Designing for Hope University: The Award-Winning Educators Series with Rachel Hurst
Jessica Riddell 00:09
Today I have the pleasure of welcoming Dr. Rachel Hurst who is a Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. Her research is concerned with the relationships between power, embodiment, and culture from the perspectives of psychoanalytic theory and decolonization. She is the author of multiple books, including Surface Imaginations, Cosmetic Surgery, Photography and Skin published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in 2015, editor of Representing Abortion by Routledge 2021, and an editor of Skin, Culture ,and Psychoanalysis, published by Palgrave in 2013. She's also an award-winning educator. She is dynamic as a leader in pedagogy and educational leadership. She is the founder of the Hive for Feminist Research at St. Francis Xavier, which is a group that meets monthly to share and discuss interdisciplinary feminist research across the university, including the Faculties of Arts, Business, Education, and Science, the Coady International Institute, and the Library. One of my favorite quotations on your website around creative feminist pedagogy is that, “educators and students often have no space within the institutions we work in for our bodies, for loneliness, and for being honest when we don't know.” And I feel like you were just the perfect person to connect with as we grapple with the systems that we've inherited from the 19th century, the higher Academy where we're stuck in a kind of 21st century context, our systems are broken. And yet, I think we're really struggling right now as we move into a post- pandemic world with how to how to name it, how to understand the context and convergences to move forward and to deconstruct some of the inhospitable spaces and structures to really fulfill our social mission in higher education. So, I'm so excited. There are so many things I want to talk to you about. But the first question we always start with in the podcast, and it is open ended. Could you tell us your story? Could you tell us how you got here? In whatever way you interpret “here’ to be?
Rachel Hurst 02:43
The first story that I often tell students is that I am a first-generation university student. My father did a number of different jobs, including working in construction, and at the end of his life, he did forklift training and health and safety training in factories. My mom was a mental health nurse for her entire career. So, I describe myself as coming from a mixed class background, and education has been really the space that has allowed me to understand that. The second story that I share is that I'm someone for whom depression and anxiety has been my companion throughout my adult life. I've had two major periods of depression including one when I was a young person which was treated poorly. I lived in rural Ontario. I was grappling with being a queer person who was out; this would have been around 1994. I was grappling with coming to that sense of who I was, and again, encountering structures that pathologized that, and my experiences of depression and anxiety have profoundly shaped who I am. While they're experiences that I would not wish upon anybody, it's something that I share with a lot of students who are confronting all of these enormous issues of police violence, climate change, war, inequality, and for who being depressed is a perfectly rational, non-pathological response. The third story that I will often tell students when I'm introducing myself and who I am, and what I’m about, is that I also have a lot of experience with cancer, caregiving, and grief. I've been a caregiver twice in my life, once for a few months for my father when he had surgery to deal with lung cancer, and second, for a year when my younger sister was diagnosed with leukemia. She's doing well, but my father died when I was 27. The experiences of caregiving and grieving have been very connected for me. I know Jessica that you've also been a caregiver, and so you understand that in a way, it's kind of giving up an idea of what your future is going to look like because you are so in the moment of confronting a deadly disease and thinking about what is it that you’re going to do. After my father died, I got really involved with an organization called Bereaved Families of Ontario. It initially began as an organization that was founded by women who had lost children, and who were trying to process those experiences in a peer-support sort of manner. I was first a participant in a mutual support group for young adults who had lost a parent or a sibling, and then I went on to facilitate groups, both for young adults, but also for queer and trans people who had experienced any kind of loss. The most beautiful thing about my first group was the lesson that you can receive what someone is saying so much better sometimes by not responding, by being silent and allowing that silence to be there. You can really let what someone has told you sink in. That silence can also really feel like someone has heard you, and that they're not trying to—because of course, death is really scary—paper it over or say, “There, there, it's okay.” So, all of those different experiences profoundly changed what I think about what we're doing in the classroom.
Jessica Riddell 14:07
I love that you've got a three-part story, starting in spaces of mixed class and intersectionality and then working through the ways in which mystification and exclusion happens at an institutional level. But it also happens when you when you manage disease, and then how you sort of turn that into radical caregiving both in your personal but also in your professional spaces, as you think how it informs pedagogy. I wonder if you've given that some thought from your work in bereavement from radical caregiving, but also in your feminist and decolonizing, lens, systems, structures, and cultures. Why don't we do with this?
Rachel Hurst 18:42
Yeah, I have a couple of observations. One is that the pandemic, in some ways, I feel as though the way that, at least my university responded to the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, has felt like the only sort of grounded-in-reality kind of way of responding. Students were sent home, they had to move out of residence, classes were canceled for a week so that we could regroup, process, think about what was happening. Then we had to do emergency remote teaching for two weeks, and then that was it. We developed a pass-fail system to accommodate students. All that stuff felt very real and responsive, and grounded in what was happening. Since then, there has been such an attachment to getting back to normal. I think about the powerful article that Dionne Brand wrote in the Toronto Star in the summer of 2020, in which she questions what “normal” is and who it is for. Normal is anti-Black racism and violence, it’s misogyny, it is the ongoing colonialism and colonial legacies in Canada, and oppression of Indigenous people. Normal is bad! The only people who want to return to normal are those people who are privileged by it, and benefit from it, and benefit from those structures of oppression. In terms of thinking about unprocessed grief, it's something that I am really aware of, in my exchanges with students and discussions with students. I'm dealing with people that have really missed a lot of milestones in a time of life in which there's a lot of them. Right, like graduating from High School, graduating from university, turning 20. You know, all these kinds of things, and they've happened, but they've happened in such a way that they have not been celebrated in the way that you expected. I think there is a lot of similarity, it's also very different, but there are similarities in accompanying someone with cancer, in terms of important holidays, important life events, right? They don't happen the way that you thought they would happen, and they're very different. It might be a generational difference or something that has come from the pandemic, but I appreciate my students now more than ever because they are real, they’re not masking how they’re feeling. I think because of the way I introduce myself they are not afraid to talk about the heavier stuff with me, and although it can make it harder to set boundaries for myself, I appreciate that realness and I have never felt closer to them than I have in these past couple of years. On the other hand, I have been working with colleagues around the university, in particular, those in positions of leadership to be really, sometimes insufferable in the toxic positivity, the “thanks for all of your work”, but also no tangible recognition of that work that is meaningful. Why I like being with students is because they're real, because that appreciation is there, it will come through, you know they know that somebody has heard them, and a lot of the time, that's all people want is, you know, to be to be heard, and so, so I get that. Yeah, I'm kind of rambling about this. In reading, your thoughts about what Hope University would look like and kind of thinking about those aspects of relationality, it's also kind of thinking about, who has the privilege to be able to engage in those kinds of relationships? How is the responsibility for that really put on some people more than others, and in particular, those people who represent identity categories that are underrepresented at the University?
Jessica Riddell 27:51
You’re really resonating with me about the notion of the authentic, critical hope of our students who sit here in the discomfort and you can see it palpably on their skin. There is a kind of almost confidence in the discomfort in a way that people who are in positions of have established authority and power are moving towards toxic positivity. I’ve seen this across our post-secondary sector gaslighting, by saying it's fine, the pandemic is over, we're fine, everybody's okay. I'm trying to exercise a critical empathy to understand the perspectives of those who are so committed to gaslighting and toxic positivity, they wouldn't frame it that way, and I don't think that there would be critical reflection necessary to excavate that, but there is a desire to go back to normal, even though normal was the product of a privileged few. One of the things that struck me when you were talking is that the emotional labor that we do, often emotional labor based on intersectionality is invisible, it's not valued, it's not compensated. In fact, for some of our colleagues in the academy, it is a waste of time or not their job or indicates to them that we're not rigorous academics. How do we build systems that make visible value and compensate emotional labor as an essential part of our social mission? Is it promotion, evaluation and review? Is it hiring and onboarding? Is it the choice of our executive leaders? Is it how we talk about ourselves internally or externally? Is it all the above?
Rachel Hurst 31:53
I think it is all of the above. I also think that it's not only about how we with our students and being emotionally present, because for at least for myself, as someone who is a tenured full professor, I'm in a very stable, secure position. So, I sort of view that work, even while I recognize that it's unequal, and I recognize that service is a real responsibility, it's an opportunity for me to return what has been given to me by others who I've encountered, and in different ways. One of the things that has really allowed me to flourish in my job has been the support that I have received from other colleagues. It's not just about doing that work for our students, but also having other people who are emotionally present for us. It's the things that you learn from experiences that you never would wish upon anybody, but it is life affirming to work in a place in which I have immediate colleagues with whom that messiness is fine. We're not always our best selves. I can very easily get into complaining and fits of rage and, you know, being down on things and all of this kind of stuff. But it's the fact that I have that network to support me that allows me to also do that for my students. I would like to see that work its way up.
Jessica Riddell 35:23
I'm struck by this notion of rage as a form of resilience. I love that because, I have my thought partners and collaborators, both within my institution, but mostly in networks, across Canada, and around the world where we literally call it “howling into the abyss,” where we just sit there on Messenger, or on FaceTime, or on whatever platform and howl at the sadness and the despair and the discomfort and the challenges because I think that anybody who is committed to significant culture change, working within systems that are, as you said, mystified and exclusive, and inhospitable, and that the systems are designed to endure, not to adapt and not to innovate. The people within those systems, I fundamentally believe have incredible goodwill, incredible generosity, incredibly thoughtful dispositions, and several humans, including myself, have internalized systems and structures and then reproduce them, unreflectively. So one of my questions, and this is a question I don't have an answer to but rather it's the thing that keeps me up at night is, is the system broken? I started off this Hope University book with the underlying premise that we've inherited 19th century systems that are floundering in a 21st century context that we need to completely reimagine and renovate those systems. We don't have the luxury of starting anew, we don't have the luxury of putting something you know, in beautiful British Columbia and running it like Quest. We have to work within the systems that we have, we can't blow it all up because we’ll take a lot of really good people with us if we do that. I read this article, it was this, incredible woman, an academic, a public scholar, an advocate for anti-Black racism, and she said, the systems are working exactly the way they're designed. They're designed to be racist, and exclusionary and colonial, and they're supposed to be hierarchical siloed and compartmentalized. But my fundamental premise starting off was systems are broken, and we need renewal and renovation..So what do we what do we do with that? How do you how do you sort of manage those two things that kind of feel true at the same time?
Rachel Hurst 38:57
Well it's interesting when I was reading your, when I was reading your questions and your thoughts, I thought about Quest, I have a very close friend who was one of the first faculty members there and she was really involved in developing the university from the ground up. Even in that sort of utopic project, which in many ways was doing things that were so beautiful and transformative for students and really creating classroom settings that are small classes where you're with the same group of students every single day for three and a half weeks. Where that's the only thing they do, that's the only thing you do, you're in it together. Even within that, I think it was surprising to her, and also surprising to me, but those structures of oppression seep in various ways. Whether it is, who the students are that are attending this university? How accessible is it for them? Who are we hiring? How free are the people that we are hiring to truly bring their whole selves to their work? It’s all of that kind of stuff. One of the one of the things that I found really inspiring this year was an article that I made a decision to assign in my feminist theory class in the fall. It's an article by Alison Phipps and Liz McDonnell, that's called “On Not Being the Master’s Tools: Five Years of Changing University Cultures.” The article is a reflection on a group of three white, female professors who were a part of a project that was called Changing University Cultures in the UK, that was specifically focused on sexual violence, sexual harassment, bullying, discrimination, these kinds of things. It's a reflection on how radical politics and feminist politics can be so easily absorbed. And the concept that they explore in the article is used for institutional polishing, which is a concept that comes from Sara Ahmed's book On Being Included, and it's sort of the idea that you can take a critique, or a particular complaint that's like a scratch on the institution, but it's possible to take that and buff it up, make it look good, and make it shine again. So how just simply the presence of certain people, and the fact that their critiques are there and are happening, can be seen as evidence that an institution is changing. One of the things that the authors argue and talk about is, what does it look like to reorient ourselves away from power? So rather than sort of speaking to authority, what does it look like to reorient us ourselves to something else? So, acknowledging our privilege, acknowledging our position in the university, and thinking about how we can work in smaller groups for change that kind of impacts people that are around us, and that doesn't get absorbed into sort of that mindset of “look at how great look things are going.” The title of the article draws from Audre Lorde’s, famous statement,”The masters tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” which gets misinterpreted, particularly by white feminists, as a way of not critiquing our own positionality in the university, and ignoring how we too, can become the master’s tools in various ways. As someone who has previously been very involved in anti-sexual violence work at the University and involved in policy committees, I have made a conscious choice in the past five years or so to no longer be a part of that work at the institutional level, but to instead dedicate my focus and my time to what students are doing. How can I provide opportunities, support, knowledge, and experience to them? I think that that has been something you know, that has created a lot of change, and that I feel better about.
Jessica Riddell 45:47
I’m completely thrilled that you worked in Lorde, the misinterpretation or taking out of context of their work, and then also Sara Ahmed's Complaint!, because they're all in the sort of larger introduction of my book about what do you do when you are working within these systems? I’m so struck by the feminist killjoy, as well as Sara Ahmed's new book Complaint!, where she talks about what you've just mapped on your own journey. She argues that formal complaints can sound just like the master’s tools, so she's making a sort of direct reference to Lorde and she says, they're bureaucratic, dry, tedious, but they're also where you actually come to hear and learn about institutional mechanics, and how institutions reproduce themselves. So, she says, to use a Lordeian formulation, the effort to rebuild the master’s house, so that it can accommodate those for whom it was not intended, cannot be understood purely as a reformist project. It is potentially revolutionary. I love that where she just she takes it and she says yet we are, we are taking the tools, we're understanding the mechanisms, we're understanding where and how power operates. But we're also moving into different kinds of spaces where we have to be constantly intentional about our own positionality.
Jessica Riddell 1:04:18
So today we talked about accountability, those responsibilities, and obligations, to the right communities in that it is also radical caregiving and radical caregiving to ourselves, because it ties us to purpose, and it clarifies for us the purpose and values. I think that you've just given us such a, an incredible roadmap today, and I hope that we can continue these conversations. Thank you so much for joining us.
Rachel Hurst 1:05:54
And it's been an absolute pleasure, at this time of year, it's so great to do this kind of thinking. But it's also so hard to do. So, I really genuinely appreciate the invitation.