Distractions, interruptions

Since I cannot tell the story in a straight line, and I lose my thread, and I start again, and I forget something crucial, and it is hard to think about how to weave it in, and I start thinking, thinking, there must be some conceptual thread that will provide a narrative here, some lost link, some possibility of chronology … (Butler, 2001, 35).

So writes Judith Butler in Giving an Account of Oneself. It is difficult to write—to think—otherwise now. Here in Sydney, Australia, we are having school holidays in lockdown as covid cases creep inexorably upwards. Work is one long Zoom meeting. I find myself in the same patterns as March 2020: retreating, counting, waking, fretting, waiting. Trying to write, I am ‘divided, ungrounded, or incoherent from the start’ (Butler, 2001, 22). I experience myself and time as fragmentary. Distractions abound.

Television. Not something I spend a lot of time with, but the whole family has enjoyed the third season of Lego Masters (I’m team Sarah and Fleur—those zombie cheerleaders, that dream art house). My vote for favourite show of the year, however, is Creamerie from Aotearoa/New Zealand, set in a near future dystopia in which men have been wiped out by a virus. Dark and funny.

Food. We had a ‘healthy’ versus unhealthy brownie taste challenge. I think these black bean brownies are the winners, but they were eaten too quickly to be sure. We will have to try again.

Walks. I am listening to audio books while walking the dog, including 14 hours of The Unwomanly Face of War, Russian oral history of women’s experiences during the second world war. The casuarina forest near our home is my favourite place.

Books. I am reading more 2am books (vacuous and predictable at any other time of day, genre fiction makes night waking enjoyable). At other times, I am enjoying:

Games. My son has invented a giant board game called Misery. You become the piece, rolling a die and landing on paper spread out on the floor. Many of them are labelled ‘Misery’ and you choose a card that describes a miserable thing that will happen to you (such as having to eat porridge without honey). There are some ‘Luck’ cards as well but, as the name of the game suggests, misery abounds. On a more jolly note, we are looking forward to the free online activities the State Library of New South Wales has scheduled for the holidays, including Secret codes, ciphers and more.

I am always interruptible. I thought I had borrowed this phrase from Sarah Knott’s (2019) Mother: An Unconventional History, but rereading the book I cannot locate it. She writes a sensory account of caring for infants in the past that is based on anecdotes, incomplete texts, traces and fragments. The author had her first child while researching and writing the book, and a chapter on the hidden history of mothering in the middle of the night, traced through bedding, night-time arrangements and sleeping patterns, ends with this sentence: ‘8.20. 10. 11.45. 2. 5. 5.40. And then we are up’ (Knott, 2019, 90).

Butler (2001, 34) wonders about the interruptions of texts, and whether we prefer the ‘seamlessness of the story’ and the illusion of a ‘coherent autobiographer’ who reveals the ‘truth of the person’, but concludes: ‘It may be that stories have to be interrupted, and that for interruption to take place, a story has to be underway.’

Always interruptible. I’ve found that reference. It is Lisa Baraitser’s (1989) Maternal Encounters: The ethics of interruption.  She writes in anecdotal fragments, leaving ‘small, unintegrated and perhaps undigestible nuggets of maternal writing within the more formal academic reflections, as well as using them to interrupt myself.’ She wants to interrupt herself, as much as possible, to ‘throw myself off the subject—especially my own tendency to be drawn back towards the relative safety of theory’ (13). Afterbirth, tantrums, tears, not enough hands: all in the text in its raw form, in between reading theory from Luce Irigaray, Emmanuel Levinas, Julia Kristeva, Jessica Benjamin and Judith Butler.

The safety of theory. It’s an interesting idea—retreating to the comfort of other people’s words—and the implied risk of writing the self. “I start thinking, thinking…”

Deferred time

Image: Untitled (Clock), Stuart Ringholt, 2014

My colleagues Lilia Mantai, Vanessa Fredericks and I have a new paper published: Deferred time in the neoliberal university: experiences of doctoral candidates and early career academics. It appears in a special issue of Teaching in Higher Education on the timescapes of teaching, with several articles that I have added to my to-read list! (Free copies of our paper are currently available here; once these expire, if you do not have access via an institutional library, you can request a pre-print via Researchgate).

It was written before the outbreak of COVID-19 (although we snuck in a mention during the final review stage), but our argument about the experience of time, uncertainty and anxiety is prescient. (This paper has been a long time coming: Lilia and I took a reading retreat towards the end of 2016; I presented an early version at the Academic Identities Conference in 2018; and Lilia, Vanessa and I spent a day writing together and eating vegan food in October last year. Take heart if you are writing something slowly!)

The article brings together two studies: interviews with 64 PhD candidates from two Australian universities on their doctoral experience and researcher identity development; and a survey of 522 self-defining ECAs from three Australian universities on factors impacting work experience and career trajectories. We analyse these data using Ylijoki and Mäntylä’s (2003) ‘Conflicting Time Perspectives in Academic Work’:

Scheduled time refers to the accelerating pace of work, timeless time to transcending time through immersion in work, contracted time to short-term employment with limited future prospects and finally, personal time to one’s temporality and the role of work in it.

Theorising with Derrida’s Specters of Marx (1994), we emphasise the experiences of doctoral candidates and early career academics as political subjects in the neoliberal university, and add a category of deferred time.

In Enduring Time, Lisa Baraitser (2017) describes deferred or suspended time as marked by “modes of waiting, staying, delaying, enduring, persisting, repeating, maintaining, preserving and remaining – that produce the experience of time not passing.”

Here is how our research participants describe it:

In the immediate future, I am trying to secure a permanent position and/or postdoctoral position. In the longer term, I am hoping to remain in academia … I am not ruling out a career outside academia. The longer it takes for me to secure an academic position, the more I will explore other options (though this is difficult).

Quite frankly it is impossible to make [career] plans … I have become some kind of Universal Academic that can be called in at short notice to teach: Mathematics, Statistics, Finance, Business, Marketing, Engineering, Media Studies, and lately even Music Theory. This situation is clearly absurd, and I know I am not alone.

My greatest desire at this point is to secure permanent employment and no longer be on ‘6 month’ or 1 year’ contracts (as I have been for the last two and half years). The instability of my current situation is quite stressful (I have no idea if I’ll still have a job in 6 months) and doesn’t allow me, or my family, to make any plans into the future.

I would like to get an ongoing teaching and research position in a university … I recognise that I am likely to work in a number of casual and short-term contract positions before that becomes a reality (if ever). As I have a family to support, I am aware that I might have to face the possibility of abandoning my plans and take work in another area or even a different sector.

Following Derrida’s line of argument, as political subjects of the neoliberal university, whose temporality is externally driven, doctoral candidates and early career academics are in a deferred state of waiting for the ‘messianic promise’ of secure academic careers and balanced working conditions. The dominant affect of deferred time, which contaminates the experience of scheduled, contracted, timeless and personal time, is anxiety.

We ended our paper on a hopeful note: PhD candidate and early career participants are active agents in managing the temporalities of academic work, defending their personal time and planning potential futures within and beyond academe. (If this is you, as a starting point I recommend Inger Mewburn’s work on post-PhD futures and ImaginePhD).



Virtual scholarship

A couple of weeks ago—is time slippery for you now too?—I participated in a virtual Higher Education Scholars meet-up.

Regular readers will know that this is a frequent gathering of (until now) predominantly Sydney-based academics, doctoral candidates and professional staff interested in research in higher education. I have posted about our previous meetings, A reminder to play, Staying in place, Yarning circle, The spirit of research and Imagining research futures. You can read more about the mob here.

This session was themed Keeping our researcher identities alive and our research community connected. The description of the day read:

Remember to choose yourself: your researcher self, your researcher identity, your flailing research project, the bit of writing you have left to the side for too long, and to bring that part of you to a conversation … [This] is a chance to resuscitate it: pick it up, dust it off, remember its merits, to present it, to get feedback, and to take the next step with it.

It was our first online meeting, ably hosted in a team effort, which brought with it the benefit of participants from La Trobe University in Melbourne, and one stalwart from the National University of Ireland, Galway (well done on staying awake, Jan!)


We read:

  • Ashwin, P. (2012). How often are theories developed through empirical research into higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 37(2), 941-955.
  • Swedberg, R. (2016). Before theory comes theorizing or how to make social science more interesting. The British Journal of Sociology, 67(1), 5-22.

I joined a discussion on the Ashwin piece, which poses a challenge to higher education scholars to produce theoretical work. His analysis of higher education journal articles published in 2008 showed that in the majority of articles, theory was implicit rather than explicit.

He prescribes a way of “making the development of theory through empirical research more common in higher education journal articles.” In a nutshell: be explicit about theory, conceptualise your research and analyse your data using different theoretical lenses, and do more mixed methods research.

We had interesting discussions—both positive and negative—about these ideas.


In the works in progress session, I relished the opportunity to present my work with Catherine Manuthunga on Conferences in the flesh: a multi-sensory cultural history. 

Debate about whether physical conference attendance is necessary or desirable predates COVID-19. Noting the importance of equitable access, conferences serve a multitude of purposes. Conferences may offer retreat from ordinary workdays and domestic routines. Collectively gathering in a specific geographical location, and experiencing diverse cultures, climates and cuisines, opens up opportunities for place-based learning and enriches academic relationships.

Only recently have conferences been recognised in higher education research (Henderson, 2015). This paper gathers literature dispersed across fields including geography (Derudder and Lui, 2016), psychology (Carpay, 2001), sociology (Dubrow et al., 2018) and education (e.g. Hart, 1984; Skelton, 1997; Walford, 2011). It also explores visual, aesthetic and sensory approaches to cultural research, and historical research in particular (Jütte, 2005; Smith, 2007; Grosvenor, 2012; Damousi and Hamilton, 2017).

We analyse empirical data from a cultural history of the International Academic Identities Conference (2008-2018), including interviews with thirty-two conference organisers, keynote speakers and participants attuned to sensory details: the sights, tastes, sounds, touch and smell of the conference experience. Following cultural history techniques (Burke, 2008; Popkewitz et al., 2001; Marwick, 2006; Rubin, 2002), transcripts were analysed for themes of place, sociality, embodiment, and sensory experience.

The focus of our discussion is place, a layered location that is temporal, spatial, political and personal (Lippard, 1997). Multisensory, embodied, place-based conferences enable academic relationality to flourish, and innovative and transcultural knowledge to be produced. Our rich data set offers a specific and intimate history of a particular conference community through the lived experience of academic identities scholars. This provides insights into the institutional and sectoral contexts in which participants work, and universities as places that are both physical and imagined sites for the expression of values, highlighting what Phipps (2007) calls the sensory work of the university as a body of scholars.

For those who are interested, here are my two slides: HEScholars

The discussion focussed on these questions: This research began before COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings. Is there value in work on embodied, place-based, sensory academic conferences right now? How can we ensure this is a thoughtful and constructive piece of work, while remaining true to data collected in a different time? It was affirming to receive feedback from scholars who recognised place-based, sensory, affective, embodied research as more important than ever.