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In my opinion

We cannot barricade ourselves within the ivory tower

A professor reflects on the recent attack on two students and a professor at the University of Waterloo.


My colleague — a friend — was stabbed last week while teaching a gender studies course at the University of Waterloo. In an attack that mirrors others we’ve seen before, someone targeted her classroom and tried to harm her and her students in what has been reported as “a hate-motivated incident related to gender expression and gender identity.”

I was travelling when it happened and felt a deep compulsion to come home immediately and lay down in front of her office. I wanted to be there, to stand between the symbolic space of her work and the outside world, my body itself a barrier. I’m not sure I’m explaining it correctly. I’m not sure I can. I just want to lie myself down at her office door. I want to stand sentry for her and her work.

I have written and spoken about attacks like this before – largely about the violence that happened in Montreal in 1989 (the Montreal Massacre) – but also the van attack in Toronto and the murders of Amish women and girls in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. There are many other examples. But it is these attacks related to women and gender with which I am most familiar. And in my research, I have come to understand this kind of violence is mostly done by those who are angry and afraid. Men, most often, who feel entitled to a life that is not theirs and blame others for their exclusion. It is a compelling narrative for those who feel that they have not obtained the lives they feel they deserve-– that it is immigrants, trans folks, or women who have taken what is rightfully theirs, and they feel that it is their duty to reclaim it. It is no coincidence that these attacks occur when long-marginalized groups have made gains. The university is a relatively public place, and those who think they have been wronged feel they can come in to take it back, to take us down.

Recently, I attended a panel discussion on gender-based violence, led by colleagues who have experienced death threats and threats to their classrooms because they dare to teach about gender, racism, immigration, Indigeneity, or otherwise are seen to challenge what the professoriate looks like. Colleague after colleague described how they experience these threats, noting that while new security protocols are in place, or their office numbers are no longer listed online, they have also just learned to live with it. As I was thinking about these colleagues and this panel, another friend wrote to check in on me, asking how the university will support us all in the wake this trauma. I answer that I struggle to think about what I want because I have come to expect so little.

However, I want to be clear: I do not want new barriers to accessing our institutions of learning. As social media posts proliferate, emails roll in, and news stories are posted, I have been seeing people call for increased security, new ways to lock down our university, to exclude international students, and to shut out a harmful, hateful world. Misogyny, hatred, racism and violence are often the result a toxic sense of entitlement, and a failure to understand the need for a more just society. And it is in our classrooms and collaborations that we can work together to reveal longstanding inequities, to undo that sense of entitlement. We do not need surveillance and policing that will protect those with resources and privilege, while scrutinizing and punishing those already marginalized, including those already under attack. We cannot barricade ourselves within the ivory tower. I cannot lay down in front of her office door.

Instead, we must continue to teach and learn and question and work towards a more just world. We must work together to feel safe, to call out hate, and recommit to institutions of teaching and learning that enable inclusion and understanding. This trauma for my colleague, for her students, for our community will be long-lasting. We have a lot to learn from the feminist professors teaching and working at the time of the Montreal Massacre who were also shocked and traumatized; but they continued to speak out about inequity, to question the status quo, to be feminists, and to teach about gender in the wake of unthinkable violence. We will too.

Alana Cattapan is an assistant professor of political science and holds the Canada Research Chair in the politics of reproduction at the University of Waterloo.

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  1. David Seljak, University of Waterloo / July 7, 2023 at 10:08

    “We do not need surveillance and policing that will protect those with resources and privilege, while scrutinizing and punishing those already marginalized, including those already under attack. We cannot barricade ourselves within the ivory tower.”

    Bravo! This is an important message. Thanks for an insightful and heartfelt reflection.