I have spent within the ivory tower has meant that in one way or another, my identity and my feelings of self-worth have become enmeshed in my work and in others’ appraisals of it. I take my work seriously; always have. As a child who had few friends, excelling at school was my way of feeling good in the world; no matter how many times I was excluded from social events, I knew that I could work towards the satisfaction of a report card full of As. Of course, as I would later learn, excellence is not the only reason to engage in academic pursuits. During my graduate work, curiosity thankfully took over as the primary motivation for spending long hours engrossed in my research. And yet, in the continued absence of a romantic partner and children, I still take it perhaps more seriously than I should. Work has come to fill my life in a way that I don’t always want it to. After an intense, life-altering trauma that unfolded over the past year, work became a lifeline; at times it was literally the only thing I felt I still wanted to live for. In moments of denial, I used work to stuff down my feelings of shame; it was easier to focus on how I needed to publish more articles and how I needed to be a better academic than it was to focus on worrying about whether or not I would truly end up damaged and alone. Damaged, alone, and without even an academic career to hang my hat on: this is the shame story that I carry with me into this year’s SSHRC season, the oozing narrative that bubbles beneath the surface.

Perhaps my situation is extreme, but I am willing to wager that to equal or lesser degrees, my fellow academics’ relationship to their academic success is somehow related to the shame we are dying to keep quiet. And so, while “UGH, I didn’t get the SSHRC again” may be a simple expression of frustration with the precarity and competitiveness of academia for some, I suspect that for others, it’s often code for “I’m worried that my work isn’t good enough” which is a slippery slide into the all-too-familiar “I’m not good enough.” “I’m not good enough” is the murky swamp of shame that envelops so many of us, and that so many of us are told not to talk about. Academia is where we have full freedom to analyze emotions—sorry, “affect”—but very little freedom or privilege to feel or display emotions, especially for academics who face oppression at the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, class, ability, and religion. Even senior academics with the most privilege, I’m sure, close the office door and open their grant letters or teaching evaluations when they know they won’t be disturbed, lest the warm hot rush of shame washes over them when some anonymous former student talks about how horrible they are. For those of us who have experienced shame early in our educational careers—the elementary school teacher who called us stupid, the professor who assured us that we’d never make it in graduate school—the stakes of academic success aren’t just about financial resources and institutional affiliations: they’re about proving that we’re good enough. No matter how successful, no matter whether we do end up finishing that PhD or securing that tenure-track position, those formative moments of shame come back to haunt us again and again. Maybe it’s a hyper-critical parent, a legacy of trauma, the difficulties of marriage, the anxiety of parenthood: we carry so much with us into our lives; so much seeps into things like job applications and funding decisions. Many of us aren’t just using our CVs as documents to list our accomplishments; we’re using them as inventories to keep trying to prove our worthiness.

Dr. Brené Brown, whose research on shame, vulnerability, courage, and wholeheartedness has offered a vital framework for many, points out that shame needs three things to thrive: secrecy, silence, and judgement. How many of us attempt to keep our failed job interviews, our rejected articles, and our feelings of academic unworthiness quiet? How many of us are so afraid to admit that we are terrified about the job market, about our dwindling finances, and about the deep spirals of depression and anxiety that we find ourselves in when we’re not “making it” in academia the way we were expected to? How many tenure-track professors, because they are seen to “have it all,” quietly move through their entire careers feeling like a fraud, never able to talk about the shame of struggling with impostor syndrome? How many of us joke about our dependence on alcohol or food to numb our feelings because we know that we can talk about the things we all do to deal with disappointment and shame, but not about the disappointment and shame itself?

Just to be clear, I not advocating for academia to become a place where we either psychoanalyze each other to death or where we try to build some emotional utopia where we talk about our feelings of shame all day. Good therapists exist for a reason (even though they are usually cost-prohibitive for many academics, but I digress…) What I do wish academia could be is a place where at the very least, we are not discouraged from seeking out help or from seeking out moments of connection when we are struggling simply because we have normalized anxiety, isolation, judgement, and competitiveness. I wish that for every five workshops we hold on how to write a SSHRC proposal, how to polish our CVs, and how to nail a job interview, we had one workshop where we talked earnestly and honestly about how to take care of ourselves and of each other. I wish that for every series on professional development and teaching, senior academics modelled vulnerability and acknowledged struggle. I wish that for every hundred graduate student get-togethers at the pub, we had one afternoon where we could sit down and say, without fear of judgement, “I’m having a hard time.” These moments do happen, don’t get me wrong. But often, they must happen secretly and covertly because otherwise, it is not safe. Express too much vulnerability and you’ll be seen as unable to complete your work because you are too fragile or anxious. Divulge feelings of shame and people will weaponize it against you. This is the reality of our world, by and large. Academia is not exceptional in that way.

7.5 years ago, just as I was about to start my PhD, I was having intense feelings of anxiety. The professor for whom I was working at the time informed me that because of my anxiety, I would fail at my PhD and would be better off withdrawing from the program even before beginning it. 30-year-old me, who is assertive and tries to be vulnerable-yet-courageous wants to march up to that professor and say “how dare you shame vulnerability and reinforce the notion that only the most unemotional and cold-hearted can ever succeed in this world?” 30-year-old assertive, vulnerable-yet-courageous me also wonders what kind of shame and anxiety that professor had to swallow and bury to get through their own career. I am guessing that it is not an insignificant amount. I have developed empathy for my own struggling self; I try to cultivate as much empathy as I can for others who hurt those they might see themselves reflected in. 30-year-old assertive, vulnerable-yet-courageous me feels a lot of empathy for the 22-year-old who was made to feel so goddamn ashamed of herself, has gratitude for the professor who eventually talked me back into the PhD, and constantly fears that we have lost out on developing so many brilliant scholars because their vulnerability was seen as a detriment to their academic career, rather than an asset.

I’m not certain how to revolutionize academia, but I do know that in seasons like this, seasons where emotions run high, that we can care for each other. When our students, our colleagues, our friends, our partners open up to us to say “I didn’t get the SSHRC,” instead of immediately railing against funding bodies or grumbling about someone else not deserving it, what if we asked “how do you feel?” or “what do you need?” If we hear “I didn’t get into a PhD program, and I’m really scared about what this means for my future” or “I’m failing at academia, just like I’m failing at my relationships” can we simply say “I’m here for you if you’d like to talk about it?” Brené Brown makes clear that shame cannot survive when empathy is present. Not sympathy: not the pity of “there but for the grace of national funding bodies or tenure committees go I.” Empathy isn’t tripping over ourselves trying to run away from other people’s suffering by saying “well, cheer up, you’ve always got next year!” or “I’m SURE you’ll get it the next time.” Empathy is sitting with the fact that this is hard. Rejection hurts. Precarity aches. The sexism and racism and classism of the academy kills, no more so than when we are made to internalize its violence and shame.

For my part, I am doing my best to prepare myself to receive my SSHRC results. Part of this preparation has been to try and be curious about my anxiety, to sit with my discomfort, and to speak the shame that lurks in the background so that it doesn’t consume me. The PhD may have been a difficult and rewarding undertaking, but nothing will be more difficult and more rewarding than truly knowing and accepting that no matter what the result—post-doc or no post-doc—that my worthiness as a human being stays the same, neither augmented nor diminished. I promise you, your worthiness does too.

#CanLit at the Crossroads: Violence is Nothing New; How We Deal With it Might Be

Over at Maclean’s Magazine, Brian Bethune has referred to it as a “CanLit class war.” In The Globe and Mail, Marsha Lederman has dubbed it an “all-out CanLit civil war.” In her various highly publicized statements and Tweets, Margaret Atwood has levied references to North Korean dictatorships, lynching, and the Salem Witch Trials (mostly the latter). I am referring, of course, to the recent painful polarization in the Canadian literary community that has resulted from the publishing and signing of an open letter in support of “due process” for former UBC creative writing instructor Steven Galloway, who was fired from the university for behaviour that created, in UBC’s words, a “an irreparable breach of trust.” Much has been made of the content of the letter itself, as well as the silencing effect of 80+ signatories standing in seeming solidarity not with the complainants of the case, but rather solely with Galloway himself. Speculation around the case has run wild, although with recent confirmation by his lawyers that Galloway was involved in an affair with a student (but also that he was the subject of complaints of sexual harassment and assault) it is hard to deny that the CanLit community must currently reconcile itself with the misconduct of one of its most prominent and powerful members. Hearts are heavy, nerves frayed: understandably so. What strikes me as strange, however—and entirely counter to actually confronting the situation at hand—is the suggestion (by some) that this is a grand ideological and generational rift of contemporary Canadian Literature, and that if only we could hearken back to the days of cozy literary compatriotism, we might be able to heal the wounds caused by this scandal.

For those who may be less familiar with Canadian Literature as a literary community, as a scholarly discipline, and as a national cultural institution (intertwined as these all are, given the tight-knit nature of Canadian literary production and criticism), I can understand why this might seem like a shocking turn of events. After all, literature is so embedded in our collective Canadian consciousness that since 1979, our national broadcasting company has sponsored a prestigious writing competition, one that, as described by the CBC itself, allows “Canada’s best writers [to use] the CBC Literary Prizes as a springboard to national and international acclaim.” Moreover, since 2002, the CBC has also hosted Canada Reads, a “battle of the books” in which five celebrities champion five different books during a week-long, publicly-broadcasted television and radio event which results in the selection of one book that all of Canada should read. This is, all told, a seemingly unique national pastime, and one that is not without both significant economic and cultural impact. As UBC English professor Laura Moss notes in a 2004 editorial in Canadian Literature, the inaugural competition was so terrifically popular that the winning novel, Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of the Lion, “sold approximately eighty thousand copies more in 2002 than in 2001” (6). However, as Moss also points out, her unease about events such as Canada Reads lies precisely in the sort of collective-yet-entirely-depoliticized national spirit that it attempts to promote: “Canada Reads has become a new instrument of culture formation. It is intent on drawing Canadians together by creating a shared cultural background. The winning titles reinforce certain popular notions of Canadianness” (7). In other words, at least part of the public project of Canadian literature, much like the idea of Canada itself, has been to promote a narrative that runs counter to the existing rifts and violent histories within itself.

Twelve years after Moss published this editorial, it is safe to say that the bizarre and mutually reinforcing relationship between Canada and its national literature, at least in its popular and public image, has reached a fever pitch. Writers like Margaret Atwood and Joseph Boyden have become outspoken critics and prominent national voices in conversations around climate change, political freedoms, and Canada’s ongoing legacy of colonialism. To say that Canadian authors have merely adopted the roles of public intellectuals, cultural ambassadors, or social critics would be an understatement; in many cases, their voices and names have actually eclipsed those of other scholars, critics, and intellectuals. In his recent Walrus piece entitled “The CanLit Firestorm,” Simon Lewsen suggests that “along with David Suzuki and the NDP, CanLit was the moral conscience of the nation. That’s not to say it was didactic […] but just that people wrote with a sense of ethical purpose, and readers appreciated their commitment.” This sense of morals or ethics, Lewsen argues, translated into serious cultural power for several Canadian writers, who, whether they wanted it or not, became “CanLit […] heroes—powerful, established heroes, whose reigns lasted decades.”


How our heroes have fallen. In the past week, Margaret Atwood has defended herself against the “bullies” and “keyboard warriors” who are inflicting “burn wounds” and “noose marks” on the signatories of the CanLit letter, and Briarpatch Magazine has removed Joseph Boyden as one of the judges of their “Writing in the Margins” literary contest. Criticism and consequences from within the CanLit community itself: it’s hardly what most would expect, which might explain the shock and awe of media who are attempting to understand precisely what is going on. Even Lewsen suggests that “suddenly, CanLit’s inner circle is looking less like moral trailblazers and more like an establishment—an institution with its own internal values and interests to defend.”

Of course, the truth is that CanLit has always been an institution with its own internal values and interests to defend, and that while Lewsen is correct in suggesting that the “once quiet precincts of CanLit are suddenly more rancorous than they’ve been in decades,” CanLit was never a “community that once seemed harmonious,” particularly for those who have been either pre-emptively or retro-actively excluded, especially when they have actively pushed back against the CanLit establishment. Although I am a Canadianist by training, I do not claim to have a comprehensive view of Canadian literary history and each instance of fissure and fracture within its ranks. What I can say, however, is that a literary tradition that includes the Confederation Poets as part of its origin story—a group of white men and a woman or two, including politician Duncan Campbell Scott, who sought to “get rid of the Indian problem”—is necessarily going to have to constantly fight with its past and ongoing colonial, patriarchal, and white supremacist histories. A literary tradition that has been Anglocentric in nature and has excluded Québécois literature from its canon must confront its past and ongoing Francophobia. A literary history that has either dismissed Indigenous literatures written in Canada, or appropriated them without any recognition of or respect for Indigenous literary and cultural sovereignty, must confront its past and ongoing colonialism. A literary history that includes significant backlash against those who organized the 1994 Writing Thru Race conference, which was open only to self-identified writers of colour—some called it a “a nasty serving of cultural apartheid” —must confront its past and ongoing white supremacy. A literary history that has traditionally been dominated by men (see the work of Canadian Women in the Literary Arts for their vital work in this area) must confront its past and ongoing patriarchy. A literary history that includes the unlawful seizure of queer literature at the Canadian borders, and the recent attempts to censor and rescind a Governor General-award winning text for its explicit content must confront its past and ongoing homophobia. A literary history that still fails to centre trans writers and disabled writers must confront its past and ongoing transphobia and ableism.

And so, to suggest that CanLit has, as Lewsen has argued, “[operated] under a broadly progressive consensus” is to deny that that the tensions of the past week or so reflect a much broader history of oppression, or as Vancouver poet and scholar Ryan Fitzpatrick has phrased it, that “what gets called CanLit is historically a site of struggle.” To suggest that Canadian literature is somewhat monolithic as a genre, that it ought to encompass a certain canon of texts, or indeed, that its community of writers, critics, and scholars have historically achieved “consensus” of any kind is revisionist history at best. At worst, it perpetuates the kinds of ideological formations of community that make it difficult, if not impossible, for oppressed people to speak up against those who wield power.

CanLit, we might then say, is a kind of “imagined community,” to borrow the term coined by political scientist and historian Benedict Anderson. In 1983, Anderson theorized the nation as a social construction, held up in large part by the idea that while we might never meet most of our fellow countrypersons (or writers, scholars, and critics), we imagine a sort of “communion” between them and ourselves: we project shared interests, mutual values, and a common history, even of all or none of these exist. Perhaps the most pointed and valuable part of Anderson’s notion of “imagined community” is the idea that “regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings” (7). Anderson is referring here largely to the context of war, but his argument nevertheless raises questions about similar dynamics within the imagined community that is CanLit: what are the actual inequalities and exploitations that prevail within it? How is this “deep, horizontal comradeship” constructed and upheld, and by whom? How far are we willing—or are forcedto go in order to defend it or suffer for it?

Certainly, in the current CanLit context of Steven Galloway’s firing, we have to acknowledge the dynamics of power that lie within the institutional and educational environments of literary study and instruction. In a field such as creative writing, when professors’ roles as mentors not only include instruction but also function as gateways to literary careers, the power wielded by someone like Galloway is immense, as is the damage caused when this relationship is exploited or violated. In “Stories Like Passwords,” published in The Hairpin in 2014, Emma Healey describes how this power operates, particularly in situations where there is harassment and assault:

“The men in stories like this always have just enough power, in their little worlds and in ours, that to confront them would be to court an ordeal, to invite others to question our own memories and motives. It’s always more trouble than it’s worth. If you don’t have hard proof, if you don’t have a police report, then what do you have? Only what you remember. Only what you felt.”

Safe to say that given the repercussions—both personal and professional—of reporting any sort of misconduct or harassment (be it the theft of a student’s work or an assault perpetrated against them) has to be carefully weighed against the realities of the systems we currently operate within. It takes immense courage to come forward with a complaint, because as who have reported various forms of misconduct, violence, and oppression know all too well, there are truly few benefits to doing so (despite the claims that there is a pot of gold at the end of the survivor-rainbow, which I can certainly attest to being nothing but a falsehood perpetuated by victim-blamers). Rather, there are likely more consequences: the loss of friends, the loss of a potential career, the loss of income, the loss of time, the loss of sleep, the loss of trust. And so on. More often than not, I suspect, victims do not come forward precisely because they have been conditioned to worry about the health and wellbeing of “the community” over and above their own. Don’t cause a fuss. Don’t disturb the peace. It’s for the greater good.

While we have a tendency to individualize the problem of violence and misconduct within our communities—“bad apples” or “lone wolves,” depending on the case—we know, too, that there are systems of power that actively uphold and defend those who enact harm. I don’t mean to suggest that this is always deliberate. I doubt that the all of the signatories of the Open Letter are part of some scheming cabal of CanLit literati who seek to destroy anyone who speaks ill of them or deigns to file a complaint against one of their own. (They’re not.) Rather, the system – the entire system –  is built to accommodate those who do harm, and it is upheld by much more than a few staunch defenders or unwitting apologists. As Healey puts it:

These men do not work, or live, or act in a vacuum. Unless they are masterminds or psychopaths (and they cannot all be), their behavior, or aspects of it, is often visible. These men are everywhere. They write and they edit and they teach. They have small magazines and small presses and small reading series. They have publishers and editors, they have podcasts and publicists sending them books to review. The influence they wield may seem insignificant to those in their community who have moved beyond their reach, but for those who haven’t, it is more than enough to frighten or threaten or silence. Their power comes from institutional support, whether implied or explicit, and it comes from systems that rely on the victims of harassment to be the ones who take down their abusers by speaking out in public.

I remind you once again: this is decidedly not new, and certainly not limited to UBC or Galloway or even the field of creative writing. These power dynamics and forms of institutional support predate Galloway and will follow him, too. After all, Healey’s piece was published in 2014, a full year before the first rumblings were stirred about the Galloway case, as was CWILA’s project “Love, Anonymous,” which, in the wake of Ghomeshi, offered a series of stories about various experiences of assault and abuse within Canadian literary communities. It is true that the Galloway case has emerged as a distinct flashpoint in the national conversation on institutional policy and procedure, sexual misconduct, and sexual violence, and it is also true that it very publicly centres these issues in the literary community like perhaps never before. But it is not new, has never been new, will never be new: it is embedded in our society, of which CanLit is (despite the utopian yearnings of writers’ unique enlightenment) certainly a part.

If can we acknowledge that CanLit as both an abstract construct and as a concrete community of people have always been marred and complicated by power and violence, then we are asked to face a much broader and more frightening reality, which is that regardless of whether or not Galloway was fired, and regardless of whether or not his grievance is successful, that there are serious issues to be faced within the community. As much as I agree wholeheartedly that university processes of handling such cases are inherently flawed (insofar as they work to protect the institutions, not the faculty, students, or staff), and that systemic change must be made in order to give due process and fair treatment to both complainants and respondents, we cannot rely on universities and the police alone to somehow solve the problem of violence and abuses of power. That Judge Boyd did not “substantiate” the complaint of sexual assault against Steven Galloway does not mean that it did not occur, which many seem to be conveniently forgetting. Even in the criminal justice system, a lack of charges laid in a case does not mean that a case is unfounded (which would mean that the police has proved that the claim was false).

A lack of evidence as considered by universities and the law does not mean that we are absolved of having to consider these matters within our own circles. With the gross abuses of many universities and police forces—see the recent events in Val d’Or, where dozens of Indigenous women’s cases of abuse by Sûreté du Québec police officers were dismissed—we also need to divest ourselves of the colonial power of these systems, because they are and will continue to be stacked against those who are the most vulnerable. I am not suggesting that rather than develop a stand-alone sexual assault policy, that UBC simply dispense of any and all of its responsibility. As a survivor of sexual assault at UBC, and as a member of the expert panel tasked with making recommendations about best practices for the policy, I have spent years railing against the injustices of the system. I understand the frustration so profoundly. I do.

In addition to advocating for institutional change that treats both parties fairly, I am also suggesting that CanLit as a community consider its own responsibilities, duties, and accountabilities towards each other: the responsibility not to abuse positions of power; the duty to recognize our privileges; the accountability to all members of a community, especially those who are most vulnerable. We owe this particularly towards the woman who has just broken her silence about the case, whose story – whose existence, whose life – will not simply disappear when UBC’s arbitration is completed. We owe this to current and future generations of Canadian writers, scholars, and critics, many of whom have shared their stories in “Love, Anonymous,” many who are sharing their stories quietly, across the whisper network, and many who will never share their stories at all.

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We do this not by calling for a healing or cease-fire within our community, or by ignoring the elephant in the room: that a woman has come forward with a story about assault at the hands of a prominent Canadian writer, and that there are many other such stories circulating within the community.


She, more than anyone, has gotten lost in this whole mess. She, more than anyone, deserves to be more than an anecdote in a story about how a literary community waged a “civil war,” deserves to be heard over our din of self-congratulation and self-defense, rationalization and rage, deserves to be more than an example of how UBC fails miserably when it comes to sexual assault allegations, deserves to be more than a blip in Canadian literary history.