Reclaiming the verdict (a hopeful post about the Ghomeshi trial)

The summer that I was 17 years old, I volunteered at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival. I worked on the concession stand run by the festival, a pretty good gig. I was there with two of my closest friends, and super chuffed that one of my favourite bands at the time, Moxy Früvous, was playing the main stage. I remember hanging close to the front during their set, dancing awkwardly as only awkward teenage girls can do, and imagining that all the band members were making eye contact with me (also as only teenage girls do). Especially the cute one with brown eyes and curly long hair – a guy then called Jean Ghomeshi.

My strongest memory of that concert, though, came later, after the set ended. I rode the festival van back to the hotel with the band; I nearly passed out from the excitement, and I know I was mumbly and trying way too hard to be cool and saying lots of not-nearly-articulate-enough things. I also remember that the band was not sympathetic; I remember they made fun of me a bit. (Which, btw, super not cool, guys. I WAS SEVENTEEN.) And I remember explicitly that Ghomeshi mocked my festival volunteer T-shirt. (Who does that?)

Today, I feel incredibly lucky that this is my only embodied memory of Jian Ghomeshi, who was acquitted last week on four charges of sexual assault and one of choking to overcome resistance brought against him by Lucy DeCoutere and two other unnamed witnesses. It’s a story that reminds me of the mild discomfort he always roused in me, even when I’d listen with pleasure to his superb radio show, Q, now hosted by Shad for the CBC; it’s also a story that reminds me how I empathise with the women who brought charges against him, even though each, as it emerged in court in February, had complex romantic or sexual relationships with him after the alleged assaults took place. Because, you know what? The fact that Ghomeshi mocked and ridiculed the young me in a van on the way to a hotel in Edmonton when I was 17 always made me, perversely but very genuinely, want strongly to like his radio persona, to admire it even, as though to do so would be to reclaim something of the dignity he and his fellow band members took from me that day. I was so much more than the girl he embarrassed.

(Obviously, I do not wish in any way here to equate my mildly upsetting experience with that of the women Ghomeshi hurt in a much more profound way. I share this anecdote only to demonstrate that, for a lot of women in a lot of different ways, the narratives that have emerged around his arraignment, trial and acquittal are personal indeed.)

I’ve been uncertain about the value of doing a post on the outcome of the Ghomeshi trial. Last week, our airwaves were saturated with the story. I spent $10 on in-flight wifi last Thursday just to catch up on the all the news feeds I’d been banking, trying to get every possible perspective on what had happened – and on what it meant for Canadian justice, for women bringing allegations of assault before the court, and indeed for the individual women in this case, who were absolutely savaged by the judge in his 25-page decision. (He accused them of “deception” in giving inconsistent evidence; the full text of his verdict is available here. I’d also recommend, if you’re not up on the full story but want to be, the pieces I’ve linked here to the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, and the Guardian.)

The media chorus seems now to have settled on a contradictory but entirely reasonable consensus: that the judge, given the evidence before him and the presumption of reasonable doubt that governs all defendants, could not but acquit; and that this acquittal not only does not mean that Ghomeshi did not in fact commit the acts he was accused of, but also means that women in future, faced with similar acts and similar circumstances, way well just choose to keep it to themselves.

I agree entirely with this consensus, but it also makes me very, very angry. And the anger has been consuming me. So I’ve decided to go ahead and write this post, and in the process to reconfigure this anger, get a handle on it, and turn it, instead, into something like hope. I’m doing this for myself, to be sure, but I’m also doing it for my students – men, women, gender queer, and trans. Any Canadian with a body to love and protect (that is ALL Canadians) deserves to see the hope in this verdict rather than only the despair.

Jian Ghomeshi verdict rally

This image, and the one below, was taken by Chris So for the Toronto Star.

As a teacher, I’m especially, acutely aware that I need to find a way to talk about this trial and its fallout with my students in a way that is empowering and activating, rather than depressing and foreclosing. I know the students I teach at Western University have been following the Ghomeshi scandal closely, and I am sure that many of them don’t quite know what to make of the verdict and its implications for them – they are so vulnerable so often at bars, in dorm rooms and apartments, and at house parties around town. So herewith, three ways I’ve found hope in the verdict, and three things I will tell my students when they ask to speak to me about it.

  1. Marie Henein is a damn good lawyer – one of the best anywhere. She’s a gorgeous, powerful, smart, articulate woman. She did exactly what the law permitted her to do, and what she was paid to do, in throwing everything a good defense lawyer should at the court on Ghomeshi’s behalf. The fact that this “everything” included a process of repeatedly shaming (known as “whacking“) the crown’s witnesses, the women who alleged Ghomeshi had assaulted them, reminds us in turn of something incredibly important: just because women can become smart, successful, wealthy and powerful professionals does not mean they will always use those advantages to help and support other women in need. In other words: Henein stands as evidence that individual women can make it to the top tiers of power in Canada. She is NOT evidence that all women can do so, nor that feminism has “won” and is “over”. Her incredible success is a result of her individual talents, advantages and experiences, not evidence of broader feminist success. (It’s also worth noting that Henein is frequently cited as a feminist in legal circles. At the same time, media stories on her feminism reveal it to be somewhat Thatcher-esque: every strong woman for herself.)
  2. Canada has a robust judiciary, including consent laws that recognise the complexity, and non-retroactivity, of this concept. (That is: a person can consent to sex once, and not consent twice, and that second time counts as rape. Consent cannot be read backwards into a fresh moment of intimacy.) Nevertheless, we have a serious, systemic problem with the way sexual assault is read in real-life courtroom situations, and those problems severely impact the individual, imperfectly human witnesses who bring assault complaints before a court not fully equipped to examine them fairly (despite the implicit, assumed “fairness” of a trial situation in a liberal democracy). Further, these problems are much in evidence in the text of the judgment in this case. (For an excellent, detailed reading of that judgement, its internal contradictions, and the ways in which it subtly relies on stereotypes about victims, see Anne Kingston’s superb article in MacLeans, linked here.) What does this mean? Lots of things. It means that some women might now choose not come forward to undergo what DeCoutere and her peers did. It means some women who do come forward may have a really tough time. But it also means that our imperfect system still needs lots of work – work that smart, politically engaged, activist, and well-trained women (and men) have yet to do. The young people we teach may be – can definitely be – the ones to do some of that very important work. Let’s remind them of that.
  3. When we support each other, our collective voice is loud, and it gets heard. From the start, the allegations against Ghomeshi attracted widespread attention; this attention quickly ballooned into a loose but powerful coalition of women from around the world who spoke out in support of the complainants on social media, in street protests, and across the web. The trial itself brought loads of protests physically into the space of the law, the space in front of Toronto’s Old City Hall chambers, and powerful images from those protests accompany many post-trial “what happens next” pieces. Those images can look hopeless: “the system fails survivors” reads one of my favourites, on a placard held by a woman whose face looks like I feel. But they also look to me like something more, because they speak to the embodied, collective strength of all of us who have raised our voices in support of a woman’s human right to say what has happened to her, in all its messy complicatedness, and to have the nuances of that story thoughtfully heard. That strength made it possible for Lucy DeCoutere to speak in front of protestors at Old City Hall after the verdict, and to speak to and in various media outlets in the days following (read her interview in Chatelaine here, and her op-ed in the Guardian here), even after her experience under cross-examination left her confused and shattered. And that strength will, I believe, make it possible for other victims of sexual assault to keep coming forward, even though the outcome of this trial was not in the complainants’ favour. Because strength in numbers is the only thing that has ever given women, plural, the kind of voice that patriarchy deigns to hear.
Jian Ghomeshi verdict rally

Luc DeCoutere outside Old City Hall, Toronto. Photo by Chris So.

So I’m done feeling angry and hopeless. Instead, I’ll take these things away, and pass them on to my students.

First: incredible success for one woman does not guarantee support for, empowerment of, all of us; that’s a lie neoliberalism tells, and it tells it well. Postfeminist bull it is, and nothing more.

Second: systemic problems with the reporting, investigation, and prosecuting of sexual assault allegations in Canada require our labour and attention so that they can be solved, the system changed for the better for everyone. It’s up to us, and to our students, to do that work, and that work starts now.

Third: raise your voices, boys and girls. Now is when we stand up and help survivors’ voices, at long long last, to be properly heard.

Solidarity,

Kim

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Write. Just write. And be amazed.

You might be familiar with this advice often given to graduate students and research faculty alike: if you need to get something written, set aside a bit of time every day – we’re talking, like, 20 minutes, maybe 30 – and just sit down and do it already. Be prepared for a lot of what you write ultimately to go in the bin. Be prepared to find it cringe-inducing to begin writing, not like what you appear to be writing, and yet still have to keep going until the egg timer makes its pinging sound. And be prepared for the thing you need written, amazingly, actually to get written.

I freely confess I’ve not followed this advice myself in recent years – and I have to say I regret it. I’ve realised lately that I’m not getting the writing done that needs (or wants!) doing, and while I often blame my teaching and service workload for clawing time away from my writing, especially in the school term, the sad truth is that I could easily find 20 minutes a day to write. I just choose not to find it – and my mood suffers as a result.

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This truth was driven home to me in late January when Melanie Mills, the instructional librarian attached to the Department of English and Writing Studies at Western, visited my modern theatre class to take us through a time management exercise. (You can read a bit more about that here.) This exercise is attached to the students’ current research essay task: in addition to writing their research essays, the students all made time management plans, and I asked them each to keep a time management journal. (Handing in their plans and journals with their essays guarantees them a free 5% on top of their research essay grades.) I also asked them to select their own, custom due dates for their essays; the idea was to give them the freedom to work their essays into their term’s labour in a way that made sense for their own, individual schedules. Of course, the time management tasks, plus the customising of due dates, had another purpose too: to force students to confront their procrastinating tendencies head-on, and to reckon with them.

What happened when I did the time management exercise with Melanie and the class back in January? Surprise, surprise: I ran smack into my own procrastinating tendencies. I learned that, on the scale she gave us, I score a bare 6/10 for TM skills. In particular, the exercise revealed that I am bad at setting priorities for myself. I tend to do the work that will create an easy sense of satisfaction at the end of a day (teaching/marking tasks, addressing emails and shrinking the inbox, writing blog posts […ahem]), and I put off for another, “protected” day the things that I deem most challenging and often most important to my sense of self (like writing). Of course, those “protected” days are a ruse. They usually don’t come. Or they come rarely. And when they do, the build-up is so severe that sitting in front of the screen to write becomes a stomach knot-inducing burden, an all-or-nothing high-stakes game.

Scoring a C in time management lit a bit of a fire under me. No, I’ve not been writing every day – not yet. (See my last post for the panic under which I’ve been working this term; I’m barely hanging on, but looking much forward to the change that end of term brings in three weeks’ time). But I have been thinking more and more about the ways in which we all (including me!) tend to equate writing with the highest of stakes, about how to lower those stakes a bit, and about different ways to help students, in particular, to recognise the value of setting aside just a small portion of time in a day, sitting down with the anxiety, pushing it to one side, and writing something, anything, just to see what happens.

I’ve been an advocate for short bursts of writing in the classroom for a while; I got religion while at Queen Mary, and I learned a huge amount from the team in the Thinking/Writing program there. The ethos behind that program is nicely captured in a very recent article by Neil Haave for the National Teaching and Learning Forum, in which Haave argues that writing is a thinking process, not just its outcome or record. Citing scientific research into the cognitive changes that writing induces, Haave writes,

By placing thoughts in the structure of a sentence, we produce vehicles of thought that then may be manipulated on the page or screen (Menary 2007). The act of manipulating the thought vehicles (sentences) is a way of manipulating our thinking by integrating different ideas—it produces thinking: Writing is thinking. Thus writing is not just about enhancing memory and recording thoughts—it is not simply the recording and transmission of information, though it does play that additional role. Rather, when writing sentences, creating new sentences and moving the contained phrases and container sentences around in new structures, the writer is actively thinking, bringing ideas together in new ways that illuminate each other in a manner unknown until that moment.

What this kind of research teaches us is, I think, ground-breaking: that when we write, stuff moves in the brain. We change. We develop. We learn, and we grow. It might not feel like it at the time, but that’s what’s happening: we’re learning and growing as we struggle to get word onto page.

This is a really liberating way of thinking about writing and the anxiety it brings, if you ask me. It puts in a very different, much more positive light those moments that, let’s face it, we ALL fear, that produce a lot of the fear that stops our writing from starting in the first place. That is: those moments when we hit a wall, don’t know where to go next, don’t see how all the ideas connect up… because our brains are in the process of making fresh, often complex, discoveries about how the ideas on the page will finally come together. We just don’t know what that looks like yet. We’re still working it through –  but we can only work it out by writing about and often around it. Ironically, these moments are the moments that necessarily precede the breakthroughs. They are also, however, the moments when many of us (me included…) often stop, panicked, and close the laptop.

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This photo is by Kalindy. See more here.

Haave says: “I believe that one of the reasons students have a difficult time writing is that they spend so much time thinking about what to write before they write as opposed to simply writing what they think.” The solution, for him, is to create as many opportunities as possible for students to write down what’s going through their heads as they work, and to share that low-stakes (not for grades!) writing with a peer partner as often as possible.

I use these kinds of low-stakes writing exercises in class all the time, and a number of past students have reported to me on their value for their own learning practices. But in honour of the specific challenges posed by our research essay task and time management meta-tasks this spring, last week in modern theatre I went one better. I turned our final class hour into a writing “retreat”, inviting students to come to class and just write for 50 minutes. Melanie was there to offer support, as was I and my TA, Meghan. We volunteered to talk through difficult issues with students, to read bits and pieces, to help with research challenges, and to brainstorm around thesis statements that just weren’t quite there yet. I explicitly styled this hour as a gift – students could choose not to come, though regular absence penalties applied, but I told the students that I hoped they would come, because when were they going to gift themselves a whole hour just to write, and then to put the writing away and get on with the day?

In the end, more than half turned up – and in mid-March. I’m calling that a win, for them and for writing-as-thinking. I just wish I’d given myself that hour to write, too.

Thoughtfully,

Kim

Studying performance makes you better! A former student’s view

The guest post below was written by one of our former students in the Theatre Studies program at Western; it was written as part of a showcase of work by Theatre Studies students published in Western News, our on-campus weekly, to celebrate the official launch of our program on 3 March 2016. You can read the other – equally thoughtful – student pieces here.

By Jonas Trottier

In a 2012 interview with Charlie Rose, Alan Rickman gave advice to aspiring young actors. He stressed the importance of exposing themselves to art, ideas, and current events in order for the young artist to form for themselves opinions on the world.

These are the things that I think have most benefited me in my journey as I’ve gone from undergraduate study at Western into a fine arts-based acting program at George Brown Theatre School in Toronto. The ideas that I was exposed to both in and out of the classroom as a student in Western’s Theatre Studies program have provided me with a broad intellectual foundation and a balanced, thoughtful perspective, both of which now inform my decisions as an actor and creator of theatre.

When I remember the political and social activism of my peers at Western, the creative, refreshing interpretations of texts on offer in scene studies for our classes, and the original performance interventions we made (here I think of the brave performances I witnessed at Purple Sex, a sex- and race-positive showcase that happens each March on campus), it is abundantly clear to me that all of those things have helped shaped my view of the world.

They have helped me to see and understand the world from the perspective of those on the margins.

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(Purple Sex is a student-driven, feminist, critical race, and queer-positive performance fundraiser that takes place every year at Western.)

Having this kind of exposure to alternative ideas, identities, and experiences of the world, and being able to see things from perspectives which may be very different from my own, is indispensable to my work as an actor. Empathy is the actor’s greatest tool. Without it, it is impossible to look at a script and see not simply how a character must act but also the incredible range of truthful ways in which they might act. To be able to see these possibilities and weigh them against each other in order to make choices that will create the most compelling piece of theatre is what sets great actors apart from those who lack the means to make these analytical choices.

In addition to this exposure to different worldviews, I benefitted so much at Western from learning about a wide array of theatrical conventions that stand apart from contemporary stage naturalism (the most common convention on display in mainstream theatre in North America). This has helped me to keep an open mind about the form theatre can take, and what different kinds of forms mean on stage. From the techniques of Brecht’s Epic Theatre to more esoteric forms such as Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, having a knowledge of a range of historical and contemporary techniques allows me to make good choices about which form or technique can most effectively help me achieve the desired effect for a piece of my work.

In looking back on my time at Western and thinking about where I am now in my journey, as well as where the Theatre Studies program at Western is going, I experience an interesting feeling of internal conflict. While I am infinitely happy to be doing the work I am doing now, a small part of me wishes I had had the opportunity to spend more time at Western and further my academic exploration of theatre and performance by taking some of the program’s ever expanding offerings. For now, I’ll continue to immerse myself in the practical side of the theatre, and just maybe use a book list or two, borrowed from my teachers and peers still at Western, to guide my ongoing personal investigations.

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JONAS TROTTIER graduated from Western in 2015 with a minor in Theatre Studies and is currently studying Theatre Performance at George Brown Theatre School in Toronto.

 

Hands. Off. My. Saturday.

So last night I had a small meltdown. This was the third or fourth meltdown in as many weeks; it’s March (lately February) and I am incredibly overwhelmed at work and exhausted from winter’s pace and relentless cold, fatigue, and stress. (Even Emma the dog, typically a face of snow-covered splendour, hasn’t been her usual treat this season; mostly, I’m just fecking tired and ready for it all to end.)

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(Yup. That’s Emma. Ready for winter walkies… as usual.)

Last night’s meltdown was special, though, and in its specialness rather instructive. I was sending a series of emails related to a recruitment event happening on my university campus next week, seeking student and faculty volunteers to support our Theatre Studies table. While messing about with this event, I realised that I’d almost missed the fact that ANOTHER event, a regular and university-wide (and thus fairly high-profile) recruitment fair, was happening this week.

On Saturday.

Nobody had told me. Even though I am, with the help of a *very* small team of dedicated colleagues, running our theatre program solo right now. Which means, of course, that ALL of us needed to be mobilised, and quickly, and arrangements seen to STAT, so that we did not end up missing the thing entirely.

First, I freaked out. I am not embarrassed to say that I was trying to eat dinner at the time (this is what March amounts to for me, friends; sitting at the dining room table – HEY, AT LEAST I’M AT THE TABLE! – on a Monday evening, circa 8:30pm, stuffing leftover biryani into my face and drafting emails on my laptop all the while). Some rice and bits of cardamom may have been coming out of my ears. Suddenly, panic set in. It felt like – even though this is obviously mad-as-a-hatter territory – the program might live or die on its visibility at March Break Open House.

Next, I triaged the problem, realised whom I needed to contact and about what, and set about drafting a new round of messages. It was at this point, though – when I was emailing to ask various faculty and students and colleagues and friends which shifts they could cover – that I realised that what was going to happen this weekend to me was actually very, very bad indeed.

I was going to have to work on Saturday.

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I am an evangelist for Saturdays. Since graduate school, it’s been my one hard and fast rule: no work on Saturdays! I make exceptions only for immovable work events that also, ultimately, involve pleasure – conferences, for example, where I know a day spent listening to colleagues share their work will end with some kind of drunken debaucherie at, say, Au Pied de Cochon, or Olympia Provisions.

Why such a rule, above all other rules? Friends, it’s simple. Academics work ALL THE TIME. We live our work. The research is in our blood and bones. The things that give us joy also give us labour. It’s not hard – let’s be honest – to rack up 60, 70, 80 hours a week at this gig and barely notice, because hey, it’s also a pleasure to think about the artists we write and teach about while hanging around Facebook, and it’s easy to semi-draft the next paragraph of that overdue book chapter while walking the dog or bathing the kid or cooking supper. The work is everywhere. It never leaves us. We need to leave it – on purpose – or be doomed.

So ever since grad school, when I lived in a tiny, sweet apartment in downtown east-side Toronto (now part of the swish Distillery District, and utterly unaffordable to mid-career, middle aged me!), my rule has been that Saturdays are for Other Than Work, Period. I shop for food. I cook a lot of things. Emma the dog gets to visit the coffee shop I frequent in Wortley Village (London, ON) where I now live. There may be a martini or two come evening. Along with the Saturday Guardian, and maybe an episode or two of something new and yummy. (The Night Manager, oh my god!)

This Saturday, as it turns out, I’m going to have to fork over a few hours to work. And I just want to register how annoyed I am. Because, friends, time off is ALSO an activist issue, a feminist issue, on this International Women’s Day. We all know we work too hard – especially women, who still do the bulk of home and child care even while working professional, full-time jobs, and who are still shockingly underpaid for their labour.

And we all know, deep down, that after working too hard on stuff that really, truly, doesn’t matter THAT MUCH, we are far too drained to turn our attention to politically or socially activist matters, let alone matters of personal care. Overwork is a strategy by which we are conscripted into an army of consenting subjects, far too damn tired to stand up for inequality, for the rights of refugees, or against a complacent and increasingly right-wing political class; drained from the day, if you’re anything like me, you read the news online, sigh and rage a bit and wish you could find the energy to do something… before you then turn back to your “work”.

Dammit, Saturday. Come back. I need you more than ever.

Kim