Virtual scholarship

A couple of weeks ago—is time slippery for you now too?—I participated in a virtual Higher Education Scholars meet-up.

Regular readers will know that this is a frequent gathering of (until now) predominantly Sydney-based academics, doctoral candidates and professional staff interested in research in higher education. I have posted about our previous meetings, A reminder to play, Staying in place, Yarning circle, The spirit of research and Imagining research futures. You can read more about the mob here.

This session was themed Keeping our researcher identities alive and our research community connected. The description of the day read:

Remember to choose yourself: your researcher self, your researcher identity, your flailing research project, the bit of writing you have left to the side for too long, and to bring that part of you to a conversation … [This] is a chance to resuscitate it: pick it up, dust it off, remember its merits, to present it, to get feedback, and to take the next step with it.

It was our first online meeting, ably hosted in a team effort, which brought with it the benefit of participants from La Trobe University in Melbourne, and one stalwart from the National University of Ireland, Galway (well done on staying awake, Jan!)

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We read:

  • Ashwin, P. (2012). How often are theories developed through empirical research into higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 37(2), 941-955.
  • Swedberg, R. (2016). Before theory comes theorizing or how to make social science more interesting. The British Journal of Sociology, 67(1), 5-22.

I joined a discussion on the Ashwin piece, which poses a challenge to higher education scholars to produce theoretical work. His analysis of higher education journal articles published in 2008 showed that in the majority of articles, theory was implicit rather than explicit.

He prescribes a way of “making the development of theory through empirical research more common in higher education journal articles.” In a nutshell: be explicit about theory, conceptualise your research and analyse your data using different theoretical lenses, and do more mixed methods research.

We had interesting discussions—both positive and negative—about these ideas.

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In the works in progress session, I relished the opportunity to present my work with Catherine Manuthunga on Conferences in the flesh: a multi-sensory cultural history. 

Debate about whether physical conference attendance is necessary or desirable predates COVID-19. Noting the importance of equitable access, conferences serve a multitude of purposes. Conferences may offer retreat from ordinary workdays and domestic routines. Collectively gathering in a specific geographical location, and experiencing diverse cultures, climates and cuisines, opens up opportunities for place-based learning and enriches academic relationships.

Only recently have conferences been recognised in higher education research (Henderson, 2015). This paper gathers literature dispersed across fields including geography (Derudder and Lui, 2016), psychology (Carpay, 2001), sociology (Dubrow et al., 2018) and education (e.g. Hart, 1984; Skelton, 1997; Walford, 2011). It also explores visual, aesthetic and sensory approaches to cultural research, and historical research in particular (Jütte, 2005; Smith, 2007; Grosvenor, 2012; Damousi and Hamilton, 2017).

We analyse empirical data from a cultural history of the International Academic Identities Conference (2008-2018), including interviews with thirty-two conference organisers, keynote speakers and participants attuned to sensory details: the sights, tastes, sounds, touch and smell of the conference experience. Following cultural history techniques (Burke, 2008; Popkewitz et al., 2001; Marwick, 2006; Rubin, 2002), transcripts were analysed for themes of place, sociality, embodiment, and sensory experience.

The focus of our discussion is place, a layered location that is temporal, spatial, political and personal (Lippard, 1997). Multisensory, embodied, place-based conferences enable academic relationality to flourish, and innovative and transcultural knowledge to be produced. Our rich data set offers a specific and intimate history of a particular conference community through the lived experience of academic identities scholars. This provides insights into the institutional and sectoral contexts in which participants work, and universities as places that are both physical and imagined sites for the expression of values, highlighting what Phipps (2007) calls the sensory work of the university as a body of scholars.

For those who are interested, here are my two slides: HEScholars

The discussion focussed on these questions: This research began before COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings. Is there value in work on embodied, place-based, sensory academic conferences right now? How can we ensure this is a thoughtful and constructive piece of work, while remaining true to data collected in a different time? It was affirming to receive feedback from scholars who recognised place-based, sensory, affective, embodied research as more important than ever.

Profanity in the title

I have a new article in Gender and Education co-authored with colleagues James Burford (La Trobe University) and Jan Smith (National University of Ireland). It was a lot of fun to write, not only for the profanity in the title. It’s called: ‘Homeliness meant having the fucking vacuum cleaner out’: the gendered labour of maintaining conference communities.

(If you are unable to access the article via an institutional subscription, contact me for a pre-print copy via Researchgate, Twitter or email agnesbosanquet [at] theslowacademic.com).

The article explores the gendered nature of care and service in academia, with a focus on the labour of maintaining conference communities. The data is from A Decade of Dialogue: A cultural history of the International Academic Identities Conference 2008-2018 with co-researchers Tai Peseta, Machi Sato, Catherine Manathunga, Jeanette Fyffe, and Fiona Salisbury. I have previously blogged about academic housekeeping, the Academic Identities Conference held last year in Japan, and the conference cultural history project.

In our interviews with 32 delegates, keynotes and convenor, the Academic Identities conference is repeatedly described as caring, welcoming, warm and home-like. But if a conference feels like home, who does the housework?

Here is an excerpt from the interview with a convenor that gave the paper its name:

On the very first day of that conference, I turned up and the main room we were going to be having our refreshments was really unclean…Luckily I had my vacuum cleaner. I’d had this terrible feeling. So on the first morning of the conference I was in here at sparrow’s [fart, that is early] with a vacuum cleaner, trying to clean the rooms and feeling very shaky about it because there was so much to do…It was quite homely…I remember the homeliness of [the previous conference]… One of the things I wanted to do with the conference here was to also have it in a workplace…in an academic space… but also have a kind of homeliness in the sense of the relationships… On the other hand, the homeliness meant, for me at least, having the fucking vacuum cleaner out.

We examine conference housekeeping through Jackson’s (2017) study on the emotional labour undertaken by academic women, which draws on positions such as Hochschild’s (1983) ‘sexy girlfriend’ and ‘supportive mother’ occupied by women flight attendants. We add the position of the conference convenor as ‘good housekeeper’ who, in addition to intellectual and scholarly leadership, undertakes housekeeping, time-keeping, hostessing, care-giving, crisis management and technical support. This can come at the expense of the conveners’ well-being. Convenors in our study use the word ‘blur’ to describe their memory of the conference, and others describe feeling miserable, numb, unstable and alone, and recall the exhaustion they feel afterwards. Clearly, the outward performance of warmth and homeliness comes at a cost.

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Our article is part of a special issue on Thoughtful gatherings: Gendering conferences as spaces of learning, knowledge production and community. So far, the articles online ahead of publication include:

  • Carefree conferences? Academics with caring responsibilities performing mobile academic subjectivities (Henderson & Moreau)
  • Hidden social exclusion in Indian academia: gender, caste and conference participation (Sabharwal, Henderson & Joseph)
  • He moana pukepuke: navigating gender and ethnic inequality in early career academics’ conference attendance (Timperley, Sutherland, Wilson & Hall)
  • Engendering belonging: thoughtful gatherings with/in online and virtual spaces (Black, Crimmins, Dwyer & Lister)
  • Extending feminist pedagogy in conferences: inspiration from Theatre of the Oppressed (Belliappa)
  • ‘I’m looking for people who want to do disruption work’: Trans* academics and power discourses in academic conferences (Nicolazzo & Jourian)

I am looking forward to sinking my (reading) teeth into these!

Sharing space

Last week I participated in the conference Beyond Mothering Myths? Motherhood in an Age of Neoliberalism and Individualisation. With a partner recovering from foot surgery, children on school holidays and a busy time at work, my attendance was partial and interrupted. Those presentations I did attend were provocative and affecting.

Lilia Mantai and I presented (on behalf of co-authors Jayde Cahir, Gail Crimmins, Janet Free, Karina Luzia and Ann Werner) a paper entitled Living with and letting go of motherhood and academia: A narrative in seven voices. Here is one of the seven voices (which might be familiar to regular readers):

Twelve years ago, when I was a PhD student, my daughter was born. Following a life-threatening placental abruption, she was diagnosed with epilepsy. Last year, her seizures worsened with the onset of puberty (“Mum, don’t say that word”)—thirty to forty a day, lasting up to twenty minutes each. She was unable to attend school for half the year. She spent a lot of time on a beanbag in my university office on the top floor of a brutalist concrete building, with walls painted a horrid pale apricot. But the view of remnant turpentine ironbark forest is spectacular. I keep the windows open, just a crack so the birds don’t enter.

She missed the school trip to Canberra while she was sick, so we visited as a family. At the  National Art Gallery, we entered The Breathing Room by Patricia Piccinini. An audiovisual space of multiple screens, like entering the insides of a strange fleshy creature. The creature is similar in colour to my office. Sometimes it panics and its breathing and heartbeat roar. Sometimes it sleeps.  The room was both comforting and disturbing in its intimacy. A bit like being and having a mother, I thought.

Now, her epilepsy controlled by five medications, she is going on school camp for four nights. We have an A4 size blister pack with tablets in individually sealed compartments. The packet promises “peace of mind for relatives, carers and loved ones.

The presentation was an edited version of a forthcoming book chapter on motherhood and academia. The other voices in the chapter make for a diverse collection of first person narratives that illustrate complex and conflicting identities. We wrote the narratives in response to a prompt to think about ‘breathing room’ in our identities along a continuum as researchers/non-researchers, academics/non-academics, writers/non-writers, and mothers/ non-mothers. Our chapter is entitled ‘Breathing Room’ and I will share details of the edited collection when it is published.

One of the things I enjoyed about the conference was the way participants, predominantly mothers and children, inhabited and changed the space of the university. Bec van Dyke shared some beautiful illustrations of the conference:

via Twitter @becvandyke

As well as children playing on the floor and public breastfeeding, there was a large knitted sculpture of a placenta:

via Twitter @Polly Dunning

The placenta makes for an excellent metaphor for creating a shared space for mothers and children in the university.

In Je, Tu, Nous, French feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray  interviews biologist Hélène Rouch about the complex role played by the placenta: “On the one hand, it is the mediating space between mother and fetus, which means there is never a fusion of maternal and embryonic tissues. On the other hand, it constitutes a system regulating exchanges between the two organisms.” In contrast to commonly held views, the relationship is not one of “fusion (a … mixture of the bodies or blood of mother and foetus)” nor one of “aggression (the foetus as a foreign body devouring from the inside, a vampire in the maternal body)”; instead, the placenta is an organ that is formed by the embryo but behaves independently and relatively autonomously (Irigaray, 1993b, p 39).

In the provocatively titled “The Promiscuous Placenta”, Jane-Maree Maher describes the placenta as “the point of communication between pregnant woman and foetal entity, allowing for and recognising their difference” (2001, p 202). She continues: “The placenta … offends and refigures bodily integrity and boundaries, it allows for at least two to work together at the site of one, while preventing against a collapse into singularity” (2001, p 202).

Imagine two subjects—let’s call them the ideal academic and the leaky mother—in a shared (university) space.

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Image: the University of Sydney law school, location of the conference.

You can read more about the placenta project online, and see more of the conference on Twitter #beyondmotheringmyths.