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.

Waiting, anxiety and impatience

Happy new year one and all! It is January, and Christmas and New Year are over, and 2014 is beginning. It has been almost exactly a month since my thesis was submitted. Thank goodness for Christmas and New Year and a small holiday away to distract me from wondering about my examiners and whether they have read my thesis yet, and if they liked it or hated it and what corrections they have for me and how much more work I am going to have to do when the reports come in and if they will withhold their identities or declare them and how much of the reports I will therefore get to read and if they have worked out yet that I might be a fake. You may be able to tell that I am (a bit) anxious and uncomfortable with this concept of waiting. I am not, by nature, a patient person. And I have not been as distracted as I hoped to be.

The last thing that I mentioned in that long, anxiety-filled list is the thing that makes me most uncomfortable. That I may be found out as a fake, an imposter, someone who should not be called ‘Dr’ anything. I am sure I am not the first PhD student that, either before, during or after PhD study, has felt like someone is going to leap out at a conference or from the pages of an examiner’s report and out me as an imposter doing a very good impersonation of a competent researcher. All the same, the idea that I am not alone in this doesn’t offer much comfort. I am the one, for now at least, in the midst of all this waiting and impatience and anxiety feeling like all the other PhD students and post-Docs all have it licked and I am the weirdo who is wondering when the other shoe will drop.

Perhaps this is normal. A normal part of this thing called ‘the PhD journey’ that we all have to go through. I am sure my second conference presentation will go better than the first (which was a disaster – perhaps for another post). I am sure I will get less freaked out when people ask me what my work is about and I have to tell them in short, comprehensible soundbites. I am sure I will get less defensive about my research around my colleagues, many of whom don’t fully agree with some of my findings and conclusions. I am sure the idea of writing papers out of my thesis and submitting them to journals will (hopefully very soon) become less than absolutely terrifying. But right now I am freaked out and defensive and terrified, and feel like, in spite of just have written over 83000 words on the subject of my research, I really have no idea what I am talking about. So, this is not a great part of the journey for me. But, I shall try to embrace the waiting, anxiety and impatience and endure this part of the journey with as much grace as I can, and try to keep the neurotic panic to a minimum. I will probably fail at this at least once, but I will claim that as part of the journey too!

PS: the posts between now and when the reports come in won’t all be like this. Just in case you were starting to worry :-). Next week: some thoughts on the relationship between your data and your theoretical framework.