Tuesday, 30 September 2014

G is for GENDER (and other binaries)

The seventh in an alphabetical series of blog posts: A-Z: An alphabetical journey through the doctoral experience. 

The title of this post is intentionally provocative. I don't believe gender is a binary. This post is inspired by a recent trip to see British actress Maxine Peake playing Hamlet at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester.  About which, more in a moment... 

If you were asked to imagine a part-time, mature higher education student what image would come to mind?  I'm guessing there's a pretty good chance it would be a woman?  Statistically, that's well supported. Over 65% of part-time learners are female and as 90% of part-time learners are mature - well, you can do the maths!  But what are the potential consequences of stereotypical assumptions about these students?  Gendered assumptions about their identities, capabilities and needs? Invisibility of male part-time students and a lack of attention to their interests?  Reduction of a diverse group to a set of common attributes?

This is nothing new and not just in higher education.  But the reason it's important is that, firstly, UK higher education seems all too reliant on binary short cuts: traditional/non-traditional; mature/young; full-time/part-time; working-class/middle-class...  and of course, female/male.  These categories fail to depict the rich and complex diversity of each individual let alone whole student cohorts and have consequences in terms of policy and practice. Secondly, my doctoral research (on part-time, mature undergraduates and retention) attempts to challenge typical models of 'an HE student'.  Yet I find myself having to challenge my own tendency to essentialise, to label, to categorise - all for the convenience of reporting data.  Using excuses such as 'broadly' and 'overall' doesn't compensate for ignoring the potential for nuance and contradiction.  

Gender is nuanced, diverse and complex.  Gender is constructed.  Maxine Peake played Hamlet as a principal boy, flouncing and heroic.  She looked like a baby dyke (look it up).  Occasionally her Hamlet was a sulky teenager, gurning and sneering.  I'm happy Maxine got a juicy part to get her teeth into - too rare for so many actresses as excellent as she is.  I'm happy for the Royal Exchange Theatre that they've had to extend the run to meet the demand for tickets.  But somehow, I was disappointed by the production.  It all seemed too obvious. One of the most important tasks in my research is to depict the wide diversity of part-time students for what it is, not a flattened, convenient category but a population defying classification. 

Sunday, 14 September 2014


The sixth in an alphabetical series of blog posts: A-Z: An alphabetical journal through the doctoral experience. 

I've recently put together something I've called 'a fulfilment strategy'.  It's an action plan for networking, publication and gaining relevant experience during the final year of my doctoral research, in order to make myself as employable as possible.  Although I call it a 'fulfilment strategy' with my tongue firmly in my cheek, on reflection, it's not such a bad name.  

Ever since I started my doctoral research people have asked me 'What are you going to do with your PhD?'  Implying anything from 'How do you plan to make your way in academia?' to 'What the heck use is that?!'.  Because I'd had a torrid few years on the employment front prior to starting my PhD, I'd decided to give myself a whole two year sabbatical from thinking about paid employment.  Up until last month, I just shrugged my shoulders and said, truthfully: 'I really don't know at this point'.  What a gift, at my (middle) age, not to have to think too far into the future.

Having very recently embarked on my final year however, not only am I getting the 'So, what are you going to do with your PhD?' question with increasing regularity, but now it's something I'm asking myself too!  How am I going to capitalise on my increased capacity for critical thinking and writing, my enthusiasm for research in my field, the niche I'm in the process of carving out for myself?  How am I going to justify the significant personal, professional and financial investment I and others have made in these three years?  With the HE sector increasinly febrile and conflicted, with secure posts increasingly scarce and every decent job fiercely fought over, there is no certainty whatsoever that a woman who's just hit 50 is going to acquire any post that fits her skills, talents, expertise and potential, let alone her interests and ambitions!  

But as a friend observed recently: 'these are your halcyon days!'  She was right. She could see that I am already fulfilled - strategy or no strategy.  I suspect the question 'what are you going to do with your PhD?' is not the right question.  I'm doing doctoral research.  I love what I do and I am immensely grateful for the opportunity to do it, whatever it leads to.  Perhaps, the question should be 'what is your PhD going to do with you?'