The Paper Unwritten; or Is my Sexuality holding me back in Academia?

I have missed the deadline now. It did look to be a great opportunity, but… Do I feel disappointed? Yes, absolutely, and for so many reasons. Did I make the right decision? I think so, at least it was the decision I felt I had to make. Has it impacted on my career? Well, it’s another opportunity missed; another “silence” on my CV…

This is my current state of mind following a call for papers for a conference on responsible research. It seemed the perfect forum for me to air my ideas on issues of equality and diversity in research. An international conference, with an eminent keynote. A great opportunity to network, share my thoughts, and to obtain an international perspective on my research.

So, why didn’t I put in an abstract?

Simply, because the conference is to take place Ghana, a country where, at present, acts of homosexuality are illegal. Now, whilst some may argue that nobody need know that I’m gay while I’m over there, that’s not as easy as it may seem. For one, my research involves discussions of sexuality in research (indeed, this blog is part of that research). Moreover, there are signs, mannerisms, culture; it’s part of my identity and who I am – not something I can easily hide, or wish to for that matter. My wedding ring, for instance, tells part of that story. Conferences are sometimes quite uncomfortable events as I find myself continually “coming out”, small talk forcing me to make the conscious decision of whether to correct someone when they assume I have a “wife”. Having been married to my husband for five years now, I am not comfortable with concealing this aspect of my life and neither should I even feel I have to. This, however, can make things difficult in some research contexts, both in the UK and abroad, and I feel impacts on the decisions I make regarding my career, including where I am comfortable presenting my research, where I undertake my research, and where I might apply for work. The conference in Ghana raises all these questions and to complicate matters further, and what really niggles at me, is that by not attending the issue isn’t discussed and remains hidden.

I should stress at this point that this blog isn’t about LGBT rights in Ghana, but about research careers, internationalisation, and mobility. It is about, what I call, the silences on my CV; the conferences I didn’t attend, the funding opportunities I was unable to apply for, the jobs that were closed off to me. All possibly affecting the advancement of my career. Indeed, the current focus on research mobility and increase in funding for international projects by funders such as RCUK, the British Council, the EU, and the Newton Fund (to name a few), while all brilliant and important initiatives, are not necessarily open to all, and at present there remains little support for those who may feel uncomfortable or have questions about undertaking research in particular regions or on particular topics.

More importantly, though, is that when it comes to job applications and promotion, these missed opportunities are unheard. They are silences; they are papers and grants unwritten. And while taken on their own they may not seem significant, they can mount up over a career. What I’m not asking for here is mitigating circumstances, but I do want to open a conversation about how we think about recruitment, promotion, and peer review, and also what an increasingly mobile and international research environment means for diversity, equality, and our research. Is there support for those who feel uncomfortable or who have questions? And how might we judge the CVs of those that have not been able to seize as many of the opportunities on offer? What is it we value in academia? Are candidates with a longer list of publications and grants always the most excellent candidates, or are they those with most privilege?

At Coventry, a responsible approach to research and supporting responsible research environments has been embedded across the early and middle career researcher development programmes. Issues, such as that described above, are discussed critically and in a safe and supportive cohort-based environment to not only raise awareness, but to think through how as a research community we can enhance and improve the environments in which we work. It will be interesting to see where these discussions go and what initiatives we might be able to develop to support equality and diversity in research.

While this blog has focussed on a single issue regarding sexuality, it is important to stress that this is only one example of why we need to start to challenge the status quo and openly discuss the place of equality and diversity within research environments. Indeed, there are issues regarding access, care work, disability, health, race, religion, class, gender that can all result in systemic inequalities that affect the diversity of our research community. This blog merely seeks to give voice to one issue that, to my mind, is silent, and is of increasing importance as we move to a culture that increasingly focusses upon and values international research and research mobility.

(As ever, I welcome any comments, thoughts, experiences to help inform my thinking).

 

“I Am What I Am”: Thinking About Careers Post-PhD and Post-PostDoc

It is my last week at Bath Spa University and it feels like a good time to reflect on my career path so far and some of the decisions I have made since completeing my PhD. This has not proven to be a simple task, as the way in which a career unfolds is often the result of a combination of chance, ambition, and passion, as well as gut instinct, informed decision making, and personal and professional development.

I went through my PhD without ever thinking too hard about my career expectations or career path. I – like many undertaking a PhD in the arts and humanities – assumed that a lectureship was the end goal. However, the scarce number of postdoc positions combined with the fact that I needed a full-time job meant that on completing my PhD practical decisions had to be made – hourly paid lectureships (often thought to be essential to obtaining a lectureship) were a luxury I couldn’t afford. So, on finishing my PhD, and after a stint working at Glyndebourne Opera House and as a postgraduate recruitment assistant, I took a fixed-term Research and Knowledge Transfer Support Officer role at the University of Bradford.

To be honest, I had relatively little of knowledge of what this role would involve at the time of application, but was intrigued by the post and thought it would provide me with good experience for an academic role in the future – an alternative to a postdoc in effect. Within a couple of weeks, I had become fascinated by the role. I was working with people from a huge range of disciplines (including engineering, health studies, and cancer research), opening my eyes to research well outside of my humanities discipline. As well as a broad sense of research in the UK, the role also provided me a deep understanding of the inner workings of Higher Education Institutions and of research funders and policymakers. If began to feel as though this might be a possible long-term career. Since then I have held a fixed-term (academic) position at the University of Brighton (working on their Art and Design REF submission) and a permanent academic-related position at Bath Spa University (training researchers at all different levels of their career).

Despite my keen interest in this area of work, I continued to apply for lectureships – and got closer and closer to that goal with each application. A few months ago, though, I had a revelation, prompted by the advertisement of a position at Coventry University. On looking at the job specification, I soon realised that this was the job for me, the role building on my burgeoning interest in research training, funding, policy, and development. Whilst on paper the role may not signal a significant break in my career trajectory thus far, it did ask me to think critically and carefully about what I wanted from my career. Unlike previous positions, this career move was not the result of a contract coming to an end, but the result of a conscious process of thinking about priorities, interests, ambitions, work-life balance, and personal and professional development.

What become clear was that my career path up until this point had been dictated partly by the nature of the short-term contracts I had held and partly by the unquestioned long-term goal I had set myself of becoming a lecturer. It was only at this point of deep reflection, I realised that I had been applying for lectureships because that’s what I thought I wanted and, perhaps also, because that’s what my peers thought I should be doing. While the intentions were always honourable and the advice welcomed, the continued suggestion that I would make a good researcher/lecturer implied – albeit indirectly – that the various roles I occupied were not valued or credible professional pathways for someone with a PhD. The pressure, whether real or imagined, of our peers can severely limit the way in which we think about careers and can often affect the choices we make. Supervisors are often a great resource during a PhD, but everyone is limited by their own experiences. While it can seem difficult to know who to speak to regarding careers, I would highly recommend speaking to as many people as possible and reading career stories from others within your discipline or area. It is only then that you can appreciate the diversity of post-PhD and post-postdoc careers taken up.

It is perhaps fair to say that I stumbled into my career – but let’s face it, nobody when asked at school what they wanted to be when they grew up excitedly answered “I want to work in Researcher Development”. The fact is that careers are dependent upon the opportunities available to you and there are so many roles out there that you don’t necessarily know exist. My career path, I hope, is example of where seizing a chance opportunity has resulted in what I feel is a fulfilling and exciting career path. It perhaps also provides an example of letting go. Indeed, it is hard to put into words the excitement (and relief) I felt when I got the Coventry position. I now feel I have a clear sense of my professional identity and pathway. The relief came from finally letting go – letting go to musicology. While this is something I have immensely enjoyed (and will no doubt continue to enjoy), I realised that the knowledge and experience I have acquired in my research-related roles to date is now more important to me. Perhaps more importantly, though, is the understanding I gained about my PhD experience and how the skills I acquired during my PhD have underpinned and been enhanced by my work to date.

Letting go of my preconceived ideas of academic career pathways, I have found liberating. When thinking about careers it is important that you are honest with yourself, that you are critical and reflective about the opportunities available to you and your ambitions, and that you are open and responsive to all sorts of opportunities. While there has been occasions in the past where I felt as if on the outside looking in, I have to come to realise that this was never actually the case. Taking a different career from the norm does not mean failure or that your PhD wasn’t worthwhile. (In this case, a knowledge of research was essential and is is becoming increasingly valued in a range of professional service roles). Nor does it mean that you are then committed to solely exploring that path for the rest of your career – career paths are likely to fork and/or merge again and again.

Careers are both complex and multivarious. They are intangible, changing and in flux. Ambitions, needs, and wants change as you change and as your priorities change. As such, finding out who you are and what you want to be is an ongoing process (and sometimes letting go).

Queering Ambient Performance: Prototyping the Digital Tableau Vivant

Yesterday I gave a peformance paper at the Slow Media Conference held at Corsham Court, Bath Spa University. Below is my video presentation and paper. The video (A Garland of Beauty, 2015) is a test piece that exploits digital technologies to expand the remit of the dramatic tableau (as defined by Denis Diderot). Through a reperformed and slowed down version of Judy Garland’s performance of I Could Go on Singing (from the film of the same name), this work seeks to challenge heteronormative understandings of digital and physical space. Referencing the work the of Bill Viola and David Michalek, this film and dance seeks to challenge our concept of space and of place drawing on notions of the uncanny and the queer. Slow motion is used, in particular, to intensify this effect and focus the viewer on small-scale details and immerse them in the emotional and political contents of the picture, whilst also creating a sense of unease.

But, little one, your grief is very profound, and very thoughtful! Why this dreamy, melancholy air? What, all for this bird? You’re not crying, but you’re distressed, and there’s a thought behind your distress[…] That morning, alas, your mother was out; he came, you were alone; he was so handsome, so passionate, so tender, so charming, there was such love in his eyes, such truth in his expression! He said things which went straight to your heart![1]

In his review of Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s painting Girl Weeping for Her Dead Bird (which was exhibited at 1765 Salons in Paris) Denis Diderot attempts to bridge the gap between object and viewer by exploring the narrative potential of Greuze’s

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Girl Weeping for Her Dead Bird (Oil on Canvas, 53.50 x 46.00, Edinburgh National Gallery)

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Girl Weeping for Her Dead Bird (Oil on Canvas, 53.50 x 46.00, Edinburgh National Gallery)

painting.[2] It is the girl’s trance-like state that seems to instigate Diderot’s reading of the work. It offers Diderot the opportunity to participate in the painting’s narrative, as if he were another character standing next to the girl in the room. Diderot’s reaction to Greuze’s painting aligns closely with his thoughts on theatre and, in particular, his notion of the dramatic tableau. According to Diderot, stage drama could learn much from painting.[3] 

Contrasting the effect of pictorial tableaux with that of the coup de théâtre, Diderot states:

An unforeseen incident which takes place in the action and abruptly changes the situation is a coup de théâtre. An arrangement of these characters on stage, so natural and so true that, faithfully rendered by a painter, it would please me on a canvas, is a tableau.[4] 

He goes on to say that ‘if a dramatic work were well made and well performed the stage would offer the spectator as many real tableaux as the action would contain moments suitable for painting.’[5] In short, Diderot perceives good drama to consist of a series of painted (emotional) moments, rather than a continuous flow of abrupt actions and events.

This is not to say that dramatic action is suspended in these tableaux, but that the focus of the drama lies less with the characters’ actions and more with their emotional states. Indeed, although these tableaux are intended to present to the spectator a dramatic moment suspended in time, Diderot also thought of them as host to a latent kinetic energy.

One of Diderot’s most interesting examples of a situation that could be used as a dramatic tableau comes from Euripides’ Iphigeneia in Aulis. As he says:

Can there be anything more passionate than the behaviour of a mother whose daughter is being sacrificed? Let her rush on to the stage like a woman possessed or deranged; let her fill the place with cries; let even her clothes reveal her disorder: all these things are appropriate to her despair. If the mother of Iphigeneia showed herself for one moment to be the Queen of Argos or the wife of the Greek general, she would only seem to be the lowest of creatures. The true dignity which seizes my attention and overwhelms me is the tableau of maternal love in all its truth.[6] 

Diderot’s description of this scene expands the dramatic moment, focusing the reader, in particular, on the emotional aspect of the situation.

Michael Hays has argued that the focus upon emotion is a common feature of Diderot’s literary works, stating that ‘in his plays Diderot focuses on a category of feelings, not on action, and the formal homologue to this turning away from action towards situation is found in Diderot’s interest in the tableau’.[7] What is particularly interesting about Diderot’s description of the scene from the Iphigenia myth described above is that he reduces Clytemnestra’s regal status to that of a domestic mother; her emotional situation causes her to forget the fact she is royalty and the wife of Agamemnon. There are no intricate verses here in Diderot’s tableau, but inarticulate cries and gestures. In this scene Clytemnestra is completely enveloped in the situation; her emotion results solely from maternal instincts. Despite the status of the characters in this scene, the emotions portrayed can be said to be entirely domestic.

Diderot’s notion of dramatic tableaux is based on the idea that dramatic action should focus upon the representation of an intense situation that completely envelops the characters on stage. For a tableau to be truly effective, however, the characters must be unaware of their surroundings and absorbed completely by the emotional situation in which they are placed. The idea of absorption and Diderot’s focus upon absorptive situations and activities in his works is something that art historia Michael Fried argues is also a feature of eighteenth-century French painting.[8] He posits that from around the middle of the century there is growing interest in depicting subjects involved in absorptive actions, such as reading, writing, and thinking. The subjects, according to Fried, are so engaged in their activities and/or mental states that they are unaware that they are the object of someone’s gaze, whether it is that of the viewer or another character in the picture.

Fried sees the focus on absorptive states as contrasting with previous approaches to painting that, more often than not, feature characters that look outside the frame and towards the viewer, or consist of a number of characters that are unaware of the action that is taking place elsewhere in the frame. In Fried’s opinion, paintings that depict absorptive activities are paradoxical in nature; while the viewer is drawn into the painting, seized by the character’s intense state of absorption, they are also excluded, the character being unaware that they are the object of someone’s gaze. In short, a distance is created between the drama and events portrayed in the picture and the viewer.

Diderot’s interest in Greuze’s painting, therefore, lies not just with the girl absorptive mental state, but also with the fact that her deep introspection provides the work a narrative potential – a latent kinetic energy – that opens up an emotional tableau which Diderot is then able to explore. Indeed, in his narrative he speaks of events outside the temporal frame of the painting and of emotions both past and present. It is the girl’s absorptive melancholy state that allows Diderot to penetrate this painting and explore the emotional space of the tableau. Had the painting lacked the apparent introspection, the emotional space in which Diderot wanders would have been limited.

*****

In A Garland of Beauty, I use digital technologies to expand the remit of the dramatic tableau through a reperformed and slowed down version of Judy Garland’s performance of I Could Go on Singing from the film of the same name.

Referencing the work the of Bill Viola and David Michalek, this film and dance seeks to challenge our concept of space and of place, using slow motion in particular as a way in which to focus the viewer on small-scale details and immerse them in the emotional and political contents of the picture.

Viola’s quintet explores grief, personal suffering, and bereavement focusing on the unfolding expressions of five actors in slow motion.

Michalek’s Portraits in Dramatic Time similarly harnesses slow motion capture. According to Michalek: “The cameras were fixed, and the live action was recorded for duration of 10 – 15 seconds depending on the scene. Within these constraints, dramatic narratives were condensed down to an essence, [with] Each scene-sequence of drama was crafted to provide a physical metaphor for an emotional condition.”

Rather than pitting analogue and digital technologies against one another, each of these performances use digital technology to focus the viewer’s attention and engage them in a slower process of spectatorship, inverting the more common definition of slow media.

In A Garland of Beauty, the relationship between slow and fast and analogue and digital is complicated through queer performance. By reinscribing Judy Garland’s performance on the male body, the screendance not only queers the Garland original but perceptions of digital and physical spaces and well as private and public spaces. Indeed, A Garland of Beauty activates a new understanding of LGBTQ identity by blurring the personal and the political through the public sharing of the home movie. As Christopher Pullen states in his work on gay identity and new storytelling, “the emerging context of “online” new media, and its potential to bring audiences together, [provides] new connectivities for emerging self-reflexive [and LGBTQ] storytellers”.[9] 

This film attempts to articulate some of the dichotomies that surround discussions of slow media and digital storytelling. The next phase of this project will consist of a series of re-performances of the Garland number in a range of different spaces, particularly those that have heteronormative or masculine associations. The aim here is to blur the boundaries between both the physical and the digital and between the heteronormative and the queer.

REFERENCES

[1] ‘La jolie élégie! Le charmant poème!…Mais, petite, votre douleur est bien profonde, bien réfléchie! Que signifie cet air rêveur et mélancolique! Quoi! pour un oiseau! Vous ne pleurez pas, vous êtes affligée; et la pensée accompagne votre affliction[…] Ce matin-là, par malheur votre mère était absente. Il vint; vous étiez seule: il était si beau, si passionné, si tender, si charmant! il avait tant d’amour dans les yeux! tant de vérité dans les expressions! il desait de ces mots qui vont si droit à l’âme!’ In Denis Diderot, Œuvres Esthétiques de Diderot, ed. Paul Vernière (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 1994), p.533-534, translated in Denis Diderot, Selected Writings on Art and Literature, translated with an introduction and notes by Geoffrey Bremner (London: Penguin Books, 1994), p. 236-237.

[2] See Denis Diderot, Œuvres Esthétiques de Diderot, ed. Paul Vernière (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 1994) p. 533-537, translated in Denis Diderot, Selected Writings on Art and Literature, translated with an introduction and notes by Geoffrey Bremner (London: Penguin Books, 1994), p. 236-240.

[3] On Diderot’s theory of the dramatic tableau see Daniel Brewer, The Discourse of Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century France:  Diderot and the Art of Philosophizing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), Jay Caplan, Framed Narratives: Diderot’s Genealogy of the Beholder, Theory and History of Literature, Vol. 19 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985), Tili Boon Cuillé, Narrative Interludes: Musical Tableaux in Eighteenth-Century Texts (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006), Jack Undank and Herbert Josephs, ed., Diderot Digression and Dispersion: A Bicentenial Tribute (Lexington, Kentucky: French Forum Publishers, 1984) and Peter Szondi, ‘Tableau and Coup de Théâtre: On the Social Psychology of Diderot’s Bourgeois Tragedy’, New Literary History, Vol. 11, No. 2 (1980), p. 323-343.

[4] ‘Un incident imprévu qui se passe en action, et qui change subitement l’état des personages, est un coup de théâtre. Une disposition de ce personages sur la scène, si naturelle et si vraie, que, rendue fidèlement par un peintre, elle me plairait sur la toile, est un tableau’. In Denis Diderot, Œuvres Esthétiques de Diderot, ed. Paul Vernière (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 1994), p. 88, translated in Denis Diderot, Selected Writings on Art and Literature, translated with an introduction and notes by Geoffrey Bremner (London: Penguin Books, 1994), p. 12.

[5] ‘Je pense, pour moi, que si un ouvrage dramatique était bien fait et bien représenté, la scène offrirait au spectateur autant de tableaux réels qu’il y aurait dans l’action de moments favorables au peintre’. In Denis Diderot, Œuvres Esthétiques de Diderot, ed. Paul Vernière (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 1994), p. 90, translated in Denis Diderot, Selected Writings on Art and Literature, translated with an introduction and notes by Geoffrey Bremner (London: Penguin Books, 1994), p. 13.

[6] ‘Quoi donc, pourrait-il y avoir rien de trop véhément dans l’action d’une mère don’t on immole la fille? Qu’elle coure sur la scène comme une femme furieuse ou troublée; qu’elle remplisse de cris son palais; que le désordre ait passé jusque dans ses vêtements, ces choses conviennent à son désespoir. Si la mère d’Iphigénie se montrait un moment reine d’Argos et femme du général des Grecs, elle ne me paraîtrait que la dernière des créatures. La véritable dignité, celle qui me frappe, qui me renverse, c’est le tableau de l’amour maternel dans toute sa vérité’. In Denis Diderot, Œuvres Esthétiques de Diderot, ed. Paul Vernière (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 1994), p. 90-91, translated in Denis Diderot, Selected Writings on Art and Literature, translated with an introduction and notes by Geoffrey Bremner (London: Penguin Books, 1994) p. 13.

[7] Michael Hays, ‘Drama and Dramatic Theory: Peter Szondi and the Modern Theatre’, bondary 2, Vol. 11, No. 3 (1983), p. 73.

[8] Michael Fried, Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980).

[9] Christopher Pullen, Gay Identity, New Storytelling and the Media (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), p. 231.

The Fairytale of New York: Some thoughts on Homophobia and Heteronormative Christmas Soundscapes

Something has been playing on my mind lately and I wanted to explore my thoughts, which are by no means conclusive, here (and welcome comments and discussion). What started me thinking was the how in December our sonic surroundings or soundscape drastically change. Christmas songs fill the air and can be heard almost everywhere we go: supermarkets, shopping centres, pubs and restaurants. They are heard on the radio and frequently on television as well as the theatre and in karaoke bars. One of those songs played and performed regularly in the UK is The Pogues’ Fairytale of New York, a powerful Christmas favourite that was released in 1988.

The line I want to discuss was a line that was the subject of much controversy at the time of release: “You scumbag, you maggot / You cheap lousy faggot”. Whilst originally the BBC edited versions of the song and removed the term (as well as the term “slut” in the proceeding line), the controversy is now long past – for some forgotten, for others unknown – and since 2007 the song now played by the BBC in its original version. The BBC argued in this case that:

“While we would never condone prejudice of any kind, we know our audiences are smart enough to distinguish between maliciousness and creative freedom. In the context of this song, I do not feel that there is any negative intent behind the use of the words, hence the reversal of the decision.”

I find the use of the term ‘I’ here particularly telling and dangerous. What concerns and interests me more though is that since 1988 the song has become increasingly institutionalised, a seemingly integral part of the Christmas soundscape. This means that the homophobic slur of the song (and by proxy homophobia?) now forms a regular part of my Christmas and has since I was 7. I don’t think we can ignore the effect persisitant (and uncritical) homophobic language has on LGBTQ audiences, and on those in particular who are coming to terms with their sexuality.

My aim here isn’t to put an argument forward for censorship (which only leads to social amnesia and a turning away from difficult issues), but to open up a debate on the relationship between aesthetics, creative freedom identity, and ethics, particularly when an aesthetic object, art practice, or cultural tradition becomes institutionalised and runs in danger or oppressing minority groups and reinstating white, masculine, heterosexual hierarchies. Indeed, this isn’t an attack on the song per se, but the (uncritical) legacy of that song. So what, if anything, should be done?*

I recently read an article that drew my attention to the fact that the Tom and Jerry cartoon series available on Amazon Prime are now accompanied by a statement that highlights the racist nature of some of these cartoons. While this I don’t think provides a satisfactory solution, it does draw the viewer’s attention to the issue and potentially generates discussion, which is better than these cartoons being screened without comments.

So, is an equivalent strategy needed for The Fairytale of New York? Should listeners be informed and warned of the homophobic and misogynistic language? Should the song be played (without edit) by publicly funded corporations and should it form part of an institutionalised christmas landscape if it is played without comment? To what extent are we willing to privilege aesthetics and heritage over and above equality? And what other areas do we need to think more deeply about this issue? Indeed, this is something that goes far beyond the gay community when we think about institutionlised narratives of “normativity”.

Perhaps an alternative solution lies with balance in what we hear at this time of year. Do we need to work harder at ensuring that there opportunities to hear, see, and engage with works that challenge heteronormativity, works frequently hidden from view? And on that note, I’ll leave you with a celebratory LGBTQ christmas song by Bourgeois and Maurice and Sink the Pink. Enjoy.

*It is perhaps worth saying that I like and enjoy the song, but I find it’s performance and legacy problematic.

“I’m Always Chasing Rainbows”: a Dystopia Dialogue with Judy Garland

I recently returned from the conference The Wizard of Oz and the Cultural Imagination which was held at the University of Brighton, 21-22 November 2013. It was an interdisciplinary conference with a wide array of papers. For the conference, I decided to give a performative paper – my first. Was quite nervewraking, but got some great reactions and feedback so I thought I’d share a mobile video of the performance and the slides. It gives an idea of the presentation, but perhaps not the feeling. I welcome any comments, reactions, and thoughts.