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Collective Threads

Though the contexts and exact academic ‘moments’ and examples vary across the chapters, certain themes arose which cut across our contributors’ experiences; we will spend some time elucidating these ‘collective threads’ before outlining the structure of the book in more detail. The first ‘thread’ is the use of online spaces for feminist activism and academic solidarity and resilience. online discussions between friends and colleagues as well as the use of forums and online spaces to write, share views and research, and to organise and be active as feminists were used to provide an alternative to traditional academic spaces. This hugely positive online space was used to build friendships and to practice deeply held feminist values. The collaboration and kindness evidenced in these online interactions is inspiring, but also reveals a more negative and worrying trend within the ‘traditional’ academe. Contributors (and their colleagues) had to look ‘outside’ to find people willing to support them, share their concerns and worries, and to act as networks of resilience in patriarchal institutions which did not show support for their feminist work. As scholars of political discussion online,

Stromer-Galley and Wichowski (2013) argue, online discussion forums can provide spaces for people to speak freely to like-minded individuals in a way they may not be able to face-to-face. Though Kendall has argued that online spaces are potentially more about ‘networked individualism’ than ‘real community’ (Kendall 2013: 312), the fact that early career academics are turning to these spaces as a place of escape and to build resilience suggests they can act as genuine spaces of solidarity and change, for both the individual and the collective.

These online spaces help early career feminist academics to consolidate their sense of self in a professional ‘game’, which sees gender and feminist work as less important. However, the theme of identity and self cut across each chapter in varied ways. As we mentioned above the definition of ‘early career’ is contested, and our contributors felt this come to bear on them and how they are perceived within their institution. Doctoral students asked whether they can be counted as early career—they challenged our thinking as editors on this point too—and British PhD students in particular asked why other countries and cultural contexts would accept them as staff, while in the United Kingdom they remain labelled technically as students, despite taking on some of the work that salaried staff do. This ‘in-between’ moment where both staff and student identities apply caused contributors to question their place in the academy, the value of the work they do—or at least how it is valued by their institution—and at what point a career in academia ‘really’ begins. Work, the different kinds and different values attributed to it, will be investigated in more depth throughout the book.

Other facets of identity also came to the fore for some contributors: gender, race/ethnicity, age, and motherhood. For all of our contributors, being a woman created particular battles to be faced within the academy. Working within a male-dominated institutional setting means that women are often placed as ‘outsiders’ and a gendered division of labour is maintained, with women taking on the less prestigious roles (Acker 1990: 146). Women find they take on the bulk of the ‘emotional’ work (Hochschild 2003) and the work which is less significant or which focusses on smoothing over the social or interactional workings of the department or school—for example, organising the seminar series, the wine receptions, the social events, and dealing with student crises, as the chapter entitled, ‘Feminist Work in Academia and Beyond’ will outline. Furthermore, as found by Drago et al. (2008), female academics are seen as ‘more likely’ to be caring for dependents at home and to need to take time off and are therefore constructed as less than ideal workers in the academic sphere.

When presenting oneself as a particular gendered subject is part of the everyday presentation of self and successful assimilation into society (Budgeon 2003) it should come as no surprise that presenting oneself as suitably gendered is a part of working life as well (Acker 1990: 147). Furthermore, expectations from colleagues and managers about what ‘women’ and ‘men’ should and can do is as important as self-presentation and has real effects on the work that is offered to staff or that they are encouraged to take on. As Acker notes (1990: 148), such managerial perceptions of work and work performance get written into the bureaucracy of the institution through performance management processes and are therefore regularly reiterated and reinforced.

Working as a woman within feminist fields or taking a feminist approach to research and teaching also creates specific tensions, where women are seen as less credible, less rational, and less worthy than their male coun- terparts—perhaps even especially those male counterparts working in the same areas as them, who are deemed as ‘open minded’ and seen to be progressive. These hierarchies of knowledge are not only about gender, and other social positionings will influence how people are perceived and their knowledge evaluated. As Patricia Hill Collins argues (1991: 3), the dominant (white, male) perspective will exclude knowledge which does not ‘satisfy the political and epistemological criteria’ it holds to be valuable.

The importance of social positionings can be seen explicitly in some of our contributors’ chapters. Race and ethnicity were crucial intersections in the making and living of identities: one of our contributors was forced by her colleagues to confront the question, ‘Are you one of us or one of them?’ before they would consider her work as credible. This chapter also poses the (implicit) question of whether whiteness or those from singly Western ethnicities would be confronted in such a way by colleagues and to what extent the community of feminist scholars needs to engage more with race and ethnicity in all of its research and writings—a challenge that has been posed to white feminists for decades now and continues to stimulate debate (see for example Mohanty 1988; Friedman 1993; Aziz 1998; Carby 1998). It also reveals the complexity of intersections and the need to understand Zillah Eistenstein’s argument that: ‘labels reify ... hierarchies ... Silences and exclusions form the erasure’ (2004: 2).

The tensions arising for feminist early-career academics embarking on their first major research project and trying to establish themselves and build up their sense of themselves as scholars are clear: other people expect these scholars to declare themselves and their allegiances before being prepared to engage with their work. This is a key debate within feminist scholarship, as it has been argued that researchers need to be aware of the influence of their own biographies on the kind of research they do, the questions they ask, and the answers they find credible (Harding 1986: 26). It has also been argued that reflexivity helps to deal with some of the potential problems of studying groups with which the researcher does not share all the same positionings (Maynard and Purvis 1995: 1). Yet, publi- cally declaring personal biases, stories, and experiences can be challenging for scholars; and these personal narratives raise significant questions about the reflexive nature of some current feminist research and its positivity for the researcher herself. Our contributors take different approaches to this and in so doing add to the wider debate around feminist reflexivity.

With the definition of ‘early career’ so contested, it seemed important to include the voices of ‘older’ early career scholars: those who may not have followed a traditional academic path, may have come to academia late, or may have written their PhD later despite doing research and teaching within the academy for many years. Being an ‘older’ early career poses its own problems, as people question why one has not built up more experience and published more research over one’s career, requiring justification of every career move and period of time not working in academia. Age is a significant concern for early career scholars in all its forms: the category itself includes a suggestion of younger and inexperienced, which our ‘older’ early career contributors problematize by their very identification with that category. However, the idea of youth and inexperience creates more room to dismiss and trivialise the work of feminist scholars, and many of our contributors find themselves navigating the categories applied to them as they try to establish a career. Ageism is an often silenced and under-researched form of discrimination, but one that suffuses education (Davies et al. 2007: 96). Recognising and tackling ageism within educational institutions, at the level of both students and staff, is important for creating an anti-oppressive curriculum and the education system more widely (Davies et al. 2007: 102).

Finally, motherhood was for one contributor a significant identity marker which she attempts to balance with her work in academia. This is a marker of identity for many women within the academy and one which has its own challenges and joys. The (constructed) pressures on academics to give themselves and their time totally to their career may conflict intensely with the gendered social ideal of mothers who give themselves totally to the rearing of their children, or indeed simply with the desire to bring balance to these life-roles. Arendell (2004: 1198), bringing together a decade of scholarship on motherhood, argues that there is often ‘a high personal price’ to pay for trying to achieve a positive balance between work and motherhood, including ‘[l]oss of sleep, curtailed leisure time, and feeling overloaded and stressed’ which are ‘the currencies extorted from mothers involved both in paid work and child raising’.

The emotional work of various kinds which mothers engage in is another complex and intense part of ‘modern mothering’ (Arendell 2004: 1196); this is clearly evidenced by our contributor as she works to negotiate and balance the intensity of rearing her children with the demands of work. These conflicting and emotive ‘callings’ cause particular consternation for women trying to establish themselves in their career. Feminist scholars may aspire towards a more collaborative environment where children are an accepted and welcome part of their working lives but find instead that the academic environment is still not open to this despite flexible working and parental leave.

These aspects of identity are crucial to understanding the position of early career feminists in a neoliberal academy as the ‘ideal worker’ comes to have an increasingly narrow definition and neoliberal attitudes towards education and scholarship force feminist and other scholarship to prove itself to have ‘value’, ‘impact’, and to be ‘instrumental’ in achieving particular aims, often related to applied and economic outcomes. This book focuses on those who self-define as feminist in their work and their life politics; this facet of identity is assumed. We felt that a book about HE which took feminism at the early career stage into account was needed at this point in time for many of the reasons described above. We also feel that a feminist identity within the academy can be a site of resistance towards these more instrumental institutional focuses. Being a feminist within a changing academy offers the chance to explore alternative visions of what HE institutions can be, how colleagues should work together, how work is defined and how it is valued, how research should be perceived and disseminated, what the nature of teaching should be, and what we should expect from ourselves as teachers and from our students. Feminism offers the space for a more radical, kinder, and more inclusive higher education.

This idea was also a major theme for our contributors, who in various terms referred to ‘micro-activism’ alongside grander acts of resistance and change. They call for feminist early career scholars to look for even the smaller things they can do to be an activist within the academy, and not to discount everyday encounters with colleagues and students as potential places for resistance. These discussions raise interesting broader questions about what activism means within a neoliberal academy and when carried out by ‘double agents’: scholars who hold a different politics and want to enact a different approach to education and research, but nevertheless work within the academy and to an extent necessarily ‘play the game’.

Micro-activism could be seen as giving up and giving in: we turn away from grander activism to smaller, everyday acts because we have lost hope in the efficacy of more radical action. We as editors can see the potential in this argument and want to explore whether there are boundaries to what can be achieved on a grand scale within higher education. We also, however, believe strongly in the everyday and in the feminist movement’s constant engagement with the everyday to raise consciousness and explore daily oppression. The everyday is not separate from the wider culture and context, but reflects and recreates it. In this sense, small acts within the everyday are powerful political moments, which challenge accepted and ingrained ways of being and working, as well as having a potential ripple effect.

In a neoliberal academy where actors become increasingly self-reflexive and self-monitoring, the ability to think and act freely becomes more difficult. One should be looking to do research projects which are perceived by funders, research quality assessment exercises, and the institution in which they work to be ‘useful’— usually in monetary and ‘impact’ terms— or they may find themselves under pressure from the university hierarchy to justify their position; they will also find their ideas and projects harder to fund as funders increasingly turn to requiring more instrumental outcomes from research. This closes off spaces of thinking and writing, and narrows what is deemed important and useful work within higher education. As a neoliberal agenda encroaches on the higher education sector, we cut ourselves off from ways of knowing, understanding, and engaging with the world. In such a constricted space, micro-activism becomes vital and necessary.

The conflicts for feminist early career scholars over their position as ‘double agents’ are complex, but vital. We have to recognise our position within the academy and the privileges this brings, as well as the collusions with the overarching neoliberal agenda. We hope this book brings some of these debates to the fore, and we invite the reader to engage with them as presented here and in their own (working) lives. Interrogating and facing up to these collusions is important, not only for our sense of ourselves as feminists and the furthering of a more inclusive and kinder academy, but also as a starting point for questioning these collusions and seeing where different actions can be taken, be they micro or macro. This is not an easy task, but it is one which must be constantly undertaken to ensure that we do not lose our foundational sense of the need for change and equality in higher education, and elsewhere.

What strikes us also, as we write this introduction and review the contributions to this book, is the amount of emotional investment involved in maintaining an academic career and not leaving the ‘game’ entirely. The conflicts of working as a feminist—which as an academic discipline encourages the use of reflexivity and engagement with emotions—and working within disciplines which may look for ‘objectivity’ and detachment are clear. Emotion is a constant and important reminder that we care about our work and feel invested in what we do. To suppress these emotions seems strange and false; a working on our selves and emotions which suggests a great deal of surface and deep emotional labour (Hochschild 2003). We are pleased that this book can be a space to express these emotions and show how central and valuable they are to being a teacher and scholar.

Having looked at several of the underlying themes of this book, we will now give an outline of the overall structure. The book is organised so that it can be read from start to finish, each section progressing to build a wider picture of feminist early career academic life, or dipped into for readers to look at specific sections and concerns.

 
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