• Kat Gupta’s research blog

    caution: may contain corpus linguistics, feminism, activism, LGB, queer and trans stuff, parrots, London

on strike and on striking

Just over a year ago, I got my first permanent academic job. It’s been a weird experience – a lower teaching load than I have previously had, but more administration and pastoral work. Perhaps the hardest thing to get used to is that I don’t have to move unless I want to. I’m not having to send off endless applications that will inevitably get rejected. I applied for conference funding and got it. These should not be unusual working conditions but they are. I carry something like survivors’ guilt with me: that I landed a permanent job while so many of my brilliant, talented peers didn’t.

Years of precarious employment have demonstrated how broken UK universities are: running on the goodwill of their staff who are themselves exhausted and running on fumes, engaged in a corporate project to turn students into consumers and staff as mere learning providers, and moving further and further away from a vision of the university as a public good, for knowledge and enquiry and exchange. Perhaps I am still a starry-eyed idealist but I want to work somewhere with a sense of justice and equality, that values the diversity of everyone in its community, and which rewards the labour of everyone – cleaners and professors, security guards and programme administrators, PhD students and librarians. The university would fail to function without any of us.

This post is necessarily focused on the experiences of one academic in the UK. The University and College Union (UCU) represents workers in UK universities and its work is focused on the UK, but many of the broad issues outlined here – inequality, precarity, high workloads and pay deflation – are seen in universities more globally.

UCU membership is limited to “academics, lecturers, trainers, instructors, researchers, managers, administrators, computer staff, librarians and postgraduates”. Other members of the university are represented by GMB and Unison but experience similar issues, especially in regards to insecure contracts and high workloads. I strike in solidarity for everyone employed by the university and who experiences these or similar conditions.

Finally, I strike for all those who want to strike but cannot due to their contract, visa or finances: I see you and I recognise your struggle.

Inequality

On average, women are paid 15% less than men are for the same work across the sector. This tool from UCU allows you to compare your salary to the average earned by the other binary gender and to other institutions.

Black and Arab academics at Russell group universities earn 26% less than their white colleagues. These inequalities are exacerbated by multiple axes of inequality: the same report shows that Asian women earn 22% less and Black women earn 39% less. There continues to be massive inequality at the level of professor. I would also argue that universities strategically recruit BAME academics internationally to hide the problems in UK BAME academic attainment. This is not to say that international staff don’t face unique problems: the threat of deportation and visa fees are just two of the ways in which the hostile environment is realised.

The existence of a national pay scale is meant to reduce these inequalities, but what happens in practice is that women, BAME and disabled people are appointed at the lowest rungs of the scale and face more barriers for promotion. One of these is realised in teaching evaluations: women and ethnic minority academics are more likely to be judged harshly in teaching evaluations which then becomes a barrier to promotion. Women in particular are expected to take on more administrative and pastoral duties, which either means doing less research, saying “no” and developing a reputation as someone who is “difficult”, or attempting to do it all and working far beyond your contracted hours. BAME or LGBTQ+ academics may find ourselves becoming a person that our BAME or LGBTQ+ students trust and someone they approach when trying to make sense of the unwritten rules and structures of academia. Again, this results in doing more pastoral care. It becomes incredibly difficult to juggle these things: as someone who is queer, trans and Asian, I feel responsible for my minority students and I want to help them navigate what can be an unfamiliar and even hostile place. However, there’s only so much of this I can do as an individual and a part of me knows that to get promoted, I would have to be ruthless about offering less in this area. I’m not going to because I think my LGBTQ+ and BAME students are amazing and deserve the best (and, in the absence of that, me), but it is something that I’m aware of.

Here is a link to material about racism in the British academy and here is a link to a comprehensive bibliography on gender and racial bias in teaching evaluations.

Precarious labour

There are more people chasing jobs than there are jobs in academia. Many academic jobs will have at least 100 applications, if not many more. In the UK, everyone who is invited to interview meets at least the essential and probably many of the desirable qualities listed in the job criteria: from my experience talking to other candidates, everyone will have a PhD in hand, some publications, appropriate – and in some cases, extensive – teaching experience and experience on a precarious contract, and it’s very much a case of who fits best with the department’s needs. Which is to say that universities rarely struggle to recruit academic staff, and people are desperate to get or keep a foot in academia.

There are two main types of precarious labour in academia: fixed-term contracts (often between 10 months to three years) and hourly-paid contracts. Being on one of these means that you are always, always worried about your future and whether you can stay in academia. It is constant, lurking stress: I started a 10 month contract and almost immediately started applying for jobs, It means that you can’t make long term plans: there’s no point settling somewhere because you will almost certainly have to move when your contract comes to an end. You don’t know what city you’ll be in – or even which country. I applied for jobs in Denmark and Scotland and Ireland and England – as a queer, trans person of colour, there were places where I simply wouldn’t be safe living and working. I had to limit myself to places where, ideally, there was legislation to protect me from discrimination and at the very least, I was less likely to get my gay brown ass attacked. I have moved city at a month’s notice, at one point sleeping on a friend’s air mattress because the contract on a flat had been delayed. Things like buying a house, having a child or even getting a pet is out of the question because you simply don’t know if you’ll have a job in six months time, let alone where it will be. It means that you don’t get to build a network of friends and a sense of community where you live because you don’t have time to establish yourself and will have to move again in a year anyway. It means that, if you have a partner and kids, you have to consider whether it’s fair to move your children and disrupt their friendships and education, and you have to decide whose career to prioritise: theirs or yours.

Hourly-paid contracts rarely recognise how much labour is involved. One job paid me £35 for each hour of teaching – but this didn’t include prep time, time dedicated for office hours, time spent answering student emails or marking. If I did the job properly to the best of my abilities, I would end up paying myself under minimum wage; if I didn’t, I would be letting down my students and jeopardise my future employment, there or elsewhere. I was lucky enough to work with some lovely colleagues who made every effort to shield me from taking on additional admin that I wouldn’t be paid for, and who made me feel that I was part of the department by inviting me to research events and to staff drinks or dinners. However, at my worst hourly paid lecturing job, I literally came in, taught for two hours, held office hours, then disappeared without seeing a single member of the department. I didn’t get any kind of induction and wouldn’t have known who to call in case of an emergency. No effort was made to even meet me on my first day or show me where I was teaching. I wasn’t part of that department – just a hired body to teach a module that no one else wanted to teach.

Hourly-paid contracts don’t allow any sort of research development funding; fixed term contracts may or may not allow this. Without institutional backing it’s difficult to develop research projects – you don’t have funding to attend conferences so you either don’t go or pay out of pocket, you don’t have the money to pay for access to research material, tools or software, you don’t have money to fund travel for research purposes and you don’t have consistent access to a library or electronic materials.

Hourly-paid contracts also don’t allow for sick leave or parental leave. If you get sick and are unable to work, you simply don’t get paid. I had surgery on a Wednesday in January 2017 (general anaesthetic, exciting painkillers etc) and was marking again the Saturday after (I wasn’t on the exciting painkillers by then because they made me…well, let’s just say that we didn’t get on). I was lecturing again barely two weeks afterwards, every jolt as the bus made its way up a bumpy road sending another shock through my stitched-together body. This isn’t something that I should have had to do, and it isn’t something that anyone should have to do. It’s not a sign of commitment or dedication; it’s a sign of exploitation.

Perhaps one of the saddest casualties of my years in the precarious wilderness was a relationship. My then-partner and I were both actively seeking academic employment. We couldn’t see a future where we could be in the same country, let alone both have academic or academic-related jobs reasonably close to each other. While there were other things that meant that the relationship couldn’t last, our stress about precarity, Brexit, internationalisation and visas was a major factor.

I was lucky enough to have the financial and emotional support of my parents, and indeed moved back in with them while I was on hourly contracts. I wouldn’t have been able to stay in academia long enough to have got a permanent job without their support, and even then we had some serious discussions about how long I could afford to keep doing this. There are so many who didn’t and don’t have familial financial support. The academic voices we are losing are the least privileged: disabled, female, BAME, working class, first generation to go to university, LGBTQ, with caring responsibilities (and any of these combinations). Academia will – already has – become a preserve of the privileged, and we lose diverse voices and perspectives and research and skills.

Did being precariously employed make me a better academic? Well, I got to see how other departments in other universities worked: I taught at five of them, including my PhD institution. I gained a lot of teaching experience: I taught 16 individual modules, and only one of them twice. I worked with a lot of people and learnt how to adapt to a new environment very quickly. However, it’s shaped my anxious tendencies: constructive criticism throws me into a spiral where I convince myself that I’m going to get fired any day, and I’m still not entirely sure how to build relationships with people who will hopefully be my colleagues for years. I’m not sure how to have input into something rather than adapt myself in the short term. I find it hard to think long-term at all: about what my research plans are for the next five years, let alone about what my career will look like for the next ten years, hell, even what the next year will look like.

This is what precarious labour is creating: a generation of academics shaped by uncertainty and anxiety. Some are simply not there, forced out by exploitative labour practices. Others are deeply entrenched in precarity and, without time or institutional support to develop their research, see little way out. Those of us who are permanently employed face a different set of challenges, not least that we may become complicit in it. Our hard-won research leave and parental leave is scope to create another precarious position.

Workloads

I am contracted for a 35 hour week. That means five days of seven hours a day. Admittedly my work schedule skews later (I’m a dedicated night owl) but the week before last I found myself pulling 12 hour days because there was no way that I could teach and attend compulsory meetings and hold office hours and get my marking done and respond to emails and meet my colleagues to discuss teaching, marking or students and respond to reviewer’s comments for a journal article and prepare teaching material for three modules, two of which I was teaching for the first time. I try to be very disciplined about not responding to emails outside working hours, but it’s hard to fit in that much work into a 35 hour week. It’s an even greater challenge for those employed on fractional contracts, for whom workload modelling never takes into account how long it actually takes to do any of these things. All of these issues are again exacerbated if there are any reasons at all that affect your ability to overwork: caring for children or other family members, disabilities, mental health issues, fatigue.

It happens at every level, from the teaching fellow who doesn’t have research built into their contract but who knows that their ability to get a permanent job depends on their publications to professors on whom work pressures are piled on. Compared to academia of yesteryear, we deal with much more admin, from the Research Excellence Framework (REF) to the Teaching Excellence Framework to the incoming Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF). We are much more aware of student voices in the form of module evaluations and the National Student Survey (NSS), and the repercussions of a poor result. League tables are a constant source of stress

The second part of the UCU strike is taking Action Short Of a Strike (ASOS) which basically means working to contract. University senior management in some institutions have already threatened to dock pay if ASOS means you cannot fulfil your duties. They know that it is impossible to cram all of this into a 35 hour week, and indeed, universities are built upon the goodwill and free labour offered by their staff. We don’t want to leave a panicking student in the lurch so we respond to their evening or weekend emails, we don’t want to disappoint our co-authors so we work on revisions late at night, we can’t let marking deadlines slip so we scramble to get our marking completed within the 15 day turnaround period, we know that publications are how we get promoted so we squeeze that into an already strained workweek…

Part of the problem of academia is that the people who get into it tend to have a big streak of perfectionism and, I hope, an equally big streak of compassion. We don’t like failing our students, our colleagues, ourselves. We hold ourselves to high – even impossible – standards and get upset with ourselves when we don’t meet them. We suffer stress, poor mental health, burnout. And perhaps inevitably, the modern neoliberal university has seen this with bright, eager eyes and gone yes, yes we can exploit this.

Pay deflation

Academic pay in the UK has fallen at least 17% against the rate of inflation since 2009. What I get paid simply doesn’t go as far as it did a decade ago. According to this UCU tool, I would be earning an extra £8000 a year if salaries had risen in line with inflation since 2010. As someone living in London, it’s also important to note that London weighting hasn’t kept pace with the fast rise in living expenses in London. Significantly more than 35% of my salary goes on rent. This hits harder because after a PhD and precarious labour, many early career academics don’t have much in the way of savings. Assuming I don’t become redundant or otherwise unemployed, I basically have about 35 years of a proper salary before I retire (assuming I retire at 70, ahahahaha excuse me while I lie down and weep). I have to earn a lot in those 35 years to make up for the 15 or so years when I was not earning enough to save because I was studying for my BA, MA and PhD and then in the precarious wilderness.

Despite all this, I want to believe that universities can do better, can be better. I want contracts that will allow staff to flourish. I want an end to pay gaps and precarious employment. I don’t want anyone to be employed on an hourly contract unless it’s something that they actively want because teaching is a side gig that they fit around a substantially paid job. I want space for wonder and curiosity and imagination. I want to not spend my weekend working or prone on the sofa. How about it?

Hope’s a burden or it sets you free

I tend to keep job talk off this blog; as a precariously employed academic, it is a constant, heart-bruising process of hope and imaginings and trying to pick up institutional knowledge as swiftly as possible. Since 2013, I have not been entirely sure what I’ll be doing the next year – I’ve worked at four universities and taught over fifteen very different modules, and my summers are generally me hustling for work.

Last year I was lucky enough to land a full-time ten month position as a teaching fellow at the University of Sussex, my joy tempered by my knowledge that in a matter of months I would be leaving and that time was ticking, speeding, trickling or whatever it does in your movement metaphor of choice. I never bothered to unsubscribe from the jobs.ac.uk emails and was preparing further applications even as I met my students and gave my first lectures.

Lebanese cedar

I had a marvellous year living by the sea: storms and sunsets and snow on the beach; reading as I basked on the pebbles on the blazing days of 2018’s glorious summer; pacing along the shore at dawn after another sleepness night, tiny, soft wavelets shushing against the stones and a hushed pastel sunrise.

It was an academic year that I was determined to enjoy, knowing that I wouldn’t be staying and that I had no idea what would come next. Precarious academic labour is cruel, giving you just enough to feed your hope; if next year it will get better, if you can stick it out another year on the chance next year will be your year.

This is to say that this year, I have been one of the lucky few to secure permanent employment and I feel kind of conflicted. I am so, so angry at the state of academic labour, so full of grief and fury for the brilliant people being exploited by institutions that have figured out that perfectionist, compassionate, highly motivated people are eminently exploitable. It’s a weird sort of survivor’s guilt.

I am having to learn new things: how to build relationships with colleagues that aren’t going to end in six or ten months; how to build a rapport with students that will steer them through their full programme of study; that I can develop teaching materials and be able to use them more than once; perhaps even to feel invested in a university and to build a relationship with the institution itself. I am still nervy, wary, wondering, unable to believe that for now at least, I don’t have to fill out job applications and, as Rachel Moss so eloquently describes,

lay out the pieces of yourself as teacher, scholar, writer, administrator, colleague, present each in a slightly new and polished way for the specific criteria of each post, and then rebuild yourself in the narrative of the cover letter, framing yourself as the person they need. It is a fiction, but a powerful one, requiring imagining yourself into that place and space. And if you get to interview it is a deeper fiction still, where you must say: these are my colleagues, these are my students, even if I have not met them yet. And then, when the answer is no, you will unpack yourself again, wondering what can still be sifted and refined, so that next time the answer is different.

Perhaps I can be the person I polished for them, let these imaginings solidify into something more tangible than promises.

The photo is of a Lebanese cedar tree on the University of Roehampton campus, my new workplace. It is huge, towering, magnificent. It is perhaps coming to the end of its lifespan. A few metres away is a tiny, slender sapling, a Lebanese cedar of whip-thin branches and tender foliage, planted for renewals and futures and hope.

why I won’t tweet my students’ exam howlers

Another summer marking season, another article in Times Higher Education soliciting student “exam howlers”. This is predictable and wearying and I can’t help but feel that we keep having this exact same conversation about why it’s bad to publicly mock and shame our students. Kirsty Rolfe wrote about talking teaching and making mistakes and I wrote about being someone’s worst student a couple of years ago, but apparently it bears repeating.

There was one respect alone in which Philip was recognized as a man of distinction, though only within the confines of his own Department. He was a superlative examiner of undergraduates: scrupulous, painstaking, stern yet just. No one could award a delicate mark like B+/B+?+ with such confident aim, or justify it with such cogency and conviction.

David Lodge, Changing Places: a tale of two campuses

Like Philip, I try to mark carefully and, being a perfectionist, probably spend far too much time thinking about whether a piece of work should be awarded a 62 or a 64 (let alone a 68 or a 70). Marking can be a joyless task but there’s only one paper that I’ve genuinely been annoyed at marking – one in which the student, in some kind of act of teenage bravado-slash-poor judgement, declared that he wrote the whole thing while hungover and didn’t care. After a week of solid marking, I have to confess that I, in turn, found it difficult to care about this student’s work. But that was a very rare case.

Most of the “exam howlers” seem to be inexpert attempts to apply frameworks and terminology, and while frustrating to see, it’s not something I think should be publicly mocked. I don’t think I have it in me to fault someone for trying – I try to only get irritated when someone truly doesn’t try. And it’s not like the people marking student work have never dropped a stinker themselves. I’ve really liked the #myownexamhowlers hashtag on twitter (storify here).

I don’t remember any specific exam howlers I made – I think I’ve blanked out the entire experience of exams with some degree of success – but a tutor did note that an essay took “a curiously scattergun approach”. I consistently left sweary, abusive messages (e.g. [LOOK UP THE FUCKING DEFINITION YOU FUCKING IDIOT]) to myself in draft chapters I sent to my supervisor (pro tip: use unusual punctuation marks around these to make it easier to use ctrl+f to locate and delete them later). Finally, when I was printing my ~350 page thesis, I dropped the entire thing, hurriedly tried to shove the papers in the right order, failed miserably, and duly presented one of my examiners with a thesis containing a wodge of pages in the wrong order. A true case of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory!

Talking about our own exam (and otherwise) howlers opens up a far more interesting conversation. I don’t want to be an unassailable figure of perfection for my students, doing something they can never hope to aspire to. Instead I want to say that I, too, find some things difficult, have fumbled around trying to use the right terminology, have clumsily applied a framework or model, have missed something glaringly obvious. These days I have the luxury of sending my work to knowledgeable colleagues and friends, and my work will be peer-reviewed before publication. Students, especially those working under closed book exam conditions, don’t have that option.

So let’s think a bit more kindly of our students. How many of us working under those conditions, grappling with complex, unfamiliar terminology and ideas that we’d perhaps encountered for the first time only weeks ago, panicky and underslept and stressed, would turn out polished, publishable work? We’ve had years – decades – to hone our academic thinking and writing. They haven’t. If we can’t be kinder, let us at least be more discreet in our unkindness.

Activist academia, academic activism

This is my contribution to a roundtable discussion on trans and non-binary activism at Sexual Cultures 2: Activism meets academia. My co-panellists were Ruth Pearce, Jade Fernandez and Dr Jay Stewart and the facilitator was Dr Meg John Barker.

____

Today I’m basically going to argue that academia and activism inform and enrich each other. There are commonalities between the two: both engage with the world around us, both describe it and seek to understand it. Both ask – and respond – to difficult questions. However, there are also differences: activism explicitly seeks change whereas not all academic work does so. Activism can also take many different forms, and there are different barriers to enter it[1].

Both my academic research and activism are interested in people – how they form the identities they have, how they communicate these and make them legible, how they understand themselves, how they challenge the societies they live in.

My academic work has focused on the newspaper representation of the suffrage movement and, more recently, how trans people are represented in the media. Representation is crucial to changing perceptions of minority and/or disadvantaged groups – it is how people who may never meet us and interact with us learn about us. As my research on the suffrage movement shows, mainstream media representation can over simplify complex issues and debates, conflate identities, and focus on things like property damage to the exclusion of decades of non-violent direct action – all of these are pretty damaging to already disadvantaged groups. We can see this focus on accurate media representation in trans activism through projects like Trans Media Watch and All About Trans. I’ve also found myself contributing to discussions on Black and Minority Ethnic LGBTQ elders and have had difficult experiences at conferences when my intersectional identity means I am seen as the subject of someone else’s research rather than a researcher in my own right.

Academic work allows us to gather, interpret and analyse data. In my field of corpus linguistics, we talk a lot about rigour – can these results be replicated? are they statistically valid? how can I be sure that the things I find are actually there and not simply a case of overextrapolation? These things are necessary to talk about in activism too – how do I know there is a problem? is it systematic? who does it affect? how does it affect them? This is especially important in a context of funding cuts and pressure on services. I’m sure that I am not the only person to have been asked whether there is a demonstrated need for services that support trans, and especially nonbinary, people. There’s a vicious cycle at work where we don’t know exactly how many trans people or nonbinary people there are because surveys rarely ask the right questions to get decent answers, so it’s hard to get changes made that will help us and increase our visibility, so it’s harder for trans and nonbinary people to make their identities clear and be counted.

Nat Titman notes that “Reliable figures show that at least 0.4% of the UK population defines as nonbinary when given a 3-way choice in terms of female, male or another description” before going on to observe that “If gender is asked in terms of frequency of feeling like a man, a women, both or neither then there is evidence that more than a third of everyone may experience gender in a way that defies binary categories”. Nat argues that “If you wish to measure the numbers of people who don’t fit within binary classifications of female/male or man/woman then your choice of question will have a huge effect on the results […] Asking for ‘Other’ in the context of ‘Female’ and ‘Male’ is likely to reduce the number of people identifying outside of the binary to the lowest possible figure, those who feel strongly enough to reject classification with binary ‘sex’ as well as the man/woman binary”.

As Nat makes clear, there is a need for more research in this area – and designing the kind of surveys that can be sensitive to this kind of information is something that academics and activists can work on together.

On a more personal note, my undergraduate essays were possibly an extremely awkward and nerdy coming out process. My first introduction to gender as more complicated than a binary and ideas about gender as a repertoire of behaviours didn’t come from message boards, IRC channels or people I knew, but from an edited collection of linguistic articles. The first time I used gender neutral pronouns was in an essay analysing the linguistic interaction between my student radio co-presenter and me. These concepts blew my mind and started giving me words to describe myself and my experiences. Academia, perhaps weirdly, helped me find my way into activism.

I also believe that activism can enhance academic work. As I’ve alluded to previously, activism can help us ask questions – without the efforts of nonbinary activists like Nat, we wouldn’t have nearly as good an idea about how many nonbinary people there are in the UK and wouldn’t be so aware of the urgent need for more rigorous research in this area.

Some of the academic work I most respect has been from academics bringing their lived experiences and their own activism into their research. As an MA student, one of my formative books was Paul Baker’s Public Discourses of Gay Men. As corpus linguists, Paul and I examine large amounts of text to find patterns in them. These patterns don’t have to be grammatical, but can reflect cultural ideas – and to recognise that they’re present in the first place, let alone analyse them, you have to be familiar with the culture that produced the text. What so struck me about Paul’s work was the way he uses his experience as a gay man to research from within. He does not shed his identity as a gay man in order to pursue an impossible notion of objectivity – instead, it is his very subjectivity that makes it such an illuminating piece of work.

Finally, I believe that activism can help us become more compassionate academics – more open and aware of others’ experiences, more ready to accept others’ realities. Patricia O’Connor argues this when she says “Activist linguistics, as I see it, does not mean that the researcher skew her or his findings to support one group or one ideology or another. Nor does it mean that a famous linguist use her or his fame to support causes. Rather, an activist linguistics calls for researchers to remain connected to the communities in which they research, returning to those settings to apply the knowledge they have generated for the good of the community and to deepen the research through expansion or focus”

I wrote a chunk of my PhD in a university occupation. As an activist, I think I offer a much greater understanding of the frustration when peaceful direct action – petitions, meetings, lobbying – doesn’t get you anywhere. The women I studied for my PhD had campaigned peacefully for over 30 years before developing militant tactics! I got a better sense of the courage it took to take part in protests when it might lead to violence against you. I hope that this is reflected in my writing. It’s easy to judge people or campaigns for not making the same decisions as you would, but my activist experience highlighted what a difficult context suffrage campaigners worked in and the sometimes impossible decisions we have to make.

I’m still developing my new project on trans media representation, but I aim to be the kind of researcher Patricia talks about – connected to the community and using what I find for its good. I want my work to stand up to scrutiny from both activists and academic researchers. As I hope I’ve shown, I believe academia and activism can combine to create something better than their parts.

[1] I expanded on this in the discussion: there are huge barriers to activism in the form of finances, access to transport, access to childcare, education, dis/ability, having an already marginalised identity and more – I’d love to discuss this further in the comments.

References:

Baker, P. (2005). Public Discourses of Gay Men. London: Routledge.
O’Connor, P. E. (2003). “Activist Sociolinguistics in a Critical Discourse Analysis Perspective”. In G. Weiss and R. Wodak (Eds) Critical Discourse Analysis: Theory and Interdisciplinarity. Basingstoke: Paulsgrave Macmillan
Titman, N. (2014, 16 December). “How many people in the United Kingdom are nonbinary?”. Retrieved from http://practicalandrogyny.com/2014/12/16/how-many-people-in-the-uk-are-nonbinary/

Where are our elders?

[content warning: discussion of homo-, bi- and transphobia, racism, domestic abuse and suicide. I’ve tried to keep these fairly non-explicit; the reports I link to go into more detail]

This is a write up of a short talk I gave at the final conference of the ESRC seminar series ‘Minding the Knowledge Gaps: older lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans lives’. The organising team and I have been having an involved discussion since my first post and they were kind enough to invite me to speak as part of the summaries of previous events.

In this talk I discuss lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer (LGBTQ) identities, Black and minority ethnic (BME) identities and ageing identities. I ask what it means to live at the centre of these overlapping identities and look at how we can extrapolate some issues from what we know about overlaps of age and LGBTQ identities, age and BME identities, and LGBTQ and BME identities. However, this is by no means a perfect solution because it misses that complex intersections bring their own unique issues – there is effectively a known unknown about the experiences of older LGBTQ people from BME backgrounds, and I want to highlight that.

Intersectionality

Very basically, intersectionality is the concept that we have multiple identities and that these identities overlap and inform each other.

age, BME and LGBTQ venn diagram

Here’s a diagram to show these intersections a bit more clearly.There are three coloured circles: a blue circle representing people’s LGBTQ identities, a red circle representing people’s identities as older people and elders, and a yellow circle representing people’s BME identities.

Overlaps of age, LGBTQ and BME identities

When these identities overlap, they create something new. The purple overlap shows the interaction of ageing and LGBTQ identities, the green overlap shows the interaction of LGBTQ and BME identities and the orange overlap shows the interaction of ageing and BME identities. At the very centre is a space where all three factors interact: age, LGBTQ and BME.

We don’t know much about the people who occupy this really complex space. Roshan das Nair talks about “levels and layers of invisibility” and of each factor – age, sexuality and race – all contributing to invisibility. However, intersections change the experience of “being” – of accessing care, of forming relationships with other people, of moving through and understanding (and being understood by) the world. As this seminar series has strikingly shown, being an older LGBTQ person is not the same as being an older heterosexual and cisgender person. And being an older LGBT person from a BME background is not the same as being an older LGBT person from a white background

LGBTQ and BME

While there is a paucity of information on the unique issues faced by older LGBTQ BME people, there is research on ageing LGBTQ people as showcased in this seminar series, on BME LGBTQ people, and on ageing BME people.

Two current projects highlight some of the issues for people who are both BME and from sexual and gender minorities. A Public Health England report on the health and wellbeing of BME men who have sex with men highlighted that:

  • Black men who have sex with men are 15 times more likely to have HIV than general population
  • a third of Asian men and mixed ethnicity men have experienced domestic abuse since the age of 16 compared to one in five of white gay and bisexual men
  • significantly higher rates of suicide, self-harm and mental illness

A recent focus group held by the Race Equality Foundation on the experience of being black and minority ethnic and trans* highlighted that people experienced:

  • religious communities overlapped with ethnic communities, and losing one often meant losing the other
  • racism in LGBT communities and homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in ethnic communities
  • cultural assumptions and racism when accessing healthcare

The last point had particular repercussions for Black and minority ethnic trans people seeking to access hormonal and/or surgical interventions for gender dysphoria through Gender Identity Clinics (GICs). Respondents to the Trans Mental Health Survey often found it difficult to access treatment through GICs, with one respondent describing it as “a paternalistic gatekeeping exercise where psychiatrists exercise inappropriate levels of control over the lives and choices of patients”. Another described clinics as having “very rigid ideas of masculinity and femininity”. This affects Black and minority ethnic people if genders in their culture do not map onto gendered expectations in white UK culture. BME trans people also encountered assumptions about family (for example, what does “being out to your family” look like if you have a huge extended family or if “kinship” doesn’t neatly map onto “family”?), assumptions about transphobia in their families, and poor understanding of non-binary genders.

Age and BME

Research on older BME people tended to show that people were affected by health issues occurring at different times (e.g. diabetes and high blood pressure). Black and minority ethnic people may have complex issues around mental health and accessing services. Some communities may stigmatise mental health issues. African and Caribbean men are “under-represented as users of enabling services and over-represented in the population of patients who are admitted to, compulsorily detained in, and treated by mental health services”. As this report on older South Asian communities in Bradford discusses, how families live together is changing. However, there is still an expectation that the extended family will care for elders; this role often falls to younger women in the family. This study also reported that South Asian communities often found accessing care difficult for a huge range of reasons – cultural differences, a lack of cultural competency in service provision, language difficulties, attitudes of staff, differing expectations by both service users and service providers, location of services, gender roles within the family and the role of different children and siblings.

It is also important to recognise the diversity of BME experiences. There are some BME communities that have been settled in the UK for decades, if not centuries. There are South Asian people who migrated to the UK as young adults in the 1970s and who are now reaching retirement age. There are older people who accompanied their family members. There are more recent immigrants. There are people who live with the trauma of fleeing their home and seeking asylum. The term “Black and ethnic minority” itself covers a huge range of people from all over the world, all with different experiences.

Extrapolations

As I wrote earlier, there are going to be known unknowns – without talking to people, we cannot know about the unique, unexpected issues created when identities intersect. However, I think that the research on LGBTQ and BME communities, the research on older LGBTQ people, and the research on older BME people can hint at some issues.

Older LGBTQ people report different kinship structures, the existence of chosen families and possible lack of children. I wonder how this works for older BME LGBTQ people whose cultures may strongly support care of elders within the extended family (and who dislike the idea of care homes or care workers coming into their homes) but who may be estranged from their family and don’t have children.

I can imagine that there are really complex issues around mental health in communities that are more likely to experience mental health issues but who may also have negative experiences of accessing services or who may feel shame about doing so.

Older BME LGBTQ people may have complex histories of violence. As Public Health England reports, gay and bisexual men from BME backgrounds are more like to have experienced domestic abuse. Other BME LGBTQ people may have sought asylum due to violence in their home countries. What might their care needs be?

I wonder about older BME LGBTQ people continuing to face racism in LGBTQ spaces and homo-, bi- and transphobia in BME spaces as they age and these spaces change. This seminar series has discussed older LGBTQ people’s fears about prejudice in care homes; older BME LGBTQ people in care homes may fear a double whammy of prejudice.

Where are our elders?

I argue that there is an absence of older, LGBTQ BME voices in research about older LGBTQ people’s experiences. As researchers, we don’t know much about the issues faced by those in this intersection – as I’ve shown above, we can guess some of them. However, the nature of intersectionality means that there are some issues that will be unique to this group and that we cannot predict.

This is not to say that older BME LGBTQ people do not exist – rather, that we have to do better at reaching out to these communities. I suspect that research into the experiences of older BME LGBTQ people has to be carried out by people from BME LGBTQ backgrounds. My experience of younger BME LGBTQ spaces is that community members are fiercely protective of the tiny spaces they are able to carve out for themselves and they do not want to be observed as a “learning experience” for White straight cis people. It is crucial to recognise that, and crucial to be able to respect how rare and precious these spaces are.

This absence of visible older, LGBTQ BME voices also has implications for younger BME LGBTQ people. Out of the many trans people I know, I can only think of three who are BME and over the age of 40. 40 should not be considered old – and yet. A US study reveals that the attempted suicide rate for multiracial transgender people is 33 times higher than for the general population. Andre Lorde’s litany, “we were never meant to survive”, has a heartbreaking resonance.

As a younger Asian queer person, I want to meet my elders. I want to know that it’s possible to be an older BME LGBTQ person. I want to be able to see some of the possibilities, to see that there are people living lives that are true to their identities. I want to listen to their rich histories and hard-won wisdom. I want to know that we can survive.

Our elders are so important, and their lack of visibility is so sorely felt.

Representation of the British Suffrage Movement

Representation of the British Suffrage MovementYou have no idea how long I’ve been sitting on this, but last week I sent off the manuscript so I’m pretty confident it’s going to happen!

Representation of the British Suffrage Movement will be published by Bloomsbury in early 2015 as part of the Corpus and Discourse series. It goes without saying that I’m very pleased to be bringing suffragists, suffragettes, direct action, Deleuze and Guattari, issues of newsworthiness, and arson to the world in time for the centenary of the Representation of the People Act 1918.

The white male professor is in

Perhaps presciently, in my penultimate post I noted that “[a]s a student, I have never been taught by someone with a non-European non-white background – and when I teach, I am incredibly aware that this may have been the case for my students”. This week, UCU released a report focusing on women and Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) professors:

UCU summary
Report: The position of women and BME staff in professorial roles in UK HEIs (pdf)
Guardian: The university professor is always white

Some of the figures they highlight include:

  • Just one in five professors are women, despite making up almost half the non-professorial academic workforce
  • Just one in 14 professors (7.3%) are from a black and minority ethnic (BME) background
  • White applicants are three times more likely to get a professorial post than BME applicants

Naturally, I find these figures troubling – and, if I’m honest, not a little dispiriting.

The UCU report notes that BME UK nationals are particularly underrepresented – unfortunately, their data isn’t presented in a particularly helpful way to interpret this. Universities are brilliant places for worldwide collaboration and I’ve been lucky enough to work with people from all over the world. However, I do think it’s worth focusing on UK nationals because it highlights failings in our own education system and university recruitment processes. Appointing more international BME academics would be great for diversity but I’m also concerned that it would lead to universities failing to take a very careful look at recruitment of UK BME academics and the barriers that stand in their way.

As a recent example, this article on discrepancies in attainment between BME and white students was published two months ago. I find that really troubling – to me, if this is happening across an entire cohort of students, it suggests that something is going wrong at an institutional level. And crucially, if BME students are leaving university without the Firsts and 2.1s necessary for postgraduate study, that suggests problems for a future generation of UK BME academics – namely, that they won’t be there.

There are a few points I’d like to make about the report.

  • Firstly, while the UCU breaks down figures into “Black”, “Asian”, “Chinese”, “Other Asian” and “Other” it’s not clear how these groups are defined – who, exactly, is included in the “Other” groups? The terminology itself is…less than sensitive (we’ve heard of post-colonialism and Othering yeah?). For that matter, it’s not clear who’s included in the “Asian” category – I’m assuming people of Indian origin, but what about people of Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan origin? To me, there’s a lack of clarity about who was included in the report.
  • Secondly, this is the sort of area where an intersectional analysis would be really helpful; basically, what happens to applicants who are BME and women? Is their experience of institutional discrimination on two fronts reflected in their employment rates, or is something else happening?
  • Thirdly, a breakdown by subject area and discipline would be beneficial. My gut instinct is that STEM subjects might be a bit better than art and humanities at employing Asian and Chinese professors, but without data I’m wary of generalising in such a way.

I think this is a useful starting point but there are so many questions this report doesn’t answer. It’s clear that there is massive underrepresentation of women and BME academics at the highest level of academia – are universities going to do anything about that?

P.S. Thank you Nina Simone

Open Access

Today the government announced that publicly funded scientific research should be publicly available for free. In principle, I think moving to an open access system is a good thing. However, like many others, I have reservations about the type of OA the Finch report recommends. Mark Carrigan has an extensive round-up of coverage and reaction and has a set of slides giving a good overview of the situation.

As Steven Harnad of LSE writes,

There are two ways for authors to make their research OA. One way is to publish it in an OA journal, which makes it free online. This is called “Gold OA.” There are currently about 25,000 peer-reviewed journals, across all disciplines, worldwide. Most of them (about 90 per cent) are not Gold. Some Gold OA journals (mostly overseas national journals) cover their publication costs from subscriptions or subsidies, but the international Gold OA journals charge the author an often sizeable fee (£1000 or more).

The other way for authors to make their research OA is to publish it in the suitable journal of their choice, but to self-archive their peer-reviewed final draft in their institutional OA repository to make it free online for those who lack subscription access to the publisher’s version of record. This is called “Green OA.”

As Beverly Gibbs writes, the high cost of Article Processing Fees places a structural barrier for early career researchers trying to get their work published. Martin Eve asks whether “publisher boycotts [will] offer up at least one generation of early-career researchers to the sacrificial slaughter so that the cycle can either be broken or, more likely, continue once more”. And Mark Carrigan wonders about the researchers who can’t pay.

As someone working in Arts and Humanities, I’m worried that the way we do research and publish means I’ll find it harder to get Article Processing Fees funded. Unlike other disciplines, we’re less likely to work in groups with a big name attracting the funding and I’m curious as to how this will affect early stage researchers trying to publish single authored work. If there is only limited money in the pot, then as a lowly PhD researcher I’m not sure how I’m meant to compete with far more experienced and higher ranking academics.

However, I am glad that academia is finally having this discussion. I’ve been interested in creative commons, copyleft and open access for about a decade now, and the current model of academic publishing has been a constant source of frustration. One of the things that shocked me when entering university as an undergraduate was how locked academic publishing is – it seemed years behind the open licensing I’d encountered online and it was an unpleasant surprise to suddenly come up against such restrictions.

The practice of accessing journals on behalf of friends in other institutions who don’t subscribe to that journal seems pretty pervasive, and I wonder just how widespread this is. It suggests that while publishers try their hardest to restrict access, academics are willing to find ways around these restrictions. In light of this, I wonder how much loyalty academics feel towards the current publishing model, particularly PhD researchers and early career researchers who have grown up with filesharing, peer-to-peer networks and alternative licensing systems.

While Gold OA seems problematic, I don’t think the wider issue of open access to research will – or, indeed, can – go away.

Queer-positive teaching

Me painting a placard

Photo by Laura Dunn

Last Thursday was IDAHO/IDAHoT/IDAHoBiT – International Day Against Homophobia. IDAHO started as a day to commemorate the World Health Organisation’s decision to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders; it is now a campaign calling for the international decriminalisation of homosexuality and to combat homophobia, biphobia and transphobia (hence the different acronyms). I spent the day with Warwick Pride, first on the panel for a Trans* Q+A and then listening to speakers from Movement for Justice.

Meanwhile, Helen Finch was discussing how we, as academics and tutors, can “foster a queer-positive environment at work” and in research. I’m a tutor – but I’ve also been a Trans* Welfare Officer, am involved with LGBT activism, been involved with LGBT student groups and the NUS LGBT campaign and yes, almost ten years ago, was that rather anxious student feeling very invisible and very alone.

As Paul Baker observes, LGBTQA students face additional pressures at university and are at increased risk of dropping out. As someone who’s been involved in LGBT student welfare from within the student union and has responded to more than a few concerns about homophobia, transphobia and biphobia in teaching environments, I was determined to bring this awareness to my teaching. I’ve written about a few key points that I find helpful to remember.

– Assume nothing. Never assume that everyone in your seminar room, lecture hall or lab is straight, cisgendered, or, for want of a better term, sexual. It’s easy to assume you aren’t teaching any LGBTQA students just because they don’t conform to what you expect an LGBTQA student to look like, but I assure you, they are there. LGBTQA students have families and friends, and you might be teaching them too.

– Avoid heteronormativity. Heteronormativity aligns biological sex (itself a problematic concept), sexuality, gender identity, and gender roles into one rather messy whole. It’s a constant and pervasive thing – you probably encounter it every day in advertising, in magazines and newspapers, on the TV and even in things like dress codes and casual conversation with strangers. Heteronormativity isn’t just harmful to LGBTQA people; Meg Barker wrote about it in a blog post and outlines the damage it causes to people inside and outside it. If you can, challenge these norms – but at the very least, don’t support them.
Things you can do include not assuming that all your female students are interested in male partners and all your male students are interested in female partners. Things like jokey comments along the lines of “typical man”, “that’s something a woman would say” or heteronormative assumptions about women all liking shoes and men all liking sports seem harmless, but can be alienating for students who don’t conform to those ideas. If possible, (gently) challenge these if they come from your students. If your examples involve people and relationships, don’t base them all around heterosexuality. I was checking a book (Paul Baker and Sibonile Ellece’s Key Terms in Discourse Analysis) for a definition and saw that the example was “Carol kissed Mary”. The concept it was illustrating – that of semantic role – could just as easily been illustrated by “Dan kissed Mary”. But if “Dan kissed Mary” is acceptable, why shouldn’t “Carol kissed Mary” be acceptable? It’s a small thing, but seeing their identity and relationships reflected in teaching material can be really important for LGBTQA students.

– Avoid cisnormativity – the assumption that everyone’s gender identity corresponds to that which they were assigned at birth, or, indeed, which is on their university records. As one of my many jobs, I work as an IELTS invigilator. Exam candidates have to shade in a box for whether they are male or female, and one of the invigilators I work with used to comment, every time, that “this should be the easiest question of the day” for them. For some people, it’s not an easy question – they may not be out as trans, they may not be able to change their legal gender, or, in the case of non-binary gendered, genderqueer and agendered people, there may not be a legal gender for them to change to. While the Higher Education Statistics Authority (HESA) have revised the way gender will be recorded in their new gender and sex categories for student records within Higher Education, it’s still important to remember that students may ask you to call them by a different name or use different pronouns than those in their student records. To me, it also means bringing an awareness of the fluidity and diversity of gender to my teaching and so acknowledging that these are complicated things.

– Acknowledge queer scholarship – probably one more relevant for arts, humanities and social sciences although I’d love to hear if/how scientists, mathematicians, engineers and others do this. Helen suggested “contextualis[ing] sexuality and gender as discursively formed and historically understood” in literature studies; there’s some interesting discussions in bioarchaeology about “gay” cavemen; there are debates in history about whether various historical figures were gay (and what we mean by “gay”), such as Christabel Pankhurst. One of the seminars I taught this term was on language and gender, and I tried to lead my students from thinking about “women’s language” to thinking about where men and women learn language, then to looking at short extracts from anonymised conversations and guessing what genders the speakers were, then to thinking about the way power was enacted and negotiated in these exchanges and how this affected what gender the speakers were read as. In my case, there’s a rich vein of queer linguistics that informed my teaching and judging from the conversations during the seminar, the students seemed to find it an exciting and challenging way to think about gender.

There’s lots of other issues involved in this; one of the things Helen touched on was whether to out yourself when teaching. In my case, my decision to go to a couple of student LGBT events – I’m still a research student after all – meant that if any of my students were there, they would have seen me. I made a deliberate decision not to go to any drinking student LGBT events, partly because I don’t have time for hangovers but also because I want my students to have fun, do some silly and/or inadvisable things if they so desire, and enjoy their first year at university without worrying about being seen by their tutor. I’d probably feel a bit conflicted if I saw one of them get kicked out of the NG1 toilets or something!

I’m still pretty new at teaching though, so if you’ve got any advice or comments I’d be really interested in hearing them.