April 03, 2013

Academic privilege, or, a brief exercise in dispossession

Yesterday was the day my postgraduate student status expired - I'm now officially no longer a student! Which thus far, I must say, has been something of an exercise in dispossession. Suddenly my card expired and I now can't get into any buildings at Warwick, including the Library to access information or check out books. I went to go and sort it out with HR (since I'm still an employee of the university, after all), and I couldn't even get into the building in which HR is housed. Also, once I did get in, the HR receptionist was rather rude and condescending, her tone of voice implying that I'm somehow less than a full member of this little micro-society of the university, or that my struggle to get a working card was somhow less-than-legit.

So I know that this is a kind of uber-privileged example of dispossession and that many, many people have far worse problems (not least because of the Government's new welfare policies that started on Monday). But still, it has got me thinking about the notion of access, and how it feels not to have it. There's nothing like suddenly losing a privilege to make that privilege visible.

Maybe as part of a module on Power (which is my theme in the Gendered Knowledges project), we should consider doing some kind of experiment that makes each student's individual privileges visible by temporarily taking some of them away.

Clearly there are many privileges surrounding gender (and race, and sexuality, and various other markers of difference). Here's a great blog post that unpacks some of the privileges that many men take for granted. (This is itself a response to Peggy Macintosh's well-known list of white privileges.)

Perhaps we need to generate a similar list of privileges we have as academics. This is not trivial: we have access to all kinds of information and knowledge that others lack, and moreover academia is systematically rigged to keep 'others' out. I'll start:

1. We get to be called experts/authorities in our field. Quoting our written or verbal statements is considered by many (including students, news outlets and other academics) to be sufficient proof of a given fact or idea.

2. We have free access to authoritative information on an infinite variety of topics and issues.

3. Writings about power, access and privilege are often written/spoken in a language that only we are trained to understand.

4. We decide who is worthy of further access to privileges through the education we provide.

5. And indeed we set the standards by which our students (as well as those who have failed to become our students) often judge their own worth as individuals.

6. We (or at least those who are senior to myself) decide who is worthy of access to the privileges of academia itself - through hiring, peer reviewing, thesis examinations, etc.

7. We decide which texts (not just academic texts but also popular texts, films, images etc) are important and consequently which are canonised.

I'm sure there are many others - please list in the comments if you have some to add!

Moreover, each academic discipline is a microcosm of these privileges. Even within academic communities, certain individuals are endowed with the privilege to define and delineate fields of study, and to exclude others from the field based on the criteria they set. The thesis examination is an excellent example of this: in order to call myself a Film Studies scholar, I had to show that I had spent 3+ years reading and understanding the canonical texts of Film Studies - and that I had bought into them (more or less).

My point is that we as a research group need to be thinking about this if we want to be interdisciplinary. Does being interdisciplinary involve letting go of this 'buying into' a particular system of enquiry?

I can see that this is very, very hard to do in any serious way. To take an obvious example, Cath and Sam (the leaders of the project) are both in Sociology. Although they are working very hard and very sincerely to make this an interdisciplinary project, they have also already set the terms of our debates and goals. Indeed they hired the rest of us according to the standards by which they judge quality, which are, naturally, informed by their training as sociologists (not to mention as academics).

Judgments of value are clearly functionally unavoidable here. How would anyone hire anyone without them? And indeed, to take another issue that is clearly at stake here, how could we motivate student work without such a hierarchical value system? We are clearly all implicated in these hierarchies, yet I still want to ask: might it be possible to avoid or subvert them without throwing up one's hands and leaving the university completely? Is self-awareness a useful tool here or is it ultimately a pointless exercise? How might we teach our students about these issues while still remaining a 'legitimate' university course?

Also, is there any way of countering the canonisation issue? We have been talking about how white/middle-class women's issues often seem to set the agenda of feminism. How do we make feminism and gender studies more open to all viewpoints and perspectives?

There are clearly no simple answers here, but I at the very least think these are goals we need to be addressing as we design our course(s).

March 26, 2013

Inter– or trans–disciplinary: the perils of definitions (and diagrams)

Recently, I started drawing diagrams to visualise my thoughts. This has been particularly useful for mapping the intersection between fields or schools of thought as it allows precise delineations of the subject under consideration. Like mind maps, they help to order, elucidate and explain. Or so I thought when I started.

My first reaction to the difficulty in understanding the specificities of inter- and trans-disciplinary (as discussed in Sabine Hark’s article Magical Sign) was to render them in visual form. I hoped this would allow insight into the subject, however in the end it has raised more questions than it yield answers.

During the discussion itself I drew a preliminary diagram which looked like a smiling face:

Diagram 1

I strove to illustrate that whilst the basis of inter-disciplinary study assumes the communication between distinct fields (the arrows), trans-disciplinary attempts to erase the boundaries between them (depicted as the green oval which envelops them).

However, this diagram would assume that the fields are entirely distinct from one another. This is not the case. One of the issues raised at the reading group was the notion that advocating the "purity" of a particular discipline functions as a legitimising strategy. To be recognised it needs to be distinguished from others (a necessary prerequisite for its right to exist as a discipline). There are subjects which would be considered "pure": mathematics for example would be a science, no question. Yet some disciplines, whilst recognised "in their own right", are nevertheless seen to draw on, or bridge between, different fields. Gender Studies is a prime example. Looking back at my diagram, where exactly would I place gender studies? Would it go in social sciences? Humanities? Or maybe on one of the arrows?

What we are dealing with, it seems, are "degrees of purity". To accommodate this I’ve drawn another diagram.

Diagram 2

Some subjects would lie at the edges of the circles, some closer to the centre, and by extension closer to the blurred space of the inter-disciplinary. Yet, if trans-disciplinary is once again the green circle which envelops them, than what is the blurry bit in the middle where all the circles intersect? Wouldn't that be a more apt delineation of trans-disciplinary? So once again I drew a new diagram.

Diagram 3

The circles are now permeated to show that none of them are "closed sets". What do they open into, however? What is that vast white space which surrounds them? The space of possibility? I honestly don't know.

However, that is not the only problem with diagram 3. I began wondering: why have I only drawn three circles? Where in this diagram would law go? Or engineering? What about applied sciences? Would it go between science and social science? Shouldn't science be re-labelled as "natural science"? The questions just kept pouring in, leading me to "update" the previous diagram. The problem of the white space remained.

Diagram 4

This left another pressing question. Whilst the intersections between social sciences and humanities and social science and science are easily visualised, what of the intersection between humanities and sciences? Does it really exist? What would it look like?

Pondering this, I was led to a book I have read recently: José van Dijck's Mediated Memories in the Digital Age. In her work, van Dijck attempts to account for the ways in which memory changes in relation to technological advancement. Her argument is nuanced and she does not, as I may have accidentally suggested, argue that technology changes our memories, but rather it should be seen as a two-way process. New media offer new ways to accommodate the evolution of human perception of the self. Of interest to this discussion is her insight into neuroscience as an attempt to explain the workings of memory. As an example, she argues that recent research has led to understanding memory not as a storage space, where remembering means simply calling forth something which has been put away in our brains (as previously envisioned), but rather, every time we remember we conjure the past anew, within the parameters of the present. Thus, new technologies offering not only storage but also the possibility of altering our memory objects ("doctoring" photographs for example) result in a more flexible approach to dealing with memory. In her research she not only draws on neurobiological research, but also argues that science could greatly benefit from studies which concern themselves with the representation of memory. The ways we strive to visualise our relation with the past in the arts could provide crucial insights into our brains, as well as bridge new pathways for exploration in which science, social science and humanities would go side by side.

Could this be the trans-disciplinarity that we are aiming for? But wouldn't it still fall into one of the circles, even if simply for the purpose of shelving in the library? After all, in order to bridge, we do need two separate entities to exist in the first place.


van Dijick, José, Mediated Memories in the Digital Age (Stanford University Press, 2007)

Hark, Sabine, “Magical Sign. On the Politics of Inter- and Transdisciplinarity”, in Graduate Journal of Social Science 4:2 (2007), pp. 11-33.

March 25, 2013

Gender oppression and intersectionality

I've been thinking more about the work we did at the OSL session last Wednesday. As a group, we were asked to respond to various images and quotes about women, gender and feminism and assemble them into a kind of collage. Lana pointed out that nearly all the images were about WHITE (and Western, and middle-class) women and feminism, and the group ultimately decided to arrange the images in a way that would acknowledge these exclusions, pointing to the wide array of people and ideas that lie outside of these dominant discourses of feminism and femininity.

What I've just been realising, now that I have sweet merciful internet access in my new house (!), is that actually there has been a lot going around the internet recently about the relationships between gender oppression and other forms of oppression, and about how mainstream feminist movements are often reluctant to acknowledge these other forms of oppression or the women who experience them.

One example of this is the shitstorm surrounding the 2012 Radfem conference and its explicit exclusion of trans women. Many radical feminists see trans women as 'men' who are extending their male privilege to invade women-only spaces - a viewpoint that is obviously abhorrent to trans people, or to anyone who is remotely aware of the bigotry, hate and violence that trans people face on a daily basis.

This ongoing confrontation over trans women and their place in feminism was recently further fueled by Julie Burchill's infamous trans-hating piece in the Observer, deleted from the site after objections were raised but still available for viewing here. The awfulest thing about this piece (aside from the nasty, nasty anti-trans language throughout) is the way Burchill engages in a 'more oppressed than thou' one-upmanship, claiming that since she comes from a working-class background she has more right to speak for feminism than others do. As she puts it, "We are damned if we are going to be accused of being privileged by a bunch of bed-wetters in bad wigs." *Shudder*

Trans activist and all-round lovely person Ruth Pearce has written a great piece hereresponding to Burchill's article and discussing the concept of intersectionality - a really useful way of thinking about the various interrelated oppressions and how they are connected. The idea is basically this:

Intersectionality is, at its core, the idea that (aside from a very small number of individuals who are spectacularly well-off or badly-off) we are all oppressed, and all privileged. To use some examples from my own life: I am oppressed as a bisexual trans woman, and privileged to be white, abled and middle-class. It does not make sense to say that I am simply oppressed, or simply privileged.

Which is really interesting because just today someone sent me a link to this blog entry on the need for intersectionality in feminism. The author, Flavia Dzodan, has a proper rant about the need for feminists to acknowledge racism - for example, the racist aspects of rape culture, in which women of colour were and are considered 'unrapeable' because they are sub-human. She too calls very memorably and repeatedly for an intersectionalist viewpoint: "My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit!"

Anyway, I just think it's interesting that the concept of intersectionality seems to be coming up a lot in public, popular internet fora as a way of understanding the relationships between various types of oppression and various markers of difference. It's a pretty new concept to me - maybe this is different for the sociology folks? Have you all come across this concept before?

March 21, 2013

Open Space Learning – Thoughts on a Training Session

Here at the Gendered Knowledges project, we were lucky enough to be invited to an Open Space Learning training session, run by Dr Nick Monk – deputy Director of IATL.

I knew the session would serve a multi-faceted purpose: allowing us to experience open space learning first-hand, enabling us to use it in our own teaching and indeed our planned workshops and events for the Gendered Knowledges project; and to give us time, space and opportunity to get together with other members of the team to discuss issues surrounding sexualities and gender. Sounded good to me!

The session was held in the Reinvention Centre – consisting of a big room, under-floor heating, no chairs or desks, but beanbags and cushioned cubes… an ‘open space’ (strangely enough!) – more space, more comfort, more movement.

After some initial warm-up-getting-to-know-each-other exercises, the whole group was divided in to 2 sub groups and sent to either ends of the room, with a pile of gender/sexuality-themed images, stats, graphs and text extracts to sort through, make sense of and arrange into a narrative for the other group to interpret. Easy?!

My personal opinion was (but other members may have felt differently!) that our group worked really well together. I certainly felt able to express my opinions, thoughts and interpretations and it felt as though other members felt comfortable in doing the same. Working with small extracts of text, and images meant that we could all engage with them quite quickly, regardless of what ‘discipline’ we were from and seemed able to voice our thoughts on each with ease. Having a range of documents/images also meant that if there were some you were attracted to more than others, you could choose to talk about a chosen piece and weren’t ‘forced’ into giving an opinion on something you weren’t as comfortable with.

For me personally, there was no feeling of being out of my depth – which is empowering and motivating.

The benefits of being an interdisciplinary project of course, meant that groups consisted of a variety of people from a variety of disciplines so if somebody wasn’t sure of what an image or piece of text referred to – there was usually somebody who did. It felt equal and collaborative. To quote a group member,

“We’ve created a hierarchy-free space, amazing!”

Now to the narrative: our group arranged the resources to represent a narrative of childhood, gendered norms and socialization through education and wider social conditioning. We then moved onto adulthood: the double standards, the sexualization, sexual violence and the imposed normative gendered behavior expected within society. We concluded the narrative with disruption, resistance, subversion and the Queering of these aforementioned gendered norms.

Interestingly, our last, most ‘radical’ queering image happened to be one of the historical images – that of Pope Joan.

As an aside to our main narrative, feeding into it but not placed directly within it, we had a theoretical and/or statistical deck of cards, or ‘tool kit’ to evidence our narrative if appropriate and necessary – enabling us to dip in/out of theory and statistics whenever required – to illustrate the narrative but not interrupt it.

Unbeknown to us, each group were actually given the same pack of resources – and interestingly the arrangements of the narratives although similar, did have their differences.

This was an engaging, interesting and inspiring activity and the training session in general, for me personally was enjoyable and valuable – from both a theoretical and a praxis point of view. I know that many of the group members came away with ideas for their own teaching methods.

I certainly think we could make use of this structure and approach within the Gendered Knowledges events: allowing for an interdisciplinary, collaborative, equal sharing of knowledge in a safe and supportive environment.

March 16, 2013

Reading group – first session

An interdisciplinary reading group on interdisciplinarity – challenges and insights
Interdisciplinarity is an immensely popular yet contested term. The first session of our reading group brought together students and researchers from a range of departments to explore this concept in theory and practice. Passages from Sabine Hark’s article Magical Sign. On the Politics of Inter- and Transdisciplinarity served as a starting point for our discussion.

Sabine Hark is professor at the Center for Interdisciplinary Women’s and Gender Studies (ZIFG) at the Technical University Berlin. Her article Magical Sign. On the Politics of Inter- and Transdisciplinarity from 2007 discusses some of the theoretical, methodological, and institutional problems that arise from the inconsistent claiming and positioning of the term.

Borrowing from feminist literary scholar Sneja Gunew (2002: 47-65), Hark describes research in the fields of Women’s and Gender Studies as ‘a continuing experiment in interdisciplinarity’ (Hark 2007: 24). While Hark acknowledges that Women’s Studies combines topics, ideas and methods from a range of fields within and beyond the academy, she criticises that scholars in this and in many other fields tend to take interdisciplinarity for granted. According to Hark, interdisciplinarity in Women’s Studies is ‘as much a seriously underthought critical, pedagogical and institutional concept as everywhere else in the academic universe’ (ibid.: 23).

A number of recent publications and research projects on interdisciplinarity indicate that interdisciplinarity is by no means underthought or taken for granted. Warwick’s Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning (IATL), the Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies (CIM), and the Gendered Knowledges project constitute only three examples of initiatives at the University of Warwick that explore and critically examine interdisciplinary in theory and practice.

As explained on the website, the Gendered Knowledges project seeks to ‘explore radical interdisciplinary pedagogies in relation to Gender and Sexuality’. What does that mean? Following Stanley Fish, radical interdisciplinarity ‘begins with the assumption that the political is always and already inside those precincts [i.e. academic disciplines] and that the line separating them from the arena of social agitation is itself politically drawn and must be erased if action within the academy is to be continuous with the larger struggle against exploitation and oppression’ (Fish 1991). Radical interdisciplinarity, in other words, does not only combine different academic disciplines, it also relates to broader social and political questions and struggles.

We have only begun to embark on this radical interdisciplinary project. The first session of our reading illustrated some of the challenges and insights that come with interdisciplinary discussions of interdisciplinarity within the academy. Although the participants shared a common interest in interdisciplinary topics and methods, they did not share a theoretical and methodological framework to discuss these issues. Scholars, ideas and methods that were familiar to some participants were new to others. The participants handled these challenges surprisingly well. They introduced each other to thinkers and ideas, drew diagrams to illustrate concepts and discussed the potentials and limitations of interdisciplinary approaches in relation to their own work.

Have our discussions led to a shared definition of and position on interdisciplinarity? Certainly not! Yet it became apparent that conceptualisations and uses of interdisciplinarity vary between and within disciplines and that these differences can be productive. Against the background of this discussion, it can hardly come as a surprise that we came to different conclusions. Some of us defended the concept of interdisciplinarity and argued that it remains an immensely productive tool for research on gender and sexuality. Others called for post-disciplinary theoretical frameworks that aim to overcome academic disciplines as such, or endorsed transdisciplinary approaches.

Like interdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity has become a buzzword in Gender Studies. According to the feminist theorist and physicist Karen Barad, a transdisciplinary approach ‘remains rigorously attentive to important details of specialized arguments within a given field, in an effort to foster constructive engagements across (and reworking of) interdisciplinary boundaries’ (2007: 25). I believe that there are interesting theoretical and political similarities between Barad’s call for transdisciplinarity and Fish’s argument for a radical interdisciplinarity, but I hope we can explore these and other ideas in the next session of our interdisciplinary reading group on interdisciplinarity.


Barad, Karen (2007) Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, Durham: Duke UP.

Fish, Stanley. Being Interdisciplinary Is So Very Hard to Do, in Issues in Integrative Studies 9 (1991), 97-125.

Gunew, Sneja (2002) ‘Feminist Cultural Literacy: Translating Differences, Cannibal
Options’, in Wiegman, Robyn (ed.), Women’s Studies on its Own,
Durham/London: Duke UP, 47-65.

Hark, Sabine. Magical Sign. On the Politics of Inter- and Transdisciplinarity, in Graduate Journal of Social Science 4 (2007), Special Issue 2, 11-33.

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