Airplane & Icarus in Bechdel’s Fun Home

In Arts One last week we were discussing several graphic works, including selections from Nick Sousanis’ Unflattening, Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, and also the whole of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.

We were very lucky to have a distance lecture/discussion by Nick Sousanis through live stream from San Francisco on Monday, March 20! He spoke about various themes in Unflattening and his work generally, and talked with quite a few students about their questions. He’s also visiting UBC April 6 and 7, which I’m very excited about.


In class on Friday, March 24, 2017, I asked my seminar group about the beginning and end of Bechdel’s Fun Home:

What, in your view, could be the significance of starting with images of “airplane” in the first 2 pages, then ending with Alison jumping off the diving board in the last 2 pages? Considering what happens in between…

I had noticed that there are references to flying, falling, and Icarus in both places, and I wondered what students might make of that.

In the first two pages Alison is playing “airplane” as a young-ish child, being supported in the air by her father’s feet as he lies on his back. She ends up falling on the floor. The narration talks about Icarus and says that it wasn’t she but her father who fell into the sea.

In the last two pages she is jumping off a diving board and he is in the pool with his hands out as if he is about to catch her. She is in mid-air in the image, so we don’t know if he actually does catch her. In the text, though, she says:

in the tricky reverse narration that impels our entwined stories, he was there to catch me when I leapt. (232)

Here are some of the interpretations students in my class had (reworded, and similar ideas brought together under similar themes).

Support, trust

A number of people pointed to how both sets of images are related to being supported and to trust. One said that this shows that even though the family seemed cold and distant, there is still a “thread of love” and that it what Alison searches for in the novel.

Change over time

It is important that these bookend the novel, in that quite a bit happens in between. We talked in class, and some students mentioned in what they wrote down, that we can see a change in Alison between the two sets of images.

As one student put it: “the beginning shows that her ability to fly is dependent on her father’s support, while the end shows a self conscious decision to jump or leap into the water.” This could show that she has learned to fly by the end in part because of what she learned from her father.

Other students said similar things, with some pointing to how we might consider that she is able to see the difficulties her father lived with and perhaps that helped her come to terms more with her own gender and sexual identity and live a bit more freely (though we also discussed how her ability to live more freely and openly probably had a lot to do with the time period in which she lived). One student pointed out that she seems to be in some ways the opposite of her father: openly gay, not living in Beech Creek–which could link up to the “reverse narration” in the quote on p. 232.

Another student stated that the fact that Alison willingly jumps into the pool at the end rather than falling involuntarily at the beginning could signal “acceptance and understanding, that she is finally at peace with her father.”


We talked a lot about Icarus and his father Daedalus in class, and how Alison’s father is said in the text to be both while Alison herself is in the position of Icarus in both the beginning & the end. This may have to do with their “entwined stories” (232), which we also discussed a bit–they are, as she puts it, “inversions” of one another (98; see also 221 where she says she felt like the father rather than the son in the Odysseus/Telemachus, Bloom/Stephen Deadalus relationship).

Daedalus made wings for he and his son to fly out of a prison and told his son not to fly too close to the sun or the wings would melt. He did, they did, and he fell; his father was unable to save him. In the beginning of the novel, Bruce supports Alison with the “wings” of his feet but she still falls; in the end, she “falls”/jumps and he is there to catch her. Icarus falls into the sea in the sense that Bruce dies, but because of the “reverse narration” of their “entwined stories” he is there to catch her (232). He falls into the sea but she, in her own role as Icarus, does not.

He is physically dead, but one might say not “spiritually” so (see the point about “spiritual” vs. “consubstantial” paternity p. 231), so in that sense he might be there to catch her.

This could relate back to what one student said, as noted above, that she was able to accept her father. Another student said that even if Alison falls “her father is there every step of the way. Even after his death he has an effect on her, enough to write this book.”


What I had thought

These points connect to the bit of interpretation I was able to give this before class. I was thinking that what changes between the beginning and end could be that she has written the novel and this has changed her. One student noted that the focus of the novel is not so much her father, but her relationship to him and her own struggle with him and his death. And perhaps by the end she has come to think of him differently.

Of course, she could actually have written the chapters in a different order than they appear in the book, but the beginning could be dedicated nevertheless how she felt about her father before writing the book, even if she wrote that part later. And by the end she might have been able to come to some acceptance, some trust in her father at least as a “spiritual” father, whatever that might mean.


But the reason why I asked this question in class was because I hadn’t fleshed this out fully and wanted to hear what others thought. And as usual, the students in the class helped add much more richness, some new ideas, and different directions to what I started with. Which is really what it’s all about.


Video on Camus, Myth of Sisyphus

I am working on a short video to accompany Camus’ “Myth of Sisyphus.” This is for my Introduction to Philosophy course.

I just finished the slides, and I’m posting them here to start. Then when the video is ready I’ll post it too!

You can download the slides here.

Burying the past in Sebald’s Austerlitz


In Arts One this week we read W.G. Sebald’s novel Austerlitz, and I had to miss one of our seminar meetings due to a health concern so we just had one discussion on this rich and complicated text. I wanted to share some thoughts on a few things I focused on when reading it, that we didn’t get a chance to talk about in our one discussion today.

Light, sight, darkness

The novel begins with the unnamed narrator visiting the Nocturama in Antwerp, from which visit what he recalls the most is “that several of [the animals] had strikingly large eyes, and the fixed, inquiring gaze found in certain painters and philosophers who seek to penetrate the darkness which surrounds us purely by means of looking and thinking” (4-5).

In our lecture on this book, Jason Lieblang talked about how with this discussion of the Nocturama, as well as the discussion of moths (90-94), Sebald may be asking us to consider a different way of looking at the world: to look at things that are usually ignored, to look into what may often be left in the dark such as the minutiae of life (rather than the monumental, the massive). This connects to the criticism of large buildings in the novel, such as the new Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris: a “hideous, outsize building” that has “monumental dimensions” (276). Instead, “domestic buildings of less than normal size–the little cottage in the fields, the hermitage . . . — are those that offer us at least a semblance of peace” (18).

The eyes that penetrate the darkness are also those of Austerlitz, as he is penetrating the darkness of his own history. After one of his mental breakdowns he begins nocturnal wanderings of London (126), during which he was “always irresistibly drawn” to Liverpool Street Station (127)–the place where he arrived as a child on the kindertransport.

It is in Liverpool Street Station that he begins to finally see into his own past, and we get that through a visual image of the Ladies’ Waiting Room being a place that had been “disused for years” (134) and where the light only penetrated about halfway down into the room (135). Then Austerlitz says,

From time to time, and just for a split second, I saw huge halls open up, with rows of pillars and colonnades leading far into the distance, with vaults and brickwork arches bearing on them many-storied structures, with flights of stone teps, wooden stairways and ladders, leading the eye on and on. … I felt as if the room where I stood were expanding, going on for ever and ever …. (135)

This architectural image connects to his memory, as he says that memories came back to him in this room, “memories behind and within which many thing much further back in the past seemed to lie, all interlocking like the labyrinthine faults I saw in the dusty gray light …” (136).

The darkness for Austerlitz hides the past–his own past as well as the past of Europe, as discussed in lecture, since his story is not unique. At the end of the novel the narrator is reading a book given to him by Austerlitz, by a man named Jacobsen who was similarly searching for traces of his family’s past. He grew up in South Africa because his grandmother left Lithuania after her husband died and so that part of the family escaped the “annihilation” that others of his forebears suffered (297). Jacobsen peers into a disused mine in South Africa:

The chasm into which no ray of light could penetrate was Jacobsen’s image of the vanished past of his family and his people which, as he knows, can never be brought up from those depths again. (297)

As we discussed in class today, Austerlitz doesn’t end up with full answers about his family–he doesn’t know where his mother went after Theresienstadt, and our last glimpse of him is when he is going off to try to find his father–and neither does Jacobsen. At least, so far as we know; the narrator says he reads “until the fifteenth chapter” of the book (298), but perhaps there is more, and more will be revealed. But the point is that we don’t get any more about either Austerlitz or Jacobsen in this novel; their stories are left unfinished.

Or rather, they are left for the reader to finish. Austerlitz states that he felt at times “as if all the moments of our life occupy the same space, as if future events already existed and were only waiting for us to find our way to them at last” (258), but if that’s the case then the future is left up to readers to determine.

But I am digressing … back to light, sight and darkness.

One other thing that is important in this set of topics is the narrator’s brush with losing his sight (starting p. 35). It is after he visits an eye doctor that he meets Austerlitz for the first time in nearly 20 years (39), and it is at this point that Austerlitz starts to tell the narrator his history as he has come to understand it. I don’t fully have a reading on this, but it surely is significant that it is when the narrator is losing his own sight that Austerlitz tells of what he himself has begun to see of his history. And as Miguel Mota said in our lecture this week, the narrator is equally as important a character as Austerlitz, and it may be that Austerlitz gives his photos to the narrator because he sees in the narrator someone like himself. The narrator, too, finds memories bubbling up in a dark place, in Breendonk, in a casemate (25).


Burying the past

I also found, related to the above, several images of things being buried and yet somehow returning to light. I can’t help but think of Freud and repression when we’re talking about burying the past, burying memories.

The clearest example of this is that, under the Bibliothèque Nationale was a warehouse that stored household goods stolen from Jews by the Nazis: “Les Galéries d’Austerlitz,” where military officers and their wives would go to pick out things for their own homes (289). This “whole affair is buried in the most literal sense beneath the foundations of our pharaonic President’s Grande Biblitohèque” (289). As noted in lecture, a place that is meant to house vast quantities of human knowledge is literally burying a past many people don’t want to remember.

This huge edifice of the library reminds me of the fortresses that are discussed in several places in the novel, attempts to defend ourselves against unwanted intrusions that nevertheless continually fail (14-18). Austerlitz’s own attempts at “self-censorship” fail (140), and after his memories begin to resurface in Liverpool Street Station he dreams he is in the middle of a fortress trying to find his way out (138-139). The fortress can also be a defense against what might come up from below, and burying the past with a monumental edifice like the library may also be a similar unconscious attempt at defense and censorship.

Other images of burial and reemergence of what has been buried include that the Liverpool Street Station is built on the site of the Bedlam mental hospital (129-130), and Austerlitz wonders whether “the pain and suffering accumulated on this site over the centuries had ever really ebbed away” (130). Nearby, the remains of the dead who had been buried one on top of the other in graves “dug through existing graves” because there were simply too many bodies to accommodate, are “brought to light” during renovations of Broad Street Station (130).

In addition, there is the village in Wales that was entirely buried under water when a dam was built, the village of Austerlitz’s foster father (51). Austerlitz imagines the inhabitants of the village still living there, underwater, and at times he “often felt as if [he] too had been submerged in that dark water” (52-53), which one could say he is insofar as a part of himself is also buried when he is shipped off to Wales. Austerlitz even thinks perhaps he sees the ghosts of those who lived in the village, those he saw in the photographs of residents (53-54). It’s not hard to imagine the ghosts being those of his own past.


There is much more that could be said about all of these issues, I’m sure, but these are the things that stood out to me, and hopefully some of this can spark new ideas in others!


Mid-course feedback & responses, Intro to Philosophy

I asked for feedback on how things are going in my Introduction to Philosophy course, right after Reading Week (which was at the halfway point). Here are some of the common answers, and my replies!

This post was originally posted on my Intro to Philosophy course site, where I put it for the students to read. I’m re-posting here on my blog.

Discussions in class, vs lecture

There were a number of people who made comments regarding the balance of lecture and discussion in the M,W classes.

The majority of students who gave feedback like having discussions in class as well as lecture (twice as many as those who said they want more lecture). One said they wanted more discussion and less lecture.

Some said they appreciated combining ideas on Google docs because that way those who don’t want to speak in front of the whole class can still contribute. That is exactly what I use these for! And don’t forget that you can see them all under “notes” on the main menu, above (notes from in-class discussions). These, plus the discussions in the discussion groups on W, F, plus the discussion summaries are things you can use when thinking about your essays–they provide interesting views on the readings!

A couple of people wanted less discussion during the M,W classes and more lecture. One thought that this was a distraction from the material. But as I said in class last week, learning does not best happen merely by listening to an “expert” and writing down notes. Doing something with the material yourself, whether answering questions, discussing with others, or some other activity, is important for learning. Here’s an article about a recent study about the value of “active learning”. Here’s a list of several studies supporting active learning.

There are some studies that suggest that people can only pay attention to a lecture for a short amount of time, and it needs to be broken up by activities (see, e.g., this article).

When I stop class to ask for comments or questions from the large group, that is also a way to break up the lecture. And some students wanted more people to participate during those times. I try hard to create a comfortable, safe atmosphere in class so that people feel okay doing so; but I realize that some still aren’t willing. So that’s why I do smaller group discussions during the M,W class too!

So the short story here is that it appears it is better for learning and attention if professors don’t just lecture for a full 50 minutes. Which means that the times I do that, I shouldn’t be! :)

And because twice as many people appreciated the discussions as didn’t, that also adds more support for me to continue doing this in class.

To benefit from the discussions, though, you have to actually participate. One person giving feedback said they didn’t find the discussions in the M,W class helpful, but that could be because they weren’t participating. If you are sitting doing something else during those periods, it’s definitely not going to be useful to you.

Learning Catalytics

A few students said they liked using Learning Catalytics, with one saying it should be used more frequently. One said that it encouraged them to keep up with the readings and the class generally (which is certainly part of why I do it!). I said on the syllabus it wouldn’t be used every M,W class, and probably about once a week. But it could be used twice in some weeks!

Lecture pacing and what’s on the slides

There was one student who thought the lectures sometimes went too slow, focusing for too long on one point, and one student who thought they lectures sometimes went too fast and I should slow down. Since there is no consensus on this, I will try to think about when I could speed up and when I might be speaking too quickly or rushing, and try to act accordingly rather than having a blanket change to what I’m doing.

One student wanted more detail on the slides because it’s hard to write down from when I’m speaking. There is a reason why I don’t put more detail on the slides: you can’t listen and write down at the same time, and there is research that shows that if you just write things down verbatim from slides you don’t learn as much as if you have to think and put it in your own words. Plus, if I put everything on the slides then that reduces some of the motivation for coming to class. In student evaluations one year I had a student suggest putting less on the slides for this reason!

Distractions by other students

A few students said they were distracted when others are going on social media or doing other things on their computers, unrelated to the class.

If you cannot stop yourself from doing things on your computer unrelated to the class, please SIT TOWARDS THE BACK so your screen is distracting to fewer people. 

I team-teach a course and attend the lectures by the other professors, and frequently get distracted by students’ screens when they are doing other things. This is a serious problem for those who want to pay attention!

Doing other things during class breaks the collaborative guidelines we came up with, and is not only correlated with doing worse in that class, but also with those around you doing worse. See this page for research on these issues (scroll down below the collaborative guidelines).

It is also distracting when people get up to leave in the middle of class or before class is finished. So if you’re going to get up to leave, also sit towards the back.

Help with writing essays

A few students wanted more guidance for writing essays. I have written a 2-page guide to writing essays, and provided a marking rubric with things we look for when marking, on this page. The page also has links to other philosophers’ writing suggestions that I agree with.

If you want more depth, here is a 5-page set of guidelines I wrote for a writing-intensive course I teach, Arts One. I have changed it slightly so that it fits this course. I’m also putting it on the “writing help” page linked above.

Guidelines for papers (longer)

In addition, the TA’s and I will write up a list of common suggestions for paper number 2, based on what they saw for paper number 1. We’ll send that to you as soon as it’s ready, and also post it here on the site!

The bigger picture

One student wanted to hear more about the bigger picture of what s/he should be getting from the course. What value can one get from what we’re learning and doing? How can it be applied to other courses and one’s life?

I have designed this course to try to address that question, but I need to do a better job emphasizing it! One thing I’ve done is to show how the readings are relating to the bigger picture of the course, which is about what the “examined life” is and why it matters: is the unexamined life not worth living, as Socrates says? Another way to think about this is: what is philosophy and why is it valuable? The parts of the course are designed to show the different reasons why philosophical activity might be useful, for oneself (cultivating a happy life, as per Epicurus) and for others (how do we decide what to do morally? (Mill), what should we do to help those in need? (Singer, Nussbaum).

I am also trying to cultivate skills you can use in other courses: learning how to outline arguments from readings in order to question and criticize them is something you can use in the rest of your life to clarify positions and see if they have good support for them. Learning how to write a clear argument is valuable not just in other courses, but you might need to do that in other aspects of your life such as in a job (granted, not in an academic essay exactly).

I will try to think more about how I can emphasize the bigger picture!

Response to letter about UBC and immigration, travel ban

In my last post I pasted a letter written by a number of people at UBC, and sent around to a larger number of people via email for feedback, making suggestions about some things UBC might do in response to the recent travel ban in the U.S. (which has now been put on hold but a new one may be coming out), issues around immigration and refugees, hate speech & violence against certain religious groups, the LGBTQ+ community, and more.

We received a response right away from Pam Ratner, Vice-Provost & Associate Vice-President, International pro tem at UBC. I asked and received permission to post that response here because I thought it would be of interest to many. I want to thank Pam for a quick, thorough, and helpful response!

A number of us are continuing to think about how we might work with others at UBC to address these issues and the students, staff and faculty who are affected by them. If you would like to join us, please email me:

Dear Christina, Afsaneh, Jenny, Tammy and Amy.

Thank you for your letter about the recent travel ban imposed via the US President’s executive order (EO), and thank you for writing a thoughtful account of the current situation, and for providing some excellent ideas about how UBC can respond.  Several of your ideas were addressed by the task force, when it was in place, and by others who are concerned about the current situation.  I’d like to share some information about initiatives that were launched prior to the EO, which are relevant, and some that have been put in place as a result.  That said, there is more work that needs to be done and perhaps you can provide the leadership as well as the impetus.

An email will likely not suffice to address the several complex matters that you identified in your letter.  I do want to address, at a high level, some of the concerns you’ve expressed to affirm that others have raised similar concerns and that some work is underway to address them.

  1. You recommended that workshops, teach-ins, and discussions be held related to racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-LGBTQ+ violence, refugees, human rights, and immigration.  You acknowledged that many events are taking place and that we might benefit from a fund to support speakers.  There is a project underway at present that is designed to address diversity, equity, and inclusion on campus and a $2M recurring commitment to diversity has been made.  This funding was allocated when the administration discussed the implications of tuition increases for international students with the elected student leadership.  Your recommendation will be shared with the project team which is working with the AVP Equity and Inclusion, Sara-Jane Finlay.
  2. Discussions with the World University Service of Canada Student Refugee program.  UBC is very committed to working with WUSC. UBC committed significant funding to support the housing and tuition costs of WUSC students when the number of sponsored students was increased last year.  We look forward to receiving the recommendations from WUSC and learning how we can better support refugees on campus.  I know that the Registrar, the International Student Initiative, and International Student Development are very committed to WUSC.
  3. Academic conferences:  I appreciate that several academics are choosing not to enter the US at this time and are concerned about the implications of missing out on conferences and networking opportunities for merit, tenure, and promotion considerations.  This was a question raised by Mark Maclean of the Faculty Association, as well Allison Matacheskie, Director of Faculty Relations, Eric Eich, Vice-Provost & AVP, Academic Affairs, and Mark Maclean are meeting to discuss this issue.
  4. An updated webpage – we have been using the President’s webpage to point people to the appropriate government webpages in the US and Canada about the implications of policy changes in the USA.  Your suggestion about adding information is helpful and we’ll explore whether we can develop more resources on the Provost’s website.
  5. Students – we are reviewing students’ applications on a case-by-case basis for both undergraduate and graduate programs that have the capacity to enrol more students.  Dean Susan Porter, Faculty of Graduate + Postdoctoral Studies is consulting with Departments to determine their needs.  The Provost has committed additional funding for 2017-18 to help support late admissions to graduate programs and we are investigating whether there is a need to support postdoctoral fellows, as well.
  6. Visiting scholars – we have been contacted by doctoral students enrolled in US programs who were outside of the country and cannot gain re-entry to the USA, at this time.  We have invited those students to join us at UBC as VIRS students so that they can continue their research and complete their dissertations, under the supervision of their US supervisors.  We have waived the application fee for these students.  And, we are looking at other ways in which we can support scholars who may be in situations where their lives, liberty or wellbeing are at risk.  Early discussions with the Faculty Association and the Executive are very promising with respect to the latter initiative.

Thank you again for writing.  I do hope that upon learning about some of the activities you have some confidence that many people on campus are working to ensure that we contribute to the greater good and advance our community, and society, in ways that promote diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Best wishes,


Pam Ratner  PhD, FCAHS
Vice-Provost and Associate Vice-President, Enrolment and Academic Facilities

Vice-Provost and Associate Vice-President, International pro tem
Office of the Provost & Vice-President Academic
The University of British Columbia | Vancouver Campus

UBC and recent events around U.S. travel, immigration and more

When the travel ban put in place by the administration of U.S. President Trump was announced in late January I was devastated. I couldn’t understand what was happening, nor how best to respond. I did the only thing I could think of at the time, which was to ask some questions on social media, which led to a suggestion for something to do by someone else at UBC, which led to an effort to gather people from UBC together into an email list to talk about possible responses by us as individuals and also by the university community.

I was heartened to see that UBC President Santa Ono put together a task force about the travel ban very quickly, and as they were meeting I was discussing with people on our hastily-put-together email list ideas of what we might do. As the suggestions started coming in I kept track of them all and eventually put them on a shared doc in the form of a letter. I was going to send it to the task force (second announcement about the task force is here) but then by the time I and a few other people finalized the letter and who wanted to sign it, we learned that the task force had given a new and final update.

We decided to send our letter anyway, and addressed it to President Ono only instead of the task force (which I believe is now finished, given the latest update being called a “final” one). We had some further thoughts for consideration and decided they were still worth sharing.

I want to emphasize that we appreciate the work of the President and the Task Force so far, and are offering further suggestions we would like the university to consider. I fear that the issues we discuss in the letter are likely to get worse, not better, as the weeks and months go on.

I share below a copy of the letter we sent to the President’s office today. I encourage others to share their thoughts in the comments below, and if you want to join our email list of UBC students, faculty and staff who are concerned about refugees, immigration, travel, Islamophobia, Anti-Semitism, hate and violence directed towards indigenous and LGBTQIA communities, please email me:

This is a long list of issues on the table, and I expect I have left out some groups and how they are being affected by recent events (please let me know!) but sadly I think they are connected. And all I can think of to do, again, is to talk with other people who care and see what we can do, given what we know and who we are and where we are right now. And to listen, mostly: to listen to those who are most affected.

February 20, 2017

Dear President Ono,

We write as members of the UBC community who are very concerned about the recent travel ban in the U.S. that affected so many people around the world, including at UBC, and about the violence committed against Muslims in Québec. Though the original travel ban is no longer in force, the U.S. President has said there will be a new one very soon that will be more carefully drafted so as to be more enforceable. Further, we fear that expressions of hatred as well as acts of violence against Muslims, Jews, and other marginalized groups that we are seeing in several parts of the world at the moment are likely to continue or get worse.

Recently we have also seen evidence of the new administration in the U.S. expending greater efforts to find and deport those who are in the country illegally, which could include students at institutions of higher education or their families. We are concerned about the possible disruption to such students and their families, not just in their studies but in their lives.

We were happy to see you respond so quickly to the travel ban in the U.S. by making a statement expressing deep concern and setting up a task force right away with funding to support it. We appreciate your efforts regarding this important issue and would like to support them.

We are writing with further suggestions of what we think might be useful for the university to do. We would also like to emphasize that the situation with the travel ban is very fluid and could change quickly, and some of the suggestions below are things that could be considered for the longer term even if the travel ban is not reinstated right away.

Actions that could be taken regardless of the status of the travel ban in the U.S.


Workshops, teach-ins, discussions at UBC

We would like to see more events related to racism, Islamophobia, Anti-Semitism, anti-LGBTQ violence, refugees, human rights and immigration at the university in the near future. First Nations and indigenous communities also continue to experience systemic inequalities, racism and violence, problems which are related to those we are raising here. There are quite a few people at UBC with a great deal of knowledge and experience with such issues, amongst students, staff and faculty. It would be helpful if there were a way for people to communicate and coordinate events and workshops around these issues, to avoid duplication and to be able to advertise them in one place.

We realize that such events are often organized by units at UBC rather than out of the central administration, but one thing that might facilitate more such events is to create a fund that could be used by units who wish to bring in speakers.

This is also a longer-term effort that could be undertaken in the portfolio of the Associate VP, Equity and Inclusion. As noted above, rhetoric, hatred and violence around Islam, Judaism, the LGBTQIA community, immigration and refugees is on the rise in many parts of the world, and this is a problem we need to be thinking about in the long term rather than only as a response to the recent travel ban.
World University Service of Canada Student Refugee program

Discussions with WUSC are currently underway to explore how best the university and Faculty can further support this program.  We encourage the University (and/or the task force) to continue working closely with WUSC and consider the recommendations coming from this student-led group.


Academic conferences

A number of professional associations are debating whether to possibly move their conferences or meetings outside of the U.S. We would like to ask the task force to consider how UBC might support such efforts, perhaps by providing a reduced price for use of rooms or catering. We recognize that many association meetings in Vancouver are held in hotels downtown, but for smaller meetings that could use UBC facilities we would like the university consider how to support moving such meetings from the U.S. to here.

There are also a number of academics who are choosing not to go to the U.S. at this time, and may therefore cancelling their presentations at conferences. If this is done out of conscientious objection, faculty members could note this on their CV’s and perhaps their cancelled presentations could still count for merit, tenure and promotion as if they had presented in person.


Actions specifically related to a travel ban, or to other reasons why students and scholars may not want to or be able to pursue their studies or scholarly work in the U.S.


Resource web page

It would be helpful to provide an up-to-date page with information about the current status of this or a future travel ban/travel or immigration concern in the U.S., such as the one at the University of Alberta: This page could contain continually updated information as well as resources and people to contact with questions and concerns. It could also be a place to list events at UBC related to travel and immigration issues as well as those related to combating racism, Islamophobia, Anti-Semitism, and the like. Finally, it could contain information and guidelines around data protection and privacy for members of the UBC community who do travel to the US (in light of travellers being asked for device and social media passwords).



  • Scholarships: It would be helpful if the university could fundraise for scholarships for those affected by this or a future travel ban.


Researchers and professors

Some may not be able to, or may not want to risk, going to the U.S. at this time though they may have been planning to do so (or are not able to return to their home institutions). We think it would be helpful if UBC could find ways to work with departments and research centres to provide temporary placement as visiting scholars. We recognize that this is complicated, of course, by the need for housing for such scholars as well as possibly their partners and families.


This letter has been circulated amongst an email list of faculty, staff and students who have come together around a desire to see the university respond in as effective and helpful way as possible to recent events. However, we are only a small number of people. We encourage the task force to consult widely with various people on campus, and in particular with those most affected by the travel ban, concerns around refugees and immigration, and Islamophobia, to ensure that the university’s response addresses what they see as the most pressing needs. We offer the list of things above as suggestions from a group of people who are concerned, some of whom have been personally affected, but who are nevertheless only part of the picture. We stress the importance of also consulting directly with those whose needs are most pressing at this time.



Christina Hendricks, Professor of Teaching, Philosophy, UBC

Afsaneh Sharif, Faculty Liaison, Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology
(Personal viewpoints and do not reflect CTLT)

Jenny Peterson, Political Science, UBC

Tammy Yasrobi, Manager, UBC IT
(Personal viewpoints and do not reflect UBC IT as an organization)

Amy Scott Metcalfe, Educational Studies, UBC


UPDATE: We received a response to our letter from Pam Ratner, Vice-Provost & Associate Vice-President, International pro tem at UBC, which I put into a new post because this one is already quite long.

What’s up with Midge in Vertigo?

Last week in Arts One we discussed Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” along with Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

Yesterday in class I asked students to write down what they thought Midge’s role in the film was, and whether her character fits in some way with Mulvey’s analysis. I’m sharing their thoughts here, as well as a couple of my own.

Students’ comments

Not an object of male desire

  • Midge can seem a fairly unimportant character because she is not mysterious or “sexy” like Madeleine is
    • Because she is not/no longer an object of desire for Scottie, she loses her identity: women in the male gaze in cinema only are significant insofar as they are objects of that gaze
    • She ends up alone in the film, walking down the hall in the hospital by herself, sadly, in the last scene where we see her. After that she disappears from the film entirely.
  • She could serve to distance us from Scottie b/c we sympathize with her and dislike how Scottie treats her
    • An alternative view: that she broke off their engagement (according to Scottie) might give the audience a reason to forgive Scottie’s lack of attachment to her
  • She is a mother figure, taking care of him, not an object of sexual attraction
    • We talked in class about how in the first scene that we see them together, Scottie looks at the bra she is drawing and asks what it is, and she say: “It’s a brassiere. You know about those things, you’re a big boy now” (7:30).
    • She also says, when she is with him in the hospital after his breakdown: “please try,” “you’re not lost, mother’s here” (1:26:45).
    • There are other places in the film where we could see her taking on a kind of motherly role that we didn’t discuss in class…I’ll let students find them!
  • She represents a mature kind of love, whereas Scottie wants a more mysterious woman and a sexual passion kind of love

She might be a threat to Scottie because she is an independent woman

  • She doesn’t need his help like Madeleine does; she is an independent woman with her own job, unmarried. She helps him rather than needing help. Not the typical female role at the time.

Represents rationality, reality

  • She is rational, a sort of touchpoint for reality whereas Scottie is living in the realm of fantasy and falsehood by being attracted to Madeleine and then trying to make Judy over into his fantasy

Shows how Scottie is an object of attraction

  • That she is attracted to him, wanting to have a relationship, shows him in an enviable male position of being adored by a woman


My thoughts

I just have one other things to add, that I didn’t get a chance to bring up in class yesterday. Otherwise, the things I have in my notes are already mentioned above.

Midge is herself an investigator

She is intelligent, inquisitive:

  • She takes him to see Pop Lieble at the bookshop, who provides information on Carlotta; it is her connection that gets Scottie that information (I think one of the students also said this in what they wrote)
  • She investigates Scottie to some extent, like he investigates Madeleine:
    • she asks him what he is going to do after quitting the police force
    • she asks him why he wants to know about Carlotta
    • she asks him what he is up to when he disappears for awhile
    • she investigates the Carlotta painting and understands enough of what is going on to paint herself as Carlotta
  • So here too, she is not playing the typical female role but taking on more of a male role as observer, investigator

Democratic limbo

This is a short post, and it doesn’t directly have to do with teaching and learning in Philosophy or Arts One or generally (but yes indirectly).

I am staggered, horrified, utterly floored by the executive order about immigration and refugees to the U.S. that was signed yesterday. And I found myself wanting to do something, lots of things (which I’m already starting…more on that later, probably). One of those things was to contact lawmakers and ask them to respond, to resist. But I realized I’m in democratic limbo.

I am an American citizen who is a permanent resident in Canada. I live in Canada, and have since 2004. I don’t have a representative in the U.S. Congress anymore. I can vote in U.S. Presidential elections (and I always do), but I can’t vote for Congress members.

[update!] — turns out I was wrong about that. I CAN vote in federal elections, which includes not just for President but for members of Congress. Okay, so time to step up!


How about contacting MPs (Members of Parliament) in Canada? A tweet I saw this morning suggested Canadians do so:

But I can’t vote in Canada; I’m not a citizen. What is my legal status in terms of MPs representing me? Some web searches are not helping me. I mean, I can still contact them and all, but it’s also a question of: if I can’t vote, do they, philosophically, represent me? Beyond the crass question of whether they care what I think because my vote can’t help or hurt them, are they theoretically beholden to represent permanent residents?

Or am I in a democratic limbo?

I am not at all suggesting that my limbo is anything like the limbo that some people who can’t get into the U.S. are experiencing right now. It’s their situation and my extreme anger about it that led me to this question, and my drive to do something about it. There are many, many things I can and am working on doing, but the calls to contact representatives and MPs is leading me to wonder what the status of immigrants who are not citizens in Canada is, in regard to such efforts.

In the meantime, I’m starting work on a few other avenues of resistance. Stay tuned.


professional ethics in philosophy

I was invited to speak on a panel of people talking about professional ethics to a colleague’s class last week, but unfortunately I was sick the day of the class. So I offered to provide my thoughts on the questions we were asked to talk about, in writing. I figured why not post them here, in case anyone else finds them useful, or the students themselves want to see them later, after discussed in class next week.

I’m organizing the post according to the questions I was asked to talk about.


What does the term ‘professional ethics’ mean to you?

For me, “ethics” has to do with the rightness or wrongness of how we act, where those are determined by rules or guidelines or virtues that aren’t only tied to laws or institutional rules. We philosophers often talk about ethics as how we should act even if there are not rules or laws to that effect. For example, there may not be any laws or institutional rules saying that those with quite a bit of money to spare should donate to those in need, but the ethical question is whether it would be morally right for them to refuse to hep anyone else.

Still, what is morally right or wrong may coincide with laws or institutional rules: e.g., lying under oath in a courtroom is against the law, and also could be morally wrong even if there were no law against it. So ethics can be about what is right or wrong to do morally, whether it coincides with laws or not.

When I consider the term “professional ethics,” I think it’s about the way we should act, morally, as members of a particular profession. There might be specific ways one should/should not act as a result of the professional role one plays in a society.


What does the term ‘professional ethics’ mean to your profession?

This is a little difficult for me because “philosopher” doesn’t really have a clear job description! Most professional philosophers work as professors in universities, though, so much of what I’ll say here connects with being a professor at post-secondary institution.

The American Philosophical Association (APA) recently (2016) adopted a Code of Conduct. It includes legal requirements (based on United States laws, which is where the APA is mostly housed…many of us in Canada belong to the APA too, though): these include respecting laws about nondiscrimination and avoiding sexual harassment. But it also goes beyond what laws require, to talk about how we should act towards students, colleagues and others as professors in classes and as people dedicated to hearing many sides of arguments and making the best decision after weighing all views carefully. For example, the APA Code of Conduct says that in classes, philosophy teachers should:

  • Treat students with dignity, never intentionally embarrassing or belittling them, and always communicating with them in clear, respectful, and culturally sensitive ways.

  • Nurture intellectual autonomy by maintaining a classroom environment in which students might raise hyperbolic doubts and float views that do not reflect prevailing beliefs and values, while at the same time maintaining a classroom environment in which all students—particularly students from disenfranchised groups—feel welcome and supported.

The first point above is what any professor should do, but the second, I think, speaks to the specific profession of philosophy in that one of the things we do as philosophers is listen to all legitimate arguments for or against a claim, treat them as possible candidates for truth, and make a decision based on which view has the best argument supporting it.

However, this does not mean encouraging or making everyone listen to statements that promote stereotypes or suggest that some people are worth less than others based on their group status (e.g., gender, ethnicity, ability, religion, etc.). The Code of Conduct goes on to talk about bullying and harassment this way:

Bullying and (non-sexual) harassment includes any degrading, hostile, or offensive conduct or comment by a person towards another that the person knew or reasonably ought to have known would cause the target to be humiliated, intimidated, or otherwise gratuitously harmed.

This is somewhat similar to the UBC policy on discrimination and harassment:

Harassment, a form of discrimination, is a comment, conduct or behaviour that humiliates, intimidates, excludes and isolates an individual or group based on the BC Human Rights Code’s thirteen grounds of prohibited discrimination.

Finally, the APA Code of Conduct includes a section on “electronic communication,” including online works such as blogs or websites, and social media. Among other things, it says:

  • In a professional setting, it’s best to avoid ad hominem arguments and personal attacks, especially if they amount to slander, libel, and/or sexual harassment.

  • Language used in professional electronic communications should use the same kind of inclusive language and reflect the same kind of mutual respect as is expected in the classroom or other face-to-face interactions.

These both go beyond institutional or legal rules, except if what one says amounts to “slander, libel, and/or sexual harassment.” And they were prompted, in part (I think) by some online exchanges that have happened in recent years.


What importance, if any, do professional ethics play in your job?

To me, professional ethics are crucial to who I am as a philosopher, a colleague, a leader, and a professor. Treating people with respect and dignity, treating students and colleagues fairly and equitably, being transparent in what decisions I’m making (regarding my classes or work I do with colleagues) and why, are of utmost importance to me. I couldn’t call myself a philosopher or a professor if I didn’t hold these values to be crucial. And if I ever fail at fulfilling them I want people to tell me (in a respectful manner!) so I can correct what I’m doing.

Beyond that, of course, if one doesn’t fulfill institutional or legal rules of professional ethics as a professor, one can lose one’s job (e.g., for bullying, harassment, discrimination).


Describe real-world example(s) of where professional ethics went missing or were called into question.  This can be a personal example or one that you have heard of.

There have sadly been several instances of alleged sexual harassment by philosophy professors, with students or colleagues. Daily Nous, a site with news about the philosophy profession, has quite a few stories about these and related issues, here. This is not an issue that plagues philosophy professors alone, as there are too many other stories of professors (and students) allegedly engaging in sexual harassment.

There has also been, in the past few years, a very significant situation in which one philosopher acted online in ways that many people, including myself, found problematic. The philosopher in question was at the time a leader on a website that ranked philosophy graduate programs, and quite a few philosophers signed a statement in 2014 saying we would not participate in those rankings until the philosopher stepped down from his leadership position with that ranking system. He did eventually step down. The saga continues, though, as some of the original people who criticized that philosopher have been sent feces through the mail by an anonymous source in 2016. This was also covered by the New York Times. There have been threats of lawsuits as well (here is a story in the UBC student newspaper, The Ubyssey, about a possible lawsuit). 


Any advice for handling ethically challenging situations? 

One of the best things I can think of is to talk the issue over with someone you trust, and who isn’t directly or indirectly involved but can offer good advice.

And think not just about the impacts on yourself for making one decision or another, but on general practices in your profession: if one person does something, is it an action that you think would be okay if many people did? If not, why should that person be able to do it?

Consider also: would more people be harmed if one doesn’t do anything to resist what’s wrong? Think about the precedent set for the future for people who will be in the profession, and those who are affected by the profession, if a certain pattern of behaviour becomes accepted because people didn’t speak out.

Still, I don’t think it’s morally required for people to sacrifice their own careers for what is right. Seek help and advice to find ways to address problems that could have less ramifications on your own job, or find people who can do something because their position is more stable or they have more power than you do. I feel much more comfortable speaking out these days than I did before I had a stable job, and I will sometimes offer to be the person who does so when others want to say something but their own position is more fragile.


Any more general advice for young professionals entering into the workforce?

Often, following rules of professional ethics is not just something one does because one is supposed to; it’s often also a matter of ensuring that the kind of work you’re doing, which should be of benefit to yourself and others, is actually done correctly. Professional ethics for a philosophy teacher and researcher means actually doing philosophy teaching and researching as opposed to just appearing like one is doing them from the outside!

Coming to consciousness in the yellow wall-paper

Another post on readings we’re doing in Arts One: this week we discussed a couple of works by Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Our Androcentric Culture and “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” I gave a lecture on these works this week, and you can see the slides here if you’re interested:


I’m using this post to point out something I didn’t have time to talk about in class, either in lecture or in seminars, and see what others think.


A “phantasmagoria screen”

There are multiple ways to interpret the wallpaper itself; I found the one by Carol Margaret Davison in “Haunted house/Haunted Heroine: Female Gothic Closets in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’” (Women’s Studies 33.1 (2004): 47-75) very intriguing:

A … detailed portrait of the narrator’s conspiratorial fears and suspicions is revealed in the yellow wallpaper that decorates her nursery bedroom…. Indeed, it becomes a type of phantasmagoria screen onto which is projected her sense of her situation. (60)

I like this idea of the wallpaper being a kind of screen that she projects her own sense of self onto, that she externalizes it onto, as if through projection of a film. It emphasizes the visual aspect of the story and the wallpaper.

Going off of this idea, I was thinking that as the story goes along, the narrator could be bringing her sense of self and her situation more and more into consciousness, to the point where she finally merges with the woman in the wallpaper because really, that was her all along. She had projected her sense of self outwards, and finally takes it back inwards, so to speak.

Towards the beginning of the story, she just finds the wallpaper confusing, uncertain, contradictory; then she dedicates herself to studying it (650) and slowly it starts to make sense to her–she starts to get some clarity about it. At first (650) she thinks she sees a kind of “formless figure” behind the main pattern, and then on p. 652 she starts to become certain that the figure is that of a woman. Laterthe narrator realizes that the woman is trying to shake the pattern to get out (654). I don’t think it’s only because I’ve lectured on Freud numerous times for Arts One that this reminds me of Freud and repression: one could say the narrator starts to become more and more aware of repressed thoughts and feelings as she begins to recognize them as those of a woman who is inside the wallpaper.

This could connect with her desire to have no one understand what is in the paper but herself, to keep it to herself; after she caught Jennie looking at the wallpaper the narrator says, ““I know she was studying that pattern, and I am determined that nobody shall find it out but myself!” (653). On a Freudian reading of the woman in the wallpaper representing repressed content, this is not something that the narrator would want other people to know. Of course, there’s a flaw here: if it were truly repressed content, then the narrator herself wouldn’t want to know it; repression is, by definition, a process of the mind keeping things from consciousness that some part of oneself doesn’t want to have surface. Still, even if the repression theory doesn’t fit exactly, the idea that the narrator is bringing to consciousness aspects of herself that she didn’t really face before could still work.


Going round and round

As I started thinking about this idea of coming to consciousness of herself, something else struck me. There are suggestions in the story that the narrator has actually been doing the creeping she says the woman does, during the day, inside the room. On p. 654 she points out that there is a strange mark on the wall: “It goes behind every piece of furniture, except the bed, a long, straight, even smooch, as if it had been rubbed over and over.” Who did the “smooch”? Possibly the room has held other women in similar situations, or the children who used to be in the nursery did it. But there’s also the fact that at the end of the story the narrator is going around and around in the smooch herself, her shoulder perfectly fitting into it. It’s possible she had been doing that for quite awhile before she came to consciousness of doing it. This would explain why Jennie says the yellow gets onto the narrator’s clothes (653); but it wouldn’t explain why Jennie says it’s also on John’s clothes. The narrator sees the smooch earlier in the story, but doesn’t realize that it was she herself that made it through going round and round the room.

The thing that really brought this idea out for me had to do with teeth marks on the bed, though. On p. 655 the narrator points out: “this bedstead is fairly gnawed!” And then shortly after that she says she got so frustrated at not being able to move the bed “[she] bit off a little piece at one corner –but it hurt her teeth” (655). She is clearly gnawing on the bedstead herself, and had she been doing that for awhile without realizing it?

So it could be that as the narrator comes to consciousness of her own thoughts and feelings, and her situation as a woman trapped behind “bars” like the woman in the wallpaper (the pattern on the wallpaper becomes bars in moonlight (653)), she also brings to consciousness what she has been doing during the day while John is away and Jennie thinks she is sleeping. Even while the narrator herself thinks she is sleeping (she says on the top of 654 that she sleeps a lot during the day).

At least, I think this is a plausible interpretation!


Day and night

One other thing that might be related here, if only indirectly: there are differences in what happens between day and night, including in what the wallpaper is like. By night the pattern becomes bars, as noted above, and the woman shakes the pattern to try to get out. In the day, in the pattern there is “a lack of sequence, a defiance of law, that is a constant irritant to a normal mind” (653). During the day the pattern is “like a bad dream.” And by day the woman is quiet (652), only moving around and shaking the pattern at night.

If we take a Freudian view (again), then the idea of unconscious material coming out in dreams could fit here: the woman moves, the woman is clear to the narrator at night, insofar as that is when one is usually asleep and dreaming. And perhaps the narrator is actually asleep and dreaming at that time, if during the day she is moving around and around as suggested above. But this interpretation would suggest that the narrator isn’t actually hallucinating but dreaming, and I’m not sure I want to go there. It diminishes the severity of what seems like a very real illness.

Here’s a perplexing thing to me about the day/night discrepancy: the woman in the wallpaper gets out during the day (654), but at night is stuck behind the bars. The narrator sees her creeping out of the windows in the daytime, and at the end the narrator says that she expects that at night she will have to back into the wallpaper (unless she tears it all off). I expect there is something going on here with space: something about seeing the woman outside the bars of the windows of the room during the day and inside the bars of the wallpaper at night, but I haven’t gotten very far with this. I think there are a lot of interesting things one might do with space in this story: why it should focus on wallpaper inside the walls of a room, with a lot of discussion of what happens outside the windows and the narrator saying she can see the woman both inside the bars of the wallpaper (at night) and outside the windows and their bars (during the day). I’d love to see an essay on this if anyone feels so inclined!


So, I’m curious if you have any thoughts about any of what I’ve suggested here…. Feel free to argue against my interpretation; it may not work entirely!