Storytelling

I’ve had little to blog. Work has been a constant stream of meetings, and complex and challenging, but uninspiring, tasks. I’m listening to Classical Music for Reading while doing this work. I’ve been wondering: where’s the story in that? This highlights a recent preoccupation of mine: the stories we tell ourselves and others about who we are and what we do.

This year I am studying creative writing—a wonderful, yet daunting, experience but one that is solely mine and not in service to other people’s needs and wants. It is only week one but it is already priming me to notice how we craft stories.

I recently read Australian songwriter Clare Bowditch’s You Own Kind of Girl about her experience of overcoming debilitating anxiety. We have posted her mantra on the kitchen wall: Face, Accept, Float, Let time pass. Bowditch found this in Claire Weekes’ 1960s work Self Help for Your Nerves. (Books follow books: I am now reading Judith Hoare’s The Woman who Cracked the Anxiety Code).

Above all, Bowditch tells a good story. In a podcast with Wil Anderson about writing her book, Clare used the word story many times (and turned attention to Wil’s own stories, to his seeming discomfort).

I can’t say enough wonderful things about Clare. My daughter and I listened to her songs a lot during a tough year. ‘Your Own Kind of Girl’, ‘People Like Me’ and ‘You Make My Happy’ buoyed us. In response to an open call for correspondence, my daughter emailed Clare to tell her this, and received an affirming letter in return.

While writing this post, I was reminded of an example I used when teaching visual narratives many years ago. It was an extract from Robert Winston’s BBC series The Human Body which showed the life story of ‘Charlotte’ from birth to death. (Note to self: I must rewatch the Raging Teens episode). The series was made in 1998 (!) and I’ve been unable to find a good quality copy online. The scene I was thinking of was a statistical version of a life in fast forward—6 months on the loo, 2 weeks kissing, 28m of fingernails, eight years at work, 150 friends,  sex 2580 times, 12 years talking, and only 2 of her 8 great-grandchildren remember her name.

I’ve been thinking about the stories we tell in academic contexts, beyond what can be quantified. I have just started reading The Positioning and Making of Female Professors—some great stories in this edited collection.

I continue to reflect on Tamson Pietsch’s excellent blog post on rewriting her academic biography. She writes:

[My academic biography] says little about where I come from and the forces and belongings that fashioned me. It does not reveal my values, my obligations or my commitments, and it speaks in only the most minimal terms about where I live, why I do what I do, and how that is connected to the community in which I make my home.

She re-narrates her story, noting that it was an uncomfortable experience.

Lisa Ortiz-Vilarelle illustrates a similar discomfort in ‘Academic career construction: personnel documents as personal documents‘. This journal article is a great read (and includes ‘don’t be driven by stories’ as advice given to early career academics). Ortiz-Vilarelle tells a story:

I felt discouraged by my department from applying for promotion to Full Professor because conventional advice about my publication gap of more than two years and the language of ‘continuous’ scholarly publication … I applied anyway … I had a choice to make. I could let the gap stand as a ‘trace,’ a story not told, and risk that at each level of review, it would somehow speak for itself … Or I could ‘get personal’ and explain the reasons for my gap … I included two lines, just two lines, that read: ‘Obstacles which have impacted the trajectory of my scholarship are two medically complicated pregnancies following tenure, one of which required leave time, and the care and passing of my terminally ill mother shortly after my promotion to Associate Professor. More recently, I required a medical leave in Spring 2017 for several necessary surgeries.’ That’s all. Not very elegant. Not much at all in terms of word count, but such a trace.

I haven’t yet condensed my story as well as those told above—regular readers will know this blog is itself a story in progress.

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Profanity in the title

I have a new article in Gender and Education co-authored with colleagues James Burford (La Trobe University) and Jan Smith (National University of Ireland). It was a lot of fun to write, not only for the profanity in the title. It’s called: ‘Homeliness meant having the fucking vacuum cleaner out’: the gendered labour of maintaining conference communities.

(If you are unable to access the article via an institutional subscription, contact me for a pre-print copy via Researchgate, Twitter or email agnesbosanquet [at] theslowacademic.com).

The article explores the gendered nature of care and service in academia, with a focus on the labour of maintaining conference communities. The data is from A Decade of Dialogue: A cultural history of the International Academic Identities Conference 2008-2018 with co-researchers Tai Peseta, Machi Sato, Catherine Manathunga, Jeanette Fyffe, and Fiona Salisbury. I have previously blogged about academic housekeeping, the Academic Identities Conference held last year in Japan, and the conference cultural history project.

In our interviews with 32 delegates, keynotes and convenor, the Academic Identities conference is repeatedly described as caring, welcoming, warm and home-like. But if a conference feels like home, who does the housework?

Here is an excerpt from the interview with a convenor that gave the paper its name:

On the very first day of that conference, I turned up and the main room we were going to be having our refreshments was really unclean…Luckily I had my vacuum cleaner. I’d had this terrible feeling. So on the first morning of the conference I was in here at sparrow’s [fart, that is early] with a vacuum cleaner, trying to clean the rooms and feeling very shaky about it because there was so much to do…It was quite homely…I remember the homeliness of [the previous conference]… One of the things I wanted to do with the conference here was to also have it in a workplace…in an academic space… but also have a kind of homeliness in the sense of the relationships… On the other hand, the homeliness meant, for me at least, having the fucking vacuum cleaner out.

We examine conference housekeeping through Jackson’s (2017) study on the emotional labour undertaken by academic women, which draws on positions such as Hochschild’s (1983) ‘sexy girlfriend’ and ‘supportive mother’ occupied by women flight attendants. We add the position of the conference convenor as ‘good housekeeper’ who, in addition to intellectual and scholarly leadership, undertakes housekeeping, time-keeping, hostessing, care-giving, crisis management and technical support. This can come at the expense of the conveners’ well-being. Convenors in our study use the word ‘blur’ to describe their memory of the conference, and others describe feeling miserable, numb, unstable and alone, and recall the exhaustion they feel afterwards. Clearly, the outward performance of warmth and homeliness comes at a cost.

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Our article is part of a special issue on Thoughtful gatherings: Gendering conferences as spaces of learning, knowledge production and community. So far, the articles online ahead of publication include:

  • Carefree conferences? Academics with caring responsibilities performing mobile academic subjectivities (Henderson & Moreau)
  • Hidden social exclusion in Indian academia: gender, caste and conference participation (Sabharwal, Henderson & Joseph)
  • He moana pukepuke: navigating gender and ethnic inequality in early career academics’ conference attendance (Timperley, Sutherland, Wilson & Hall)
  • Engendering belonging: thoughtful gatherings with/in online and virtual spaces (Black, Crimmins, Dwyer & Lister)
  • Extending feminist pedagogy in conferences: inspiration from Theatre of the Oppressed (Belliappa)
  • ‘I’m looking for people who want to do disruption work’: Trans* academics and power discourses in academic conferences (Nicolazzo & Jourian)

I am looking forward to sinking my (reading) teeth into these!

Writing in company at home

A couple of weeks ago, I hosted a writing retreat at home with former colleagues and current co-authors Lilia Mantai and Vanessa Fredericks.

We are finalising a journal article on time pressures for PhD candidates and early career academics. The retreat immersed us in writing away from the interruptions of the office. Planning and writing was interspersed with conversation, food and laughter. (This off the shelf vegan cheesecake was a hit).

Much as I would love a lengthy writing retreat in an exotic locale—I dream of attending one of Helen Sword’s—writing from home appeals to the frugal hedonist in me.

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Collaborative writing was not the norm in my first discipline (Cultural Studies) but is common in Education. Indeed, many of my colleagues in Higher Education have few publications as a single author. The change of discipline and shift to co-authoring has proved fruitful for my research output.

My academic positions to date have been teaching and learning or administration focussed, so research has typically constituted 20% of my workload. Until this year, I was part-time (three days a week from 2010-2017 and four days a week in 2018). Twenty percent of a part-time job does not allow a lot of time for research!

I recently updated my count of co-authors. Since graduating from my PhD in 2010, I have published 25 book chapters, journal articles and conference papers. I was sole author on just 6 of these, and have written with a grand total of 28 different people (often more than once). I am not including chapters and articles currently in press (one of which has seven authors!)

The benefits of writing in company go far beyond increased publication outputs.

I have learned a lot from co-authors—working with theory, research methodologies, the craft of writing and academic publication processes. Colleagues and I have written about the friendship and intimacy that develops through writing together. Above all, collaborative writing has been a lot of fun!

The experience is captured in Laurel Johnson, Sonia Roitman, Ann Morgan and Jason MacLeod’s (2017) article ‘Challenging the productivity mantra: academic writing with spirit in place’. The location of their writing group in members’ homes in a particular suburb of Brisbane is noteworthy:

Most members live in the area. They have chosen to live in this community due to its affordability but also its diversity and difference compared to the balance of the city. The suburb provides cultural safety for some members. The suburb is not the usual residential address for the city’s academics. The site is stigmatised and it is distant from the city’s universities. The choice to reside and meet here illustrates a point of difference for the writing group membership compared to other academic writing groups …

The move away from the place of work to home for meetings changed the quality and function of the group. The writing group members began to share more of themselves and their lives. The group membership expanded to include local residents (such as creative writers and community and ethnic leaders). The membership diversified … As well as challenging typical academic writing styles, group members came to know each other as friendships formed, bonded around place, interests, identity and shared concerns and values.

The emphasis on place and home has added a spiritual dimension:

The value of a diverse and mixed academic and non-academic membership, a shared commitment to social justice, the relational and democratic processes of the group and the importance of place (off campus in a socially disadvantaged suburb in the city) work together to engender a humanistic spirituality in the group. The value … to its members transcends the expected material benefits of increased writing production, a regular writing habit and consistent writing review. The non-material benefits of a shared community of practice, the renewal of ideas and affirmation of shared humanistic values, connection and empathy with others and permission to flourish as writers and people, bring spirit to the group.

I can only aspire to writing with spirit in place. But Lilia, Vanessa and I have made a start—reading Derrida, eating soup, looking at trees out the window and writing together.

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135 words

An alarming flu season is underway here and, like many, I have been sick, looking after others and trying to keep up with work. A colleague and I are writing an abstract, and I have promised 100-150 words by the end of today. This seems achievable, so I am blogging the same number.

I have recommended this article to several colleagues and PhD candidates this week: Ways of constructing research questions: gap-spotting or problematization?

In brief, Sandberg and Alvesson (2010) argue that identifying a gap in the literature dominates, but is lazy scholarship. Gap-spotting is relatively easy, we’re taught to do it and it lacks criticality. Alternatively, ‘problematization’ challenges assumptions and enables the development of new and creative theories.

Once seen, gap-spotting can’t be unseen, including in your own, already published, writing. Consider yourself warned.

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