This year’s S&CGRG annual lecture in June focused on the question of when, where and why human geographers might be, or feel out of place. Instead of a single lecture, this year we had a panel that included Rhiannon Pugh (Örebro University), Hannah Martin (Northumbria University), Cheryl Gowar (National Aids Trust) and Matt Ballie-Smith (Northumbria University).
Throughout the day’s events discussion focused on the varied and often intersectional factors which might make someone feel in or out of place in the academic workplace. Feelings of placelessness might be experienced in spaces of higher education, in departments of geography or in other related fields. Factors highlighted included, but were not limited to:
– Employment history
– Research specialism
During the reading group we reflected on “Glass ceilings and stone floors: an intersections approach to challenges UK geographers face across the career lifecycle” by Maddrell, Thomas and Wyse (Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography 101.1 (2019): 7-20). The authors outline what can be done by senior managers/academics who have some degree of power through strategic and managerial decisions. But what about early and early-mid career scholars with comparatively little power?
Reflecting on this we recognised that this group of people have relatively more power than colleagues on precarious contracts, but perhaps less influence over strategic decisions than more senior academics. Those on more precarious contracts often felt they must tow the line, as opposed to speaking out against injustices in the workplace, as this could harm their chances of better or even renewed contracts. However, participants acknowledged that we do have power in everyday practice. Building on discussions during the annual lecture day and since, we want to put forward some guideposts for an ethics of everyday practice that can help make sure our workplaces are more inclusive and encouraging of diversity.
Below we put forward a few ideas about how we can act within domains of action where we have some degree of power: writing, research, teaching, collegiality. We should recognise that these choices are constrained at various times and in different contexts, and it is unrealistic to expect all our practice to be in resistance because of the costs it takes on us individually even in the most supportive of environments (e.g. time, energy, mental health, other commitments etc.). Further, the increasing pressure placed upon us in an increasingly time-pressured neo-liberal academy means there is a cost involved in developing more progressive practice when they run counter to managerialist approaches.
How can we use our practice to help address the problems outlined above?
Who we cite
In our design and delivery of modules we can decide who to include on reading lists and as authors who to cite in our writing. We can choose to balance references to address gender biases, cite scholars from BAME backgrounds and people working beyond dominant (often Anglo-American) discourses. This might help remind us to ‘not forget half the human’ of human geography (Monk and Hanson, 1982, The Professional Geographer). In doing so, we can make this this explicit to students in teaching and supervision, outlining the reasons for it to highlight the unequal production of knowledge.
We can avoid over-privileging canonical work that is exclusive of diverse geographies and geographies of difference (i.e. what feminist economic geographer(s) J.K. Gibson-Graham refer to as “capitalocentric Marxism”). This may require explaining to reviewers and editors, in responses to reviews, that you chose not to cite particular work.
We can undertake strategic refusal of repeat offenders (i.e. senior academics who have shown their inability or unwillingness to change their exclusive behaviour) by not citing them and not inviting them to give talks. In their place, early career scholars could be invited (and costs covered to support those with no or limited access to research funds).
What we teach
Again, our curriculum must not encourage a-theoretical or a-political approaches to understanding social realities (as critical as human geography can be, programmes exist where a-theoretical and a-political positions are encouraged). We insist on a problem-based curriculum, rooted in philosophy of social justice. We should help students develop the skills to critique and identify problems and to critique us (the teachers) at the same time. At the same time they should have the freedom to explore their own concerns and politics.
Who we research with
We suggest including an ECR as part of the writing process and adding them as Co-Is on research bids, not just as post-docs/research assistants. If you have a post-doc lined up for a project, why not include them as a Co-I from the start? Academics on precarious contracts are often excluded from applying to research funding when the eligibility criteria are that applicants be on permanent contracts. This is a regressive policy that is prohibitive to the reproduction of the academic labour force.
How we recruit and nurture post-graduates and early career researchers
There is value in drawing from broader cohorts and prospective student populations. Access schemes and foundation years may provide a way into degrees for students who face structural disadvantages in gaining required entry levels, but such pathways can increase debt on the very people least able to take on such burdens and for whom the spectre of increased debt is a discouragement to entering higher education. We should acknowledge that performance in A-levels is not the only way to identify ability, critical thinking and potential, and post-16 qualifications are not necessarily good predictors of degree-level performance. We can also recognise that critical skills don’t just exist within the academy. There is real value in recognising the value of practitioner, experiential and other forms of knowledge for students and staff.
We should all acknowledge the responsibility to help people develop, and that not everyone will have a ‘REF-ready’ CV; those people should be given the opportunity to develop and show their ability. Expecting that new lecturers come with articles that are internationally excellent or world leading is, frankly, ridiculous and exclusionary. Not every type of PhD provides article-suitable material and with limited time and often financial constraints, an expectation that students write articles alongside their thesis only encourages overworking (a wider problem in academia) without suitable adjustment to the design of a PhD work programme.
Everyday solidarity and adaptation to neoliberal tasks
Tasks which seem unnecessary, such as peer review of articles for an institution’s REF submission, or second marking, for example, are time consuming and can be frustrating. However, in the absence of realistic structural reform, they could be seen as opportunities for discussion of research and teaching, rather than onerous tasks to be resented and refused. In other words, if there is no way to refuse these tasks collectively and we are forced to do them, we can turn them into opportunity to engage with the philosophy of research, methodology, etc, which are necessary to our vocation but rarely fit into our official ‘work-loads’. We need to find ways to resist while not shifting additional work onto other colleagues. Recognising that withdrawing completely from a task on an individual basis creates more work for those not in the position to be able to withdraw from/refuse certain activities. Sometimes we have a responsibility to engage for the sake of others.
A final key action for an ethics of everyday practice is to address ways we make sure to welcome new staff and postgraduate candidates, particularly those from groups that are under-represented in the academy, and ensure a safe, welcoming and inclusive workplace for all.
For post-grads admitted to the programme, we must make sure to build their self-esteem by reminding them that they would not have been admitted if we weren’t already impressed with what they have achieved and with their potential. We can emphasize that the postgraduates are the ones that we look to for leading the way in new thinking for the disciplines; they are the ones to try out new experimental methods, theories, ideas, etc.
Academics should be supportive and encouraging of postgraduate development; this means not being overly critical of their students’ ideas. We should be there to help nurture ideas, not shoot-them down, especially in public settings where power differentials are keenly felt. This goes especially for ‘senior’ staff, who need to understand that academia can be very intimidating (especially for those who are ‘out of place’) and therefore they need to be extra attentive to this.
In short, we must encourage and create safe learning and collaboration spaces. This means, again, not getting carried away with negative critique/criticism and offering feedback in a constructive and supportive way. We should create spaces of generative engagement and encouragement, not combative competition to boost our own egos.
What are the costs of doing this?
The practices outlined above go some way to exercise the power we possess as scholars for progressive ends, but they are not cost-free or always easy to implement. Costs include:
• Additional time: tasks not aligned with university strategies are often not included in workloads. Finding non-canonical readings and examples initially takes additional time because we often weren’t taught them and they aren’t in the textbooks/special issues most easily accessible.
• Stress and anxiety: battling, arguing, and seeing your work not valued in the same way as others takes a toll. The cognitive dissonance and guilt of engaging in more ‘neo-liberal’ practices counter to your own ideology can be stressful.
• Reputational damage: gaining a reputation amongst managers, or even the wider community, as not working in line with institutional strategies (where management see people/groups as problems) or against hegemonic discourses influencing funding agendas can hurt employment prospects and other opportunities.
• Co-option: it can be de-moralising when work gets co-opted for purposes you don’t agree with e.g. it finds its way into proclamations from management to support their own agendas, or is mis-represented through media outlets.
We want to thank the panellists again for their contribution to this year’s event and for inspiring such a lively and worthwhile conversation. The points summarized here, we think, can inform future action that can help ensure that fewer and fewer will feel “out of place” in the spaces of higher education.