The following post is based on The Research Whisperer’s abridged version of Meagan Tyler’s contribution to the Feminist Forum series in Melbourne which included a session on ‘How to Survive Your Feminist Research Project’.
Most of my colleagues don’t know what it’s like to expect resistance every time they present their work.
I recently found out that many of them simply expect polite applause or – worst case scenario – a curly question from a grumpy professor.
But for many feminist researchers these experiences are all too common. It can feel as though there is a significant divide between our working lives and those of non-feminist colleagues.
There is also a noticeable divide in motivation between those doing research which is genuinely committed to liberation, social justice, and positive change, and those for whom these are not considerations. There are successful professors who will tell you to publish your work only in order to get grants, get grants only to get promoted, and get promoted only to earn more money.
This is not the academic research world I have inhabited. Most of my feminist colleagues are motivated to publish because they believe their knowledge and research are important to women’s lives, and they are committed to building a world free from misogyny and violence against women and girls.
Such experiences of dislocation and difference give us a chance to think about the great benefits of feminist research. How brilliant to be surrounded by women motivated in this way! How wonderful to conduct research that has impact! What strength to put forward robust and persuasive arguments in the face of such hostility!
There is frequently a personal cost to conducting feminist research, however, and it can be difficult to speak about this openly.
We regularly study harrowing topics. When you’ve been doing it for a while, it can be easy to forget how hard it is at the start: what it’s like to read your first feminist text, or write your first feminist essay, or undertake your first feminist research project. It opens your eyes, but it might also feel a bit like the world you knew is falling apart.
Taking up feminist research can also be challenging in that it often means you lose friends. This is true for most women new to feminism. There will be people in your life you will see in new ways. People you’ll clash with. People you can no longer stand to be in a room with. There will also be people who don’t want to speak to you anymore. Or will only communicate with you by leaving passive aggressive comments on your social media posts.
It is an unpleasant process. And I don’t envy you if you are still trying to figure out where you will draw the line.
But, here too, there is still an upside. Through this process you will also discover amazing new friends and colleagues who will support you in what you do. These people are like gold-dust. Celebrate them. Let them know you’re grateful they exist. Promote their work. Help each other stay afloat when it all feels like too much.
Because I do not know of a feminist researcher who has not experienced a moment when she has felt that it’s all too much.
So, how do we survive?
In the midst of the current cultural obsession with ‘wellbeing’, it feels almost negligent not to emphasise thriving, rather than surviving. I do hope that one day that we all feel as though we are thriving, but I think thriving is a lot to expect while living under white-supremacist capitalist-patriarchy.
I regularly come back to an article by George Monbiot from a few years ago, in which he extols the virtues of being OK with being disturbed by the world we inhabit:
To be at peace with a troubled world: this is not a reasonable aim. It can be achieved only through a disavowal of what surrounds you. To be at peace with yourself within a troubled world: that, by contrast, is an honourable aspiration. This column is for those who feel at odds with life. It calls on you not to be ashamed…So, if you don’t fit in, if you feel at odds with the world, if your identity is troubled and frayed, if you feel lost and ashamed – it could be because you have retained the human values you were supposed to have discarded. You are a deviant. Be proud.
This works for me when I’m having a bad day. Maybe this particular idea doesn’t work for you, but it’s good to find something that does.
To that end, here’s a list of top tips to get you started:
Dr Meagan Tyler is a Senior Lecturer at RMIT University and a research theme leader (gender, equality and diversity) in the Centre for People, Organisation and Work (CPOW).
Her work is focused on using feminist theory and methods to address gender inequality and violence against women in a range of contexts, from emergency management to the sex industry. You can read more of Meagan’s work here.
She tweets (occasionally) @DrMeaganTyler.