Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Reopening old wounds

I read a fantastic article this morning- it was brave, it was bold, and it put forward solutions to problems rather than just moaning about them. You can read it here.

The author, Selina Todd, a historian from Oxford University, describes a conference from hell. Male scholars preen and groom each other, furiously stoking their egos while an alienated group of Other contributors are excluded, left to huddle by the remnants of the catering. I described a terrifyingly similar conference on this blog a year and a half ago, stoked by rage. I'm still angry, but mostly at myself. I did nothing. I snarked online, I wrote an article critiquing those views which will be coming out soon in a journal that none of the culprits will ever read. But I was too cowardly to risk my own prospects by calling out this appalling behaviour. Thinking about it now, there were a number of constructive things I could have done- I could have calmly and rationally emailed the organisers, pointing out the problems, and asking these to be rectified for future conferences (just one female chair- or oooh, big wow, two? some guidelines on appropriate language and behaviour during question sessions?). I could have been brave and asked difficult questions, and tried to puncture the self-satisfaction. All I did was give my paper and slink off to the refreshments.

So my favourite thing about the article is that Todd isn't just angry- she's productive. She puts forward a number of strategies that she, and the other members of the Oxford Women in the Humanities group are developing to try and encourage female scholars. One of these that particularly caught my eye was the idea of writing fellowships, a breathing space for early career scholars to give them a chance to get the publications that lead to a career. I was not in a position to get a research post when finishing my PhD- I simply didn't have the output, something I learnt the hard way through many wasted hours applying for positions overrun with much better applicants. That's not intended as a moan or a whine- that is the way things are, and I am the only person I have to blame for that situation.

 So, over the last year, I've worked my nuts off trying to both write and hold down a full time job. My first book is now out, and I've just about managed to co-author one article as part of a wonderful project, in addition to the critique mentioned above. It's still nowhere near enough- I'm working on a second book, a pair of articles, and trying to get ready for the arrival of our baby. The difference a writing fellowship would have made to someone like me is immeasurable in all sorts of ways. Just having the sense of belonging to an academic network, the access to online journals, let alone the time and space to write without feeling guilty about not doing something else, that would be enough. I will be fascinated to see what the holders of these new fellowships achieve- I am sure the result will be truly transformative research, and maybe, just maybe, a break from the circle of male love Todd describes and we've all witnessed. They might also be courageous enough to turn the tables at the next hell conference, into the bargain.

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