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Home arrow Sociology arrow Being an Early Career Feminist Academic: Global Perspectives, Experiences and Challenges

V Envisaging Feminist Futures

On Becoming “Bad Subjects”: Teaching to Transgress in Neoliberal Education

Katherine Natanel

In October 2013, I began the first of two years as a Senior Teaching Fellow at SOAS, University of London. Buoyed by the prospect of temporarily leaving research to focus on teaching, I had spent part of the preceding summer reading works on critical and feminist pedagogy. I was particularly inspired by work on education as a “practice of freedom” as developed by Paulo Freire (1996 [1970], 1998) and bell hooks (1994), whose experience as scholars and educators promised new ways of constructing knowledge and community. Holding fast to the conviction that I might “teach to transgress” (hooks 1994) within feminist classrooms, I was surprised to quickly encounter the logics of neoliberalism within and without these critical spaces. Previously, I had imagined feminist politics to act as a kind of safeguard against the intrusion of capitalist ideology into the classroom. Protecting learners and instructors alike from atomisation, competition and the logics of individual gain, feminism would build solidarity and militate against inequality, generating safe spaces of inclusion and exploration.

Yet almost immediately I encountered neoliberalism through the combination of circumstantial and structural factors, which together

K. Natanel (H) SOAS, London, UK

© The Author(s) 2017

R. Thwaites, A. Pressland (eds.), Being an Early Career Feminist Academic, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-54325-7_12

shaped my feminist classrooms. At the same time as I accepted a fixed- term fractional position, I was also elected to the school’s branch of the University and Colleges Union (UCU) as the first ever fractional staff representative. Throughout the year and a half of my tenure, this position would consistently keep at the fore of my consciousness the concerns, struggles and varying plights of my colleagues employed in precarious conditions similar to my own. During the course of the 2013-14 academic year, UCU campaigned heavily and mobilised extensively in response to the offer of a one per cent pay rise (Shaw 2013; Press Association 2014; UCU 2015), which fell far short of meeting the 13 per cent loss in pay experienced since 2008 by many working in the higher education sector.1 This call to collective action produced strikes, rallies and teach-ins that electrified the atmosphere at our school, stimulating discussion and creativity among participants as well as support within the student body.2

However, while the actions of academic staff were largely understood and encouraged by SOAS students, a number of offhand comments made during office hours and in hallways alerted me to a sense of dissatisfaction felt by some. “How long will you keep rescheduling classes? I am paying for this, you know?” one particularly aggrieved young woman asked somewhat rhetorically upon the announcement of further strike action. With the steep rises in tuition fees imposed by many universities in autumn 2012 (Sedgi and Shepherd 2012), for some students education had become a transaction, a form of knowledge “banking” apart from the system outlined and contested by Freire (1996 [1970]), which will be discussed below. This new transactional approach to education has been effectively entrenched through the recent announcement of a Teaching Excellence Framework (Ratcliffe 2015) and the oversight of universities by the Competition and Markets Authority (Morgan 2015)—though both ostensibly aim to strengthen teaching in higher education, these government-led initiatives position students as consumers whose assessment of the classroom experience will impact university funding and leave academics vulnerable to legal action.

As these lived experiences of precarity and shifting student expectations indicate, market logics and uncomfortable choices increasingly frame the classrooms of many early career academics who seek to establish themselves as scholars and educators in the United Kingdom. Based on three years of experience as a Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) and two years as a Senior Teaching Fellow, this chapter examines the challenges facing feminist early career scholars who “teach to transgress” (hooks 1994) in the context of neoliberalism. While the precarity of fractional and parttime contracts affects emerging academics across disciplines, the prospect of years spent patching together employment in higher education yields particular tensions for feminist scholars. Faced with the seeming hypocrisy of (politically) teaching to transgress while (personally) obeying the limits of an exploitative system, this account sheds light on how feminist educators bargain or negotiate with power, balancing professional development with personal and political costs.

The chapter first details conditions of the rising precarity produced through the increasing commodification and casualisation of education in the United Kingdom, focusing on the experiences of early career academics often positioned on the “front line” of the classroom. I then consider the tensions specific to feminist classrooms and pedagogical practices, reflecting on five years of providing Gender Studies tuition at SOAS, University of London. Here, I discuss what it means to teach students of Gender Studies to identify power, understand structure, locate agency and practice resistance, while remaining subject to—and reproducing—the logics of neoliberalism. However, rather than positing a zero-sum game in which early career academics either accede to the demands of the neoliberal market or part ways with higher education, the third section of the chapter suggests that those of us who bargain with power might understand ourselves to be “bad subjects” (Althusser 1971)—incompletely interpellated into the system and poised to disrupt. The challenge facing feminist bad subjects is how to become agents of the very transgression we teach, actively contesting neoliberal logics as we carve out new spaces within academia.

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