1st February, 2023
Transitioning Beyond Academia
Dr Gemma Outen
18th August, 2021
Let me welcome you back to reflect on a piece of work that started centuries ago even if my part in it surfaced during recent decades and more specifically has called to you through The Culture Capital Exchange in these past months.
A window was opened for me by TCCE at the end of May. My precarious university research position with its promise of global data collection came to an abrupt end. The pandemic had been allowed to spread freely. The recalculated risks to releasing international development research funding had put me out. Outside of my office, outside of the academy and out of a job. I wasn’t alone in this and yet I felt a numbing isolation. Then May 25th arrived. Social media burnt up with eight minutes and forty-six seconds of unbearable brutality. A stunned world watched the life being squeezed from a man, an ordinary American man, an ordinary Black American man. I felt the tightness and the choking rise up like so many other black and brown women who read (because I never will watch the video) that George Floyd called for his mum with his last breaths,. I feel that uncontrollable tightening in my throat again as I write. This is my whole being as a mother, wishing I had been there to save him, knowing I have no power to save my own children, clear that my racialised self is still a traumatised child.
What can you do when the comfortable container you live in surrounded by caring white friends, family and associates no longer contains any air? Perhaps you look for a window to open or make a window or seek out others who can show you to a window they have found. A combination of these brought me to this moment in time, to this window. And now I am reflecting with you on my experience of meeting and joining with so many generous and nurturing female academics, researchers and creative producers of colour, who are much more than that description. Even as I picture them all, from across four events, Zoom meetings, phone calls and emails, I am smiling. The salve and nourishment brought by these connections are felt on the skin and in the body. They may never be fully captured within ‘a community of practice’ or a ‘levelling up agenda.’ They make our minds immune to the teleological suspension of reality that is required to engage with epistemology. It’s not that I wish to reject all academic practice. However, I am recognising that as Giroux (2006) suggests, its colonisation works against humanity and freedom. Perhaps for those of us who have witnessed or engaged in the misrepresentation of life by the epistemological paradigm, we feel and see how it characterises so many people as having no place in the future and having no past (Giroux 2006). However, being always a little on the outside, watching yourself ‘perform’, being compliant and activist at the same time, makes it possible, it would seem, for so many of those I have connected with over the year, to be simultaneously of the academy and critiques of it, often at our peril.
When the understanding brought by fresh air through this window fully surfaced, I wrote the brief creative response that follows. Beyond honouring the collective wisdom, I had drawn upon from the near and distant past and beyond acknowledging the harm I have caused through mistakes I have learnt from and grown through in this work, I hoped this piece would be viewed as an attempt at deepening our conversations. I wanted to make the many beginnings of these equity and social justice TCCE events more tangible so that they might open other windows to the future or to dimensions where knowledge, understanding, experience and practice come together as a greater reality. The invitation for others to respond was made boldly and tentatively. Clearly, everyone is time pressured. Those of us with the privilege of working from home have perhaps forsaken any ‘work life balance’ and are just at work. Most importantly, writing even small reflections on equity and social justice thinking, action or experiences, expends immense emotional labour because this work comes from a place of truth.
Below are responses generously received from Mata Ayoub, ‘The post-race university thrives in ‘third space,’’ Dr Jo Ronan ‘Losses or Gains?’ and further reading and media from Dr Erinma Ochu. The pieces speak for themselves. The conversations and work continues.
The post-race university thrives in ‘third space’, by Mata Ayoub
Universities and academic life are becoming more complex and differentiated spaces. In Higher Education, learners are bombarded with metanarratives such as ‘Knowledge as a good in itself’ ‘Transferable Skills’, ‘Employability’, ’loaded acronyms such as REF, TEF, KEF, against which staff and students measure their hopes and aspirations.
Furthermore, the difficulty lies in the realisation that attempts to put stories in an orderly manner are impossible, (except in novels), for they speak to differing aspirations that lead us into multiple directions and perspectives. Frameworks which were previously thought incontestable are now open to challenge in a postmodern world. Within the postmodern university Knowledge becomes ’knowledges’ it splits apart, and individuals are exposed to substantial epistemological upheaval. Preparing students and staff to respond to a future that cannot yet be known or imagined is a necessary requirement for institutions of learning. If universities are to prepare students for an unknown world, then pedagogy needs to engage everyone as persons not merely as ‘knowers’.
Moreover, in this context, the idea of universities as a ‘Third Space’ appears relevant. This ‘Third Space’ offers a place to resist conventional understandings, norms and binary opposites. Safety can be found in the way that the space provides retreat from organisational pressures to develop ideas, experiment and build new relationships. Projects are the way that unbounded professionals like me are prepared to work with uncertainty, provisionality, and complexity. The purpose of ‘educere’ needs to be not just the enterprise of teaching and learning, research and skills development, but also to empower all to make the best of their given situations in life.
Losses or Gains? By Dr Jo Ronan
I didn’t see the envy
I only saw the smile
I didn’t clock the calculation
I only clocked the care
I didn’t think to suspect
I only thought to trust
I have aspiration
But no ambition
I have intelligence
But no confidence
I have knowledge
But no power
He, the supervisor
I, the student
He, the man
I, the woman,
The student provokes
The supervisor gains
The student submits
The supervisor publishes
The student discovers
The supervisor denies
“I go down a different route
I use different theorists
Why should I mention you?”
“Your route follows mine
My theorists challenge yours
Why am I omitted?”
“Theft is theft,
I am the originator,
You will confess”.
“This is not theft,
I am entitled to steal,
I will not confess”.
The many laws of copyright,
The three laws of the dialectic.
“The third law can guide you,
The negation is the solution
This book is not you
Find you again, with another”
The student becomes the supervisor’s teacher,
He resists learning from her.
She takes him into her world,
He denies her daily erasure.
Unable to teach him the laws of the dialectic,
She turns to the laws of the state.
The institution and the supervisor
They must erase her,
To protect their funding,
She refuses to be erased.
She is equal to him.
She is equal to the institution.
Legal negotiations begin,
The bargaining of justice,
Inevitably ends in deadlock.
Never expecting the student
To assert her rights this way
Liability is calculated.
Unable to refute or concede,
The institution looks to the Courts,
To preserve their reputation
The institution rejects learning,
But the supervisor can still learn.
She takes him into her world again,
She points out her daily erasure,
He sees her fight to be equal,
He sees her pain at his betrayal.
Her brown skin, my white
She the woman, I the man
She the student, I the supervisor
I the thief, she the victim
My unfair gain must turn into loss,
My loss restores her worth.
She sees his envy ebb,
She sees a different smile,
She begins to forgive,
She begins to heal,
She learns to trust again,
She learns to live equal to others.
Author’s Note: Slavoj Žižek describes Friedrich Engels’ “law of the negation of the negation” as “the negative move (loss, withdrawal) itself generates what it negates”
Li, Y. L., Oliver, R., Bretscher, H. and Ochu, E. (2020). Racism, Equity and inclusion in Research Funding. Science in Parliament, 76(4), pp17-19.
Edge, D., Alston, J. and Ochu, E. (2020). ‘Scientific Racism’ and structural inequalities: implications for researching black mental health. Science in Parliament, 76(4), pp19-22.
Uchegbu, I.F. (2020). Ethnic Diversity in Science: why we need ethnic diversity in science. Science in Parliament, 76(4), pp23-26.
Jebsen, J.M., Abbott, C., Oliver, R. Ochu, E., Jayasinghe, I. and Gauchotte-Lindsay, C. (2020). A Review of Barriers Women Face in Research Funding Processes in the UK. Psychology of Women and Equalities Review Accepted.
Mackay, A.W., Adger, D., Bond, A.L. Giles, S and Ochu, E.E. (2019). Straight-washing ecological legacies. Nat Ecol Evol 3, 1611 https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-019-1025-9
Gold, M. & Ochu, E. (2017) Creative collaboration in citizen science and the evolution of ThinkCamp events: A European Citizen Science Association Case Study. In: A. Bonn et al (Eds). Citizen Science: Innovation in Open Science, Society and Policy. London: UCL Press.
Ochu, E. (2018) The Dream Life of Digital: in search of lost purpose. In: J.Condie and C. Costa (Eds). Doing research in and on the digital: research methods across fields of inquiry. Routledge. pp. 170-188.
A Time of Reckoning for Equality and Diversity, by Pauline Rutter
This short piece is the preamble to a longer hypothetical interpretation of UKRIs 2020 guidance on nominating bodies for REF 2021 panel membership. However, it could have been a creative reflection on any one of a number of similar documents urgently in need of reframing within an equity imperative. Without this, how can full accountability be assured for public investment in and allocation of research funding, for the setting of strategic research priorities, or even for the scrutiny of accepted approaches to incentivising HEI research and individual researcher excellence? By stepping back momentarily from the corporate accounting of such human endeavour and into a creative and cultural perception of what might be known or understood through its enactment, space has been made for this tentative experimental response to a type of equality and diversity script. It is bathed in the light of theory that captures human experience both quantitatively and qualitatively. Take a document bind it to the realities of female scholars, researchers, creatives and diversity practitioners of colour, and capture the alternative meanings revealed by this interlocking. It is a small act of inquiry. However, does it offer clarity on what has been constructed and upheld by the instructive language for doing equality, diversity and inclusion? Perhaps this meditation itself allows new transformative perspectives to materialise while still grounded by undeniable data about the persistent inequalities experienced by many ethnic minority researchers. At this moment, then, the focus is race equality even though the construct of race shows up as a deep colonial scar still attached to linguistic imperialism.
Last year I began a journey of connections without knowing the ultimate destination. I have followed theory and practice that signpost equity, and reveal paths of social justice that have almost been lost within higher education through erasure or obscurification. I have discovered those who do not concede to environments where activist, academic and other kinds of intellectual work are viewed as being separable. Their collective wisdom guides this journey and cites black female academics many of whom are trying to survive the precarious pandemic working conditions while also reaching out to their marginalised students and communities. I pause and write some words in a moment of reflective stillness. Not designing, not developing, not doing, but warmly reconnecting with the insights of those whose voices are often muted or constrained.
In December 2020, the first creative writing session lead by author and academic Olumide Popoola, embraced some of the characteristics and markers of voice, language and connection. An embodied understanding of restrictive power dynamics, limiting stereotypes and the desire to thrive in the research space, then inhabited the second event, a mini assembly with guest speakers Nike Jonah, Sadhvi Dar, Deborah Brewis and Erinma Ochu. This unearthing revealed some of the hidden challenges within the higher education and creative research landscape and asked when are we ever safe to do our best and most passionate work? A final event will consider the resources and behaviours beyond those currently distributed, that would seed an equity of belonging, curiosity, responsive knowledge more bountiful inclusive support for excellence and unconditional nurturing relationships.
What does the time of reckoning feel like when separate worlds collide? This is a question I am repeatedly asking as I draw together the promises and obligations of those equality bodies internal and external to the academy with the marginalised academic communities wounded by their own efforts for inclusion yet still calling for emotional and professional repair. Institutional racism does exist. Months later and I am in deep water, wading through the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) ethnicity analysis of funding applicants and awardees, the Race Equality Charter guidelines and the EDI documentation of thirty UK universities highly rated within the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings for Sustainable Development Goal 10 ‘Reduced Inequalities.’ What does it all add up to? My head slips under, the weight of evidence and methodology pulling me down below the surface. “I can’t breathe”. On the shore so many female academics of colour have gathered. They have fashioned a paper lifeboat of published journal articles, thousands of pages lightly glued to each other. They have filled the sail with their breath and even now are pulling me from the inky depths with a lifeline woven from unconditional care. I deserve to be rebuked for entering those waters alone and this is my reprimand spoken with gentleness.
“The post-race university does not exist. We have called to you from the warmth of our corners, where our smoke signs to each other signal how we create beyond the moment we are in and move purposely within it. We have shown how our deliberate bodies travel with stealth and facts to set irresistible revolutionary offerings on the academy’s’ table, one dish at a time. Look here, a space for our voices and there many woven props close to buckling under the weight of our curtailed creative freedom. Time is passing while we terra form a nurturing landscape with embodied knowledge and share collaborative tools learnt in our communities but without a currency of their own to buy their way in. Some of us are indeed imagining ingenious floating platforms for others who have seen their cognitive labour decoupled from the social justice spectrum and its intersectional meaning drowned in the lake of hollow policy and procedures. Still “Knowledge is Power” Let the wounded rest and the fallen be saved in our hearts and minds.
I try another route from knowing to understanding. This time I take the lightest manuscript of reconfigured equality deliberations to the top of Thundersbarrow Hill on the South Downs and speak the acronymic instructions to the elements. At first, I’m choking on words not formed in the mouth for speaking. Once released, however, they merge with the testimony on my lips, of those who have resisted being dismantled during unintentionally fragmented academic lives and whose truth has been trampled. Unwritten words like ‘whiteness, racism and white privilege,’ perhaps still too emotive for the illustrated PDF reports. There is nothing rational, only procedural in the conjured templates of equality guidelines. The metrics will not warm the heart in this landscape. The green swell of the rolling hills takes no position on how anonymity makes data equitable and easier to digest. As the sun dips, I breath in cooler air and a lightness settles my thoughts on something more speculative. A love poem for the time of reckoning.
1st February, 2023
Dr Gemma Outen
6th October, 2022
Molly Shepherd and Elizabeth Woolley, Founders The Creative Comfort Company
19th July, 2022
Dr Mark Gray Pro-Vice Chancellor & Director, Knowledge Transfer, Middlesex University
6th April, 2022
6th April, 2022
2nd March, 2022
Luba Elliott, Curator & Honorary Senior Research Fellow, UCL Centre for Artificial Intelligence