Doing differently starts with reflecting

Often at this time of year many folks reflect and consider where they are, look back on what they have ‘done’ or ‘accomplished’ (and I use that word ‘accomplished’ with wide interpretation), and consider how they might move ahead differently in the New Year.

The thought of ‘reflecting-and-resolution-making’ might seem eye-stabbingly exasperating in this particular historical moment.  If you scoffed at that paragraph above, I don’t blame you.  Part of what I find excessively frustrating about the whole ‘New Year’s Resolution’ thing is how it focuses so much on individual choices and actions, without accounting for broader social, political and historical structures that shape our everyday lives.  One of the major problems with thinking “If I could just do differently then life would be better!” is that it discounts the ways world events as well as how thoughts and feelings are conditioned (internalizing sexism or racism, for example) have implications for how we act in the world and make decisions.  If COVID has shown us anything, it is that we are NOT individuals floating around separately, but that we live in societies, that what happens in society affects us as individuals.

Of course, to completely collapse under the weight of those broader structures and assume we have no choices is a bit fatalistic.  To completely drift at the whim of the broader world discounts that we have agency as individuals.  We do have some choice in our lives, and what we do (decisions we make, actions we take) affects what happens to us and other people.  So, while of course our lives are shaped by things going on in the world, and values and assumptions, we actually can do differently and make our lives, well, different.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that taking the opportunity to reflect as part of change can be useful.  Especially this year, as these major disruptions have forced us to shift gears quickly; we had to do differently without a lot of reflection, changing actions and acquiring new habits because the world changed rapidly.  Maybe we’ve learned things, and maybe we can still do differently moving forward.

As I think about the things I did in the past year, I also consider what I thought and felt about those things I did. 

Here’s a personal example.

Let’s just say I ate a lot of chips and worked from my computer in my pajamas.  These actions happened in the wake of global-pandemic-induced unemployment, shifting quickly to freelance from home, supporting kids through pandemic-oriented school and recovering from major surgery.  That’s what I did: I worked in my pajamas and ate a lot of chips.  But then, even more than what I did, what do I now think and feel about that?  Truthfully, I think that was a perfectly fine way to get myself out of bed and through the day.  Those chips were tasty, and I needed a bit of pleasure in my life.  Pajamas are comfortable, and I needed that too.  I have no regrets.

But is that what I want to do forever? Well, maybe kinda, but also not completely.  As I reflect on my feelings and thoughts about my actions – specifically wearing pajamas from my home office and eating lots of chips – I learn these were actually partially OK.  For reals.

Working in pajama pants or leggings worked well for me – they’re very comfortable, no one sees them on zoom calls, and I can sit cross-legged in my chair and move easily during breaks. Maybe, moving forward, I want to move myself out of pajama shirts, and put on something that will make me feel better on those work-oriented zoom calls, facing my colleagues and clients.

Eating excessive amounts of chips doesn’t make me feel great, but it also has its good points.  The immediate pleasure is super, but eating lots makes me feel kinda gross (like really, bloated and heavy and lethargic).

You’ll notice that I don’t assume that wearing pajamas is completely bad while working.  I also don’t scoff at the idea of eating chips altogether.  As I reflect, I am really working to connect with my own values,* and not take what folks normally say about pajamas and chips to heart (“Must look professional in a cleanly pressed suit, always!” or “Chips are the root of all evil!”).  I try to think critically about what social assumptions I might have internalized about pleasurable foods or foods with fat as being ‘bad’ for my body; that to be ‘good,’ I must not have pleasurable experiences through food, or that my body must be a certain kind of ‘fit’ and pleasurable to other people (read: men).  I think about what is actually working for me?  What is actually problematic for me?  The increased pajama-wearing and chip-eating was absolutely influenced by larger world forces – what was happening in the world affected me, and my actions changed.  But through that I learned some things.  I can be kind to myself, understand my own need for comfort and pleasure, but still have agency in this situation and make changes if I want to.

These ideas can work for reflecting on community and organizational ‘actions’ too, as well as underpinning thoughts and feelings, but I’ll save that for another post.

*Note: This idea of ‘values’ is really important in thinking about the relationship among thoughts, feelings, and actions, but goes beyond this one blog post – I’ll write about it later.  Just know that your values are shaped by you (your being, beliefs, experiences, etc), as well as broader social, historical, political, cultural structures.  More in another post!

How can change happen ‘in relationship’?

One of the tricky things about change is how it can be perceived to happen.  Often I see folks who think that they just need to tell people what they know (and that their view is right) and then those people will just take it up (lookin’ at you, academics!). But in my experience this kind of uni-directional communication rarely works. Shocking, I know.

Change is, of course, shaped by world forces and happens in context of ‘life’ and people’s experiences, including thoughts and feelings.  Individual people rarely change their actions because they are told to do so (and if you have teenagers in your life, you’ll know what I’m talking about).  Organizational or social structures tend to be interwoven with invisible underlying assumptions and values; change can feel like it moves like molasses, if it happens at all.

But what if we flipped the thought.  Instead of telling people what to do (according to you), think of how change can happen in relationship.

Enter: The Conversation.

I’m using the word ‘conversation’ pretty broadly here.  A good conversation is reciprocal, but it can take many forms.  It involves sharing and listening, putting things forward and receiving ideas and feedback.  And language or words don’t have to be the focus.  In fact, sometimes it’s more helpful if it happens in another form, like through art work or a play.  Change itself can often be emotional, so using different forms to have the conversation can keep space open for different responses, different ways to engage, as well as to process thoughts and feelings.

But ultimately the conversation needs to be on-going and built on trust. 

“But Julia,” you may be thinking, “that all sounds fine in theory. But I am dealing with Big Problems in my work.  I need people to get The Message that I know is right.”

Yes! Big Problems! But it’s also not all about you. Here’s an example.

When we were creating Cracked, we knew we wanted to bring awareness to invisible assumptions many folks have, that people with dementia are only ever tragic, and that these invisible assumptions shape how long term care is built and managed, as well as how people are cared for.  That is a Big Problem.  As we were planning, we knew that we would be engaging with many different people, who had all sorts of different kinds of professional and personal experiences. We tried to think about how we could engage in a conversation with all these different people, to bring awareness to this ‘tragedy discourse’ without lecturing or telling people how to think and feel (and ultimately act). We wanted to avoid: “Don’t you know that people with dementia are still people!  Don’t be a jerk!” (obviously), and aim more towards: “Have you considered that this assumption of ‘tragedy’ is part of how we’ve built the world and how we engage with people with dementia?”

We chose to create a play – a theatrical production – which provided a range of different entry points into these ideas, including a complex story with multi-dimensional characters, who struggle and try to find their ways. We also aimed to provide space for people to make sense of what they were experiencing through the play in context of their own lives.  We hosted post-performance talk backs, where people could ask questions or just sit and listen to the discussion.  We built a website, where people can continue to find out more, including downloading a film-version of the play.  We knew we needed to create a conversation where people could engage on their own terms, consider the story, thoughts and feelings being presented in their own way, and engage in further conversation if they wanted.

Our evaluation research tells us that this multi-faceted approach has worked; people felt they could consider their thoughts and feelings, and ultimately their actions, about people with dementia because we provided a rich, nuanced, aesthetic space to do that through the play. (There’s also related work about our process here).

We tried not to hammer home The Message because we felt we were right; rather we used theatre as a tool to engage in a long-term conversation, to open up thoughts and feelings to be considered in relationship to actions.  

Arts and culture must be central in Canada’s COVID reality

COVID-19 has brought incredible social unrest and change, as well as personal disillusionment, and feelings of overwhelm. Many of us feel like we’re lurching from one task to the next, drowning in overwhelming inequities exposed by COVID and the realities of juggling multiple-roles and tasks simultaneously.  And with winter looming, my friends, this is why arts and culture must be central to a COVID-world and as part of Canada’s recovery. 

The arts not only provide us all with space to consider complex social issues, but they are also important to do just for the heck of it.  Now, more than ever, we all need to be reminded of why we are alive, and that we are not just vehicles of productivity that eat, sleep and work.

Others have made this argument before me.  Earlier this year, Amanda Parris brilliantly advocated that it is artists who are getting us through COVID and the arts need to be a national priority. Not only do I agree, but I think arts and culture need to lead us and will help us build a better world.

In Canada we like to measure value through economic impact. StatsCan reports that the GDP of culture industries ($59 billion) is larger than the agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting industries combined ($39 billion), as well as accommodation and food services ($46 billion), and utilities ($46 billion). However, this emphasis on economics entirely misses the point.  I would even say it’s part of what’s gotten us in this pickle in the first place (to put it lightly).

Connecting with culture and engaging with art are important beyond the obvious economic impacts.  The past few months alone have brought tremendous social change and restructuring – things like new work-home environments, different reliance on technology across sectors, as well as policies and procedures in a range of environments (like long term care, education and healthcare).  This collapsing and re-structuring has revealed troublesome inequities deeply embedded within our systems (related to race, class, age, gender, etc.).  It’s no surprise that individuals report burnout and mental health stresses at alarming rates.   

The arts can provide spaces to grapple with social change and ethical issues. For example: what DO we think and feel about seniors living in long-term care and current policies in place? Or how can stories of Queer folks and BIPOC continue to expose inequities and provide creative imaginings for the future? (there are countless examples, but you can find a small handful here, here and here).  But, frankly, it’s important for individuals to ‘just do’ art for the sake of it.  We need to remind ourselves that we can imagine and play, that we can be in the world without “producing”; that we are human beings.

Research supports this too.  As an example from my research about therapeutic clowns (yes, clowns!), my team and I have found that disabled kids play with clowns in hospitals not to become “more productive adults” in the future; They play to feel and be in the world, to have agency, to imagine and be silly, and that this is important for their mental health.

Similarly, the new research-based documentary ‘Music is Life’ which was filmed at The Dotsa Bitove Wellness Academy (led by Drs Christine Jonas-Simpson, Pia Kontos and Sherry Dupuis), shares that the reasons that people with dementia make music are not what you might think.  Making music isn’t about “curing dementia” or “improving memory”; the point is to do it just for fun (who knew!), and to share with each other and contribute to the world in creative ways.

We all deserve to be in the world in these ways, and as a society we need to build strong policies and systems that support this.  This centering on the arts and culture must happen alongside and integrated with the re-structuring of labour, workplace, economic, education, and health care policy in a post-COVID Canada.  Research from Canada Council for the Arts tells us that virtually all Canadians participate in the arts and deeply value those experiences. Our policies, such as the ways artists and arts workers are supported and how all of us must continue to access the arts in a range of ways, must reflect this. This valuing of the arts and culture must be prioritized and lead us into the future.

If COVID is showing us how the emphasis on the constant need for productivity has failed us, we need to dedicate time and energy (and also craft our policies) to just being-in-the-world, imagining alternatives, daydreaming, playing, and relishing in something just for the heck of it. 

Start knitting, sing in the shower, press leaves, dance to the radio, lazily read a book, experiment with that family recipe, watch a play on-line – do it badly, do it brilliantly, whatever. We are more than the sum of our parts; we are sensing, emotional, feeling, creative and imaginative human beings. THIS is how we guide our kids; THIS is how we support our seniors; THIS is how we build a better world.

“I have no way of seeing the world that isn’t colonized”

“I realize that I have no way of seeing the world that isn’t colonized. It has shaped everything I am and do.”

This was said by a white student in a grad seminar course about critical qualitative methodologies I co-taught in 2019 in Toronto Canada, after having read Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang’s seminal article ‘Decolonization is not a metaphor.’

And with that statement, I thought “bingo!”

The article had been assigned to help students (and frankly, us as teachers) think about the ways ‘critical qualitative research,’ as rooted in European ways of being and knowing and as the main focus of the course, comes in conversation with ‘decolonizing approaches to research.’  In no way did my co-teacher and I intend to prescribe “how to do decolonizing research” especially given we were also settlers, as well as all of our students (hello!).  Rather our aim was to open up thinking around how the decolonizing project, including research, is not a theoretical concept that we as settlers could dabble with.  Colonialism, as structures or policy developed that seek to extend or retain authority over other people or lands for economic control, is purposeful – and it has shaped and crafted our world in North America at the cost of Indigenous people; decolonization aims to repatriate Indigenous land and life.  Without diminishing the important goals of social justice and critical methodologies (as most of us in the course aligned ourselves with), it is not the same as decolonization. As settlers, we needed to not jump on that bandwagon as a way to forward our own agendas as researchers.

Recognizing that decolonization is not a metaphor, and that colonialism is a purposeful thing, were our main aims through assigning this reading.

So, this student’s confession – that he couldn’t even fathom how to see the world as anything other than colonized – was for me an amazing and vulnerable recognition not only that there is a ‘problem’ but what that problem might be and look like.

These are the kinds of ‘light bulb moments’ those of us working in social change aim for.  Helping folks not only see that there’s a problem, but also what the problem looks like, or how it happens, are huge steps in on-going change and transformation.

Usually people I have worked with – whether that’s through teaching, research, project design/execution and community conversation – can see there is a ‘problem’: “I see that Indigenous people struggle.” But they may not see how that problem happens or is operationalized.  More often than not, they can’t see it because it’s is around them like water – it’s is invisible and even holds them up.  In their world and way of being, it’s a given.  These are on-going issues for me too, of course, which is all part of the work.

Getting to that point of being able to recognize there is a problem, that it has a shape and happens in specific ways, and can be named, requires a willingness to be vulnerable, humble and be wrong.  Most of us have been trained to be ‘right’ and ‘know with certainty.’

If we are to do the vital work of building our world for all people to thrive, we need to practice and engage with humility.  This means listening carefully, observing and reflecting, turning to each other for guidance and insight, and acting with others in community.

Building a foundation on sand: navigating the arbitrariness of academic life

It’s been well over a year since my last blog post (yoinks!) and for that, I apologize.

Prior to my last post, I had just found out that I was not only turned down for a SSHRC postdoctoral fellowship, but my application was ranked really (really) terribly.  I reapplied last fall for the same SSHRC postdoctoral fellowship (different project, supervisor and institution; same applicant – me – and quality of scholarship) and not only was successful, but was ranked extremely high.

One might think that I would be elated at this news!  Woot and Wow!  This is what success looks like in the academy!  Money!  High ranking! Holy Jeez!

But truthfully in the months after finding out the news, while I was certainly happy with the results (!!), I really struggled to find the joy in it (yes: Struggled).  Of course, it was so (so) great to be recognized by my peers, and I had just bought myself some additional time to find a permanent job.  I see and appreciate all of this – my intention here is not to be a whiner…

But.  The jurors decision seemed all very, well, arbitrary.  Why this year?  Why this project? Why so high, when last year was so low?  Am I not the same scholar, asking the same kinds of questions, designing equally strong projects?

It has been hard to trust this good news, and hard to look to the future even, when ‘success’ seems so random.  This is particularly challenging because academic success is purported to be about ‘quality’ and ‘rigour’ – there are particular markers the jurors are meant to look for in the application, in you as the applicant and in the project.  But frankly, my application last year was just as awesome…  How am I supposed to take from this experience, learn about what makes a good application, and use that information to propel my program of research forward, when it all seemed a bit willy-nilly?  How is one supposed to build ‘something’ (a program of research, a career) when there is sand underlying the foundation one is meant to be laying?  In speaking with academic colleagues, it seems that everyone sees (and even critiques) the randomness and ridiculousness of the markers of success and prestige, but the entire industry is built on taking it seriously.

This is especially hard to navigate in contract or non-permanent jobs.  Each of these applications, the contracts, the success and failures, has direct implications for the ability to find a permanent job – as a tenure-track position or not!  I keep hearing from friends and colleagues, in encouragement and solidarity, “Hold on!  The job will come!”  But what am I holding on to?  It all feels kinda deflating… even in the face of supposed success.

This has propelled me to continue to think about, and live true to, my own idea of what success is – for reals!  If I reflect on my current postdoc, I am working with an amazing supervisor, I am crafting really cool (and pretty important) studies, I am writing and publishing, I am mentoring and teaching, I am presenting at conferences and learning (a shit ton) from other people. In short, despite the uncertainty, my day-to-day is filled with good things, good people, good actions.  And I feel lucky that I’m at an institution where they trust enough to let me do my thing – they’re willing to go with my flow, and seem to get and support the turbulent waters of academic life.

Do I know what the next step is? Do I know how to make sense of the arbitrariness of the markers of academic success? Do I know exactly how to build that foundation on sand?  I don’t.  But I can return to my previous post – about embracing the ridiculousness of failure – to contemplate the ridiculousness of success as well.

Embracing Failures: lessons from clowns

I’ve fallen in love with the clowns at my work. They’re therapeutic clowns, actually. I followed them around a few weeks ago as they made their rounds through the units  (they indulged me) and in our debrief afterwards I cried from being completely overcome by the amazingness of what they do. I tried to offer some insight into the beauty, joy and absolute love I saw in their work, but barely spluttered out a few words before my breath caught in my throat and I sobbed.

And, like true friends, the offered me a kleenex, some chocolate and a carrot. I knew it was love.

Part of what was so beautiful was their ability to read and navigate other people. And the ripple of joy and genuine caring they left behind them as they worked. I witnessed a moment when a beautiful girl in CCC (complex continuing care) was so overjoyed to see them when they arrived on the unit. A wheel chair user with very limited movement, this girl’s face and limbs burst open at the sound of these clowns.  And as the clowns moved on to play with another child, this girl’s mother moved over to her and touched her face and began to whisper and smile with her daughter. She could see her daughter’s joy and moved to be with her, and share that spirit with her. It was like a trail of ‘clown-ness’ was left in their wake with this mother/daughter.

But what was also remarkable to me was how absolutely ridiculous these clowns were. Completely silly and embracing – dare I say it – failure.

Now, failure is not a new concept in theatre and performance – we hear this all the time right from our early germinations of theatre artist training: “Take risks!” our teachers shouted at us. “Be brave!”  This is no small feat, of course. And in a clinical setting, where everything is controlled so no one will trip in the slightest (and that’s not necessarily a bad thing!), the absurdity of clowns who seek out and gently nurture those feelings of ridiculousness and failure was refreshing. They put you at ease with your own ridiculousness and failings, perhaps, because they display and embrace their own so fundamentally as part of their practice.

I learned yesterday that I was not successful with a fellowship application I had submitted to SSHRC. I won’t deny I am/was bummed. Like most applicants I had worked really hard on that (bloody) application – and of course fewer than a fifth of people are successful – but I even failed miserably with a terrible ranking. Oi!

But truthfully, most things I’ve failed at. Like, most things – really. So, this is different?  And, if I channel my inner clown, “oh well!” There’s perhaps something completely ridiculous about desperately hoping for positive results for an award everyone knows is a crap shoot based on which two people read your application. It is, in a word, silly. Ironic too, given how seriously the academy takes itself. Is it possible to work joyfully, embrace the ridiculousness of one’s own failures, leaving a trickle of  joy with others, in a world that is so caught up in its own seriousness?