Monday, March 04, 2024

Listening at Union Station: Unearthing and Assessing Privilege in Our Scholarship and Beyond

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written by Mark Standish
edited by Todd Dias

This post is part of the series Philosophy Otherwise.
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2014 was the first year that I commuted through Union Station. It was a mess. When I stepped out onto the platform, I was like a lab rat trying to find my way down into the subway. The plywood, blocking certain pathways and revealing others, seemed to reconfigure itself every week. Back then, when the concourse sat just off a hurried Bay Street, Union proved no respite from the cold business district to which it sat adjacent. Union’s bathrooms, too, were gray and cold. Tiny aluminum sinks moderated water consumption. I had a complex relationship with those sinks. One summer evening, I found myself with my leg stretched over the counter so my foot could reach into the sink, trying to rinse off the dog poo that I stepped in while, unfortunately, wearing flip-flops (who doesn’t clean up their dog poo on Front Street?). Needless to say, those sinks are meant for washing your hands, not your feet. This is why I always thought it was strange that security patrolled those bathrooms so regularly. I mean, what would a homeless person do with those sinks? Weren’t the sinks themselves deterrent enough?

In those days, Union was a space that seemed to lack time, as if nothing happened within its walls. My trips through, twice daily, produced remarkably few memories. In fact, the dog poo and being handed free Cheese Whiz are the only two specific memories I have. I’ve since realized that that was by design; the experience was supposed to be as unremarkable as possible. I was supposed to go from point A to point B with the least possible obstruction.

Four years later, one of those plywooded areas was unveiled. The York Street Concourse. Just before the opening of the concourse, an elbow found its way into my forehead and sent me back into the all-too-familiar throes of a concussion. After spending a few weeks recovering, I decided to reenter normal life for the start of the winter semester. I emerged onto the platform at Union. Herded down the stairs, I stepped through the doors into the York Concourse. The food court, previously hidden behind caution tape, was open. I knew this immediately. The added LED screens, spectacularly wrapped around pillars, shouting advertisements at me, forced my eyes to the floor.

Then, in the subway station, I looked up to find more screens mounted opposite me. When I got to class, someone showed me a video on their phone, which I politely watched, thinking about the damage I was doing to my brain, growing dizzy and nauseous.

A few days later, I was driving down King Street in Hamilton. It just so happened that there was a new digital billboard on King and Dundurn. Then, I was driving my girlfriend’s car. Did you know that the instruments on some cars are displayed on LED screens? Of course, you did. I did, too. It just didn’t really mean anything to me.

At times in Union, or on the Gardiner, or in my friend’s living room, I felt overwhelmed. I felt like a person in a snowstorm, shielding my face from the elements. These moments of bombardment acted like synecdoche. They were minor aspects of the world that reminded me that the world at large wasn’t made for people with concussions.

In a sense, the recent history of Union Station says more about me than it does about Union. Union went from a place quintessentially free of obstacles to one littered with them. But Union hadn’t changed—not substantively, anyway. The truth is that there were screens enough to bombard me before the new concourse. Did I consider that those screens might be hurting people? Not once. Not until they were hurting me.

Did I consider the security guards patrolling the bathroom? Not really—not more than as a curiosity. But I’d imagine a homeless person would’ve considered them. I’d imagine a Black person would’ve considered them, too. (Or, indeed, anyone discriminated against by racial profiling.) 

Did I consider the difficulty that the plywood blockades would pose for someone who uses a wheelchair? Nope.

People without certain privileges cannot simply pass through Union without a second thought. Union forces them to consider it. And yet, Union is designed to be left unconsidered—if it’s memorable, something is wrong. That’s why I didn’t have any memories of it. Though, once I felt that alienation—that sense that this place was not for me—I had to ask: Who was it made for? Has it always been like this, and I’ve just never noticed?

This is one way I’ve come to understand my privilege: I have the privilege not to consider.

I don’t have to consider the police when they walk past me. I don’t have to consider my sexuality or gender when I walk into a church. I don’t have to consider which bathroom to enter. I don’t have to consider the hulking man walking toward me on the street. Just like I didn’t have to consider the LED screens in Union before.

So, what does this mean for me? How should I respond to this newfound realization of my privilege (which stems, ironically, from the loss of some of my privilege)? There are a few options.

After realizing that I’ve lost some privilege, I could forgo considering my privilege in other areas. However, this option is naïve to the reality that privilege, like oppression, is intersectional; in some aspects of our lives, we have more privilege, and in others, we have less.

Or, I could pretend that I haven’t lost any privilege and force myself to continue inconsiderately. I could try to live as before without considering my new limitations. This option obviously perpetuates privilege and only works to delay the inevitable realization being thrust upon me as I face the consequences of neglecting my cognitive health.

Another option is to look inward; I could feel guilty about the privilege I’ve had my entire life. But guilt, in my experience, is debilitating. Being consumed with my own experience of privilege distracts me from actually considering others and the ways they’re typically not considered.

In the few years I’ve spent trying to reckon with my privilege, I’ve tried to avoid all three of these responses. This is why I’m telling my story. It’s not meant to highlight my own lack of privilege—I still have plenty to spare! It’s meant to highlight that in losing some of my privilege, I realized, in a small way, how much privilege I had and continue to have.

But it wasn’t just a mindset. My mindset reflected my world because our world was made for people like me. Our way of being–the way of being for the privileged–has annexed almost everything. This is exactly what colonialism was/is; colonialism makes the world into a home for one group. Given that the world was my home, I felt comfortable, which shielded me from seeing the conditions of my comfort.

My experience at Union disrupted the comfort I used to feel. That discomfort called me to respond. But I felt the three responses I outlined earlier were wrong-headed. Instead, I decided I needed to begin by changing my hermeneutic. My experience at Union prompted me to revisit how I consider the world. Unfortunately, privilege is ingrained in me and our culture. Because it’s ingrained in both me and our culture, I can’t always see it. It just seems natural.

Because privilege often feels so natural to me, I need to undertake some kind of practice to disrupt it. For this reason, I’ve been trying to teach myself to listen. But listening is really hard. It’s not just being in the presence of someone else talking. Listening takes work. As best as I can, it requires me to enter into someone else’s world and imagine being otherwise. And, as I’ve started to realize, when someone lets you into their world, their world can haunt you. For this reason, listening doesn’t stop when the person stops talking. In listening, it’s as if you carry their words and those words begin to illuminate your world differently. In this way, listening can reveal structures in your world that you couldn’t see before. Listening, then, is more than just lending an ear. Instead, when I listen, I submit my very way of seeing the world to the other person. In so doing, I submit myself to the call inherent to their experience. Thus, listening is not distinct from action. I would venture to say that you haven’t really listened if listening doesn’t call you to some form of action.

Further action might begin with more listening. Perhaps I’m called to seek out another text about how my world developed in relation to the other person’s—how the structures that subjugate that person are a part of my history. But it’s not enough for me to know and acknowledge the history of, for example, Residential Schools and my faith tradition’s complicity in them. I still haven’t listened to the call that those experiences demand of me. The call is to submit to the other’s perspective. This means relinquishing control over the world and the structures that uphold my security and the other’s precarity.

As scholars, the work of listening must extend into our scholarly life. Being privileged means that the solutions I propose concerning the world’s problems are prone to being my solutions to my world. If unchecked, privileged scholarship that doesn’t   easily perpetuates this insidious colonial impulse: to assume the world is ours (that is, for those of us with privilege) for the taking/making. Scholarly listening involves choices about who to read, what to write on, and how to write on it. It involves recognizing that my perspective and world are incomplete and that I should cede some of my airtime in classrooms, publications, conferences, and conversations. Conversely, I must recognize that another’s perspective might be complete in ways mine is incomplete. Therefore, scholarly listening involves submitting your world to colleagues, students, and scholars with whom you wouldn’t naturally engage.

Recently, I’ve been working on a very simple way to submit myself to others; I’ve been trying to combat my impulse to speak first. And when someone else speaks, I try to submit myself to them instead of formulating what I’m going to say next. That’s just one small response. But, small responses can snowball. Listening to your colleagues or students might cause you to see more deficits in your perspective, which in turn might call you to listen more. I hope that as I learn to listen first, I will begin to make listening my way of life. In this way, listening provides direction to my long pursuit of unearthing and appraising the privilege that cuts through myself and our world. 

Wednesday, February 07, 2024

Towards a Pedagogy of Listening: An Interview with Elisabeth Paquette & Gideon Strauss (Pt. II)

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by Elisabeth PaquetteGideon Strauss, Héctor Acero Ferrer, and Andrew Tebbutt
edited by Todd Dias

This post is part of the series Philosophy Otherwise.

On February 28, 2022, Andrew Tebbutt and Héctor Acero Ferrer, conducted the following interview with Dr. Elisabeth Paquette and Dr. Gideon Strauss on behalf of the Philosophy Otherwise team. This interview has been published in two instalments. You can revisit Part I here. In Part II, presented below, the interviewees delve more directly into Dr. Paquette’s philosophical work and its bearings on a potential decolonization of pedagogical practices. 
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Your research focuses on the work of Sylvia Wynter and Alain Badiou. Imagining their bodies of work as tectonic plates, how would you describe the boundaries where they press upon each other? What do you find salient in the field of tension generated between Badiou and Wynter?

That is a beautiful question. I have never thought of their bodies of work as tectonic plates, and so I appreciate it. I think that there is in some way significant overlap between Badiou and Wynter, and this is part of the reason why I brought them into conversation. In a general sense, they’re both interested in what universal emancipation looks like. They’re both interested in thinking about systems of oppression, systems of knowledge, and politics broadly construed on a global scene. This interest is fairly obvious in Wynter, but Badiou will also talk about Indigenous resistance to Canadian police in Quebec, and about various other locations around the globe in addition to France.

Where I see the difference, and it’s a significant one, is the way they respond to these concerns. In some ways it’s a difference in training, and in the fields of research that they turn to. Not that they’re completely different here, because Sylvia Wynter is quite a well-read person. If you haven’t read her work, I encourage you to do so. She’s talking about a ton of people within the canon of philosophy, in addition to brain scientists, literary theorists, languages and culture studies experts, and a variety of figures that exceed geopolitical or disciplinary boundaries. But their overall approaches differ significantly. Badiou is very much a Marxist, looking for a kind of traditional sense of Marxism, extending it through set theory and mathematics. In some sense, I think he turns to mathematics as having the answers to political questions. And I think that reflects a particular kind of training too—his father was a mathematician. And so I think that these orientations have coded Badiou’s approach to emancipation in certain ways. Also, in France, there is a certain conception of politics and of the ways that politics can operate, which really comes through in the way that Badiou approaches thinking about emancipation (you see it also in Quebec). 

But Sylvia Wynter approaches emancipation from the position of being marginalized. She has very different experiences, and she turns to different scholarship. She’s well read in the Négritude movement in a way that Badiou isn’t, even though Badiou will name the Négritude movement. So, for me, the benefit of bringing them into conversation began with the fact that there are all these points of contact between them. I found that I could bring them into conversation, because they were already in effect in a conversation, even though Badiou wasn’t speaking to Wynter, and Wynter wasn’t speaking specifically to Badiou—although she was speaking to the kind of work that Badiou is doing.

And so in thinking of them as tectonic plates, I might think of them as overlapping in some ways. But the place between them is something of a mountainous region that has emerged, one that is very difficult to scale. So it isn’t an easy passageway from one to the other, and it requires significant work to climb that mountain and go back down again. But there are points of contact that bring them into conversation, even as their goals and points of departure are significantly different.
Given your specific concern about space, how do you see the juxtaposition between Wynter and Badiou?

I think very seriously about space, about how space is constructed, and about how we move around it; and I think that we can also think about how Wynter and Badiou move through space. Badiou, for instance, lives in France, but he does work in other places. He had a big uptake in Brazil, and we know of him traveling to Brazil and working with scholars there. Sylvia Wynter held a significant position during the creation of the independence movements in Jamaica, and also studied in the UK and then moved to the US.

And so, various kinds of movements structure how they think and how we can think of them relating. In a lot of ways I think that Badiou is very much situated in a French style of politics. To echo what I said earlier, Badiou’s idea of the political space being empty of symbolism, is possible only in not recognizing the way that Christianity, for instance, already forms the undertone of that space. I think he holds this presumption throughout his work, and similarly thinks that mathematics has this possibility of doing its work from nowhere, of being politically neutral, and does not recognize the way that it is not politically neutral. It’s not just numbers, but numbers through a particular kind of culture and political system. Here I think his work reflects a lack of movement around spaces.

And in Wynter’s work, space comes up in various kinds of ways. She has a very particular way of talking about American universities and the way in which the field of Black studies is situated in American universities, off in the margins. She is influenced by being part of the diaspora, as someone who has a desire to move beyond boundaries. Here I think also of Rinaldo Walcott, an Afro-Canadian scholar at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and the University of Toronto. Walcott writes about the importance of thinking about diaspora broadly, and I see this orientation informing Wynter’s work, in her desire to go beyond disciplinary boundaries, which is tied to going beyond boundaries of nation-states and other such things. I think that we can see these scholars’ ways of moving, or their lack of moving, around space, as emblematic of the kinds of work that they’re doing. 

You talk about the idea of creolization, which is an idea you draw from Jane Gordon. It partly has to do with staging encounters between thinkers, who, for example, a thinker who represents a dominant knowledge system, say, European philosophy and those who are placed outside of that tradition. For this process of creolization to be effective, the encounter must be equally imposing on each side. Can you say more about this idea of creolization as a way of thinking about scholarship and how it might avoid just being an “inclusive,” appropriative mechanism?

So great question, Andrew, and there’s a lot to say there, and there's a lot of work being done on creolization right now, which I really appreciate. And so, there’s many different ways, I think, to approach this concept in particular. So, to your point about being inclusive, I’m not for the inclusive model. It just maintains problematic structures and just includes a couple people of color or women or something like that. And so I think that often what I’m looking for is a radical re-conceptualizing of philosophy, beyond the disciplines of what we see now. So, how to start?

So, there’s the question of "Why would I have written this book? Why bother spending the time on Badiou, instead of just talking about Wynter and rejecting Badiou completely?" And I struggled with that in particular. And so I think that also it’s the heart of your question too, because my goal wasn’t to recenter Badiou and thus recenter European philosophy in so doing, but rather what I also recognized is that there are a lot of people who read Badiou and who aren’t reading these other amazing scholars who are doing important work, who have historically continued to critique the kind of position that Badiou has offered. And so in this instance, to whom I am writing this book is often Badiou scholars in particular.

I’m telling these people that they aren’t drawing these connections and I’m doing that for them. They’re very obvious. They’re very plain. And so I want to say, “you need to be attentive to this and be able to account for it.” I think that Badiou scholars should be able to account for the critiques that I’ve provided. So that’s my first answer: it's to provide, recognizing the world in which we move through, an attempt to address [these overlooked connections] in some ways. So it’s offering these kinds of tools for thinking about how we should critique Badiou. And also, as I said at the end of the book, I’m addressing the question of why we should be reading Wynter: because she offers so much. So maybe that’s one way of answering your question. 

Here’s another way: I’ve been reading a lot of Audre Lorde lately. And so thinking about solidarity across differences and also the kinds of productive and creative capacities that comes from difference. And so thinking about multiple different localities and ways of theorizing and using the creative differences between them to understand and produce new kinds of things.

And so I think that’s part of what we could think creolization is doing: bringing things together that create certain kinds of frictions that will produce something out of it. What that looks like can be different in a variety of contexts. And so often we talk about it in European terms. But I think also there’s a lot of a really amazing work that’s being done across east-west philosophizing, Indigenous theorizing, across nations also. Whether you’d use the term creolization for it in particular, I'm not sure, but maybe we can think of it as this epistemic disobedience and moving beyond certain kind of boundaries and thinking of the kind of creative capacities that come through knowledge from different positionalities.

And that would also be a way of decentering European theorizing, which I think is often the critique that comes with creolization in the way that I described it. And Jane Gordon is really explicit about it. It’s not just centering on Europeans and then adding marginalized figures here and there. There are other things going on. There’s also what Souleymane Bachir Diagne calls “provincializing” the European canon. I think that is also another helpful way of thinking about it. 

So it’s not that the European canon exists internationally or ought to be the foremost. It is just one among many that we could read or could not read. And so against the rejection of European canon, broadly construed, if we just provincialize it and think of it as one among many, then you can take it or leave it depending on what your interests are. And Souleymane Bachir Diagne is from Senegal. He teaches the United States and he’s also heavily influenced by not only various African theorists but also Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and a few other figures, European figures. 

Now shifting focus to your own practice as a pedagogue, how does your scholarship on Badiou and Wynter impact your pedagogy?

That’s a great but also a difficult question, because I feel as though my pedagogy and my research are inherently intertwined. I’m really fortunate to teach the classes that I want to teach; classes that I’m interested in, including texts that I’m interested in reading. This means I’m going to read more and more of what I want to teach, which impacts the kinds of things I research. The two are not separate from each other. 

With regards to the research we’re discussing, my engagement in the critique of canonical Western figures was related to a class that I was teaching. I taught a class in feminist theory that was cross-listed in Women and Gender Studies and Philosophy. In this particular class I taught Luce Irigaray, Simone de Beauvoir, Julia Kristeva, and Sylvia Wynter. I’ve been reading Kristeva, Irigaray, and Beauvoir since my undergrad, and these were very much the texts that I was taught for years. In my class, my students and I would perform critiques of these texts, from the perspective of disability, race, sexuality, gender, and Indigeneity, broadly construed. In this way, my class engaged in a kind of critique similar to the critique I did of Badiou. 

But, on the other side of things, I learn from Wynter all the time how to teach philosophy. I know from conversations with Lewis Gordon that Wynter doesn’t like philosophy (or rather, she doesn’t like European philosophy), and I hold onto this fact. I also think about how to go beyond the boundaries of what women think is philosophy, or what gets stated as philosophy, in my teaching. Again, I’m cross-listed between Women and Gender Studies and Philosophy, and no one’s looking over my shoulder at what I’m going to teach and whether or not it’s philosophy or not. 

Holding onto all of these things simultaneously means that there is a need to go beyond what we might think is philosophy in order to do philosophy. What counts as knowledge is much broader than what I or someone like me might previously have thought, and broader than what we have previously been taught counts as knowledge and something that ought to be taught. 

And one further point, which goes back to the conversation about the amazing work that you all are doing: where knowledge comes from is also something to hold onto in classrooms. I learn from my students at the same time as I am teaching them in the classroom, which requires me to think about how to manage these things simultaneously. I try to bring my students into this conversation, discussing with them how to create spaces that will support them, and I find that they teach me simultaneously as I teach them. But there are power balances to be aware of here—for example, it’s not the job of my students to teach me certain kinds of things. These are things I’ve learned in my research, and from Sylvia Wynter in particular.

Can you offer an anecdote of a moment in your practice that illustrates the incorporation of your research into your teaching.

Okay, great question! Again, these are really difficult questions and I commend you for them, because I think they're very nuanced and it’s hard to do justice to them. I'll offer a story of success, one that felt good. There are also other feelings around it, of course, as there are always many feelings around teaching. You all know this: teaching is always nerve-wracking, and no matter how much you do it there are a lot of emotions involved. 

I’m teaching a Queer Caribbean Theory class right now, for the first time this summer, and it is nerve-wracking also because it’s a new area of study for me in several ways, even though I've been reading Sylvia Wynter, Aime Cesaire, and Frantz Fanon for some time. It’s a relatively small class, with ten students. It’s a graduate level class also, which is great. There are a lot of queer folks in the class, and some gender non-conforming trans folks. It’s predominantly white students in the class, but there are a few people of color, and several bilingual students as well. 

Much of the discussion circulates around Audre Lorde’s conception of the erotic, from her essay, “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” We spent the first half of the semester engaging with various scholars who employ this conception of the erotic in their text. The students are therefore primed in thinking around this concept of the erotic for six weeks or so. And then, after the midterm break, we finally read Audre Lorde’s essay. As preparation for the class, I tasked students with asking themselves: “What is the erotic? What are a few keywords that you would associate with the erotic?” And so they’ve thought through some of the main themes beforehand. (I typically prime them with questions like this about their readings every week, and our classroom discussion is often structured around those questions.) In this sense the class was an opportunity for them to approach what Audre Lorde means by the erotic. 

To start things off, I asked them to take a couple of minutes to make some notes on what they think the erotic is, and, in conversation with another person, develop their ideas of what the erotic is. And then they get into groups of four—so two groups of two come together and compare discussions. We spend the three-hour class doing this escalating group discussion. The erotic is a central concept, as I mentioned, for a lot of the texts that we read, and so the point of this exercise was to give the students the opportunity to tell me what this concept means, and then to develop a conversation collectively. It would be easy for me to give my description of what I think the erotic is, but something that’s really beautiful about how Audre Lorde writes this essay in particular, is that she leaves it very much open to interpretation. And so this class was an attempt to engage in the practice of bringing our own responsibility to knowledge creation. A lot of these students are queer, and so they will have some understanding of what the erotic means to them in particular. And even if they’re not queer they might well have some sense of what it means to them. And so, providing them the opportunity to foster their own engagement with that concept and with their own experiences became central to our discussion of the erotic.

And then I had a follow-up question for them that was, I think, even harder to engage—namely, “How is it that you see the erotic operating in your own life? What does it mean to employ the erotic in the way that Audre Lorde is talking about it?” The point here is to take hold of this conceptual tool that Lorde is giving to us. She provides these tools to provide language for people’s lived experiences, and the hard part, again, is to make a connection between the conceptual tool and our lived experiences. We didn’t finish with a whole lot of definite conclusions (this was only a week ago), and I told them at the end of the class: “Each class from now on, I want you to think through your activities, the things you do throughout the week, when do you see the erotic arise, those moments of joy that Audre Lorde talks about?” Again, I think it’s important to know that when we talk about philosophy, that it is very much bound up with our lived experiences. 

In fact, I’m done with the cliche, “ivory tower” approach to philosophy that is just about concepts. I don’t think that any philosophy is just conceptual. I think that even for the people who are writing the history of traditional philosophy, it’s bound up with their lived experiences. They just have very specific lived experiences that we’re not always attentive to. And so being attentive and thinking about how it is that the philosophy that we’re doing is very much bound up with certain lived experiences is really important for all my classes, and for all the things that I’m doing. Often, I basically gave the class over to the students, asking them annoying questions every so often. I tell them repeatedly, “I’m just going to ask you annoying what-does-that-mean? questions,” pushing them to explain a little bit more. Last time we did this they took over the whole class and they did a wonderful job with it.

As a teacher, it’s tempting to jump in and be part of the conversation. But I also know that there are instances when I ought to remain in the background and give them the space to foster their own point of view, pointing them in the right direction only when I need to. At the end of the class I have been describing, I had a student say, not to me, but to the class, that it was the best class that she’s had for a long time. And so it reminded me of the importance of the de-centering of myself in these spaces, and of the fact that students are very capable of doing this kind of work and having these kinds of conversations. 

In the context of this joyous story of students doing workshops on their own lived experiences of the erotic, as theorized by Audre Lorde, at an institution that is not friendly to such terms as “social justice,” what are your pedagogical tactics of survival in such an environment?

That’s a great question, and is certainly an active one that I think is going on where we are in particular. There are various kinds of techniques that we employ. When our department received backlash for putting the words “social justice” on our website, the statement was crafted through pragmatism, because there’s a lot of pragmatists in my department. And so it became possible to use philosophy to provide language that would convey the same points that the words “social justice” were intended to employ.

So I think that, being trained in philosophy and being trained in argumentation, it’s become possible to provide these techniques to make arguments, to be sort of stealthy with use of language also. And that’s been a good tactic. There’s also the safety-in-numbers bit. And so I’m part of a caucus on campus that I helped found when I first arrived here in 2015. And that caucus, which is not part of the university, but is able to have an impact on the university, has been used to push certain things through at the university and often will turn to full professors to do the most heavy lifting and support people who are less supported at the university. And that includes students, it includes untenured faculty and adjunct faculty and staff as well.

So that’s another tactic. And so I think that there are certain kinds of skills and those kinds of navigating that are things that I hope to learn and hope to do for other people too moving forward. And I think that, maybe the point is that it requires many people across many spaces. It requires this kind of activism or solidarity, or thinking about how people are differently situated at universities, such that we can provide support for each other and step in and step back when we need to. But these are active things that we’re continually engaged with.

That’s a great thought with which to end our conversation: your call to collaborate, to act in solidarity across university spaces. Thank you very much for your time and wisdom, Elisabeth!

Thank you for welcoming me into this conversion!