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!

Radical self care

It has been quiet on the blog front. During a busy time at work and in life, not posting has been an act of self-preservation and radical self care:

black-and-white stencil of Audre Lorde speaking, with quote above in black text

Here are two extracts from Mindfulness in the Academy that explain what I mean (with thanks to the editors for sharing their work with me).

From Narelle Lemon and Sharon McDonough in a chapter entitled ‘Mindfully Living and Working in the Academy’:

Selfcare in the higher education context is often a dirty word; that is something we don’t talk about, it is something extra, often dropped in the fast-paced nature of work requirements (Berg & Seeber, 2016).

From Monica Taylor and Emily J. Klein’s chapter ‘Tending to Ourselves, Tending to Each
Other: Nurturing Feminist Friendships to Manage Academic Lives’:

We embrace the feminist ethic of care drawing from the work of Lorde (1988) and Ahmed (2014) and have adopted “self-care as warfare” as our mantra … Caring for ourselves, each other, and our colleagues and students is a politically disruptive activity within an academy which devalues such practices (Mountz et al. 2015). We understand that our own self care is part of the work of caring for others.

And a note to mindfulness skeptics, who hate the way in which self-care is co-opted by neoliberalism, I hear you. More on what self-care has looked like for me in a future post. In the meantime, look after yourself.

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.

Related image

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.

Out the back door

Image source: Judy Horacek. (Love her work).

This post is drawn from my experiments with academic writing practices in a recent book chapter: “Academic Writing from the Depths: An autoethnographic and organisational account” in Academic Writing and Identity Constructions (edited by Louise Thomas and Anne Reinertsen). In a previous post, I described why I enjoy writing book chapters (which ‘count’ less than journal articles in metricised academia): I relish the chance to play while writing.

Last week I experienced experimental writing from the other side: as a reviewer of a work that defied the conventions of academic texts by including poetry, song, and art, and using unexpected styles, fragments, narratives, metaphors and allusions. It was an uncomfortable position to occupy, especially for an academic reviewer. I have been mulling over this difficult (but enjoyable) reading experience all week.

In the wonderfully metaphorical essay “Birds, Women and Writing”, French feminist philosopher Hélène Cixous (2004) refers to opening “the back door of thought” to the “nether realms” (p 169), a dangerous place where the unthought, the risky and the impossible can be imagined. She suggests that writing comes from “deep inside” this space:

It is deep in my body, further down, behind thought. Thought comes in front of it and closes it like a door. This does not mean it does not think, but it thinks differently from our thinking and speech. Somewhere in the depths of my heart, which is deeper than I think. Somewhere in my stomach, my womb. (2004, p 172)

In “The Laugh of the Medusa”, Cixous (1981) coins the phrase écriture feminine: “Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing … Woman must put herself into the text” (1981, p 246). This process of écriture feminine has two aims: “to break up, to destroy; and to foresee the unforeseeable, to project” (p 246) Luce Irigaray (1993) uses the similar term parler-femme (speaking as woman): “I am a woman. I write with who I am” (p 53).

Tracing her inner reveries about women and writing, Cixous finds herself thinking about birds, swarming outside threateningly and joyfully like ideas. To understand the association, Cixous (2004) turns to the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament, where birds are unclean, forbidden for human consumption, otherworldly:

Let those birds be “abominable”: I associate women and writing with this abomination. I do this, of course, half playfully, half seriously. It is my way of indicating the reserved, secluded, or excluded path or place where you meet those beings I think are worth knowing while we are alive (pp. 168-169)

Birds on campus. © Jennifer Vu. Image source.

If you seek to join the exalted company of writing women, if you go outside towards the birds, if you enter the “nether realms” of the unthought and the impossible, Cixous (2004) writes: “you no longer belong to the world. Out there we shall be in the company of swans, storks, and griffons” (p. 171). This space is “somewhere in that most evasive of countries without precise address, the one that is most difficult to find and work with, and where it is even difficult to live without effort, danger, risk” (2004, p. 169). When writing, I follow Cixous: inside, into the depths of embodied writing experience; and outside, towards the birds, into the university.

(I recommend Rowena Murray’s ‘It’s not a hobby’ and Helen Sword’s Air and Light and Time and Space if you want to think about these ideas of writing and academic work).

I walk the campus. My favourite place is a remnant turpentine ironbark forest that clings to the edge. On the way, I watch the birds. The masked lapwings, who lay their delicate eggs on the ground and defend them energetically, occupy the grassy areas of the campus; large ibis and brush turkeys dominate spaces frequented by students; and in a feat of defensive cooperation, one duck couple have managed to keep a dozen ducklings alive. Like Cixous, I relish the outside:

Those who belong to the birds and their kind (these may include some men), to writings and their kind: they are all to be found—and a fair company it is too—outside (2004, pp. 168-169).

© Patrick Wiecks. Source: Australian Geographic Wildlife on Campus.

What do you find when you open the back door of thought?