“How to Become a Prolific Academic Writer”

 Or: How to Become a Model Neoliberal Academic Subject.

If you’ve met me recently, online or offline, you’ll know that I’m in the middle of finishing my PhD dissertation. That’s to say: I’m in the middle of finishing a manuscript, a book, the largest piece of writing I’ve ever written. Some 90.000 words, excluding bibliography.

So it should not come as a surprise that writing and everything related to it have been on my mind these past months. How to reduce procrastination time and be more effective in my time management? How to overcome writer’s blocks and deal with the anxiety that comes with trying to finish up a project like this? How to edit your own text and how to be satisfied with what you’ve written?

Because I’m nerdy like that, I also love reading, thinking, talking and even writing about writing. Yeah, that’s some ‘meta’ stuff! The genre of self-help books and articles for academics are a rich resource here. For a PhD seminar on academic writing offered at the Institute for Gender Studies (RIP) at Radboud University, we are having a seminar on academic writing. The text that was assigned to prepare for the session is Write to the Top: How to Become a Prolific Academic Writer (Johnson and Mullen 2007).

As I was reading this book, I noticed myself becoming increasingly angry and pissed off. Not just about this particular text, but about the discourse it represents: a neoliberal discourse about productivity and efficiency in academic work. I got so angry, that I was even spurred to write this blog as a response – well, Johnson and Mullen achieved something there!

To start with the positive: there are definitely some very helpful and practical tips to be found in this book. For example, there is the good advice to take your writing seriously and to make it a habit to write every day. I also agree with the tip of scheduling uninterrupted time for writing in your workweek and to take this ‘appointment’ with your writing as seriously as you would other appointments like teaching or meetings. There are also tips about how to structure such writing blocks, and practical advice about the publishing process.

But the main problem in this book and others in this genre is the neoliberal undertone, which puts the responsibility for the success of writing squarely with the individual scholar, eclipsing the structural conditions of contemporary academic life. I’ll go into three pieces of advice by Johnson & Mullen that I find deeply disturbing. I’ll juxtapose these with passages from Rosalind Gill’s insightful article “Breaking the Silence: The Hidden Injuries of Neoliberal Academia” (2010).

Tip 1) It’s not work if you’re doing what you love!

For Johnson and Mullen, writing and other academic labour should be considered a ‘vocation’ rather than a ‘job’. While many may agree that you should be driven by an inner motivation as a scholar, in the context of increasing precarization of academic labour this seemingly harmless argument can easily slip into something more disturbing. Consider the following passage:

When external rewards (e.g., cash) are applied to an activity that a person does for pleasure (e.g., writing), that activity often decreases in frequency—its positive valence declines. What was once done for the love of the activity becomes tied to one’s livelihood and thus associated with an onerous demand. Imagine your dean standing outside the door each day when you walked into teach, handing you a few twenties to compensate you for that day’s work. Although the thought of this individual giving you money might be appealing on some level, you get the point; soon, teaching would begin to feel less like a vocation and more like a job. Slowly, extrinsic incentives would upstage intrinsic rewards. (Johnson and Mullen 2007, 4-5).

Wait a minute… Are they seriously saying that it’s a bad thing to be paid for the work you do? Just because you ‘love’ something, does not mean it is not work and does not deserve to be compensated financially!

Just imagine being paid for teaching by the university (that dean standing at the door with a few twenties)– what a ludicrous idea!

Imagine writing not just because it’s so much fun, but as a job – how unappealing!

With these comments, Johnson and Mullen reveal themselves to be very blind to the contemporary working conditions in academia, which are characterized by precarity and casualisation, especially for younger academics. The discourse about academia as a vocation is strongly connected to these working conditions. Rosalind Gill comments:

the academic’s refusal to grubby his or her hands with talk about money is related to the idea of scholarship as a ‘noble’ calling or vocation — a fact that is probably not unrelated to our failure over many decades to secure pay deals that even keep pace with inflation.  Financial hardship can be masked- and rendered difficult to speak of – by academics’ educational and cultural capital. (Gill 2010)

In other words, this rhetoric of ‘vocation’ that Johnson and Mullen advocate, along with their distaste for financial compensation, is the same logic that makes young academics accept work on shortterm contract after shortterm contract without view of anything permanent, and accepting payment that does not even equate to minimal wage.

But they are doing what they love, so it should not matter that they don’t have a pension… Right? Right?… Yeah, right!

Tip 2) Just work all the time! Time off is for losers!

Since writing is not a job but a vocation, it’s also not something that you really need a break from, Johnson and Mullen seem to think. In fact, they even advocate taking your manuscript with you on holiday!

 You will find yourself traveling to a convention or a speaking engagement, as well as taking holidays and vacations, so why not bring along your laptop and writing files? Both of us have enjoyed writing articles, books, and proposals on jaunts around the world as well as in beach condos. Spring and summer breaks offer ideal times for achieving major progress on writing projects. In these instances, create a writing schedule before departing for a vacation or a conference: Discipline yourself to steal moments or even hours while away to get some important work done. Even at crowded conventions or on long travel days, “down time” can occur as an unexpected surprise. (Johnson and Mullen 2007, 19).

Sorry to break it you: if you’re ‘getting important work done’, it is not called a holiday. It is worktime. If you are disciplining yourself and creating schedules, it is not ‘down time’. It is worktime.

What a sad vision.. And what’s worse: what an unproductive one. Call me naïve, but I strongly believe in evenings, weekends, holidays and down-time as essential parts of being a whole person (something Johnson & Mullen advocate) as well as being a productive researcher and writer. You cannot be ‘on’ 24/7, and you really don’t need to feel guilty about taking time off.

This mania about working all the time is unhealthy and ultimately unproductive. Of course, I write this as a PhD researcher in the Netherlands, with good working conditions and the ‘luxury’ to take holidays. Maybe I’ll think differently about this if/when I will be doing a postdoc or trying to secure tenure. Maybe I won’t be able to ‘afford’ time off at a later stage in my career. But even if that were the case, I hope that that could be recognized as a problem, instead of seeing it as some sort of perverse virtue, as Johnson and Mullen seem to advocate.

Tip 3) Become a Robot! Or: How to write a book while the pasta cooks.

The last piece of great advice that Johnson & Mullen offer is to just be more efficient! To do this, they suggest tracking your time to find out where you can make gains.

Given the presumed constant of a 24-hour day, where does each of those precious 1440 minutes go? For a period of one week—including the weekend—keep a log of how you spend each 15-minute segment. Be specific. Rather than write “in office” or “working on administrative tasks” for a one-hour period between classes, specify exactly what you did. Be just as concrete with your description of evening and weekend hours. After diligently time-tracking for even one day, academics are often surprised and chagrined to realize how much of their discretionary time is offered up to the gods of distraction and inefficiency. Unnecessary, and often redundant, activities (e.g., browsing the Web, checking for new e-mail messages, chatting with colleagues, watching television) often occupy a prominent place in the daily log. Reflect soberly on your daily time allocation. Even if two hours of time each workday, and probably more on the weekend, are currently not well spent, think of the increase in writing time this would mean. What could you accomplish with an additional 15 hours of time to engage in scholarship each week? (Johnson and Mullen 2007, 8-9).

Browsing the web and chatting with colleagues, my goodness, it’s now obvious why I haven’t finished that PhD yet… And what do you do once you know where all that extra writing time is going? Streamline your calendar!

In our experience, extra writing time can be captured where none existed simply by being prepared to do some work in such circumstances as sitting in a doctor’s office waiting for an appointment, standing in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles, sitting in your office during a half-hour stretch between classes or meetings, during down-time at a convention, waiting for repairs to be completed on your car, for a child’s soccer practice to end, or even standing around in your kitchen while pasta cooks. (16)

For me, this reads like a parody of itself. Writing while cooking pasta: now that’s taking multi-tasking to the absurd. While you’re at it, why don’t you just become a robot instead of a human being! Why talk to colleagues at all? Who has time to watch their kids soccer practice or stand around waiting for the water to boil when they could be writing their next award-winning article at the same time!

In the neoliberal academy, the ‘solution’ to a heavy workload that leaves little to no time to write and think is often put on the individual academic, instead of looking at it as a structural problem and an organizational issue. As Rosalind Gill comments:

This is a collective, structural problem that is a direct result of workloads which leave many people with no ‘slack’ to take on anything beyond that which is directly required of them.  Yet once again there is no discussion of this as an institutional or organisational issue.  Instead universities ‘help’ staff to deal with these new intensified conditions with a barrage of ‘training courses’ (most of which we have no time to attend) which cover topics such as ‘time management’, ‘speed reading’, and ‘prioritising goals’, and require each individual to work on the self to better manage proliferating workloads, as if there were a technical fix (oh it’ll all be alright if I only check email once a day – why didn’t I think of that?! I’ll just pick all 115 of them up at 5  o’clock then I can stay up all night answering them!) while actively refusing any ‘reality check’ on the sustainability of contemporary academic workloads. (Gill 2010)

Here, Gill exposes clearly the ridiculousness of these ‘solutions’ like those suggested by Jonson & Mullen. While they think the answer can be found in individual efficiency, that that can only take you so far.

A Different Path? The Slow Scholarship Movement

I see so many colleagues on the verge of a burn out, that I find these tips depressing rather than inspiring. Johnson & Mullen offer not a model of how to become a prolific academic writer, but rather a handbook on how to become a model neoliberal academic subject. As Rosalind Gill warns:

All this happens in a context in which not only has the boundary between work and play (or non-work) become completely corroded, but in which we are deeply invested in and passionately attached to work — indeed, we often draw no distinction between our work and ourselves (and again there are powerful parallels with creative workers here)… We therefore need urgently to think about how some of the pleasures of academic work (or at least a deep love for the ‘myth’ of what we thought being an intellectual would be like, but often seems at far remove from it) bind us more tightly into a neoliberal regime with ever-growing costs, not least to ourselves. Lauren Berlant’s work on ‘cruel optimism’ may be helpful here in showing how such passionate investment (eg in the myth of the academic good life) allows us to survive, whilst simultaneously making things worse. (Gill 2010)

I think we have to really watch out as critical scholars not to fall into the traps of neoliberal academia. While undoubtedly well intended, the ‘tips’ offered by Johnson and Mullen are more destructive than productive.

Instead of listening to tips like these, I think we have to take seriously the emerging movement for ‘slow scholarship’ (Mountz et al. 2015, Hartman and Darab 2012). In their text For Slow Scholarship: A Feminist Politics of Resistance through Collective Action in the Neoliberal University, a collective of feminist geographers offer concrete tips to resist this neoliberal model: tips to ‘move deliberately through a fast world’. Those are the types of tips I would like to see discussed in a Gender Studies PhD seminar on academic writing – not the neoliberal checklist offered by Johnson and Cullen. Not how we can excell within a broken system, but how we can work to change that system, make it work for us and for a feminist ethics of care.

Let’s just face it: academic work takes time. It should take time. Books are not written while the pasta boils. Talking to your colleagues is not a waste of time – that’s called dialogue and exchange, and it’s a crucial element of academic life. Productivity is not holy, and time off is not optional. We’ve got to resist this neoliberal academic discourse!

 

Resources

Gill, Rosalind. 2010. “Breaking the silence: The hidden injuries of neo-liberal academia.” In Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process : Feminist Reflections, edited by Róisín Ryan-Flood and Rosalind Gill. London: Routledge

Johnson, W. Brad, and Carol A. Mullen. 2007. Write to the top! How to become a prolific academic. 1. ed. ed. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Mountz, A., M. Walton-Roberts, A. Bonds, B. Mansfield, J. Loyd, J. Hyndman, R. Basu, R. Whitson, R. Hawkins, T. Hamilton, and W. Curran. 2015. “For slow scholarship: A feminist politics of resistance through collective action in the Neoliberal University.” ACME no. 14 (4):1235-1259.

 

Reading Notes: MacKinnon, Crenshaw and feminist essentialism?

In my research process, I often stumble across interesting articles and debates that I do not have the opportunity to engage with in depth in my own work. It is the kind of meandering literature search that I like to call “productive procrastination”. So, I thought: why not make it even more productive by sharing some of the notes that I am making and the thoughts that I have about these little side-tracks that, even if they turn out not to be useful to my own dissertation, might still be of interest to others.

This morning, instead of finishing the chapter, I started reading about the relation between the thought of Catherine MacKinnon and Kimberlé Crenshaw, two prominent feminist legal scholars. They are often positioned as polar opposites – MacKinnon as the radical feminist who is essentialist and prioritizes gender at the expense of race, and Crenshaw as the one who argues against that her work on intersectionality.

MacKinnon’s polemical writing, notably the article “From Practice to Theory, or What is a White Woman Anyway?” in some ways does lend itself to this conclusion. In this piece, MacKinnon argues that an essentialized trope of ‘white woman’ is being constructed that leads to a trivializing of the oppression of white women and argues for a frame that stresses on a common oppression as women.

However (and surprising to me and others, I guess), Crenshaw does not see MacKinnon’s work as oppositional to her intersectional paradigm and she resists that common framing. Instead, she reflects on why it is that MacKinnon has become the object of so much sharp critique to the extent that she becomes a kind of symbol of essentialist, race-blind feminism. For Crenshaw, the answer lies in the broader tendency to frame intersectional critique as a critique of feminist practice rather than anti-racist practice: a critique of the whiteness of feminism more than a critique of the maleness of anti-racism. She holds that women of colour are often framed in oppositional terms to feminism, but in cooperative terms to anti-racism, and questions why this is. Crenshaw suggests that

“how and when a certain set of critiques become commonplace and routinely reproduced is not solely a matter of the substantive availability of the critique. The relative availability of certain critiques of feminism – in this instance, essentialism, universalism, and the like – alongside the relative absence of similar claims that could well be launched against antiracism, suggests that a variety of factors are likely at play that have more to do with politics than an organic commitment to theoretical rigor. These politics elevate certain oppositions within feminism while they suppress potential conflicts over the role of gender, sexuality and other differences within antiracism. The time may be ripe to interrogate and potentially disrupt these circuits of meaning, to reconnect links that have been broken, and to redirect critical scrutiny to the various tropes around which expressions of solidarity and rupture have been organized. My Intersectionalities classroom is, in a sense, a laboratory in which these objectives are foregrounded” (Crenshaw 2010, 155).

In this text, Crenshaw opens up for a productive and affirmative reading of MacKinnon, rather than an easy dismissal of her. I am also intrigued by Crenshaw’s undercutting of the common oppositional framing of ‘black feminism’/’feminism of colour’ and ‘white feminism’. The idea that feminism (in the past and in the present) is racist, essentialist and exclusionary has become such a truism, that it is in a way very refreshing to read such a prominent black feminist scholar as Crenshaw challenge and nuance that common framing.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that racism within feminism is not a problem and that it should not be interrogated and challenged. Indeed, much of my work is dedicated exactly to that, to working against a race-blind, gender-first version of feminism! But I do think it is interesting to think about what is at stake in the routine reiteration of this ‘split’, as Crenshaw urges us to do. What happens when this becomes one of the standard stories we tell about feminism? And how intriguing is it that one of the protagonists of this very story speaks up to challenge the narrative…

Curious for the thoughts of others! Click on the titles to go to the texts.

MacKinnon, Catherine. (1996) “From Practice to Theory, or What is a White Woman Anyway?” Radically Speaking, Feminism Reclaimed.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. (2010) “Close Encounters of Three Kinds: On Teaching Dominance Feminisms and Intersectionality”. Tulsa Law Review. (46:1).

– And the 2013 edited volume on intersectionality in the journal Signs (Cho, Crenshaw & McCall) includes a contribution by MacKinnon on the methodological innovations enabled by intersectionality. – I haven’t read it, because now I’ve wasted enough time on this little side-track, and should get back to what I should actually be doing.

Academic Survival Kit Part 2: work habits, procrastination and the cycle of guilt

One of the most difficult things for me when starting the PhD, was to establish work habits that actually work for me. As a master student, you constantly have small and big deadlines. You’ve got to read certain text before the seminar, you’ve got to write a paper at the end of the course. The master thesis is the first large self-directed piece of writing that you do – but it usually has a specific and limited time-line as well, with regular benchmarks like drafts you discuss with your supervisor. For the PhD dissertation, this is completely different. When I started my project, I suddenly found my agenda completely empty, and it was up to me to fill this all time in a meaningful – and productive way. Am I seriously supposed to work on the dissertation 8 hours a day? How do I do that? I cannot really read for 8 hours straight, can anyone?

I’m very much an evening person, but while I could lock myself up and not have a social life for the 4 months of writing a master thesis, this strategy is not really effective for the 4 years of writing a PhD dissertation. So I also struggled a lot with getting up at a decent time in the morning, and getting to work/office. But I work at a place where everyone drops in at different times, and no one looks at you strange if you walk in at 10, 11 or even 12 o ‘clock. On the one hand, this is great. On the other hand, this lack of social control and unlimited freedom can be really hard to deal with. Am I a bad person if I do sports and grocery shopping in the morning? If waking up at 9 is early for me? Is this even a real problem, or am I just being lazy? Should I discipline myself more (since no-one else seems interested in doing it), or should I accept these givens and just do my work during non-conventional working hours (f.ex. 11:00-19:00)?

In the end, I got into a cycle where I constantly felt like I wasn’t working enough, was not living up to some ideal of the perfect productive PhD student. I felt guilty, because now I was actually getting paid for this, this was my job now.. A friend pointed out that whenever they asked me how my day had been, I always answered that I had been distracted and not working hard enough, but that otherwise it was okay. I was like a broken record, continuously blaming myself for not doing more. And because I felt that I was not working enough, or not working focused enough, I also felt like I didn’t really deserve any time off. Of course, this turned into a major cycle of guilt, which was not productive for my work and writing at all. So how do you break that cycle?

My tips for dealing with procrastination and guilt

  • Accept and recognize that academic work is a very specific type of work. Part of it is comparable to regular work, like administration and meetings. And part of it is creative, like writing and thinking. Not all of it you can track very concretely: let’s say I spent 3 hours figuring out my argument in chapter 4 today… Well, actually in that time I was also reading blogs, or venting to a friend over a long lunch about why the chapter does not work right now, and scrolling through facebook…. Was it work? Was it procrastination? Was it both? I think it is helpful to stop fixating on the hours you are supposed to be working and to try to stop feeling guilty when you feel like you don’t work enough. Let your supervisor tell you if you are not on schedule, instead of you telling yourself pre-emptively and beating yourself up about it.

the-task-i-must-undertake-is-towering-over-me-like-a-great-big-monolith

  • In my experience, it is not possible to get rid of procrastination altogether. The Instant Gratification Monkey is not going away without a fight. Instead, we should work on finding ways to manage and channel procrastination. I think it is really easy to hold on to some myth about productive people who we admire as some kind of super-humans who never have problems with waking up on time and getting to work, who simply don’t have these problems. And then to contrast that to your failing self, who spent another day in her pyjamas watching Orange is the New Black instead of finishing the chapter… Well, I think it’s not that clear cut. Even the people who you might look up to as productive and disciplined probably struggle with these issues. I think really common to have days where you don’t manage to open that damn document that you are working on. It’s really common to get distracted and spend time on facebook instead of on your research. It does not mean that you are not doing good work, doesn’t mean that its worthless. It also doesn’t mean that you should simply accept that, but instead that you should continually be working to overcome that – without beating yourself up about it.
  • Make a workplan, even if you don’t keep it. I spent a lot of time in the beginning making work plans: for the PhD as a whole, for the section, for the month, for the week. I didn’t keep to them very well, because I was highly underestimating the time I would be spending on each section, and in the end, what I thought would be first two chapters of the thesis turned out the be the entire thesis. But making the plan was a good exercise in itself, giving structure to my project and my time. My supervisor always insisted on outlines for papers, and it became a habit for me to mind-map each chapter before setting out to write it. In the first half year of my PhD, I made a different mind-map every month. It was a fun way to track the progress of how I was thinking about my thesis and what were the central key words. A good workplan of course includes deadlines, and even if it is “just” a draft, that deadline is serious. I really need the regular meetings with my supervisor as deadlines to produce (parts of) texts. I know she is expecting to see something new, even if it is just an outline or a partial draft – and so I need to get writing. Other ways to do create serious deadlines is to present work in progress in a seminar with other PhD students, or to apply for conferences.
A really early mind-map - March 2013

A really early mind-map – March 2013

  • Try to create a routine to your workday, some structure to rely on. In the beginning of my PhD, that meant for me that I would do 2 hours of reading in the morning, before opening my computer and getting distracted by everything the internet has to offer (both work-related and non-work). Recently, I discovered a writing workshop by Alexis Shotwell, and became a huge fan. You can watch videos of the workshop on youtube – there are four different parts but especially part 2 is very useful in terms of offering tools for time-management. From her, I learned the technique of working in units. A unit is a 45 minute session of concentrated work. No facebook, no refreshing email, no chatting or even saying hi to your colleague who is passing by, no going to the bathroom or making a cup of tea. You set a timer, and in that 45 minutes, you really focus on the task at hand. And then when the timer goes off, you can do all those other things that popped in your mind during the unit. It works for me – to be honest, it works best when I do it with others, because we can hold each other accountable. If you actually focus, 45 minutes is a long time, and you can get a lot done! If I do 3 units of writing in a day, I am really proud of myself. It sounds a bit ridiculous, because that is 2 hours and 15 minutes of writing – a far cry from the 8 hours workday that I am supposed to clock. But actually setting the manageable goal of 3 units of writing a day, every day, is more productive for me that the abstract and unrealistic goal of 8 hours of “serious work”. I use the units mostly for writing, and it is good to be able to track over time how much I manage to get done over a larger period of time.
  • Take at least one day off in the weekend, even if you are so busy that you feel like you cannot afford to. Try to do something fun and active that is not related to your research, but gives you new energy and inputs. For me, it has been important to not only make it “going out for drinks” and the companion “spending your saturday/sunday hangover and watching Netflix” – although of course that can be a valuable way to spend your free time too. I find it most helpful to do things that give me new imputs that are unrelated to the academic work I do – so to go to a museum, shopping, for a walk in the forest. I need to take the weekend off – guilt-free – in order to recharge and actually be productive during the week. It’s not a luxury, it’s a necessity. And it’s not something that you have to “deserve” by being extra productive during the week.

anti-capitalist love notes

It feels a bit weird to be posting this right now, because I’ve just had a week that was particularly unproductive and I feel bad about it. I feel like I’m not in any position to give advice to others, because I haven’t figured out this stuff myself either… But actually, that is exactly the point I have been trying to make: this is always a work in progress, no-one is perfect, and there are no easy solutions. And now, to the chapter! I’m setting the unit-timer.🙂

Academic Survival Kit Part 1: Getting Funded

At the 9th European Feminist Research Conference, I had the pleasure of participating in a workshop called a “Survival Kit for Young Researchers”. We were 3 panelists at different stages of our careers, sharing our experiences and tips for dealing with problems we face as feminist researchers in an increasingly competitive and neoliberal academy. In the hope that my thoughts on this topic might be useful to people who could not make it to the workshop, I am sharing them here. My comments are clustered around 3 themes.

  • getting a paid PhD position – or, how to deal with rejections.
  • work habits and procrastination – or, I spent all my work hours on facebook, does it mean I am a terrible person who will never finish their PhD?
  • imposter syndrome – or, everyone around me is incredibly smart and it’s just a question of time until they discover that they were mistaken about me and realize I shouldn’t be here at all.

Today, I’ll start with the first part: getting a PhD position. I am writing from my own experience, so this is mostly about finding a paid PhD position in the humanities (gender studies / feminist theory) in the Netherlands/Europe. Some things might be the same in other places, some things might be different.

On my CV, it looks like I went straight on to do a PhD. I studied philosophy, then did  a second masters in gender studies, and then started my PhD research. My graduation ceremony from the master in Gender and Ethnicity from Utrecht University was in august, and I started my PhD in Nijmegen in September. A seemingly seamless transition, a smooth success story. But of course, it is not the whole story. What you don’t see on my CV is before getting this position, I applied to 5 different PhD positions that I didn’t get. What you don’t see are the 5 rejection letters, and the insecurity and self-doubt that came along with them. What you also don’t see is the extra study loans that I took on to finance that second masters degree, because I really wanted to continue on the academic path, and was not ready to give up yet.

In the end I got lucky and I got the position. Of course, I also worked hard for that, but I realize that a large part of it is just luck. It could have taken me a year longer, it could have taken me another 5 applications. I also know some people who got a PhD position on their first application – of course that also happens! I would like to think that that does not say anything about how good our PhD research will be in the end. Many different factors play a role in what projects get funded, as much as we would like to think that academia is a meritocracy.

I think it is important to talk openly about experiences with rejections, because we are so caught up in these rhetoric of ‘excellence’ and ‘success’. Talking about it for me helps to take a bit of the sting out of these feelings of failure I experienced as I was looking for an opportunity to start a PhD project. Now, I am not ashamed to tell you that I got a ‘no’ 5 times before I got a ‘yes’ and could actually start my project. More than being proud of getting the job in the end, I am proud that I kept going and in that that process led me to where I am now: in the third year of a job that I still love and that I think is right for me. (Of course, that doesn’t mean it is all sunshine and rainbows since I started the PhD, but more about that later…)

My tips for the process of searching for PhD funding

  • Apply to as many positions as possible. Even if it does not work out, it is a good experience and gives you a chance to improve your application. Of course, this does not mean that you should be uncritical and just go for any position that pops up. Think seriously about what the profile of the department is and how it fits with your interests, who you would actually work with at any given place? What about the pay – is it a scholarship, a stipend or a salary, and is it realistic for the place where you would be living? Would you have to get another job on the side, or would you be able to focus completely on your research? Assess whether the opportunity would be a good choice for you academically and personally. Would you really be willing to move to Rovaniemi at this point in your life, if you got a PhD position there?
  • Give yourself a deadline, a kind of time-frame for your search. In my case, I gave myself one more year. When the deadline comes closer, critically reconsider. Is it still what you want? Why? Are there other jobs where you could develop the same skills or that have similar element than what attracts you to academia? Reassess why it is you want to do a PhD, and your chances of realizing this goal. If the answer is still ‘yes, I want this’, then set a new deadline.
  • While you are searching, make sure you do other meaningful projects at the same time as you are applying for a PhD. I decided to go for the second masters degree in gender studies while I was applying for different positions. As I mentioned, I took on extra study loans to do that, so it is not necessarily something I would really advise to others, but to me it made sense. Work part-time and try to get an article or a book review published. Keep going to lectures and events; start a reading group to actually read all those authors that you did not have time to go in depth with during your masters.

buzzfeed – 19 things every academic will immediately relate to

  • When you apply somewhere and get a rejection, don’t be too hard on yourself and keep a healthy perspective. Don’t think of rejections as failures, and don’t take it too personally. It does not mean that the project is no good, or that you are not good enough, or that it will never work and this whole thing was hopeless to begin with… No! It just means that they went for another project that maybe fit better with the profile of the professors working there, or the research foci of the department. Remember that it is a really tough time to get funding, and many people who are all really great are trying to get one of the few paid positions that are out there. If there are 200 people applying for a position (as I know happens), then really, if they don’t pick you, it’s not that weird.. Also remember that everyone has to deal with rejections at some point or other – whether it is an article for a journal, a postdoc. Maybe you are just getting a head-start on how to face rejections?
  • Get as much feedback on your research proposal as you can. Ask you thesis supervisor to give feedback on it, ask your friends if they can proofread and give comments. It is always a work in progress and the input from others can help you to improve and fine tune your ideas. The same counts for the CV: have other people look at your CV, and look at other people’s CVs. How do they style and format them, and how can you make sure that the information that you want to highlight really jumps out to the reader? Don’t be afraid to ask people for their feedback and tips. At one point, I was invited for an interview for a PhD position, and I was the second choice for that position. When I had another interview coming up, I emailed the person who interviewed me to ask for some feedback about how I had come across in the interview and if she had any tips for me for future interview situations. She sent me a really kind letter, which was useful in preparing for the next interview.
  • One more thing about feedback: remember that feedback and advice are helpful, but it is up to you to decide what you incorporate and what you don’t. Stay true to your own commitments and don’t change your research proposal just because someone else thinks it would be stronger or have a better chance of getting funding. So for example, if you really want to do an in-depth study case study, but your advisor thinks that your proposal would stand a better chance if you make your study comparative, don’t do it just because you might have a better chance at getting funding. Think about it of course, but in the end the decision is yours to make. Or do it strategically, and then if you get funded, the plan will change anyway in the course of the research itself.

buzzfeed – 19 things every academic will immediately relate to

  • Get together with others who are in the same situation as you are, and who understand how tough and demotivating it can be. Online, like a facebook group for a masters programme is good – you can easily share any vacancies or scholarships that you see coming by with each other. In the Netherlands, you can find academic vacancies on the website ‘academic transfer’, but my experience is that posts shared by colleagues and friends in my network are often much more specific to the topics I’m interested in. But while sharing online can be concretely helpful, meeting up in real-life is even better, because you can drink wine together and commiserate. Think of each other not as competitors (even if in some cases you are), but as colleagues who are going through the same process.

Good luck with your search! Let me know if you disagree with anything I wrote, or want to add your own tips in the comment section!

marxist feminism – alive and kicking

There was so much interest in the conference “The Strength of Critique: Trajectories of Marxism and Feminism” organized at the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung in Berlin, 20-22 March 2015, that they had to close the registration a few weeks before the conference was held. The conference organizers interpreted this as a sign of the revival of a marxist-feminist movement, and saw the gathering as a historic moment that will be remembered in years to come. Besides the renewal of interest in marxist feminism in times of austerity and growing economic inequalities, the popularity of the conference probably also had a lot to do with the fact that the program was jam-packed with big names like Saskia Sassen, Gayatri Spivak, Lise Vogel, Zillah Eisenstein, Hester Eisenstein, Nira Yuval-Davis, and others. People who no-one would probably recognize on the street, but who are real academic superstars in their fields. I chatted with Nira Yuval-Davis in the line for the toilet, before I saw her sitting on the podium and was able to connect a face to the readings I’ve done.

The conference was intense: three days of discussions and presentations starting at 10:00 in the morning and lasting until after 21:00 in the evening. Here is a selective account of different topics that were raised at the conference and my reflections on them. You don’t have to take my word for it, though – on the youtube channel of the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung you can take a look at the videos of many of the talks and panels.

Rethinking Economies of Time

Frigga Haug, a veteran of marxism-feminism in Germany, was one of the main initiators behind the conference, and an opening speaker. She spoke of her ‘Four-in-One’ perspective, which argues for the importance of taking all domains of life – work, politics, learning/self-development, leisure – in consideration when criticizing contemporary capitalism and tinking about the society that we would like to see. Instead of the classical division between production and reproduction that marxist feminists have long worked with, Haug proposed a different way of understanding the division between paid labour and the unpaid and unseen labour that women often do. She spoke of a division between the production of life itself (leben) and the production of the means of existence (lebensmittel). The last type is what Marxist theory is usually and traditionally focused on: wage labour. But as feminists have long pointed out, this relies on the first domain, the privatized, domestic and unpaid labour such as care work. Haug points out that these two types of labour function according to different and incompatible logics of time. In a capitalist society, the production of lebensmittel works through logic of efficiency, productivity and speeding up. The production of life, on the other hand, simply doesn’t fit into that logic of time, and is neglected and subordinated to profit-making.  The revolution that Haug proposes is then intimately connected to creating time for these ‘unproductive’ and non-capitalist values, slowing down and having time for all aspects of life. I can personally relate to this a lot, and found it an interesting way to think about marxist feminism. As a struggle about time, a redefinition of what is worth-while, so to say.

Intersectionality and Marxist-Feminism

A returning topic of discussion at the conference was the compatability of intersectionality with a Marxist-Feminist perspective. Many voices from an older generation of marxist feminism expressed their unease and doubts with intersectionality. Lise Vogel, sees intersectionality as having been very important, but now it is impeding further theoretical progress. Shahrzad Mohjab expressed wanting to ‘get out of the messy intersectionality that we are stuck in for decades’, and Hester Eisenstein admitted to having an ‘intellectual crisis around intersectionality’. The critiques of intersectionaly were related to whether or not class has a special status among the different axes of domination, and whether intersectionality as a framework is too much based on identity.

Martha Gimenez argued that the talk of a ‘race-gender-class trilogy’ tends to reduce class to just another identity among others. She stressed that here a conception of class is often at work which sees class simply as a descriptive attribute of an individual person (‘middle-class’) –  instead of a Marxist perspective which theorizes class as an economic relation of exploitation. Similarly, Lise Vogel argued that while she does not want to go back to a class reductionism and a class-first approach, it is nevertheless important to disentangle the different systems of inequality and recognize the specificity of each (something which intersectionality apparently does not allow her to do). For Vogel, there is a qualitative difference between class and gender on the on hand, and race on the other hand. According to her, those first two have clear material dimensions. The third, race, she does not understand as internal to capital processes. These statements were challenged from the audience. Audience members pointed out that the trans-Atlantic slave trade and slavery were an economic system that structurally and materially oppressed enslaved peoples. The legacies of that system of slavery still carry through to the present, for example in the prison-industrial complex in the US (where Vogel is from) and the economic disparities along racial lines. These comments would point to the fact that there is a strong economic and material dimension to racial oppression. How do you not see that, the question was repeated.

The discussions around intersectionality seemed to point also a generational gap. The conference was dominated by speakers from an older generation of marxist feminist thought, who have done tremendous work and whose work is still relevant today. Nevertheless, they seemed also in some instances ‘out of touch’ with contemporary debates. Various younger speakers from the audience pointed out that marxism-feminism needs to be stretched and adapted to speak to the multiplicity of contemporary concerns. Yes to marxism-feminism, said also the US novelist and organizer Sarah Schulman: but not without taking in the insights from postcolonial studies, the queer movement, the trans* revolution, indigenous concerns, and so on. Marxism-feminism needs a new vocabulary, so we would start to see these issues as organic to marxism-feminism, and not specific side-issues.

Intersectionality, as one speaker pointed out, does not name a ready-made grid. Instead, it is an invitation to do further work, and to integrate different issues in our thinking and activism. Vanessa Thompson argued that while we should mark the ‘dead ends’ of intersectionality (which she identified as a possible revival of an intersectional identity politics and an increasing invidualization), working against these dead ends should not mean dismissing the experiences of social groups silenced by oppressions. While certain ways of taking up intersectionality may not be critical of capitalism or side-line class, this is not a reason to dismiss intersectionality per se.

Race and Rasse: Contested Vocabularies

Intertwined with the discussion on intersectionality was an ongoing discussion about race. On Friday, a member of the audience challenged the returning mentions of race. She saw these discussion on race as dangerous in themselves, because ‘race does not exist but is a cultural construct’. The comment was addressed to Lise Vogel, who was bewildered by it. She asked: when you say that race doesn’t exist, do you mean in an utopian future? No, she meant here and now: race is not real, and we need to scrap the word from our vocabularies. This comment was echoed by other speakers at the final discussion, who argued that the use of a terminology of race would be itself excluding and offensive to certain other groups, like people of color, colonized people (note that this particular argument was made by a white German speaker).

In my perspective, these interactions were a symptom of a cultural and linguistic gap. In many European contexts, ‘race’ is still a very taboo term. In Germany specifically, the recent history of the Holocaust and Nazism make talking about race very loaded and sensitive. The conference was multi-lingual, and live translation was taking place via headphones. Many participants understood and spoke either English or German, but not both. I can imagine that for German listeners, hearing the US-American speakers throwing around the word race so casually – and having it translated as Rasse in their headphones – was troubling to say the least. If the very term Rasse refers to the belief in essential biological differences and an ideology of racial hierarchy, some would argue that this term is so contaminated that it should not be used any more.

However, there is a very particular step that takes place between recognizing the legacies of racism and racialization and not wanting to repeat them, and then seeing the solution to that in a change of vocabulary alone. As one of the few black women at the conference, Vanessa Thompson made clear that in a context where racism is still operating, speaking about race and naming the workings of race is necessary. Addressing racism and processes of racialization becomes very difficult when the terminology itself becomes taboo. It is hard to change something that we do not have a language to speak about – and solution to solving racism does not really lie in just never saying the word ‘race’ again….

In Defense of Re-Inventing the Wheel!

Another topic that was raised in the final discussion, was whether the conference itself also reproduced some of the inequalities that we should challenge from a marxist feminist perspective. For instance, there was not much space for contributions from the audience and the format was quite ‘top-down’ instead of embodying the ‘radical democracy’ that was discussed in theory. The ages of participants at the conference ranged from early 20s to 80s: a great diversity. Yet while this intergenerational dimension of the conference was there, the exchange could have been more two-directional. Kathe Knittler said about this in the final discussion, that while it is important to learn from earlier generations, it can also be important to ‘re-invent the wheel’, so to say. When we re-invent the wheel, we confirm that the wheel is still relevant to us – and it really becomes ‘ours’, the wheel that we created. I thought this was a really playful and insightful comment about the way that concepts and ideas travel temporally: they have to be taken up anew, prove their relevance in a new context, and become redefined by a next generation.

Knittler also pointed out that the intellectual and practical labour of speakers and panelists was unpaid at the conference. Of course, this fact stands in an uneasy relation to the critique to the increasing precaritization of academic work and the  pressures on critical work in the neoliberal university. The aforementioned fact that most speakers were renowned academics with stable positions probably had something to do with that, but it is nevertheless worth noting. On the other hand, there was no fee for the conference: an anomaly in the current academic landscape. Participants just had to pay €2,50 for the meals the conference offered. Soup and bread, curry and rice: nourishing and tasty, with both a vegan and a meat option. This may seem trivial, but I think it is really important to think about – so many conferences that are inaccessible because the fee is already a few hundred euros, not to think about travel, accommodation and food costs for participants.

The next conference will be hosted in Sweden in 2016. So that we never again have to go to a historical materialism conference dominated by white men, or a feminist conference where class is absent and capitalism is not challenged, to paraphrase Shahrzad Mohjab, but instead have a forum for academic work which is committed to revolutionary social transformation. Sounds pretty good!

Is ‘fat’ a feeling? facebook, fat politics and reclaiming the double chin

When you post a status update on facebook, you can add a little emoticon to it to express how you’re feeling about whatever you just wrote about. Feeling happy, feeling blessed,  feeling hungover. Feeling fat? That last option, illustrated by a smiley emoticon with red cheeks and a double chin, recently caused quite an uproar. More than 16,770 people signed a petition to remove the emoticon, and the accompanying tumblr blog received many submissions from people who agree. The campaign was succesful: today the offending emoticon has been changed. Well, the picture is still there, but now it is accompanied by the description ‘feeling stuffed’. Is this an improvement? And what was wrong with the ‘feeling fat’ option in the first place?

image by Vicky Chetley

image by Vicky Chetley

The initiators behind the petition argue that the emoticon encourages people to make fun of people who consider themselves overweight, including people with eating disorders. According to initiator Catherine Weingarten,

“Fat is not a feeling. Fat is a natural part of our bodies, no matter their weight. And all bodies deserve to be respected and cared for.”

These last sentences are of course very true, and I couldn’t agree more. The petition clearly comes from a body-positive perspective, and challenges people to think more critically about assumptions we have about our own bodies and those of others. But nevertheless, I have a problem with central claim: the idea that ‘fat is not a feeling’.

It makes me wonder: if ‘fat’ is not a feeling, then what is it? Is it a ‘fact’, something that can be measured and defined according to objective standards? As I understand it, one of the key projects of the fat acceptance movement and critical research in fat studies is to resist and challenge the idea that ‘fat’ is a static, definable and measurable state. Rather, we should see ‘fatness’ as something which is socially constructed: a descriptor that is put on certain bodies and not on others. The categorizing of bodies – whether they are the medical categories of ‘underweight/overweight/obese’ or the everyday categories of ‘fat/thin’ is a practice that is highly contextual, specific to a time and place. In some contexts, my body might be understood as fat (f.ex. at the gym), in others not (f.ex. at home with my partner). In some contexts, I might understand myself as fat (again, at the gym – or looking at women’s magazines), in others not. Ideas about who and what is fat are changing all the time: just think bout those images of beauty icons from the 1960s, like Marilyn Monroe, that would be considered ‘plus size’ according to today’s standards. Of course, to say that fat is socially constructed is not to say that it isn’t real, or that these categorizations don’t have real effects.

For me, ‘fat’ is very often a feeling, an emotional thing. When I look at a photo of myself from a few years a go, I might think to myself “hey, I looked nice”. And often that is followed up with “hey, I looked thin. Definitely thinner than I do now…. Those jeans really don’t fit anymore….” While I can see myself as thin in hindsight, when I think back to the moment that the photo was taken, I usually didn’t feel thin in that moment. In fact, I was probably holding in my belly, or hated the photo when I first saw it. My weight has fluctuated through the years, but ‘feeling fat’ has been a constant. That feeling is not correlated to any one particular body size or weight.

In a thin-centric society, almost any body can be made to feel fat.

Actually, in a society that polices our bodies in so many ways, the majority of people are made to feel like they ‘don’t fit in’ in one way or another.

And yes, what we mean when we say that we ‘feel fat’ is often a negative feeling. It is often feeling like you are not beautiful, not good enough, lazy, gluttonous, undisciplined – all the stereotypes that Western cultures link to fatness. It’s also the feeling that if you just lost those kilos, then you would be happy. That is so deceptive! Losing weight will not necessarily change that feeling – it does not mean that you will magically get rid of the feeling of ‘feeling fat’. I have seen partners and friends who are significantly smaller than I am looking self-destructively in the mirror and despairing over their chubby belly, big thights, or fat ass. For me, this is the ultimate lesson that ‘fat’ is not about a particular clothes size, body shape, or number on the scale.

I wrote my master thesis in fat studies, examining from a feminist phenomenological perspective how online fat acceptance activists use practices of self-photography to challenge dominant body norms (you can find it here!). During the process of research and thesis writing, I talked about my topic with many of my peers, friends and classmates. I was genuinely suprised with how many people came out to me as fat in one way or another. The idea of ‘coming out’ as a fat person might seem counter-intuitive, since fatness is assumed to be a visible feature of a body, something that is immediately clear upon seeing someone. But in talking about my research, I found that so many people related to the topics that I was bringing up, people that I had not put in my own little mental folder of “fat”. Someone who I might perceive as thin, might relate to fatness in a very personal way and experience their own body as fat.

That is not to say, of course, that the feeling and experiences of a person wearing size XS is similar to that of a person wearing XXXL. Yes: they may both experience anxiety, inadequacy and self-hate about their body weight. In this way, they both share a relation to fatness and the negative emotion of ‘feeling fat’. But the second person is far more likely to experience external negative reactions: ranging from well-meaning but hurtful comments by family or friends, to public humiliation and harassment and discrimination related to her weight/size. When I say that almost any-body can be made to feel fat, I don’t mean to conflate these experiences and equalize them. In a thin-centric society, having a body that is closer to the norm – however far way that norm may feel, and however impossible to reach – is definitely an advantage.

But rather than concluding from all this this that fat is not a feeling, and that the facebook emoticon is a problem, I would actually go in a different direction. Instead of dismissing the idea that ‘fat is a feeling’, I think it is far more interesting to think about what kind of feeling fat is today, and what kind of feeling it could be. Do we continue buy into all those negative connotations that ‘fat’ holds? Or can we work towards reimagining and breaking open what fatness could feel like and look like? Can we radically redefine the meaning of ‘feeling fat’, stripping it from the old clichés and the deeply ingrained and embodied negativity? Can we turn ‘feeling fat’ from a negative into a neutral or even positive description?

Actually, a facebook emoticon seems a pretty good place to start with redefining what ‘feeling fat’ means. Instead of posts that make fun of people with eating disorders and people negative perceptions of themselves related to weight/size, I could imagine a movement that turns the expectations upside down to reinvent the situations and experiences that ‘feeling fat’ might relate to. The emoticon is pretty adorable afer all, and there is really nothing wrong with a double chin.

Presenting a paper at a conference – feeling fat.

Putting on a cute dress and dancing all night – feeling fat.

Enjoying a day at the thermals baths in Budapest and lounging in the water – feeling fat.

Het F-Boek en Intersectioneel Feminisme

Vandaag is internationale vrouwendag, een traditie die stamt uit het begin van de 20e eeuw. Het feminisme heeft een lange en rijke traditie, maar het is nog steeds springlevend en actueler dan ooit. Dat laat ook het F-boek zien: een nieuw boek over Nederlands feminisme in al haar diversiteit. Het boek, onder redactie van Anja Meulenbelt Renée Römkens, werd afgelopen donderdag gepresenteerd door Atria, het kennisinstituut voor emancipatie en vrouwengeschiedenis.fboek

Ik ben trots dat ik er ook in sta met een stuk over de Utrechtse groep Feministisch Verzet​ en hoe wij vorm proberen te geven aan anti-racistisch en intersectioneel feminisme. Intersectionaliteit betekent heel kort gezegd het inzicht dat je seksisme en gender-ongelijkheid niet los kunt zien van andere structuren van ongelijkheid, zoals bijvoorbeeld racisme, klassisme, homofobie, transfobie, validisme, enzovoorts.

Dat dit intersectionele feministische perspectief nog lang niet zo vanzelfsprekend is als het zou moeten zijn, bleek ook weer uit een incident bij de boekpresentatie van het F-boek. Om de onderdrukking van vrouwen krachtig te verwoorden, gebruikte Hedy d’Ancona de bekende maar ook beruchte uitdrukking van John Lennon en Yoko Ono: “woman is the n* of the world”.

Deze uitspraak gaf mij direct een heel ongemakkelijk gevoel, en ik was zeker niet de enige. Tijdens de bijeenkomst legden verschillende zwarte vrouwen in de zaal uit waarom deze analogie kwetsend en ongepast is.

Het komt hier op neer: in de uitspraak wordt een analogie gemaakt tussen de positie van ‘vrouwen’ en de positie van ‘zwarten’ (ik ga het n-woord niet herhalen), alsof het gaat om twee discrete categorieën die geen overlap hebben. Maar waar passen zwarte vrouwen, die zowel met racisme als met seksisme te maken hebben, in dit plaatje? ‘Vrouwen’ lijkt hier te duiden op witte vrouwen, wiens achterstelling vergeleken wordt met het lot van zwarte mannen. Racisme wordt een tool om seksisme aan te wijzen, maar de intersecties van racisme en seksisme blijven zo onzichtbaar. Daarnaast is ook het gebruik van het n-woord een probleem, zowel in het engels als in het nederlands. Dit woord heeft een hele negatieve lading, en zwarte mensen geven aan dat ze het een onacceptabele en racistische term vinden. De website ‘Slavernij en jij’ van het NiNsee instituut geeft een genuanceerde uitleg van de historische lading van de term in het Nederlands. Gezien deze achtergrond, lijkt het een logische conclusie om dit woord niet meer te gebruiken, zeker niet als witte feminist.

Deze argumenten zijn niet nieuw, en als dit incident je bekend voorkomt, dan kan dat heel goed. In 2011 werd juist het gebruik van dit specifieke citaat binnen een feministische context het onderwerp van een intens online debat. Tijdens een ‘Slutwalk’ in de Verenigde Staten (een demonstratie tegen wat we in Nederland met Sunny Bergman ‘sletvrees‘ zouden kunnen noemen) hield een jonge witte vrouw een poster op met dezelfde tekst. In verschillende opiniestukken vertelde zwarte vrouwen precies uit waarom dit een probleem is.

Voor mij is het belangrijk dat we leren van dit soort incidenten. Het kan heel goed dat Hedy d’Ancona er geen slechte bedoelingen bij had toen ze de uitspraak gebruikte, dat ze zich niet bewust was van de racistische lading. Dat maakt het niet minder kwetsend of pijnlijk, dat maakt het niet minder problematisch. Het is een valkuil om te denken dat racisme alleen een product is van kwade intenties, dat iets alleen racistisch is wanneer het opzettelijk en bewust gezegd of gedaan wordt om een bepaalde groepen te kleineren. Zoals het werk van wetenschapper en hoogleraar Philomena Essed (die overigens ook op de bijeenkomst was en een mooie speech uitsprak) juist laat zien, is racisme niet te reduceren tot individuele intenties, maar gaat het een machtstructuur waar we allemaal deel van uit maken, en die we in alledaagse praktijken reproduceren.

Het blijft dus belangrijk om hier bij stil te staan en in te zien waarom dit soort uitspraken niet oké zijn. Juist nu feminisme weer in de belangstelling staat, weer ‘hip’ is, zoals de druk bezochte lancering van het F-boek liet zien, is het belangrijk om te reflecteren op wat voor soort feminisme dat dan precies is, dat feminisme van nu. Een intersectioneel feminisme, een anti-racistisch feminisme, een feminisme dat aandacht heeft voor verschillende vormen van onderdrukking en die niet reproduceert. Dat is mijn feminisme – dat is voor mij het ‘feminisme van nu’! Gelukkig benadrukken veel van de bijdrages in het F-boek juist ook dit intersectionele feminisme: ik kan niet wachten om ze allemaal te lezen!