Intervention – “Holding Space for Alternative Futures in Academia and Beyond”

Sophie Pascoe, Anna Sanders, Andrea Rawluk, Paula Satizábal and Tessa Toumbourou (University of Melbourne; holdingspacecollective@gmail.com)

***Una versión en español de esta Intervención, traducida por Paula Satizábal, puede ser descargada aquí***

***A Spanish version of this Intervention, translated by Paula Satizábal, can be downloaded here***

Precarity is receiving increasing attention not only as a concept in geographic research (Strauss 2018), but also as a concern within academia. Uses of precarity have moved beyond conceptualisations of capital and labour to include lived experiences of systemic inequality, insecurity and power relations. Precarity is often mentioned in so-called frontiers or borderlands – places facing conflict, climate change and extractive industries (Chao 2018; Strauss 2018; Watts 2018). Yet, there has been little dialogue between the spaces of academia that we inhabit and “precarious” places where we undertake research. There is an urgent need to better understand those connections and to call attention to the differences between the precarity that we study and that many of us experience within academia. Within academia, precarity manifests around the casualisation of labour (Bone 2017); the neoliberalisation and bureaucratisation of research and teaching (Hawkins et al. 2014; Kanngieser 2008); gendered and racialized inequalities (Mansfield et al. 2019; Meyerhoff 2019); and exploitative and extractive research practices, including the subcontracting of research assistants (Sukarieh and Tannock 2019). All these contribute to impacts on mental health, affecting academics’ wellbeing (Todd 2020). As PhD students and early career researchers, we in turn find ourselves being asked to extract knowledge from our research counterparts in the field – shaped by the structural exploitation of certain groups to the advantage of few others (McKeown 2016). Our own precarity is not the same as those in the communities that we research, but we, the authors, came together with a feeling of deep discomfort with the precarity that we inhabit and the extraction we are asked to enact. In this Intervention, we contribute to the imagining of alternative futures in academia, and beyond, by proposing concepts of “the edge” and “holding space”, identified through processes of storytelling and active listening.

Indigenous scholars, peoples and practices informed the storytelling process that underpins this Intervention (Smith 2012; Todd 2016; Watts 2013; Winduo 2009). As a formative and political process, storytelling both traces embodied experiences and is performed in situated contexts (Pascoe et al. 2019). As Tara Houska (2019) explains: “Stories move hearts, minds, and bodies. The contents and the speaker are inherently part of the idea being shared.” All stories remain partial, but the unsettling and shared practices of storytelling hold transformative possibilities. Stories reveal the strength of colonial, patriarchal and hierarchical regimes, but also resistance and alternatives. Storytelling invites people into imaginative and reciprocal relationships of sharing and listening, which are central to building a collective memory.

Like storytelling, listening is political. We often fail to listen to certain stories and people (due in part to place, race, face, language, class, gender, ability). Active listening embodies a “careful listening” (Kanngieser 2013), reflexive of our own privileges and aiming to challenge hierarchies and oppression. Actively listening across difference (Dreher 2009) encourages critical reflection on how inequities and violences are systematically and unconsciously perpetrated. It recognises that some people are obstructed from fully sharing their stories. For example, in a letter written by university staff in Colombia, a student was accused of lying after publicly declaring sexual harassment from a professor. In response, the student collective NO Es NoRmal (“It is not normal”), in collaboration with a group of biological sciences students, posted the letter on a bulletin board inviting the community to comment. They did. Innumerable students included responses to the letter from their shared experiences. It became a subversive space, which was later taken to the internet, where students anonymously and tangibly discussed and rejected the attempt to silence and further revictimize the student (see Figure 1; see also Pérez Ortega and Wessel 2020). This story shaped the active listening process we engaged in – a shared practice of care, solidarity, resistance and reciprocity; taking a stand, holding space and time for each other, colluding and conspiring against the precarity and extraction that force us apart.

Figure 1: NO Es NoRmal social media (https://www.facebook.com/noesnormaluniandes/)

In our active listening process, we first shared stories of precarity and then of reciprocity and collaboration. Within our stories, precarity was embodied, experienced, structural, situated, gendered and multiple (Thorkelson 2016; Zembylas 2019). Describing painful memories in academia and trying to sensitively and deliberately articulate them was uncomfortable. We noted the ways we were silencing ourselves. This self-censoring was self-preservation – controlling how vulnerable we were willing to be – but the silences were embedded in the ways institutions protect those who misuse power. The silences were grounded in the complexity of our lived experiences of academia and how we negotiate professional and personal relationships, alongside the individualisation of labour and casual employment, within these spaces. They were embodied in our role as caregivers and the competitive pressure of academic performance to secure future employment. The silences were not only in the storytelling, but also in the listening – complaints of harassment and abuses of power often go unheard (Ahmed 2017). Yet, storytelling and active listening offer a partial rupture to the silence, a means of coming to terms with precarity.

Through actively listening to each other’s stories, we identified the concept of “the edge” – of feeling on the outside, but also finding solidarity and friendship as we navigated the peripheries of academia. We reflected that “these edges can be cruel and hostile”, but have also been experienced joyfully and rebelliously. These edges are at times occupied – unsettling and decentring hierarchies – while at other times they work to forbid and silence us.

Usually a noun, an edge has many meanings. It can refer to a “border”; to a sharp, pointed part of a blade (invoking caution); to a boundary or precipice (inciting vulnerability). In geometry, it is a line where two surfaces meet. Falling from the edge evokes movement and danger. In our stories, an edge is a situated space that exists in relation to privilege. An edge implies two sides; it indicates a centre and a periphery. It is relational; those occupying the centre, in privileged positions, may not be aware of the forces shaping and enabling their privilege in relation to others. It captures the dangers and instability of academic labour conditions and extractive research practices, and how we are differently positioned in these spaces. It is multiple, temporal and fluid; historical conditions and embodied power relations shape the edge, but this edge is constantly changing. Through the concept of the edge, we described our lived experiences of physical, emotional and economic precarity.

In practice, our attention shifted to how we could find, occupy and unsettle the edge. As Toni Morrison once said in an interview, “I stood at the border, stood at the edge, and claimed it as central … and let the rest of the world move over to where I was” (quoted in Emezi 2019). Finding the edge means locating, exposing and being explicit about our positionality to the edge, both our precarity and privilege, in relation to others. Reflecting on our positionality to the edge, power circulates energetically, dynamically and continuously (Armstrong 2019). Each of us is embedded in this circulation, and we can disrupt and mobilise the flow by occupying the edge. Sometimes we are strong enough on our own and sometimes not. When we are not strong enough, we need others to support, encourage, enable, equip – to hold space for us. Occupying the edge means mobilising our positionality to interrupt circulations of power that make others (and ourselves) precarious. This means challenging the dynamic of “extract and abandon” in the field, where we encounter people in “precarious” places on the “frontiers” of changing climates and conflict. In fieldwork, it means developing relationships of reciprocity with our counterparts and participants, insisting that they are paid for their labour and recognised in publications. Within our institutions, occupying the edge means drawing attention to abuses of power, calling out sexual harassment and the complaint processes that silence survivors and protect perpetrators (Ahmed 2017). There are dangers and risks involved in this. But by finding and occupying the edge, we attempt to unsettle the relations of power that reproduce precarity and collectively hold space for alternative futures. There are productive possibilities in (de)centring the edge (see also Jefferson 2019).

“Holding space” means acknowledging and drawing on our positionality in relation to the edge to create a disruptive pause. The idea of “holding space” emerged from our discussion of “the edge”. Each concept is relational. Whether we see it or not, we are all navigating our positionality to the edge – it is in recognising the power in this process that we can unsettle it. By holding space, we enable others to also hold space and occupy the edge. Sometimes mobilising our power is holding space for others to take up space and have their stories heard. Holding space is about inviting listening – so that those who control, covet or block the circulations of power do not automatically speak – therefore enabling different stories to be told. Holding space is an action. Implicit within this action is a dualism, of inside and outside of the space that we are holding, navigating different sides of the edge. We might engender difference, creativity, solidarity through such acts, yet we who occupy the edge are vulnerable to the risk of falling. Thus, holding space requires us to recognise the different and relative power that we have individually and collectively – because we all have a position.

Rather than offering critique or reflection, we emphasise that this Intervention is written as an invitation. Just as the edge is multiple, holding space is embodied in professional and personal relationships. By connecting the precarity “out there” to how we negotiate these relationships within academia, we emphasise that holding space is collective in the same way that it is personal – this is what we experienced by actively listening to each other’s stories. Finding the edge in acts of reciprocity and collaboration, in our stories, required us to hold space for each other. As Ramón (2019: 256, our translation) noted: “ … the violence was against each of us, but the revindication, the reconciliation, and the reparation will be collective.” Holding space inherently comes from recognising how we fit within the circulations of power and how we can collectively make change.

In imagining and creating alternative futures for academia, we want others to join us in holding space. We recognise and draw inspiration from other initiatives, including the NO Es NoRmal collective; the Athena Co-Learning Collective (2018); online social networks for feminist practice in academia (Bayfield et al. 2019); attempts to form “feminist covens” in universities (Smyth et al. 2019); higher education strikes and student movements reclaiming and dismantling the “neoliberal university”; and work to reclaim “success” in neoliberal institutions (Dickinson et al. 2020). We invite others to share their stories and engage in active listening to reflect on precarity in academic institutions, teaching and research, but also as a way to build relationships of reciprocity and collaboration. Through these relationships, we aim to shift the circulations of power that enable the silences to occur in the first place. If holding space is conceived as a political act of resistance, the edge is a political concept informing this action. Holding space is about finding, occupying and unsettling the edge and welcoming others in.

Invitation

We invite others to join us in collectively holding space within and beyond academia. In putting our commitments into practice and extending this Intervention, we are looking for opportunities for shared storytelling and active listening. We have started by explicitly identifying and opposing the harm produced by academia as:

  • An extractive industry;
  • Reproducing oppressive systems;
  • Inadvertently reinforcing the memory of how things have been done;
  • Privileging social classes and certain ways of knowing;
  • A context of survival (i.e. surviving academia and burnout, survival of cultures and knowledges);
  • Social isolation and exclusion;
  • Tolerating and perpetuating gender inequalities and sexual harassment, racism, ableism and heteronormativity; and
  • Abusing and diminishing women, LGTBIQ+, BIPOC, non-English speakers, disabled, first-generation scholars, caregivers and less senior academics.

Holding space is not about policing, performing or postulating about privilege in academia. It is an invitation to:

  • Encourage reciprocity;
  • Break down boundaries and silences (i.e. actively listening);
  • Envision and enable a new and more equitable future in which structures of oppression are acknowledged and dismantled;
  • Radically re-imagine and challenge the memory of how things have been done;
  • Build capacity and collaboration to enact hope and change;
  • Foster meaningful relationships and connection with self, others and non-human worlds;
  • Practise radical compassion and solidarity;
  • Celebrate the work of academics and activists in the development of more inclusive practices; and
  • Call out abusive behaviours within and beyond academia.

To contribute to this ongoing process, please contact: holdingspacecollective@gmail.com

Acknowledgements

We would like to sincerely thank Ruth Pinto, Alley Pascoe, Helen Askew, Diana Ojeda, Debbie Gonzalez, Samantha Balaton-Chrimes and the NO Es NoRmal collective for their input and solidarity in writing this Intervention. In practising and making explicit our ethical commitments, we have taken care with our citation practices and deliberately chosen to cite certain authors and not others; this is something we need to continually reflect on to encourage ethical research practice.

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