My Recommendations for 10 Must-Watch Documentaries on Netflix – Watch them before they’re gone!

If you, like me, rely mostly on Netflix for entertainment, I’d like to offer recommendations for some of the best television that you may be missing out on. Documentaries, or non-fiction films, are a fascinating genre. It isn’t the “factuality” of the content that attracts me and many others to this style of film, but rather the perspective(s), the filmmaker’s point of view, and the narrative; I am interested in how documentaries represent particular realities. Documentaries are not about real life nor do they “show the real” because they are captured, produced, and filtered through various lenses—that of the filmmaker and her camera, the shears of the editor, and the eye of the beholder. So, what is a “documentary”? In my view, documentary uses “real life” as its clay and molds stories into shape using this raw material, or as John Grierson originally defined it, it is the “creative treatment of actuality.”1 The following stories, then, are not excellent for their claims to truthfulness but due to how compelling they are, the questions they raise, their novelty, narrative style, depth, and resonance, among other characteristics. Unfortunately, Netflix Canada has removed a couple of other favourites not listed here including Exit Through the Gift Shop and The Act of Killing, so watch the following before Netflix takes them away, too!

The Witness (2015)

the_witness_kitty_genovese_james_solomon_interview_filmcourage_1

I first learned about the infamous murder of Kitty Genovese in a social psychology class. It was used to explain the bystander effect and the diffusion of responsibility—that a larger number of bystanders decreases the likelihood that someone will help a victim. This was the case for Kitty Genovese who, in New York in 1964,  was stabbed multiple times and raped outside her apartment building with apparently more than 30 witnesses to the attack. The documentary is executive produced and narrated by William Genovese, Kitty’s brother, who attempts to piece together the events of that night, but also seeks to understand who Kitty was and what her life was really like in order to reclaim it from the pages of sensationalist newspaper stories and psychology textbooks. Though the truth will always remain murky, the film is a touching elegy and offers some closure for both William and the viewer.

Planet Earth I (2006) and II (2016)

If you are one of the last few holdouts or think this is just a nature documentary, oh how wrong you are! Planet Earth explores habitats all over the world capturing nature’s most dramatic moments in ultra-high definition. The personification, score and David Attenborough’s soothing, wise grandpa voice also helps (for a brilliant comedic alternative, try the Snoop Dogg version). Cinematographers and producers spend weeks waiting and watching to capture a single scene, such as this favourite from the sequel which was released just this year in Canada:

Amy (2015)

Amy_movie_interview_under-the_radarWhile I may be biased because I love Amy Winehouse’s music, this feature’s reviews and accolades don’t lie. Amy chronicles the chanteuse’s childhood, rise to fame, descent and eventual death due to drugs and alcohol. In doing so, it spotlights the pitfalls of fame, money, exploitation, and poor support systems, that may have all played a part in cutting Amy’s life tragically short. The film uses interviews with over 100 people, including friends and family, archival footage, and home video. It attempts to show Amy, who she really was, away from the predatory and downright cruel headlines that relentlessly followed her to the end of her life. She was funny, talented, a brilliant poet, an amazing voice, and a loving and loved soul. But she also struggled terribly, not just with addiction, but with eating disorders as well. Her music is given more context, richness and depth as we get to know who she was and what motivated her words. It also makes you realize how complicit her family, friends, label, management, media, fans, onlookers and, really, we as a society are in producing the conditions for her demise. A memorable and sad moment is when Amy ominously foreshadows early in the film:

“I don’t think I’m going to be at all famous…I’d probably go mad.”

Welcome to Leith (2015)

SUNDANCE0000This documentary tells the story of the sleepy town of Leith, North Dakota, that awakens to a Neo-nazi who moves into town and attempts to take it over to form a white nationalist community by buying up property and gaining electoral majority. Particularly relevant for the post-Trump era, the film offers a frightening look at the extremes of ideology, democracy, and first and second amendment rights. It’s creepy, terrifying and deeply troubling, but also hopeful as the local residents, and others from nearby towns, rally together to challenge their abhorrent new neighbours.

The Overnighters (2014)

PASTORANDOVERNIGHTERS
Pastor Reinke and some of the Overnighters

I watched this documentary just this past week and it struck me as both poignant and perturbing. It touches on several themes that exemplify America in 2017: the death of the American dream, economic depression and promise, religion and hypocrisy, ethics and morality, and humanity or lack thereof. It is about Pastor Jay Reinke and his mission to provide shelter in his church for over 1000 men who have come to North Dakota looking for fracking jobs during the state’s recent shale oil boom. These are “broken” men, as Reinke puts it; men struggling with homelessness, addiction, criminal records and unemployment. They believe Williston, North Dakota, offers opportunities, but with no place to stay and a leery and overburdened community, the men feel hopeless. Reinke takes them in, gives them hope and we see his humanity and kindness shine through as he literally practices what he preaches. Or does he? Over the course of the documentary Reinke admits that he, too, is broken as he struggles to keep his flock, help these men (many of whom are sex offenders), and manage his role as pastor, husband and father. With its conclusion, this documentary, like many great documentaries, forces you to ponder your own ethics and morality and leaves you with many questions. I also highly recommend it because it is a glimpse at the actual economic frustration that may have in part led to Trump’s victory (it will certainly not be mitigated through his policies but that’s another story).

Paris is Burning (1990)

MSDPAIS EC001

A controversial classic featuring the LGBTQ* communities and drag ballroom competitions in New York that gave rise to many aspects of modern drag and the culture as we know it. Not to mention, much of the current millennial vocabulary (YAS, Werk, Shade, Realness, among many other terms and styles) are appropriated from the marginalized communities featured in Paris is Burning—with Madonna and Vogueing being, perhaps, the biggest culprit of all. This film is important because of the historical record it provides through interviews with key Latinx and black figures at the forefront of drag culture in the mid-1980s and takes us into the elaborate drag ball competitions at the center of the scene. Candid interviews explore themes of sexuality, gender identity, HIV-AIDS, drug use, racism, class, sex work, among others. It is also controversial as Jennie Livingston, the cis white female director of the film, has been accused of exploiting the marginalized LGBTQ* people and communities featured in the film by profiting from their stories without adequate compensation. I recommend it for the enigmatic and talented personalities, who tell us, in their own voice, about their communities, families, lives, modes of expression, and means of survival in a brutal world. If you’re a fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race, this is a must-watch to see the original competitions the popular show is based on and, after you watch it, read this stranger-than-fiction story about Dorian Corey, one of the drag queens featured in the movie.

The Imposter (2012)

Nicholas-imposter-movie
The Imposter Frederic Bourdin

This one really blew my mind. It made me question everything I had just seen and the nature of truth, deception and manipulation. And, like many of the movies featured in this list, it will leave you with more questions than answers. I don’t want to give anything away, so here is the IMDB description: “A documentary centered on a young man in Spain who claims to a grieving Texas family that he is their 16-year-old son who has been missing for 3 years.” And this is just the beginning; it is a mystery, a thriller, and a thesis on deception. The imposter in question tells his story, but the film also uses dramatization, which perfectly fits director Bart Layton’s modus operandi in using the medium to question the nature of reality and fiction:

“What I wanted to do is make it very clear from the beginning that this isn’t what must have happened, this is a visualization of what someone wants you to believe happened. You know you’ve got an unreliable witness and yet you still go along with it, and that’s part of what makes this a different kind of documentary.”
-Burt Layton
From “The Unbelievable Story Of ‘The Imposter.’” 2012. HuffPost Canada. July 13, 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/13/the-imposter-documentary_n_1669745.html.

Dear Zachary: A letter to a son about his father (2008)

1200x630bb

Grab the tissues, this one is going to hit you so hard in the feels. When I think about this movie today it still cuts deep. Dear Zachary is director Kurt Kuenne’s attempt at creating a collection of loving remembrances for his late friend Andrew Bagby’s son, Zachary. What began as a project for friends and family became a publicly released film due to the events that transpire before and during its making. Bagby was murdered by his ex-girlfriend and mother of his child. The film shows the lengths to which Andrew’s parents go, including moving to Canada, to ensure that they gain custody of their grandson. What actually happens…you know what I can’t say anymore…just watch it and hug your loved ones!

The Fear of 13 (2015)

51VbEjXamyL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Another rollercoaster ride and deeply intimate portrait of one man, Nick Yarris, The Fear of 13 belongs to the genre of death-row documentaries which focus on the lives of inmates as they await their execution. What distinguishes this feature is both the narrative style—apart from some reenactments, Nick narrates his own story with the camera intensely focused on him—and the surprising turns his story takes. It doesn’t take long for the viewer to develop empathy for Nick and anger toward a cruel prison and justice system. Particularly compelling are the heart-wrenching love stories that take place within the walls of the prison and Nick’s passion for books and learning, as he explains how he educates himself while incarcerated (triskaidekaphobia, or the fear of the number 13, is one of the words he learns in prison). This documentary is deeply moving and far more emotional than you might think and not for the reasons you expect.

The Up Series (1964-2012)

3c4e7763-99c5-48fa-aecd-4b1e85489a76Possibly my favourite documentary series, I am surprised it is not more popular. Perhaps it’s the number of films that one must commit to? Because this is actually a series of 8 films. It chronicles the lives of 14 British children every seven years beginning in 1964 (the films are aptly titled: 7 Up, 14 Up, 21 Up, all the way to 56 Up, released in 2012). I stumbled upon the first, 7 Up, by accident, not realizing that this was a series. I became hooked instantly as the premise was to examine how children’s social class and upbringing affects their future lot in life. Over the series, we see the lives of these individuals up close through successes, failures, relationships, heartbreaks; through coming of age and beyond. It’s a fascinating use of the medium to study the lifecourse of 14 individuals who were somewhat randomly chosen for this project. While the film began as a kind of sociological longitudinal study of class and society, overtime it became a person-centered narrative exploring the inner lives of its participants. This unintentional existential exploration of life and growing up makes you feel close with these people who’ve literally aged in front of your eyes.

References

John Grierson, “The First Principles of Documentary,” in Forsythe Hardy, ed.,
Grierson on Documentary (London: Faber & Faber, 1966), 147.

All images are from Wikimedia and IMDB.com

Trigger Warnings & Safe Spaces, Pt. 2: Reframing warnings for the classroom

Since I wrote my last blog post on trigger warnings and safe spaces, the terms have lost much of their original meaning. Now, they’re mostly used as insults, usually when speaking about liberals, leftists, progressives, “sjws”, feminists and the like. And, more recently, they are being used by some in response to any reaction from anyone that may be at odds with the user’s opinion. Others believe that trigger warnings are an example of victim culture, an excuse to opt-out of doing work, a symptom of PC culture and of weak, effete millenials.

In short, for some people they are a slippery slope to the death of freedom.

The degeneration of the dialogue around trigger warnings doesn’t eliminate the need for acknowledging and continuing to understand them. After much reading, and within the context of higher education, the term “content warning” is a better alternative to account for the many incarnations of warnings for and reactions to potentially disturbing content. Reframing “trigger warnings” leads to the realization that they are very common when they are considered to be a mere content warning and not a part of the supposed “tumblr sjw feminazi agenda”.

Please note that from here on in, unless used in the original source, I will not be using the term “triggers” and similar language associated with PTSD and trauma to avoid psychologizing and medicalizing a whole plethora of experiences and reactions that may result from consuming disturbing content.  This is another reason why I want to frame content warnings as a utilitarian and potentially useful addition in higher education: to remove the medical and psychologizing/diagnostic connotations from the idea of warnings. While some of the examples below use this language, I do not agree with their use in all instances because they potentially pathologize common reactions to disturbing or shocking material.

I also wanted to reconsider warnings and reframe them for myself to depathologize their usage because professors are not trained counsellors or psychologists. While it is important for educators to be sensitive and empathetic to the individuals they teach, it is also important to maintain a professional distance and refer students to the appropriate professionals when necessary.

Furthermore, the use of psychological terminology with regard to disturbing content is not necessary in order to be considerate of one’s students’ experiences. In fact, using diagnostic and medicalizing language is potentially counter-intuitive as it erases students who may not have the means, and therefore the legitimacy, to receive diagnosis, or students who may be limited for whatever reason from personal knowledge of psychological disorders. And, as mentioned earlier, they potentially pathologize common reactions to disturbing materials, such as grief and discomfort.

I wanted to write this piece to look at the practicalities of content warnings. In some cases they are nothing more than a considerate gesture that we all perform, like telling our friends that a movie is really disturbing or repulsive. At other times, warnings can be a way to discuss a respectful work and learning environment that welcomes a plurality of views and experiences from all backgrounds and sociopolitical spectra.

It bears repeating that content warnings are not an attempt to coddle individuals but to present content as transparently as possible. To help understand this concept, consider the following example: television shows and movies sometimes show a content warning at the beginning, which may look something like this:

Three-LG-Wieden-unboxing-1.png

Typically, these are used to warn viewers of the nature of the content. Many often contain warnings of violence, coarse language, nudity, and sexuality, among others. Consider this personal example: I was in an anthropology class and we were about to watch a movie that depicted the effects of the ritualistic practices of male and female genital mutilation/cutting. The professor warned us of the graphic content beforehand. While the content was, indeed, disturbing, the warning prepared most students and some chose to look down or look away during the particularly harrowing scenes.

My use of this anecdotal example is not intended to minimize the fact that disturbing content can generate reactions far worse than just unpleasant experiences for individuals who have experienced trauma or PTSD and related disorders, but to illustrate the fact that being aware of the content that one is about to interact with helps one be prepared. It’s about being well-informed before consuming content.

While originally trigger warnings were borne of “PTSD psychology and popularized in feminist spaces on the Internet”, in academic settings I consider warnings to be far more general, and more akin to the disclaimers at the beginning of movies and music ratings. When framed this way, the issue of warnings becomes much less controversial and more utilitarian. In fact, I began to notice that almost every professor provided some sort of verbal warning or explanation before presenting material that may be sensitive. It’s just a considerate thing to do.

So, the whole issue is less about political rhetoric and more about courtesy.


In thinking about the development of my own lecturing skills, I had to consider: would I use content warnings? In which instances would these be necessary? How would I carry this out, exactly? What should be a simple decision and task is now fraught with the possibility of inciting controversy. To wade through the noise, I looked at a number of sources to find information and examples of content warnings.

professor-mcgonagall-professor-mcgonagall-28961127-280-390
Expectation of my future self as wise, old professor

NPR collected survey data from professors on trigger warnings and found that of the 800 responses “half of professors said they’ve used a trigger warning in advance of introducing potentially difficult material.” Tellingly, most stated that they chose to do so themselves and were not asked to provide warnings by university administration or students.

Perhaps, the most interesting finding from their survey was that none of the professors reported a student skipping a lecture or getting out of doing an assignment – one of the many oft-cited, potential dangers of warnings.

I read many articles on/by professors who have implemented warnings and they are as
varied as the people who use them. The choice and type of warning to use depends on a number of factors including: personal choice, class content, class size, and intention. Intention refers to the aims of the educator in using the warning. Is it to inform on the content of the material? To consider the mental and physical safety of students? To provide resources? To have a discussion on engaging with uncomfortable material? All of the above?

futtrack
Reality

The first question to ask, of course, is whether a course contains the type of content that students may find disturbing, or that may be potentially disturbing to trauma survivors. In the case of PTSD and similar conditions, a wide range, including the most seemingly trivial references, can be distressing. The point, then, isn’t to account for every possible reference, but to indicate to students that this is a reality for many individuals, and that everyone reacts to content of a disturbing nature differently. The purpose, in my opinion, isn’t to coddle individuals but to provide information while being mindful of this reality and letting students take ownership of how they will engage with the material and prepare themselves.


image-1

After looking at many examples, I’ve compiled the following list of major considerations. If you are considering including a content warning in your class syllabus or lectures, I hope you find the following list helpful. I will likely add more items and examples in the future. The questions to consider when using content warnings are:

  • Should the warning be verbal or written? Both?
  • In case of distress, will students be permitted to leave the class? Will this be disruptive? If so, what are alternatives or possible solutions for this?
  • Does it only need to be presented before specific lectures or multimedia?
  • How specific should it be? Is a general statement like a disclaimer preferred, or a more detailed note/discussion on the nature of the material and what students can do?
  • If verbal, is it also desirable to discuss confronting discomfort and challenging ideas with regard to academic freedom and discourse?
  • If the content is potentially disturbing, are there resources that the university offers that you can provide in the syllabus/in class?
  • Do you prefer to provide alternatives or an option of readings (depending on the task, of course)?
  • Are there alternative ways students can participate (for example, listening during an interactive activity)?
  • If students do leave the class, include a note that they must make up for missed work/notes
  • Do you prefer individual students approach you or a blanket statement/policy for all students?

Examples of Written Content Warnings/Disclaimers on Syllabi

download-1
I have collected the following examples on written warnings which provide a range of ideas for composition and formatting; I have arranged them from the relatively general/short to more specific/long (emphasis mine in all of the following examples).

Colleen Lutz Clemens at Kutztown University:

“My trigger warning tells the class that we’ll be focusing on texts that revolve around violence, and I want you to feel safe at all times. If you need to step out, you can. I’m asking them to read challenging material.”

She also adds that: “I think a blanket statement is enough. Note that my warning implies that one should leave if one feels unsafe, not if one feels uncomfortable. I am not infantilizing my students; I think it is a basic right of a student to feel mentally and physically safe.”

Another article by Clemens provides the following phrasing:

“If at any point you must leave the class, please do so quietly. Several of the readings could be triggers, and I want you to feel safe in the class at all times.”

The warning is bolded and italicized on her syllabus.

Dr. Mo Pareles at Northwestern University:

“I will not give trigger warnings, except to say here that the literature in this course contains a good deal of nontrivial sexism, racism, violence, and so forth…However, although shock value is certainly a legitimate pedagogical tool, nothing is included in the syllabus for that purpose.”

David R. Andersen-Rodgers at California State University:

“…began putting what he calls a ‘word of caution’ in the syllabus, which he points out on the first day. He talks about the powerful emotions some topics evoke, as well as telling students where on the campus they can seek help if the feelings overwhelm them”

Caroline Heldman at Occidental University:

“Over the course of the semester, we will be examining topics that may be emotionally triggering for trauma survivors…If you are a trauma survivor, please develop a self-care plan for the semester so that you can effectively engage the course material and participate in class.”

This warning puts the onus on the student to come up with an appropriate plan.

From Dr. Kyla Bender-Baird at CUNY (from an article by Sarah Seltzer):

“It is my goal in this class to create a safe environment in which we examine our assumptions… Discomfort can be part of the learning process as we are challenged to shift our paradigms. I invite you to sit with this discomfort. However, if the discomfort starts to turn to distress, I want you to take care of yourself. You can withdraw from an activity or even leave the classroom.”

Angus Johnston at Hostos Community College

“Course Content Note

At times this semester we will be discussing historical events that may be disturbing, even traumatizing, to some students. If you ever feel the need to step outside during one of these discussions, either for a short time or for the rest of the class session, you may always do so without academic penalty. (You will, however, be responsible for any material you miss. If you do leave the room for a significant time, please make arrangements to get notes from another student or see me individually.)

If you ever wish to discuss your personal reactions to this material, either with the class or with me afterwards, I welcome such discussion as an appropriate part of our coursework.”

Verbal warnings:

Martha J. Reineke at the University of Northern Iowa:speaker_green_icon-svg

“…delivers a short speech to students about how difficult it can be to read some of the case studies, and she points out the places students can go on the campus to get mental-health support.”

Patrick J. Keenan, a professor of law at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

“Mr. Keenan teaches international-law courses in which he often discusses crimes of sexual violence committed during war. On the first day of class, he mentions how hard it is to learn the horrific details of those crimes. He tells students that if there is a day when the material is especially troubling to them, they can sit quietly and just listen.

Dr. Josh Lambert at University of Massachusetts-Amherst (for a course on the Holocaust)

“We’ll be dealing with some harsh images and subjects. These are topics about which many people are understandably sensitive, and yet in this class I specifically want to deal with some texts that are excessive, or strange, or humorous, or difficult to take, or offensive…We should be respectful of everyone in the room, and keep in mind that some people in the room lost relatives in the Holocaust.

Julie A. Winterich at Guilford College.

“’I can’t predict what material may trigger someone suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or what will upset people for other reasons. If you are concerned or uncertain about this course, please closely review the course materials and decide whether you want to continue taking it.’ I tell students that I’m available to meet with them to discuss any questions they may have about any aspect of the course. Typically, the week before we engage content that explicitly depicts violence or trauma, I remind students about the upcoming material.

Other Alternatives:

Working with the University’s Accessibility/Disability Services Office

I worked for years for my university’s Accessibility office which arranged accommodations for students with documented disabilities and injuries. Students would often use the office to liaise with professors on their behalf to arrange for appropriate means to participate in the class as fully as possible. For example, a student with panic disorder or a musculoskeletal injury may need to leave the classroom frequently and take short breaks, in which case a notetaker may be assigned to the classroom to ensure that the student does not miss any material. Similarly, a student with documented PTSD may be able to arrange appropriate accommodations (when possible).

In keeping with this, a note on the syllabus or in class that states: “Please arrange for academic accommodations through campus Disability Services to assist with documented issues that may prevent active participation in this course” should suffice.

Introductory Notes from Students

Another alternative is to ask all students to introduce themselves (or write a note anonymously) and list their faculty, major, future plan, interest in the course, along with their expectations for the professor. They can also use this space to inform of any potential difficulties with their learning environment a la Dr. Erika Price’s introductory lecture handout.

Personal Meeting

Alternatively, students who are unable to use campus accessibility services for whatever reason (no diagnosis, bureaucratic/ineffective process etc.) can approach a professor personally to discuss the issue. In this article by Sarah Seltzer, a student with PTSD states that they approach professors for specific accommodations in each class, and periodically check-in regarding potentially harmful content.

Final Thoughts

At this point, I favour using the short and sweet disclaimer on a syllabus with resource information. I would also likely provide verbal notification when necessary, like before showing clips that may be distressing (i.e. “this clip contains acts of extreme violence”). That may change in the future. Content warnings should not be mandatory, nor should they be prohibited. The key is agency and academic freedom for both faculty and students. I prefer the idea of using the present controversy on warnings to have a dialogue, particularly in a small class, about engaging with challenging, contrasting ideas and the importance of discomfort for learning and growth when appropriate. My experience with students thus far has shown me how engaged, curious and knowledgeable most tend to be. They want to participate in discussing intellectually challenging material. Therefore, providing them with all the information about the material they will work with is just common sense.

On Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces

I am not a fan of trigger warnings*. I’ll admit it. Personally, I find them unnecessary and, based on my experiences and research on mental health, trauma and distress, somewhat counter-intuitive. However, I understand others’ desire to provide them and that they serve a need for some that I cannot relate to, so I don’t mind them. Furthermore, despite the aforementioned research, there may be a case for them due to the muddying of the original intention and definition of trigger warnings. So, unlike John Ellison, Dean of Students at the University of Chicago, I am interested in understanding them. Ellison wrote the following to the incoming class at U of Chicago:

“Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial and we do not condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

What Ellison fails to recognize is that his institution’s commitment to academic freedom has now excluded discussion on (and “retreated” from) trigger warnings and safe spaces. Trigger warnings and other so-called “PC ideas” heavily emphasize the power of language and it’s destructive, hegemonic properties in certain contexts. In this case, by plainly stating that “we” (the institution) “do not support trigger warnings”, is Ellison triggering (pun intended) a chilling effect on discussion of the same? Are faculty and students allowed to discuss the application of trigger warnings? In any context? Are faculty members forbidden to include them in syllabi, if they so choose (you know, exercise their academic freedom)?

I believe that these are discussions worth having. Whether or not you agree with the concept of trigger warnings, it is clear that many on the internet feel that trigger warnings are important and necessary, and some feel that they are needed IRL, as well. Isn’t it important, then, for the sake of academic freedom and discourse, to continue to grapple with the contentious nature of these nascent concepts? The fact of the matter is that “the idea of trigger warnings and safe spaces” is now “at odds with” U of Chicago’s perspective on the issue. This letter then, ironically, can be thought of as an exercise in the creation of an intellectual safe space for the administrative body of U of Chicago.

Safe Spaces

rutgers-black-studen-20091022--Demonstration1979
From Rutgers Archives, Black Student Protest Movement Demonstration (1979) at Rutgers University

In reading the comments on the many think pieces following the viral spread of Ellison’s letter, I was struck by the fact that most people don’t know or understand what a safe space is. Ellison used the term “intellectual safe space”, however most commenters seem to be conflating this concept with physical safe spaces only, indicating a need to hide from or escape potentially “dangerous” or contrasting ideas. Some thought that this may as well lead to segregation based on race/ethnicity because of the existence of black spaces on campuses (in reference to Mizzou, Yale). In either case, one thing became clear to me: they just don’t get it.

A response to Ellison from the President of Northwestern, Morton Schapiro, outlines his support for safe spaces and provides anecdotal examples. Perhaps I can illustrate why this concept is confusing for so many using examples from my time at the University of Manitoba.

When I first went to the Womyn’s Centre on campus, I was introduced to the concept of a physical safe space: a room within the centre, a space on campus that a female-identified individual could use if they were in distress. Similarly, women’s centers in most institutions are usually physical and intellectual safe spaces (or are intended to be) for the exchange of feminist ideas and discussions. This means that debate and opposing viewpoints are usually encouraged but those who do not share in the values and principles of the space are not welcome because of the historic domination, marginalization, stifling and silencing of women’s bodies, voices and spaces. 

This is an offensive notion for some, particularly of the anti-PC or altright persuasion but, put another way, it is not much different from hobby and interest based, ethnicity-based, or religious and faith-based student group spaces on campuses. In the same way that it would be extremely rude, counter-productive and possibly dangerous to have outsiders accost a group of students in Bible study to espouse their own opinions about the veracity of the Bible, it is equally unwelcome to have anti-feminists gain access to a specifically feminist discussion space. There are other spaces for that; classrooms, for instance! I have had plenty of discussions with students who championed anti-feminist, seemingly homophobic or staunchly conservative arguments in class. Within the classroom, it was clear to us that we were engaging in dialogue, and we may be extremely different in our principles and values but that didn’t mean we couldn’t respect one another’s right to hold those principles and values. The discussions were moderated by our professor who created an environment where we felt safe to have these discussions.

And that is what it comes down to: this notion of safety is lost on many. Safety is considered by opponents as weakness, whereas in most actual academic contexts it is simply a sense of equality, freedom to express oneself, and be ourselves without feeling like we will be punished simply because of who we are, our bodies or our ideas – something that has historically been the case in higher education settings for women, people of colour and racial/ethnic/caste minorities, people of certain faiths, and LGBTTQ* individuals. Unfortunately, this continues to be the case for some and is the norm in many countries around the world. Therefore, intellectual safe spaces shouldn’t be thought of as places to “retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with [our] own” but spaces for the creation and generation of ideas and perspectives which may be at odds with hegemonic discourses.

It is also important to remember, as oft noted, that “freedom of expression is not freedom from consequences.” Just as students, faculty, or the university have a right to hold events or invite speakers who may be deemed objectionable to some, others have an equal right to organize, protest against or demand the cancellation of invited speakers. For example, a couple of years ago a campus pro-life group held an event where horrific images of genocide were displayed alongside messages indicating that abortion is comparable to the Holocaust. I found this event highly disturbing, to say the least, and many, many people protested the presence of these images (displayed in a very public space), and the group itself. Later, some demanded that the group lose their status as a union-sanctioned student group. Fortunately, the union did no such thing, because, while this particular pro-life demonstration was extremely offensive to many, it was still within the rights of the group to do so (however, it seemed to toe the boundaries of the respectful work and learning policies of the University). Furthermore, the space where this student group conceptualized this exhibition can be thought of as their “intellectual safe space”. Freedom of speech goes both ways.

I’m sure that almost everyone agrees that post-secondary classrooms should be spaces where students and educators grapple with uncomfortable, thought-provoking ideas, and feel safe in doing so. And, outside of the classroom, within the auspices of the university, the creation of student-interest spaces where students who share common values, principles, backgrounds, ideas, and interests can come together, which can be construed as intellectual and/or physical safe spaces, have a right to and should be encouraged to exist.

*Geek Feminism defines trigger warnings as follows: “Trigger warnings are customary in some feminist and other Safe spaces. They are designed to prevent unaware encountering of certain materials or subjects for the benefit of people who have an extremely strong and damaging emotional response (for example, post-traumatic flashbacks or urges to harm themselves) to such topics. Having these responses is called ‘being triggered’.”

How I Survived My Master’s Thesis: Productivity Tips and Research Hacks!

c8671321b7bec7c94489747220be11bc
Mood during and after thesis

Writing my Master’s thesis was an immense undertaking and I will continue to reflect on the process over the next few weeks because I realize that it doesn’t “end”, one only stops writing it. I enjoyed the process, as strenuous as it was. There were moments when I was awash with a sense of triumph after successfully grappling with difficult concepts and intellectual puzzles. There were (many) other times when I audibly howled out of frustration. Overall, I felt like I did something, I made a contribution, however insignificant it may be in the grand scheme of things.

And, I learned a lot. Working with various theories, philosophical orientations, methods, and styles involved trial-and-error and, ultimately, it helped me learn about myself as a researcher and a person. That was the most difficult and rewarding part of this process. I also learned that adrenaline is far more effective at keeping me awake than caffeine; towards the end I stayed awake for a straight 36 hours just because I could not sleep from the excitement of wanting to write, write, write! Needless to say, the subsequent proofreading process was not fun, but the reward of writing close to 12000 words in that time was worth it.

While I don’t recommend injecting yourself with an adrenaline needle, I have, like most students, collected an arsenal of other tools and resources to aid in the writing process. In writing my thesis, I picked up some new tricks on time management, technology, and self-care, and took notes so I could keep track of the resources I found useful. Regardless of where you are in your academic or professional career, I hope you find them useful too.

Technology Tips and Research Hacks

Use the Cloud/Microsoft OneDrive: Avoid losing your data! Instead of constantly saving your files on your hard drive or an external hard drive/flash drive, save them directly to a cloud service. I saved every single file for my thesis to my Microsoft OneDrive account on my computer which automatically uploads files to the OneDrive cloud. You can also use Dropbox or other similar services. I am never going back to relying solely on physical drives! Find out more about using OneDrive.

Use the Notes App or Evernote App to jot down ideas, especially if you are using participant-observation/ethnographic methodology. I did this often to take down fieldnotes or any random thoughts that popped in my head (usually as I was going to sleep!). Just like OneDrive, the Notes App on the iPhone or iOS can save your notes directly to the cloud, and the Evernote App automatically saves your work to your account which can be accessed from any device.

Folders and labels are your friends: When I found a new article I knew I was going to use, I saved it in a folder designated for a particular chapter (i.e. Method, Theory, Discussion etc.). But, be sure to organize the articles within, as well!

unorganized folder
Messy and confusing 😦

Name each pdf in a way that will help you recognize it. For example, some people find it easy to identify papers by using the author’s name for the filename, while others prefer the title of the article. For shorter papers and reports, I name my pdfs by the first author’s last name and date.

For historical research, I name the file by year first so I can quickly locate the article in my folder of articles and view them in descending order from oldest to newest and vice versa.

organized by author and year

For my thesis, I preferred the filenames to be article titles to quickly distinguish each one as I was working with over 350 (very) similar articles by many of the same authors:

organized by title

Make sure you do this from the start to avoid hassles down the road!

Zotero: I used the FREE citation software Zotero, which I have used throughout graduate study thus far, to store and organize article citations (there are many, many other options like RefWorks, EndNote, Mendeley etc.). It works in my preferred browser, Google Chrome, and the integration between browser plugin and the Zotero desktop program is essentially seamless. Clicking on the Zotero icon in Chrome automatically uploads the bibliographic information of the article, book or website (in most cases) into the desktop program. Not only does this make the laborious task of organizing and generating your bibliography so much easier, it also helps with compiling your literature review and research notes (see image below).

  • Once I save an article, I import it into Zotero and organize it into corresponding folders. For instance, if I am researching immigrant mental health, I designate a folder in Zotero “Mental Health – General”
  • Next, I export the bibliography list from the entire “Mental Health – General” folder from Zotero into a word document and go through each article one by one. I use the reference from each article as a heading and summarize the findings from the article. I include in-text citations as I write. In my experience, students tend to leave in-text citations until the end of the writing process – this is bad practice and can easily result in missing citations or accidental plagiarism.
  • I also highlight various sources by priority. If a source is important or highly relevant to my argument, then it takes precedence over other sources, so I colour code them accordingly.
  • I use the headings styles in Word in the initial stage of a draft so that I can work and rework my outline in Outline view (under the view tab), as necessary. This also helps me find different sections of my paper more easily.
zoterolit review
Literature list and notes – colour coded

For bibliographic information that cannot be exported into Zotero, I use Google Scholar to find the citation information for the source. I also do this for hard copies of books and conference papers. Using Google Scholar to cite can also help confirm bibliographic information. Still, errors are commonplace and using Zotero, Google Scholar or any other software or website is definitely not foolproof and requires verification.

In my browser (Chrome), I bookmark all preferred websites on a given day or week in one folder. Then, at the end of the week, I organize the bookmarks into subject-based bookmark folders in my browser. I am a huge fan of folders!

Managing Time and Distractions

It can often be difficult to stay focused and on-task. I found the following strategies helpful for maintaining focus and decreasing distracting behaviours.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Pomodoro/Tomato Timer Technique

The Pomodoro Technique: this technique is based on segmenting time into intervals of 25 minutes followed by a 5 minute break. After 4 intervals of 25 minutes each, you get a 15-minute break: 25 > 5 > 25 > 5 > 25 > 5 > 25 > 15 > 25

This technique works really well if you are prone to procrastination (like me) and have a hard time starting tasks. A number of apps are available to track your time and I recommend: Pomodoro Time by Denys Yevenko or Be Focused. It lets you customize the amount of time for each interval, the number of intervals and length of break times. After using this technique for a few years now, my time-management for tasks is so ingrained that I can now work for longer intervals and automatically know when to take breaks. Now I typically work in 1.5 hour long segments and take 15-20 minute breaks. However, I still go back to the original formula from time to time if I am absolutely dreading starting a task.

Rewards: For me, breaks are rewards. In my breaks, I typically check (non-research related) social media or watch something on Netflix (I watched Friends and The Office for the 800th time during my thesis). I also played a lot of Candy Crush. I grew to despise the game a long time ago but something about crushing those stupid candies was so satisfying after slogging through tough writing spots that I found myself coming back to it again and again.
tumblr_ngrsnuGgKN1rva0k6o1_500

Treat Yo self: Those who follow me on Snapchat are aware of the concept of my “reward muffins”. After I finished writing a whole chapter, I would reward myself with the cheat of all cheats: a double chocolate-chip muffin. This was, unsurprisingly, highly effective for me. Find your reward muffin! It could be bingewatching a show, online shopping, anything that is actually highly pleasurable for you, and use it to your advantage.

giphy (2)
Beware of Distractions

Put distractions on paper: When writing about my theoretical framework, methodology and literature review, my head was so full of information that I was worried I would forget useful pieces of insight. So, anytime I had a thesis-related idea, to-do list item, question or even an unrelated worry or concern, I would type it up in a separate document or write it on my handy dry-erase board. This way, I was free to return to whatever task I was doing and avoided getting bogged down with stress, confusion, or forgetting any ideas. Then, only when I was finished with a task would I revisit the compiled list. 

Keep a tally: Another trick to become more aware of distracting thoughts or tendencies – like repeatedly checking Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc. – is to keep a tally of the habit. Overtime, noticing the frequency with which you do them can help you curtail the habit because you are better able to recognize the pattern and consequences of these distractions.

Tell Yo friends: To keep yourself accountable and help minimize distractions and FOMO, tell your friends and family that you are studying for exams/writing papers/a thesis/an article etc. I am lucky to have very supportive friends and family who were there for me when I needed them, knew to be considerate of my time, and knew when to leave me alone! I also avoided social media as much as I could (I tried okay!). If necessary, deactivate accounts or delete the apps. Your account will still be there when you’re done.

Put your phone on airplane mode: It’s easier to avoid social media apps than it is to keep yourself from texting back friends and family. I would often put my phone on airplane mode (without wi-fi), or turn on the “do not disturb” mode, so I wouldn’t see tempting notifications.

Self-care

My thesis is on student mental health, so I would be remiss to not mention the importance of managing stress and practicing self-care during stressful work periods!

Know when you need to take breaks: While the Pomodoro technique and others like it are helpful in training you to work consistently, it is also important to be mindful of your state while working. Pushing yourself beyond your limit is not going to do anyone any favours, least of all you. While writing, I would suddenly just get up and walk around, stretch and leave the room, because I needed to get away and just couldn’t look at the screen anymore. That was when I knew that I needed to adjust my breaks and take them more frequently.

Vent: Whether it’s a trusted friend, family member, social media, advisor, counsellorHow-you-feel-pretty-much-every-day etc. – talk to them. Writing a paper, studying for an exam, LSAT or MCAT, working on a big project or a difficult work task, can be very frustrating and, sometimes, an emotional process. It is ludicrous to keep all that stress “inside”. Our culture emphasizes individualism and valorizes “the stoic, independent survivor,” especially in academia, but that’s a fantasy and highly unrealistic and unsustainable in practice. Use the people and resources in your life for support when you need it, even if it’s just to grumble for a little while or to distract yourself.

Beware of Imposter Syndrome – don’t compare yourself to others: This may seem obvious but academic and professional culture can be so competitive and demoralizing that it’s hard not to question whether you’re good enough. I was certainly not immune to Imposter Syndrome while writing my thesis. I often found myself reading other people’s theses and comparing mine to theirs. Of course, usually, I would eventually realize that this was a ridiculous endeavour as, in one case, what I was reading was a.) a PhD dissertation b.) written by a now-expert in the field, and c.) irrelevant to my current research or life in general. But that’s Imposter Syndrome for you, it’s a tricky beast. This article by Stephen Aguilar is a great read for other students who feel like imposters from time to time.

So there you have it. Some quick tips for productivity that I found useful. I know everyone has their own system and I’m always fascinated by productivity hacks. I look forward to hearing about some of yours, please share!

*The thesis was danah boyd’s brilliant examination of American teens and social networking!

We need to talk about Pokémon Go

 

So, I had a whole other post written up, but taking the lead from Pat Thompson, I’m going to, instead, “go where the energy is.”

We need to talk about Pokémon Go.

Yes, this post is about Pokémon Go, because Pokémon Go has become a cultural phenomenon, and like any cultural phenomenon it is divisive. So divisive, in fact, that nary a day goes by now that I don’t see an argument break out on a Facebook post about it. These debates typically have a pattern. Someone – usually your average contrarian (AC) – deliberately baits others who they know are fans of the game by saying something like:

  • You shouldn’t need a game to go outside and look around
  • It’s not even real. Open your eyes and look at real things, real beauty is all around you
  • So sick of all the Pokémon Go statuses, we get it you are playing the game

Unsurprisingly, this is followed by at least a couple of people, let’s call them Pokémon Go Defenders (PD), exasperatedly listing all the benefits of the game:

  • Yes, but people are going outside
  • People with social or general anxiety issues are able to use the game as a catalyst and motivation to go outside
  • Players are meeting new people by gathering at Pokéstops, which wasn’t really possible for most people before the game
  • People are appreciating nature, landmarks and new neighbourhoods thanks to the game
  • People, especially young people, are getting exercise because of the game

And, this is usually met with one or more of the following responses from ACs:

  • Isn’t it SO SAD that people will only leave the house because of this game?
  • What happened to just being curious and exploring your neighbourhood? That already existed before this stupid game
  • If that’s the case then the next generation is doomed
  • Someone bumped into me while playing the game! Some Poké player destroyed my garden. (Hyperbolic alternative: I heard 30000 people have fallen off cliffs and walked into burning buildings while playing this game).
  • Are these people actually contributing to their neighbourhood or society?

As per Internet rules, others will chime in with variations of:

  • Who cares it’s just a game, live and let live
  • More important things are happening in this world, and people are obsessed with catching imaginary creatures
  • Horrible things are happening in this world, let people have their little fun, it’s not hurting anybody
  • Someone mentions Justin Trudeau or Barack Obama, or invokes Godwin’s law and mentions Hitler, or Donald Trump

Picture

By the way, all of the above examples have been paraphrased from actual Facebook posts I saw just today.

That’s usually how these things go. Internet arguments are fascinating in that everybody thinks they won the argument and nobody thinks they are in the wrong. This applies to arguments about this “stupid game,” as well.

In most cases like these, everybody is at least a little bit right, but AC arguments become problematic when the intention isn’t to actually point out some truth about social problems, but to simply take away from, and disagree with, the majority. Worse still, it is rooted in a self-righteousness that is meant to position AC as superior to others who are engaging in the mundane, the popular, or the something-they-haven’t-tried-or-tried-to-understand. I read a comment today that insinuated that Pokémon Go players are “sheep” and continued to berate “unable-to-critically-think youth”. The original Facebook post baited others by proclaiming that while others were out catching “imaginary creatures”, they were out enjoying “real world experiences” with their family on a trip, taking in culture and so on. Another individual in the post rightly pointed out that a lot of people cannot afford to go on such trips, and that the app is free and far more accessible. Yet another person posted that they suffer from anxiety issues and found the app helpful, to which an AC replied “but your issues are not physical.”

Picture
Literally Me

As with other cultural phenomena, Pokémon Go unintentionally reveals truths about our culture and underlying cultural discourses. Within this one Facebook post alone, ageist beliefs, class privilege and mental health stigma are apparent.

Yes, it is disappointing that children and adults have become more sedentary. Studies have found that sedentary behaviour in children is related to: gender, socioeconomic class, race and ethnicity, the education system, and diet (1,2,3,4, 5). No, it is not sad that an artificial reality game is motivating them to go outside and move more.

Yes, it sucks that we are cooped up indoors, usually due to school or work, and that many of us do not explore our cities as much as we should because we’re too physically tired, mentally exhausted, have caregiving responsibilities or not enough money to do so. Class boundaries etched into neighbourhood borders also prevent people from going certain places due to stigma and fear. I think it’s kind of great that a “stupid game” is motivating people to go outside and explore places they wouldn’t have gone before. Isn’t it a good thing that people are happy to engage in a fun and physical activity, likely with their friends and family, despite stress, fatigue and the general dreariness of 21st century life? Yes, yes it is.

Many people do suffer from social and general anxiety. If you’ve never experienced it, it can be difficult to wrap your head around the idea that someone can’t leave their house or get out of bed because of a non-physical problem. But these problems are equally debilitating. Not only that, anxiety often accompanies or exacerbates feelings of loneliness, depression and isolation. So, I think it’s brilliant that a non-medical or non-clinical/therapeutic intervention is potentially helping people overcome their anxiety in this way.

It’s not easy to explore a neighbourhood or a big city if you don’t have friends or feel like you are alone. Isn’t it great that some people who feel lonely get to feel like they are a part of something? That they could potentially meet and get to know like-minded others? Even if it’s just for a short while?


In my research data, I came across a post from someone who talked about how the social media platform I was studying made them feel “a little less alone”. I thought about that post a lot during my study and it was a great reminder of why I do what I do, and why I wanted to study social media, particularly with regard to mental health. It’s because I’ve been there, we’ve all been there. I, too, have been that person who felt a little less alone when I realized that others, even if they were strangers thousands of miles away, felt the same way; that I wasn’t truly alone even though I felt like I had no one to connect with “in real life.”  I can guarantee that many, many people feel the same way about Pokémon Go along with other games and virtual platforms.People who dismiss the importance of the internet, social media and the virtual world are likely misinformed. I could cite thousands of studies about the positive impact of the internet, video games, virtual reality ad nauseum but an AC would still hit back with “BUT AN XBOX ALSO KILLED THIS MANY PEOPLE ONCE.” That is not the point. As with other technologies, articles and artifacts in society, like the internet, or cars, or even marijuana, it is what we do with them, how we use them that matters, and those actions are a reflection of our society. And, how you choose to react to such cultural artifacts and phenomena is a reflection of your ethos. Brene Brown says “we’re hard on each other because we’re using each other as a launching pad out of our own perceived deficiency.” So, if you want to shit on a person who went outside today and took a walk just to catch a Psyduck*, I’m judging you, not them.

None of these things are perfect, but they are, like Pokémon Go, a net-positive. All things considered then, the fact that Pokémon Go is bringing people together, alleviating stress, helping counter anxiety, and motivating people to move and exercise, explore new places, meet new people, and just have a little fun, is pretty fucking great.

Yes, that Video is an Example of Cultural Appropriation -Sincerely, An Indian Beyoncé and Coldplay Fan

 

Funny because this is the same face I made while watching the video, “Ugh” indeed!

I can’t believe I’m writing about this again. I am actually kind of mad at myself right now because I shouldn’t care that people can be this blasé about their own lack of knowledge on this or any other topic. But here we are. The recent onslaught of pure ignorance re: Coldplay and Beyoncé’s video Hymn for the Weekend (HFTW) beckons a rant. And a rant ye shall get.A few things we need to clear up from the start:

    1. Yes, the video is visually appealing. It is beautifully shot.
    2. Yes, you are free to not care about cultural appropriation and think that political correctness is out of control
    3. YASSSS QUEEN BEY YASS
    4. Yes, you can like the song, like the video and still feel conflicted about this. Issues like these are mired in ambiguity, that’s a given aspect of culture dilemmas like this one.
    5. Yes, if you are Indian and don’t find it offensive, that’s cool, too. HOWEVER, give this post a read and you’ll see why it may be more problematic than you think.

A few things you need to know about me:

1. I am a Beyoncé superfan and this is a well-known fact about me to those who know

Picture
See! I can haz fun with this too!

me (some even refer to me as A-yonce [and, by some, I mean me]). Despite her (many) hypocrisies, I find her to be a fascinating cultural enigma–which, technically, is a representation she herself has engineered at great effort.  See? She’s fascinating. Also, she’s a terrific performer and the resident queen of my playlist. I’m also mad that my auto-correct doesn’t automatically add the accent aigu on the last “e” in her name; get it together Google Chrome Spell Checker, she’s a cultural icon, dammit. But, just because I may be a stan doesn’t mean I’ll excuse her or anyone else’s bullshit.

2. I have been a huge fan of Coldplay from the beginning. Yes, they are considered cheesy and uncool now, but we all need a little (night*) cheese in our lives.

3. I am an Indian-born, Canadian, feminist grad student who’s been steeped in feminist theory and cultural studies for years so, yes, I’m “one of those”, or whatever you want to call me to avoid thinking deeply about the views I present and confronting your own biases.

4. No, I am not offended by every case of supposed cultural appropriation. Sometimes people are wrong about what is and isn’t cultural appropriation (see this whole crazy thang), the HFTW video is not one of those times.

*if you got the night cheese reference, I love you and we should be friends. 


Can YOU tell me what Cultural Appropriation actually is?

This has been key in the debates surrounding this video. The fact of the matter is that many people saying something along the lines of “what’s the big deal” are only marginally aware of what cultural appropriation actually is and why it’s damaging to the culture that is being appropriated. So, here is the definition I presented in an earlier post on this topic:

Cultural appropriation is the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group; usually a dominant cultural group does the adopting from a minority/marginalized culture, and it usually connotes that the elements of the appropriated culture are divorced from the meanings they originally signified.  

Did you catch that? What’s happening in HFTW is: Specific elements of Indian culture (Beyoncé’s manner of dress and hand gestures) are being taken from a minority/marginalized culture (which was systematically colonized by Europeans for hundreds of years) and those elements are completely meaningless in the video’s context because they are being used superficially without any consideration for their significance and only because they’re “pretty” or “exotic” or “Indian”.

Why does this matter?

PictureThis (right) is an example of early orientalist imagery in tobacco advertising from Stanford.edu. Notice any stereotypes and inaccuracies? Here, I will borrow significantly from my last post, because OMG, SURPRISE, it all fits for this case as well:

Coldplay and Beyoncé’s appropriation exemplifies Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism quite well, as the performance uses the [American/European] perception of the East…to perpetuate the idea of the exotic East as a vehicle for the pleasure and entertainment of the West. This is one of the keys to understanding why ethnic costumes out of context can be so offensive: the outfit, the makeup, the accessories, are all just ONE part of the identity. When you don’t honour or understand the significance holistically, you dismiss and reduce that identity as being nothing but a hollow prop – just a means for you to please and benefit yourself at the expense of that culture’s historical identity. Plus, Beyoncé, Coldplay and others continue to benefit financially from these performances on the backs of Indian women who continue to face ostracism and are stereotyped on the basis of these same portrayals.

The costume does not offend me as much as I think it is stupid and poorly researched, which also tells me that Beyoncé (and her stylist) probably doesn’t care about who or what she is dressing up as, just that she is peripherally aware that Indian women, princesses, or goddesses look like this. What does offend me is (AGAIN) what she is doing with her hands. The technical term for what she is doing is called a mudra. It is a hand gesture used in Hindu and Buddhist spiritual and religious practice. You can often see Hindu religious icons depicted with mudras. As well, it is a very significant aspect of Indian classical dance, and there are hundreds of mudras meant to tell a story through the dance (I had to learn many of them as a child in classical dance; it was hard, so I’m particularly bitter and biased). So, again, why is she doing that?

Because she thinks it is “Indian”. Thus, it is offensive for the same reasons that someone might try to act “Mexican”, or “African”, or “hood”, or “Native American” and use associated clothing and gestures. How does one act like an Indian woman? Well, by dressing up like one of course…because isn’t that all there is to it?!

Her costume, then, is a confusing mishmash of Indian and Middle Eastern symbols used incoherently so that she can appear as sexy and exotic as possible. Consequently, there is also another layer of the sexualisation and exoticization of Indian women, and a reduction of the “Indian woman”, into this romanticized exotic/erotic trope, by an affluent American woman. So, it becomes a clear example of orientalism lurking in the guise of an unfortunate costume choice. Thus, it is ignorant, inappropriate, orientalist and culturally appropriative. Moreover, it crystallizes the image of the Indian woman as someone who is permanently fixed in the Western imagination as this stereotype so that, unlike Euro-American women, she remains the same, incapable of progress and change.

Cultural appropriation in this case exists within a matrix of colonial power, financial power and hegemony. That Coldplay and Beyonce, and the system of people and companies supporting them, who thought this was a good idea, stand to capitalize financially from this cultural exploitation is not a coincidence.

Again, feel free to not think so! You have a right to ignorance.


So What Should Beyoncé Have Done? AKA How to appreciate not appropriate!

So, how does someone dress as an Indian woman if they are not Indian? The easy answer is: don’t! However, a more nuanced response to the growing desire for young men and women (and musicians for whatever reason) to copy the look, is warranted. Plus, we live in a globalized society and sharing in other cultures shouldn’t have to be an icky quagmire of tone-deaf political incorrectness.  The thing about most Indian people is that they love to share their culture in this way and there is a right way to go about it.

  1. Beyoncé, first off, doesn’t need to dress this way. Her second outfit in the video has little to do with India or Indian cultural dresses and it’s a-okay.
  2. Sonam Kapoor, a prominent Indian actress, is barely featured in the video. She is a perfectly beautiful, talented Indian woman who could have gotten far more screen time in the cultural garb of the culture she belongs to!
  3. RESEARCH. It’s not that f***** hard. That face thing? What is that? What even is that, Beyoncé (or, technically, Beyoncé’s stylist!)? Learn from those within the culture, and share in the culture as fully as is appropriate by actually knowing the significance of the articles of clothing and symbolic gestures you are using.
  4. Beyoncé is also in studio, unlike Coldplay who are actually among Indian people (don’t worry I pick on Coldplay further down). This is what a respectful, culturally engaged scenario would look like, in my view: Beyoncé in a beautiful real Indian setting with other Indian women, who are all dressed similarly in culturally accurate, but equally beautiful Indian clothing. This is better, still not great, but better. Is that so hard?!
  5. Look at the following image. This is an example of appreciation not appropriation. Why? Because of the context! This is Beyoncé performing in Mumbai, India. She is wearing a contemporary Indian Lehenga-Choli that you can find many actual Indian women wearing at parties and religious festivals. She is performing for Indians and her intention to share in the culture within the context is clear. Simply wearing Indian clothes isn’t always appropriation. It’s how you wear them as a non-Indian and your intention of doing so that matters. No inaccurate outfits or hand gestures in sight! I go more in detail on how to appreciate and participate in Indian culture here.

Picture

Oh, Coldplay. 

Picture

The biggest complaint about these scenes is the stereotypical depictions of India. The children in the lower class neighbourhoods, the poverty, Holi, the small boy as Shiva, the dancers etc. You can read a more complete list here. According to Coldplay, Beyoncé and the multi-million dollar enterprise supporting them, this is India.

But the truth is far more complex. No, a 4-minutevideo cannot show every aspect or even a quarter of the complexity of India, a mosaic of hundreds of religions and subcultures. But why use the same recycled tropes? How is this creative? Why continue to conflate India with these same tired images? 

BECAUSE this fits the Euro-American image of what they think  of India. God forbid we ever see the nuances of Indian life in the suburbs or the mountaintops or backwaters or tea plantations of India. Never are we to be shown the students and the working class who are not that different from Euro-Americans. Why would they show that anyway? It isn’t fantastical or exotic. Beyoncé portrays a platinum-blonde Bollywood actress/goddess on screen in the video. Little do most non-Indian viewers recognize that Bollywood is a multi-billion dollar industry with actors whose net-worth exceeds that of Beyoncé or Jay-Z. Or that the fashion industry there produces the most beautiful clothes in the world. But, no, Sonam Kapoor, a fashion icon in India, is instead relegated to a blink-and-you-miss-it scene as “Indian girl No. 1”.

A lot of the criticism against HFTW from Indians is that it doesn’t show the progress and the skyscrapers and all that. I don’t care about that; that is not my criticism. It is not the actual content of the images that matter but the intention behind them. The intent of the director here was to show a clearly stereotypical India and that is not okay. It is an unchanging India, a monolith of cultural stereotypes, a comforting, palatable idea of a colonized nation which exists for Western consumption. And, the many Indians saying “my India looks beautiful”, “what’s the big deal” etc., may now, through globalized media-sharing, replicate and reproduce this cliched narrative.

Also, to those who say it’s only white social justice warriors who are complaining about this. Well, obviously that is not true. Apart from this one, you can read other critical opinions from other Indian writers and publications:  here, here, here, oh and here, and also, here, and there is this one, and this one, to name a few.


Who cares it’s just a music video!?

With views of over 500 million (as of this writing), the video has a huge impact on the way people perceive India and Indians around the world. Comparatively, this video (below) from the Incredible India campaign has only 300,000 views. The Incredible India video is actually an amazing example of portraying “the beauty of India” well. A woman—clearly a tourist—is participating in various aspects of the culture and taking in the sights. The citizens of India are shown as actual people with personalities as opposed to just a mass of brown smiling children as in the HFTW video. It shows many of the same cliches as in the Coldplay video (Holi, sadhus, dancers, rivers and temples) but the difference is startling. Importantly, it is made by Indians to help promote tourism in India thus, ultimately, benefiting Indians in India. It is still from an outsider’s perspective but it contains humour, human interaction, personality, diversity, engagement, respect and reality (it actually gave me goosebumps, it’s so beautiful).

Bottomline

So, if you take away anything from this post or the debate around the video, I hope it is this: think critically. Don’t accept the images presented to you just as they are, dig deeper. What are the artists truly saying? What are the images communicating? It is the intention that counts. And, while Coldplay, Beyoncé and the director probably have good intentions, that doesn’t mean the video is not problematic. And, just because the video is beautiful, doesn’t mean that we should fail to confront the ugliness behind appropriation.

“We teach girls to shrink themselves…”: 6 Keys to Assertiveness in Professional Settings

Picture

The line in the title was spoken by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her Tedx talk “We Should All Be Feminists”. You may have also heard these words while jamming to Beyonce’s  “***Flawless” (which you so obviously do!). Adichie’s words speak of the pressure to be thin and physically small, but they also draw attention to the habit many women have of shrinking themselves, almost to the point of invisibility, in professional and other social settings. This is because, as Adichie says, we teach women “to have ambition, but not too much,” and “to be successful, but not too successful.”

You are probably familiar with these ideas already. But have you ever actually observed the women around you in meetings or other professional settings where power dynamics and hierarchies are clearly recognizable? I started doing this a few years ago when I was working on becoming more assertive. I wanted to model my behaviour on powerful women and learn from their example. There were always assertive women in professional settings, but I also noticed that there were some women who never spoke and used body language often associated with being “closed”, such as crossed arms, hunched shoulders, and looking down. Of course, these could be a result of a million reasons — maybe they were just cold (I’m always cold!), or bored or tired.

I realized, though, that I was doing the same because I felt intimidated or nervous for no other reason than that I was in presence of authority (and usually male authority figures at that). Was I communicating this through my “closed” body language? I would rarely speak during meetings, even if I had something important to say. And, when I did speak, my voice would waver, my heart would race, and I would speak so fast that even I couldn’t understand myself! Overtime, I learned to change my behaviours, but this involved recognizing the sexist microaggressions I was reacting against and the false beliefs that I had accepted as true for so long. So, based on my experience, here is a short list of things people, but especially women, may need to stop doing if they want to become more assertive and confident in professional settings.


1. Stop Shrinking Yourself – Strike a Power Pose Instead

Picture

There is a another fantastic Ted Talk, this one by Amy Cuddy, a professor and researcher at Harvard Business School who studies non-verbal behaviour, called “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are”. In it, Cuddy talks about how “power posing“, which involves expanding your body and posing in a “high power” pose, for only 2 minutes, can stimulate testosterone (dominance), lower cortisol (stress), and increase tolerance of risk, leading to increased feelings of power! So, just posing like a superhero (or Beyonce!) can kind of make you feel like one. Interestingly, Cuddy’s own research came from the same observation that I had made in classes and meetings: that women were participating less and that their body language was associated with, what her research terms, “low power” poses. From my own experience, it was easy to see that some of the most confident students in my classes sat “expansively”, for lack of a better word. They took up more space, with their arms open and shoulders relaxed, communicating an open and comfortable attitude.

The implications of Cuddy’s research are great (and controversial) . They point to the fact that a simple modification in behaviour can have a vast impact on self-esteem and confidence, aka “faking it till you make it”. Furthermore, she also points to the fact that, with regard to influence, how people perceive you and how you communicate is more important than the actual content of your message, which is unfortunate in a sense, but a truism we have to contend with. So, next time you feel nervous before a meeting or a presentation, strike a power pose in the bathroom for 2 minutes and knock ’em dead.


Picture

2. Stop speaking in quiet, soft voices deliberately so as not to offend – Speak up and get angry

Picture

Every woman, at one time or another, has been told to lower her voice, to soften her demeanor, to stifle her anger, because it is perceived as unfeminine. Stereotypical media portrayals, advertising, and children’s toys drill these ideas into the minds of little girls–if their parents, families, teachers, culture and communities don’t get to them first. We carry this into our academic and professional lives as we get older. Some are fortunate enough to begin dismantling these attitudes in high school and university, but it can be a daunting challenge. It’s not easy to express your anger articulately when you’ve been told your whole life that you shouldn’t be “that girl” – the bitch, the crazy one, the dramatic one, the psycho. So, we swallow our voices and our anger and we learn to ignore our needs, concede and apologize, in favour of “keeping the peace”. Meanwhile, that anger is still there, except that now it turns inward to self-criticism, self-loathing and, eventually, depressed mood. We criticize ourselves because it must have been something we had done. We come to believe that if people like us they will come to appreciate our ideas, but this is not the case. The need to please and be liked can turn people into self-effacing, compliant martyrs who never have their needs met. This is especially true of women.

The harsh truth is that women need to accept that they may be perceived negatively if they do articulate their dissatisfaction, but we need to do so anyway if we wish to assert ourselves in the public and professional spaces of modern society. It may be a risk but, from my experience, it is worth the reward. This requires learning to express yourself clearly and assertively. Your ideas are important. You deserve to be heard. If you are angry, be angry. It is just an emotion, and not one you should be afraid to express. It is completely possible to express your anger in a calm, collected manner through the content of your message and wisely chosen words. As this guide points out, you can be passionate while still maintaining the professionalism of a workplace.


3. Don’t be a doormat!

Picture
From Moscowtimes.com

Do you agree with authority figures, especially men in (perceived) positions of authority, unnecessarily? I used to do this. Having been raised in an extremely patriarchal culture played a big part in this, and is something I continue to struggle against.

I have seen many female academics get angry and disagree unabashedly in faculty meetings and it was so refreshing for me, as a student, to see these brilliant women express themselves this way. Of course, their credentials, position, status, and employment stability provide them with some security in this regard than, say, an entry-level employee, but it was also clear that there was a culture of collegiality in the room. These women were not making enemies by expressing themselves; their opinions were welcome and added to a lively discussion. I realized that the times when I had felt uncomfortable disagreeing with authorities in a meeting was because I knew that disagreements were not welcome. Eventually, I learned to rock the boat and work through the nerves of doing so. And, if I sensed that I was unwelcome because of it, I removed myself from the situation and from that organization (again, I had the luxury of doing so, I realize that some life and work situations are far more complex for many people).

Disagreements are necessary for an organization to develop and grow. Disagreeing does not mean you are arguing, but that you are making an argument. In fact, a good leader welcomes disagreements and alternative viewpoints. And, a good leader will follow up and try to learn from your perspective. There is absolutely no reason for an employee or subordinate to feel threatened, insecure or unwelcome for simply having a differing opinion. So, next time you have the urge to say something that goes against the status quo, do it! You will likely be helping out and helping to speak for others who feel the same way!


4. Stop Apologizing for Nothing!

Picture
Image from Hellogiggles.com

Yes, this need to say “sowrry” is a delightful Canadian quirk. However, unnecessary apologies can also be indicative of our desire to soften our speech, to avoid offending others, to be polite, to avoid being an imposition etc. These are not the best reasons to say sorry. I, too, am guilty of incessantly saying sorry when I don’t need to but I have learned to curb the habit in professional settings and I did this by literally counting how many times I said sorry in a day. I realized that I was saying it even when I was putting my hand up in class, i.e “Sorry, I’m not sure if that’s true…” I was apologizing for another person’s mistakes because I was nervous about pointing it out and didn’t want them to feel bad!

Sorry is appropriate in many instances – when you need to truly apologize for something! But we use it so inappropriately that it’s starting to lose its significance. While saying sorry is a welcome sign of empathy, connection and caring, doing it for the reasons stated above beckons us to reconsider its use. Amy Schumer did an excellent sketch on this which hits the nail on the head perfectly:

5. Don’t accept unsatisfactory responses

Lemongrab

Ok, so you can speak up and assert yourself. You’ve asked a good question in a meeting or raised an objection. You deserve a satisfactory response. I have noticed that many times women will accept the weak responses given to them. Sure, sometimes the weak response is the best that the other person can offer. However, I’m talking about clear instances where the opposing party is giving you the equivalent of a patronizing pat on the head, i.e. “You tried.”

It can be challenging, as with everything else on this list, to “argue”. But, asking for elaboration, clarification, and more detail, is perfectly reasonable. Yes, it can take a lot of strength to even ask a question, and now the nerves and adrenaline may have exhausted you. You know that the answer given to you  is meaningless but why fight it? You did your part, right! Not exactly. Good argumentation is good communication. Arguing effectively is a valuable skill!  This guide offers very helpful advice on how to argue effectively (and again, argument ≠ conflict – but know that conflict is not a bad thing either!).

6. Stop speaking in run-ons and passive voice – Use strong declarative sentences

PictureYes…like this…

As most of my readers know, I have been editing and grading papers for the last several years (so if you find grammatical errors in my writing…click here to report them). This has given me the opportunity to observe several faulty patterns in writing employed by both male and female students in order to appear more professional. Students tend to write in run-on sentences and use passive voice, which tends to only detract from the overall meaning of their argument. A similar pattern can be observed in speech. Women are especially prone to speaking in run-ons and using “non-committal” language. This may have an impact on the overall meaning one is trying to convey.

The key is to use short declarative sentences and active voice. Instead of saying (and writing): “We think that some mistakes may have been made in conducting the experiment,” it is better to be direct and say “We made mistakes in conducting the experiment.” The hedging found in the former is common in professional, business and scientific writing as well, but is poor practice. The meaning of the sentences gets diluted. Take this sentence for example, from biomedicaleditor.com: “A possible cause is likely the apparent tendency of a certain number of patients with diabetes to develop indications of retinopathy.” I have to read that sentence a few times to filter out the unnecessary words and glean its meaning, which is annoying. And, speech, unless recorded, doesn’t provide that luxury.  Thus, it is important to make the best use of our speech as possible in professional settings and use strong, declarative sentences.


These 6 points can also be applied to some people for whom English is an additional language, and for female international students, in particular. Some international students have expressed to me that it is not polite, as dictated by cultural mores, to ask a question of an authority, like a professor, let alone express disagreement of any kind. This negatively affects students because they tend not to communicate with their advisors and professors, and when they finally do so it is often too late. The fact is that direct communication in the Western context is often a skill necessary for professional success.
Furthermore, if you are in a position of leadership or authority it is important for you to be sensitive to the needs of people who may have difficulty speaking up, especially in a room full of people. The onus is on you to create an environment where people feel comfortable in voicing their opinions.

A Very Important Disclaimer

Women’s voices are now critiqued almost as much as their bodies. Myriad articles have been written about the vocal sins of uptalking, filler words like like, umm, just, I’m not sure, I think, and the dreaded “vocal fry“. I haven’t talked about any of these speech tics because I tend to agree with authors such as Debra Cameron who argue that critiquing women’s voices is “accepting that there’s a problem with women’s speech, rather than a problem with sexist attitudes to women’s speech.” Besides, I am guilty of all of these from time to time. I also use an excessive amount of emojis in text messages. And, my voice is deeper than most, so I have a natural vocal fry. On the other hand, to be taken seriously in the workplace, it is important to communicate effectively and confidently and uptalking and filler words signify timidness, tentativeness, and lack of surety, even though that is not what the speaker intends. This is true of academia, in particular.  I’m still conflicted on this topic because sometimes I find the aforementioned vocal tics annoying in myself and others!

The fact is that, while both men and women exhibit these tics in communication, women are unfairly criticized for them. Furthermore, Robin Lakoff, an expert on the subject from UC Berkeley, says that these vocal tics signify that women’s speech is more evolved to be adaptable and empathetic to others’ needs by establishing connection through the use of phrases like I guess, I think, actually etc.  Ann Friedman, in her New Yorker article, argues that we should just get over the way women talk, concluding that women should ignore all advice that asks them to change their speech habits. .

However, while I agree with most of what they are saying, I disagree with both Lakoff and Friedman’s black and white approach. In an ideal world, everybody would be taken seriously no matter how they spoke, but the fact is that all genders are judged on their linguistic and social behaviour. And some women of certain social classes and racial backgrounds have specific obstacles with regard to speech and presentation that Lakoff and Friedman do not consider. Therefore, I agree when Naomi Wolf says:

We should not ask young women to put on fake voices or to alter essential parts of themselves. But in my experience of teaching voice to women for two decades, when a young woman is encouraged to own her power and is given basic skills in claiming her own voice then huge, good changes follow.

I believe we need to stop judging women’s intelligence based on how they speak. While professionalism should be encouraged, we need to keep challenging what our perceptions of “professionalism” are actually based on. When I began to work on becoming more assertive, I didn’t consider the gender component until I started noticing the differences which were so apparent. Regardless, I chose to think about what I wanted my voice to be, and the power I wanted it to have when I spoke. I don’t think I “altered essential parts of myself,” rather by confronting my fears and the false beliefs that motivated specific language and vocal behaviours which I felt were impediments to success, I grew more confident and I was heard. My voice became more powerful and I became less afraid.

The 5 Books That Changed My Life

I miss having time to read. Actually, that’s a bit misleading, I suppose what I should be saying is: I regret not using the free time I do have for reading. One major downside of graduate studies or work that involves copious amounts of non-leisure reading is that it can leave you sapped of any energy to read the books you actually want to read. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading (most) scholarly work in anthropology. One of biggest reasons why I love anthropology is that research often takes the form of ethnographies which tend to be uniquely engaging reads in the world of academic scholarship. All the same, nowadays I often find myself staring longingly at the books I had purchased with so much enthusiasm. They sit, unread, collecting dust; the spines begging to be broken.

Recently, I have taken to spending my time reading long-form articles and prose online in lieu of books, but it’s not the same. There is nothing quite like getting lost in the pages of a book. I miss that feeling. As I was compiling my list of books-to-read, I began thinking about the books that have changed my life and immediately came up with the following five. There are more, of course, but these 5 books have had a greater influence on my way of thinking and my perception of life than any others. Note: These aren’t my favorite books of all time necessarily, but those that affected me, moved me, changed me and had a lasting impact on me.

5. The Missing Piece Meets the Big O by Shel Silverstein

Picture

The missing piece sat alone
waiting for someone
to come along
and take it somewhere….
So begins The Missing Piece Meets the Big O, a story about the universal search for fulfillment, Shel Silverstein books used to line the shelves of my elementary school classroom but I never paid much attention to them. I was too busy reading The Last Vampire by Christopher Pike and any number of Choose Your Own Adventure Books. I actually came across this book again about 5 years ago and, reading it as an adult, I felt like Silverstein, as with his other books, had actually written it for adults. Deceptively simple, incredibly moving, this minimalist children’s work made me tear up and profoundly affected me far more than any self-help book ever could have. It’s innocence is akin to those of the tragicomic Pixar shorts that just have a way of plucking at your heartstrings. I think of the missing piece and the meaning of the book all the time. I highly recommend giving this a quick read, and you can even do so on YouTube.Favourite Quote: “Corners wear off and shapes change.” 

4. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

Picture

This award-winning and much loved book is about Renee, an unattractive, grumpy, soap-addicted working class concierge at a posh Parisian residence who is, in reality, incredibly intelligent and cultured but hides behind the mask society befits her. It is also about Paloma, a genius 12-year old who lives in the building with her wealthy family and also hides her talents behind a mask of mediocrity. The world around her is vacuous and superficial, her family are equally clueless, and life is futile, so she plans to kill herself on her 13th birthday. However, Renee and Paloma’s paths finally cross when a new tenant arrives and everything changes.Frankly, I hated this book in parts. Far too many pages of this book talk about Kant, Marx, Foucault and the like, which is great…for an Intro to Philosophy class! However, I expect more from a fictional work about the lives of two unique characters. Perhaps I am biased because when I read this book I was definitely not a fan of reading philosophy, let alone reading a character’s (the author’s) interpretation of various philosophers. But, eventually, when the characters do develop, it’s hard not to forge a connection with them. When I finished the book, I was in tears. I saw myself in both characters, so the ending deeply moved me. Rather than the author’s high-minded musings, I found that the characters’ hopes and dreams and what they learn about life by the end was far more profound. Barbery infuses cultural references throughout the book and listening to Erik Satie has never been the same for me after reading this book. Despite the fact that I found the prose about philosophy to be pretentious, Barbery can write beautifully; this book remained on my mind for days after I was finished.

Favourite Quote: “There’s so much humanity in a love of trees, so much nostalgia for our first sense of wonder, so much power in just feeling our own insignificance when we are surrounded by nature.” 


3. The Book of Dahlia – Elisa Albert

Picture

A “Jewish-American princess” by her own admission, Dahlia Finger is a 29-year old sarcastic, depressed, smart, angry pothead who spends each day in front of the TV watching the same things again and again in a house bought for her by her father. She is, by all measures, not the most sympathetic character, and is easy to dislike. What sets her story apart is the terminal brain tumour she is diagnosed with and the resulting emotional reconciliation she must have with herself.

Essentially, Dahlia, and we as readers, must consider the value of a wasted life. Is a life ever truly wasted? Even one like Dahlia’s? The book flashes between her past and present as she navigates cancer, treatment and a deeply dysfunctional family with her biting honesty and wit (and more than a little medical marijuana). If I cried after reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog, I was basically  in a pool of tears after this one. I also read this at one of the lowest points in my own life. I was working at Indigo Books and I was mesmerized by the vivid cover. I debated buying a book that was sure to be sad but something about it kept calling me back to it. I eventually bought it and Dahlia’s story left me both sad and optimistic. It is unlike anything I’ve ever read.

Favourite Quote: “It’s decidedly bizarre, when the Worst Thing happens and you find yourself still conscious, still breathing.” 


2. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Picture

If I recall correctly, this book was an Oprah’s Book Club Pick so it is very popular and widely read. And, the comparisons to Dickens aren’t unfounded. This book by Indian-born Canadian Rohinton Mistry also won the prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize in 1995.

This was one of the first books I read about life in India. It is a glimpse at the lives of four individuals: a student and two tailors, and their landlady, Dina, and the strange, unjust and tragic consequences that result from the actions of a corrupt government and an ailing, chaotic society. It is a long, absorbing read and disturbingly realistic because it is based on historic events (The Emergency enforced by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi) that resulted in oppressive laws, the unconstitutional arrests of 140,000 people, and forced sterilization of thousands of people.

These events touch the lives of the characters in this book. But, there is also much humour and heart in its pages. It had an emotional impact on me particularly because it was set in India. I was born in India and recognized the characters in the faces of the seemingly nondescript people on the train, the infinite beggars on the street, the women who shuffle about in the markets. When I went to India most recently, I kept thinking about the characters in this book, and those in the numerous other Indian fiction novels I’ve read since. A Fine Balance set me on a path to reading and loving fiction by Indian authors writing about the lives of the deceptively ordinary.

Favourite Quote: “…the face has limited space. My mother used to say, if you fill your face with laughing, there will be no more room for crying.” 


1. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Picture

Of all the books I read when going through some tough times, none impacted me more than Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. I had come to a point where I really was just looking for answers anywhere, especially when words like “purpose” were quickly becoming meaningless. The title was a little too “on the money” (and gendered) and I was skeptical but I decided to give it a shot. I was also completing my degree in psychology, so reading a book by a preeminent psychotherapist was also comforting.

Man’s Search for Meaning is the author’s account of his time in a concentration camp during WWII and the resulting creation of the school of Logotherapy, a psychotherapeutic tradition that emphasizes finding meaning in one’s life to survive and thrive. Indeed, it is this outlook that helps Frankl carry on day after day during the Holocaust and his time at the camp.

So, as with all the other books, yes, I cried while reading this one, too. However, this book also gave me so much optimism and hope at a time when I needed it most. Themes of suffering, death, life, purpose, individual choice, perseverance and hope in the face of insurmountable odds, all speak to the existential angst that is felt by many during depression. This book is filled with life-changing stories and lessons. It challenged me to seek purpose in my life, made me grateful for the life I had, and hopeful for the future. I highly recommend it; it changed my life, maybe it could change yours, too.

Favourite Quote: Frankl quoting Nietzsche – “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.” There are actually so many amazing quotes in this book that it’s hard to pick just one. I recommend this article from XOJane on the 20 Life-Altering Quotes from the book



So, there you have it! These are the five books that changed my life, and I hope there will be more in the future. I also want to give an honorary mention to the Harry Potter series, which are probably the most influential to me but in a very different way; I could fill a book just about my love of the series! Compiling this list has definitely made me nostalgic to re-read a couple of these books again; I’ll be sure to keep the kleenex close by!

The black dog, the blue period (Part II): Coping with Anxiety

In the first part of this series, I detailed my experiences with clinical depression in high school and early university. I had the second post completed and ready to go but the response I got from the first post was nothing short of overwhelming. I received messages from approximately 40 different people over text, e-mail, and in-person expressing their own or their loved one’s struggle, asking questions, and/or thanking me for the post. I am so grateful for all of these messages. They confirm what I have always known about the prevalence of mental health concerns, and they also remind me of how much stigma still exists. Having worked in mental health for so long and now conducting research on the same, I tend to forget that it is still a sensitive subject for most. A lot of the messages remarked on my “bravery” or “courage” in being open and writing about my personal struggles. Initially, I felt very uncomfortable with that sentiment because I was just doing what came naturally to me. I am very open about my history with depression in my personal life with my friends and family. It is not a topic I hesitate to talk about. But, I realized that there used to be a time when I was terrified of hearing or talking about the subject or anyone “finding out” about me.  It took a very, very long time and lot of work to get to a point where I could speak about it with others, let alone talk about it on such a public venue. This post continues where the last one left off, and details my journey until now, and my hopes for the future.


Picture

This image is from the video “I had a black dog, his name was depression” by Mind, a UK mental health charity. It is an amusing and accurate look at the experience of depression

Things were starting to look good. I finally had a path I could follow. While pursuing medical school applications, following a successful MCAT, I decided to take a few GPA boosters in Summer 2011. I chose courses in the department of anthropology. I had never taken any anthropology courses before and, beyond the classic description of culture, evolution, monkeys, and bones, I had no idea what to expect. Somehow, in the course of learning about classical anthropology, I stumbled upon a world of anthropological theory and research that exhilarated me more than any other discipline.   In my restless pursuit of knowledge, I had finally found the place where I felt I belonged. I learned about the sub-field of medical anthropology and it was truly my “eureka” moment. Finally, FINALLY, there was a place for me. Medical anthropologists and associated researchers were asking the same questions I had pondered and answering them using a methodology I loved. It was so very “me”.

The rest, as they say, is history. I flew through a second degree, a BA in Anthropology and English. There was no doubt in my mind that I was in the right place because it didn’t feel like “school”. I quickly abandoned my dreams of medical school (or should I say others’ dreams for me) and it felt like a huge weight was lifted. I wasn’t living according to society’s expectations anymore. Of course, I decided to pursue a different, albeit equally difficult, route of graduate school. And my family was happy too, because I would eventually have those two little letters, the bane of every Asian student’s existence, in front of my name!

I still occasionally suffered from low periods. The fall months, especially October and November, were the hardest, because the optimism and enthusiasm of the start of a new school year had faded and the relief and cheer of the holidays were still far away. Because my depression was cyclical, I became extra vigilant during these times. I was keenly aware of my specific signs of depression and kept them at bay for the most part by listening to myself. If I began thinking negatively, I knew it was time to disrupt the pattern, or engage in self-care activities, or talk to someone. These all usually worked quite well.

Then things got weird. I can remember it vividly.


Picture

In the early Fall 2013 term, I was walking down the hallway of the arts building on campus. I was running slightly late. The hallway was completely empty and the click-clack of my boots echoed off the cement walls. As I came closer to my classroom, something happened. My heart began to race and beat against my chest. The room began to spin and I felt as if I couldn’t breathe. I stood frozen in place against a wall for what felt like hours, though only a couple of minutes had passed. Then, as if nothing had happened at all, the feelings faded as quickly as they had begun. Because I was already running late for class, I shrugged it off as an anomalous, isolated event. But this wasn’t true and I knew it.  From all my new knowledge of depression and mental health, I knew that I had just had a panic attack.

I had had those feelings before, years earlier, when I was at the peak of my depression, though they had never been quite so intense. You see, the other side of my depression coin was crippling social anxiety. Social anxiety is often seen as extreme shyness. Perhaps they are related in some ways but social anxiety is a different beast altogether.

In my previous post, I mentioned that I missed classes a lot. While, yes, sometimes it was because it was too difficult to get out of bed, the main reason was my inability to confront what I perceived to be the judgement of a thousand strangers. While today I walk around without a care in the world (some would even say I strut), back then I could not walk through University Centre, the hub of the university’s social life, without feeling intense anxiety. As I would take each step, I would feel hundreds of eyes look at me and pierce me with their critical gaze. I projected my insecurities through them onto myself. Whenever a face turned to look toward me, I only saw a million different judgments of myself and my presentation: was it my clothes, body, face, hair, the way I walk, can they tell I didn’t go to class, do they know that I’m unintelligent, a failure? It sounds strange, even silly in retrospect, but to me that was reality. I felt like everywhere I went I was being looked at, judged, picked apart, ridiculed. I felt like I was a fraud and would be found out any second. I would hide in the library and, even then, I would just sit and ponder the fact that my life was controlled by thoughts I knew were irrational, and that I was powerless to stop them.

 

3354839_orig
Woman with Raised Arms, Pablo Picasso, 1936

Not only would I skip classes, I couldn’t or wouldn’t do simple things like talk to a cashier or a receptionist. If I absolutely had to speak to a stranger, I would rehearse what I wanted to say a hundred times before I would say it. Even then, I would judge myself as having “screwed up” the interaction in one way or another. Overtime, talking about these insecurities and reversing negative self-talk, allowed me to conquer social situations again. Today, people who know me consider me to be an extroverted, outgoing individual, which is true of my personality. However, if they had met me then…well, we would have never met.

After my first panic attack, I didn’t experience an event like the one in the hallway for a while. Until I did. This time it happened when I was going down the stairs of the same building. But, this time the intensity of the physical feelings was accompanied by vertigo. I still did nothing about it. However, three times the charm. Plus, as October drew close I became concerned about my depression recurring because I found myself feeling blue without reason more often than I would have liked. I spoke to my doctor, my family, my sister who is a pharmacist with an encyclopedic knowledge of all things pharmacy-related, and we finally agreed on a pharmaceutical course of action. I had always been terrified of “being on medication”. I grew up in the 90s in the era of Prozac and I didn’t want to be “artificially happy” or an emotionless zombie. But I decided to take a leap of faith anyway. And what a leap it was. I know antidepressants get a really bad rap and usually for a good reason but that’s because we don’t tend to hear the positive aspects of it. I think I know more people on anti-depressants than those who are not. And, just like people assume of me, you wouldn’t think they would need them either. But I did, and I didn’t realize it until I took them. When I followed up with my doctor a month afterwards, I could only explain my experience of medication through a description of a graph (insert grad student stats joke here). I have expertly doodled it to explain what I described to my doctor:


Picture

Mood Vs. Time With and Without Medication

As you can see, before medication, I went through intense low periods which I thought were just normal. And my high periods weren’t really high at all, they were just periods where I was “not depressed”, thus I was never happy. I often wrote in my journals that “I don’t know what the word ‘happy’ means.” I wasn’t being dramatic either, I didn’t understand it because I hadn’t experienced genuine happiness in so long.

After medication though, my feelings evened out and I realized that this is how “normal” people function. I began to understand what other people meant when they were happy or having a good day. In the past, a good day was anything that wasn’t a bad day. Rather than being “artificially happy”, medicine allowed me to start at level 0, rather than -50.

Obviously, as is life, I still have ups and downs but the downs aren’t so extreme anymore that I am unable to function. Today, I can easily brush off bad days for what they are rather than letting them ruin my whole week or even month. In fact, the bad days remind me of the good days around the corner. Medication allowed me to finally work on myself and my mindset so that, rather than feeling like I was carrying a 1000-pound gorilla up a steep hill towards the end-goal of recovery and happiness, now it felt more like I was just hiking upwards with a large German shepherd by my side.

PictureIntihuatana Stone in Machu Picchu, Peru, from my trip in 2014. It is thought to be a relic of Incan spirituality and is said to consist of infinite positive energy, visitors place their hands over it to absorb the positive energy.

The old adage of the glass being half full is exactly how I would describe my worldview now. I can’t help but be optimistic even in difficult situations. Of course, it took years to get here and I still work towards building and maintaining this optimism everyday. And, I still have to catch myself if I start to go down the road of negative self-talk and remind myself to be kind to myself. If you are struggling and reading this, I would say the same to you: start with kindness towards yourself.

My original intention was just to write about the experience because I felt that it was time. As mentioned, I am very open about my experiences with friends, family and acquaintances, and I welcome questions. However, it took me a long time to get comfortable with that. I realized that if I was to truly be a mental health advocate then I had to practice what I preached. I first started doing this when I heard others being open about their own current or past struggles. I, too, thought they were brave and honest. I applauded them. But, I never wanted anyone to find out because I thought people would see me differently or judge me before they knew me. I thought that professors or other academics would think I’m unreliable, unpredictable, irresponsible, but the opposite was true. I was lucky and privileged to have never faced any discrimination, but others with more stigmatized illnesses tend to be discriminated against, especially those from specific backgrounds such as Indigenous people and marginalized minorities in North America and elsewhere.

They key to ending the stigma, for me, was talking about it as much as I can. And, unsurprisingly, about 75% of the people I talk to express having struggled with mental health issues at some point and almost all of them know someone who has. In many of the messages I received since, friends and family expressed the familiar notion that you just never know what someone may be going through. This is true.

Picture

I received a lot of questions about what individuals and families can do to help their loved ones. In my opinion, my family’s support was incredibly helpful to me; I was so taken aback by their understanding and empathy. They gave me space when I needed it and let me have periods of quietude. Depressed people can also be irritable and they were so understanding about this. They listened to me without judgement. In my own experience in working with people suffering from depression/anxiety disorders, I avoid preaching or giving advice. People who are depressed usually have a thousand thoughts in their mind, and many of them induce feelings of guilt; making them feel more guilt is obviously ill-advised. I recommend trying to provide realistic messages of encouragement, hope, support and understanding; and validate their feelings. However, recognize that one cannot just “pick themselves up” out of depression. Understand that it is a slow, sometimes frustrating journey and it has to be taken day by day.

But, not only is recovery possible, with the right resources and support it can be an enormous source of growth. I know it was for me. When all is said and done, I am, believe it or not, grateful for everything I have been through. I feel that my experiences have been a blessing. They have helped me become more empathetic because they opened my eyes to a world beyond my own bubble.

If nothing else, I hope these posts have shown that mental disorders are not only a product of cognition and associated emotions but a biological phenomenon, as well. They are as real as any other illness. And as with any other illness, it is your choice to share your story with others, but like any other physical illness, it is never something you should be ashamed of.

Today, my academic work is motivated by a passion to help those who are struggling with similar issues. In fact, my current research focuses on university students with mental health concerns. In the future, I hope to branch out into other areas of medical anthropological research, but I know I will always be involved in mental health advocacy. I encourage you to get involved too, in whatever way you can. You don’t have to disclose anything about yourself or anyone else, but you can help support those who are struggling by sharing stories and images about mental health online that help to end the stigma. You can donate time or money to a mental health volunteer organization or event in your area. You can educate yourself on topics regarding mental health that you may have been curious about.

In your daily life, you can lend an ear to someone you know who may be having a rough day and just listen. And, if that person is you, listen to yourself. Close your eyes and listen to your thoughts, your feelings, think about your needs and your goals, the people in your life and how they make you feel, and ask yourself: am I truly happy? If the answer is anything other than a “yes”, I hope you will do whatever it takes to work towards the happiness you deserve. And, if you were able to relate to my experiences and are struggling right now, know that you are not alone and you can get better. Be your own advocate. To paraphrase J. K. Rowling: just because it is happening inside your head, doesn’t mean it’s not real, and don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.

Thank you for reading.


Picture

The Black Dog, the Blue Period: My Experience with Clinical Depression (Part 1)

Image: 1902–03, Femme assise (Melancholy Woman), by Pablo Picasso from his blue period, so called as he sunk into a deep depression and only produced monochromatic works, primarily in the color blue during this time. To me, they are a brilliant representation of life in depression.


Ever since I can remember, I have felt different, out of place, and at odds with my surroundings. This feeling was most acute when I was a child. I don’t have many memories of childhood, and the ones I do have are happy. But there is a sepia quality to them, as if I’m watching my memories from the eyes of an outside observer.

Time and again, I have reflected on that feeling of “out-of-placeness” but never more so than when I was depressed. For whatever reason, how I felt during my long and brutal depression is tethered to how I felt as a child. It makes me believe that, perhaps, the depression was inevitable; that I had started walking down that tight-rope not in my late teenage years, as I had previously assumed, but much, much earlier.

I had always had low self-esteem and various anxieties growing up, but the naivete and innocence of adolescence meant I never questioned the legitimacy of my feelings, accepting them as true and real. Overtime, the common perils of puberty and junior high magnified those feelings. I remember stumbling from day to day, attempting to navigate the obstacle course of school, parents, friends, hormones, etc. I thought I was like everyone else, that I was doing an okay job playing at being a regular girl. But, I didn’t realize that I was constantly repressing my fears, anxieties and emotions, and keeping silent when I should have stood up for myself when I felt bullied for my otherness.

If I can describe my junior high and high school years in one word, it would be “desperation”. From the age of 10, when I immigrated to Canada from the Middle East (by way of India where I was born), I was desperate for acceptance from my peers. I wanted to understand Canadian culture and belong. I remember people exclaiming because only six months after arriving in Canada I had already lost my accent. I was so proud.

I was desperate to be like the other girls who were so effortlessly cool–shiny, straight hair glistening in the sun as I wrestled daily with my thick, black curls. They wore the right clothes, had the right bodies, and sported the right attitude. It seemed like life came so easy to them. I was wrong, of course. They all had their own struggles, some very similar to my own, I’m sure.

High school was a blur of the same: a rocky road of trying to find my place while maintaining a facade of stubborn self-assurance (as is requisite to being a high-schooler). I don’t think I was a very good person, either. Clawing at the rungs of the popularity ladder meant ascribing to the rules and politics of high-school life. So, anyone who was anyone was supposed to shun “the losers” (speak to them at your own peril), and worship those who were at the top. If this sounds like the plot of “Mean Girls” that’s because it was, much of the time. Plus, add in a dash of drugs, alcohol, sex, fights, pregnancies, abortions, a suicide attempt by a drug-addicted student, and you have something that is closer to the plot of modern-day Degrassi.

Luckily, I was not involved directly in any of the above, but sometimes I wished I was–so strong was my desire to belong. However, my actual personality was much different than what I modelled it into every day to become someone else. I liked art and comic books, style and creativity, reading and writing. I had thoughts and ideas on important issues that often differed from those of others. But attempting to belong in my peer group meant I had to diminish those aspects of my personality which weren’t cool and didn’t conform to popular opinion. Expressing my true self would mean risking losing all social connections at this fragile time, and I was not about to do that.

When I look back, I don’t remember being happy whatsoever. Body image was always a source of extreme anxiety for me, which didn’t help when confronting juvenile attractions. Unlike junior high where I flourished in my classes, I hated my high school classes which taught me nothing and left me ill prepared for life after graduation. My medical career path was pre-seclected for me by cultural and familial expectations. These same expectations were often at odds with my identity. I experienced no personal growth and felt like a plant left in the dark, unwatered and unwanted. All these little things were starting to add up.  And, something else was stirring beneath the surface. The seeds of depression were already there and they were given the appropriate ingredients to proliferate like weeds with the help of Accutane* and University.

Picture
The Old Guitarist by Pablo Picasso (1903)

My early University experience was incredibly isolating. I remember a lot of walking in those first years. I walked daily from lab to class to lab to library to the washroom to cry then back to class, all across dusty, dishwater-brown linoleum floors. I had friends, but I was too busy drowning in my own skin. Forget making plans or “going to parties”, most days I couldn’t get out of bed. My depression crept on me so slowly that by the time I was skipping an entire semester of classes, exams and all, it all felt normal. I accepted it as a part of my life. Decreasing contact with friends and acquaintances graduated to complete self-imposed isolation. I blamed myself for everything. I cried every single day and night. I ate my pain. I swallowed my grief. Not having a “legitimate reason” to be depressed only made me feel worse about my “incompetence”. The greatest irony of this situation was that despite being a Psychology major, I had no idea what was wrong with me.

This went on for two years. I was an A+ student who purposely missed exams. But in my mind I had no capability and there was also no point. This was the worst of it. It wasn’t the sadness–people often tend to confuse depression for a single note of sadness. Depression is not sadness. It is a multitude of soul-sucking emotional and physical symptoms which chisel away at a person, culminating in the eventual hollowing out of their being. In my experience, the worst part was the utter lack of hope, and the belief that the future would continue to be as bleak as it was or even worse. I could only describe my depression in my diaries as “a black abyss”. I could not see anything beyond darkness. My future was colored by this same lens. Thus, my future was also non-existent. This nihilism and hopelessness was all there was. In time, I became addicted to the grief and fed it. I began to look for ways to validate my beliefs by comparing myself to other, more accomplished people. Like a masochist, I found whatever evidence I could to confirm my perceived incompetencies so I could revel in the cycle of negativity; I could settle in and get cosy in the dark, heavy blanket that was my depression.


Picture
The Black Dog by Katrina Miller, the black dog is a symbol of depression and suicide

I chastised myself for my rapid weight gain due to depression. I began to loathe myself. I could no longer think clearly and life was a dense fog that I couldn’t move through. I took no pleasure in anything anymore. I would sit and watch TV or browse the Internet for hours, numbing myself to the outside world. I would go days without talking to anyone outside of my family, and that too was just so I could keep up appearances. One thing you may not know about depressive persons: we are very, very good at acting normal. I still went to work twice a week, still volunteered, went to school most days but didn’t go to class. I, and others like me, deserve all the acting awards for the ruses we pull off daily. But we justify them. The last thing I wanted to do was worry my parents; besides, what would I tell them? That “I’m a stupid child, a bad daughter, a failure, an embarrassment”….and so went the lament that never ends. And when I say never ends, I mean it. Imagine listening to a playlist of your worst enemy cruelly whispering, hissing and taunting you with your worst fears, insecurities, negative beliefs and insults. But this voice does not belong to your enemy, it belongs to you, and the playlist is endless, and no matter what you do you can’t take off the headphones and the volume only gets louder and the cord wraps itself around your neck like a vice growing tighter and tighter. This is depression.

I often thought about suicide but never about going through with it. I could never do that to my family. In a strange twisting of the knife, I felt like I deserved to suffer and live in pain everyday. For what? I still don’t know. This was the rationale of a very ill mind. Besides, I felt like I was dead already because I certainly wasn’t living. Another thing that is not well-known about depression: it is as much physical as it is mental. My body would ache from the fatigue. My reflexes were slower. My head felt heavy, or it would hurt from hours of crying. The cycle of insomnia and oversleeping made me feel like a zombie.

The first time I realized that there might be something really wrong with me was when I took online quizzes on depression symptoms online, and read articles on the same. I referred to my textbooks, too. My depression score on every test was off the charts. Granted these were just online tests but it was something. Finally, there was some validation! But validation for what? That I was crazy? That I had a sick mind? That I am abnormal? I echoed society’s worst views on mental illness to myself. I repeated the stigma which stopped me from seeking help (also known as self-stigma). Despite recognizing that there might be something wrong with me,  I still did nothing about it because by this time I had internalized the dialogue of hopelessness and failure I had repeated to myself for three years. This was my normal, it was all I knew anymore.


Then things started to get really bad. My memory was being affected. I couldn’t remember events from the previous day, let alone the previous week. If I couldn’t pay attention in class before, now it was virtually impossible. Eventually, I needed to get a letter for a potential exam deferral. At this point, still, I did not think I deserved any such help. I though I was just a weak student who was pretending to be sick. Again, the irony of being a psychology student is not lost on me. I met with a counsellor at the University and she said something that impacted me deeply. She said, “You are not stupid. Your self, the smart, capable person you are, is still in there.” I can’t describe how powerful these words were for me. They made me tear up then as they do now. For the first time someone recognized the great tragedy of my depression – the death of my former life and self. I had been mourning the person who was full of life, humour, happiness, hope and promise for so long that I didn’t believe I could ever get her back.

And I didn’t get her back, I believe I became someone better.

7663480
Blue Nude 1902, by Pablo Picasso

After seeing my first counsellor that one time, I didn’t go back. I was still in the throes of depression, but my thoughts had shifted a little due to seeking help and taking some control back. My counsellor had lent me two books which had also helped validate my feelings. These were: The Mindful Way Through Depression and Feeling Good, a cornerstone of CBT, which were both helpful during this time. I can’t remember exactly why I did it, I assume it was because I just couldn’t take it anymore and hiding the pain had become harder than just telling the truth, so I decided to talk to my family about what I had been going through for so long.

I first told my sister who then talked to my parents. Through finally communicating openly, I realized that my parents had been worried about me. At last, the pieces fit together for them too. The lack of spirit or interest, the fatigue, the oversleeping, the not-sleeping-at-all, the random bursts of anger, the lack of communication or contact, the missed classes, everything made sense. I also realized how blessed I was to have a family that not only supported me but tried to learn as much as possible so they too could understand what I was going through.

I began long-term therapy. Terrified of psychopharmaceutical drugs, I chose to work with a CBT specialist, only. But, strangely enough, I didn’t really take away much from the CBT techniques. Having read Feeling Good, I didn’t find the therapies in these sessions to be very helpful again. However, just the act of taking back control through seeking help was the switch I needed to light the bulb of optimism. I began to talk more. I began to do things for my future. I started undoing the damage my depression had wrought. Lest you think that I was now cured, this could not be farther from the truth. While I started on the path to happiness, or at least normalcy, I was still suffering everyday. I had to defer the exam for the single course I was taking because I still couldn’t get myself to class to face other people, or to do anything productive. But I could go to the therapy, and that was a great start.

Therapy, family support, sunlight (we forget how important this is sometimes), and combating the negative thoughts that had flooded my mind for years, were all instrumental in helping me change. The following semester, Fall 2010, after summer break, I did something slightly inadvisable for someone in my condition and took 4 courses. This was because I had charted a new path for my life and I went in head first. I was hopeful for the first time in a long time. The semester could have ended very poorly but, because the clouds of depression were clearing and I was able to think clearly for the first time in years, I worked hard and got straight A+s, like I used to. I was ecstatic, but I was also cautiously optimistic and I have been ever since.

Depression, in my opinion, never really goes away. Like a debilitating physical illness or injury, it leaves scars. During my recovery, I feared that any unexpected event could trigger those same thoughts and feelings again. It had been 5 years since the onset of my major depression and I had finally begun feeling better, but little did I know that something else was in store in the coming years and my fears regarding recurrence and relapse would be realized, but in a way I could never have expected.

To be continued…

*Isotretinoin has been linked to depression and suicide in a number of studies: http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJM200102083440616
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1463189/
http://www.drugwatch.com/accutane/recall.php