Always interruptable

I’m halfway through reading Sarah Knott’s Mother: An Unconventional History (published elsewhere as Mother is a Verb). This was initially homework for the academic identities cultural history project—each member of the team read a different book (there’s a cultural history of almost everything you can imagine: sex, food, weather, places, objects, actions)—but I have become deeply immersed in this book.

The author Sarah Knott is an academic, historian, feminist mother. The book combines history, specifically motherhood in the UK and US from around the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries, and memoir (Knott had her first child while researching and writing the book). This is history with a ‘small h’ based on anecdotes, incomplete texts, traces and fragments. The focus is very much on the sensory, the “tactile experience” of caring for infants in the past. I can almost smell the close four-room house during the Depression era, where wet nappies were dried in front of the fire without being washed.

One of my favourite children’s books, now sadly out of print, is Marion Halligan’s The Midwife’s Daughters. I bought it over twenty years ago at Better Read than Dead in Sydney’s Newtown (when the bookstore, and I, were young).

“When I was a girl,” says the midwife, “back in the Old Country, the mothers took the nappies off the babies and hung them in front of the fire to dry.”

“What!” say the daughters. “Didn’t they wash them first?”

“No they didn’t,” says the mother. “Back in the Old Country”—she means England—”it was damp and cold and hard to wash things and harder still to dry them so you took the nappies off the babies and hung them on the guard in front of the fire to dry and put them back on. Not the pooey ones of course.”

“Yuk,” say the daughters of the midwife, wrinkling their noses. “The smell! The smell of old pee!”

And the poor little babies, wearing those stiff and stinky nappies! Their poor little bottoms got red and raw and they cried in the damp, dark houses, they yelled and screamed and roared, and the houses got smaller and colder and darker for all the noise of the sore-bottomed babies howling in them.

In Mother, Knott’s narrative follows the experience of pregnancy, birth and early infancy. A chapter on the hidden history of mothering in the middle of the night, traced through bedding, nighttime arrangements and sleeping patterns, ends with this sentence: “8.20. 10. 11.45. 2. 5. 5.40. And then we are up.”

My son was small when he was born full-term: five and half pounds, or not quite two and half kilograms. I tracked his feeds on an app: time awake, left breast, time taken, right breast, time taken, time back to sleep. He fed slowly and, it felt, continuously. He doubled his weight in six weeks. I deleted the app about eighteen months later when, still exhausted, I looked back and realised that in his early days I had spent over eight hours in every twenty-four breastfeeding. Six years on, and far from those nights, I wish I had kept the record.

The book invites these recollections. Reading it brought back the experience of caring for newborns in a visceral way.

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Of interest to readers of this blog, Knott also documents the intersections of academic work and pregnancy. On planning to have children:

The clock tower outside the window shows ten to the hour. University students hurry to late summer classes, their feet flattening pathways across the parched grass. I’m in a heated conversation with a colleague, a close friend, about life and work.

If I have children, I am not sure if I’ll have one or two, I announce, a little too brightly.

This is slightly fraught territory. We both know—or at least, I think we both know—that surveys suggest men with partners and children, like him, progress very well in our workplace. Women with children, not so much. Their success rate slows, falling behind those of childless men and women,

His retort is bemused and a touch impatient: You choose to have one first.

Indeed. The baby or babies don’t always follow your plans.

On the slowing success of academic mothers, there has been much written. Challenges for academic women, and mothers in particular, include maintaining research trajectories during career interruptions; proportionally higher teaching workloads; concentration at lower levels, in casual and contract positions; and contributions to university service, academic and domestic ‘housekeeping’, emotional labour and care within and beyond the academy. Further reading: Young and Wright, 2001; Williams, 2005; Grant, 2006; Toffoletti and Starr, 2016; Amsler and Motta, 2017. Titles include “I’ve worked very hard and slept very little” (Fothergill and Feltey, 2003) and “I just couldn’t fit it in” (Probert, 2005).

In Acker and Armenti’s (2004) “Sleepless in Academia”, Canadian women academics reveal late nights, obstructive institutional practices, and feeling “frenzied, fatigued and malcontent” (p 13).  In an article that was surprisingly vexatious to many, Australian academics Klocker and Drozdzewski (2012) ask: “How many papers is a baby worth?” The answer, after some deliberation, is approximately 2.4 depending on previous output. Ward and Wolf-Wendel (2004) sum up the experience of American academic mothers at research-intensive universities with the phrase “dark clouds and silver linings”. They identify four commonalities: (a) joy in professional and personal roles, (b) the “greedy” nature of academic and family life, (c) watching the clock, and (d) that having children puts work into perspective (2004, p 241). Oh, yes, watching the clock.

But the story is complex.

In an international comparison of research output, Aiston and Jung (2015) found that women average fewer publications than male colleagues; on the issue of motherhood, however, academic mothers produced more research output than women colleagues without children (although this differed across disciplines and countries). Examining why this data seems counter-intuitive, they suggest that one explanation for women’s under-performance as a whole lies in inequitable workloads.

Workload in academia is more complex than it first appears. In a study of Australian academic women, Dobele, Rundle-Thiele and Kopanidis (2014) demonstrate that workloads are equitable between men and women, but inequity is evident according to academic position. That is, women “outperform” men within their academic ranking suggesting that “women are not getting promoted on the basis of workload performance” (p 465).

While pregnant, Knott writes of work sliding away:

I am still working: sitting on the table at the front of the lecture hall, seemliness gone. Work is sliding away from me. There is a last set of students essays to evaluate. I stir myself to deduce final marks even though my ind shrinks away from the narrow lists of numbers and into the expanse of my trunk.

I never want pregnancy to be over. We defy mathematics: one plus one equals one. I am myself and not myself; I am eating for two. The relation I have to this extra life is not unlike that I have to my dreams and thoughts, which I can tell K or a friend, but which cannot be an object for us in the same way. I am happier than usual, though I cry easily.

I cannot wait for pregnancy to be over so I can feel normal again: hug my sweetheart, cross my legs. I bump crossly into older habits, only to find the way blocked by my body sticking out before me—hard belly on my thigh as I lean to tie a shoelace, a pull from my side on turning to check the front door is properly shut.

This is a luxurious tangle of feelings.

Finally, the title of this post. Always interruptible. I wrote this post, on and off, interrupted by the tasks of looking after children in the evening of the last day of a long school term. The relentless and formative interruptions of maternity constitute its main condition, suggests Professor of Psychosocial Theory Lisa Baraitser. Her books Maternal Encounters: The ethics of interruption (1989) and Enduring Time (2017) are now added to my reading list. But first to finish Knott’s Mother, after I’ve found some missing size six pyjamas and read some bedtime stories.

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Impressions from the peaceful university

Greetings from Japan! I spent three days last week at the 6th International Academic Identities Conference at the University of Hiroshima. The theme was The Peaceful University: aspirations for academic futures – compassion, generosity, imagination, and creation. 

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This post offers impressions of the conference, its location, the theme and the presentations. The theme was described as follows:

Peace is a concept that invites us to imagine, restore, create, construct and interact. It is not only the absence of violence, but something more sustainable and empathetic (Galtung 1996). Peace building can take place at different levels and often starts to bear fruit only after years of everyday care, which must continue even after seeing the fruits. This conference starts with an invitation: how can we envision a ‘peaceful’ future higher education and academic identities? What are we aspiring after as dwellers of the university and how are we going about it?

The location in Hiroshima, site of the first atom bomb attack in 1945, challenged the definition of peace. Conference organiser Machi Sato, Associate Professor in the Research Institute for Higher Education at Hiroshima University, defined peace as a process of having difficult conversations and collectively imagining a better future. I took some photographs of the atomic bomb (Genbaku) dome, the only structure left standing at the bomb site, which has been carefully preserved as a memorial.

Presenters at the conference did not shy away from asking critical questions about compassion, generosity, imagination, and creation in university contexts. As with most conferences, I missed more sessions than I was able to attend. This was compounded by presenting too many papers myself, something I hope to guard against in future. Those sessions I did attend were thought-provoking, discomforting, enjoyable and challenging.

The keynote speakers ranged across complex ideas.

I have presented ideas from the keynotes in tweets because I use Twitter as a condensed form of note-taking. You can see the Twitter discussion at #ACIDC18.

  1. Professor Emeritus Takashi Hata, Hiroshima University & Tohoku University,
    Issues with Identities of Japanese Academic Professions – Who are they?

2. Dr Swee Lin Ho, National University of Singapore, Asian Universities’ Pursuit of World-Class Status and the Social Cost of Ignoring Difference and Diversity Among Academics

3. Professor Bruce Macfarlane, University of Bristol, Restoring the freedom of students to learn in the peaceful university

Here is a taster of some of the presentations I enjoyed, which will be the subject of future posts:

  • Pushing Academic Identity Development Further: imagination, creativity and ensoulment (Susan Carter, University of Auckland)
  • (Un)becoming academics: stripping down and laying bare, to story spaces of hope (Ali Black & Gail Crimmins, University of the Sunshine Coast; Linda Henderson, Monash University & Janice Jones, University of Southern Queensland)
  • The Art of Generous Scholarship and the Japanese Tea Ceremony (Sally Knowles, Edith Cowan University & Barbara Grant, The University of Auckland)
  • Academics ageing (dis)gracefully: pleasures and pains (Claire Aitchison, University of South Australia; Cally Guerin, University of Adelaide; Anthony Paré, University of British Columbia & Helen Benzie, University of South Australia)

You can read the abstracts on the website.

You can also watch a 20 minute video on the history of the conference on YouTube. Here is a short trailer:

Joy

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.

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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.

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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.

Celebrating bluestockings

This week is Bluestocking Week, organised by the National Tertiary Education Union to celebrate women’s achievements in education. You can read more about it here. ‘Bluestocking’ was originally a derogatory term to describe intellectual or literary woman, as Jeannie Rea writes:

The term originates from the latter part of the 18th century as women started organising literary societies in their homes and began campaigning for women’s access to university and more generally for women’s rights to equality in work, under the law and access into the parliaments. Many of the English middle and upper class leaders of the suffragist and suffragette movements started out in or were influenced by these literary societies, as were some of the male supporters of women’s rights. Indeed the term ‘blue stocking’ is often attributed to a male member of the circle who arrived at meetings in his everyday worsted wool blue stockings rather than white silk ones usually worn by men when meeting with men. This was taken up as distinguishing the women’s initiative.

This year’s theme is ‘Bluestocking women change the rules’, which followed nicely from July’s NAIDOC Week’s celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders with the theme ‘Because of her we can!’ (Recommended reading: here are some deadly women).

I was fortunate enough to celebrate at a University of New South Wales lunchtime talk. I actually started writing my presentation a year ago, when I was scheduled to talk at UNSW’s 2017 Bluestocking event. It was a year ago that my daughter’s epilepsy worsened and she had the first of many hospitalisations. I spoke about care and undercare in the academy from my own experience and my research. In light of the theme on rule-changing, I also talked about slow academia, activism in the academy and virtuous naughtiness. I recommended reading Rosalind Gill’s Breaking the silence: the hidden injuries of neoliberal academia, Kathleen Lynch’s Carelessness: A hidden doxa of higher education, and Alison Mountz and colleagues’ For Slow Scholarship: A Feminist Politics of Resistance through Collective Action in the Neoliberal University.

It was a privilege to hear from Zora Simic, feminist scholar extraordinaire, who presented a global historical perspective on feminist activism. She shared examples from Aboriginal women activists in Australia, and took us on a whirlwind tour of Canada, Poland, Latin America, Ireland and South Korea. This was a wonderful, all too brief, learning opportunity. Zora also wished Madonna happy 60th birthday. You can see some of Zora’s slides on this Twitter thread.

Happy Bluestocking week to all rule-changers! Bluestocking, an online journal of women’s history, looks like a great place to learn more.