Dr Julie Ovington, University of Sunderland, Dr Jo Albin-Clark, Edge Hill University, Liz Latto, University of Edinburgh & Louise Hawxwell, Edge Hill University
The authors reserve the right to take a lead when listing the blog as an output.
What does it mean to be an early career researcher, and doing research or simply being within the academy? This is something that all four of the contributors have pondered, questioned, and debated numerous times. This blog explores the tensions we have faced so far in our careers and offers up stories of lived experiences and the possibilities for new ways of being, learning and doing academia.
Moving between the here-and-now and the there-and-then
Going to university, let alone doing a PHD, for all the contributors was not something that was laid down in stone. We are all born out of working-class roots, and that comes with its own challenges as well as a wealth of experience that is unnoticed and unacknowledged. Challenges include imposter syndrome; others might label it as a lack of self-confidence, a sense of being undervalued linked to how past experiences are not taken into consideration. Whilst all these are integral to how we came to disrupt the norm, we argue there was, and still is, an element of ‘fitting in’, finding a sense of belonging. Recently Strom and Mills (2021) wrote about their own experiences of academia by drawing attention to how it breeds a sense of belittlement, constant rejection that serves to proliferate a dominant way of knowing and doing research which ultimately ‘takes an enormous physical and mental health toll’ (2021, p. 192). This felt sense is something that has been echoed by many other scholars including Taylor et al., (2020) and Osgood et al., (2020).
This is not to say that this negativity is not necessary or unproductive. Braidotti (2019) reflected on exhaustion describing how we embody a flux of mood swings, flipping between anxiety and excitement which are ruptured by periods of euphoria, leading to contradictory directional pulls that require constant negotiations of our time, boundaries, our involvement or even disengagement from things – all serving to frame our social relations. Unashamedly Braidotti (2019, p.54) said ‘We-are-(all)-in-this-together-but-we-are-not-one-and-the-same’, going further she wrote that exhaustion is ‘a threshold of transformation of forces, that is to say a virtual state of creative becoming’ and by embracing any pain and discomfort that we may have should realise the potential in this as a motivator for change.
Staying with exhaustion, an impetus for change. Voices from the contributors.
Story 1… In the early stages of my PhD, I was listening to a presentation where the presenter shared how she was exploring her own practice as part of her study. The person sat next to me started to tut and mutter noisily: “Is that really research? Who wants to hear someone talk about themselves? Where’s her data, her findings, her results? I’m not interested in this rubbish.” I was so embarrassed but also devastated. At the time, I was going through a change in direction for my own research, deciding to go down the self-study route thinking and exploring what it was that underpins and informs my own practice as a teacher educator. I remember sitting in that presentation thinking ‘Should I be doing this? Is looking at my own practice be appropriate for a PhD? Will it be accepted? Is it enough? Am I enough to be studied?” Imposter syndrome exists within us all. Within those of us who are just starting out on our research journeys. In those of us who have been at it for a while. And probably within those who have been doing this for all their careers. Throughout my own PhD journey, and probably throughout my career too, I’ve had imposter syndrome. Times when I thought everyone knew way more than me, times when I thought I’d be caught out for not knowing something or be able to answer a question. Even now, I’m always conscious that I don’t know enough, that I’m not enough. It’s tiring, and bloody hard work. It makes you feel isolated, makes you feel alone, like you’re the only one going through this, who feels like this. This is why we need others, to work with others, to be with others. To know we are enough.
Story 2… Stepping into academia is like stepping back in time. I do not know of another career pathway where after (in my case) studying at university level for (now) twelve years you are still considered ‘early career.’ I have collected academic qualifications, following a circuitous route, interspersed with life: marriage, children, career, joy, bereavement. I have always used the pursuit of academic qualifications as a means to an end: get a professional job with predictable hours; qualify as a teacher, it fits around family life; upskill yourself to change careers as your profession is changing and your job as you know it, may become redundant. I have never followed the traditional academic pathway, responding to the needs and demands of my life, always slightly in awe of the ‘academy’ and of the people who seem to navigate its gilded halls without effort. I always seem to be playing catch up and spinning so many plates it’s a wonder the whole project doesn’t come crashing down around my ears. I am constantly torn between huge pride as to what I have accomplished so far and in the face of many, many obstacles, and a feeling that I’m just not quite ‘getting it,’ that other people have managed to have their academic life together, are making connections and getting stuff done. This is a feeling which is in no way alleviated by studying for a PhD part-time, self-funded and whilst holding down a challenging job. You constantly feel that you are missing out, standing just outside the window, not knowing how to open it. You don’t have many opportunities to have the conversations that maybe full-time PhD students have, sitting in common rooms and shared labs, that informal support of being with people who are sharing your journey.
In January 2020 I took the momentous decision to step away from working as a teacher to focus full-time on completing my PhD journey. I wanted to have that student experience, those conversations and the time to write – finally. Well, timing is everything. I stepped away from a busy career and began the difficult adjustment of no longer being a key player in an organization and tried to take a breath. My only focus was to build relationships within the university, teach the single course I was involved with as an associate tutor and to make sense of 18 months of research data. In truth I felt a bit lost, disconnected from everything I had known and that had formed a huge part of my identity. Change is always difficult and very few of us seek out change from a place of comfort. Change is prickly; it jars and unsettles us, it forces us into uncomfortable spaces, uncomfortable thoughts. Change is never easy in the best of times, and the two years since 2020 has not been the best of times. As we were all forced to slow down and to isolate ourselves, the need for connection with others has never been greater. As our lives moved into virtual spaces (certainly our professional lives) change became our default. We scrambled around, trying to carve out spaces in our homes to work from without losing that separation between work life and … life. Many of us became increasingly pressured to make good use of all this newly found ‘free time,’ as the demands of online teaching took hold. As someone without existing and established networks within the academy I felt cast adrift, isolated and alone. I reached out, re-connecting with people I had met in that previous life, in conferences, on courses. Through Twitter I connected with scholars from around the world, discovering that kin-ship, that shared experience I was unable to find before. Distance was no longer an obstacle. Time simply a construct. Within a global pandemic, when many aspects of life moved online, virtual spaces became a haven, a refuge from the terror of the unknown and the stresses of the known. Connections, affirmation, reciprocity, containment – all these were offered and accepted, freely, with a generosity of spirit and a bellyful of laughs. Bonds forged through lived experience and shared stories. Truly, support in troubled times, an open window and many helping hands.
Story 3… Once I had my viva and successfully defended my thesis, I don’t think that I was fully prepared for my transition to being a full-time lecturer and not being a student. I felt an overwhelming pressure to succeed and be the best, to write, to produce, to present in juxtaposition to the desire to know more about the theories I was working and thinking-with. It reminded me of the struggles of not feeling like I fitted in as a PhD, even though I developed a close relationship with two other PhD students working with the same theories and philosophies as myself. This feeling of isolation continued at my place of work as nobody I worked with was think-ing with feminist, materialist, posthuman philosophy. I missed the collegiate conversations of those two peers at my previous institution, their studies ceased at the same time as mine and they returned to previous jobs. But here is a thing, who said we have to learn alone? Who said those conversations don’t matter? Who said I have to struggle through this, without even voicing my frustrations? Why can’t I ask for advice and share my thoughts without fear? Truth is I don’t have to! My advice to anyone is that learning is never a solo endeavour and in the words of Braidotti (in Dernikos et al., 2020, p. 49) ‘Function in a group, Function in a pack, Function in a herd. Run with the she-wolves. Do not imagine for a minute you can take on this system alone’ Find your pack!
Story 4… After the dust had settled after my doctorate, I knew I wanted an article out in the world so energy went into that (Albin-Clark 2021). I was really missing the collegiality of my fellow doctoral students and the close support of my supervisors, although they kindly still read things I wrote. Overall though I felt bereft, I’d lost the identity of the badge doctoral student and it’s a lonely state of mind when you are cut loose. But I started to seek out collaborations and networks and this has made a world of difference. To everyone out there who is reading this, reach out to those around you. Find your kin. Don’t be scared of geography either, technology allows you to be international. Do it! Collaborations and collectives make you braver and more creative. Most importantly, they spark your curiosity and motivation to think differently. Be brave.
Sitting with our frustrations and embodying the exhaustions of actoring the ‘right’ academic and conforming to the linear and dominant narrative of what it means to do research and being a PhD candidate capable of producing the ‘normative thesis’ we felt increasingly troubled. To sit with this trouble in the same way we have sat with our frustrations we individually and collectively turned to Haraway (2016) for inspiration, specifically putting to work Staying with the Trouble. The book has a clear message, if it speaks to the reader, that if we stay with the trouble, we commit to working in the present by acknowledging the affect and circulating ontologies of all people, multi-species, and more-than-human matter with a moral response-ability (Bozalek et al., 2018). Working in this way also simultaneously acknowledges that there is a continued imperfection in all things and that any endeavour can be difficult. To work with this understanding required for us to make oddkin ‘that is, we require each other in unexpected collaborations and combinations, in hot compost piles. We become-with each other or not at all’ (Haraway, 2016, p.4). We argue that ‘Together with fellow kin, we wayfare (Ingold, 2007) along our own paths, connecting in both virtual and physical spaces, forming meshworks of safety and companionship.’ (Latto et al., Forthcoming, np).
The four of us are entangled oddkin that is made up of human fleshy bodies, material objects and multi-species including boots, binoculars, hammocks, washing lines, office spaces, converted bedrooms, grown up children, younger children, dogs, cats, flowers, gardens, walks, lego bodies, drawings, dragons, special pens, memories, and stories. We think-with our oddkin as a way of noticing, being attentive to the present, to consider our response-ability and to consider how we can work-with and make-with our thinking (Albin- Clark et al., 2021) to disrupt the dominate narratives to stay with the trouble in an attempt to ‘produce different knowledge and produce knowledge differently’ (St. Pierre, 1997, p.175) in/through/with our research. Doing knowledge, having knowledge, imparting knowledge, and deciphering what constitutes as knowledge is a re-occurring focus in many of the articles, books, blogs, and conferences that we read and attend, to collectively make sense of feminist materialist posthuman theorisations, which can be inaccessible and dense (Strom et al., 2019). Through our storying we are able to explore these concepts in new ways, making theory more accessible wherein new knowledge is created by rhizomatic connections we make-with each other.
In our recently published article, we detail how we were drawn to the theory pedagogy of responsibility and how ‘our thinking lit up. I mean really blew up, with flurries of excited emojis and affirmative messages. It resonated’ (Albin- Clark et al., 2021, np.), the same can be said for our conversations, frantic exchange of messages and post conference impromptu meeting after hearing Taylor (2021) talk about knowledge-ing. Taylor draws on Barad’s (2007) conceptualisation of knowledge as a material practice, a practice of mattering and knowledge as ‘a material-discursive entanglement of politics, power and difference-ing’ (2021, p. 27). Taylor (2021, p. 30) puts forth five propositions for knowledge, in essence Knowledge-ing is positioned as a verb that:
acknowledges the processual nature of knowledge-making. It shifts from knowledge as a thing – separable, contained, over and done with – to knowledge as a doing, an unfolding, a process that is open, nomadic, unfinished and perhaps unfinishable. Knowledge production produces knowledge as boxed and done and sellable as such; knowledge-ing is alive and attentive to the ongoing mattering of the world’s unfoldings. Knowledge-ing is a call to researchers to refuse distance and bring to the fore their (our) affective and embodied capacities for engagement.
At our impromptu post-conference meet up we individually, and collectively, voiced how we felt Carol Taylor was talking directly to us, everything she said described and detailed how we were now working together during the pandemic. It was as if she had been listening to our conversations, been a fly on the walls of our spaces and gave us the confidence to continuously push our own boundaries to disrupt convention. To find our own place and space, a belonging. Our conversation drew back to telling anecdotal experiences, sharing memories, and referring to material or more-than-human matter when Lou said, ‘We are bag ladies, that’s what we are’. Philosophy-became-method for us to re-think the importance of more-than-human matter in knowledge-making in educational spaces by embracing difference and casting out categorical thinking in troubled times (Haraway, 2004). We were inspired by the work of Ursula Le Guin (1989: 2019) Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.
Le Guin argued that the arts and literature can reimagine different ways of being (Robinson, Bouttier and Patoine, 2021) and the practice of storytelling has been used as a political and feminist tool by many scholars (Wiame, 2018). Haraway (2008; 2013; 2016, p.160) proposed a “bag-lady practice of storytelling” speculative fabulation wherein “worlding” and “storying” serves to reimagine Anthropocentric destruction through kin-ship. More recently the carrier bag storytelling has been used in a myriad of ways, especially within feminist, materialist, posthuman methodologies. For example, it has been employed in arts-based research praxis, as a mechanism for collectivism and participation, to story children’s intra-activities with a book and also as performance action research in relation to environmental sustainability (Fairchild et al., 2022; De Rijke, and Osgood, 2021; Pérez-Bustos, Suchman and Piraquive, 2020; Adsit-Morris, 2017).
We have adopted a bag-lady-methodology as a way of working collectively together but also as a way of making kin. For us bags are capacious and can involve everything and anyone. Making oddkin is an urgent matter as we live in an uncertain environmental world, and we have found that storytelling offers both participatory and ethical spaces (Haraway, 2016). Making-kin like knowledge-ing has been imagined as the verb ‘kinshipping’ (Niccolini, Zarabadi and Ringrose, 2018) who theorise that: ‘when we make-together we make kin, when we make kin we are swept into relations of response-ability, when we respond to and find give among other bodies we, in turn, make new kin’ (Niccolini, Zarabadi and Ringrose, 2018, p. 338).
Pérez-Bustos, Suchman and Piraquive (2020) worked-with Columbian women who used sewn bags as story receptacles, they enacted a more-than listening by witnessing memories around conflict, arguing that: ‘The exercise does not assume that listening runs smoothly; stories of troubles or breakdowns can be equally generative” (p. 242). In a forthcoming article we wrote ‘we put to work bag lady storytelling as a mechanism to think with the non-human, everyday world, and mundane politics about what bothers or discomforts, to think about what can change. Collective ways of working with bag lady storytelling enables sharing, generative and collaborative forms of thinking and doing:
We think that Carrier Bags thinking and doing can open new possibilities for stringing sympoiesis – for ethical practices of sharing the burden of whatever it is we’re carrying; for staying with the trouble; and for felting modest possibilities for new futures together through mutual encouragement (Fairchild et al., 2022 p. 137).
For us making stories and telling stories about kin making, either between our group or with others can be thought of in a way that we are creating bags that have the potential to hold and sow seeds of potentialities, for new kinds of flourishing (Haraway, 2016). As Adsit-Morris (2017, p.49) argues ‘The storytelling research practice—doing and thinking, gathering and sharing, composing and decomposing, experimenting and crafting—is a mapping praxis, a drawing, redrawing and undrawing of boundaries and territories within the multiple locations one finds oneself’. In our bag-lady-ship approach of storying with objects to make sense of theory we argue the relational agencies of how we think, where we think, and what we think-with directly influences the ways in which knowledge is made, shaped and takes flight (Haraway, 2016; Deleuze and Guattari, 1987).
We invite you to attend our flipped webinar where we put our approach to work, highlighting how and why matter matters using our collective storying approach – a bag-lady-ship -methodology.
Authors and affiliations:
Julie is a Childhood Studies university lecturer, interested in how matter comes to matter in the distribution of agency – especially for children. Thinking~with feminist new materialist posthuman theories and philosophies.
Jo is an early childhood education university lecturer, interested in documentation practices through posthumanisms and feminist new materialisms.
Liz Latto. University of Edinburgh – Liz.Latto@ed.ac.uk
Liz is a former early years teacher and is now a Teaching Fellow at the University of Edinburgh on the BA (Hons) Childhood Practice. Liz has an interest in Feminist Materialist and Posthuman early years practitioner identities and educational philosophy and theory.
Louise Hawxwell. Edge Hill University – firstname.lastname@example.org
Louise is a primary education university lecturer interested in the ways in which the materiality of memories and beliefs affect relationships with the outdoors and teacher practices.
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Albin-Clark, J., Latto, L., Hawxwell, L. and Ovington, J. (2021). ‘Becoming-with response-ability: How does diffracting posthuman ontologies with multi-modal sensory ethnography spark a multiplying femifesta/manifesta of noticing, attentiveness and doings in relation to mundane politics and more-than-human pedagogies of response-ability?’, entanglements, 4(1), pp. 21-31
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de Rijke, V. & Osgood, J. (2021). Down the back of a chair: What does a method of scribbling with Le Guin’s ‘Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction’ offer conceptualisation of ‘the child’ in the Anthropocene?’ [Childhood and Society Seminar. Centre for Education Research and Scholarship. Middlesex University.] Zoom: 14 June.
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