Creating bigger rooms for different bodies and beings in academia

In a small break from writing a very scary application for something I really, really want, I saw this tweet on friend’s Facebook wall:

This was pretty much exactly what I needed to hear, but it got me thinking a bit about all the rooms I have earned the right to be in over the years (and how I have felt like I should apologise for my presence in too many of them) and also rooms I have been allowed into not yet having really earned the right to be there, because of ugly things like structural privilege and systemic hierarchies (but this is for a different post).

As a woman (in academia, and in the world), I have learned over the years to take up just the right amount of space, or maybe a bit less than that. I have learned to be clever, but not so much so that the men in the room get uncomfortable (and some of the women too!); I have learned to be assertive, but not so much so that I am accused of being pushy and aggressive; I have learned to be ambitious, but not so much so that colleagues are threatened by me and don’t want to work with me; I have learned to dress so that people take me seriously, but not too seriously because then I’m not feminine enough, or fun enough. It’s #$%&ing exhausting. And it never ends.

Photo by burak kostak from Pexels

I enter many rooms because I really feel I have earned the right to be there, because of my years of study, my writing, my patience and endurance through poorly paid and not-very-inspiring contract work, tolerating obnoxious colleagues and public put-downs, surviving obscure bureaucratic mess-ups with contracts, salaries, student issues, and so many other things. But, and this is the thing that got to me about that tweet, I almost never really feel like I can just be, in many of those rooms. There are a few rooms where I can expand and grow and just take up the space I take up, and those spaces are all too rare, and wonderful. I protect them fiercely, and never take them for granted, because there are way more rooms in which I am taking the temperature, reading the crowd, judging how much space I can take up, and whether I will be allowed to even stay in the room.

Imposter syndrome is part of this perhaps – that sense that you really don’t have the right to be there, and that you’re faking it by even trying, and someone will know that and call you out and expose you for the fraud you are. But this is also what this tweet speaks to, for me: to speak back to that imposter syndrome, and argue that you actually are not a fraud. You have worked hard, and paid your dues, and you actually do have a valid voice that should be part of the conversation. This is not easy, because the Imposter voice can be loud, mean, and quite insistent. It’s harder to push back against that, and just walk into the room and stay there, and be just you. Especially if you are not someone who is already ‘in’ by virtue of being part of the dominant and overtly valued ways of being in the academy (i.e. if you are black or queer or a woman or a trans person or disabled or working class or non-mother tongue, etc. – and many different combinations of these things too).

I know too many younger scholars and academics just disillusioned by the ways in which academia continues to try – apparently quite hard – to gatekeep and police who gets to enter which rooms, when and for how long. There are too many people in my extended circle – in person and on Twitter and Facebook – who are just tired of having to fight to take up space they have earned the right to take up, many times over. It’s exhausting, and it flattens you the longer it goes on. We have to change the story, meaningfully, and open academia and the work it does – research, teaching, publishing, supervision, and so on – to new bodies, voices, knowledges, ways of knowing and being.

We can’t say ‘socially just education is vital’ and then keep pushing out people who would actually be able to enact that in new, interesting, challenging and meaningful ways. We can’t say ‘we value social inclusion’ and then shut out people who don’t conform to some tacit, unexamined notion of what the ‘right’ kind of scholar or academic is. That’s not meaningful, and that’s not change. This change has to come from all sides – from university management that has to actively enact policy change (see here for an interesting take on this broader issue); from academics already in the system who have the power to make changes in their practices, contexts and departments; and from us – the scholars bravely walking into rooms and refusing to apologise for taking up space in them, and for being who we are. It cannot all be on those already fighting to just be part of the conversation, and this happens all too often.

Photo by lalesh aldarwish from Pexels

For me, I am reminded that I have a voice, I have something to say and offer, and I need to just keep working on walking into the rooms I want and need to be in, and staying the course. And, as I do that and move through the system and accumulate relative power and freedom, to follow Toni Morrison’s exhortation to all of us who have measures of power and freedom within structures and systems: to use that which you have to empower and free others, to enable them to pay it forward too, and slowly but surely dismantle the systems that reinforce rather than challenge the status quo. It may sound idealistic, but in our current global moment, I don’t think a little pragmatic idealism is such a bad thing.

4 thoughts on “Creating bigger rooms for different bodies and beings in academia

  1. adamsanthea says:

    Thanks, Sherran, this resonates at so many levels with me. It also reminds me of the research project my colleagues and I are working on in which we’re focusing on the enablements and constraints in our own journeys in becoming Academic Development practitioners. Just like you, some of us also felt the unspoken message that our opinions don’t count, but in most cases, we also stifle our own development by not taking ownership of the spaces we find ourselves in. This is why it is so important to appreciate those colleagues who mentor and welcome us. Some are not even aware that they do but we’re able to recognise a nudge in the right direction. An invitation to a supposedly closed writing group is one of those invaluable gestures which make our life in academia more meaningful. Thank you for your powerful messages.

    • sherranclarence says:

      Thanks, Anthea. I think that unspoken-ness is a tricky thing, because when it’s subtle, and only you and may be a few others can see and feel it, it’s easier to talk yourself out of it (maybe that’s not what they meant, maybe I’m just over-reacting, etc). I wonder if, by just being there, firmly and confidently, we can force some of the more subtle exclusions to become more visible, and then if more people can see them, we can start to actually talk about them and confront them, and push them out?

  2. Nicola Pallitt says:

    I say f* the room, meet me online. Refining space is necessary to do openness in all aspects, even openness to difference. Perhaps there are more tensions RE physical spaces because they are structured in tangible ways, and there is power relations in who is doing the structuring in spaces that causes constraints for others.

    On the AD front…
    Is it part of an ADs work to take the ‘baggage’ someone may bring to a particular space or room (shared with others) into consideration?

    I read this post as sharing similarities with ideas on decolonising spaces and made me think of Maha Bali’s talk where she used the example of chairs and how different configurations include some people and exclude others. Recording at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iN6wSpGmcCo

    • sherranclarence says:

      Thanks Nicola. I am using ‘rooms’ metaphorically here, as does the tweeter (I think). But you are right – physical and online spaces are very different in terms of how they can be configured and reimagined. I can’t speak for all AD work, but I think good AD creates space for conversations about where people are coming from, and what they bring with them, and does not assume blank slates that can be ‘trained’ to be better academics through one-size workshops and pedagogies. That kind of AD work abounds, but the more critical, slower, more meaningfully enacted AD work is definitely becoming more visible, I think.

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