Wearing academic life

The prompt for my recent Making ShiFt Happen panel discussion with Catherine Manathunga and Janet Hope was:

Reimagining academia … Like [the pleasure of wearing] a loose-fitting garment – finding liberating and enabling ways to wear an academic life

During the session I spoke of my maternal grandmother, a dress-maker who created garments for my mother and her sisters from a sketch or an image in a magazine. Her grand-daughters and great-grand-daughters do not share her skill, but many of us alter our shop-bought clothing in one way or another. And we have an abiding interest in clothing design, fabrics, accessories and the indefinable elements of style. I was thinking of these associations when I considered how women wear academia and shape it to fit comfortably.

I am very slowly reading from the pile of books on my desk (although I keep adding more so it never diminishes). This week I read Frances Kelly’s chapter ‘The lecturer’s new clothes: an academic life, in textiles’ from Lived Experiences of Women in Academia. (I also started Linda Grant’s The Thoughtful Dresser, which I gave to my mother for Christmas along with a cork tote bag).

IMG_2651 Image result for lived experience of women in academia Image result for cork tote bag flora fauna

In her chapter, Fran mentions blogs that discuss academic dress, including  Thesis Whisper and Tenure, She Wrote. Others add to this: The Professor Is In now hosts Makeup Monday, Stylish Academic takes fashion seriously, and Pat Thomson (of Patter) co-blogs with Amanda Heffernan at Women, Wardrobes and Leadership which looks at the clothing choices of school leaders. In common, these blogs see fashion as worthy of intellectual attention (ethics, performance, power, identity politics) and often have an explicit feminist focus.

Fran sums up the importance of clothing in academic contexts as an object of research and a representation of an ‘academic’ identity:

Clothes demand greater scholarly attention precisely because they are personally meaningful and of such significance in the social and public world; they exist on the borders of the inner and outer dimensions of experience.

In the chapter, which is a pleasure to read, Fran shares four vignettes of garments that represent points of transition in her academic life—being a PhD candidate (a neo-Victorian skirt), becoming a mother (a brown apron), teaching (a long dress with sleeves, a fitted waist and a full skirt) and promotion to senior lecturer (a blue woven shirt with threads of black and white). In the final vignette, she writes:

Blue is a good colour to work in, in the university: it is associated with truth and knowledge, with heaven. It is also blue-collar, denim overalls … I was raised by two teachers at the end of the social-democratic decades in Aotearoa; I want to be connected to my academic work, my teaching, research , the committees vital to academic citizenship and the democratic university …

Fran writes of her Senior Lecturer wardrobe: “Definitely no florals”. Mine is the opposite. Today I am wearing a dress that always makes me think of a childhood neighbour, Mrs Canning. It’s a blue floral linen shift with pockets. It somehow evokes my memories of the aprons Mrs Canning wore, and her delicious lamingtons. It feels both utilitarian (linen, pockets) and frivolous (bright floral). This reminder of domestic life sits comfortably as I attend events that mark International Women’s Day and my university’s gender equity week.


What are you wearing today?


Thoughtful citations

Following Making shiFt happen and a meeting of the Higher education scholars last week, I have been thinking about my practices as a higher education researcher, and the ways in which I can evidence my values. Citation practices are one example.

In Living A Feminist Life (2017), Sara Ahmed is explicit about the politics of citation:

In this book, I adopt a strict citation policy: I do not cite any white men. By white men I am referring to an institution … My citation policy has given me more room to attend to those feminists who came before me. Citation is feminist memory. Citation is how we acknowledge our debt to those who came before; those who helped us find our way when the way was obscured because we deviated from the paths we were told to follow. In this book, I cite feminists of color who have contributed to the project of naming and dismantling the institutions of patriarchal whiteness …

I read further on citation practices: a call for “conscientious engagement” as a means of resisting “unethical hierarchies of knowledge” production (Mott and Cockayne, 2017) and an invitation to “a collaborative and potentially intimate and caring practice” for citing trans scholars (Thieme and Saunders, 2018).

In my field, there’s Hart and Metcalfe’s (2010) “Whose Web of Knowledge™ is it Anyway?: Citing feminist research in the field of higher education”. The focus is slightly different: who cites feminist research in higher education? The authors note that Tight’s (2008) analysis of higher education researchers shows “no women … on his list of the 24 most cited higher education authors”. Hart and Metcalfe analyse citations for six feminist journal articles in American higher education journals in the 1990s, finding a greater number of citations from outside the discipline than from within. They conclude:

We wonder if the methods employed by some feminist scholars (auto-ethnography or personal narrative) preclude their publication in “top tier” journals, which give preference to positivist and empirical research? And, what is the influence of feminist work in higher education on students, administrators, and policy makers?… We call for additional research to help us understand who identifies with (and reads and cites) feminist scholars in the field of higher education. As higher education scholars, we are encouraged that work from our field is appreciated in other contexts, but where is the feminist community in higher education?

I read these works after I experimented with thoughtful citation 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. (I haven’t yet received my copy, but I am looking forward to reading the other chapters).

I cite women more than men in the chapter—of the 36 references, 10 are by male authors and include works co-authored with women. This may be a methodological influence (autoethnography, guided by the work of French feminist Hélène Cixous on writing), but given the focus of the book, I felt able to experiment with the conventions of academic writing. Here’s an extract:

I adopt a method of ‘thinking through writing’ or ‘writing along the way’—“writing that is intended to sort out what we think, why, and what the implications of a line of thought might be” (Thomson & Kamler, 2010, p. 149). My methodology finds inspiration in the feminist politics of Black, Crimmins and Henderson’s (2017) memory work and the experimental bricolage of Handsforth and Taylor (2016). These collaborative texts demonstrate models for writing differently as a means of navigating academia …

I want to cite another book I read while writing this chapter: Lipton and MacKinlay’s (2017) We Only Talk Feminist Here. Its influence on this chapter is subtle, but crucial. This type of reading alongside academic writing, where a text is not directly cited, is usually not acknowledged. But as part of the process of writing about writing, the impact of intertexts has weight. Lipton and MacKinlay’s (2017) work “tell[s] a different story about the neoliberal university”  from multiple feminist perspectives (p vii). It is a text that demands multiple readings, and I am letting its ideas resonate while I continue to write.

While reading about feminist citation practices, I came across a Citation Practices Challenge that challenges our lack of thought (“Over time, our citation practices become repetitive; we cite the same people we cited as newcomers to a conversation”). I have set myself the challenge of citing feminist, Aboriginal Australians and Asian writers.

This starts with reading—I welcome recommendations for academic texts—and applies to fiction as well. I plan to read the Stella Prize longlist again this year, although I note the panel wished for “more representations of otherness and diversity from publishers; narratives from outside Australia, from and featuring women of colour, LGBTQIA stories, Indigenous stories, more subversion, more difference.” (Whispering Gums has a thoughtful post about this comment).

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Thinking and forgetting

I have had a few forgetting incidents in the last couple of weeks: a word (artifact, thanks to Kylie who reminded me twice), names (sorry Adwar!) and scheduling mistakes. Perhaps it is the heat (it’s scorching in Sydney right now, with a forecast of 38ºC in my suburb today), age (the oldest I’ve ever been), holiday mode or cognitive overload.

In a discussion about superpowers on a family bushwalk, although tempted by flight and shape-shifting, I picked ‘remembering everything I’ve ever learned’. (We were then allowed a bonus superpower: I can also turn into a bird!)

So much forgetting! In the interests of remembering, here are some ideas previously blogged that I want to revisit. For the theory buffs, this is an example of Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizomatic thinking: non-hierarchical, random, multiple, interconnected, breaking apart and reforming in different places and directions.

Tseen Khoo’s reflections on not going for promotion and Barbara Grant’s keynote at HERDSA last year (in which she described stepping back from positional leadership)  have been rattling around my mind. When is it worth taking on leadership roles? Are gendered factors at work here? Can a drive to effect change be sustained? What are the interconnections between leadership and activism—both affordances and limitations?

In my co-authored paper with Cathy Rytmeister on academic activists, our eponymous Rosie exhorted her colleagues to be brave. It is worth re-quoting her words, which continue to give pause:

Be brave. Be brave Sometimes speaking out is your best defence. Passivity allows you to be pushed around … Get as involved as you can and don’t give up hope. Spend time with people who you feel believe the same things as you do, because that’s affirming and strengthening, but balance that with spending time talking to people who don’t, because that grounds you in reality … Keep people around you who will challenge you. If you move into a position of power, if you have any power, own that power …

In a recent discussion, colleagues and I talked about the importance of being constructively disagreeable (something like virtuous naughtiness, I think). One of the problems of leadership (and this, perhaps especially, includes good leadership) is that those in charge are rarely interrupted. Musing out loud, thought bubbles, flights of fancy, anecdotes—take note of who is allowed to do these things in meetings you attend.

Take particular note if that person is you! I am reminded of Maggie Nelson’s comments in The Argonauts:

Sometimes, when I’m teaching, when I interject a comment without anyone calling on me, without caring that I just spoke a moment before, or when I interrupt someone to redirect the conversation away from an eddy I personally find fruitless, I feel high on the knowledge that I can talk as much as I want to, as quickly as I want to, in any direction that I want to, without anyone overtly rolling her eyes at me or suggesting I go to speech therapy. I’m not saying this is good pedagogy. I am saying that its pleasures are deep.

A rhizome: How can leaders resist the high of talking in any direction they want? How can they let go of that deep pleasure and listen more? How is constructive disagreement made possible?

Another rhizome: Keep people around you who will challenge you. I often wish I could hire a heckler to make challenging comments and ask difficult questions at events and meetings.  Less often, I want to be that heckler.

Still more: Be brave, especially when you are a ‘woman who makes a fuss’ (as Niki Harré, Barbara M. Grant, Kirsten Locke and Sean Sturm describe in The university as infinite game). To read: Women Who Make a Fuss (2014). The blurb reads:

Virginia Woolf, to whom university admittance had been forbidden, watched the universities open their doors. Though she was happy that her sisters could study in university libraries, she cautioned women against joining the procession of educated men and being co-opted into protecting a “civilization” with values alien to women. Now, as Woolf’s disloyal (unfaithful) daughters, who have professional positions in Belgian universities, Isabelle Stengers and Vinciane Despret, along with a collective of women scholars in Belgium and France, question their academic careers and reexamine the place of women and their role in thinking, both inside and outside the university. They urge women to heed Woolf’s cry—Think We Must—and to always make a fuss about injustice, cruelty, and arrogance.

These rhizomes are ideas I am looking forward to hearing discussed at Making ShiFt Happen next week, a 36-hour virtual conference for academic women. (Note that the conference follows AdaCamp and Geek Feminism in seeing women as an inclusive term, and  trans-women, genderqueer women, and non-binary people are welcome). My session, with Catherine Manathunga and Janet Hope, focusses on slow tiny acts of resistance (STARS).

I’m certain that at the beginning of this post there were other ideas I wanted to remember, other rhizomes whose trajectories I wished to follow; but for now, I will sit with partial remembering. I will enjoy a few days leave, and from next week, will discover what it feels like when a slow academic starts working full-time.

ETA: Jamie Burford has recommended the following reading

Sounds good: “Judith Halberstam proposes “low theory” as a mode of thinking and writing that operates at many different levels at once. Low theory is derived from eccentric archives. It runs the risk of not being taken seriously. It entails a willingness to fail and to lose one’s way, to pursue difficult questions about complicity, and to find counterintuitive forms of resistance.” The sample now on my Kindle.