The high cost of researching

Recently I read Pat Thomson’s post about research participants finding the things written about them.

Today, I went to a seminar on Older LGBT people: intersections of ethnicity, culture and religion. As someone who lives in the intersections and who is queer, non-white, has a religious background and family, and who will (probably!) one day be old, I wanted to find people who had a similar set of identities, who might have had similar experiences, and who might be at different stages in their lives. I don’t know what my old age would look like. I wanted to find my elders.

I went to UK Black Pride this summer (here’s my friend Maryam’s post and photos) and it was an amazing, affirming space to be welcomed into with all my identities acknowledged. It was unforgettable to spend the night watching gay Asian men dance to bhangra and dance their own love stories – take the songs of childhood film-watching and make them theirs, fiercely claim that music and movement. It was equally unforgettable to spend the following day hanging out with a queer Bengali friend and allowing his identity as a queer man, as a brown man, as a Bengali man to become intelligible in this space. I felt like a part of me clicked into place when I was surrounded by the joy of my Brown and Black LGBTQ siblings.

However, I am familiar with both the mainstream LGBT community and LGBT research events, so wasn’t too hopeful about this event:

When I got there, I was unsurprised to find that the room was overwhelmingly white. It was a close run thing that I didn’t simply turn around and leave, or that I didn’t leave during lunch.

I enjoyed the presentations, particularly those by Dr Roshan das Nair and Professor Andrew Yip. The discussion was a mixed bag. I think our group did pretty well, and we discussed things like the interaction between non-white and LGBT gendered presentations, invisibility as erasure, the responsibility of making our spaces ready to welcome people before they are there, and the specific healthcare needs of LGB and especially trans people (particularly with dementia).

However, I was struck by the lack of non-white LGBTQ people in attendance, particularly older people. People researching the intersection of age, sexuality and race noted that they’d found it difficult to recruit participants, even when they went looking. There’s an argument that these communities don’t exist, but I argued that just because these communities can’t be seen by white people doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Minorities have always been good at hiding; why should older non-white LGBT people be any different?

The intersection of LGBTQ sexuality, gender, religion and age is a difficult one. As one white researcher told us, her Black mentor had rebuked her when she noted that she was having trouble finding Black women for her research: as her mentor said, why would these women trust her with their stories?

As someone for whom this intersection is a tangible reality, going into an overwhelmingly white room feels unsafe – that I cannot share these stories and experience the solidarity of my queer non-white spaces. Instead, I feel like I have become a display object, a teaching moment – that I am there to educate others while being denied the connections I want to make. People seem to expect me to share my experiences at their convenience, and often don’t acknowledge the psychological toll this takes. It’s as a form of self-care that I have become ruthless about which projects I am prepared to engage in; I will not let someone pick at scabs over wounds that are broken open again and again.

I think there’s a conversation to be had about research fatigue in people who are asked time and time again about their experiences. I am tired of half-baked requests and poorly designed surveys being sent to the LGBT groups I help with. I am tired of researchers expecting me to hold out difficult, painful experiences for their scrutiny without giving me a reason to trust them. I am tired of this being a one way exchange.

So while I had some good conversations and met some interesting people, I can’t help but feel a bit dispirited by the day.

IT and the itinerant academic

Last week I lost access to my institutional email account. This is a problem on several levels: I am on the organising committee for a conference and have access to the conference email account – which has to be accessed through my institutional email account. I’m working on a project at the University of Nottingham and need to communicate with other members of my team and have computer access for when I’m working on campus. I’m in talks about a publication. Finally, I’m teaching at two other institutions and (probably) won’t get an institutional email address at either.

Luckily my access to my Nottingham postgrad account was extended by a week so I could get on with my work, I have been set up with an Associate account and I have an email account attached to this domain so I do have an email account slightly removed from my personal one. I find it’s crucial to have this separation between personal and professional identities – not least because I don’t want my academic contacts to be able to see when I’m online, add me on a messaging service without my consent and so on.

Having graduated and currently working several part-time jobs yet without a long term contract, I am merely one tiny cog in an academy increasingly built on casual labour and short-term contracts. Melonie Fullick outlines the problems with this precarious existence, and I suggest that some of the issues crystallise around my (lack of) institutional email account.

As for early-career academics, they’re not even sure if there’s a place for for them in the university anymore or if so, what it will look like. What this adds up to is a special kind of chaos that exists alongside, intertwined with, the still-stable roots and structures of academe; and it takes a lot of privilege to be able to close one’s eyes to that.

In my academic world, an institutional email address is one of the structures of academe; it gets added to departmental and career-stage email lists so I know what’s going on, I use my user name to access electronic and teaching resources, I can use the staff and student directory to contact people. More than that, it signals a professional identity, an institutional aegis, an academic belonging.

What does it mean to send an email from an address ending in versus What does it mean to give my students an email address that will expire in a few months time, as my Associate account probably will?[1] What does it mean to give my publisher an email address that will expire in a few months time? What does it mean to give them an email address that the domain name reveals as personal rather than institutional?

What does it mean to build up relationships that occur primarily through email (and occasional meetings/conferences) without having a consistent long-term email? What does it mean to have friends, former colleagues, (former) mentors in academia without knowing that if they want to contact you, they know where to write?

I am reminded of a friend at college who changed her email and livejournal accounts regularly; I inevitably missed one change, she probably assumed I no longer wanted to be friends and we drifted apart. A good friend, one that I would like to have stayed in touch with – and yet, I was thwarted by the fragility of an online connection, the difficulty of maintaining it through account changes and deletions.

Moving back to Fullick’s observations, I am reminded that a stable email address comes with a stable job – one that is largely located in one institution and can be reasonably be expected to last years rather than months or weeks. This system of short-term contracts and precarious employment is difficult in so many ways. The fact that even the method of communication underpinning academia does not account for such experiences of employment highlights the disparity between the conditions of work found in “still-stable roots and structures of academe” and the way that many early career academics work, and are expected to work. It draws attention to the fact that the way I am expected to teach and research unsupported by the roots and structures of academe, but at the same time thrive in in an environment where these same structures are necessary and relied upon.

Anyway, does anyone have any suggestions as to which contact email address I should give my students?

[1] While I won’t be teaching them then, what if they email me later to ask for a reference?

Looking back on 2013

2013 turned out to be an eventful year! I submitted my thesis in February (the final weeks were pretty grim). I had my viva in May and passed with minor corrections. I completed these corrections while performing at the Edinburgh Fringe and got it bound by the excellent Libris Bookbinding, who as you can see, did a beautiful job.

Photo by K Gupta

Photo by K Gupta

This meant that I could graduate in the December ceremonies and graduate I did. The ceremony itself was a bit odd. I especially enjoyed the cajoling for money and the slideshow of an imagined undergraduate’s life, and my fellow PhD graduands and I were a bit baffled by it as it didn’t reflect our university experiences at all – where were the library fines, the teaching of reluctant/hungover undergrads, the frustration of tracking down a book or journal article not in Hallward? But I digress – the slideshow was for the parents, and I got to have a day of strutting around in only slightly ridiculous robes and spend time with my family and partner.

Photo by J A Gupta

Photo by J A Gupta

In a way, these robes are a place to settle. Whereas my BA and MA gowns felt transitory – I always wanted to pursue further study – these are the formal academic robes I’ll wear for the rest of my academic life.

It also means that there are officially four Doctor Guptas in my family – my parents are both medical doctors and my sister has a PhD in astronomy. Woe betide anyone who phones or posts something to us addressed only to “Doctor Gupta”. The letter addressed to “Professor Gupta” did throw us though…

I also found time to give a number of talks including my first two invited talks, visit Berlin, go on a programming workshop, start thinking about my next project, perform my creative work for the first time in ten years, get paid for performing my creative work for the first time ever, act for the first time since primary school assemblies, help organise a diverse community stage at Nottinghamshire Pride, and attended a number of conferences – as well as the ones I presented at, I also went to (Re)presenting the Archive at the University of Sheffield, Trans As Everyday Culture and Spotlight On: Genderqueer both at the University of Warwick. Somewhere in this, Heather Froehlich and I created conference bingo which has probably been read by far more people than will ever read any of my academic work.

Next year is already shaping up to be hectic but exciting, and as soon as some details are confirmed I’ll be able to post more about them. But for now, there are books to read and trains to catch and parties to go to, and I shall leave you with this view of the University of Nottingham in the low December sunlight.

Photo by K Gupta

Photo by K Gupta

Trans seminars

I’m going to be speaking at ‘Trans’ in Popular Representation at the University of Warwick on Thursday. It promises to be a really interesting event and I’m excited to be presenting alongside such cool people! I’ll be talking about the media representation of Lucy Meadows, and focusing on pronouns in particular. It’s something new for me and very much a pilot study of the “is there something worth investigating here?” kind. Anyway, here’s a brief summary of what I’ll be talking about.


Response and responsibility: mainstream media and Lucy Meadows

In March 2013, Lucy Meadows was found dead at her home. Meadows, a primary school teacher, was transitioning from male to female; the school announced her decision to return to work after the Christmas break as Miss Meadows. This was reported in the local press and quickly picked up by the national press. Her death prompted discussions of responsible media reporting, press freedom and the contributions of trans* people to society.

I collected two corpora of newspaper articles: one of articles mentioning Lucy Meadows and a larger one of general news articles. These corpora are used to identify keywords – words that occur more frequently in the Lucy Meadows texts than might be expected from examining the collection of general news texts. The female pronouns she and her emerged as key; in this paper I look at these more closely using approaches drawn from corpus linguistics and critical discourse analysis (Baker 2006; Baker et al 2008).

Baker, P. (2006). Using Corpora in Discourse Analysis. London: Continuum.
Baker, P., Gabrielatos, C., Khosravinik, M., Krzyzanowski, M., McEnery, T., & Wodak, R. (2008). “A useful methodological synergy? Combining critical discourse analysis and corpus linguistics to examine discourses of refugees and asylum seekers in the UK press”. Discourse and Society, 19(3), 273.
Scott, M. (2012). WordSmith Tools version 6. Liverpool: Lexical Analysis Software.

(not) writing in public

It’s been very quiet on the blog and there’s a reason for that. I thought I’d write about the reasons behind it.

At the moment I’m juggling several things – an early career researcher’s portfolio, if you will. There are numerous things that I’m involved with, some short term and one longer term, all focused on my area and which will hopefully open doors in the future. However, none of them are things I’m happy to talk about yet – or indeed discuss in detail with anyone but a few close friends and my immediate family. In some cases this is due to the sensitive nature of the project, in others it’s due to the wishes of other people on the project, in others still it’s because things aren’t fully confirmed and I’m loath to count my chickens before they hatch, in yet another yet it’s because it’s still a tentative thing and I’m not sure how closely I want to connect it with my academic identity.

If I were a cleverer writer I’d be able to write carefully, giving you enough to make me seem busy and exciting while withholding juicy details of the stuff I want to keep close to my chest. But I am not that writer, and my current situation is such that none of the things I’m involved in suitable for public consumption (or at least, not yet).

It’s all making me wonder about the nature of blogging and writing in public, and what this means for the early career researcher. Is blogging about our work always an unqualified good thing? What are the disadvantages? What does it mean to get a reputation as someone who thinks and writes in public? Can such a reputation have a detrimental effect – can it mean that you’re less likely to be trusted with classified data and with sensitive research?

It also makes me wonder about the nature of power expressed in these concerns: basically, who gets to research and/or write in public without repercussions? If I were a more senior researcher – had more clout, had the security of a permanent job – how would that change what I felt able to write about here?

Student mental health part 2

Following on from my last post about student mental health, here’s a post from the other side of teaching about making space for “quiet students”. There are some really interesting ideas there and it’s made me reflect on my own teaching practice.

When I was an undergraduate, one of the people I was taught by seemed to have an air of desperation and mute appeal whenever we scrutinised the floor rather than meet his eyes. I found it unbearable; it would make the seminars drag on (dull – I wanted to get to the interesting stuff!) and honestly, I felt kind of sorry for him. So I talked a lot (which I disliked, and disliked myself for not shutting up) but furthermore, I felt I was being forced into the position of the talkative student who risked looking daft just so that the tutor at least had something to build on. I wasn’t a quiet student, but I resented not being given the chance to be one.

When I started teaching, I was determined not to reproduce that dynamic but at the same time, didn’t want to pick on people. I think there’s room for silence as a pedagogical tool but it wasn’t something that I wanted to use on a regular basis. In addition, I knew what access requirements my students had requested; some of these requirements concerned seminar room dynamics.

Instead I got my students to talk in pairs, trios or small groups while I visited each group in turn, listening to what they had to say, encouraging them and making sure they would have something to offer. I then brought the whole seminar group together and elicited something out of each group. I don’t know how obvious it was to my students but everyone got the chance to speak in the seminar and usually did so.

Obviously this tactic wouldn’t work everywhere and in every type of seminar which is why I liked Sarah’s post so much. I also think that strategies for helping quiet students create a better environment for everyone – everyone gets a chance to participate, no one feels vaguely resentful like I did as an undergraduate, and these strategies help make a seminar a supportive environment where students can try out ideas.

Something I didn’t discuss was mental health as specific to PhD students; this isn’t due to me not caring but, rather, it being a bit too personal. Jessica has recently been writing about this – there’s more in the series, but I particularly liked PhD blues: mental health and the PhD student and Having “the chat” with your supervisor: what I talk about when I talk about depression.

I also like this post about the experience of doing a PhD while disabled or chronically ill and the sheer stubbornness it takes: disabled PhD students of the world unite, unite and take over

And yet our inability to show up has no significant bearing on our ability to contribute beautiful original things to the world. We have the experience of working successfully according to our own strategies: we must do, for how else could we be here, now? We have strategies to get around these walls in our world. We need only your support, your belief, and your acknowledgement that the stories here speak to a state of affairs whose days should be numbered.

In other words: we know how to do this. All we need is the right support, the right conditions. In this respect we are no different from any other PhD student, or any student, or any individual embarking on a project of any kind.

Every single PhD student has worked hard to be where they are. Every single disabled PhD student has had to do this work within a context where things may be harder than they are for your average bear. They are not the only ones. Nonetheless, their experiences represent a distinct category of experiences among many. As with so many things it is only by bringing these experiences before the eyes of the world that we can hope that things will ever improve.

Student mental health

I recently read a Time To Change blog post on starting university with a mental health problem and it made me wonder what advice I’d give to a student in that position.

I was an LGBT welfare officer at Nottingham and I considered it part of my role to know as much as possible about structures for student welfare and advice – everything from housing issues to sexual health – all of which stood me in good stead when I began teaching. If a student came to me with a problem, chances were that I’d know where to find information to help them – or at least know where to start looking.

Student mental health is one of the things I care a lot about and it both frustrates and terrifies me that information about student mental health can be so difficult to find on university websites. So with that in mind, here are three things that I’d especially like students to know.

Identify formal sources of support

You’ll probably be assigned a personal tutor who’ll be your first point of contact if you have any problems or issues. If you don’t click with them you can usually swap to someone with whom you’ll get on better. Some departments may have mentorship schemes where you can ask to be matched with a postgraduate researcher and have regular meetings with them.

In my experience, there is support for mental health issues in universities but these aren’t necessarily well signposted. For example, in my university, people who can help with mental health issues include department disability liaison officers (DLOs), the counselling service, the disability advisor based in the student union, the postgraduate disability advisor, the Disabled Students Network, a mental wealth group, HealthyU and a mental health advisor in Occupational Health. Because it’s a university, no one talks to each other and it seems to come as a genuine surprise to some of these that others exist.

I know, it sucks that you have to negotiate this and learn more about the arcane systems of a university than any of your peers, but on the other hand you will gain an unparalleled education in “organisational structures” and will be able to negotiate the shit out of any workplace or organisation you may end up dealing with in the future. Sorry, that’s not really much consolation.

I’d recommend talking to different people, groups and services and working out which of them are useful to you and which are not. If you don’t find a service useful or find that it actively upsets you, then don’t feel compelled to stay with it. Some people find peer support useful; others find counselling useful; others just want to check in with the DLO every so often. Whatever works for you.

Work out what you need to do to be formally recognised as disabled

Unfortunately, this is one of the things that differs between universities. You’ll probably have to contact your university’s disability office or student services to find out about this – in my experience, different departments range from incredibly clued up, helpful and supportive (like my current one) to them going “errr, you what now?” if you try asking (some others I could mention).

In the University of Nottingham, you generally start by disclosing a disability or Specific Learning Difficulty/dyslexia or a long-term medical condition. You’ll probably meet someone to discuss what reasonable adjustments you require to support your studies. Reasonable adjustments include things like getting work to you (for example, providing handouts and slides in advance of the lecture/seminar or in a different format), recording lectures, arrangements about group work, scheduling seminars, and arrangements for assessments and exams. You’ll then end up with a Disability Referral Form, which briefly outlines the nature of the condition and what sort of support you need – these then go to your department and, in turn, your tutors.

It’s a good idea to get one of these even if your mental health is well managed – the last thing you want in the middle of a crisis is someone turning around and saying “sorry, we can’t give you an extension because you’re not on record as having a disability”. Even if you don’t end up requesting different arrangements, they’re useful because they let your department know you exist – and if you ever do need additional support, it’s like a fasttrack ticket to help.

You won’t be alone in having a referral form either; both undergraduates and postgraduates have them, including postgraduates who teach. Your seminar tutor or lecturer could be among them.

Talk to us

Having taught students with mental health issues, nothing worries me like one of them seemingly disappearing off the face of the earth. I’d much rather they let me know they were alright but too anxious to attend seminars, or they’d switched medication and it was making them sleep through their alarms, or they were too depressed to leave their room. These things happen, and if the student lets the department and me know about it, we can do something about it – like move the student to an afternoon seminar group, meet them individually to help them catch up on work, reassure them about coming to a seminar or direct them to better sources of support.

It’s also better to do this sooner rather than later – let us know when there’s a problem developing rather than when you’ve got loads of work to catch up on and are feeling a horrible mixture of guilt and anxiety for missing so much work, making it impossible to approach your tutor. There are things we can do to help.

Ultimately, we want our students to get as much as possible out of university and develop intellectually, creatively and personally. Mental health problems mean that it might not be easy or straightforward, but it’s still possible to do very well – indeed excel – at degree level.

Thanks to Heather and Alex Brett for their much appreciated comments on this post

Conference bingo

Another conference season draws to a close. Heather Froehlich and I have been discussing a conference I recently attended and this is the result:

Conference bingo card

Play along!

Let us know how you get on! Feel free to leave suggestions in the comments.

Addendum: We forgot to mention food! I once spent three days miserably eating dried fruit and nuts at a conference because I’d brought that along as a snack, little realising that there would be no vegetarian option. Consider yourself winning if this happens to you, if such a thing can ever be described as “winning”.

Also, if your conference experience involves a dying rabbit and having to wash said rabbit’s blood off your hands, at that point you can reasonably be allowed to give up and just drink everything in sight.

Viva classics

To prepare for my viva, I came up with a list of viva classics questions and a list of questions specific to my thesis – mostly about weaknesses that I wanted a ready response for. The list of viva classics ended up being more useful than the list of perceived weaknesses and so I thought I’d share it. My examiners started with a couple of these questions to put me at my ease (ha), then we moved to going through my thesis chapter-by-chapter, then we finished by talking about plans for dissemination.

  • What is the main contribution of this thesis?
  • Why this topic?
  • Has your view of your research topic changed during the course of the research?
  • Who has done the main work in this area?
  • Who is your audience – and what is your message to different elements of your audience?
  • Where do you position yourself?
  • What would you do differently if you started now?
  • What have you learned from the process of doing your PhD?
  • What research questions does this thesis open up?
  • What are your plans for dissemination?

The first question is an absolute gift as it gives you the chance to give a good summary of your research and why everyone should be interested in it. I found it helped to make a note of my main finding(s) for each chapter and use that to make sure I didn’t miss anything out.

These questions are more open-ended than the tightly focused “so why did you use term x and not term y” questions you might get during the chapter-by-chapter examination, and are meant to help you reflect on your research, your research practice and your development as a researcher. Your examiners know you’ve produced a PhD thesis; they’ve read it. What they don’t know is how your thesis has shaped you as a researcher.