Sheila Heti on Writing Outside of the Academy

From Page Turner:

“SH: Well, if you’re working on a book, the book poses a bunch of questions. Maybe it’s (in the case of my second book, Ticknor) “What were the early birth control pioneers like?” or “What was Florence Nightingale all about?” Most of your curiosities don’t even make it into the book, but you think they will. Moments come where you have to find out about something or you can’t go on. So you start reading in that area (Havelock Ellis, Marie Stopes) and you take in the stuff at a really deep level because your need to know it is at once mysterious (why is Marie Stopes so important to you right now?) and really practical (it might help you finish a scene). I guess the main difference is that you are led down reading paths as you go, rather than coming up with a reading list at the start. Read more

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On Edward Said and “the utopia known as the American university”

By graduate student Sumayya Kassamali, from a conference marking a decade since Said’s passing:

“But the academy is not what it was. It is hard to find a humanities professor with so much style; whose writings have so deeply altered ways of thinking that, even if in disagreement, they are impossible to ignore; and whose principled political stances make him the person you would want as your guest speaker when you organize an antiwar rally. But it is almost just as hard to imagine that the university could sustain and nourish such a figure, rather than attempt to censure and silence them. The current ‘crisis of higher education’ in North America is reflected in many of our own experiences. In this country, education itself is increasingly being privatized, and the university continues to sink to new depths in its profit-seeking exploitation of students, teachers, workers, and entire neighbourhoods. As Thomas Frank has written, the utopia known as the American university, supposedly the finest educational institution in the world, is more like a disaster characterized by predatory capitalism, elitism, branding, and business management theory. It’s worth reminding ourselves that on average three-quarters of teaching at our universities is done by adjuncts, often making less than minimum wage. It is in this sense too, then, that Said is gone. The world that produced him and the conditions that nurtured him, fraught as they were, are not those of our times. But in the words of a former student of his, “remembering Edward Said forces us to think like him, in his place. The question after Said is, ‘how do we begin, again?'”

Integration and Social Enterprise: A Talk for NYWSE #PSEItrip

Tomorrow I’m giving a talk to fifteen Princeton students on a tour of social entrepreneurship in New York City, which was organized by the New York Women Social Entrepreneurs group. I’m on a panel about media, tech, and other topics.

To collect my thoughts, I’ll outline my presentation here.

I. INTEGRATION: My person vision is about integrating interests/expertise areas that might seem divergent because of the way we are trained in Academia. For example, you might tell me that my interest in food and yoga belongs in a nutrition career, whereas my writing and  journalism form a separate career path, and my focus on social entrepreneurship is a business thing. But they all intersect, and furthermore, where one is lacking in something, the other offers that. I’ll explain.

These are my main interests:

  • FOOD/WELLNESS/YOGA
  • WRITING/COMMUNICATIONS/CRITICAL THINKING
  • INNOVATION/SOCIAL CHANGE/ECONOMIC BETTERMENT

These are presumably separate worlds, but they don’t have to be. In one week, I go from moderating a panel discussion between grass-fed meat farmers, to writing an article about real estate’s impact on the local food world, to teaching a yoga class, to attending a reading for a new novel at a bookstore (and working on my own manuscript). True, this is not a full-time job with benefits; however I am creating my own full-time career where I am integrating knowledge, social networks, and resources from each of these three main interests.

Whether I’m engaged in something focused on agriculture, journalism, or yoga, I’m always looking at how it can bleed into the other categories. The food world, yoga world, writing world, and social enterprise world can all be too insular and introspective, but if we can take one thing and bring it into the other spaces, new potentials open up.

II. SOCIAL ENTERPRISE JOURNALISM: For over a year, I wrote for a website called Dowser.org. Unless you are involved in the social enterprise sector, you probably haven’t heard of it–which is the main issue I had with the site. I found it to be too insular and unable to appeal to wider audiences. And this is not the only case where I’ve seen this. Social enterprise journalism needs to be tied to broader interest stories in order to reach more people who don’t see themselves as social entrepreneurs. In fact, the words “social enterprise” are overused and becoming a catch phrase to symbolize a new kind of non-profit organization that’s just more cool-looking than its older counterparts. We need journalism that looks at social change and innovation from a public interest perspective, giving everyday readers a reason to read these stories about the small start-ups that are popping up everyday with the help of organizations like Echoing Green, as well as more established ones like Acumen Fund.

III. SOCIAL ENTERPRISE COMMUNICATIONS: It’s all about storytelling. Look to companies like IDEO to learn about how to apply storytelling to business-building. The current president of NYWSE, Kari Litzmann, has a web magazine as an integral part of her company, Rubina Design. Consumers want to learn about products and the people behind them, be entertained, and find ways to be engaged beyond giving up their dollars.

IV. THE FUTURE: I would like to see the concept of integration replacing the notion of social enterprise to some extent. How can individuals and organizations break down the barriers between academic disciplines, career goals, and ways of impacting the world?

Bathtub Theory

I’m writing this in the bathtub after a very long day. Why not write in the tub? Steam is rising around the sides of the laptop; it’s romantic. Maybe afterward my laptop and I will have a light supper with roses on the table, then we’ll read Walt Whitman in bed.

I’ve been thinking about this n+1 panel I attended last night at St. Mark’s Bookshop. The panel was on “theory” and its current role in intellectual culture, and the setting was quite appropriate, since St. Mark’s is the spot to shop for Derrida. But I didn’t realize what I wanted to ask until the panel was over. I wanted to ask whether theory’s changes through time aren’t directly related to the flows of capitalism? Capitalism moves one way or the other–it closes, it widens, it morphs completely–and it affects the way we value thinking. It should be of no surprise that we are, at the same time, intellectually and physically obsessed with science and technology, and in a “post-theory” moment in Academia. Base and superstructure, I think one wise man once called it.

Why couldn’t I ask my question during the panel? When I was in graduate school, it terrified me to ask questions at our intimate monthly departmental seminars with eminent guest speakers. A feeling of deep panic rose up in me, from my pelvis to my throat, with the formulation of a question in my head. Would my professors role their eyes at me (overtly or no)? Would my classmates stiffen, thinking, “How elementary/showy/old-fashioned/naive.” Would the presenter be stumped, annoyed, angered at my inquiry? My sense of privilege at being in a private graduate program, and my hyper-awareness of the vicious, competitive careerism of Academia made every question a bearer of guilt, of doubt, and an impediment to really learning anything.

I barely remember panels and talks from graduate school; I was too concerned about whether my question would reveal something unlikeable about me, or I’d say it the wrong way.

We called the anthropology M.A. at The New School for Social Research a “two-year interview.” Who would get into our small, mostly unfunded PhD program? It’s not theory that’s in jeopardy so much as the ability to do anything with it. We devoured theory in a buffet, Deleuze alongside Nietzsche alongside Haraway alongside Lacan. The only rule was you were not allowed to truly love it; you had to gulp it all down and then shit it out. It was the past. It was what made us the neoliberal Academy, bloated with overpaid administrators and debt-funded students, and unable to formulate a single proclamation about how to be and act politically at a time when wars were being waged, the environment was crumbling, our American Dream was fading like the end of a bad movie. The politics in Academic thinking today are buried so deeply in the minutia, in the interstices of meaning, that to acknowledge their existence at all is a sin, reveals you as naive, and likely ends your career.

If we are living in the end times of any epoch, it may be the end of the Enlightenment as we knew it. The privatization of universities in the Eighties under Reagan marked a shift toward an Academy that was inextricable from the whims of capitalism in a way it had never been before, and the impact on thinking has been tremendous. Anthropologists now are studying stock markets and the Fed; sociologists specialize in “expertise.” Theory has marked a spiral into this moment, a movement away from empiricism into abstraction, from the gold standard into derivatives, from dialectics to rhizomes. In this spiral our questions float helplessly like clouds, ungrounded and quick to evaporate, like steam rising from a hot bath.

Love this: clip-on book lamp

2013-01-03 08.35.14So, after spending a bunch of money over the holidays on (a) gifts, food, and booze; (b) MFA applications; and (c) a yoga teacher training, and simultaneously having far less income because freelancers don’t get paid during the holidays when there’s less work, I thought it would be a great idea to go shopping at the Strand. And I was right, it was a fantastic idea, because I impulsively spent twenty bucks on this incredible gadget called The Book Lamp.

If you’re like me, you can’t afford a bed frame because you spend all your cash on yoga, books, and graduate school applications, so you always think to yourself as you read in bed at night, with the overhead light glaring above you, “Damn, wouldn’t it be nice if I had a little bedside lamp of some sort?” And then you never do anything about it, because lamps are pretty expensive and you don’t have a bed frame on which to clip those handy little ones meant for bedtime reading.

Have no fear–The Book Lamp(TM) clips directly onto your book! It’s amazing! And so cute. I think I’ll probably never go out again, and just stay in and read, which anyway is much more affordable and will probably result in me being so brilliant I don’t need a MFA. Then again, maybe this company will hire me to do their PR, and I’ll be able to buy a bed frame and a lamp.

Rubina Magazine Issue #2 is Out!

Check out the second issue of Rubina Magazine, where I edit and write articles about social enterprise, women’s empowerment, artisan work, and economic development.

In this issue, we have a dispatch from the recent Ethical Fashion Show in Paris, a memoir about visiting a school in the wake of the destructive Hurricane Alla, an interview with the founder of a girls’ school in Kenya, and an interview with a woman who ran for and won local office in Brooklyn about entering politics.

Thanks for reading! We are actively looking for contributors, so if you’ve got an idea let me know.

My e-book: “Social Entrepreneurs Speak”

This summer, I decided to experiment with online publishing. I curated a selection of my interviews, essays, and articles on social entrepreneurship and social change that were originally written for Dowser.org, added an introductory essay (with help from a very astute editor), and made the thing into an e-book. Instead of going with the big mean publisher Amazon, I opted for a smaller company called Smashwords. They were a little slow in helping me with some of the problems I encountered with their production tools, but otherwise the process has been fairly straightforward.

Check out and buy the book here. Below is a description of what the book offers to readers. It’s on sale for $3.99–a veritable steal. And if you care to leave a review, I’ll appreciate that. (Or, I could just hire someone to do it…but I won’t.)

Book description: The media seems to be always stuck reporting on what’s wrong in the world–-an endless parade of economic, political, and cultural crises endangering the progress of history. If these problems are bigger than what the U.S. government, or the United Nations, or even the free market can handle, what hope is there of a solution?  Read more