Thursday, May 24, 2018

Confidence and the Graduate Teaching Assistantship

In the final semester of my graduate career, I took a wonderful course called autoethnography. I was basically given course credit to reflect on myself, my positionality, and my culture, and I was encouraged to consider my growth as a graduate student. Given that I have well established that I am a self reflecting machine, I was ecstatic by the notion of using this persistent self obsession observation for academic material--I felt as though I had been training for this moment for years, and cited this blog at least ten times in a single assignment.

For our first assignment in this course, we were asked to reflect on our positionalities as graduate students, and conduct an exploration of our academic lives. While the professors, friends, and family members I interviewed saw me in distinctly different contexts, they all cited a dramatic change in my confidence levels as a reason for my growth. Even in my own reflections, I have recognized that, as a graduate student, "for the first time in my life, I [was] happy with who I [was]." This isn't to say that I didn't have moments of self-doubt or struggle (an impossible feat when working on a Masters thesis), but these moments were more akin to recognizing that I would have to work through temporary struggles, rather than thinking I was surely a complete and total failure who would never amount to anything.

Given my background with insecurity and anxiety, it was a nice feeling. One that I assumed most every graduate student was able to experience.

However, this autoethnography course challenged me to consider my status as a (GTA) Graduate Teaching Assistant, and to reflect on the position of power I had been afforded. While, for the first semester of my graduate career, my reflections stopped short at "no, surely I didn't get this assistantship! Who in their right mind would trust me to teach college students?", teaching later became a source of frustration, and, in hindsight, bonding with fellow GTAs. Yet it was also a major contributor to my confidence as a graduate student, as I was constantly being reaffirmed by professors that this was a competitive position, that professional opportunities would open up because of my teaching (this is a mixed bag, but more on that later). I had to force myself into a leadership position and use confidence as a survival mechanism.

Not to mention the assistantship erased insecurities about debt, and nicely aligned with composition strategies we talked about in class.

Not every graduate student gets this opportunity. And, as I later realized, there are graduate students who applied, didn't get the assistantship, and took on that debt to go to school.

Despite my background with social anxiety and awareness of feeling excluded, I participated in an environment in which GTAs talked about their students and made inside jokes about CO150 in front of non-GTAs. Even after being made aware of this power dynamic, I still joked around with fellow GTAs about the rhetorical situation (a device that we teach to our students 20,000 times over, only for them to still not get it) in front of those outside of the GTA cohort. I have experienced that horrible feeling that I wasn't in on the joke, or wasn't invited to the party, and have been furious and hurt that people talked about those things in front of me. And yet, here I was, participating in the very acts that hurt me as a college student.

It's dangerously easy to find comfort in our positions, particularly if they are positions of power--this is a lesson that Rhetoric & Composition has emphasized from the start. I knew this from a theoretical lens, but it's challenging to really understand from a personal angle. My position as a GTA and as a member of an academic family gives me ample opportunities to be reassured that I am worthy of the academy, and that graduate school is a productive time investment. It also exposed me to a larger social circle, and even though I wasn't close friends with every GTA, I knew who they were, and felt a connection with them, as we were all going through the insanity that is teaching freshmen.

I frequently tell my CO150 students, "know your audience. Make them feel valued, don't insult them, and make an effort to understand where they're coming from." While parroting these words in the classroom, I failed to do this while speaking with colleagues who are not GTAs. Just as I spent time crying in my dorm after being told I "had no friends," I probably would do the same if I were a non-GTA who was constantly being inundated with the message that GTAs were somehow superior.

I cannot change the entire structure of the English graduate program--and I know that the faculty desperately want everyone to receive funding and have equal opportunities. But as a member of an "in" group who has so frequently been left out, I want to show current and future GTAs that there are others who might not have access to the confidence-building that occurs in this cohort.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Love in the Time of Caller ID: Embracing the Unknown

I'm sitting at the table of the restaurant my partner and I frequent at least twice a month. Swallowing a bite of pesto and goat cheese sandwich, I sigh at my phone.

"One of the worst parts of the job search," I say, "is having to answer unknown caller IDs."

There are many worse parts, like spending an hour picking cat hair off my one good blazer, and the crippling notion that I don't know where I will be living, how much money I will be making, or who I will be working for in two months, but at this moment, the idea of simply answering the phone makes me want to vomit.

I haven't even been a graduate for a full week, and I've already gone through the cycle of complete, unadulterated joy, crippling anxiety, mind-numbing sadness, acceptance, and back to anxiety again.

"I thought you didn't have to answer these calls anymore," my partner says, referencing the part-time adjunct job I'd accepted a week prior. I was going to start in the fall, we were going to move into a cozy one-bedroom that didn't cost ten thousand dollars, and we were going to have a plan. We were going to be settled.

If there is one thing that I love more than having enough money to eat out multiple times a week, it's having a plan. As a kid, I was so obsessed with having a plan, I would write a detailed schedule of all the fun I would have on Christmas. My future plans looked no different.

"But this could be better."

"But this could be better" is a phrase my partner has heard a lot in the last few weeks. It's as though I'm desperately trying to find the loophole that will get me out of the recently-graduated-and-feeling-hopeless-millennial drudgery I've been so fearful of. It's almost like I'm trying to prove wrong my advisor, who told me I would probably have to patch together a series of part-time jobs. It's a giant leap of faith that I don't deem myself qualified for until I'm 40 with gray hairs and a dental plan. It's wildly different from my cries of "I just want something!" I kept repeating just a month earlier.

One of the scariest things about the phrase "this could be better" is that there is a very likely chance it won't be. Out of the few hundred applicants for any given job, there is usually only room for one person. That's less than a 1% chance. Statistically, I am an idiot, and will likely find myself in a shack, eating corn from a tin can*, wondering why I didn't take the safe route. I find myself wishing that if I were to take this leap of faith, I would have a guarantee that a good job with benefits would be at the end of it--which defeats the whole "leap" and "faith" bit and makes it more akin to a tiptoe of logic.

While I've been my usual ball of anxiety this past week, I find that despite the unknown of literally everything, I have found more moments of calm and ease than I had when most everything was figured out. This is terribly confusing for someone who privileges logical choices and long-term investments over anything else, and may very well result in an upcoming "identity crisis" post. But somehow there is security and comfort in knowing that I have the tiniest belief that maybe I am that person who is qualified for something better--that maybe I am worthy of a consistent salary and benefits. Despite not having any answers now, I know that I took a risk and openly rejected the safest option. I will continue to answer those unknown numbers, and I will continue to embrace the unknown.

*I already eat corn from a tin can, so this really isn't an altogether terrible outcome.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Highs and Lows of 2017

It's that time of the year when my persistent self-reflection is socially appropriate for a hot minute, so what better way to exploit that than making a year in review?

Quite honestly, I wasn't going to make a year in review, as 2018 is the year of me shutting the fuck up about my growth, but then Ingrid Nilsen made a wonderful video about the highs and lows of 2017,  which is no surprise, since she is a wonderful human and I'm trying to copy her every move inspired by her.

Here is the original video she posted, in case you're interested:

2017 was kind of a...blech year, so there were quite a few lows. However, as negative experiences often turn out, they lent themselves to emotional growth (I'm already breaking my aforementioned resolution), which is, retrospectively, a high for 2018.

Just as a quick disclaimer, this is, again a personal year in review, but I cannot emphasize enough the important of engaging in political discussions. However, if I included politics in the lows section, this would be a never-ending post.

In no particular order, here are the lows of 2017:

1) Navigating the messy logistics of a relationship
It feels a little extreme to call this a low, since I have always recognized that relationships take work, and are well worth the effort. However, it is also dangerous to romanticize the issues that come with living with a partner. This was the first year I had to navigate the space of sharing a household with someone who wasn't just a roommate. That first year in particular is challenging as all heck. Not only do you have to deal with differing opinions and backgrounds, but you have to reconcile those differences with important issues like money and future plans.

Hannah Witton, another amazing YouTuber, covered this very issue and concluded that you essentially have to transition into seeing your SO as not just a romantic partner, but a business partner as well. You have to discuss things like rent and utilities (and chores! The horror). It's anything but sexy--but completely necessary.

2) Anxiety
Contrary to the popular belief that I overshare everything to everyone, I've kept quiet about the severity of my anxiety for a while. But, thanks to--you guessed it--YouTube, I've realized that suffering in silence is helpful to approximately 0% of the people in my life.

The levels of anxiety come in waves, but it has been consistently present to some extent. For those of you who wonder why I don't drive, I am not a lazy asshole who wants to waste your gas money. Crippling anxiety, when left untreated, gets worse with age, and this past summer was no exception. It got so bad, that I would stay up until sunrise every night, feeling certain that a burglar was going to try to enter our apartment (retrospectively, I spent all night watching the apartment, but had no plan as to what I would do upon facing said burglar). It's not a sustainable way to live, though I've tried to sustain it for roughly 13 years.

I have had a tumultuous relationship with anxiety, as I attribute being "tightly wound" to my academic success and time management skills, but it also damages my relationships with people and, you know, that whole relaxation thing that I've heard is so great.

This low is something I'm still grappling with, and trying to form some kind of treatment plan (any advice would be much appreciated!). In the meantime, yoga has helped tremendously, which is why it's still a necessity on the title of this blog (although coffee doesn't do any favors to anxiety).

3) Difficult teaching situations
For the most part, I have had amazing (or at least tolerable) students who constantly surprise me with their insights and intellect. That being said, this past semester was an exceptionally demanding one (and frequently demanded tools that I didn't yet possess). I dealt with a LOT of entitlement, collective rebellion, and one giant shit show of a plagiarism case that lasted about two months. I felt like I spent 90% of my time running to meetings about (and with) one student. I felt completely lost and helpless, and it started to interfere with my coursework and teaching.

Thankfully, I had amazing support from my colleagues and supervisors who were also trying to figure out a relatively unique situation. The case I spent months trying to navigate concluded with the best possible outcome, and I learned quite a few pedagogical strategies for future teaching situations.

4) The most difficult semester I have ever endured
This might seem like an exaggeration, but I genuinely believed that surviving this past semester would be a miracle. Not only did I have an incredibly demanding section of students (in addition to another section), but I took by far my most challenging courses. Both courses demanded intense research, extensive revisions, and over 200 pages of reading per week. It didn't help that I had a tumultuous relationship with one of my professors. Somehow, in the midst of it all, I also worked a second job at the local grocery store. It was the most emotionally and professionally taxing experience in my life. I will never know how I got through it without losing sleep (I turn into a horrible, monstrous creature without at least 8 hours per night), but somehow I did it, and managed to produce somewhat coherent content.

Despite 2017 being akin to a garbage pail, there were some highs of 2017 (some of which, I swear, will have nothing to do with cats). That being said, the biggest high has to be...

1) Xavier and Gato
Getting our cats was quite possibly the definition of an impulse decision. Brave Heart and I went to the cat rescue with the intention of just looking (for one cat, mind you), and ended the evening with two meowing cats in the back of our car. It definitely was not the most fiscally responsible decision we ever made, and we would probably have saved a lot of money at this point. But I am a firm believer in having at least one slightly irresponsible part of your life (as long as it doesn't hurt anyone!), and the cats bring us exceptional joy. They are our furry children, and we will always feel lucky that we decided to be impulsive that one February night.
2) Having fun in a potentially uncomfortable situation
This one was an unexpected high, and, without a drastic change in mindset, would have been a low. One of my good friends got married this past summer, and I was one of the only women in the friend group who was not asked to be a bridesmaid. It stung for a while, but, if I recall correctly, 2017 was the year of getting the fuck over myself and realizing that someone else's wedding has nothing to do with me. Still, I was anticipating discomfort in being the only one not wearing a bridesmaid dress, the only one in the friend group with a distinctly different role. I could have very well turned this into a giant pity party. However, I made the conscious effort to turn what was a difficult experience into a friend reunion. Had I not participated in the wedding, I would have A) missed out on one of my good friend's biggest life events, and B) I probably wouldn't have gone back home. That experience turned into one of the happiest nights of drinking and dancing with some of my best friends.

3) Having an established life away from home
Despite this high seeming identical to 2016's "establishing life away from home," I see distinct differences in the two. 2016 was the year of transitioning out of a place I'd spent my entire life. I remember feeling scared and homesick through December. This year, however, I felt like Fort Collins was home. I had made a life with my partner and cats, and felt eager to return to "FoCo" (as the natives call it) whenever I was visiting State College. We spent 2017 making our own traditions, which I suppose is a step into the realm of the horrifyingly "adult."

4) Kicking grad school's butt
While I could have done with less school-related tears, I'm proud of the content that I produced and the achievements that went along with it. Last year felt very "oh you haven't dropped out yet? Congratulations!", but the expectations for us second-years increased dramatically. I'm proud of saying yes to more opportunities (even if they send me in a week-long rage about STEM fields), for writing--in my humble opinion--my best paper yet, and being well on my way to graduating with a masters degree.

(I am also hoping to publish and participate in more than zero conferences, so if anyone has any advice about navigating that academic space, do let me know!).

So, there you have it. I hope I can reflect on 2018 with far more highs than lows, and with a big-kid job or some such.

Have a delightful new year, friends!

Monday, December 11, 2017

Elitism in the Academy: Look Inside Ourselves First

I am the product of a system that consistently works in my favor.

Before you come at me with sticks, allow me to explain.

On the last day of my graduate seminar, my professor asked everyone to consider how they learned to write in an academic setting. I am a walking millennial stereotype, so I usually pounce at any chance to self-reflect. But at this moment, I realized, in horror, that I had no answer to this question. There was no "aha!" moment in which I'd clarified all confusion about writing in college because I'd never not been taught how to prepare for academia.

I've talked extensively about being the "product of academia," usually to end with a large helping of guilt that I didn't suffer more, that I wasn't a first gen-er who had nothing but determination to climb through four years of college. I feel like I've been screaming, "yes I know I'm privileged and I'm so sorry!" for the past two years. This is unnecessary and irritating for everyone involved. Privilege acknowledgment is productive; privilege guilt makes your friends want to stuff socks inside your mouth.

And so, it's about time I move past the self-pity stage, and instead toward privilege acknowledgment--more specifically acknowledgement that makes me a better student and teacher.

I know, a realization that in order to be a good person, you should look outside yourself. I don't think I can handle these profound epiphanies.

It's impossible not to bring your background into the classroom, especially as an instructor. This is why, in our composition-instruction course, all English graduate teaching assistants were asked to consider our backgrounds as students and connect them to our expectations and styles as teachers. I remember discussing elitism in that paper as well, only to conclude, "well it doesn't matter through, because these kids are in college now, and I'm just gonna go through the curriculum that's been assigned to me!"

Well. Not those words exactly. But you get the idea.

There are always exceptions, but typically graduate teaching assistants find themselves in this position because they maintained a grasp of academic discourse in college. Stopping at this realization and taking the "sink or swim" attitude I took my first semester is not enough, and hurts students who were set up to sink from the beginning. Sure, it's easier to dismiss the student who refuses to do group work as "not a team player" (every teacher--myself included--seems to forget that group work is the worst thing ever and will suck out your soul). It saves time to conclude that the athlete with an attitude is just coasting through classes to get their scholarship. It's easy to respond to these situations with grade penalties and frustration. The easiest responses are often informed by the most ignorant assumptions.

I frequently made these assumptions until I had an agonizingly difficult semester with quite possibly the most apathetic class, topped with aggression, plagiarism, and failure to follow even the simplest of instructions. I had, in particular, a frustrating case with a student that took up approximately 200% of my time. I often responded with irritation that I was putting effort into this student's success, while he was turning his back to me during class and flirting with his friend. An experienced teacher observed this dynamic, and suggested that my student wanted to try, but felt like he didn't belong in an academic setting. He was so uncomfortable in a college-level writing course, that he resorted to social interactions that he was familiar with and confident in doing well. Recognizing the reason behind the student's distracted behavior allowed me to consider how I might respond if I had never been anywhere near academic discourse before, and forced me to try to engage the student in other ways.

There certainly exists a risk in which instructors take this recognition too far and start to coddle their students. The student should be the primary actor in ensuring their own success, and if they cannot meet the demands of college-level writing, they should not be given a "free pass." I am in no way arguing that the responsibility falls solely on the instructor. What I am saying that we are often blinded by the assumption that we will say things like "traditional argument structure" and "critical reading," and each student will light up and go "oh! I guess now I have to carefully and analytically read sources, and synthesize them to make a nuanced argument!" Responding to a perceived lack of academic prowess with punitive measures only further alienates students who were wary of academic spaces to begin with.

We talk a lot about accessibility at CSU. Usually we associate this term with accessible architectural structures and digital access (all important things!). It gets trickier when we start to discuss accessibility in academic discourse. A lot of structures in college are explicitly designed to keep people out. Changing this phenomenon often extends outside of the feasibility of the individual. But, as instructors, starting with a shift in tone and mindset to and about students is a helpful place to start.

I admire the students who, just in getting into college, fought through obstacles and processes that were designed to keep them out, to halt their success right then and there. They will continue to fight through structures that continue to work against them, and it is our job to recognize and work to fight against those structures.

Starting the semester with an invitational approach not only helps build rapport with students, but can factor into student success in so many ways. I may not be able to reach every student, but trying to connect their backgrounds and experiences with college composition is a necessary first step in breaking down academic barriers. It takes time. It takes tremendous effort. But it can start to open collegiate success for all students, not just the students who were given access to academia-prep.

I am by no means an expert, and continue to struggle through the fine line between inviting and coddling. I wanted to end this post by posing a question to my fellow teacher friends: how do you invite opportunities for success among your students who may feel alienated from academia?

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Power of Wow (Or, the "Dark, Cliffy Spot" of Academia)

In keeping with my childhood tendency to exhibit behaviors that are no longer age-appropriate (I recall trying to convince my very cool friend to play make believe rockstars at age 13--the horror!), I, at age 24, have decided to rebel.

I haven't dyed my hair black (a $300 visit to the salon taught me that lesson already), nor have I taken to sporting inch-thick eyeliner. No, my rebellion is outside of the realm of the cosmetic, and instead, consists of me spouting complaints in class about the absurdity that is the game of academia.

In recent news, I said, out loud, (oh what have I done?) "isn't rhetoric supposed to enact social change? It just seems like a pissing contest between people who try to out scholar each other."

Needless to say, my professor was not impressed. There goes that PhD recommendation.

Despite my extreme embarrassment when putting my discontent into words for all of academia to hear, I've still, for the past six months, stubbornly insisted that I was right, that academia was simply a hoop-jumping, vocab-spouting, game of pretention. I felt that I had every right to be disillusioned with the institution.

And so, here I find myself, writing this very piece from the institution.

To a certain extent, I'm right (and humble too!). There is a fair number of hoops to jump through in higher ed, especially when you're a grad student who's new to the game. In writing my masters thesis, I have found that before I can bridge the gap between academia and popular culture, I have to demonstrate my ability to play that game, to talk the academic talk, to name drop the right scholars.

It's frustrating. It often feels purposeless. It makes me question if my degree will actually allow me to help people, to cause positive change in the world.

I know, a person in her twenties who wants to change the world. Bet nobody has thought of that before.

Ironically, it was a scholar who helped me understand the flaws in my thinking (an ecocritic named Ian Marshall who just happens to be my dad--what are the chances?). His piece titled The Dark Cliffy Spot: Ten Years After allowed me to see that my persistent need to be forward-thinking, to fear that maybe my degree won't help people in a practical or concrete way, is perhaps a surefire way to be miserable both in and outside of the academy.

Allow me to explain.

The "dark, cliffy spot" is a site--a dark and cliffy site, if you can believe it--at an environmental center in my hometown. My father originally gave a rather underwhelming area that name, only to discover that someone else had found an even darker, even cliffier spot, and thus this new site won the title. As such, he went to the new site to reflect.

And that rather reminds me of academia, the end.

Just kidding. Allow me to explain further.

In his "10 years after" reflection, Marshall (I'm just gonna follow genre conventions and call him by his last name even though that's kinda sorta weird, okay?) notes that the dark, cliffy spot is so beautiful, so awe-inspiring, that it forces those who look at it to say "wow," to look outside of themselves for a moment.

Marshall elaborates with the observation that "when you're saying 'wow,' you are not dwelling on internal strife or monologue. You are talking to the world, responding to something outside of the self, so it's not just your breath moving outward." He goes on to tie in the idea that even though nature is a great place to reflect inwards, it's the external forces--the site itself, as well as the people with which you create memories at the site--that make that experience meaningful. In a sense, these external forces encourage their onlookers to be fully in the immediate, simply taking in an experience.

I am not a nature writer, though I'm not without a great deal of self-reflection. In my case, my "dark, cliffy spot" is not so beautiful. It's full of difficult climbs without a promise of an end. It's darker than I'm used to, and I must use more strength than I originally deemed myself able. Looking inwards, I wonder what I'm doing, grappling with discomfort and the unknown.

And yet. Looking outwards, I can see the academia perhaps does achieve some sort of purpose. By participating in difficult conversations about cultural appropriation, or accessibility in the institution, I am, in a sense, talking to the world. I am part of a conversation that is bigger than myself. Through learning about various feminist theories and histories, I can not only reflect on my own struggles as a woman, but I can begin to understand how I might help women whose backgrounds and histories are vastly different from my own.  I'm doing this work with other human beings who I have come to respect and admire. And that's pretty cool.

I might not often find myself in landscapes that evoke the same kind of immediate awe as Marshall's dark, cliffy spot, but applying that same recognition of the power of wow allows me to realize just how lucky I am to be here, now. At a time in which most people are fighting for their education, I am awed by the chances I have been given, the people these chances have allowed me to meet. I realize that academia has allowed me to live in a place that I love. I see the mountains and continue to be awed by their quiet, sublime beauty.

Usually, awe require work. A beautiful view requires an intense hike to get there. Meaningful change in academia requires some difficult readings, some theories that seem impractical. But looking to the power of wow, I understand just how beautiful it is to be part of something bigger, to create my own dark, cliffy spot.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Welcome to the Rest of Your Life

A few (okay, six) years ago, I wrote a post titled Welcome to Adolescence. I hope you, dear readers, have followed this simple how-to guide and flat-ironed your way through the rocky teenage years. Take a moment to congratulate yourself on making it out--all the way into your twenties! Wow! Treat  yourself to some victory anti-aging cream and an IOU for a drink once you've paid back all your student debt in fifty years.

In the spirit of entering "well into adulthood" range, I thought I would write an update about the joys of being an adult. There are plenty of how-to-adult guides out there (thanks millennials!), so I'd like to take the more positive route and confirm young children's beliefs that being an adult is, in fact, all that.

And so, without further ado (seriously, you're slowly dying, no more delaying the process), here is a list of reasons why being an adult is the best thing since sliced bread.

1) You have the opportunity to get creative with sliced bread.
No need to see those two minimum-wage jobs you're working as a soul-crushing act of dehumanization--think of it as an opportunity! Without the ability to buy real ingredients for real meals, you now have the chance to break out those childhood creative thinking skills and work that off-brand bread. Think vegan croque monsieur. Triple-decker bread sandwich. Your disintegrating apartment ceiling is the limit.
A delicacy, really 

2) No more pesky crushes.
Remember how intense those crushes on that one football/soccer/chess club player could be as a youth? Remember those wasted notebook pages filled with love notes and Hallmark-induced musings that taunted you through high school? Remember those hopeful G-chats filled with cringey emojis and clich├ęs?

Just me? Alrighty. Moving on.

As an adult, you won't have time to crush on that hottie from gym class. First off, there are no more classes, so in order to have a crush, you'll either have to settle for that dolt from work, or you'll have to gain some superhero motivation to venture out into the world and be a person. But, better yet, you'll have far more pressing, glamorous, adult concerns to occupy your mind--such as:

Will I be able to pay rent this month, or will I watch my entire savings account disappear?

Should I starve tonight or tomorrow?

Will I still be able to produce healthy children with all their brain cells intact?

Will I be able to support myself, much less a family?

It's like problem-juggling. And don't tell me you never wanted to take up juggling as a kid. Now's your chance.

So crushes? Nah. More like crushing reality that you are your only anchor in this world.

3) No more cranking up the heat of your bedroom.

Your newfound layer of belly fat will take care of that insulation for you. But hey--no more gym class!

4) Forget that ambiguity.

Remember when guidance counselors asked you where you saw yourself in five years and you wondered if you would be riding a horse on Saturn? Well, I'm here to tell you that in your twenties, there are far fewer unknowns and ambiguities. For instance, I may have had no idea where I would be in five years as a sixteen year old, but at 24, I can confidently assert that I will be staring at my masters degree five minutes before my shift at the grocery store, wondering where it all went wrong.

And who doesn't love to have a plan?

You may question where and if you're going to live in the next year, but you sure don't have to deal with those pesky "what if"s: what if I don't get into my dream school? What if I disappoint my parents? What if I never get married? You will know for a fact that you couldn't even afford to look at your dream school, you have, without a doubt, already disappointed your parents at least five times, and forget that wedding if you don't have a spare $20,000 lying around.

And you used to think it was only God who had all the answers. Welcome to adulthood, my friend.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Beauty of Feminism: Empowering Interpretations of Zoella

Just as a disclaimer, this post will most likely be a bit rant-y, as I have some opinions about damaging, narrow-minded views of feminism. I welcome any and all respectful debate about the role of feminism in the beauty community.

As some of you know, and none of you care about, I am studying feminist disruptions of dominant male discourse in the YouTube community through narrative and storytelling in "get ready with me" videos.

Basically, I'm asserting that gee, isn't it great that marginalized women get a platform where they finally have a voice? Imagine that!

Unfortunately, throughout my research, I've stumbled upon popular media and scholarly journals alike that villainize and attack women who work in the beauty community. The more prominent the beauty guru, the more hate she receives--particularly among those with antiquated and narrow views about what feminism should look like.

Take Zoella, for instance. One of the most subscribed-to beauty gurus, Zoella has been the product of media attack ever since YouTube gained popularity (and articles about the topic would most certainly get clicks!). Generally speaking, these types of attacks on alternative media are not unexpected. It has become a comical pattern in which an older generation working within a certain medium see new, evolved media gaining traction and success, and that generation starts to get frantic and jealous. Cue the hate clickbait and desperate attempts to remain relevant.

Sure, sure, we get it. It's not so fun to be outshined by successful, independent forces who decided not to wait for the big corporate boss to tell them they could be stars. But what really irks me is that many of these mainstream articles cry anti-feminism and poor influence on young girls when attacking beauty gurus.

An Independent article titled "Of Course, Teenagers Need Role Models--But Not Like Beauty Vlogger Zoella" by Chloe Hamilton embodies this narrow-minded view. Besides having an egregiously clunky title, this article doesn't warrant the clicks, so I'll save you the trouble: basically, Hamilton posits that because Zoella works with makeup and beauty products, she must be telling young girls that their vanity is the only thing worth worrying about--surely she's maliciously capitalizing on insecurity and consumerist society instead of empowering young girls!

To which I say, most eloquently, BAH!

Hamilton starts off her argument stating that with such a large following, Zoella has the chance to be feminist-extraordinaire, but, “unfortunately, Zoe’s (sorry, Zoella sticks in my throat and on my keyboard) particular brand of sickly sweet girl power brings me out in hives."

This argument is troubling on two accounts. To start, yes, I agree with Hamilton's claim that Zoella has built a brand. I'm not trying to argue that Zoella speaks to her viewers in the exact same way in which she speaks to a friend (although the expectation that YouTubers must be their pure, authentic selves is problematic unto itself). She has absolutely crafted a persona and created a business around that version of herself. Zoella has turned a cute, fun character into a product. She is also immensely popular, relevant, and successful.

This does not have to be a problem.

The fact that Zoella has created, with great effort and outstanding success, a beauty empire adds a whole new level to young girls chirping "I want to be just like you!" What much of the media hears is "I want to look just like you!" But what they're missing is that these girls are looking up to an entrepreneur, a business-savvy young woman who is constantly working--even when it appears that she is playing--and who essentially created a new career (if you care to look up the timeline of Zoella, you will see that YouTube was not a job, much less a fast-track to fame when she started her channel).

When a young girl aspires to be CEO of a successful company, do you deem her shallow and poorly influenced by un-fit role models?

Not to say that every young girl who tries her hand at YouTube will end up rich and famous--yet there are important skills to be learned from the likes of Zoella: business deals, video production, time management, and composition, to name a few.

So why, exactly, does Hamilton frame capitalization of a skill in a negative light? There are flaws in the system, but the truth of the matter is that we live in a capitalist society, and we as members of this society exchange our skills for money.

Hamilton, for instance, capitalizes on her penchant for targeting successful business women.

Moving on to her next point, Hamilton's language clearly demonstrates distaste and disrespect for the popularized "girly girl." This argument is a classic "feminazi" move, as it encourages a belief that one cannot be empowered or empowering to be a soft, sweet, female. To be girly, as Hamilton sees it, is to be weak, and we can't have young girls seeing that.

This is eerily close to the argument that in order to be proper feminists, women must look and act strong--and masculine (here's some sweet sweet feminism-turned-anti-feminism). Otherwise, they cannot and will not be taken seriously.

But Hamilton doesn't stop here--oh no! We've got to throw in some either/or fallacies before we go.

The author goes on to tell us that there can't possibly be well-rounded women who enjoy both books and makeup, that intellect and beauty don't possibly go together! (I guess those scholars who participate in the beauty community just don't exist, huh?) The following argument has so many holes in it, I felt like I was playing logical fallacy bingo:

It’s maddening that a girl who has made it her business to tell teenagers how to put make up on, or get their hair just right, now feels she’s in a position to admonish them for 'fretting' about their appearance. Why, if she feels so strongly about the pandemic of insecurity raging through the tweenage generation, doesn’t she vlog about going to school without make-up, or encourage kids to spend their pocket money on books or days out with friends, rather than on the latest liquid eyeliner to hit Boots’ shelves?

Whew, boy. Where do I begin?

Let's start with the obvious irony that Zoella, has, in fact, written a book, thus contributing to the publishing industry. No, she is not the next Dickens, but this act is a start in getting young girls to read and to visit bookstores.

Are there arguments about YouTubers capitalizing on their success with an outpouring of books? Of course. I said it was a start.

If that's not enough, Zoella DOES encourage her viewers to read books and engage in other non-beauty-related activities. In her "monthly favorites" videos, she frequently adds movies and books that she has loved in addition to favorite beauty products.

The book recommendation starts at 17:28.

The argument that you can only be completely vapid and shallow or an intellect who rejects makeup is inherently flawed. Let's not forget the troubling view that an interest in makeup only stems from fear of looking ugly or not being good enough. A popular but misogynist view that makeup application is meant for appearing more attractive for men may be one reason that women wear makeup, but it's not the only reason. There is a certain joy in experimenting with makeup and various looks, as evidenced by the YouTube comments sections, my personal experience, and anecdotes from other YouTubers, friends, and family members.

To comment on Dodie's video, if you have an issue with YouTubers capitalizing on their beauty work, note that Dodie does not endorse any products here, and embodies the true joy of playing with makeup.

Lastly, Hamilton notes a paradox in which Zoella speaks against anxiety and then goes on to tell girl how to look better. I doubt this argument comes from malice; rather it comes from a rather misguided understanding about the nuances of anxiety, which often times have nothing to do with makeup or appearance.

Having been blessed with this condition, I have some ethos on the matter. Anxiety manifests itself in many ways, but I often find makeup to be a distraction from crippling anxiety that the worst case scenario (whatever that may be) has happened. Additionally, I take great comfort in a public figure speaking to the validity of an invisible illness.

But again, I guess we can't have someone who likes makeup AND confronts mental illness in an articulate, well-educated manner.

This isn't purely Hamilton's fault, however. This type of mindset about beauty gurus has been popularized in the media and extends to the scholarly as well. In a dissertation called "Beauty work: a Case Study of Digital Video Production and Postfeminist Practices on YouTube's Icon Network," Andrea Weare argues that beauty gurus advertise makeup as an act of self-expression, but that "few feel the freedom to put mascara on their cheeks, for example. As is typical of many female rituals, acts of beautification are rarely actually empowering. Beauty rituals are often aligned with conformity” (27).

To slide past the fact that this mascara example is ABSOLUTELY RIDICULOUS, I will, as an entitled millennial, make this about me for a moment, and show you that time I put obscenely bright eyeshadow on my cheeks:

In all seriousness, however, what these authors are saying is that women in the beauty community do not express themselves or encourage self-expression in ways that are appropriate for their versions of feminism. In a paradoxical manner, the authors are arguing against limiting notions of femininity by arguing for limiting notions of feminism.

So yes, young girls do need role models. And they can absolutely be beauty vloggers like Zoella.