Redesign

You may have noticed that the layout has changed recently. I’m now using Alahualpa and I think I’ve more or less finished fiddling with CSS – it helps that there’s an active forum prepared to answer things about centreing the logo and removing dotted lines to satisfy my perfectionist streak. There’s something quite relaxing about coding.

The image is taken from this one of Edith Garrud, known as the suffragette that knew jujitsu. I like how she’s this small, slender figure who’s already flung some men around and that was just to warm up. The group of big, burly policemen surrounding her seem rather reluctant to approach her.

The politics of representation

Because I’m trying to clear some tabs, here’s a useful definition of representation I found and need to read more about:

As Gilles Deleuze […] has argued, the politics of representation which currently predominates is not interested in representing as the term is commonly understood; it is no process of ‘speaking on behalf of’, but rather one of silencing; one of crushing difference in favour of identities constructed by those in positions of power. In this instance, the diverse, plural and problematic identities of those marching have been collapsed into the creation of a majority which cannot speak for itself.

From Anarchists: ‘unemployable layabout scum’? at Ballots & Bullets

One of the difficult things about doing an interdisciplinary PhD is the amount of catchup in other areas you have to do. My background is in linguistics rather than history, politics or sociology. As such, it’s a joy to come across something like this – not only should it lead to a citable text for my thesis (gotta catch em all!), but it also shows that my thinking isn’t completely out of step with theorists in these different areas.

Better learning through cake

Let us travel back in time, around 13 or 14 years ago or so, and revisit my experience of compulsory education. More specifically, a subject for which I reserved particular loathing and hatred: Food Tech.

My friend Maria and I shared a counter and sink. We weren’t just bad – we were inspired. We ruined pasta. We earned the rage and ire of our Food Tech teacher by swapping bits of our scone dough (mine – sultana, hers – coconut) to create mutant scones. And finally, there was The Fruitcake. The Fruitcake was the nadir of my brief foray into cooking and sufficiently traumatised me to Never Ever try baking again because I would unleash untold horrors. Again. We had technology for the double period – two hours – in the afternoon, and I remember sitting in the classroom after the bell had rung and my friends had gone home, waiting for the teacher to allow me to take it out of the oven. I thought it was done; she was convinced it wasn’t. The result was so dry it sucked all moisture out of your mouth and made saliva a distant and fond memory. In the end I crumbled it up for the birds because my family, long suffering as they were, quite understandably refused to take it to extremes.

At the age of thirteen, I decided that I distrusted this baking malarky and would have nothing to do with it. In fact, Maria and I were genuinely worried we’d starve or die of scurvy if we had to fend for ourselves.

Years later, and I find myself reasonably competent in the kitchen. Soup, risotto, curries, roasted vegetables, lentilly-couscousy-salady things – yep. But despite my love of cake, I haven’t dared bake anything. I’ve watched people bake, I’ve enthusiastically tested their baking, I’ve regularly attended my LGBT Network’s Queer Cafe and I’ve even decorated cakes (sadly, this seems to be the best photo of the Spiderman cake but it was pretty awesome). I’ve just never quite worked up the confidence to combine flour, eggs and sugar in a mixing bowl. Logically, I know I’ve cooked far more complicated stuff than this but it was no good: I had The Fear.

My friend Hannah at Stress Baker told me that baking is an excellent way to escape from PhD stress and bakes delicious things so often she’s started a blog. My housemate made carrot cake last evening and it smelt wonderful plus, as she argued, the amount of carrot and dried fruit in it meant it was at least one of your 5-a-day and therefore good for you. You can even buy butch cupcakes if your fragile masculinity is threatened by baked goods or you’re amused by manifestations of socially constructed and validated performances of gender. Also, and let this point not go unnoticed, you end up with cake.

So I found a recipe that seemed to offer maximum return/chocolate for minimum effort/skill and an hour or so later, had this:
Chocolate cake on a plate
Perhaps not the most beautiful of cakes, but who cares, it tastes fine. And, more importantly, can’t be used as a substitute for floral foam.

It made me think a lot about experiences of learning. As PhD researchers and academics, we tend to be good in our fields. It might not always be easy and we’re not going to be amazing at every single area within our field, but usually it doesn’t compare to the head-banging frustration of studying something you have absolutely no talent at and are scared of. Those we teach sometimes have no previous experience of whatever we’re trying to teach them, but they often have some – and had bad experiences rather than good ones.

In my experience, it’s often grammar; they’ve found it boring or confusing or pitched at the wrong level – too easy, too hard, or suddenly lurching from “easy” to “scarily difficult”. Sometimes they had a bad teacher. Sometimes the exercises were boring and tedious. Sometimes it’s been taught in isolation and no one’s shown how it can be used to analyse texts. The experience of being told you’re rubbish at something has many effects, not least lack of confidence, resentment and aversion.

Sometimes, when you’re good at something, it’s unfathomable how anyone could possibly find it difficult. It’s useful to make ourselves uncomfortable to remind us how that feels in order to be better teachers.

For that reason, I have purchased white chocolate chips and dried cranberries. Exactly that reason.

when the internet stops being a playground

Last week, a post appeared on the Gay Girl in Damascus blog reporting that the blog’s author, Amina Arraf, had been kidnapped by security forces. People responded. They tweeted, they wrote to Syrian embassies, the news got picked up by LGBT and mainstream news.

However, there were doubts about whether this person existed. Liz Henry observed “I would hate to have my existence doubted and am finding it painful to continue doubting Amina’s. If she is real, I am very sorry and will apologize and continue to work for her release and support”. What if this person did exist and was in danger? Amina may not exist – but what if she did, what if she had been kidnapped and was being forcibly deported, beaten or abused? The stakes seemed too high to just dismiss it.

Liz Henry had her doubts, based on experience with other hoaxes, and wrote about them in two posts: Painful doubts about Amina and Chasing Amina. Ali Abunimah and Benjamin Doherty carefully examined what evidence they had to work out Amina’s identity.

The Amina blogger turned out to be Tom McMaster – a 40 year old male Masters student studying in Edinburgh. He apologised, claiming that he did “not believe that I have harmed anyone — I feel that I have created an important voice for issues that I feel strongly about”. LGBT bloggers in Syria were understandably furious. Contrary to McMaster’s claim that he did not harm anyone, they describe tangible ways he has made their lives and online activities less safe – drawing authorities’ attention to their activism, forcing them back into the closet, caused people to doubt their existence or the authenticity of their reports. As Brian Whitaker says, “[l]iving a fantasy life on your own blog is one thing, but giving an interview to CNN while posing as a representative of the region’s gay people appears arrogant and offensive, and surely a prime example of the “liberal Orientalism” that MacMaster claims to decry”.

In a weird twist, the editor of “Lez Get Real”, Paula Brooks, has also turned out to be a straight man. He said that he “didn’t start this with my name because… I thought people wouldn’t take it seriously, me being a straight man”. I have to admit, with some annoyance, that I have not noticed straight, cisgendered, white men as having a particular problem with “not being taken seriously” – this is privilege 101 stuff.

What this seems to be is a clash of internet cultures. On one hand, the internet is perceived as a playground for identities. As Liz Henry notes, people may have good reason “to conceal their identity and to develop relationships online under a screen name. They might like to express an aspect of their personality that would not mix well with their professional life. They might have gender identity issues they are working through. They might be in a family situation that makes it unsafe for them to come out as gay. They might write fiction using characters whose stories are under copyright”.

However, on the other, citizen journalism and minority blogging relies on authenticity; of you experiencing something that mainstream media doesn’t cover. It relies on telling your truth, shining light into areas where top-down media does not, or cannot, reach. It can be incredibly powerful – Baghdad Burning was just one example. There’s a tension between the internet as a consequence-free playground for identity, and the fact that sometimes these identities have very real consequences.

I also note that it’s straight white men doing this, and I’m finding it difficult to interpret this in isolation of that. @paleblurrr observed, in a series of tweets, “straight and/or white men not getting automatic respect/authority afforded to them in mainstream society in queer and/or poc communities, instead of respectful engagement from a place of privilege, fake identities to infiltrate and feel “powerful”. that’s all about power & control, ensuring they dominate conversations & are centre of our attention at whatever cost to others. can’t ever not be about them. Ever.”

I think what bothers me is the deliberate lying, manipulation and deception. Not stating your identity and allowing people to make their assumptions is one thing. Experimenting with different voices and persona in a setting where that’s acceptable and acknowledged is another. But creating a persona that is a member of a minority group and using that to speak on behalf of people when you do not share their lives, experiences or oppressions, and putting real people in danger when they cared about your created persona? That seems different, and makes it a much more complicated, uncomfortable and deeply problematic situation.

Edited to add: A few links which I thought were interesting – Said says Amina Hoax MacMaster-mind is Orientalist, Identity drag: Amina, appropriation and accountability and Men masquerading as lesbians online: allies or cowards?.

New College of Humanities

Been a bit of a busy few weeks. I’ve been attempting to write more of my methodology (it’s been in progress since Jan 2009 and I’m at the stage of loathing and despair) but I also went undercover (my cover name: Jo King) to a dating seminar aimed at heterosexual women (it would have been full of lulz but for the fact that women were taken in by this gender essentialist, heteronormative, frankly insulting crap and were spending some £500 to go on a weekend filled with more of the same).

However, the post-apocalyptic maelstrom of higher education has just got a bit more turbulent with the announcement of the New College of the Humanities. Dan Rebellato summarises it as:

A C Grayling has announced the formation of a new private college of Higher Education. The New College of the Humanities will charge fees of £18,000 and students will be taught be such renowned media dons as Grayling, Richard Dawkins, Ronald Dworkin, David Cannadine, Niall Ferguson, Steve Jones, and Peter Singer. There will be core courses in scientific literacy, applied ethics, and critical thinking, and then students will specialise in law, philosophy, economics, history, English literature, or some combination of those.

Other people have written about this:
Tery Eagleton: AC Grayling’s private university is odious
Research Blogs: Is the New College of the Humanities a good thing?
Crooked Timber: If you’re an egalitarian, how come you’re trying to sell an undergraduate arts degree that costs more than an MBA?
Student Theory: New College for the Humanities: Emperor’s New Clothes
Dan Rebellato: New College of the Humanities

I spent some of yesterday talking to friends about this, one of whom went on to write Thirteen ways of looking at the New College of the Humanities.

My initial reaction is wariness, on both an ideological and academic level. Is the solution to chronic underfunding of the humanities one of making them the preserve of a rich elite? It’s already happening at undergraduate level and pretty widespread at doctoral level. This is neither fair nor good for research.
Academically, I can’t really see those top academics taking first-year tutorials – and, indeed, at least two academics will only be lecturing for one hour in the first year and the minimum for most professorial staff is five hours in the first year. Despite being a typical Arts undergrad, I had most contact hours than that a week! Admittedly six, but still… So who is going to be teaching? And, if you’re going to be taught by academics who aren’t media stars, i.e. the kind of academics you’ll find in universities up and down the country, what are you paying for?

The things I do find interesting are the focus on critical thinking and scientific literacy, and the way these degrees are aimed at those who don’t want to go into academia. Critical thinking and scientific literacy are important (although teaching critical thinking to people who are paying twice the going rate for a UoL degree could be…interesting). While I did not enjoy my Biology and Chemistry A-levels At All, they’ve come in useful when discussing variables, p-values, research design and, er, cisgenderism.
I’m also intrigued by the focus of a degree that is aimed at passionate, engaged students but isn’t an elaborate pyramid scheme and doesn’t just flail about going “um, transferable skills! yes! those are useful!”. I didn’t apply to study English because I wanted to develop excellent communication and time management skills – I did it because I loved words and language and wanted to know how they worked. This, to me, is one of the interesting things about arts and humanities degrees. While some degrees have more obvious applications – economics, for example – how do you make a passionate love for seventeenth century literature applicable in a job market? Never fear though, Grayling’s on the case.

Three conferences

In the past month or so, I’ve been to three very different kinds of conference: one academic conference in my field, one NUS LGBT conference, and one postgraduate symposium in my department. They’re all quite different, both in aims and the experience they provide.

collection of name tags
The academic conference in my field was perhaps the most straightforward. There were concurrent sessions organised by panel, each paper lasted around 20 minutes + 10 minutes for questions. It was focused on corpus linguistics, my primary field, but as corpus linguistics encompasses a huge range of things, I still found new, unfamiliar and exciting things. As a PhD researcher, it’s rewarding to go to specialised conferences in your area and find yourself getting more and more familiar with the field; I remember my first conference in 2007 and just being dazzled by it all, whereas now I think I’m more confident.

The NUS LGBT conference was about making policy, sharing knowledge and experience in workshops, and returning us to our university LGBTs as fired-up, knowledgeable, passionate activists. There’s lots of slightly unfamiliar terminology and processes – that of zones, motions, amendments, parts, speeches for and against, “I see that delegate there” and so on. I don’t think I’m the only one who’s haunted by the words “seal the doors!” and “we’ve had a request for parts…” The needs of participants were key, and of the three conferences this one was perhaps most explicitly concerned with accessibility. I found it was also the most personal of the three conferences in that it really makes you re-examine and reflect on your beliefs.

The third, held in my department, was actually the first postgraduate symposium I’ve attended. It was organised into panels, apparently by supervisor – this effectively grouped similar areas together. It was the first really cross-disciplinary conference I’ve attended; I’ve tended to go to conferences organised by field rather than experience. While we were encouraged to consider our audience and not make our presentations too specialised, some people seemed to forget this. I did see some really interesting presentations and got to see research in areas I’m totally unfamiliar with – I particularly liked the Norse and Old English presentations – but some presenters completely lost me. However, it did meet its stated aim of showcasing the variety of research happening in the School of English Studies.

So three very different gatherings with somewhat different aims. Nonetheless, I think there are some common factors in having a rewarding conference experience…

  1. Practical things first: if you are anything other than enthusiastically omnivorous (and I really do mean “enthusiastically” and “omnivorous” – have you seen those canapes?), be prepared to compromise when getting food. If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, make sure you’re at the front of the queue so curious omnivores don’t go “oooh, those spinach and pine nut tartlets look good, I’ll have one” and wolf them down before you even see a crumb. Fact is, you’re not going enjoy a conference if you’re hungry and cranky, and you’re not going to get much out of it if you’re thinking about where you can get food rather than the implications of diachronic multi-modal corpora.
  2. Drinking can be fun if you’re into that sort of thing, but I can almost guarantee that the thing you really want to go to will be at some ungodly hour the next morning. Presumably you’re old enough to make the choice between hangover, sleeping in and missing the thing you wanted to go to, and limiting your alcohol intake. Choose wisely.
  3. You don’t have to go to everything! Conferences can be quite intense, so it’s fine to miss a presentation or two to give yourself some time to yourself. If there’s nothing on that really interests you, take yourself off for a coffee or have a walk around the venue. At my first conference I felt I had to go to everything and was exhausted by the end of it – now I realise that it’s okay if I don’t.
  4. On the other hand, conferences are also great for discovering new things. They bring together people with expertise in different areas, different views, different areas of interest. It’s an opportunity to find out about things you’d never considered or make new and unexpected connections to your own areas of interest. Go to a few things that sound interesting that you feel you don’t know enough about.
  5. Talk to people! You are, with any luck, surrounded by people who do interesting things. Conferences offer you opening gambits – you can ask people what they thought of that last presentation, ask them something about their own paper, or, if you’re British, complain about the coffee/food/accommodation/weather (I jest). There’s probably something coldly tactical to say about networking and getting your name out there, but at least part of it for me is pure, nerdy joy at talking to people who care about the stuff I care about.

I did have a mental list of other suggestions, like “if you’re going to nap, do so in the back row because it’s not very nice for the speaker to see you dribbling at the front” but that’s probably not very helpful. Anyone else got any conference tips/suggestions/advice?

Rod Thornton’s article

It’s hard to know what to write here – there are so many issues of academic freedom, how universities should support their scholars and what constitutes restricted materials it’s hard to know where to start. For those unfamiliar with the situation, here’s a summary by one of the people involved and here are a couple of articles by Rod Thornton on a blog he contributes to. Among other things, he he offers some insight into what the Al Qaeda Training Manual is and is not. I also note that the text the student used was available from the university’s own library, which just adds another layer of weirdness to the wtf cake.

Anyway, here’s a link to the document in question – the one the university is trying to suppress and has suspended Dr Rod Thornton for writing. The first is a summary of his article, while the second is the full article in its 112 page glory.

apologies for the lack of posting….

Ginger and white cat sitting on someone's lap with they're at a wooden deskOh dear, haven’t posted for a while. In the past ten days I’ve moved house, one of my pet rats had a lumpectomy and spay, I attended the NUS LGBT annual conference (where our LGBT Network won LGBT Society of the Year!) and I’ve been trying to compile my annual report. Tomorrow I’m going to a session on whether my thesis is publishable (hah), and on Wednesday I’ll be presenting at the annual Postgraduate Symposium in my department.

Today I was “helped” with writing my annual report by Itchy, one of my housemate’s cats. His help seems to consist of purring and kneading my leg with his claws, but I’m not refusing any help I can get.

At the moment, I would very much like it to be this time next week.

Relevance

One of the questions that came up at the conference was the links between the women’s suffrage movement and protest movements today. There are a couple of points that I think are particularly interesting, although there are bound to be others.

Diversity of the movement
In any large protest movement there are going to be different factions, each with different ideologies, aims, motivations and so on. I’ve seen it first hand in the current anti-cuts movement, particularly within the student movement and even within the group in my university. This isn’t a bad comparison because I think both movements are issues-based and attract people of a huge range of political beliefs.

There are things that unite us but these tend to be quite broad things – general opposition to education and welfare cuts, for example. The things that can be divisive are in the details – what action do we carry out? do we support occupation? is it okay to ally ourselves with trade union groups? communist groups? anarchist collectives? how do we organise ourselves? how do we make decisions? how do we respond to other groups and their campaigns? to whom do we express solidarity? These things are not always simple, and there have been passionate debates about these issues.

The suffrage movement had broad agreement that the franchise should be extended to (some) women, but organisations could differ wildly on the details – should the vote be extended to all women or to women on the same basis as men, with financial and property requirements in place? what should be the role of men? how much independence was needed and/or desirable from political parties? were they happy with contemporary gender norms? what was the vote for – was it a symbolic gesture of women’s equality, or could it be used to improve women’s working conditions, pay and welfare?

Not easy questions, and quite often no right answers.

Direct action and violence
The second point of comparison is what counts as violence, and how individuals and groups within the movement respond to direct action carried out by others in the movement. In my research, one of the things I come across is that violence was carried out against property; this happens today as well. There are numerous accounts of WSPU speakers being verbally and physically abused by men at public meetings and requiring police protection, yet this doesn’t seem to get described as violence. Instead, violence is what happens when suffragette campaigners break windows. I note that Alfie Meadows, the student who had to have emergency brain surgery after being injured in the protests, has been charged with violent disorder (this post discusses it in more detail). Then as now, (some) property seems to be more important than (some) people.

There are also similarities in how those who don’t engage in property damage or other less socially sanctioned methods of direct action respond to those who do. While I was disappointed at the reaction to Millbank, I wasn’t surprised. Those who carried out property damage and so on were said to be attention seekers, their status as “proper” members of the movement challenged, and others in the movement tried to distance themselves as much as possible from the window-breakers. Sound familiar?

I suspect that these issues are ones that any protest movement has to negotiate – they’re not unique to movements. There are points of connection between the suffrage movement and what’s happening today, particularly when it comes to how damage to public property and injury to protesters are discussed, and it’s these points of connection that think are interesting.

In happier news, my favourite bookshop turns 37 this weekend – happy birthday News from Nowhere! Here’s some of their history for the interested.

Exciting conference adventure

Okay, so I wasn’t expecting a tornado.

I’m currently in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in the US for Exploring the Boundaries and Applications of Corpus Linguistics. The sun is shining, the sky is blue, and the large quad outside the building is full of people clad in red being very excited about an American football game.

Yesterday, however, the sky was black, the light was green and it was pouring with rain. Most of my fellow conference attendees were in the hotel lobby watching the news updates on the storm system when the tornado sirens sounded. I ended up sitting in the laundry room with some distinguished linguists, in the dark because the power had gone, and checking twitter updates because, mysteriously, the wireless internet was still functioning.

There don’t seem to have been any serious injuries and the place seem relatively unscathed, but I think this has to be one of the more unexpected things to have happened to me at a conference!

Anyone got any strange, unusual or bizarre conference stories?