Dark academia

I enjoy reading dark academia — and have previously shared some of 2am reads in that category: Never Saw Me Coming (psychopaths on campus), Plain Bad Heroines (queer gothic on campus), The Love Hypothesis (scientific romance on campus) or Legendborn (magical fantasy on campus). Dark academia is often described (like steampunk) in terms of its aesthetic qualities, but it is also a literary genre. Well-known examples include A. S. Byatt’s Possession and Donna Tartt’sThe Secret History.

There is crossover here with boarding school books and campus novels. Whispering Gums has a great post on Australian campus fiction, sharing a quote from author Diana Reid (Love and Virtue) on the dramatic interest inherent in “a cast of characters who are all young and vulnerable, trying on new ideas and identities … in a confined space.”

I recently read some great (confined space) distractions: A Deadly Education (no teachers, lots of murderous monsters), They Never Learn (murderous teachers), The Society for Soulless Girls (murderous teachers), For Your Own Good (murderous teachers) and Truly Devious (you guessed it). I have many more in this vein waiting to be read (several with ‘violent’ in the title). I call these 2am books because their page turnability makes middle-aged hormonal night waking much more enjoyable.

At other times, I read literary (but still occasionally murderous) matter: My Dark Vanessa, Vladimir, Transcendent Kingdom and Love and Virtue. These are more challenging reads, and prompt discussions of the complexities of belief, grief, abuse, affluence, power and privilege. They make great companion reads to enrich my 2am books. I recommend this brief but thoughtful article on ‘sexy’ privilege in dark academia.

Here’s a wonderful collection of dark academia playlists by a Haitian-American student, ideal for reading, writing, studying and being moody in gloomy weather on campus.

For me, the appeal of dark academia lies in taking the familiar (campuses, classes, assignments, graduations, committees, students and academics) and rendering it strange, magical or dangerous. Like gothic literature, dark academia is concerned with the soul of individuals and institutions. At the risk of sounding too much like the genre, the soul is more poetic than pragmatic, intimate and unknowable, a boundary or a borderline in constant contestation (sacred/ profane, divine/ damned). Dark academia celebrates and pokes fun at the elitism, rituals and rules of academia: esoteric readings, secret societies, and hierarchy and competitiveness. The genre is also, conversely, layered with nostalgia for campus buildings, libraries and lecture theatres, and archaic and complex theory, philosophy and poetry.

There is more to think through here: ideas about academics, students and campuses; our nostalgia, more pressing since pandemic lockdowns, for an immersive vision of the university; ideas of knowledge and learning that infect us; and challenging (or reinforcing) power and privilege through fiction. A good place to start is the scholarly work of Emily F. Henderson and Pauline J. Reynolds on fictitious representations of academic conferences: hierarchical, decadent and conflict prone and reinforcing gender inequalities.

Blogging as a loose-fitting garment

Some good news this week with the publication of a collection Reimagining the Academy edited by Ali Black and Rachael Dwyer. I am looking forward to reading the whole, with its focus on kindness, connection and an ethics of care. The editors describe the focus of the book as “the building of a kinder values-driven academy” which sounds like a palate cleanser!

With Catherine Manathunga, I have a chapter on remaking academic garments. It was written in response to a call to reimagine academia “like [the pleasure of wearing] a loose-fitting garment—finding liberating and enabling ways to wear an academic life.” We describe the ways in which we have let out the seams of academic life, lifted its hems, changed its colour, its shape and texture.

We share some of the work of others which shows that bodies, clothing and makeup in academia are worthy of intellectual attention in relation to ethics, performance, power, and identity politics. See, for example, Thesis Whisperer, Tenure, She Wrote, The Professor Is In’s Makeup Monday, Stylish Academic, and Women, Wardrobes and Leadership.

And in scholarship, Fran Kelly (2018) thoughtfully articulates an ‘academic life, in textiles’, sharing 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, fitted waist and full skirt) and promotion to senior lecturer (a blue woven shirt with threads of black and white). In an autoethnographic account as a Ghanaian-Cameroonian-American Black woman, Krys Osei (2019) shares “freedom rooted in the act of allowing myself as a young Black girl to exist out loud and boldly. With the handy assistance of glitter, sequins, and rhinestones, I was able to be without the imminent threat of behavioural discipline that followed me at school” (p. 734). Finally, Briony Lipton (2020) links women academics’ professional dress to career progression, noting the gendered, classed, raced and heteronormative impact of dress as “aesthetic labour” (p. 2).  

In the chapter, I articulate some of reasons I started this blog. I started blogging once I had secure work, when I had time and space and energy to write. I had been an avid blog reader for many years, and was searching for a blog that explored difficult questions about slow academia in relation to the politics of higher education, university governance, academic roles and identities, and academic activism. Activism, particularly in relation to the operations of the higher education sector and the organisation itself, has been nourishing to me. Much of it is ordinary work: participating in scholarship, academic governance, teaching and union activities, what Gill (2009) calls “small-scale micro-negotiations of power in the academy” (p. 231).

Several years on, blogging has provided an opportunity to think through writing and reflect-in-action (Schön, 1987). Thomson and Kamler (2010) call it ‘writing along the way’—“writing that is intended to sort out what we think, why, and what the implications of a line of thought might be” (p. 149). Blogging is incredibly freeing for an academic writer, constrained by the conventions, requirements and expectations of research and publishing. (All too often, I have to delete a sentence to appease a reviewer; I’ve learnt to hold words loosely, and let them go without regret). In a blog post, words follow my whims, and I can write about dystopian fiction, porridge, trees, and family outings. The pleasures of writing the quotidian run deep. Most of all, blogging has provided a means to resist a particular style of academia: idealised academic superheroes, quantified measures of productivity, contagious anxiety, a finite game.

Calling myself a slow academic is a way of wearing academia like a loose-fitting garment.

This is evident my working from home set-up last week (how good are these comfy black and gold polka dot flats from Rollie!)