On being like Robyn Penrose

Robyn Penrose is a newly minted lecturer in women’s studies and English literature who specialises in the ‘industrial novel’, fiction written in the mid-1800’s that reflected the values and anxieties of the British industrial revolution. She is a feminist academic with an unflagging belief in uprooting social injustice inside and outside the classroom. She joins anti-nuclear marches and strikes against cuts to university funding. Ever the empowered woman of the 1980s, she is also assertive and confident and is clear about what she wants. Somehow the ‘imposter syndrome’ endemic in higher education does not exist in her dictionary.

She is a fictional character after all and springs from David Lodge’s classic 1988 campus novel, Nice Work, in which our academic heroine is pressured by her dean into shadowing a factory manager at work in a higher education-meets-industry programme. Although a character from the Thatcherite 1980s, she is a figure of our times. As an early career researcher who came to a full-time teaching position from a fixed-term research fellowship in a prestigious research university, Robyn does not know if she can keep her job when the next national budget looms. Universities across the UK since Margaret Thatcher’s premiership have faced inexorable cuts to research, teaching, and upkeep. New appointments are frozen and people lose their jobs.

The precarious nature of academic employment, then as now, involving applying to diminishing jobs and accepting them anywhere in the country and beyond has hampered any attempts at a typical romantic or marital relationship. Robyn’s boyfriend whom she’s been with since they were undergraduates at Sussex has accepted a job a great distance away. They see each other every other weekend and the arrangement feels more like a long-distance relationship. But it works for her as she doesn’t believe in marriage and the bourgeois idea of romantic love. Her boyfriend agrees with her as he is slow to develop his own opinion. She does develop meaningful relationships with others, namely with a female colleague and fellow feminist. Though her greatest triumph is her intellectual and sexual conquest of one Vic Wilcox, the middle-aged factory manager whom she is assigned to shadow.

There are many instances in the novel which suggest that Robyn Penrose is a caricature of a feminist academic, all righteous and dominating. Her ability to transform Vic Wilcox from a boring and predictable family man life who sneers at women’s studies into an effortless enunciator of Tennyson and Saussurean semiotics is the stuff of fairy tales for academics. But she is nonetheless an admirable woman of intellectual ambition whose work is admired by established figures in the field. Who wouldn’t want to be offered a tenure-track job in an elite US university based on the strength of an unpublished book manuscript? She speaks and acts in the manner of her thinking and beliefs; unpretentiously provocative, bold, and forthright. She can talk about her sex life in the same breath as structuralism and metonymy. A sapiosexual’s idea of a really sexy pillow talk.

As a caricature, albeit lifted from the lived experience of the author who was an academic himself, Robyn Penrose ticks many of the identifiable and aspirational boxes. As a feminist academic, the boundary that separates professional and personal life is never really clear. She defines the morality that gives shape to her vocation and sexuality rather than having it imposed by others, not least prudes, anti-intellectual people, and sexist men. It makes me wonder how many women out there harbor a fantasy to be like Robyn Penrose whose mind challenges and ignites desire in the most unlikeliest of people. Because I do.

Lessons learned

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

It’s been nearly two years since I’ve been appointed Senior Lecturer in Gender Studies, my first real job after the PhD. Unlike my cohort, I hadn’t spent too much time applying for many jobs and had been interviewed for only two. Penniless and exhausted, returning to Malaysia seemed like a good idea. It chimed with my old ambition of teaching Gender Studies – back when I didn’t quite understand what it was – at the University of Malaya. And yes, Dear Reader, I got the job.

Being a full-time academic came with the financial independence that I never really had all throughout my 20s. With financial assistance from my parents and younger sister who helped with the initial down-payment, I finally had my own home and car. Most transformative and powerfully addictive of all, I had a disposable income. Being poor for so long leaves behind a psychological scar tissue; to put more simply, the reversal of fortune did not change my attitude with money. Moreover, I had always been cognisant of the precarious nature of jobs and how the living wage anywhere I lived was never commensurate with the rising cost of living.

It took a bit of time thinking about my research trajectory – which would define my academic profile and employability – and whether I wanted to stay in film and cultural studies. It was important to have a putative cut-off time when I knew what research I wanted to do, stick with it, and let it define me for the next five years (or more). I thought very carefully about why I transitioned from the biological sciences to Gender Studies 8 years ago and reassessed if my work was meaningful to me and others.

There have been a few interrelated challenges during the first two years of my career. The sexual harassment allegations that several women and myself have made against AFR resulted in a significant falling-out with many former friends and allies. I should have not been surprised that outrage against sexual harassment is only lip service, only a crime that occurs to others far away – not something their friends would commit, certainly not men who have made a reputation for themselves as ‘progressive’, ‘feminist’, and ‘intellectual’. I had to watch many ‘friends’ and ‘feminists’ express disbelief and when presented with testimony from victims, vacillate on who they thought were the real perpetrator and victims. Others chose to downplay, deny, and accuse me and other women whom I hardly knew but shared the unfortunate fate of being sexually harassed by AFR of lying and planning his downfall. Of course this should have been hardly surprising but it nonetheless was painful and distressing in lived experience. In cases related to gender-based violence and discrimination, women are first presumed to be liars before they are innocent and vindicated.

The emotional impact of the collective sexual harassment case aside, I began to chart my early phase of my academic career in earnest – determining what and where I should publish (the answer to ‘when’ is always ‘now’ but ends up being deferred thanks to the journal publication cycle), and what conference should I organise and when. Teaching was a given – there was little choice on what I could teach but I have been hugely fortunate to teach courses on subjects I really love – feminist and gender theory – and in something I have past professional experience: gender, science and technology.

It all sounds smooth-sailing for those outside looking in but it isn’t always like that. There seems to be two intellectual time-space trajectories running in parallel in my workplace. When working on my own research and teaching, the intellectual time-space trajectory is stimulating, rapid, and at times, frantic. I design the syllabi and prepare all teaching materials from scratch. Every class feels like a high-wire act. Managing, writing, and revising research becomes (on hindsight) an exhilarating race against time. The other intellectual time-space trajectory relates to the habitus of my workplace. There is less urgency for academic publication and rigour; tenured staff either do not publish or do so collectively in dubious Beall’s list journals. The level of discussion during public seminars is low, meandering, and unchallengingly non-intellectual.

Since starting my academic career, I am beginning to fully appreciate my strengths (integrity and hard graft) and weaknesses (failure at building strategic alliances and undiplomatic honesty). I realise now I cannot do everything but while I’m still in my 30s and able-bodied, I should push my boundaries and step out of my comfort zone. My self-knowledge has made me less anxious about my abilities (I can teach and publish in good journals!) and made me more confident at mapping out a future brimming with ambition. Here’s to several more decades as an academic!

A undergraduate I’m teaching this semester – Gender, Science and Technology

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I’m happy to announce that I’ll be teaching Gender, Science and Technology (AZEA 2306) again for the second 2016/2017 academic semester at the Faculty of Arts and Social Science, University of Malaya. Undergraduate students within the faculty (especially in the English and Media Studies department) and international exchange undergraduate students are encouraged to register. All students are welcome to audit.

In this course, students will enjoy the opportunity to explore the exciting ways in which science and technology contribute to our understanding of gender and sexuality. The course will also explore the following themes and subjects:

• Sexuality and technology
• Digital and cyber-feminisms
• Computers, video-games and gender
• Species and gender, consumption of animals
• Feminist science fiction
• Gender and reproductive technology

Call for papers – The Public Sensorium: Gender, Disability, Architecture, and Public Spaces 25-26 July 2017 University of Malaya

This two-day workshop at the Faculty of Built Environment, University of Malaya, aims to bring together scholars and practitioners from different disciplines and fields to examine new and exciting issues pertaining to gender, disabilities, and the public sensorium. We aim to further develop theory and policies for gender relations in public spaces that encompass disability, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, and age. We are interested in addressing matters of self, being, access, participation, opportunities and equality as a way of informing the values behind public policies for inclusive architectural design and urban planning.

This workshop deploys the concept of the ‘public sensorium’ to develop theory and policies that consider ways of optimising public space usage for all bodies and all abilities. The public sensorium refers to the visible and invisible elements of the body that come into contact with public spaces; seeing, smelling, and tactility that constitute the experience of the self in public space. This workshop asks: what is the significance of human senses in public space? How do public visibility, smells, and touch relate to bodies and gender? How can a consideration of human senses make public spaces more inclusive and enjoyable? With limited abilities and senses what is necessary for a person to enjoy full participation in public life?

The workshop invites papers and panel proposals on (but not limited to) the following themes:

● Gender, disabilities, safety, and risk
● Mobility and public transportation
● Religion/sexuality/family/health and public space (**)
● Urban public space and protest cultures
● Youth cultures and outdoor/indoor public space
● Urban renewal and gentrification
● Poverty eradication policies
● Informal and night-time economies in the public space

** Outdoor public spaces include public parks, squares, theme parks, food stalls
Indoor public spaces include malls, places of worship, museums, art galleries, food halls, markets

Women and girls with disabilities belong to one of the most marginalised and under-represented groups in many societies. Therefore, we especially encourage panel proposals on gender and disabilities from established scholars, practicing architects and public policy-makers, early career researchers, and graduate students.

Selected papers presented at the workshop will have an opportunity to be published in a special issue in a high-ranking peer-reviewed journal.

Graduate students who are presenting can qualify for a travel bursary worth RM100. Please contact the workshop convener Dr. Alicia Izharuddin (alicia@um.edu.my) if you are interested in applying for the travel bursary.

Please submit your 250-word abstract to: Dr. Naziaty Mohd Yaacob naziaty@gmail.com and Dr. Alicia Izharuddin alicia@um.edu.my by 15 April 2017. Accepted proposals will be notified on 30 April 2017.

Workshop registration fees:

RM 200 for full-time/employed (early bird registration)
RM 250 for full-time/employed
RM 100 for part-time/employed (early bird registration)
RM 150 for part-time/employed
RM 50 student rate (early bird registration)
RM 100 student rate
RM 50 walk-in attendee

Payment for the early bird registration fee is 30 May 2017
Deadline for registration fee payment is 30 June 2017

Workshop convener and contact person: Dr. Alicia Izharuddin, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Malaya
Email: alicia@um.edu.my. Telephone: 03-7967 5447

This workshop is supported by the Malaysian Ministry of Higher Education’s Fundamental Research Grant Scheme. It is co-organised by the Faculty of Built Environment and the Gender Studies Programme of University of Malaya.

My first book: Gender and Islam in Indonesian Cinema

I feel pleased and humbled to announce the publication of my first book, Gender and Islam in Indonesian Cinema (2017 Palgrave Macmillan. Chapters can purchased separately here) based on my field research between 2011 and 2012 in Jakarta and Yogyakarta where I was privileged to interview film directors, film producers, festival organisers, film critics and enthusiasts in the Indonesian film industry. I have made many wonderful friends in the process who became colleagues in a rather niche and important field of Southeast Asian cinemas and cultural production. It was written up as my PhD thesis supervised by Dr. Ben Murtagh and examined by Dr. Felicia Hughes-Freeland and Dr. Yvonne Michalik.

An open letter to the plagiarising student

Dear plagiarising student,

First and foremost, I hope it is clear to you that plagiarism is unacceptable to anyone’s code of conduct whether or not you are in a place of higher education. If that is already clear to you, you will need to think more carefully before you think could get away with plagiarism.

There are softwares available to educators that can determine the extent of originality in your digital documents within seconds. We become very suspicious of your written submissions when un-cited passages appear to be more articulate than yourself in person. Of course being an ineloquent speaker but a terrific writer is possible; a few great writers have been known to have difficulty speaking to other people but are gifted with the written word.

I want to properly understand your impulse to plagiarise. You tell me your command of English is shaky. I appreciate the time constraints to improve when there are many things going on in your life to juggle. Maybe you have not been asked to turn in long pieces of written work before and thus the anatomy of the essay or PhD thesis is new to you.

Anything longer than 2000 or 3000 words in the English language is not only daunting, but demands of you skills that you have yet to master and to acquire the confidence to exhibit. All this is compounded with an inadequate comprehension of the work you are assigned to explain in writing. If you do not understand the things I teach, please ask during or after class. You can make an appointment to see me.

Please understand the dire ramifications of plagiarism as there are short and long-term implications. Students have been known to be caught, reprimanded, failed, and expelled for plagiarism. Please be informed that academic staff themselves are not immune from being disciplined and shamed for this crime.

That colleges and universities are lax with students who plagiarise does not mean that plagiarism is excusable under my watch. You might assume that educators are too busy to care or too stupid to notice the dubious quality of students’ work but you are wrong. Your work matters as it is a reflection of my work. We do not have a duty to pass all students without the filter of scrutiny.

The crime of plagiarism is more damaging to you when you are PhD student as it will have long-term effects on your own work, work ethics, and employability. The PhD is not just a book that a dedicated student will work on through blood, sweat and tears but it is a product of one’s engagement with their scholarly community.

By the time you have a PhD that has passed the rigorous scrutiny of your examiners, you belong to the community of experts in your field and through your contribution to the field of knowledge, you are at the frontier of your field. What you write matters. Your writing is the cornerstone of your work.

If you are known to pass other people’s work as your own, you will not have the respect of people whose respect matters a great deal in the long run especially if you aspire to be an academic yourself. That lack of respect can be translated into a refusal to formally and informally acknowledge your academic merit.

If you are not worried about plagiarism today, I am concerned that you are not worried about some important things like being employable, developing a good reputation, and earning recommendations. In academia, what you know and who you know (through the recognition of your merit and recommendations) do go hand in hand. You want to be recognised by people who care about your work and your academic development. Well, I hope you do!

If you have plagiarised and looking to redeem yourself, the door to retribution is still open. Own up to it, repent, and vow to never to re-commit the crime. Consult the many resources on academic writing like books (How to Author a PhD by Patrick Dunleavy is excellent) and websites like The Thesis Whisperer and Explorations of Style.

Learn to be patient and persevere. Read widely at every opportunity and take the time to identify ‘good’ writing i.e. writing that is clear, enjoyable to read yet still deeply informative (the key word is ‘depth’).

Remember that it is a privilege to be given the time and opportunity to develop the rarified skill of academic writing in an institution of higher education so please don’t squander them and as RuPaul reminds us mere mortals: don’t f— it up.

How I teach

It’s been nearly two years since I’ve returned to Malaysia after gaining a PhD. By this week, I would have finished 178 hours of teaching tallied from the lectures and tutorials of seven different courses* (excluding time spent preparing and marking). My proudest accomplishment thus far is less the mind-boggling number of hours within a short span of time than the sheer confidence to stand in front of my class and the commitment to the dramaturgy of teaching. And by teach, I mean an engagement with my audience involving eye contact, the to-and-fro-ing of questions and answers, and an intellectual discussion that sadly does not happen even in my own day-to-day interactions with my academic peers. The dramaturgy alludes to the highly performative aspect of my work as an academic; I seek to inform, delight, and to some small measure, entertain, my audience.

This is not say that I enjoy hanging around students when I am done with teaching for the day. Being an introvert, I loathe small talk and become very awkward when not duty-bound to deliver un-authoritative and un-academic things to say with students. I get nervous and quickly hide in my office when a lecture or tutorial is over. Despite being fiercely introverted and gripped by anxiety fifteen minutes before a lecture, I do enjoy being in front of a crowd so long as the exposure under the glare of the highly anticipating gaze of my students is purposeful and focused solely on me. I must be a closet diva. Seeing people hang to my every word thrills me. Watching students yawn and eyes gaze down into their smart phones makes me panic. I change the pace of my speech; I slow down to emphasise a point or slightly elevate my tone of voice to regain their undivided attention.

For every lecture, I am given two hours to speak. On Sundays where I teach at a private university, I am given three hours. I don’t always use the entire allocated time and usually take a five minute break in between (though ten minutes for the three hour class). During these precious breaks, I would run back into my office and watch a Youtube video or walk down the corridor, not thinking about anything. When I return there is no faffing about, I continue right away in a business-like manner. In class, I stand up because I believe it projects my voice better. I actually like the sound of my voice when I teach, more so when I am reading aloud a passage. That way I can focus on the modulations of my voice like a good voiceover or a reader of an audiobook.

Many a midnight oil was spent preparing the lectures, tutorial questions, exam questions, and quizzes and marking assignments. In my first year of teaching, I am frequently in my office until 1 am preparing my lecture notes for an early class the next morning. Belonging to the unpopular and uncool camp, I am a big proponent of Microsoft Office’s Powerpoint. I would be steered down a rambling path without it. Indeed, Powerpoint has a talismanic quality for me; I just need to glance at the slides and suddenly feel emboldened to speak to my class rather than reading aloud every word from the screen. The latter would be deathly dull even for me.

The slides for every lecture are prepared in the same way in every instance: one week before the lecture begins, by which time I would have done much of the necessary reading. When I re-teach the same courses in subsequent terms, I spend a couple of hours the day before of the lecture re-reading my lecture notes. For a new lecture, I would open thirty empty slides and begin to fill each slide with easy-to-digest two statements in clear and medium sized font. Every lecture consists about fifty to fifty-five Powerpoint sildes.The statements on each slide are prompts that guide my delivery. I don’t use many images although I know I should but don’t because I know I get easily distracted and derailed by a singular image on a slide. Text keeps me focused.

I try to keep the momentum going towards the end of the lecture, like a climax of an exciting film. The pace of my speech may speed up and I check again for eye contact and alertness amongst my students. Most times, I see facial expressions of engagement – nods, a smile, direct gaze or a shake of the head and a slack jaw. By the time I am done with a class, I feel victorious and utterly euphoric. Then as the students walk out the eye of my mind does not see faces anymore, I look forward to packing up and walk quietly away to spend time by myself.

* Of the seven courses, five I prepare and teach alone and two others are co-taught with another instructor.