Interview by Karissa Larocque
This week, I had the opportunity to correspond with Dr. Erin Wunker (Contract academic faculty at Dalhousie), who I’ve had the pleasure of working with at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick. As one of the co-founders & managing editor of the blog Hook & Eye: Fast Feminism, Slow Academe, and the chair of the national literary organisation CWILA, Erin has been heavily involved in fostering public national conversations about women in the academe. Below, I ask Erin about why she began these conversations, about how to perform feminist and anti-oppressive work, and about whether the blog and its digital space can act as a kind of amorphous “Media Lab” where knowledge is produced, disseminated, and circulated to a specific audience.
So, this is kind of a funny anecdote to start the interview with. I had this long email draft sitting in my outbox to you, asking if you had the time for an interview about your work on H&E, and then I started thinking about how this time of year is so busy for everyone, but especially for contract faculty who are often working without a lot of the material luxuries (office space, printers!) of their colleagues, and so I was thinking—maybe Erin doesn’t need this extra labour right now, and I planned out three or four other potential interviews. I remember you telling me about all the reference letters and supportive/informational emails you write, about all this affective and emotional labour you perform for your students/former students regardless of your current job position. But then you saw a Facebook post I made (inspired by the work at CWILA) inviting my cohort and friends in various schools/programs to “count their syllabi” (make a quantitative record of the gender equity of reading lists), and you asked “can I interview you guys for Hook & Eye?!?,” and I thought, yes, good timing!
Okay, so, why did you and co-founders Heather Zwicker and Aimée Morrison start this blog in 2010? You call it an “intervention and an invitation;” did you see or feel a need to begin these kinds of conversations?
As you note in your anecdote, coincidence is a funny thing. I’m actually in the process of co-writing an essay on the origins of Hook & Eye with the writers now! It is for Digital Diversity: Writing/Feminism/Culture edited by Susan Brown and Kathryn Holland.
The idea for the blog was Heather Zwicker’s. Heather and I knew each other from a conference I had attended at the University of Alberta called Not Drowning But Waving: Women, Feminism, and the Liberal Arts. Heather was one of the co-organizers. I had presented a paper that resulted in me getting yelled at by a number of established women professors in the room. They took issue with my methodology (I was using Althusser to talk about ideological state apparatuses before moving on to think about Kristeva’s notion of “Women’s Time”). The problem, I think in hindsight was that these women who were at the vanguard of breaking glass ceilings—or, more often, bumping up against them in the academy and dismantling them one time-consuming battle at a time, were frustrated to hear me—a graduate student—talking about the same kinds of issues they had dealt with. The reality, though, was that a room full of full professors ganged up on a graduate student. Heather, who, as I said, was one of the organizers, wasn’t in the room, but or course heard what happened. As I worked with her in the coming year to write a chapter about my experience at the conference, we kept up a conversation about our need and desire for intergenerational mentorship and open feminist discourse about and in the academy.
Heather invited me to start the blog with her, and she wanted Aimée to join us. Aimée was, at the time, an Assistant Professor. Heather was then an Associate Professor, and I was just one year into a limited term contract at Dalhousie at the Assistant Professor level. It was important to us to try and represent a range of experiences in the academy. We called it an invitation because while there are always tacit knowledges about different stages of the profession part of a feminist praxis is mentorship and community-building. We also called it an intervention because the CERC super-star scholars had just been announced and there was not one woman in the nineteen appointees. Not one. So we wanted a space to publicly address gender inequity, and when we looked for one and didn’t find it in the Canadian context we decided to start our own.
What kinds of knowledge are produced on the blog? There’s so many different kinds of information being circulated: practical, professional, personal, anti-oppressive, revolutionary, etc… do you think the independent hosting of the site allows for these kinds of (potentially controversial) conversations because it happens (digitally, physically) outside of your workplaces?
I don’t think there is a digital divide in the case of Hook & Eye and the work that we do in our brick-and-mortar institutions. Hook & Eye averages about 1,000 views per post in the first week a post is up, and the Canadian academic context is small. Our readership, which you can see in the stats section in the backend of the site, is international, to be sure, but the majority of our readers are in Canada.
We are trying to foster critical conversations about shared contexts. Those contexts—post-secondary teaching, gender identification, Canada—are broad, and each of us writing for the blog identify with them differently. We each write from our own perspectives, and while I have been working as the Managing Editor in the last year, before that we were fairly independent, meaning we each wrote whatever we were thinking about without discussing it with the others. So if I was pressed to identify what kinds of knowledges were being produced I think the best answer I can offer is that we are working to foster and ever-diversified intersectional feminist approach to talking about, working in, and using the tools of academic rigour.
In my mind, the blog creates a space for vital conversations about women in the academe, but it’s a digital space. Do you ever think about developing a physical or material iteration of the blog and its cohort, and do you ever meet up with your co-bloggers in person or over skype?
Digital space allows us to bring a group of people together on a weekly basis who are, in our real lives, geographically distant. The current team of weekly writers are in Halifax, Toronto, Waterloo, Edmonton, and New York. Our guest posts come from across Canada, the United States, and Britain. So digital space fosters a community conversation that would be financially impossible otherwise. That said, we—Aimée Morrison, Boyda Johnstone, Jana Smith Elford, Melissa Dalgleish, and I—have presented together at a conference using a combination of skype and actually being in the room. We meet on Google Hangout to discuss large issues. For example, we are currently in the process of migrating our site from Blogger to WordPress and refreshing our aesthetic. We are also planning a meeting in Toronto to discuss editing an anthology of Hook & Eye posts. And, we have recently been syndicated by Vitae, which is part of the Chronicle of Higher Education. We’ve met to talk about how to manage that process of writing as a branded collective for an America site.
When I spoke about H&E in seminar, our professor Darren Wershler brought up the idea that the blog functions as a kind of trade journal for academia, especially for the precariat. Do you think about the practical and vital information the blog gives, not only about academia as a job choice but also as a kind of “forced lifestyle” that is really hard to navigate in a healthy way?
The content of the blog has evolved with the changing roster of weekly writers. When we started Aimée and Heather were in permanent positions, and I was in a limited term contract. Now, we are one tenured professor, three PhD candidates—one of whom is in an alternative academic job, and a sessional. Given that we write from our own experience the content has shifted to issues of precarity because the majority of our writers are in various precarious positions. While this is great—we have a lot of uptake on posts about precarity—we’d like to have more diverse representation. To that end I have moved into a managing editor position and have been soliciting guest posts from writers in a range of academic positions.
As a young academic in grad school, the blog’s frank discussion about the job market and the realities of being a woman working in academia has been so valuable and vital to me. I think one of the most valuable lessons its taught me is that I am allowed to perform feminist work and feminist interventions in my academic work, and that there’s a way to do so while still staying “marketable” for my future career (if I am lucky enough to have those opportunities). I find doing explicitly feminist work to be, frankly, terrifying. In terms of intergenerational feminist mentorship, do you think having a digital medium is vital to reaching younger academics scattered around the country?
Yes. The great majority of my feminist academic mentors are people I have developed working relationships form a distance. This isn’t because I didn’t have feminist mentors in my graduate program—I absolutely did!—it is because writing for Hook & Eye has opened lines of connection with people I may never have met.
That said, doing feminist work in public absolutely is risky. That, to my mind, makes it all the more necessary, and yet, the risk is real. We need people in positions of power—hiring committees, supervisory positions, graduate and undergraduate chairs—who value intergenerational feminist mentorship as scholarly work.
Okay, last one! You mentioned above that the blog is always working to feature a more diverse representation of academics/alt-academics (right now the weekly line up is one tenured professor, three PhD candidates, and a sessional). Do you think it’s important for colleagues and ex-colleagues to have frank conversations about the large discrepancies in privilege between these positions? What would you like to see your tenured colleagues do to acknowledge and support the precariat?
There’s a difference between acknowledging someone in a different position than yours and in supporting them. I think that there has been a real surge in understanding amongst tenured faculty that the rise in precarious labour is a critical issue for all facets fo the academic mission. The reliance on precarious labout affects students, it affects the course curriculum in departments, it affects sustainability at the level of long and short-term department planning. Tenured faculty know this, and, on the whole, are also experiencing the pressures of austerity in the academy. I’ve written about the disproportionate amount of service labour placed on associate professors. This disproportionate labour is also placed on academics of colour, as Jade Ferguson and I have written. We—by which I mean people working in the academy—need to work in our own institutions, as well as at the provincial and national level. ACCUTE has been proactive in supporting contract academic faculty by creating the Best Practice Checklist for departments, but we can do more. We need to gather data at the provincial and national levels on how many people are working in precarious positions. With data we can make clear and irrefutable arguments about the changing face of academic labour—my work with CWILA has taught me how compelling numbers can be.
You were targeted by Halifax’s “satirical” publication Frank Magazine in October, after a letter you wrote to Rex Murphy gained national attention. The Frank piece publicly mocked your last name, your teaching, your ex students (?!?), and your political views on rape culture and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, among other things. December 6th just passed, and you posted your thoughts on what memorials do to remind us of violence against women, and about how you think about these women all the time. What are your thoughts on what it means to speak publicly about these issues as a woman; and has being publicly targeted changed (or reinforced) your thoughts on the vitality of your work?
I got my first rape threat on Twitter last year. Since then I have only had a handful more. That’s what I told my students in Writing in the Digital Age [a course at Dalhousie] this fall, when we did a unit on misogyny and online harassment. As we close read the Frank piece my students talked about how my saying I’ve only had about ten aggressive or rapey threats online was upsetting to them. Then we looked at the #GamerGate threats against Anita Sarkeesian, and we read the comments online about Chief Theresa Spence during her hunger strike, and we listened to former MP Megan Leslie read out rape threats that were made on Twitter to she and other women MPs in all the major parties.
Speaking about misogyny and rape culture in public scares me. My voice shakes, my palms get sweaty. I’m always waiting for the first “boo” or worse. And yet. How can I not talk about feminism? I’m trained as a close reader and a theorist, I’m politicized as an intersectional feminist, I learn from the bravery of feminists like Audre Lorde, Sara Ahmed, El Jones, Tanya Tagaq, Leanne Simpson, Nicole Brossard, and Megan Leslie, to name but a few. I believe in the possibility of working for change, and I feel the responsibility of my relative privilege to foster spaces to have those conversations.
Thanks Erin, for this interview and for your work as a scholar and public figure!