I sometimes keep a notebook of ‘notes while reading’. This was crucial during my PhD, but has become an occasional rather than disciplined practice. At any time, what I am reading shapes my thinking. Regular readers of this blog will know that in most posts I share excerpts from journal articles and academic books. I also frequently post on the books I am reading outside of work; for example: memoirs on mortality, dystopian fiction, a year in books and reading about time.
I find one of the joys of reading is the way in which the mind makes connections between disparate texts: a page-turning novel by Mira Grant about scientists searching for killer mermaids had me thinking about the ethics of research funding. Another example: Susan Carter’s (2020) Academic Identity and the Place of Stories: The personal in the professional starts with the wonderful analogy of a “fruitcake imaginary”:
To defuse how risky and ambitious [the] introduction of stories into an academic argument felt, I joked that this would be “one fruitcake of a book” …. The fruitcake imaginary is an extended metaphor that tries to span the intellectual richness of academia and kitchen-table homeliness of a family recipe, with a whiff of quirkiness from working across these zones. There’s the literature and framework of academic thinking, rich with accumulations of research, and flavoured by theory. Game theory is here, and, with it, a penchant towards play as a deliberate method. Stories from life persistently wind through academicity to textually enact the interconnections between extramural life and academic career. Life experience is valued. A fruitcake is an inclusive cake. It is solid by merit of all that goes into it.
There was a connection for me with the novel Gillian Polack’s The Year of the Fruitcake, in which a mind-wiped gender-switching alien anthropologist inhabits the body of a perimenopausal woman on Earth.
Here is a crop of readings that are currently stretching my thinking. The list spans academic articles in higher education, academic books, and fiction reads, and I am presenting this selection intertextually.
Reading about sharing food and ideas
I enjoyed Alison Phipps and Ronald Barnett’s (2007) article Academic Hospitality:
It takes material form in the hosting of academics giving papers. It takes epistemological form in the welcome of new ideas. It takes linguistic form in the translation of academic work into other languages, and it takes touristic form through the welcome and generosity with which academic visitors are received.
The article speculates on the giving and receiving of hospitality in academic life, who is welcomed or otherwise, rules and ceremonies and the roles of hosts and guests. It refer to a dependence on travel and crossing borders, but I read this at a time in which academic hospitality during COVID-19—changes to how we welcome and celebrate students and colleagues, limitations on travel and border closures, restrictions on shared meals and informal gatherings, and the opening up of virtual spaces.
I gobbled up two young adult books recently that focus on shared food and (sometimes dangerous) ideas: Elizabeth Acevedo With the Fire on High, about a black teen mother who is a magical cook (including sensory recipes), and Asphyxia’s Future Girl, which tells the story of a deaf teen artist in dystopian near-future Melbourne challenging food shortages (including artworks and info-graphics).
Reading about identity and emotion
The title ‘The emotional knots of academicity: a collective biography of academic subjectivities and spaces” put this article by five women (Jennifer Charteris, Susanne Gannon, Eve Mayes, Adele Nye and Lauren Stephenson) on my must-read list. What kept me reading (and thinking) were the interconnections of academic identity, higher education spaces and affect revealed in three narratives. These were written in a collective biography workshop, “where participants constructed accounts of the physical, social, material and imaginative dimensions of subjectivities in the ‘academic-city’ of higher education spaces.”
In the first story, a casual academic travels to unpaid meetings in the hope of a job, comparing “thirsty Australian landscape of meadows and scrawny looking sheep” to the “verdant pastoral belt of … home.” In the second, an academic is schooled in the hierarchy of office locations and parking spaces, and in the third story a PhD candidate finds a feminist community in a “fiery women’s cottage”.
Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss is on my list of favourite reads for this year. For a story about mental illness and the end of a marriage, narrated by a sometimes unlikeable character, this book is strangely hopeful: “Everything is broken and messed up and completely fine. That is what life is. It’s only the ratios that change, usually on their own.” Another of my favourites, which resonated for ideas about community and disconnection is Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half.
Reading about bodies and refusal
This autoethnography from two (Ab)original academic women, Lauren Tynan and Michelle Bishop, is an unconventional and powerful piece of writing. It offers a collaborative account of working for their communities within the systems and structures of whiteness:
Refusal is empowering – it’s about learning to say ‘no’. Not in an arrogant way, but learning to see exploitation, and learning to avoid it. Sometimes saying no feels like a mistake; a missed ‘opportunity’. But who ultimately benefits from my continual acquiescence? I check myself, learn
to trust my gut and listen to the messages from Country and our Old People.
There were many corollaries with my recent reading: on hierarchical systems and power, Megha Majumdar’s A Burning; on remembering and refusal, Yōko Ogawa’s The Memory Police; and on rising to the challenge of writing against white conventions, Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book.
Tell me: what have been your favourite books this difficult year? And do you have any higher education articles to recommend that share the themes of community, connection, identity and power?