Whimsical, queer exploration of all things gender.

Posts tagged ‘academia’

Sharing the load: Co-authorship, solidarity, and our emergent voices

I was inspired to write this primarily by reading the powerfully emotive reflection on co-authorship by Ruth Pearce. I believe she is absolutely right when she says that there is a lack of attention given to the process by which multiple people produce single pieces of writing together – that there is a question mark which replaces any number of interpersonal processes as different people navigate collaboration. Pearce reflects on particular key experiences for her, which exposes how the journey between the beginning of a project and the end can result in unexpected changes in who is responsible for doing what, altering our relationships with both the project and (I would argue, inevitably) our co-authors. This carries an emotional element, particularly pertinent to those with an interest in feminist research ethics. Classic pieces such as Ann Oakley’s ‘Interviewing Women: A Contradiction in Terms?’ radically challenged disciplinary conventions around how ‘appropriate’ emotionality can be in professional contexts, and although Oakley was writing about relationships between researchers and participants, I see applicability in the context of collaborative academic production. It is common for people to co-write (or edit, or co-arrange conferences, or collaborate on funding bids) with people felt to be friends more than colleagues.

Z Nicolazzo has also responded to Pearce’s post, with some really valuable reflections about how ‘solo works’ really aren’t in many ways (there’s a reason there’s almost always a small film-credit long list of names in an acknowledgements section). Further, our interconnectedness means that our intellectual ideas are inevitably built upon and refined through reading, and speaking to others. Drawing a hard line between our own outputs and how the influence of other writers is manifest through us, is, I would argue, an unhelpful framing – symptomatic of an individualising neoliberalism within scholarship. Is there ever such a thing as a solo voice in academic writing? Nicolazzo’s discussion of their first book resonated with my own experience of putting together ‘Transgender Health: A Practitioner’s Guide to Binary and Non-Binary Trans Patient Care’, even though this was a book without participants in any kind of research. While writing this, I created a Facebook group containing several dozen trans friends, all of whom had something to contribute to the process.

So what do I have to add to this unfolding ‘conversation’ between blogs? Based on the above, I offer that those of us who frame ourselves as activist-academics may particularly appreciate what collaboration can offer, in knowing that solidarity is profoundly necessary in resisting oppressive manifestations of power. Intellectual work is less framed as capital to be guarded jealously – a hoard of individually produced outputs that we use to climb to the top of the ladder – rather, pooled resources motivated by a socialist ethic.

Secondly, I want to draw attention to the role of kindness in academic writing, which I think is incredibly important. With impostor’s syndrome an embedded problem among early career researchers, and the market forces of late capitalism necessitating the infamous ‘publish or perish’ anxiety, it is distinctly easy for many precariously positioned scholars to struggle with practising kindness to themselves. It is, I think, generally easier to be kinder to other people – and so collaboration is a site where we can (in a positive environment/relationship) share the load, producing the things we need for our careers without retreating into intellectual isolationism. There have been times where I, or my collaborator(s) have needed to cancel and rearrange Skype meetings because one or other has been simply too drained – we’ve needed to sleep, take leisure time, or otherwise do something that had to get bumped in priority in the moment. This can risk guilt – but with kindness from our collaborators it can be deeply reassuring to know that our work hasn’t stopped just because we have, for a moment.

I have learned a lot from Ruth in particular about what I conceive as academic kindness, which she (and Z too) has attributed to Sara Ahmed’s work in turn. This includes how we lift (or pull) each other up through citation practices, the ordering of authors on published outputs (perhaps a balance between who did what work, disciplinary conventions, and giving a boost to the scholar in greatest need), or other cases where one can gain experience, exposure, or other forms of cultural capital that can be more difficult for marginalised researchers to access.

One of my favourite aspects of an academic career is the attendance of conferences. Not so much to speak, or even to listen, but because of the conversations that I tend to find occur in those spaces. It is through forging relationships with colleagues through conversation (sometimes in person, but maybe on Twitter, or Facebook, or on the telephone) that I have been inspired and steered into particular directions of focus. Certainly, the biggest ideas I have that I want to take forward in the future were not resultant from an internal process and a ‘light bulb’ moment. I feel like I’ve had collaborations with some trans activists (in particular) whose names I don’t even know, primed by injustices they indirectly identify or emphasise to me.

I’ve already mentioned impostor’s syndrome. I can certainly feel insecure that my academic voice lacks originality, flair – that there’s a lack of ‘personality’ in my outputs, such is my sense of reliance on the brilliance I see in those thinkers I respect. Collaboration can feel like a space where it’s easier to intellectually experiment, as the direction of a project is shaped as it bounces between you. One can put something out there and get something back a little more informally (and quickly!) than asking stretched friends and colleagues if they can spare the time to look over a draft. Collaborators are up to speed on your context, and offer not only the potential for synergy of your ideas, but also to innovate your day-to-day practices. It is only in the context of collaboration that I have (or possibly ever would have) done academic work in a gay cabaret bar at 11.00 in the morning. It has made me gain greater competence with intersecting technologies (Google Drive, Basecamp).

My experiences with collaboration thus far have been hugely different from each other. In no particular order, they have included:

  • Being required to have a second author on a piece due to my junior (then unpublished) status. I wrote entirely solo, and got some edits the second author – who was doing me a favour, by agreeing to fulfil the role I needed to get a foot in the door, even though the piece was not really her area at all;
  • Being invited relatively late in the process to a five-author piece of only 1000 words, but which still took over a year due to some complex editorial issues. This was associated with frantically rapid turn-arounds when an editor would ask for over-the-weekend responses after months of silence (and not tracking the changes made to our work!);
  • A two-year (plus!) project on an article with a colleague who was a friend long before we imagined collaborating together. This is probably the closest I’ve gotten to ‘slow scholarship’ – and this piece has evolved through many iterations. While it was recently rejected at one journal, we’ve received a lot of constructive feedback through peer review, and so the slow metamorphosis is far from over. We live on other sides of the world, but navigated time difference through ping-ponging word documents with the date in the title to each other;
  • Another international effort, but instead approached through late night (for me) Skyping, which has allowed us to develop a friendship through the process of work that was barely there at the beginning. This has moved faster, and I’ve been happy to play second fiddle, getting to grips with working on a project where a lot of data had been processed by previous people who could no longer continue with it;
  • A three-way piece navigated through Skype, Facebook chat, and in-person work sessions, including conference presentation. All of us already established as good friends, and working on something dear to all of us for activist purposes as well as academic ones;
  • A particularly intimate 2-person project done entirely in person, where we were both the subjects and authors of empirical research we conducted. We had a previous wonderful collaborative history through co-arranging a conference together, but this was easily the most intimate writing I’ve ever taken part in. This was also the only case where the personal connection I felt with my co-author directly inspired both the topic and method of the piece;
  • A different three-way collaboration – I feel I was invited onto this one to help me out, to get my name onto something that the person who did practically all of the writing felt fit with me and my career. I’m deeply appreciative of this, and enjoyed the (very easy) job of editing and making a mark;
  • An editorial process with one other person – very early days this one, but precedent of working with them suggests to me that it will be a way to accrue a new skill set in parallel with nurturing the roots of a friendship.

Collaboration is in very large part responsible for equipping me to find and become myself, as a writer. It is a form of work that is inherently social, encouraging care for the self and for others. Even if/when an output is ‘finished’, the connection is not, but is something born of the process. I see collaboration as something that causes me to grow, allows me to give, makes it easier for me to survive academia, and hopefully help others do the same. I associate collaboration with a sense of becoming that I don’t with ‘solo writing’ – I feel more readily the ‘difference in my me-ness’ when passing through the collaborative process. In short, collaboration is transformative of identity. I certainly acknowledge that all writing can be, but this is the site where I feel this phenomenon (phenomena? It’s always different) most keenly.

I am grateful to Ruth not only for her writing and friendship, but specifically for encouraging me to ‘write in to the conversation’. I am grateful to Z too – although we have never spoken or met, it would be fitting if our respective reactions to Ruth might bring us together in some other – as yet unspecified and unpredictable – collaborative form.

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My Experience of the PhD Viva

“Don’t wear a suit, just a nice shirt is fine”. This was one of the last pieces of advice my primary supervisor, Sally, gave me prior to the viva. That PhD event so formative and significant, and approached with such trepidation by some that one might expect a crack of thunder whenever the word is uttered. My viva was scheduled for 10.30 am on Wednesday 14th December (2016), and so despite living only a 15 minute walk from campus I was naturally up and pacing at 8.00 am – just in case. I tried on several shirts and smart-casual trousers but I could not feel comfortable. “If in doubt, dress up, not down” my father had always said – and so whilst it might’ve gone against the advice I received, I really felt much more comfortable in a suit that morning. With a waistcoat, because why not, it was cold.

I met with Sally 30 minutes before kick-off, for a cup of tea and general encouragement. It had previously been communicated that my internal examiner would come and collect me from my supervisor’s office. Sally would be sitting in – as a PhD student you’re allowed to have one supervisor (silently) observe your viva, if you so wish. Regardless of your choice, a supervisor always has to be available, just in case an examiner wants to discuss something before or after. The ‘mock viva’ I’d had the week before was an informal affair – just a chat really, that for me, sparked the recognition that I needed to avoid trying to answer every sociological question about gender at the same time, if being asked a small point about how I’d contributed towards scholarship on this, that, or the other.

My viva preparation in that single week simply consisted of re-reading the thesis. Those who’ve done a whopping piece of scholarship will know how hard this can be when you’re very close to a large piece of writing, and so I’d deliberately avoided looking at the document since I’d submitted it. This helped a great deal, and I found I was able to bear reading myself (yet again) much more easily than when I was agonizing over the final edits. I highlighted and made notes on things like how I had contributed to scholarship, what original turns-of-phrase I’d deployed, why I’d made certain practical choices or focused on particular bodies of literature over others. Whilst one can’t predict what will come up, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth having things covered which you could expect to be expected to answer. I put sticky labels to divide up the chapters and put it all in a ring-binder to take in with me. I also wrote a few bits on the inside of the folder, but nothing much.

The viva itself was… also, seemingly, an informal affair! I took my cup of tea in with me. My examiners were candid, friendly, and made a point of initiating that the viva should be approached as a peer-to-peer conversation about the details of the thing that no-one in the world is more familiar with than you. A bit of nerves is only natural given the symbolic importance of the day, but really, in the scheme of the PhD, it’s going to be the exception, not the rule, where the viva is make-or-break, and you’d be likely to know this weeks ahead of the fact if this were the case.

Probably the most difficult question I received was actually an ethical one, which surprised me, as I felt much more likely to fall foul of some complex theoretical niggle than simply how I did stuff. It was exciting in a way though, to consider a dimension I hadn’t considered in that way before. It also demonstrated (after the fact) that your examiners can disagree with you about something, and yet your position can remain entirely defendable. They’re not looking for perfection because there is no such thing – simply the necessary contributions.

The whole experience took about 90 minutes. My examiners asked my supervisor and me to step outside – we hadn’t managed to walk down the corridor before being called back in, due to a chance encounter (and frantic whispered dissection) with my second supervisor, who was passing. On being called back in, I was particularly humbled to receive no corrections, which did have me shed a tear of relief (just the one). In the haze of endorphins and surreal emotional diffusion that felt like a balloon letting out all its air, I was given a little information on what would happen next (which I’d already obsessively poured over in the ‘Guide to the thesis examination process’ document I had looked up).

In a way, (cynically), the result of a PhD pass is the same for everyone – more work, of one kind or another! Thus, one should not fear failure – your supervisor shouldn’t let you be going in there if that’s on the cards. Everything else is details, for the vast majority. I put a lot of energy into maintaining my well-being over my PhD, because ultimately, nothing is more important. Beyond survival, everything else is for happiness, and one should do the best one can to construct the PhD experience in a way that allows you to be. As one gains experience and confidence, this can increasingly empower you to tread your own path, even in small ways (like wearing a suit). Approaching the viva as an experience to enjoy rather than an ‘exam’ was certainly constructive. And whilst I couldn’t shake the idea that ‘it could all be taken away from me’ until the result was unequivocally stated, I was able to focus a little so as to ignore that irrational doubt.

The viva is a paradox, because it’s an ending and a beginning at the same time. No two are the same, and yet there’s overwhelming similarity in the way people describe their pre-viva nerves and post-viva relief (and subsequent collapse – put time aside for this!). Ultimately though, it’s yours – and it can be a pleasure.

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