Retreat with a difference

An alternative title for this post is ‘even slower’. I wrote and rewrote it several times. I sat with it and worried over its gloom. I thought about it at work, at home and in hospital with my daughter. She has been here for almost two weeks now, as we aim to get better understanding and control over her seizures. This feels like a positive step, but it has been hard to find a positive way to frame this post.

During this time, I have (mostly) been on leave from work—a big shout out to awesome colleagues who have taken over key responsibilities such as staff induction—but I have continued to write. I finished the first draft of a chapter (due today), submitted five abstracts for conferences and journal special issues (several of them with co-authors), and responded to some copy-editing queries on another book chapter. Some caveats: being able to take leave is a privilege. Hospitalisations looked very different when I was a casual staff member (student evaluation from that time: “I liked this course but I got the impression that Agnes didn’t really want to be here”). Writing has also been possible because I am not staying in hospital every night, but have shared shifts with my partner, mother and mother-in-law.

Last year I wrote a post on working during difficult times. These were (meant to be) short-term strategies. When the crisis situation continues for longer than anticipated, when normal is redefined, when you start to think that this might be your indefinite future, the strategies need rethinking. Things that suffer: the tasks and projects you know will improve your self and your life. Half tongue-in-cheek, these might include decluttering, trying new recipes, practising mindful listening, cultivating family rituals, or building a new habit. And the activities that require care, time and planning start to fall away (organising a party for a soon-to-be five year old, for example).

There are good things here: therapy dogs, clown doctors, volunteers who have mastered the art of small talk, thoughtful rooming that puts us with other 11 and 12 year olds with epilepsy, and a lot of time spent waiting. My writing has adapted to the circumstances. I have practiced a method of ‘thinking through writing’ or ‘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” (Thomson & Kamler, 2010, p 149). I have also been doing a lot of ‘reading alongside writing’ and finding ways to acknowledge the intertexts that are usually not cited. (This is also one of the ideas we talked about as the spirit of research —we also mentioned the music we listen to while writing).

This doesn’t look like an ideal writing retreat but, with a laptop, it works for now:

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Doing things with theory

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Last week I spent two challenging, inspiring and exhausting days with a research team exploring academic identities. Here is a bit about our three projects which will presented at the 6th International Academic Identities Conference at the University of Hiroshima in September. (The theme is The Peaceful University: Aspirations for academic futures—compassion, generosity, imagination, and creation!)

In the photo above (without a selfie, it wouldn’t be a legitimate academic gathering) we are, left to right in a zigzag, Tai Peseta, Machi Sato, Cally Guerin, Catherine Manathunga, Fran Kelly, Barbara Grant, Jamie Burford, Jeanette Fyffe, Fiona Salisbury and me, Agnes Bosanquet. Not pictured is Jan Smith, who joined us from the UK via Zoom when the time difference permitted.

In the picture above, I’m the blurry head at the front right, but we were all a bit fuzzy-headed by  the end of it. One of the most enjoyable, and difficult, things we did was to read complex theories about subjectivity and identity together.

We read:

  • Michel Foucault’s (1982) The Subject and Power
  • an extract from Judith Butler’s (1990) Gender Trouble
  • Stuart Hall’s (1996) introductory chapter Who Needs Identity?
  • a chapter on assemblage from Nikolas Rose’s (1996) Inventing our selves: Psychology, power and personhood
  • and Rosi Braidotti’s (2006) article Posthuman, All Too Human

Each of these readings deals with questions of selfhood, our relations to others/systems/institutions/objects, ontologies (ways of being) and epistemologies (ways of knowing). (I’ve included the definitions in parentheses because I remember getting my ‘ologies’ confused as a student and don’t want to make assumptions about readers’ understandings). At the risk of error-ridden simplification, here are two sentences on each of these readings. This is probably the briefest summary of these ideas that you will ever read and, needless to say, all errors are mine alone.

1. Michel Foucault (1982) conceptualises subjectivity through power relations (to be self-aware and to be subject to) and resistance. He offers a useful, and much cited, list of five considerations for analysing power relations: differentiations (e.g. economic differences); objectives (e.g. the maintenance of privileges); means of bringing power into being (e.g. surveillance, rules); institutionalisation (e.g. school, family, state); and rationalisation (the field of possibilities for enacting power).

2. In a challenge to most philosophers and theorists before her, Judith Butler (1990) argues that sex and gender are performative. The gendered self is an illusion, a stylization of the body, a regulatory fiction, a strategy for survival, reinforced through repetitive practices.

3. Stuart Hall (1996) gives a history and critique of scholarly thinking on identity from the Enlightenment to now, via humanism, psychoanalysis, postmodernism, performativity and identity politics. He defines identity as the temporary attachment to the subject positions which discursive practices construct for us.

4. Nikolas Rose (1996) uses Deleuze and Guittari’s work on the plurality and nonsubjectivity of individuals to consider how humans are subjectified as multiple ‘assemblages’. He uses the term ‘psy’ as shorthand for the disciplines (psychology, psychiatry, psychotherapy) that have invented selfhood, which he complicates with reference to  post-structuralists such as Foucault (on power) and Butler (on gender).

5. Rosi Braidotti (2006) gives her reading of Donna Harraway (most well known for her manifesto “I’d rather be a cyborg than a goddess”) to emphasise the importance of the body in thinking through subjectivity and power. She teases with ideas that are explored in more detail in her other writings—nomadic thinking, becoming, non-human others, monstrousness and the disruptions of technology.

These readings, my simplified summaries notwithstanding, are hard going. The wonderful thing about reading alongside this group of (accomplished, scholarly) people was their willingness to acknowledge when they did not understand. They revealed their vulnerability as scholars, and the limits of their knowledge, and their lack of time for close reading. We sat together and talked through our unknowingness.

We also shared a methodology reading each—more on that in a future post—but Barbara Grant’s choice is relevant here. She shared a chapter from Qualitative Inquiry in Neoliberal Times, in which Maggie MacLure (2017) thinks about how to work with complex methodologies and asks whether we could use a “judicious dosage” which might be “just enough” to infuse new life into exhausted research. We decided to use these theoretical works in a similar way—to take just enough to allow us to think differently, without having to swallow the ideas whole and risk intoxication.

As I drafted this post, my favourite book blogger Whispering Gums posted How to read difficult books. It is as simple (and as hard) as this: keep turning the pages.

P.S. A tip for your research meetings—record and transcribe your discussions to capture the moments you almost grasped an idea (or someone else did) and you want to revisit it.

Intimacy

I have written about the importance of finding like-minded souls to help navigate academia. My previous posts can be summed up as how I find my people and why I need them. The ideas here are drawn from a book chapter I co-authored with colleagues on writing as women in higher education. I had occasion to reread this publication recently when a researcher requested a copy via Researchgate, and I thought the discussion of intimacy worth revisiting.

The chapter is a reflection on the gendered practices of writing groups in higher education. Ours was an accidentally women-only writing group; nevertheless, the gendering of the group impacted its practice. The context of the reflections was a writing retreat. The ResearchWhisperer had a recent post entitled Writing Retreats: Academic indulgence or scholarly necessity?  I think they are a bit of both. I try to participate in at least one writing retreat every year, whether day retreats or overnight, whether self-funded, won as a lucky door prize or supported by a university or project. Writing retreats provide time to become immersed in academic writing interspersed with the sharing of conversation, food and laughter in an emotional and intellectual collaboration.

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In our reflections on writing as women on a retreat, we described the escape from the distractions of multiple responsibilities and fragmented identities as PhD students, casual employees, professional staff members, academics and/or mothers. (A caveat: as we reflect in our chapter, this is compromised by insecure work. Even identification as a writer is more tenuous as a result of the “sheer panic that there may not be an available job that will allow me to develop my potential as an academic writer and researcher”).

Participants repeatedly used the term ‘intimacy’ to describe the practice of the writing retreat:

We all juggle being employed/staying employed with family commitments with the demands on early career researchers/writers/academics … We recognize ourselves in each other. Support and understanding, even intimacy flows from this.

Being women only has enabled the development of much more intimacy than I imagine would be otherwise possible.

I enjoy the intimacy of the group, and the way in which we blend conversations about writing, work and our personal lives.

The writing retreat made manifest the performance of intimacy. Five women with family, work, social and study commitments chose to put aside all these demands and spend time together. In an unfamiliar context that exceeded the usual boundaries of work, we exposed aspects of ourselves we would not otherwise have shared–in our pyjamas; preparing, eating and cleaning up meals; and spending downtime together discussing our lives. Our writing similarly overflowed from the usual conventions of writing group meetings; at the retreat we critiqued each other’s writing but also had an opportunity to observe and talk about how others approach the practice of writing.

I am looking forward to women’s writing retreat with a different group in May, where I will be working on a paper that brings together Luce Irigaray’s writing on breath, autoethnography on motherhood and academic work, and a discussion of feminist writing on slow academia.