“Am I serving myself in the best way I can right now?”

This is my mantra for the rest of the hell that is the 2020 Election.

Sometimes I best serve myself by focusing my energy elsewhere: to a yoga practice, to my coursework, to watching Avatar: The Last Airbender whilst being curled up with my friend.

And sometimes I best serve myself by temporarily quieting my anxiety and refreshing the live election results, just to make sure (again) that nothing decisive has happened yet.

I know this is my first blog post in quite some time but it’s been a gnarly past several weeks. But this mantra, at least, I thought was worth documenting.

Empowerment Through Self-Subordination? – Thoughts on Khader’s Work

Closer to the beginning of this year I wrote a post titled Feminism and Catering to the Male Gaze. In it, I wonder about the impossible standards placed on women – “impossible” in the sense that gender roles demand we do and be contradictory things. I question what the morally appropriate response is – or if there even is one at all – given that however women act, we will be conforming to one set of patriarchal constraints or another. I was assigned to read a paper for one of my classes called Empowerment Through Self-Subordination? by Khader which inspired some related thoughts.

Khader’s focus is significantly more narrow than mine; she is solely concerned with women living in poverty in societies which are highly and rigidly patriarchal. She raises a similar, albeit more acute, puzzle: Women’s empowerment is the increase in women’s agency, and reducing poverty increases agency. So, reducing women’s poverty should empower women. The problem is that, in practice, this is often not the case. Actually, anti-poverty interventions yield mixed results when it comes to helping women.

I believe Khader is writing this piece amidst a background of well-meaning but problematic intervention policies. A recurring problem of organizations “helping out” poverty-stricken communities in non-Western countries is their working under the assumption that Western values (individuality, autonomy, democracy, etc.) are objectively superior rather than taking the local culture’s values seriously. When interventionists evaluate non-Western cultures through an exclusively Western lens, they devalue and disrespect the very people they are trying to help.

The results of such interventions are thus mixed: By one set of standards, impoverished people are better off. By another set of standards, they are not – in the worst cases (which Khader points out are often reasonably probable) impoverished people are actually left worse off than before the intervention.

To diagnose this puzzle Khader draws a distinction between two kinds of agency: welfare agency, which is the knowledge that one’s welfare is of value coupled with the ability to pursue it, and feminist agency, which is the kind of agency that challenges sexist norms. It is the latter type of agency that is associated with women’s empowerment as it is normally conceived (in Western circles).

The key point, Khader argues, is that welfare agency and feminist agency can work against each other: A woman’s welfare agency may be enhanced through a decrease in her feminist agency. Particularly in highly patriarchal societies, women are dependent on men for basic needs such as food, shelter, and clothing. Securing these necessary resources requires women to be viewed as desirable by men, which in turn requires adherence to sexist norms and expectations. Khader believes that the internalization of these ideologies by women can oftentimes be the best way for individual women to enhance their welfare because it allows for a coherent self-concept. Thus in many cases women in poverty are forced to forego feminist agency to advance their welfare agency.

I take it that Khader’s response to the puzzle above regarding the mixed results of anti-poverty interventions, then, has two elements: first, the failure to distinguish between two types of agency (and their corresponding aims), and second, the implicit assumption that the goal of intervention ought to be women empowerment.

Khader claims that we ought not so easily dismiss the importance of securing welfare agency over feminist agency, but she does not go so far as to argue that, as a matter of principle, we always ought to prioritize the former.

Thus I take Khader to be expressing a similar (but, of course, more developed and better defended) sentiment to the one I express in my post Feminism and Catering to the Male Gaze: It is very doubtful there is one appropriate response or set of values we ought to privilege when acting in the interest of women as a group and as individuals. It’s complicated.

I wonder if an argument inspired by this sort of reasoning could be made to refute SWERFs (sex work-exclusionary radical feminists) or those believe that BDSM is inherently problematic because of the expectation of and indulgence in the ultra-submissive roles that women often play. Arguments against these sorts of things often cite the reinforcement of sexist and misogynistic attitudes, and assume that it is a short leap from that to the continued subjugation of women. But, as Khader has shown, a woman who partakes in sex work of submissive BDSM roles may actually be increasing her agency. (For example, sex work allows women financial stability and independence they may not have otherwise had.)

A deeper look into this possibility would probably include more on when it is appropriate to prioritize welfare agency over feminist agency, why sex work/BDSM would meet these terms, and more exploration on the differences and tensions involved in advancing women as a group versus advancing women as individuals.

Ethics 101: An Introduction to the Course

So I’m about to start studying for my ~big, scary, super intensive 3rd-year bibliography exam~. Basically, I need to choose a branch of philosophy that I intend to develop a strong, thorough foundation of knowledge in (ethics, obviously) and then read through a pre-selected bibliography of core texts and ideas in that branch. I take the exam based on this bibliography at the end of this school year.

I would like to share some of my notes here on my blog as I work through this reading list. The first reason being that I think it’ll help me personally (as a philosopher, as a communicator, and with motivation to study and keeping me on track). The second – and probably more important – reason is that I think (if I do it right) this could be a great resource for people (particularly, undergrads or non-academics) who want to get a good lay of the land and major ideas in moral philosophy in an accessible and manageable manner.

These two goals kind of feed into each other: I need to have good notes in order for this to be genuinely helpful to people other than myself, and if I am focused on creating genuinely good notes on my reading I am more likely to do better on the exam. Win-win ๐Ÿ™‚

So throughout this school year I’ll be posting notes which:

  • Cover core and landmark writings in ethics/moral philosophy from all eras (ancient Greeks to present day)
  • Contextualize these writings in the greater sphere of relevant debates and ideologies
  • Are accessible for everyone and (to the best of my current foresight) will not presuppose any familiarity with moral philosophy
  • Maintain a(n albeit introductory-level) sense of academic rigor
  • Individually, are intended to give one a gloss of the topic at hand
  • Collectively, are intended to give one a fairly solid foundation of the basics of moral philosophy

These posts will be given their own hyperlink in my main menu and organized by topic for ease of access and use.

Class is in session ๐Ÿ˜‰ Welcome to Ethics 101.

Becoming Friends with my Inner Critic

“Inner critic” has been known to mean lots of different things, but my therapist and I use it to refer to that voice inside my head that always has something negative to say – whether it be about my academic performance, my personal relationships, my body image, or something else. We both agree that I have quite the aggressive inner critic, and we’ve been talking a lot about how I can better manage it.

The problem, as she so insightfully put it, is that my inner critic has been the source of a lot of my success. I wouldn’t have gotten my black belt, run marathons, won debate competitions, graduated college summa cum laude, or been accepted to some of the best philosophy PhD programs had I not pushed myself further than most others did. My high standards have always been what sets me apart – and I’m proud of the ways in which they do. Silencing or ignoring my inner critic just doesn’t seem like an attractive option to me.

But I do realize that in the long run having such a vocal and fierce inner critic is harmful to my health and wellbeing, so the solution we’ve (i.e. my therapist and I) have come up with is, rather than trying to rid myself of that vicious voice in my head, to become friends with it. To acknowledge what it’s saying and be able to have a conversation with it. I’m still struggling to find that middle ground, but it’s a start.

Dealing with Impostor Syndrome

Impostor syndrome (n): a psychological pattern in which one doubts one’s accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”

Impostor syndrome has always been something I’ve struggled with since starting my study of philosophy. Some points of my academic career have been worse than others, and usually it’s in relation to my circumstances/situation. (For example, next to no feelings of doubting myself around the time I was awarded both departmental awards as a graduating college senior, but terrible impostor syndrome after I got rejected from three grad schools in a row.)

My grad school experience thus far has been one hell of a rollercoaster so I’ve had my ups and downs when it comes to keeping my impostor syndrome under control. To that end, here are a few of the things I’ve learned:

  • Being honest about it helps. I was always open about my feelings of inadequacy with several (well-chosen) people in my department, and oftentimes, more than just comfort or sympathy, I was met with understanding. It turns out that so many of my colleagues can relate to how I’m feeling and are either going through or have gone through it as well. It’s been so affirming and encouraging to know that these feelings aren’t unique to me. And in general, I think being open about how you’re feeling can, over time, contribute to a culture in which such topics are dealt with better instead of being treated as taboo or something to keep bottled up.
  • The more comfortable I become in an environment, the better sense of belonging I have, and the less I feel like I don’t deserve to be there. So in general, coping with impostor syndrome may just take some time.
  • It’s good to remind myself that I’m my own biggest critic and that my assessment of my own performance is necessarily biased, and that people with way more experience than me have judged my work adequate (or better than adequate).
  • On a similar note, it’s also good to remind myself that it’s okay to suck sometimes. If I write a shitty term paper or say something stupid during a seminar, that’s fine. We all have our moments. It doesn’t mean that – on the whole – I am not deserving of my place in academia/in my department.

Student Evals Are In

I have had such an indescribably shitty past few days but today I was finally able to access student evals from my very first semester of teaching and right now my heart is so happy!ย I didn’t expect to love teaching so much, but it has truly been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in grad school so far. To know that my students think of me as a helpful, enthusiastic, and capable instructor means so much.

Because of the aforementioned shitty past few days, I need a bit of positivity in my life. So here is a collection of a few of my favorite comments students left:

“Ms.Balance is absolutely the best TA I’ve ever had. Not only does she go above and beyond for her students by making little reading guide handouts to clearly outline a philosopher’s ideas in order to make sure we understand the topic, but she readily makes herself easy to contact out of class for any help at any moment. She really did more than she had to do as a TA […]. She really wants her students to succeed and it really shows in her work and the effort she puts into the class.”

“Brielle is a very passionate instructor in the Philosophy department. She made this very clear throughout this semester to everyone around her. I also believe that she truly cares about all of her students. […] I believe she provided many different useful tools and mentoring over the semester that really is an asset to UNC’s Introduction to Ethics course and students in the class.”

“Cool hair style :)”

“Gabrielle Balance’s help was the only reason why I passed the class. Her mentoring and individual care was above and beyond anything asked of for a TA. She really cares for her students and her recitation greatly approves the understanding of all of her students.”

“BRIELLE IS AMAZING! This recitation saved me in this class. She is one of the best teachers I have these semester.”

“Gabrielle did a very good job in her TA position. She had a great understanding of the ideas at play, she also did an excellent job of conveying those ideas to her students. She went above and beyond what the other TA’s for this course did. She did an amazing job in making sure her students had a good handle on the ideas in class with her in class discussions. I would not have done nearly as well in this course without her as my TA.”

“Gabrielle Balance was an amazing TA. I would not have understood the course without her. She very clearly explains hard topics and it is evident she cares about her students.”

“One of my favorite TAs I have had so far. She broke down the lectures very well to help us clearly understand it. She asked for our feedback a lot, and made sure she answered any questions that the class had. She is willing to work with you outside of class and held a couple of review sessions outside of class to prepare for finals or papers. Not only is she a good TA, she is also a great person who makes sure you feel included and supported which helps me feel more comfortable in class.”

“I loved this course, Ms Balance was an awesome TA that even people from other sections would try to attend her office hours. She was extremely helpful and made the material engaging”

I know this blog post is something I’ll come back to again and again whenever school gets tough to remind me why I do this and motivate me to keep going. โค

How I Organize My Planner

So, first things first: I use a Happy Planner in the mini size (4.5″ x 7″) with the vertical week-per-2-pages spread.

Here is what a typical weekly spread looks like for me. This is the current week and not yet completely filled out:

Inkededit 2_LI

  • I pencil in the times (7 am-9 pm) and use the Happy Planner vertical layout as an hourly scheduler
  • I note the week of the current semester in the top left corner
  • In blue ink I write events and in black ink I write smaller notes (event info, to-dos, etc.)
    • One thing I really like is writing in tasks that I complete, especially course assignments and blog posts, to have an idea of what and when I get things done.
      • Filled out as I do them and not ahead of time
  • I use the following color-coding system (which may be slightly off in the above photo due to the filter I used):
    • Green: courses I am in (student or TA)
    • Light blue: department events (invited talks, meetings, etc.)
    • Red: non-departmental appointments
    • Purple: social events
    • Light pink: workouts
      • Usually filled out as I do them and not ahead of time
    • Yellow: highlighting important black ink notes (not pictured) and crossing off to-do checkboxes
  • At the top I write very important events or reminders

I also have a separator tab in the back for lined paper. I use the lined paper for my to-do lists, as the main body of the agenda doesn’t have room for me to write all of my to-dos:


  • One page (left) lists my course assignments for the week
  • The other page (right) lists my non-coursework-related to-dos, which I try to do as much as possible over the weekend

I’ve been using this planning system since the beginning of the school year and it’s been working really well for me so far. My planner holds so much information about my schedule, to-dos, and workouts, and yet it remains visually appealing, organized, and compact. Thought I would share it ๐Ÿ™‚

“Teaching is never neutral.”

Recently my department held a teaching workshop, and we brought in someone from the School of Education to present to us. One of the topics that came up was how to approach politically-charged topics in the classroom as the teacher, the worry being that, as instructors, we want to portray a sense of neutrality to our students while still touching on important and relevant issues.

The presenter responded with with a simple yet striking assertion:

Teaching is never neutral.

This sparked a lot of discussion at the workshop and what was said has given me a lot to think about.

Firstly, I think our workshop leader is right. Teaching is never neutral, nor should it be. This doesn’t mean that instructors should start taking time at the beginning of each class to campaign for their favorite presidential candidate, but I do believe there are many ways in which instructors can and ought to take a stance.

Here are some things I do as an instructor which carry political significance:

  • Dress casually. Especially as a woman, how I present myself to students in terms of dress makes a big difference. I know lots of people who purposely dress more professionally on the days they teach to make an impact on how their students perceive them. I thought a lot about what kind of teacher I wanted to be and what kinds of values to espouse, and concluded that “appearing professional” wasn’t one of them. I want my students to respect me, but I don’t want it to be in part because of how I dress.
  • Include my pronouns in my email signature. I am obviously a woman, but I think the practice of being explicit about your pronouns anyways is a good one. It normalizes it for everyone and keeps it from being a burden that only trans people have to bear.
  • Instruct my students to address me by my first name. Again, I thought a lot about what kind of teacher I wanted to be, and concluded that I feel a lot more comfortable with my students calling me by my first name instead of using “Miss”. This is a barrier that some TAs (understandably and justifiably) want to keep up, but I personally don’t want it between me and my students.
  • Comply with accessibility requests. Okay, so, granted, this one is kind of requiredย of me to do by my university, but even just the fact that this is a university-wide requirement sends a political message of anti-ableism.

The Bad Days

Yesterday I was feeling really, really shitty. My mental and emotional state was at a solid -5. Anyways, like I’ve said before, part of my intention in keeping this blog is to honestly document the experiences I have during grad school. So, here’s a transcription of what I wrote in my journal yesternight, as unpolished and raw as it gets:

I woke up at noon with unbearable feelings of depression and anxiety. Actually, I woke up at 8. I was too unmotivated to do anything so I drifted in and out of sleep until noon. Eventually I forced myself out of bed because I had office hours at 2 and class at 4.

I was pretty productive between those hours. No one came to my office hours and I managed to finish up a post for this blog on the ethics of body modification and made some progress on planning my MA thesis. Finally a bit before 4 I dragged myself away from my laptop and headed to class. It was impossible for me to focus. I ended up skipping out halfway through because I was just feeling so terrible and tired. I got home and slept some more.

I finally dragged myself out of bed at 8 pm. Usually when I’m feeling really depressed, doing things helps. I did the dishes and cleaned my room. Then I did laundry. (And folded/put it away right after!) I went for a run, then showered and got ready for bed. Then I lit a candle and did some meditative yoga. I used a guided meditation focused on depression and self-soothing.

Now it’s midnight. I feel a little better. Still shitty, but proud that I was able to engage in these healthy forms of self-care.

It’s so stupid that my life is going great on paper and yet I still feel this way. I’m ahead on my reading assignments and coursework, ahead on my MA thesis planning, I’m exercising regularly, and my space is clean and orderly. But I spent most of my day in bed, and I only ate one meal today and I’m not even hungry. I just feel numb and sad. I hope I feel better tomorrow. This is the worst day I’ve had in a while.

I called my boyfriend after I wrote this and we talked for a while. Just hearing his voice and feeling his presence made me feel a lot better, and I was able to fall asleep relatively quickly. This morning I woke up feeling okay. Today was loads better.

A Check-in: The Beginning of Year 2

3 weeks in. So far, so good – great, actually! I’m not really sure where to start, so I guess I’ll just go in order.

I spent the summer living with my partner in Santa Barbara, California. I really missed that place, and getting to spend so much time there was healing. Living in my favorite city with my favorite person did a lot to undo all of the mental and emotional stress I felt throughout my first year, and ultimately I think this recovery set a really solid foundation for the start of my second year.

I moved back to the east coast for the start of the school year after the first week of August. My dog, Luna, stayed with my partner in California with my partner, so I moved alone. My lease ended on my old apartment and I moved into a new place with one of the people in my department. She’s incredible, and she’s got the sweetest boys (a dog and a cat). She’s big into home decor and customization, so she’s got rugs and pictures and plants everywhere. It’s a complete 180 from my old place, and I feel so much more at home here. I think living with her has also been good for my mental health in general; she’s a great roommate, really cheery, and nice to spend time with. (She’s also the one who deals with the cockroaches – an endeavor I had to undertake by myself when I lived alone.)

The diversity workshop I had been planning and co-organizing for the better part of a year took place a week before classes started. We had a great group of participants and we received great feedback! This being the first time we’ve organized it, it was really really rewarding to hear good things from them. Despite how much stress and work went into putting this workshop, I’m really excited to build on what I’ve learned this time around and move forward!

I increased my dosage for antidepressants. I started taking them about 7 months ago and stumbled around a bit trying to figure out kind/brand worked best for me. I saw some small but definite changes back then but now that I’ve settled on a particular brand, I was able to increase my dose about two weeks ago. The effects have definitely been noticeable! My anxiety can still be pretty bad at times, but it’s less debilitating overall. Most significantly, my depression is comparatively non-existent! I can get up to work, get myself out of the house, keep my space clean, go to the gym, enjoy the company of other people, and keep generally good spirits throughout the week! It’s an incredible feeling – even more so because it’s been consistent. I’m very, very pleased about how I’m responding to these meds.

I’ve been working out consistently and it’s done a lot to help with my perception of my health and body. Because of my eating disorder the way I’ve viewed my body has always been a bit warped and toxic, but whenever I’m working out consistently I experience less anxiety about it – even if the physical changes aren’t too noticeable. I try to do yoga most mornings, run 3x a week, lift 3x a week, and have one day off to rest and recover. I’m really proud of myself keeping this schedule up; I think a lot of it has to do with increased motivation from my antidepressants working really well.

I starting teaching! (TAing, technically.) It’s an intro to moral theory course and I have two discussion sections every week. Being the only person in my cohort having never taught before, I was pretty nervous my first week. But I’ve really come to enjoy it! It’s incredibly rewarding, and so nice to see my students engage in class discussion. I’ve had several students tell me that what I’m doing is really helpful in their understanding of the material and it really encourages me to be the best teacher I can be. My undergrad Intro to Ethics TA was who ultimately got me interested in pursuing philosophy, and I hope I can impart some of that passion onto my students now that I’m in that role.

Overall, I’ve been keeping on top of my work. My time management and prioritization skills have gotten way better since I was a first year and I feel very much on top of things. I haven’t yet felt overwhelmed about my workload and I’m completing all my reading assignments on time. One thing I’m particularly proud of so far this year is my participation in classroom discussions. I had trouble with this last year because of anxiety and impostor syndrome and just fear/timidness in general, but this year I feel like I’m doing a lot better in getting over that and convincing myself that I have valuable things to contribute.

Like I said, so far, so good! ๐Ÿ™‚