Stories of the self

The second session of the Philosophy and Theory of Higher Education Society (PaTHES) season on slow academia focussed on theorising the self. You can access the slides below.

I started by recapping the first session with a succinct summary of our discussion: start theorising by reading. Two books (covers pictured below) were recommended by participants, and these are now on my reading list.

Each session, I am using a different strategy to prompt a slow start. This time, an autobiographical story that I have told, and retold, multiple times in an attempt to grapple with its meaning. It’s an event that has shaped who I am and how I move through the world: my daughter’s birth and subsequent diagnosis with epilepsy. Most recently, I wrote about this, along with theories of writing and creative non-fiction, and my academic promotion application in an article entitled Details optional: An account of academic promotion relative to opportunity.

I have a previous blog post summarising the article, which responds to Judith Butler’s (2001) ‘Giving an Account of Oneself’. Butler writes:

“If I try to give an account of myself, if I try to make myself recognisable and understandable, then I might begin with a narrative account of my life, but this narrative will be disoriented by what is not mine, or what is not mine alone. And I will, to some degree, have to make myself substitutable in order to make myself recognisable. The narrative authority of the ‘I’ must give way to the perspective and temporality of a set of norms that context the singularity of my story.”

I invited participants in the PaTHES seminar to give an account of themselves by sharing their university stories. I find Tamson Pietsch’s call to rewrite academic biographies a useful prompt to think about the familial, historical and political processes that shape our university stories. As always, these university stories offer fascinating insights into our meandering lives and multiple and changeable selves.

Our discussion of storytelling moved to bell hook’s (1994)Teaching to Transgress and Susan Carter’s (2020)The Place of Stories. These works prompted us to consider how we describe school and university experiences, the games we played as children, and the lessons our early learning taught us. I have previously blogged about these ideas: memories of learning and storytelling.

Finally, I provoked a discussion on how the norms of academia construct us, and how we are complicit in contructing these norms, starting with this statement from my article:

In seeking to have recognition conferred by the Promotions Committee, I am both subject to the norms of academia and ‘the agency of its use’ (Butler 2001, 22). I am simultaneously constructed by and constructing the norms of academia, the social conditions under which the fragmentary, multiple ‘I’ emerges …

Discussions in these sessions are associational, open-ended, questioning and tentative. It’s important that we are able to think aloud and share ideas that are not yet developed. Participants talked about academia as a calling, staying in academia, changing institutions from within, and complicity with neoliberalism. The discussion referenced to ideas from Karl Marx, Max Weber, Friedrich Nietzsche, Hartmut Rosa, Judith Butler, bell hooks and Sara Ahmed.

It’s such a pleasure to talk theory together! In the third session, we spoke about theorising place. A summary post is coming soon.

Voices from the living past

“I think that a mother owes this to her children: to keep in contact with the rest of the world.”

This is the comment of a woman university student that was aired on Australian television in January 1961. My father shared the re-released recording from the ABC program A Woman’s Place. Questions include: Do the two lives of working and caring for children go together? Should women get the same money for doing the same job? Do you expect to find prejudice against the career woman? Could a woman be head of a large organisation?

The answers of the students vary — it wouldn’t be good television if everyone agreed — but their realisation of the challenge of “two lives” is evident. (One thing that has changed, at least to my ears, is the Australian accent, itelf a topic on RetroFocus with responses to Do Australian have a bad accent? in 1961 and 2019).

In another snippet of 1960s television from ABC’s RetroFocus, Australian passersby respond to a (male) university professor’s claim that housewives lead a dull life. One woman replies: “I don’t think it is dull at all … [They] invariably enjoy their game of tennis, bowls or golf.” More than one man suggests there’s a bit of “fun and games on the side.” In response to the question, “Never considered going to work?” an elderly woman replies, “Good heavens no!”

A few years after this aired, when my university was new, an article entitled ‘The Mums of Macquarie’ appeared in The Australian Women’s Weekly on 19 July, 1967. The article read:

More than 150 married women have gone back to study at the new Macquarie University … taking up courses that had been interrupted by family life … There has been many a resignation from neighboring tennis groups and lunch clubs, a Girl Guide captain has abandoned knots and hikes and returned to books, and it is not uncommon to see women with grocery shopping on one arm balancing a basket of books and papers on the other.

The magazine included this image of children at a lecture:

One of my favourite book bloggers, Whispering Gums, recently posted her reflections as a 1970s feminist, and commented about attending Macquarie University:

I chose to go to a new, progressive university (Macquarie) … in my experience women were treated well, there. It had no baggage of “traditions” that the older male-dominated universities had, and its academics seemed invested in creating something new. I think that made a difference. Macquarie’s motto is Chaucer’s “and gladly teche” (from the lines “gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche”). I always thought it a bit strange that the motto focused on “teaching” more than “learning” but now I think it’s inspired, because it reminds the academics that “teaching” is where it all starts.

Whispering Gums finishes her post in a way that is apt here, by quoting Germaine Greer: things have changed, but not enough.

For a bit more on the history of learning and teaching at Macquarie, I recommend listening to this audio recording by my colleague Karina Luzia (the transcript is available here).

I have already blogged about the article Vanessa Fredericks and I co-authored, Tracing the feminist contribution of HERD over 40 years. We highlighted a Burns, Scott and Cooney (1993) article called Higher education of single and married mothers, also focussed on Macquarie students. They wrote:

As university teachers, we are well aware that many of [our] students are single and married mothers, who face the particular problem of integrating study demands with family responsibilities and often, with the demands of paid work as well. The present study was triggered by the experience of the first author in teaching a third year unit, in the course of which I became aware of the life crises being endured by two single mothers, one a sole Parent Pensioner, the other self-employed. As well as financial and child care difficulties, both had health problems, one had an adolescent son in trouble with the police, the other had major responsibility for a seriously ill parent, and both were in litigation with apparently vindictive ex-husbands. Students other than mothers do not usually suffer from this kind of constellation of problems (p. 189).

You can read the full article (open source) here, but for the purposes of tracing the voices of university student mothers, I will highlight the voice of one participant:

Well I have three children. I felt I owed it to them whilst attending college to still give them the same amount of attention and support in both their sport and education areas and maintaining the home. And I was very determined I would never be late for an assignment. And I never was, not one day late. But it was a great strain. I got by on four hours sleep at night some nights. For a long period there five hours was a luxury. I never started to study until the children had had some quality time, which meant I wouldn’t open a book to rewrite lecture notes (and I always wrote every lecture again when I got home, so I’d understand it) so it was probably ten o’clock at night when I started, sometimes midnight … I got very tired. Quite cranky, actually.

For the voices of contemporary student parents, I recommend the work of Marie-Pierre Moreau in which students discuss a lack of time and money, and the challenges of balancing family, study and housekeeping. Tired and cranky. That’s something that hasn’t changed!

Details optional

Academic promotion is based on merit relative to opportunity. On the academic promotion application form at my university, there is a section entitled ‘Relevant Personal Circumstances’. There is space to tick a box labelled ‘Consideration needs to be given to personal circumstances/ career interruptions’ and a text box that can be completed with ‘details (optional)’ …

I have an article in the lastest issue of Life Writing entitled Details optional: An account of academic promotion relative to opportunity which writes between the lines of my recent academic promotion application. I describe eight years as a part-time academic, including a life-threatening birth, a child with epilepsy, secondary infertility, an ectopic pregnancy, an implanted neurostimulator, and a miracle baby. Details optional came together from three sources: my lived experience of parenting; theories of writing and creative non-fiction; and my academic promotion application. The special issue editor Lisa Ortiz-Vilarelle and the two anonymous reviewers were excellent. It is delicate work to provide critical and constructive feedback on intimate writing.

Parenting

In the aftermath of my daughter’s birth fourteen years ago, I became a completely different person. I was unrecognisable to myself. I had nothing in common with the woman I had been before. Not one thought, not one way of moving through the world, not a remnant of myself remained.

The best advice I have received for parenting teenagers (“I surrender”) came in the form of a song by Deborah Conway, recommended by Andie Fox. Conway writes:

No one dies in our song “Serpent’s Tooth” but all these decades later and now as a parent of three daughters, that magnificent quote “how sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child” rings bells of recognition and deepest empathy … Becoming a parent was a kind of alchemy for my deepest being, it exposed the tenderest layers of feeling I had no idea I could have, the deep wells of worry and the tidal waves of love that have no equal … And then comes the teenage years. Lear’s daughters are most likely teenagers, it is certainly a portrait of the kind of carnality that chimes with the teenage experience … [T]he hurt is so much more intense when the stranger before you is your own flesh and blood …

In a creative writing assignment last year, we had a prompt similar to Conway’s stranger of your own flesh and blood. From Georges Polti’s 36 Dramatic Situations (1895), I chose ‘enmity of kin’ which refers to ‘hatred of one who should be loved’ and the ‘savage hate’ of close family bonds. I was thinking of the mother/daughter relationship and how keenly children identify parental flaws. I wrote this micro-fiction:

When Ellie, the youngest, moved out for the first time, her mother decided to tackle the cupboards. The musty smell was spreading. Garbage bags at the ready, she opened the doors. Clothes, clean and dirty, intermingled with papers, cords, rubbish, discarded toys, broken parts and half-finished projects. She sighed. Holding a broken music stand, she imagined redecorating to create a music room. Never mind she didn’t play an instrument. Here was the patchwork quilt she started when the kids were young. Perhaps a sewing room? The thought was thrilling.

Later that afternoon, her musings turned to anger. A plate of unrecognisable food scraps, a spilt bottle of nail polish. She hadn’t even reached the top shelf. Why call it an empty nest? Years of shit, she muttered as she angry-cleaned. Caught at the edge of a wire basket, she found a note in violent purple pen.

It was titled ‘Things I hate about my mother’:

The way she makes everything worse

Sooooooo many stupid rules

How she says the same things over and over and over and over

Her telephone voice: ‘Helloooooooo’

Always sighing

Never buys icecream

NO INTERESTS apart from cleaning.

Writing

Parts of Details Optional were written for another unit on creative non-fiction, which involved reflecting on the craft of writing, memory work, research and ethics. To write the article, I listened to first year cognitive science lectures and read the set text. I reread my daughter’s medical documents and checked my calendar and sporadic writings over the last fourteen years. I practiced ‘imagistic endurance’ described in Miller and Paola’s (2019) Tell It Slant as ‘re-inhabiting’ and remaining in the moment of a memory. I thought about the ethics of life writing. I read the article to my daughter, who agreed that the writing is not really about her; I talk mostly about myself. Thinking about narrative voice, I chose to write in fragments. I changed tenses. It seemed fitting: I am always interruptible. Much was written at the kitchen table, snatched between quotidian tasks.

I framed the article around Judith Butler’s (2001) essay Giving an Account of Oneself , in which she shows that the question ‘What have I done?’ can only be answered by first asking: ‘Who is this ‘I’ who is under an obligation to give an account of itself and to act in certain ways?’ ’ It is impossible, she argues, to give an account of the self without accounting for the social conditions under which the ‘I’ emerges. This allowed me to think critically about the ‘I’ who writes selectively to meet the standards of academic promotion, the conditions of the university under which that ‘I’ emerges, and the fragmented ‘I’ whose lived experience exceeds the narrative confines of academic biographical texts (even when they invite details of personal circumstances).

Academic promotion

In my academic biography and promotion application, I am measured in words and numbers. I have no corporeality. I summarise myself in dot points. I divide myself into headings.

I have been a teaching-focussed academic since my first (fixed term) appointment in 2010. I worked part-time from 2010 to 2018. In the ‘details optional’ text box, this is the only information I provided. Lisa Ortiz-Vilarelle (2020) illustrates a similar contestation in a professorial application, with her life story of pregnancies, illness, and her mother’s death described as “obstacles which have impacted the trajectory of my scholarship”. I am similarly complicit in a process that erases the complexity of the self ‘relative to opportunity’ into two lines specific to academic work

Some of the text of my promotion application is included in the article, including a list of my key strengths: an ability to build and maintain trusted relationships; a willingness to learn and challenge myself and others; an acumen for developing the leadership qualities of others; an ability to manage myself and others effectively during change and uncertainty; and a strength for identifying big picture perspectives and making complex, emotive problems clear and actionable.

I end the article with three paragraphs that acknowledge the many people who supported (and continue to support) my writing, my academic work and my parenting.

Would you like to read the full article? If you don’t have access to an institutional subscription to the journal Life Writing, you will find a free copy here. This is limited to 50 copies; once the link expires you can request an author copy via Researchgate.