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]

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!

Looking forward

The great thing about my work is that it includes what I most enjoy—reading, speaking, writing and listening. I am back in the office (part-time during January so I can settle the kids into new schools and new routines) and starting to fill my calendar for the year. My colleague Mitch Parsell (who blogs at The conflict of the faculties, a title taken from an essay by Kant) has been articulating his 2019 priorities via Twitter, and included this KonMari-inspired one:

I must confess that I have not read The life-changing magic of tidying up, nor watched Marie Kondo’s netflix series, but the housekeeping rituals that spark joy are appealing (or at least the vision of an ideal home is attractive, even as the privilege of curating your laundry in a beige non-place gives pause).

I have written about housekeeping and academia on this blog, as well as the pleasure of work on many occasions. Finding what ‘sparks joy’ has other names in academic contexts: MacLure’s potential for wonder in qualitative research, Barnett’s poetic and utopian universities, and (closer to home) Honan, Henderson and Loch on moments of pleasure.

As I wrote last year, I am not one for resolutions, but I am looking forward to many things in February that I anticipate will spark joy, including:

  • joining the Idea of the University reading group

This is a fortnightly online discussion hosted by Jeanette Fyffe who has written about it in ‘Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable’ (2018) and, with Tai Peseta and Fiona Salisbury, in Interrogating the “Idea of the University” Through the Pleasures of Reading Together (2019). Each week a different reading is under discussion, and previous authors have included Raewyn Connell, Martin Nakata, Barbara Grant, Ronald Barnett and Ruth Barcan among others. The organisers describe the reading group as “aim[ing] to resuscitate the pleasures involved in university colleagues reading together”.

  • meeting with Higher Education scholars

In previous posts (Yarning circle and The spirit of research) I have described this informal cross-university network of higher education scholars. Unfortunately I missed October’s meeting on ‘Making place in higher education research’, although I still plan to complete the homework by reading Barbara Grant’s chapter “Going to see”: An academic woman researching her own kind in Lived experiences of women in academia: Metaphors, manifestos and memoir and blogging my response.

  • participating in Making shiFt happen

Organised by Ali Black and Rachael Dwyer, Making shiFt happen is “a 36-hour, Zoom-powered, innovative, non-traditional, transdisciplinary virtual exchange and (un)conference for female academics around the globe. A place for conversation, care, contribution, connection, collaboration, creativity, community and change”. Themes include Contemplative beginnings, Building caring communities, lived experiences of women in academia and reimagining academia). It runs from February 5 to February 6 across multiple timezones. Registration is open now and is only AU$50 for research students and sessional academics ($150 for full-time academics).

  • writing with the Academic Identities conference research team

Following the wonderful Peaceful University conference in Hiroshima last year, the Academic identities project teams are meeting over four days in Melbourne. We plan to collaborate on journal articles based on our presentations at the conference (Jamie Burford gave a detailed summary of these papers at Conference Inference).

These are just the special events scheduled for February. I also plan to enjoy everyday tasks of meeting with colleagues, developing curricula, planning and writing. Writing this list, however, has reminded me that I will need to practice slow academia.

Even so, my (reading) life does not look much like Marie Kondo’s:

Rather this, which encapsulates another Japanese concept, tsundoku or unread books piling up:




Against all advice

I read a lot of advice for early career academics. Much of it is similar: focus on your research, publish a lot (with an eye to metrics), be prepared to move universities and countries to further your career (or even get a foot in the door), align yourself with institutional values and priorities, develop your personal brand. Several of my previous posts detail the ways in which I haven’t followed this advice—for example, committing career suicide multiple times and living by the pirate’s code. And there are some excellent resources out there with more nuanced advice: Surviving and succeeding as an early career academic is one of my favourites, ImaginePhD is another.

Last week, at an university networking event (I think I was invited to encourage small talk), I spoke with someone who is about to move from a small community-driven workplace into higher education. He’d found the institutional induction alienating, which had increased his nervousness, and he wanted to know if I had any advice on making the transition to working in a large organisation.

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If you work in a university, you don’t need me to tell you they are complex places. They can have mechanistic, organic and bureaucratic elements operating simultaneously, with competing expectations and priorities. In a thought-provoking paper about university management and the traditions of collegial governance, institutional autonomy and academic freedom, Winter (2009) refers to universities as hybrid identities that “attempt to sustain traditional academic cultures while simultaneously promoting and developing corporate ideologies and structures” (p 124). For someone who is used to working in a smaller or more tightly structured organisation, this can feel chaotic.

Winter (2009) distinguishes between the “identities of ‘academic manager’ (values congruent with the managerial discourse) and ‘managed academic’ (values incongruent with the managerial discourse)” (p 121). An academic manager is defined as a professorial position, middle or line manager, who aligns themselves with institutional norms and values (examples of which might include economic rationalism and marketisation). On the other hand, a managed academic is described as being disengaged with the institution and holding a greater commitment to their discipline and professional identity (which might be determined by scholarship, intellectual curiosity, a community of practice, or student learning). This binary thinking is reductionist—I would argue most academics move between these positions—but serves to illustrate the competing aspects of being an individual within a complex workplace.

My suggestions over canapés were an attempt to understand and manage these tensions:

1. Join some committees

This is a risky strategy—academic housekeeping can be thankless, time consuming and a distraction from more highly valued work (especially for women). I have nonetheless found working on committees, particularly when new to a role, a valuable way to meet people and learn a lot in a short time. Before you go in: know the committees available to you, have an understanding what they do and where they fit in the structures of academic governance and give your tenure on the committee a sunset date (two years is common in my neck of the woods).

2. Chat with people over a cuppa

You will never again have as few emails or meetings as you do in your first few weeks in a new role. The people I spoke with at last week’s event had very different orientation and induction experiences. Some were not even introduced to colleagues! If you find yourself in this position, have a couple of cups of tea a day and introduce yourself to everyone who comes along. If you are unlucky enough to be working somewhere without a tearoom, spend time in corridors, lobbies or doorways. Some awkward and confused lurking may be forgiven in a newbie, and these thoroughfares offer opportunities to meet people, introduce yourself and move on (or linger, depending on how well the conversation goes).

You can also request a chat, ideally over coffee and a walk around campus, with people you will be working for, with or alongside. Introduce yourself, conversationally share some of your past work and your ideas for your new role, and have a mental list of what you want to ask them: what are they working on? What are their expectations of your role? Is there anyone in particular they think you should talk to?

This advice will not make you an academic superhero, but it may help you orient yourself in a large organisation and find some like-minded souls.


Housekeeping (at home and work)

This post is a way of exploring some contradictory thinking about housekeeping.

In my last post on strategies for working during tough times, the small, shallow, short-term tasks I identified can be understood as a type of academic housekeeping. At work, as at home, women tend to do more of it, and it holds less value than other tasks:

[It] receives little recognition within the process of academic career making or within the definition of academic excellence … Higher ranked academics are better equipped to regulate some of their academic housework … [which] includes tasks that relate to giving back to the community, various teaching and research-related activities, administrative work and gender equality initiatives (Heijstra, Steinthorsdóttir and Einarsdóttir, 2017) .

In a recent Pracademic blog post on time management, Karina Luzia wrote:

For people who work in and with their heads and/or do work where there is often little directly observable effect or impact, housework, especially the kind that makes a visible difference to chaos, is strongly recommended.

I find housekeeping both comforting (for its routine, impact and calm) and discomforting (for its relentlessness, obligation and gendering).

One of the books I read for English in high school was Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping. My memory of reading it is strangely vivid, almost as though I knew it was a book I would return to throughout my life. The novel follows two girls whose mother commits suicide, leaving them in the care of their chaotic Aunt Sylvie. Robinson describes Sylvie’s slapdash approach to housekeeping:

Sylvie talked a great deal about housekeeping. She soaked all the tea towels for a number of weeks in a tub of water and bleach. She emptied several cupboards and left them open to air, and once she washed half the kitchen ceiling and a door. Sylvie believed in stern solvents, and most of all in air. It was for the sake of air that she opened doors and windows, though it was probably through forgetfulness that she left them open. It was for the sake of air that on one early splendid day she wrestled my grandmother’s plum-coloured davenport into the front yard, where it remained until it weathered pink (1980, p 85).

Sylvie inhabiting a house is described by her niece as being “like a mermaid in a ship’s cabin.  She preferred it sunk in the very element it was meant to exclude.  We had crickets in the pantry, squirrels in the eaves, sparrows in the attic” (1980, p 99).

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Feminist theorist Iris Marion Young described growing up in the 1950s with a mother who did not clean:

Our two-bedroom apartment was always dirty, cluttered, things all over the floors and piled on surfaces, clothes strewn around the bedroom, dust in the corners, in the rugs, on the bookcases; the kitchen stove wore cooked-on food … My mother spent her days at home reading books, taking a correspondence course in Russian, filling papers with codes and calculations.  She seemed to me an inscrutable intellectual … I was mortified then by her weirdness, sitting in her chair reading and writing, instead of cooking, cleaning and ironing, mending like a real mom.  (2005, p 125-126).

In these examples, housework and motherwork are inextricably linked. For Young, the lack of a “real mom” became a reality when, after the sudden death of her father, she and her siblings were removed from their mother, who was charged with neglect and subsequently jailed:

The primary evidence of neglect was drinking and a messy house.  We ate well enough, had clean enough clothes, and a mother’s steady love, given the way she gave it: playing ping-pong, telling bible stories, playing twenty questions.  We were a family in need of support, but we children were not neglected (2005a, p 127).

Ultimately, the family was reunited —after the death of their foster father: “Headed now only by a woman, our foster family instantly became a bad environment for us; they shipped us back to my mother without warning” (2005, p 128).  Encountering the film version of Robinson’s Housekeeping, Young felt as if she had come home.

I grew up with the opposite experience: a house kept by a mother with boarding school precision. I can only ever fall short of these high standards. I was consequently amused to read French philosopher Michèle Le Dœuff’s criticism of Luce Irigaray’s work as prepatory for a life of domesticity: “Those who feel strong and hope to find employment, a place in the professional world, and a satisfactory level of material independence prefer Simone de Beauvoir” (2003, p 65).  I haven’t found my PhD on Irigaray’s work has particularly improved my housekeeping. What has helped? Outsourcing some of it, following advice on how to keep academic women scientists in the lab where they belong.