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.

Too many papers

This is the final post in a trilogy following the 6th International Academic Identities Conference at the University of Hiroshima. In my first post, I described the conference, its location, theme and keynote presentations. In the second, I highlighted four presentations that stretched my thinking. In this post, I want to share the four papers I presented with colleagues, and issue a stern warning to myself to present fewer papers at future conferences.

Four papers is too many. Having co-authors made it possible (enjoyable even), but  I talked too much, and listened too little. When I was listening, I was too keyed up about my next paper to listen well. One of my papers was on slow academia; practice what you preach and other idioms apply.

  • The solace of slow academia (or breathing room)

This paper was a blend of theory, autoethnography and practical advice.

Theory: Judith Butler and Luce Irigaray make uneasy bedfellows, but reading their work together allows complex ideas to be explored. I read Irigaray’s work on breath awakening selfhood alongside Judith Butler’s relational performativity and slippage of identities.

Autoethnography: Reading, thinking and writing about slow academia and academic activism has become a way to manage the demands of work and the challenges of caring for a sick child.

Practical advice: Listen to this 5 minute meditation before writing, have the same three goals every day, read poetry.

I am using the theoretical work from this for a co-authored book chapter on collective experiences on (non)motherhood and (non)academia.

  • Pressed for time: Doctoral candidates and early career academics’ experiences of temporal anxiety (with Lilia Mantai and Vanessa Fredericks)

The presentation included photos of Eye Shen’s Counting Time I took last month at the sculpture exhibition Hidden in Rookwood Cemetery. (Sydney folks: I can’t recommend this annual event highly enough as a family outing).

In the paper, we used Jacques Derrida’s conception of time and deferral to explore the temporal anxiety experienced by PhD candidates and ECAs, particularly as sessional staff members. For example, a PhD candidate says:

It frustrates me very much because I don’t have the time. It’s been over a year since I’ve been to a conference, which I think is pretty dire. I should have a chapter that’s ready. I should have something published. I should be going to conferences and meeting people but I just don’t feel like I have the time to do it. I do feel like it’s rushed to try and finish in three years. I wish I had more time for the other stuff.

And an early career academic says:

I hope to find a permanent position that allows me to do more research and writing, which is where my prime interest is. At the moment I am a casual lecturer which takes all my time and is financially a catastrophe. I have many ideas for articles, presentations and organising a conference but no time to pursue these goals. The big question is how long one manages to ‘hang in’ before giving up.

Lilia, Vanessa and I are currently writing this up as a journal article. Although it generated some great discussion, it was a bit of a downer, so we need to work on a hopeful ending.

  • Who cares? Gendered care-work and the limits of care at the “friendliest conference in the world” (with James Burford and Jan Smith)
  • Meeting ourselves, meeting the audience and meeting a discipline? (with Jeanette Fyffe)

Jamie has given a detailed summary of these papers which is difficult to top. You can read it at the wonderful blog Conference Inference. Here is his thoughtful comment about the complexities of academics writing about academic work:

While some might see my topic choices as a form of morbid self-absorption, I’ve tended to see this as a desire to begin where I am. Often I find myself using my ordinary environment and practices as a platform for inquiry. I think this can be valuable, as inhabiting a role or position can bring with it lots of questions, and research can be a helpful way to open ourselves up to further curiosity and even the odd answer. Perhaps at a broader level this is something that higher education researchers are always doing, as we go about researching our own profession and working contexts.

Our paper on gendered care and community work at conferences is currently under review. Jeanette and I plan to write our paper as a journal article next year. Right, Jeanette?

The immediacy of the conference and its imperatives are fading. Everyday life and work are taking over. I am trying to hold on to ideas, or at least record them for later. I am also trying to keep a sense of place. My mind returns to an onsen with a view of a rainforest river in torrent…


The brutal concrete building where I studied for my PhD is now a hollow shell, with the promise of a wonderful new space to come in 2020.



Re-reading Alison Phipps (2007) The sound of higher education: sensuous epistemologies and the mess of knowing for my recent post on the senses, I was thinking about how the campus space changes, and the layers of our memory and experience upon it. When I was a PhD candidate, there was a sculpture by Loui Fraser in the courtyard of the building above.  ‘Joy’ was described as the first public sculpture of a prostitute in the world.

Image result for joy sculpture fraser  joy


A journal article by Raelene Frances and Julie Kimber (2008), entitled ‘Joy’: Memorialisation and the limits of tolerance gives a history of the sculpture and the controversy it courted. In 1995, the sculpture was located on the corner of Yurong and Stanley Streets close to Kings Cross, the well-known red light district of Sydney. I remember seeing it here when I was living around the corner in Surry Hills. The repeated victim of vandalism and community outrage, the sculpture was removed by the South Sydney Council after eighteen months and made her way to the university:

Fraser invited offers from private art collectors but decided to decline an invitation from the CEO of Telstra’s Internet department to install Joy on the rooftop of his Sydney office. Instead, she approached the curator of Macquarie University’s Sculpture Park who was enthusiastic about the idea of Joy relocating to North Ryde. The move was also supported by the Women’s Room and the Women’s Department of the University’s Student Council and Joy made her way to her permanent home in April 1997. There she leads a more peaceful, if duller life.

I am not sure where Joy is waiting while the building works are underway, but she is part of the unexpected history of the university, and a reminder of the space the university offers to accommodate art and controversy.

Living academia

Chubb, Watermeyer and Wakeling’s evocatively titled article Fear and Loathing in the Academy describes an aspect of university life that will be familiar to many. With a lively turn of phrase, they explore emotional responses to the research impact agenda in the UK and Australia:

The emotional state of academic labour … [is] frequently portrayed through ‘crisis’ accounts whereby academic identity is at risk of a kind of existential unravelling … In the face of intensifying demands, the ability to distil a ‘true’ sense of academic identity is increasingly difficult – obscured by heightened emotionalism, particularly of fear and dread … When asked to discuss impact, academics expressed emotions ranging from ambivalence and apathy – nervousness and vulnerability – to excitement, love, hate and distrust …

One comment on academics’ emotional investment in their work gave me pause: “To be an academic is to live academia.”

Much has happened in the last fortnight—I have accepted a new role as Associate Dean (Quality) in my Faculty and, putting work in perspective, there has been death and illness in our extended family. Today is the last day of autumn school holidays. The kids and I are mooching and intend to stay in our pyjamas for too long. In between Lego, reading, building a sofa fort, watching Minecraft videos, catching up with friends, housekeeping and cups of tea, I will be doing some work—replying to emails, editing a book chapter, blogging. These tasks are part of the hum of the day, neither urgent nor onerous, but their completion will be a gift to my future self when I need to focus on more pressing things.

I suspect my day would look quite different if I lived academia. I (mostly) enjoy academic work, the university is (mostly) a place that suits me and being scholarly is a part of my everyday life. Chubb at al. prompted me to reflect on my privilege and complicity, and provided an interesting way of thinking about resistance:

For some, existence in the neoliberal academy is less problematic and more easily negotiated … Some academics exhibit either conformist or flexible behaviours in response to the intensification of new managerialism in higher education. ‘Flexians’ are those perhaps most pragmatic and able to moderate their emotional investment in being an academic. Others might construe this as inauthenticity and a preference for playing the game; it might equally be a form of covert transgression.

I actively resist “living academia” as this blog attests. The highlight of the school holidays—which included an exhibition on mammoths, a magic show at the local library, a visit to Cockatoo Island for Biennale, and a number 5 cake covered in decorative bugs—was the ordinary magic of a bushwalk. This is living.