Rachel Tavernor discusses ‘the system’, solidarity, and the importance of retaining your own voice in this guest blog, third in this week’s collection of posts by women researchers to recognise International Women’s Day 2018.
Rachel has recently finished her PhD in Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Sussex.
Her research focuses on humanitarian relationships, practices of solidarity and NGO communications. She was the founding editor of Re.framing Activism (2012 – 2014) and last year coordinated the British Library’s International Women’s Day event, Rebels in the Archives.
This International Women’s Day I will celebrate my 30th birthday. I have always loved sharing my birthday with a day that celebrates the achievements, power and collective strength of women. This year, is also my tenth and final year at the University of Sussex, where I have studied for my BA, MA and PhD, and taught courses in media practice and cultural studies. Sussex has been my much loved academic home for a third of my life. So I thought I would use this opportunity to reflect on my decade here and share with you some of the things that I’ve learnt.
“I have always loved sharing my birthday with a day that celebrates the achievements, power and collective strength of women”
> One: Understand but do not accept the ‘system’
I was the first of my family and friends to study for a PhD. Ironically, given that I was about to pursue several years of research, I did very little investigation into what studying for a PhD would be like. I was confronted by this in our induction week, when we were warmly welcomed by current students that shared their stories about ‘imposter syndrome’, sexism, exploitation and struggles within the academy. Thankfully, alongside these stories, they also shared how the PhD is filled with many wonderful experiences and opportunities.
While conducting my PhD research, I was involved in teaching, research initiatives, and organising regional and national events. Many of these experiences were extremely positive and I had the opportunity to collaborate with many inspiring people. However, there was also times of struggle during the PhD. The recent stories of everyday sexism that were shared with the hashtag #MeTooPhD were sadly not surprising, they vocalised some of my and my friends’ experiences.
A recent failing in my school related to gender violence was the catalyst for me to better understand ‘the system’. In my spare time, I researched gender violence in the academy. Inspired and empowered by the work of Sara Ahmed, Heidi Safia Mirza and Alison Phipps, I began to better understand ‘the system’. A system that privileges white, middle class men: the gender pay gap in universities in the UK is a significant 12%, only 24% of professors in the UK are women and only 99 are black, female academics are judged on their appearance and as the recent media coverage amplified, gender violence is woefully commonplace.
Whereas previously, I had felt silenced, understanding the mechanics of the university (for example, reading policy documents), I was able to translate my personal grievances into political action. By understanding ‘the system’, I could voice my anger and object to practices that perpetuate gender violence. I also found a sisterhood, online and offline, which acknowledged that our anger is collective, legitimate and has the potential to transform cultures and practices.
> Two: Do it your way
The system not only favours white, middle class men but we (as junior researchers) are frequently told to emulate them to ‘be successful’. This often translates into recommendations about how I should care less about my teaching, publish often, be competitive, shirk non prestigious admin roles and prioritise my research. I have always hated receiving this advice, it feels like I am being told to be someone else. Thankfully, I had two wonderful supervisors and many incredible colleagues, who showed me that I did not have to follow this terrible advice. Instead, their feminist approach to academia gave me the confidence to do it my way. This included recognising the value in my teaching, to understand that our research can be a feminist practice and that even though emotional labour is undervalued in academia, it is crucial work that contributes to crafting communities of care.
I was privileged to have supervisors that inspired me in so many ways. Over the years, I have often echoed their advice to other PhD students. Early in my PhD, I had a preconceived idea about what my PhD should be. In my first year, while discussing a piece of writing, I told my supervisor that I planned to make it ‘more academic’. With a puzzled expression on her face, she inquired about what I meant. At the time, I wanted to make my PhD sound like the academic work that I read (Bourdieu, Foucault, Habermas), and admittedly struggled to read, during my undergraduate degree. Thankfully, my supervisor challenged my preconceived idea about ‘the academic voice’ of the PhD. She taught me the value in acknowledging ‘my voice’ in my academic work. Subsequently, I recognised the value in interweaving my lived experiences into my research. In doing so, I gained greater confidence in my writing. I experienced ‘imposter syndrome’ less because I wasn’t trying to voice my research as someone else.
> Three: Practice Solidarity
Finally, it can sometimes be hard to see how practices of solidarity, while so crucially needed, can be practiced in a patriarchal, hierarchal and neoliberal institution. These are precarious times, where we are told to work more hours, compete more, and be subservient to the demands of the Research Excellence Framework (REF). In my school, we crafted collective spaces to share our research, our experiences and to create a community that sustained us in our PhDs. Our practices of solidarity were not confined to the academy. Equally important was our karaoke sessions, pub conversations, shared meals and our celebratory viva cakes (a tradition in our school is to bake a cake that sums up their PhD, below is the cake that my friends made me).
In my ten years at Sussex, the people (mostly women) who have shaped me the most are the academics, colleagues and friends who have practiced their feminist values in their everyday university practices. Their teachings went far beyond academic syllabuses. They taught me how to radically listen out, to practice sisterhood and to challenge injustices. The current UCU strike, which fights against the brutal attack on academic pensions, demonstrates the power in collectively working together. So my final piece of advice, if you haven’t already, please consider joining our union.