Reflections

Lessons in Feminist Practice

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I don’t know about you, but whenever I go to events I find that some parts really draw people’s attention, and some drive people to catch up on their admin tasks.

This November I went to a fully funded 2 day workshop at Copenhagen Business School called ‘Feminism Activism Writing’ (https://feministactivistwriting.wordpress.com/), which I can truly say kept 60 attendees solidly engaged for 2 whole days. The workshop was entirely comprised of facilitated discussions helping junior academics to develop and define our feminism, discuss our academic practice, and think about how the two could be brought together to embed feminist activism in academia. In this post I want to share with you my thoughts on the event which I have consolidated into eight principles of feminist academic practice. But, fundamental to getting these discussions right was first recognising our limits: many junior academics, in particular PhD students, had found the labour expected of them exploitative.

The academic workplace was viewed as preying on the known precariousness of the higher education labour market to ensure that junior staff were always willing to say yes to an opportunity, playing on their desperation to remain in academia long-term. Activism in academia was therefore poised on a tricky edge, whilst workshop participants wanted a feminist academic practice, they did not want to be further over-burdened with an expectation of yet more free labour. Instead therefore of looking at new activities, we focussed on ways that feminism could be embedded within current practice.

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Imperfection as feminist practice. Chronic under-confidence and an acute imposter complex was experienced by many participants. Of course this is just one of the many unhappy by-products of the patriarchy, which tells us that women are not good enough and that feminism is not a legitimate academic area. With this as the context, it was important to ensure that feminist scholars have realistic expectations of their own work, and it was suggested that this could be helped by exposing our imperfect work, letting people know how much redrafting is necessary to produce polished, publishable work, and by sharing our mistakes. One of the senior facilitators summed this up by saying, ‘my whole academic life is a draft’!

Belief as feminist practice. Building on the point above, workshop participants had come up against a lot of negativity whether from colleagues, supervisors, or reviewers, and the experience of having credentials constantly questioned was exhausting. In response to this context it is important to believe in and support our fellow feminists, encouraging our peers and colleagues to pursue their half-formed ideas. Sometimes support is financial (check out this fantastic project: https://unbound.com/books/cut-from-the-same-cloth), but sometimes it’s citing the work of a colleague to help amplify it, or suggesting useful opportunities where colleagues could benefit or contribute (e.g. conferences, special editions of journals, events).

Pedagogy as feminist practice. The people who attended the conference were from a wide variety of disciplines from business to literature to biology and across it was suggested that for all those that teach bringing a feminist lens into the classroom was essential. It both allows us as teachers to firmly problematise the subject matter that we are expected to teach which very often is presented neutrally, whilst also raising feminist issues and thus playing a role in educating a new generation of prospective feminists.

Publishing as feminist practice. Publishing houses were viewed by many as exploitative, making huge amounts of money from the subscription fees paid by institutions to allow their own students to read their own academics’ works. Ending this perverse system is essential if we wish to open up the Academy beyond the boundaries of the privileged. Although it was recognised that there was pressure to publish in prestigious journals, it was also noted that to end this cycle it would be necessary to make our work available in open-source journals (some of my favourite open source journals include Ephemera and Intersectional Perspectives: Identity, Culture, and Society).

Reviewing as feminist practice. Participants acknowledged that although perhaps they were supportive of colleagues and students, it was easier to slip into more combative ways of giving feedback when reviewing. Of course academia is about excellence in a given field and so we hold our peers to high account. However it was noted that perhaps we needed to add a little kindness into our reviewing and extend the same encouragement to our faceless, nameless peers as we did the colleagues we try to nurture and support.

Appreciation as feminist practice. Feminism in academia could be a lonely road and finding connections is a key coping strategy. Events like this workshop were really important for creating professional feminist connections, as are creating and joining networks, but equally we were reminded of the importance of showing our appreciation for those who organise and maintain feminist groups, events and online spaces by lending our labour or even just giving out the odd thank you card or kind word.

Optimism as feminist practice. This is not a passive optimism, it’s an active push for things to be better. For example some Irish academics have organised an anonymous Twitter account to call out all male panels ‘Manels’ and to demands that events must do better (https://twitter.com/manelwatchire?lang=en) whilst Copenhagen Business School has developed these resources that you can send to event organisers to demonstrate the need to include women in their events: https://www.academia.edu/16746662/The_Gender_Gap_in_the_Tourism_Academ. It is also about encouraging our fellow feminist to take up space, taking note of amazing women that we see speak or read the work of, and then suggesting them for events that we know are being organised.

Voice as a feminist practice. Writing for many had become an uncomfortable, even painful practice. This was often because of the tendency in academia to critically appraise work (which could sometimes feel like an intellectual assassination of the mind) whilst forgetting to say what was exciting, inspiring or interesting about it. Some participants in the workshop had been paralysed by these experiences, and were finding it increasingly hard to write anything at all. Sharing feminist ideas with a wide range of audiences is vital. To jump start our passion and confidence in our own voices, it was suggested that we could try writing in a different format (perhaps through blogging), getting into a regular habit of writing 100 words a day (achievable and habit forming), or trying to communicate through a different mediums such as media outlets.

As a student right at the beginning of her PhD journey I found this event hugely inspirational both meeting senior academics committed to feminist academic practice and discussing with other early career researchers the possibility of a feminist future for academia, and I am excited to continue my involvement with it. ’Feminism Activism Writing’ currently has plans to be around for the next five years and is keen to leave a lasting, feminist impression on academia. The other resource I found super helpful was Sarah Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life. But I for one am super keen to hear how others are embedding their feminist activism in their academic practice, so get in touch with how you are trying to practice feminism in academia.

This blog was first published in 2017 right at the beginning of my PhD on the The Postgraduate Gender Research Network of Scotland blog, but has been slightly edited to keep the links up-to-date.

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