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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Staying in place

I taught my first tutorial at my current university eighteen years ago. In academia, there’s something shameful in admitting you’ve stayed in one university. Being deeply rooted is an anathema in higher education. I have been on the receiving end of this advice many times: if you want to succeed/ thrive/ stay employed, you must move/ be mobile/ remain unfettered.

The precarity of employment in higher education makes moving a necessary choice for many. (Although I disagree with the framing, this piece from Stylish Academic includes questions to evaluate your mobility: Am I healthy enough to live a mobile academic life? Do I enjoy living alone for long stretches of time? Can I live without pets?) Staying in one place may well mean re-evaluating your ideas about success in academia. It is not always the comfortable choice but, in my experience, rarely means staying still. I have had countless jobs in the one university: tutor, research assistant, project manager, lecturer, teaching fellow, and now associate dean. I started working in the coffee shop as an undergraduate!

On the weekend, I attended a beautiful memorial service for a colleague, Linda Kerr, who recently died, too early, after living with cancer for many years. Linda was strongly connected to Macquarie University and the National Tertiary Education union. She called the union the soul of the university. She had planned the memorial herself, which ended with fireworks overlooking the water at Clarkes Point Reserve, Woolwich. The photos below were taken by Nikki Balnave. Along with family and friends, our colleague Cathy Rytmeister spoke about Linda’s commitment and generosity.



I’ve been thinking about our connections to places, people, and universities in particular, since Linda’s memorial.

Last year, I missed a meeting of the Sydney-based informal higher education scholars network on ‘Making place in higher education research’ hosted by Geidre Kligyte and Jan MacLean at the University of Technology. They defined place as being about ‘a space that has been made meaningful’ and shared Ilaria Vanni Accarigi’s website on Place-based Methodologies:

We can think of place with art and cultural critic Lucy Lippard as ‘latitudinal and longitudinal within the map of a person’s life. It is temporal and spatial, personal and political. A layered location replete with human histories and memories, place has width as well as depth. It is about connections, what surrounds it, what formed it, what happened there, what will happen there (Lippard 1997, p. 7).

This has also been a prompt to catch up with some reading I set myself, including a call for a ‘placeful’ university (Nørgård and Bengtsen, 2016):

Rather than considering the university as physical architectural spatiality (concrete) or imagined articulated space (concept), it might be fruitful to approach the university as place, considering the ways people may dwell within institutional settings, bringing values, concerns and forms of engagement of a broader societal character into the academic context, and vice versa.

Vanni Accarigi’s extended definition of place is worth pondering. I love geographer Doreen Massey’s term ‘throwntogetherness’ (the way in which different elements, human, non-human, social, environmental, cultural and political come together to define a here and now) to think about the experiences of being a part of a university.

Here and now, I take a moment to remember Linda, and look out the window while eating lunch—sumac orange chicken, chickpeas in tomato sauce and couscous—before walking through the drizzle to a meeting.









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).

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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?


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.