[Clarification, 16 May 2022: this Intervention states that its author “gave up corresponding author status”; in the published version of record of the article discussed, they are listed as corresponding author, but at submission, peer review, and proofing, they were not. The Intervention discusses its author’s experiences of giving up corresponding author status initially and the uncomfortable circumstances this led to. The author subsequently pushed to be listed as corresponding author in the published version of record.]
The Vulnerability of “Wicked Enthusiasm”
As a young, female, Asian, international student, the crux of my vulnerability was rooted in my own wicked enthusiasm.
My time as an undergraduate geographer at a UK university was significantly shaped by the two years I spent on my department’s undergraduate research fellowship programme. What began as the least daunting path I could take to feed my curiosity about academic research, quickly became a full immersion into the messy realities of doing research – in both a practical and affective sense.
This essay seeks to make visible the dimensions of vulnerability that work to make undergraduates susceptible to uncomfortable experiences like mine. In providing an honest account of some of my experiences navigating academic research and publishing spaces as an undergraduate, I hope to provide insight into the sense of wicked enthusiasm that feeds a set of internal struggles, when students first begin to wrestle with who they are as researchers. This piece seeks to frustrate spaces of academic research and publishing, and urges all scholars to engage in a reflexive exercise, in hopes of creating more welcoming environments for undergraduates to participate and thrive in, and not ones they struggle to survive in. This essay is not written out of resentment for one man, but through the freedom that comes with forgiveness, and out of genuine love and concern for the discipline I’m blessed to call home. It is because of immense support from geographers that I am fuelled with a great sense of hope.
I began as an undergraduate research fellow at the start of my second year. My eagerness and willingness to jump head first into this creative endeavour quickly but unexpectedly resulted in me proposing a drastic shift in the entire project direction, and subsequently, taking over as project lead as I worked to make the project my own. I was no longer simply surveying the field and getting to grips with existing literature, I was in a position to contribute to the field. For the first time, I felt not only seen as a researcher, but valued as one – and this privileged responsibility was not one I took for granted. 12 weeks of independent fieldwork and 22 months later, the project culminated in the publication of an autoethnographic paper, of which I share authorship status.
I use “wicked enthusiasm” to describe the complex relationship between my enthusiasm and vulnerability when navigating these exclusive spaces as an undergraduate. “Wicked” can be used as a superlative ascribed to something special, or to describe something inherently evil. My great enthusiasm to participate in research adopts both these connotations of “wicked”. This wicked enthusiasm stems from the intimate knowledge that these are spaces you are not meant to be in or expected to exist in, and ultimately, the simultaneously intense feelings of excitement and intimidation when negotiating your position within these spaces as an undergraduate.
Enthusiasm and your ability to demonstrate said enthusiasm, are important gatekeepers of academic spaces and opportunities. But enthusiasm and vulnerability work together in funny ways. Whilst enthusiasm drives a momentum and willingness to conform to academic practices (Bauder 2006), vulnerability goes further than just acting as a humbling mechanism. Vulnerability cultivates an inflated need for validation – validation from anyone who seemingly knows more than you. But it becomes wickedly complicated when your ideas aren’t the only things being validated. Your innocent but honest confessions that you don’t have a clue what is going on in these new and foreign spaces, in turn, validate the superiority complex of those who hold power over you. I didn’t know that then.
Suppress and dismiss – that was my strategy to keep myself afloat and my perception of academia as this magical space of passion and collaboration intact. My paper was autoethnographic and written entirely in the first person. Thus, when the first draft of my manuscript was returned to me with someone else’s name attached, I was confused, but quickly dismissed this discomfort with the “hard truth” that my name and the voice that came with it had no credibility to stand alone. I would (re)ground myself in the perceived “big picture” reality that someone took a chance on me, and sink in my wonder of why anyone decided to entrust me with this great responsibility to produce knowledge. The factors which mediated my presence within these spaces were secondary to the astonishing fact that I had even been allowed to exist within them.
Navigating these spaces of research and publishing as an undergraduate is navigating these spaces, in which you consistently feel you do not belong, alone. It is navigating for the first time your identity as a researcher, and discovering the kind of researcher, writer and learner you aspire to be. Naivety and necessary blindness are masked and reconfigured as “bravery” and “confidence” to dare undergo the peer-review process as an undergraduate. My scrambled emotions were heightened when I received an invitation to revise and resubmit. The peer-reviewers recommended “major revisions”. Reading their comments completely validated my imposter syndrome. While my “experienced” collaborator celebrated, my own mind was blanketed with self-doubt. “You should be happy”, he said to me. I so desperately wanted to feel excited and felt guilty that I wasn’t.
Feelings of inadequacy were matched with a deep gratitude to have been allowed through the tall gates of academia, thus, solidifying the pedestal I placed this man on. The loneliness made conducive a situation where I relied on the words of a sole researcher, I perceived to be all-knowing, to guide me through the entire publishing process. Troubled with so much running through my mind, it did not once occur to me that if I had to share authorship, perhaps majorly revising a paper should not be a one-(wo)man task.
When undergraduates, like myself, only begin to contemplate the possibility of publishing via the urge and confidence of a white man – with our confidence as researchers not coming from within, but instead, inextricably linked to validation from this external source – the fragility of our positions within spaces of academic research and publishing is maintained and uneven power dynamics perpetuated.
To Write It Is Not To Own It
Autoethnography as a method is inherently personal – it acts as a lens into stories that cannot be co-authored when they are not co-experienced. Shared authorship is shared ownership of my voice and its narration of my personal experiences. I convinced myself that this voice could not stand alone and the credibility of my words was inextricably linked to the explicit support and perceived legitimacy of an established name (Ballamingie and Tudin 2013). It was on this basis and rhetoric that “undergraduates don’t publish”, I justified shared authorship to myself and gave up corresponding author status.
I would later find myself making edits on the publisher’s online proofing system under the guise of a white man’s name, as only he was granted access to make edits. This was a deeply uncomfortable experience as a young scholar; it served as confirmation to me that I was an active imposter and had no space in academic research. In the same week, the university repository had mistakenly changed the author sequence, and the email I nervously sent asking for the mishap to be rectified was met with a “just be patient” response.
Although these uncomfortable instances may seem minor to many, myself included at the time, these distressing experiences left me with a deep discomfort I couldn’t dismiss. And for this discomfort, I was overwhelmed with guilt – appalled even by my apparent ungratefulness for this elusive opportunity. Being honest and vulnerable with my supervisor was terrifying, but I was desperate to have someone in my corner. Needing at least him to acknowledge how real my feelings were, I confided in him.
To my horror and surprise, I was met with: “I had considered a few times whether it should just be your name on this!” Messaged received – just not as the compliment it was intended to be. This message was a thought that recurringly crept into my head; a thought that for months I fought hard to dismiss. He agreed: my voice could stand on its own. And in those few times he considered if this should have been a solo-authored paper, I was never involved in that discussion. This was the first moment I properly considered what authorship meant and recognised that I should have agency in the negotiation of the paper’s authorship.
Advice from existing literature is clear that honest discussions about authorship and any results of students’ contributions must be had at the outset, prior to collaborative efforts, to avoid confusion and unnecessary grief (Abbott and Sanders 1991; Ballamingie and Tudin 2013; Van Cott 2005). Unfortunately, it was advice I was unaware of. I understood my supervisor’s willingness and desire to attach his name to mine as entirely complimentary and self-sacrificial. I did not consider how under tremendous pressure to “publish or perish” (Sidaway 2000), collaborating with his student might be attractive because of my propensity for hard work (Abbot and Sanders 1991; Van Cott 2005) driven by my wicked enthusiasm.
Suddenly, I realised the depths of the fragile and intricate lies I told myself; large enough to overcome a reviewer’s concern about the use of a first-person voice throughout the paper matched with the use of “we” in the introduction. They questioned whether this piece with this voice could possibly be a multi-authored paper; they questioned this when I did not. This happened during the second round of revisions. Not wanting to appear territorial or ungrateful, in an intentionally nonchalant way, I asked for a meeting to chat about that reviewer’s comment. I was nervous but wanted to finally get rid of the niggling feeling I had about him being an author, if I could just hear him vocalise his reasons for it. To my disappointment, his response was an updated manuscript with an added line in the introduction, clarifying that the lead author conducted the fieldwork. “I can’t imagine that there are many autoethnographies that are co-authored! We are certainly unique … Although I like to consider myself as more than just a technician for this paper!”, he said. For fear I might offend him, I didn’t push the matter any further. Although peer-review as an institutional safeguard kicked in, its effectiveness was undermined when the responsibility to ensure an appropriate and ethical response was on me.
Now in a new institution in a new city months later, I mustered up the courage to speak to a mentor about the two years I kept bottled up. Thankfully, I was met with great empathy, kindness and, importantly, third-party resources on research ethics within collaborative frameworks and authorship criteria. Although I was now aware my supervisor didn’t deserve authorship in this instance, fearing the repercussions, I had no intention to attempt to remove him from the paper. But recognising that he was still in a position of power with the possibility of collaborating with more undergraduates in the near future, I wanted to bring these guidelines to his attention and finally have an open conversation about authorship with him.
Despite his reiterations that he too wanted to have an open dialogue, his emails were unnecessarily defensive and riddled with blatant attempts to gaslight me – most apparent was his refusal to reflexively listen and engage with what I was saying to him. Although I believe and hope that there was no malicious intent behind his words, they cut deep. And whilst I gained a renewed sense of confidence as a researcher through this encounter, in losing respect for this academic I once so admired, I lost with it all the validation I got from him that I had worked so hard to secure. It has taken a year of healing and growth for me to rediscover the inherent value of my voice, without his or anyone else’s validation.
In the aftermath of this experience, through me, he gained an additional publication and potentially, the glorified reputation of a selfless academic who willingly stepped back to enable a new voice to take centre stage. Through this reputation of identifying excellence, I have no agency over his ability to harness credit for platforming my voice that I no longer have full ownership of. Too quickly are academics praised for allowing undergraduates to be project leads or first authors, for opening doors and bringing fresh voices into academic research spheres. But when does this perceived selflessness instead signal an outsourcing of labour and extractive practices? There is great responsibility in bringing undergraduates into these research environments. Authorship and the associated ownership of research outputs are not typically things undergraduates are conscious of or actively think about, let alone know how to initiate a conversation about. More and closer attention needs to be paid to the circumstances and dynamics that mediate the existence of undergraduates and their voices within these spaces. I maintain my wholehearted belief in the merit of undergraduate research fellowship and assistantship programmes and I cannot deny the tremendous benefit I have gained from my own experience, but I see a lot of the heartache and trauma I have stemming from it as unnecessary and preventable.
Student-staff research collaborations – and the outputs of these collaborations – cannot be celebrated without acknowledgement first of the imbalanced, complex and messy power dynamics that underwire and shape these relationships. As I replay the moments that jolts of discomfort rushed through me, I am disappointed in my haste to dismiss these feelings, but I am at a lost as to what I would have done if I had tapped into them. I chose instead to cling onto the words and assurance of my supervisor that we were collaborators. I denied the reality that power dynamics are inevitably at work (McDowell 1992), whether they eventually manifest into uncomfortable circumstances, or not. Refusing to believe I was vulnerable, my wicked enthusiasm settled in as I wrongly equated vulnerability to incompetency.
I firmly believe that the responsibility of maintaining good academic practice and sensitivity to imbalanced power relations should not rest entirely on undergraduates. As I begin to make sense of all that happened, I find solace in the work of England (1994) and Finlay (2012), who under different circumstances, both describe their reflexive efforts in mediating the evolving dynamics of their working relationships with research assistants and students. Initiating conversations around the ethical dimensions of involving students in academic research and publishing is and will be undoubtedly uncomfortable. But the solution is not to exclude them from these spaces. Instead, academics should actively and attentively listen to and engage with students, in determining how they can be made to feel more comfortable and confident in these spaces.
This essay seeks to remind academics of how they might be perceived through the eyes of an undergraduate, in hopes that academics will hold accountable both themselves and their colleagues to creating safer spaces for undergraduates to participate in research. It was only through a handful of brief but impactful conversations with other academics, where I hinted at some of my concerns, that I was able to persevere for those two years. These academics did not know the extent of what I was going through, but equally they probably did not realise how much their care-centred approach impacted me.
I remain hopeful in the potential for undergraduate research fellowship and assistantship programmes to be transformative experiences for students. I believe that if the circumstances that mediate these experiences can be made better and safer through a care-centred approach, there can be lasting impacts on establishing new generations of care-centred scholars, researchers, writers and learners.
I thank God for His gracious and abundant love that heals and sustains me. It is only grounded in this love that I can have the strength to wholeheartedly forgive those who hurt me, for He loves them too. For the refuge they provided, I am immensely grateful to my academic mentors who actively listen and consistently respond with great kindness and empathy.
Abbott D and Sanders G F (1991) On the road to tenure. Family Relations 40(1):106-109
Ballamingie P and Tudin S (2013) Publishing graduate student research in geography: The fundamentals. Journal of Geography in Higher Education 37(2):304-314
Bauder H (2006) Learning to become a geographer: Reproduction and transformation in academia. Antipode 38(4):671-679
England K (1994) Getting personal: Reflexivity, positionality, and feminist research. The Professional Geographer 46(1):80-89
Finlay L (2012) Five lenses for the reflexive interviewer. In J F Gubrium, J A Holstein, A B Marvasti and K D McKinney (eds) The SAGE Handbook of Interview Research: The Complexity of the Craft (2nd edn) (pp317-332). London: SAGE
McDowell L (1992) Doing gender: Feminism, feminists, and research methods in human geography. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 17(4):399-416
Sidaway J D (2000) Recontextualising positionality: Geographical research and academic fields of power. Antipode 32(3):260-270
Van Cott D L (2005) A graduate student’s guide to publishing scholarly journal articles. PS: Political Science and Politics 38(4):741-743