Feminist scholarship

When I was a child, my mother gave me a collection of “non sexist children’s literature” picture books published in the 1970s by the Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative. My favourites were written by Adela Turin and illustrated by Nella Bosnia. In Sugarpink Rose, girl elephants are kept in an enclosure and have beautiful pink skin from eating flowers and avoiding mud, except poor Annabelle who remains stubbornly grey. In Arthur and Clementine, a husband tortoise buys his wife everything she wants and piles it on her back until she is unable to move.

It seems my feminist credentials were established early. I was thinking about these pink elephants as Vanessa Fredericks and I were undertaking a review of feminist scholarship published in Higher Education Research and Development over the last forty years. Our article, Tracing the feminist contribution of HERD over 40 years has recently been published in a special issue that celebrates HERD’s 40 year anniversary.

Reading 40 years worth of articles was surprisingly enjoyable — having Vanessa as a co-researcher certainly helped — and happily feminist scholarship is not quite as rare as pink elephants. In its 40-year history, HERD has published 1,472 articles in total. Our analysis identified 52 articles as feminist. We coded titles, keywords and abstracts using Acker and Wagner’s (2019) definition:

In general terms, feminist research is thought to put women and gender at the centre of analysis; to deconstruct unequal power relations (not limited to gender); to work towards the improvement of women’s lives; to value participant voices; to emphasise care and collectivity and de-emphasize hierarchy; and to acknowledge the situational nature of knowledge and the importance of researcher positionality and reflexivity (p 70).

We highlight some gems, including Briony Lipton’s (2017) ‘Measures of success’ which uses Berlant’s theorisation of ‘cruel optimism’, when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing, to examine how ‘our attachment to gender equity and diversity policies as tools for improving the representation of women may be detrimental’ (p 487). Another notable work of theorisation is Emily Henderson’s (2015) article on academic conferences, which undertakes a Butlerian analysis of an autobiographical experience of naming and misgendering at a conference.

Special issues have proved fruitful for feminist research, especially Ō tātou reo, Na domoda, Kuruwilang birad: Indigenous Voices in Higher Education (2021), Queering the academy (2015) and Leading the academy (2014). Well worth reading (or re-reading).

Our conclusion is that there remains significant work to be done in conducting, publishing, citing and evaluating feminist scholarship in higher education.

As a starting point, we encourage higher education scholars to consider keywords and citations in your writing. In Living a Feminist Life (2017), Ahmed is explicit about the politics of citation as feminist memory. Explore the scholarly contributions of queer, non-binary, Indigenous and global south higher education researchers. And promote diversity in scholarly publishing among authors and editorial boards. This can start with your responses as a reviewer.

I’ll end with a quote from Sugarpink Rose: “Annabelle scampered out of the garden enclosure, took off her booties and collar and pretty pink bow, and went to play in the tall grass, amidst trees full of delicious fruit, and in the mud puddles.”

It feels wrong to end a post with muddy puddles, given the widespread flooding across the east coast of Australia. And my heart is with the Ukraine. I hope readers are keeping safe.

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!)

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.