The whiteness of academia, the “post(-)” and the “de” colonial

© Evelyn Corr, Honi Soit, the University of Sydney (2016)

 

This is a blog post that I’ve had in mind to write for several months now, but my ideas have now crystallised as a result of being back in an academic environment full-time. It’s more necessary than ever to address both the role of white activists in student activism, and the role of white academics working in anti-racist, postcolonial scholarship. I also importantly welcome all comments on this post and fully admit that I am learning and trying to check my privilege as I go, as a white PhD student engaged in university-level activism and in research that aims to counter some of the prejudiced scholarship of the past.

Since starting my PhD I’ve been involved in a really great student activist group who are working to incite real change by decolonising university curricula (through discussion events, petitions, and subject-specific working groups). At the same time I’ve also been attending academic-led discussions on postcolonial thought, anti-racist scholarship and decolonising academic disciplines, and the impact of both forms of activism are starkly disjointed. While student-led activism fosters real change in the present day – whether by changing reading lists or diversifying the alumni present in iconography around campus – the white critical race and postcolonial scholars all too often appear stuck in an echo-chamber of inactive resistance yet simultaneously benefit, both financially and professionally, from their lack of real activism.

As a white woman I am eminently aware that in the twenty-first century UK I have almost nothing at stake in my involvement in decolonial, anti-racist activism, and it’s not my voice or opinions that need to be privileged in such discussions. I do it because it’s necessary as universities continue to perpetuate real colonial violence both implicitly (by excluding BAME voices, perspectives and thought from curricula and academic disciplines) and, often, explicitly (by retaining colonial iconography, against which the Rhodes Must Fall Movement most notably fought). If the university system continues to systemically perpetuate racial inequality and discrimination it ultimately inhibits any learning and teaching that is actually accurate, fair and, quite frankly, useful.

White activists and activist-academics working in a university environment ought to consciously and consistently reflect on their position within a given movement or a given academic field. Of course it’s better that decolonial activism and postcolonial approaches to academic disciplines get done rather than not, but at the same time it’s important to acknowledge that as a white person your very presence and  voice could be preventing BAME voices from coming to the fore. It’s also difficult to strike a balance, because it should not be the responsibility of BAME students and staff who have suffered and still actively suffer from the inequalities perpetuated by the colonial structures inherent in the UK education system to educate their peers on why this is wrong.

An additional point of contention is the existence of an emerging – and quite frankly worrying – trend in the humanities (I cannot speak for social sciences) of more and more white scholars becoming incredibly prominent figures in race studies and postcolonialism, fields that are by definition inherently interdisciplinary. Their interdisciplinary and ‘radical’ nature (in that they question received ideas prominent in the academy) thus appeal to funding bodies as “new”, “innovative” and “necessary” research. Yet when a funded academic project on the subject of decolonisation or postcolonial thought in the humanities is headed up by a white person, alarm bells should start to ring.

Although the aforementioned white scholars are pursuing useful research that often challenges systemic racism in the academy, the racism that they challenge is mainly that which is present in scholarship – that is, tacitly found in academic writing. They produce novel readings on historical periods, literary works or philosophical currents that work to counteract ‘hegemonic, western-centric approaches’. This is all well and good. I totally understand why this is necessary, and perhaps later on down the line these will become core parts of curricula. The problem comes with the status, jobs and monetary rewards, granted to white academics who do such work. They essentially profit off exposing the struggle that BAME academics and students have long acknowledged, but have struggled to fight against because of systemic inequalities in the education system.

Statistics collated by Advance HE, formerly known as the Equality Challenge Unit charity, show that last year only a small fraction of professors in UK universities were from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds, with women especially poorly represented.  Despite the number of BME staff doubling over the last decade in academic institutions, the data collected from official sources also showed that BME staff remained more likely than their white peers to be in junior positions, to be less well paid and to be employed on fixed-term rather than permanent contracts. BME academics – at least in the UK- are thus not doing this work because they simply have not been given the opportunity to. There is also a glaring and persistent attainment gap affecting BME students, along with the well-documented access issues across UK institutions, but particularly Oxbridge. Overall, nearly 80% of white students were awarded a first class or 2:1 degree, compared with more than 66% of BME students.

All too often do you encounter conference panels or speaker events that are 90% white, yet the topic is “a post-colonial lens” on a particular topic. Another tendency that’s coming to the fore is the appropriation of theoretical frameworks and models that stem from critical race studies, including intersectionality and postcolonialism, without an acknowledgment of the context in which these frameworks emerged. Ultimately, white academics need to acknowledge their privilege in the ironically yet aptly named ‘ivory tower’, for  nothing is at stake for them to debate these issues and propose solutions in a purely theoretical sense. In fact, post- and decolonial scholars often write in an almost bemused tone, wondering why nobody else has yet realised how right they really are. And of course they are right. But they often refuse to properly take on the structures that allowed what they are saying to be so ‘radical’ in the first place, for fear of retribution in the workplace or job market.

Critical race studies conducted by white academics thus more often than not is entirely disconnected from the times of explicit racial violence in which we currently live, and the extensive racial and class inequalities that are continuing to further divide and oppress our society. While white academics can theorise on postcolonial bodies and the postcolonial city, or debate the meaning and necessity of the hyphen in post(-)colonial, they ignore the pressing issues facing racial equality in the university today, such as the aforementioned access and attainment gaps suffered by BAME students, and the systemically-discriminating policy “Prevent” that targets Muslim students.

So what can those in higher education do? As always, the very first step is the acceptance of the damaging effects of white privilege. And from then it is a conscious acknowledgment of the position of white academics in critical race and postcolonial studies, along with related disciplines. If you’re the white academic heading up a grant proposal on decolonising your subject, maybe even with some academics of colour who are further down the bill, or the sole presenter of a conference paper at a nationally-renowned event, question whether you are the right person to submit that proposal or give that paper. While your work is important, are you simultaneously contradicting that work by benefitting from it? Are there academics, or even students, of colour doing similar work but not getting the recognition?

You’ll perhaps notice that I have failed to quote or reference any academic work in the course of this post. I did not want to call out white academics working in race studies explicitly, but rather encourage those that are to be more conscious and check their privilege, whether publicly (in conference, talks and discussions) or in a written form as a prologue to their books or articles on the subject. Because you ultimately cannot depoliticise academia. You absolutely must be political if you’re postcolonial, and if you ignore this fact you’re ironically continuing to perpetuate the structures you are *academically* attempting to deconstruct in privileged forums where radical views earn *academic* kudos while the real world continues to be racist.

Finally, I’ve also needed to do some personal reflection on how these considerations should shape my own research, given I utilised the framework of intersectionality in my MA thesis on medieval Iberia to rethink the depiction of religio-cultural identity in two epic narratives from medieval Castile, and continue to interrogate the idea of Muslim identity as racialised in medieval and early modern Spain. When applying concepts from critical race studies to other academic fields it’s really important to acknowledge where they come from, and to credit those who developed said concepts. I tried to give as much space as I could to the works of Kimberlé Crenshaw, Patricia Hill Collins and others whose valuable academic labour went into creating a theoretical lens from which academics can understand and deconstruct systemic, intersecting forms of oppression, and giving credit is something that I consistently try and remind myself to do.

I have also framed this blog around the ideas of intersectionally addressing identity in the Iberian middle ages, although I do question the applicability of its title now, as it has not yet become a space for a radical rethink of the study of race in medieval and early modern Iberian literature. In light of my reflections here, though, I’m now adding a section to my blog descriptor in order to not take “intersectionality” for granted. It has a loaded and powerful past, and so much is still at stake with it in the present.

 

Suggested Reading

Bhambra, Gurminder K., Dalia Gebrial & Kerem Nişancıoğlu. eds. 2018. Decolonising the University. London: Pluto Press

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. 2019. On Intersectionality: Essential Writings. New York: New Press

Hill Collins, Patricia. 2002. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Abingdon: Routledge

— 2013. On Intellectual Activism. Philadelphia: Temple University Press

Hill Collins, Patricia & Sirma Bilge. 2016. Intersectionality. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons

Johnson, Azeezat, Remi Joseph-Salisbury & Beth Kamunge. eds. 2018. The Fire Now: Anti-Racist Scholarship in Times of Explicit Racial Violence. London: Zed

Rhodes Must Fall Oxford. 2018. Rhodes Must Fall: The Struggle to Decolonise the Racist Heart of Empire. London: Zed

Tuhiwai Smith, Linda. 1999. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London: Zed

The limits of the story: transmedial influences on the WWE’s storytelling

Academic work on professional wrestling to date has explored the way in which storylines are intrinsically and unavoidably developed by both the creative team behind a promotion as well as its fans, as Katz Rizzo points out:

Live professional wrestling is a performance in which creative power lies in between the performers and the fans. […] Fans and their heroes shape one another’s identity in a mutually reflexive venture. (Katz Rizzo 2016: 134)

The WWE’s development of storylines beyond the squared circle – online, in house shows and across the its programming – has been analysed by Sam Ford, who was also one of the first to note the importance of considering the WWE in the framework of transmedia:

Wrestling has long thrived on existing across multiple locus points […] Applying the language/construct of transmedia storytelling to how WWE’s narrative operates provides a better framework not only for examining unique elements of wrestling’s storytelling style but also for translating what pro wrestling does to other media genres. (Ford 2016: 170)

I would however extend a challenge to Ford’s idea that the WWE’s mixing of ‘reality’ and its story-world causes problems and “significant narrative confusion” (Ibid: 179) for the audience, as this frames real-life intrusions into the world of ‘kayfabe’ as aberrations or surprises, rather than considering them to be elements of the story that both the WWE’s audience and primary authors expect and enjoy.

Fewer studies still have however explored how the commercially-ubiquitous WWE uses its scale to proliferate storylines across the full range of medias in which it operates, ranging from sanctioned and commercialised commodities such as comic books, video games, magazines, toys, other merchandise and house shows, to ‘unofficial’ fan-made commentaries and hypotheses found on wrestling news sites, YouTube, forums, social media, and fan fiction. The resulting implications of both the development of storylines and audience interpretation are immense, varied and uncontrollable, for each viewer’s reading of a storyline (mine included) is conditioned by the extent to which they choose to engage with these multiple medias, whether it be through actively commenting on Reddit or even by simply preparing and eating a WWE championship belt waffle for breakfast.

I’ll now outline firstly the way in which personal engagement with mediums beyond the core product – which is defined here as RAW, Smackdown, 205 Live, NXT, their PPVs and WWE network content – affects the audience’s reading of wrestling storylines as ‘text’, and secondly, the way in which the WWE’s engagement with non-sanctioned (i.e. fan-made) media has consciously shaped storylines as of late.

Fan engagement with the WWE’s multiple authors

The impact of the WWE’s transmedial ubiquity on its core products in fact struck me this past Christmas, during which my family enjoyed playing the WWE branded version of Monopoly. While I own wearable WWE merchandise, and have played WWE video games, these mediums all allow for an extent of personal choice and favouritism (such as whose T Shirt to buy, and which character to play as). By contrast, the Monopoly board is a clear example of the WWE’s selective branding, as the limitations of the game dictate that it is limited to a set number of wrestlers and four tag teams that players must engage with.

WWE comic books engage in a similar exercise as a secondary media, as they function as selective developments of storylines deemed crucial enough for expansion on the page. The BOOM studios series written by Dennis Hopeless – whose other credits include X-Men and Jean Grey – is a case in point, and notably expanded on the Shield’s storyline from 2017-2018. Each sub-series featured a different member of the Shield, and developed their characters in far more detail than the core product allows for. For example, the image above gives an unseen insight into Seth Rollins’ recovery from injury and subsequent negotiations with WWE exec Triple H in order to return to work.

As well as allowing for greater character development, the stories featured in WWE comic books are importantly twice removed from what the wrestlers (i.e. actors) know about the characters they are playing in the ring. The character is fundamentally out of the control of its actor, who likely has no idea what has gone on in the comic book storyline. This then creates a stark disjunction between what the audience and actor know of the character that is being portrayed. A similar effect occurs in the theatre or film when actors portray established, ‘canonical’ personas (for example, Shakespeare’s Hamlet or even Marvel characters like Spiderman) who have been recast and rewritten in multiple forms over so many years that an individual actor playing one interpretation cannot possibly be aware of these multiple recastings, and whether or how their audience has engaged with them in the past.

Vice-versa: the WWE & ‘unofficial’ media

The inverse to this process is then the way in which the WWE engages with fan-made media to develop the stories that the audience then consumes and dissects. The most obvious and frequent example of the WWE opening itself up to collaborative, fan-led authorship is its active engagement with social media, including Reddit and independent review blogs and news sites. Such was the case with the overhaul of RAW at the end of 2018. Ratings plummeted, and the creators reacted immediately by confronting that fact and manipulating the storylines to better reflect what they perceived to be audience feedback. They addressed popular grievances cited on wrestling blogs, Youtube channels and subreddits in the mouth of Seth Rollins. This includes the Revival’s senseless ‘jobbing’ (losing) to the new tag team Lucha House Party, whose identities as Mexican luchadores are problematically exploited for comic relief, and the painfully obviously over-long reign of absentee Universal Champion Brock Lesnar. The wholesale creative failure is then masterfully pinned on Baron Corbin, the then wrestler-turned-general-manager of RAW. The GM position is that of a fictional figurehead who directs the shows on behalf of the backstage writers.

While we ought not to determine and theorise on the real intentions of the authors of the WWE’s core product (the writing team) – which would amount to tenuous, and ultimately ephemeral, conjectures on ‘authorial intention’ – wrestling as a ‘text’ is unique versus other art forms because of its active and conscious engagement with fan feedback that it often actively weaves into storylines, as in the above example. Prior to the promotion’s self-conscious overhaul, negative responses abounded on Reddit, and below are some examples of such fan commentary and suggestions for improvement – the second of which even acknowledges the possibility that WWE employees scour Reddit as a source of inspiration when things go sour.

One final author I have glaringly neglected to mention in this post is indeed the actor-wrestlers themselves who exercise a large amount of control over their characters as portrayed in the core product. In the course of this blog I also aim to address how their presence on social media impacts character development, given wrestlers notoriously flit in and out of ‘kayfabe’ on social media according to their prominence in the company at any one time, their perceived affinity between ‘self’ and character’, and indeed their personal priorities.

Ultimately, the WWE provides the most important and complex case study for the effects of transmedial storytelling and multiple authorship due to its sheer scale. Further studies may wish to compare how WWE builds characters in its 2K video game series versus the core product, how the design of and types of wearable merchandise attributed to each character contribute to their perception, and the way in which the WWE and its performers engage with mainstream media (television, news sites, etc).

 

Edit: Upon further research I’ve now found two exciting edited collections due out in 2019 that both promise to tackle the WWE and transmedia. Watch this space as I aim to review them on this blog:

Jeffries, Dru. ed. 2019 (forthcoming). #WWE: Professional Wrestling in the Digital Age. Bloomington: India University Press

Reinhard, CarrieLynn D. & Christopher J. Olson. eds. 2019 (forthcoming). Convergent Wrestling: Participatory Culture, Transmedia Storytelling, and Intertextuality in the Squared Circle. Abingdon: Routledge

 

Example Reddit Threads featuring ‘fan feedback’:

 

Work Cited

Ford, Sam. 2016. “”WWE’s Storyworld and the Immersive Potentials of Transmedia Storytelling”, The Rise of Transtexts: Challenges and Opportunities, eds. Benjamin W.L. Derhy Kurtz, Mélanie Bourdaa. Abingdon: Taylor & Francis

Katz Rizzo, Laura. 2016. “‘Gold-dust’: Ricki Starr’s ironic performances of the queer commodity in popular entertainment”. Performance and Professional Wrestling. eds. B. Chow, E. Laine, C. Warden. Abingdon: Taylor & Francis

 

‘Convivencia’ and the limitations of a macro lens

From the Libro de ajedrez, dados tables – Alfonso X; Biblioteca de la Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Madrid

 

 

Yes, I’m going back down the well-trodden path. Apologies in advance.

Convivencia is probably the most contentious word in medieval Iberian studies.

While debate around it and its usage has died down in recent years, it still underpins much of the scholarship on al-Andalus and the presence of Islam in Iberia until the invasion and conquest of the Kingdom of Granada in 1492. Despite their differing theses, large-scale scholarly projects on the level of Castro (1948), Sánchez-Albornoz (1956), Glick, Menocal (2002) and Lowney (2006) all have one inevitable tendency in common: their desire to unpack convivencia, the ‘co-existence of multiple religious identities’ in al-Andalus in its totality as a cultural phenomenon.

More recent works assess individual case studies of religio-cultural co-existence without overt generalisation, such as Mark Abate’s impressive new edited collection Convivencia and Medieval Spain (2018). The study is wide-ranging yet specific, although I’d caution that its fundamental lack of literary or, more generally, artistic analysis limits its vision and scope. Abate’s valuable overview of the debate present in the introduction notes the politicisation of the debate thus far, as well as the nostalgia redolent in works by scholars such as Lowney, suggesting that convivencia has in fact become a metonymy for varying politicised approaches to historiography:

Convivencia became something of a banner for a certain political and social orientation: one which saw an inherent value in ethnoreligious diversity and a critique of the status of traditionally hegemonic groups”. (2018, ix)

Every scholar mentioned here has made excellent discoveries and progress by assessing numerous individual cases of life in al-Andalus and the Spanish kingdoms, yet a common thread still persists: to seek to draw these cases together to make a conclusion. To find a pattern. And, in some cases, to glean a lesson for the 21st Century.

It thus raises the question of why, as literary scholars and historians, we use a ‘macro’ viewpoint when it is impossible to accurately generalise so many lives over so many years? It is as if we are personifying an ‘Iberia’ or an ‘al-Andalus’ that never existed, constructed entities that cannot be defined en masse. Even the most recent and arguably best examples of these studies, such as those by Menocal and Lowney, still assume a wide-spread, even monolithic, understanding of ‘difference’. Rarely is an attempt made to unpack what ‘difference’ meant to the medieval Jewish, Christian, or Muslim Iberian, or interrogate the extent to which difference was conceptualised solidly in individual medieval communities.

Menocal makes salient point that acknowledges the importance of unconscious (and therefore historically somewhat unverifiable) thought during periods of coexistence, suggesting that tolerance in al-Andalus was a result not of a progressive political movement but rather an “often unconscious acceptance that contradictions – within oneself as well as within one’s culture- could be positive and productive” (2002, 11) yet on behalf of whom is this acceptance is being assumed? Of every individual living in medieval al-Andalus? Of al-Andalus as a kind of personified, feeling land mass?

To think of it another way, if we were to jump forward eight hundred years and find historians trying to make broad conclusions on contemporary attitudes towards migration to Europe from the global south, and subsequent ‘multiculturalism’ (again, a highly contentious and often reductive term), we’d be confounded by their simplicity.

The same tendency to ascertain the beliefs en-masse of a given ‘culture’ occurs in the early modern period in historiographical writing on the post-1492 era, one that was defined by the Inquisition, forced conversion and the eventual expulsion of Jews and Muslims, as well as the beginnings of Spain’s imperio-colonial conquests. Barbara Fuchs’ excellent work on maurophilia in early modern Spain seeks to demonstrate how:

“A hybrid, Moorish-influenced culture survives in sixteenth-century Spain […] and it represents an often unacknowledged challenge to the official narratives of a new national identity.” (2009,  269)

There’s no denying that the ‘official narratives’ that seek to propagate a purely Catholic Spanish national identity with Visigothic roots are misguided and politically-driven. However, is it helpful to then retort with the opposite: instead of a national identity, seek patterns to define the implicit existence of an unspoken ‘culture’ that resists the imperial fallacy? Does this run the risk of ignoring reciprocal cultural exchange, given moriscos had been living relatively freely in Castile since the second wave of the Christian Reconquest (see Dadson 2014).

It’s moreover unclear whether more recent scholars are advocating an unconscious influence of Moorish culture in artistic and/or literary works, or a conscious acceptance on behalf of ‘ordinary’ people.

These are just some preliminary thoughts or, rather, concerns that have plagued me in the course of beginning my thesis work. I am still struggling to come up with an alternative to what I have outlined above: if we cannot generalise or really know the truth of societies that were politically extant for a set period, can we conclude anything historical? Is conclusive, ‘accurate’ historiography that draws together evidence to find a pattern in the past impossible? And if sweeping conclusions are the only way for academic historians and scholars of historical literature to reach the general public, are we doomed to a windowless echo chamber?

 

Works Cited

Abate, Mark T. 2018. ed. Convivencia and Medieval Spain: Essays in Honor of Thomas F. Glick. Basingstoke: Palgrave

Castro, Américo. 1948. España en su historia: Cristianos, moros y judíos. Buenos Aires: Losada

Dadson, Trevor. 2014. Tolerance and Coexistence in Early Modern Spain: Old Christians and Moriscos in the Campo de Calatrava. Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer

Fuchs, Barbara. 2009. “Maurophilia And The Morisco Subject”. The Conversos and Moriscos in Late Medieval Spain and Beyond, ed. Kevin Ingram. pp. 269-286. Leiden: Brill.

— 2011. Exotic Nation: Maurophilia and the Construction of Early Modern Spain. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press

Glick, Thomas F. 1979. Islamic and Christian Spain in the Early Middle Ages. Princeton: Princeton University Press

Lowney, Chris. 2006. A Vanished World: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Medieval Spain. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Menocal, María Rosa. 2002. The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. London: Little, Brown

Sánchez-Albornoz, Claudio. 1956. España, un enigma histórico . Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana

 

Professional wrestling studies: a survey of the discipline

The art created for Chris Jericho & Kevin Owens’ legendary yet surreal “festival of friendship”: Monday Night RAW, 13th February 2017

Firstly, a quick disclaimer: while medieval and early modern Hispanic studies remain my primary academic interests, my heart has for many years been and will continue to be taken by the unique art form that is professional wrestling, and its establishment as a field of academic study will constitute a dual focus of this blog.

Professional wrestling has been called the “least appreciated” yet one of the most well-established and long-running examples of both television entertainment and live performance art. The combination of its inherently popular nature yet somewhat niche appeal means academic work on it is incredibly unusual, and existing scholarly resources are sparse and sporadically produced. No clear methodologies have been proposed for the study of pro-wrestling, in part due its inherently interdisciplinary nature: it can be assessed from the viewpoint of media studies, cultural studies, performance studies, sports science and film studies, to name but a few disciplines. Despite the multifaceted richness of wrestling as a product, it remains relegated to a rejected outpost of ‘cultural’ or ‘media’ studies, making it perhaps one of the last elements of mainstream media or TV that hasn’t been subjected to thorough academic criticism, and I propose that this must change. Some valuable contributions do exist, however, and the purpose of this blog post is to give a brief overview of the state of the discipline, as well as to suggest further avenues of scholarship (and believe me, there are many).

The most notable works include Nicholas Sammond’s classic edited collection Steel Chair to the Head, which begins, as my article has done, with a “brief and unnecessary defence of professional wrestling”, signalling that those who work on wrestling ought to stop prefacing their work with futile apologies and disclaimers in a plea for legitimacy.  Perhaps the innate self-consciousness of scholars working on wrestling is thus inherently self-limiting. Sammond goes on to highlight the way in which wrestling constitutes:

“A hotly contested site for working out social, cultural, political, and economic ideals and desires. While wrestlers grapple with each other – the signs that flit so uneasily across their straining bodies – whether projected by promoters, fans, or social critics of the form – represent an unequal and uneasy negotiation of social meanings, a struggle to name what proper and just social relations are in a capitalist mass society”. (2005, 15)

Social critique of professional wrestling is incredibly important, yet I question whether Sammond’s approach limits wrestling to a mere ‘sign of the times’ as opposed to treating the product as a work, or ‘text’, in and of itself, given its relation to societal context is limited to conjecture as to the intention of wrestling’s often anonymous authors. The rest of the collection contains fascinating case studies on the economic implications of wrestling, portrayal of masculinity, Latino identity,  and the logic of wrestling as a sport. It notably excludes any detailed assessment of female wrestlers, yet does explore an online community of female fans in the pre-Reddit era.

Two recent contributions have also done much to fill the dearth of criticism: firstly, the 2017 Routledge collection  on wrestling & performance studies proposes “a significant re-reading of wrestling as a performing art”, and is segmented into topics as broad as audience, circulation, Lucha, gender, queerness, bodies and race. Important contributions include the first real engagement with the development of the characters Golddust and Marlena in light of queer theory. The collection’s approach to race, however, is focused on racial violence and nationalism, as opposed to any real exploration of the racialised identities projected in the ring.

Finally, 2018 saw the publication of a new collection of essays on wrestling & identity edited by Aaron Horton. The focus here is once more on nationality, race and gender, but is less Western-centric than previous scholarship: it includes work on Nativism & Chicano identity, Iranian identity, the inauguration of Brazilian wrestling, a history of wrestling in Cape Town, South Africa, and the politics of cultural appropriation. Its approach to gender is also more specific, including a singular case study on Sasha Banks and female wrestlers in Japan. As far as I am aware it also contains the very first academic studies on wrestling in video games – specifically how the WWE mediates its history through the yearly-renovated WWE 2K franchise that concomitantly plays on nostalgia – and on the seemingly indelible connection of wrestling and rock music.

In terms of early career research, in recent years a number of dissertations have emerged. Brooks Oglesby’s 2017 MA thesis constituted another much-needed case-study, on “Daniel Bryan & The Negotiation of Kayfabe in Professional Wrestling”. Steven Granelli’s 2017 doctoral thesis has a somewhat broader scope in its exploration of the “Performance of the Heel in Professional Wrestling”.

Aside from these examples, other published literature is descriptive or biographical, tending to fall unsatisfactorily under the “sports writing” genre. The bulk of real analysis in fact takes place online, where there’s an abundance of popular journalism, as well as independent analysis blogs and the reams of Reddit threads by engaged fans which pop up daily. Any study on professional wrestling ought to take these sources of opinion seriously in an age of new media. Oglesby sets a good precedent in their dissertation by explicitly using social media as an intertext to interrogate the notion of ‘kayfabe’ (defined as the act of presenting that which is staged as genuine or authentic) in the case of the much-loved ‘underdog’ (yet current WWE champion) Daniel Bryan. Kayfabe is a fascinating phenomenon that fundamentally cannot be equated to acting or fiction, simply because of the physical realities and personal parallels involved in wrestling.

Detailed studies are, however, still required on the interplay of reality with kayfabe, character formation and story development, analysing the impact of wrestling’s multiple ‘authors’: the promotion, the wrestlers themselves, and the audience – both live and online. Moreover, what constitutes a wrestler’s identity is rapidly evolving in the twenty-first century: along with the more traditional elements of name, entrance music, costume, ‘promo’ work, move-set, and commentary, social media is having an increasing impact on both how wrestlers are perceived and how popular they are with the general public. In recent years, particularly notable examples of identity formation and authorship-complication include the Hardy Boyz’s famed Impact Wrestling run in which the promotion relinquished much creative control to the wrestlers themselves. The leading image of the blog also attests to one of the most memorable yet quite simply surreal episodes of WWE’s Monday Night Raw in the past two years: Jericho and Owens’ “festival of friendship”, a idea pitched by Jericho himself.

Another avenue for discussion is what I’ll deem storylines extraneous to the ‘squared circle’; that is, the practice of developing and filming storylines outside of the arena setting without an audience, to then show a live audience the film. The aforementioned Hardy Boyz 2016 Impact Wrestling storyline (in which Matt and Jeff are transformed into Woken Matt and Brother Nero respectively) famously included the Total Nonstop Deletion and culminated in the Final Deletion, both filmed at the brothers’ own homes. The latter has been deemed “a Shakespearean level masterpiece” by sports-entertainment journalists, and its popularity led to the WWE attempting a somewhat watered-down replica in 2018 after it rehired the Hardy Boyz.

A further recent example in the WWE of an extraneous event is the 2017 feud between Randy Orton and supernatural character Bray Wyatt in the lead up to Wrestlemania 33 which then continued on to the subsequent pay-per-view ‘Payback’. One of the most creative set of films in WWE’s recent history, prior to WrestleMania Orton burns down Wyatt’s compound, killing his supernatural alter-ego Sister Abigail. Orton then almost comically strikes his in-ring pose outside the burning building. The wrestlers then faced each other in the charred remnants of the abandoned building at Payback, Orton famously crushing Wyatt with a fridge.

The most notable evolution in the WWE in the last decade, however, surely has to be its belated move away from misogynistic depictions of women, which for so long deterred a large portion of its potential audience. I propose that in recent years the development of long-standing homosocial bonds (ex. The Shield) has come to take the place of ‘kayfabe’ heterosexual relationships on-screen, a fact that is also connected to the WWE’s desire to pursue both a PG and female audience.

While the WWE has addressed systemic sexism, it still fundamentally lacks BAME wrestlers with substantial roles, and regularly falls foul to incredibly racist depictions of wrestlers of colour: more often than not their roles are dichotomised into either comedic or physically indomitable. It also often actively works to incite overt xenophobia and jingoism by having non-American wrestlers rail against the USA (ex. Jinder Mahal’s 2017 WWE championship run), all the while paradoxically attempting to broaden their international audience.

All in all, pro-wrestling constitutes an incredibly unique art form if only because of the sheer volume of material that it is produced week in, week out, across the globe. Established and regularly-aired TV shows continue to be produced most prominently in the USA, Mexico and Japan, and the WWE holds the record for the longest-running weekly episodic programme in history. Given the lack of academic work on wrestling thus far, it therefore may seem an impossible task to adequately assess that which has been produced and to keep up with what is coming, but I readily accept the challenge.

 

Suggestions for further reading

Bibliography

Chow, Broderick, Laine, Eero, Warden, Claire. (eds.) 2016. Performance and Professional Wrestling. Abingdon: Routledge

Granelli, Steven M. 2017. Being Good at Playing Bad: Performance of the Heel in Professional Wrestling. Ohio U: PhD Dissertation

Horton, Aaron D. (ed.). 2018. Identity in Professional Wrestling: Essays on Nationality, Race and Gender. Jefferson: McFarland

Oglesby, Brooks. 2017. Daniel Bryan & The Negotiation of Kayfabe in Professional Wrestling. U of South Florida: MA Dissertation

Sammond, Nicholas. (ed.). 2005. Steel Chair to the Head: The Pleasure and Pain of Professional Wrestling. Durham: Duke University Press

Wrestling-specific news sites & blogs

Cageside Seats

Wrestling Observer & F4W Online

Wrestling Inc.

Daily DDT

Ringside News

Rasslin Rehash

Sub-Reddits

r/SquaredCircle

r/WWE

The politicised rewriting of Spain’s colonial history

Engraving by Thierry de Bry, 1590 (British Library)

An article was published in The Guardian earlier this year which reports on Spain’s newly-created Fundación Civilización Hispánica , an historical organisation founded by a select all-male group of businessmen, politicians, writers, journalists and academics.

The organisation has simultaneously emerged alongside a new book by Borja Cardelús, once Spain’s environmental secretary, also entitled La Civilización Hispánica; a tome that, in the same vein as its organisational namesake, implicitly works to deny the atrocities of Spanish colonialism and must be critiqued on both academic and moral grounds.*

The very name of the organisation immediately raises questions of historical, political and moral viability. Insisting upon the existence of a “civilización hispánica”, rather than an empire, entirely strips Spain’s colonial invasion and conquest of the Americas and the Caribbean of its violence. It simultaneously disempowers and denies the self-determination of the citizens living in Spain’s former colonies in the present day.**

Most troubling is the attempt to reframe centuries of colonial violence, warfare and the systematic and hegemonic suppression and destruction of indigenous cultures under the guise of the far less offensive idea of a “civilisation”. While the term “civilisation” is highly contentious and fluid in almost every context (in fact I’d probably avoid it altogether), its common usage usually refers to long-standing historical precedents (for example, the Egyptian, Ancient Greek, Mesopotamian and, perhaps most insultingly, Incan and Aztec civilisations) which did not undertake mass-scale colonial projects encompassing large and as yet unknown parts of the globe resulting in both the marginalisation and destruction of indigenous cultures, as Spain did from the late fifteenth century.

Its briefly-sketched aims are couched in pseudo-academic language yet are entirely politicised:

  • “Difundir la Civilización Hispánica; sus valores, contenidos y episodios, en cuanto riquísimo patrimonio cultural, en buena medida desconocido por el público.”[Diffuse the idea of the Hispanic civilisation; its values, contents and history, in terms of its rich cultural heritage which is largely unknown by the general public]
  • “Combatir la Leyenda Negra. Dar a conocer la inmensa obra civilizadora de España y los países iberoamericanos, y su contribución a la Humanidad, tanto en los aspectos geográficos como en los materiales y culturales.” [Combat the Black Legend.  Bring to light the immense civilising work of Spain and Latin American countries, and their contribution to humanity – in geographical as well as material and cultural aspects.]
  • “Atender, de forma especial, a la población hispana de los Estados Unidos, que a pesar de orígenes diversos poseen las raíces comunes de la Civilización Hispánica, reforzando estas como patrimonio de todos ellos.” [Pay particular attention to the Hispanic population of the USA, which – despite diverse origins – possess common roots in the Hispanic Civilisation which reinforces the idea of a common heritage.]
  • “Movilizar a personas, empresas e instituciones relevantes de la órbita hispánica para estos fines. Los cuales pertenecen a los cuatros ámbitos hispánicos esenciales: España, Países de Iberoamérica, Estados Unidos y Filipinas.” [Mobilise relevant people, businesses and institutions in the Hispanic world towards these aims who belong to the four essential Hispanic regions: Spain, Latin America, the USA and the Phillippines].

While it’s not wholly abhorrent, as stated in the fourth aim, to seek to unify all those with a common Hispanic heritage across the globe and make known their shared history, what matters is that the history offered by the Foundation is ultimately revisionist and biased. In sum, their aims betray a clear desire to propagate an exclusionary, neocolonial and retrospectively violent rewriting of Spanish colonialism in the Early Modern period.

I have emboldened the most problematic aspects of their ethos above, the first of which is the peculiar and ephemeral desire to spread the ‘values’ of the so-called Hispanic ‘civilisation’, positively recasting the process of enforced acculturation by the colonists. The second aim evokes the entirely backward, retrospectively racist and neocolonial idea of the “civilising mission”, the unethical, oppressive and acculturating nature of which has been tirelessly interrogated and undermined by scores of Latin America-focused postcolonial scholars, such as Moraña, Bolanos & Verdesio, Ginzberg, Williams and Thurner & Guerrero. Outside of the Latin American context, examples include the work of Fanon,  Wunder & Hu-DeHart,  SpivakAcheraiouBhabha and Memmi (a reading list that essentially constitutes postcolonialism 101). It moreover wholeheartedly ignores the damage wrought by Spanish colonialism that persists into the modern era.

The foundation’s website also lists a number of forthcoming book projects, examples of which include a book that aims to uncover the “huella cultural” [cultural footprint] left by Spanish invaders to what is now the USA:

“Desde la llegada de Ponce de León los exploradores y navegantes españoles recorrieron la costa y el territorio de los Estados Unidos, dejando, desde Florida a California, una relevante huella cultural que permanece.”

[Since the arrival of Ponce de León, the Spanish explorers and navigators travelled around the coast and the territory of the USA, leaving a relevant cultural footprint that remains from Florida to California.]

Aside from the obviously erroneous and anachronistic application of “los Estados Unidos” to the colonial territories of North America, it is entirely misleading to refer to colonisers as “explorers and navigators”, thereby romanticising the violence committed towards native North and Central American peoples upon their arrival. The verb “recorrer” meanwhile trivialises the colonisers’ warmongering expeditions into what seems like an explorative holiday!

A second book will give an overview of “La Civilización Hispánica”, revelling in how:

“El encuentro de España con las gentes del Nuevo Mundo produjo un fruto cultural, material e inmaterial, de gran contenido y valores, que engloba a 600 millones de personas en todo el mundo y que constituye uno de los grandes ámbitos culturales de la humanidad.”

[The encounter of Spain with the people of the New World produced a cultural gem, both material and immaterial, of exceptional content and value, which encompasses 600 million people across the world and which constitutes one of the largest cultural spheres of humanity.]

Once again, carefully-chosen language is used to erase both colonial violence and suppressed indigenous cultures from history, the latter of which were forcibly stifled as a result of Catholic evangelism. Instead the Foundation insists upon it having been a neutral and culturally beneficial “encounter”. The aims of the organisation are thus thoroughly un-academic: in ignoring the historical violence, both physical and cultural, of Spanish conquests it propagates a biased, politicised vision of history, and moreover recasts acculturation as a positive, rather than oppressive, process.

And how has the news of the foundation’s inauguration been greeted in Spain?

The Spanish press has given the initiative ample journalistic space. Cardelús gave an interview to El País back in January in which the organisation’s desired trajectory is expanded upon: his connections have led to support being granted by both the government and RTVE, and the Foundation even plans to develop films and TV series to propagate their ideology (whether or not these would also be aimed at foreign audiences is not mentioned). El País does, to its credit, give voice to one of Cardelús’ detractors, historian  José Álvarez Junco. Junco’s scepticism rightly identifies the nationalistic impetus of the project, as:

“un intento más de reforzar el nacionalismo español en estos tiempos en que con la crisis catalana parece que hay un resurgimiento del españolismo sin complejos.”

[more of an attempt to reinforce Spanish nationalism in the present context in which the Catalan crisis has given rise to an uncomplicated version of “españolismo”.]

Yet Junco does not address the fundamental inaccuracies that come from selective historiography, as I have outlined above. ABC has by contrast completely avoided giving a balanced evaluation of the initiative and instead has granted Cardelús himself a column to expound his views. La Vanguardia, meanwhile, reports unobjectionably on the foundation’s inauguration.

Finally, the online news site Actuall hosts a video interview with Cardelús in which he pleads for the importance of raising Spain’s self esteem as a nation. Ironically, in the course of the interview Cardelús quite clearly points to the internal contradictions of “la leyenda negra” [the black legend]: the source of this so-called propaganda was in fact  Spanish resident of the colonies and Dominican friar, Bartolomé de las Casas, whose work was later latched onto by Spain’s European ‘enemies’ in the sixteenth century (motivated, according to Cardelús, by a desire to eradicate Catholicism from Europe). While it can be argued that some aspects of the ‘black legend’ propagated in Early Modern Europe were factually incorrect or exaggerated, it categorically does not mean Spain did not colonise, oppress and thereby work to destroy the indigenous cultures of the Americas.

Cardelús accuses Casas of creating the legend – yet a closer look at his seminal work, translated into English as “A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies” (c. 1552), reveals it to be a first-hand account of colonial atrocities and the religious, Catholic arguments against the enslavement and murder of indigenous Americans. Nowhere in the Foundation’s work thus far is a systematic analysis and refutation of Casas’ work, and without any evidence to the contrary we cannot take Cardelús’ opinion of it at face value.


 

The project’s work is progressing as 2018 draws to a close: it has somehow been granted centre stage at the European level as of last month, as the Spanish press reports neutrally on the unveiling of an exhibition entitled ‘The Hispanic world: a common heritage’, housed in the headquarters of the European Parliament in Strasburg.

The size and scope of this initiative means it is urgent that historians and academics of Spanish history and culture work to demystify and debate what the Foundation is proposing. There is no doubt that their message has already been and will continue to be disseminated, given the political sway of the organisation’s founders.

The Fundación Civilización Hispánica is, ultimately, utterly out of place in 2018, and constitutes an apologia for colonialism.*** Not only does it seek to spread biased, factually incorrect and selective historical narratives, it moreover works against its own perceived aim to bolster Spain’s international reputation by conversely propagating conservatively-politicised academic thought. Politicised history can never be true history: recasting a nation’s past for political aims is by definition subjective, fictional, and, ultimately, oppressive.

 

*Disclaimer #1: in critiquing the revisionist history of the Fundación Civilización Hispánica I am in no way denying the right of Hispanic historians to question and interrogate the falsities that were indeed propagated by La leyenda negra. As I state above, the ‘Black Legend’ propagated in Northern Europe was indeed inaccurate in places, but the work of first-hand observers of Hispanic colonialism, such as Bartolome de las Casas, must equally be taken seriously as evidence of colonial violence.

**Disclaimer #2: in critiquing the revisionist history of the Fundación Civilización Hispánica I am in no way suggesting that theirs is a view held by Hispanic peoples in general. I confine my critique to this particular organisation only, and its selective brand of history.

***Disclaimer #3: in critiquing the revisionist history of the Fundación Civilización Hispánica I am in no way suggesting that Hispanic colonialism was in some way worse than Northern European colonialism. Britain, France, Belgium, Germany and many other European nations perpetrated horrific acts of colonial violence across the globe. Their attempts to suppress or revise their colonial history must be similarly interrogated, and I aim to do so in the course of this blog.

Lope de Vega’s Muslims & the problem with “tópicos convencionales”

From Hadith Bayad (MS Arab. 368, Vatican Library)

 

I recently read a relatively new dissertation written on sixteenth and seventeenth century Spanish literature that depicts the Muslim, Moorish inhabitants of al-Andalus in the Middle Ages. In their analysis of one particular play, the author – unprompted and not quoting the original text – refers to a Moorish man, described as being of small stature, as a “criatura“. A creature. I was at once taken aback and horrified by the loaded, dehumanising nature of the scholar’s choice to use the term. Did they think they were adding a ‘baroque flavour’ to their criticism by embodying what they presume were the beliefs of either the play’s Christian characters or Christian author? Or was this a case of present-day prejudice echoing back several centuries? Either way, I resolved then and there that it’s time for a wholesale rethink of how we approach the literatura fronteriza of the Golden Age starting with Lope de Vega, the most prolific playwright of the period.

The comedias fronterizas and comedias moriscas (referring to plays of a historical nature that deal with the medieval Moors of al-Andalus, and those that portray moriscos – Muslims forcibly converted to Christianity after the fall of Granada in 1492 – respectively) still remain an under-studied group of plays from Lope’s vast oeuvre. I venture to say that together with the rest of the plays thematising Spain’s medieval history they’ve suffered from the widely-held critical belief that Lope’s attitude towards the Middle Ages was merely nostalgic, at worst idealised and lacking complexity – readings that are often tied up with misguided notions of literary ‘quality’. That is, something along the lines of “if I can’t find something aesthetically innovative or at least allegorical, I’ll go ahead and call a literary work sub-standard, completely ignoring the possibility that it could be my own inadequacies or prejudices that are preventing me from really reading a text.” (Excuse my crude paraphrasing, but it happens all too often in some strains of criticism).

For many it’s a foregone conclusion that Lope’s portrayal of Moorish, Muslim characters is nothing more than maurophilia, a term defined by Barbara Fuchs as “the corpus of sixteenth century texts that portray Moors in a positive fashion” which is often “dismissed […] as idealising and remote from the realities of early modern Spain or the marginalised moriscos” (2011, 4).  This is concordant with Thomas Case’s view of Lope de Vega, who in the monograph Lope & Islam (1993) reinforces the idea that for Lope,

“There was little or no interest in protesting political and social ills or in promoting liberal reform as we know it today. Any attempt to show that Lope and his fellow dramatists were seriously thinking about sociology […] would end in failure.” (1993, 5)

Now I’m not proposing that Lope’s comedias moriscas or fronterizas are somehow revolutionary or anachronistically ‘liberal’ in their scope. What I do think is necessary is a re-think of how we employ the term maurophilia, not as a catch-all by-word for romantic nostalgia but rather a problematic and self-reflexive literary form in the context of Christian-authored texts at the time of the morisco expulsion from Spain, which took place in 1609-14.

Fuchs has already rightly worked to reinterpret supposed maurophile texts by suggesting they are not merely nostalgic; on the contrary, they “participate fully in the urgent negotiation of Moorishness that is not only a historiographical relic but a vivid presence in quotidian Spanish culture” in the sixteenth century (2011, 5). I’d venture that the same can be said of Lope’s comedias moriscas. Take, for example, El cordobés valeroso, Pedro Carbonero, a play in which the eponymous protagonist plays with paradigms of Moorish and Christian identity from the outset as a borderland bandit, ready to physically and linguistically disguise himself as Muslim. Pedro has Muslim friends in Granada, Cerbín and Hamete, both of whom are depicted struggling with the ethical question of whether kinship loyalty to another human being ought to triumph over their religious affiliation. Yet the portrayal of Muslims in this play has thus far been deemed a collection of well-known maurophile tropes, “tópicos convencionales”, simply because they are Moorish men of high social standing who are on friendly terms with Christians and are not wholly morally degenerate.

Such an idea was first suggested in the early scholarship of the 1920s, which seems to have stuck to this day. For example, Montesinos argued that:

“La configuración de los personajes moros se resiente, pues carecen de identidad propia, por esto Cerbín no es sino ‘un noble vestido a la morisca.'”

[The characterisation of Moorish characters is weak and they lack an individual identity, meaning Cerbín is nothing but a ‘noble dressed in morisco style.’] (1929, 186)

Such an interpretation is reductive in the case of  Pedro Carbonero, as it simplifies the portrayal of Moorish characters and their experiences on the basis of subjective literary quality. It’s also often justified by a biographical reading that assumes Lope’s Christianity meant that he wouldn’t put any effort into the characterisation of Muslims beyond a few well-worn tropes. Yet more space is given to the thematising of inter-Muslim conflict between the Abencerraje family and those nobles of lower socio-economic means, than to the exploits of Pedro and his retinue. Pedro thinks so highly of his close Muslim friend Cerbín that he goes out of his way to save him from a treacherous death, despite the latter ultimately aligning himself to the rulers of Granada. Meanwhile, the characterisation of Pedro’s vassal Hamete goes far beyond the stereotypical ‘moro gracioso’: despite his lack of noble status he is granted substantial portions of dialogue to moralise against the essential importance of religious identity, and ultimately commits himself to die alongside Pedro.

A further example is Lope’s recasting of medieval epic legend in El bastardo Mudarra, which in its thirteenth-century chronicle form as Los siete infantes de Lara can be read as highly critical of the Christian, Castilian milieu it depicts in contrast to the entirely morally upstanding Muslims of al-Andalus. Los siete infantes de Lara goes beyond fetishisation and basic maurophilia, revealing a crisis of consciousness on the part of the male, Castilian nobility.  Lope noted the tone of the medieval text and expanded upon it by including a new character in El bastardo Mudarra, Lope de Vivar, a Christian in Moorish disguise akin to Pedro Carbonero. Lope therefore overtly acknowledges the performative and constructed nature of cultural identity. El bastardo Mudarra resists Maurophilia which is in fact a simplistic topos that would hypothetically reinforce the difference that the text thematically works to efface.

I therefore propose that more attention ought to be paid to Lope’s construction of Moorish identity to move away from the assumption that the playwright never went beyond stereotype. The catch-all concept of maurophilia cannot be used to explain away the presence and actions of Moorish, Muslim characters who are in many cases as complex as their Christian counterparts. Moreover, Lope acknowledges the performativity of identity and creates physical, visual tension on stage through the use of disguise. The flimsy nature of the cultural categories Christian and Moor therefore becomes an open secret between playwright and audience; an idealistic view of cultural identity as nothing more than a physical costume that can be cast off or worn at will.

 

Works cited

Case, Thomas. 1993. Lope and Islam: Islamic personages in his Comedias. Newark: Juan de la Cuesta

Fuchs, Barbara. 2011. Exotic Nation: Maurophilia and the Construction of Early Modern Spain. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press

Montesinos, Jose Fernandez. 1929. El cordobés valeroso, Pedro Carbonero. Madrid, Centro de Estudios Históricos

Leaving the corporate world for academia

Gracienne Taking Leave of Her Father the Sultan (detail), Lieven van Lathem, David Aubert, 1464. J. Paul Getty Museum

 

When a student aspiring to a career in academia inevitably weighs up their life choices there is an abundance of opinions online attempting to help them make that decision (or, more often than not, to serve as clickbait or to scaremonger). They decry the poor job prospects and the impending inability to relate to your friends who start the real process of ‘adulting’.

Conversely, when I took the decision to do a PhD I couldn’t find examples of postgraduates or academics who’d left the fabled ‘real world’ behind to embark on research in the humanities (although there are plenty of examples in the sciences and law, where the transition between practice and theory is arguably more seamless). For context, I did an MA part-time whilst working full time on a graduate scheme for a multinational corporation.

I took the decision to make my postgraduate degree entirely separate from my daily working life, in which I adopted a sort of unnatural alter ego I jokingly refer to as “corporate Becky”. I’d be horrendous at writing satire, but if I could I’d have tons of despondent inner dialogues to choose from of the down-trodden would-be academic stuck trying to sell sex toys (yes, literally) or debating packaging design for household products.

Although I’m grateful for the experience,  I went into it entirely naive of the moral and political implications of the industry in which I was about to work, and became increasingly disillusioned with the homogeneity and ethics (or lack thereof) of the corporate environment.

I’m now hoping that by writing about my experiences in a series of posts it might help others either grappling with a decision after finishing their undergraduate degree, or indeed those who right now find themselves staring out of the office window, woefully contemplating just how they managed to abandon their values and morals for the £££. Or maybe that was just me?!

Part-time Postgraduate Study in the Humanities

As the first post in this series, I’ll tackle the concept of part-time study in general: the stigma surrounding it, its drawbacks and perhaps surprising benefits. Because Masters-level funding is so scarce (even scarcer than that which is available for doctoral study), part-time study is a route that should arguably be advocated more vocally alongside the more recent postgraduate study loans that have been made available as a form of student finance – and, inevitably, additional debt.

The Stigma:

Anecdotally, it’s often the unspoken stigma that puts so many students off from going part-time, and spurs them on instead to accepting a bank loan – anything to avoid coming across as an otherwise satisfied professional who is returning to education for a hobby or to fulfil a personal goal. Part-time study therefore carries with it the idea that such students are non-committal and, ultimately, just not good enough. While it’s true that their applications weren’t in the top percentile to make them eligible for funding, it does not mean that their proposed research is not valid and that undergraduate study has to be the end point of a prospective academic career. Cutting applicants off before the Masters level is an incredibly early stage, and more should be done to advise students to pursue their course through different means, or gain the relevant experience to apply again next year.

Yet there is little transparency on the part of universities around the alternative routes to a funded PhD, and how a part-time Masters could indeed be the right one. In my experience, academia fails to acknowledge the benefits of part-time study as a valid part of an aspiring academic’s career path.  I often felt the need to hide my work experience altogether in my applications, burying it at the bottom of my CV (incidentally, you’ll still find it there). I similarly hid my studies at work because I assumed they’d be viewed as irrelevant, even though one undoubtedly made me better at the other (and vice versa).

Still, while it could be the right choice, and is absolutely worth it if it leads to the PhD, there are drawbacks as well as benefits to part-time study.

Drawbacks:

  • While I often wished I worked in an environment more conducive to my research (such as a university or library), a private company was the only place I could feasibly afford to work. It was as far away from the humanities as I could potentially get, as I spent most of my working days on excel. This made it harder to push myself to think differently in the evenings and at the weekends. It was also impossible at work to mull over a recent problem with my thesis or a new idea – I was way too busy, and in a different headspace.
  • The second drawback can be summed up in one word: sacrifice. Long working hours, coupled with a lack of social life, in many ways makes this more of a commitment than studying full-time.

Benefits:

If you’d asked me around May 2017 whether I thought working in an irrelevant industry whilst studying something I was really passionate about had any benefits, I probably would’ve laughed to the point of genuine tears. Hindsight is, as they say, a wonderful thing – and now I can say that yes, there are some surprising ones:

  • The length of the degree – two years instead of one – means your thoughts mature; the content of your dissertation will be more thought through.
  • As above, you have time to go to more conferences and events, and even start speaking at them technically earlier in your career than your full-time peers.
  • Despite the day job functioning primarily as a source of university funding, it’s still a fall-back if the academic route goes south – if only to sustain you.
  • And finally, there’s the unquantifiable benefit it brings to your PhD application. Nothing says that you’re committed to this more than being able to prove you actually studied for two years for fun, whilst holding down what for most people is a genuine and intensive career choice.

That said, I can’t say it’s something I’d repeat in a hurry. Full time study really is a luxury, and I’m aware that I wasn’t able to reach my potential part-time. Yet I definitely don’t regret the route I chose (or, rather, was forced to take), as it means I’ve taken an even more informed decision to pursue research.

Mission statement

icons8-quill-with-ink-100Before properly embarking on this blog I’d like to outline what is at once a mission statement of sorts, and a disclaimer. In my very short years as an academic writer I’ve grown increasingly (and, at times, prohibitively) self-conscious. Self-conscious of how my own experiences, environment and personal relationships all in some way influence the way in which I view a piece of medieval literature. How they influence which theoretical frameworks, scholarly works and primary texts I choose to devote my time and analysis to. I’d venture to say the same is true of all literary scholars, past and present.

Continue reading “Mission statement”