Thursday, July 3, 2014

Reading Audre Lorde is changing my life

As my interest in feminism has grown, I've started reading some of the works of feminist writers. I've started slowly and avoided certain topics completely (due to self care), but I'm learning so much. I've loved the books I've read so far and they've all been helpful to me in their own way. But none have spoken to me in the way that Audre Lorde has.

I started reading her "Sister Outsider" just after a trip to visit a friend. Said friend had me read the essay "The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action" from this book. And I was hooked! In this particular essay Lorde points out that our silence hasn't ever protected us from violence, victimisation and ridicule. As women we get those anyway, whether we are silent or whether we "speak". This essay spoke to me because this is how I view my move into feminism and activism. Through twitter and blogging I found my voice. I am able to speak against injustice where I see it and people respond to my writing. I've written not just on my own blog but for other campaigns too, and I continue to do this. It allows me, in some small way, to feel like I am fighting. But more than this, I'm fighting using something I am good at. I LOVE writing. I always have. And because I love it, and have done so much of it (for fun) over the years, I'm pretty good at it. I'm confident about my writing, in a way that I am not always confident about "speaking" in person. So being able to write, to use writing as my voice, as a way to break the silence has been immensely powerful for me. And reading Lorde's essay felt like a validation of all of those feelings. I feel stronger because I write; I feel empowered because I write; I feel like I'm contributing because I write; I broke my silence because I write.

But, Lorde's impact on me doesn't end there. When I got home I went to the uni library and picked up Sister Outsider. I started reading and was blown away by the essay "Poetry is not a Luxury". In this piece Lorde talks about the power of poetry and how it is not a trivial thing. I was moved almost to tears (I kid you not) by this paragraph:

"For women then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives."

When I read those words, they hit me in the chest, took my breath away, and filled my eyes with tears. Here Lorde was putting words to a feeling I've had my whole life but never been able to articulate. I've always used poetry to cope and process. When I'm dealing with trauma I write poems. When I'm hurting and sad, those feelings express themselves through words on a page. I rarely let people read these poems. They are MINE, for me. A way to deal with my life experiences, to process my pain. The act of writing these poems frees me somehow. Lets me see the hurt and deal with it. It moves it from within me to on the page. Poetry is and always has been my survival tactic. To see that this is true of other women, and to see Lorde articulate it so clearly, changed my life. It moved me, in a way no other piece of writing ever has. It switched something in my head and again, made me feel stronger and more connected to other women.

It was so powerful that I had to share it: I tweeted it. And since then it has sat in my heart and in my head, I'm pretty sure those words have taken up permanent residence inside me. :)

After this I was besotted with Lorde and her writing, but sure that her words were done moving me so much. And then she hit me again, with her essay "Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power". In this essay Lorde talks about reclaiming "the erotic" as not just referring to sexual behaviours and actions, but as that feeling of love and passion. That these feelings do not just pertain to sex and relationships but to our passions, such as writing, art, to everything:

"The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire. For having experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling and recognizing its power, in honor and self-respect we can require no less of ourselves."

Again, this hit me in the chest. These words gave me permission for my pursuit of my education. For the direction I am trying to push my career. My path is one which follows the erotic in this sense, when I research, teach and write I feel this sense of satisfaction. I KNOW it is what I am supposed to be doing. What I was made for. There have been times when I have felt like this pursuit is selfish. That the sacrifices my family make for this are too much to ask. But these words again freed me. Lorde spoke to me and let me know that what I am doing will make me a stronger, more whole person. And in truth, that to not pursue this sense of satisfaction would be a betrayal of myself.

Like I said, this book is changing my life. Sister Outsider contains so much other wisdom, words about being a black woman, a lesbian, about intersectionality and multiple oppressions. I know it's a book I will return to again and again throughout my life. If you haven't read it, DO. It is truly an amazing work. I intend to find EVERYTHING Audre Lorde has ever written, because I have a feeling she has much more to say to me.

To my London friend (you know who you are) THANK-YOU, thank-you for putting this book in my hands.

To the memory of the amazing Audre Lorde I say: Your words changed my world. Thank-you!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Academic Abelism

If you've been following my tweeting this week you will have seen me using the Academic Abelism hashtag and RTing and talking with the @phdisabled account. I decided to get some of my thoughts down and try to explain why I think this conversation is so important. 

As regular readers of my blog (or twitter followers) will be aware I suffer from a chronic illness. This illness is debilitating and severe. As you will also know, I'm a PhD student. I'm hoping that it's apparent how much I love my research, and my institution (most of the time). But this intersection of graduate study and ill health is HARD. It's hard for many reasons and all of them need to be talked about, because in truth what is needed in academia is a culture shift. A paradigm change. And for those you need pressure. You need evidence and you need someone to make the noise. 

The acadmeic lifestyle nowadays is predicated upon this ideal of the "superhero worker". Someone who works 12 hours a day, 7 days a week minimum. You are supposed to live, eat, breathe and sleep academia. It is not enough now to be a good researcher, you must publish, publish, publish in respectable journals. You must be an exceptional teacher (I mean, students are paying £9K), but you have to do all your prep for this teaching in "your own time" because all of your working hours are taken up with research and grant proposals. 

This lifestyle is unhealthy.  As is evidenced by the high insidence of mental health problems and depression amongst PhD students and academics. God help you if you come to the academy with existing health problems. If you come to the academy unable to put in all the "extra" hours because doing so will exaccerbate your pre-existing condition. In this case, the blame is put on you. You are weak, and cannot cope with the high pressure academic environment. You are found wanting. NO-ONE considers that actually it's academia that has the problem. 

At least no-one did until a few small voices started to make noise: Thesis Whisperer, @JessicaRdctd, @nadinemuller and then @Phdisabled. And suddenly all of those in academia with chronic illness/ disability realised that we are not alone. We started to talk, and realised that our experiences were similar. And we began to join the dots. Realising that the problem isn't us, it's the system. 

Any system that purportes to be built on an intellectual meritocrary, that excludes some intellects because of disability is a broken system. Our intellect is not wanting. We are not lesser minds. We have bodies that betray us: That mean we cannot and SHOULD NOT work ourselves to illness. 

The changes we would make, the issues that we see as needing to be addressed, will not only benefit us. All of academia is exhausted. Isn't it about time we started talking about changing this?! 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Do you wanna know what UCLan Psychology is REALLY like?

So, you may have seen on Social Media and in the press that my Univeristy is making redundancies. You may have seen the protest accounts and the specific uproar from the School of Psychology in particular. I've been part of the School of Psychology at the University of Central Lancashire since 2007; let me tell you what it's REALLY LIKE. And what impact these redundancies are gonna have. 

We have AMAZING and passionate staff. Our lecturers are student focussed and I will be sad to see ANY of them go. They are like family to me, I've been here FOREVER and worked with them for a long time. These people are important to me and I will no doubt cry when I hear who has gone. But this is the reality that we are faced with and whilst I support some protest against this I don't support the trashing of my schools reputation. Yes, we will lose good staff and we will feel their loss. But it won't destroy the school. 

There's been a few points raised in connection with the lay offs. The main one being that the quality of teaching will suffer, because undergrads will be taught by newly qualified (or Heaven forbid), current PhD researchers. Wanna know what I think of this? It's horseshit!! And it makes me furious. For a few reasons:

1) I was taught by PhD researchers at undergrad level! Back in 2007 UCLan was using Associate Lecturer positions to do the majority of the first year undergrad teaching. Those tutors were EXCELLENT. They were passionate, informed and engaging. They taught well, and I can assure you my degree DID NOT suffer becasue of it: I got First class honours! 

2) This point is obvious now, but the use of term-time only contract Associate lecturers is not new or unique to UCLan. Many universities across the country (in fact internationally too) use these types of staff to do some teaching at first year level. For various reasons: Lecturers are highly paid and their time is valuable, the best use of their time is not delivering the same lab class 5 times in a week; teaching at this early stage is broad and covers a wide range of topics, all experienced Lecturers have research specialities and it could be 20 years since they actually did any work on the topic they're being asked to teach; PhD researchers are fresh and less specialised; these classes provide a great opportunity for teaching experience for newer lecturing staff.

3) These Associsate Lecturers do not teach in isolation! We have a fantastic school spirit, staff are supportive and encouraging. If an AL needs help and advice there are numerous doors to knock on. Likewise all ALs have access to training in teaching practice provided by UCLan. 

4) The people who take these posts are not all going to be strangers to the school. I am currently on an AL contract at UCLan. I have done this for the last 3 years now. I have taught lab classes, stats classes, workshops etc. And so have many of the people I know. We work hard to ensure that our teaching is of an excellent standard. We work evenings and weekends (for which we don't get paid) preparing our sessions and rehersing our classes. We talk to other staff and get pointers for how to make our presentations more engaging; for how to "work the room" better. WE CARE DEEPLY about the experience of the students. EVERY ONE of the ALs that I know has attended the Universities Teaching toolkit training course. And we work HARD, 

5) Having been a student, let me tell you: years of teaching + PhD =/= GOOD teaching. Likewise:
No PhD + little teaching =/= BAD teaching. And this is the claim that makes me angriest in all this. 

OK, now I've got that little rant out of the way. What else can I say about UCLan Psychology?

Well, a UCLan Psychology degree is about so much more than just the staffing in the school. We have a wonderfully diverse student body; mature students, students with children, students with disabilities, students from BAME backgrounds, working class students..... our school is a wonderfully multi-cultural place. And the staff deal fantastically with this diversity. I say this as a working class, mature student, with a chronic illness and a husband and kid at home, who struggled financially throughout my degree. I had all kinds of other pressures going on behind the scences when I was studying. And I can tell you I have cried on the shoulders of more than one member of staff in our School. I feel at home in that School. Darwin building is a safe space for me. A space filled with happy memories. And as I've already said - I got a First Class Degree. 

UCLan was one of the first UK institutions to introduce an Undergraduate Research scheme. We've paved the way and a couple of years back held the FIRST EVER UK conference of Undergraduate Research. The School of Psychology has from the very beginning been a major contributor to this scheme and our students do very well from it. Likewise, our school has excellent links with outside agencies: our sports psychology staff (and students) work with local professional teams. We have links to business, education, prisons; all there for students to take advantage of for work experience or research purposes. 

UCLan as an institution has so much to offer. During my degree I won awards, took part in real research (from which I have a published paper), travelled the world, attended and presented at conferences, have been involved in public engagement work and so much more. 

PLEASE, please, please, if you are a student currently considering where to go; don't write UCLan Psychology off. Come to our open day. See the campus. Meet our AMAZING staff. Say hi to me, coz I'll be there (wearing my cat ears). Come see for yourself what we're like, coz I guarantee what you've read in the press or on twitter is NOT it.  

An email was sent early this week, stating that thanks to staff voluntarily coming forward for redundancy there will be no compulsory redundancies. As a consequence of this all further strike action has been cancelled. I've heard "through the grapevine" that Psychology are losing 3 staff members, but I don't know who they are yet (and I'm not looking forward to finding out).

My hope now is that we can get on with rebuilding the school's reputation and supporting each other through these changes. I know this staff, and I know that pretty soon UCLan Psychology will be the same supportive and fun place it has always been.