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Reflections on ‘Breaking our Silences on the Neoliberal Academy’ Workshop

screen-shot-2017-01-16-at-11-53-49Poster by Chloe Parkes

On 26th October 2016, PhD students at Warwick University organised a workshop entitled ‘Breaking Our Silences on the Neoliberal Academy’. In this blog post,  organisers  Elizabeth Ablett, Heather Griffiths and Kate Mahoney reflect on what PhD students everywhere can learn from the discussions.

As PhD students, we often hear the refrain ‘if you want to get into academia, doing your PhD alone is not enough’. But with the subsequent requirement to produce papers, teach, organise and attend conferences, participate in additional collaborations or project work, not to mention keep up online engagement with those in our fields, what time is left for self-care, activism, or the care of others? How can we ensure those things that initially brought us to the PhD and sustain us throughout it – a love of our subjects, a passion for teaching – are preserved and centred under the demands of the neoliberal academy? Could feminist practices offer useful resistance strategies, and if so, which ones? These are just some of the questions which motivated us to put on a one day, feminist, interdisciplinary workshop called Breaking our Silences on the Neoliberal Academy (all credit to Ros Gill for the title inspiration!). Held at Warwick University on 26th October 2016, workshop sessions were interspersed with reflexive papers from PhD students on topics ranging from writing retreats as sites of self-care, to the pressure neoliberal performativity has on disabled PhD students.

The day itself offered a fantastic critical, yet uplifting space of consciousness raising. Here are some of the recommendations we drew from the day:

  • ‘It’s seductive to be productive’. We loved this tagline from our first speaker of the day, Maria do Mar Pereira. Productivity alone is not enough, and we can never do enough. How often have we actually completed the to-do list? Or cleared all our emails? However productive we are we can never win at this game. Instead, it can be transformative to realise that, under neoliberalism, we all will fail at some point. Maria suggests that, if we are going to fail, ‘we need to fail in politically transformative ways’. We cannot individually manage ourselves, ignoring the structural constraints we work under, and ‘just carry on’. Learning to reject the notion of the ideal neoliberal subject at this stage might just be crucial to developing healthier, more enjoyable academic careers. Ok, so how do we do that?


  • Join a union! Collaboration on a grander scale, within and beyond your institution. At the end of the day, collective action is the key to fighting neoliberalism in education. If you are teaching, or plan to at some point during your PhD, UCU membership can offer vital support and protection. We heard examples on the day of some excellent partnership working between student anti-casualisation groups and UCU on campaigns for fair pay and better working conditions.


  • The Res-Sisters Collective are an inspiring example of how feminist values of collectivity can change the way we work and write to counter the individualism of processes such as the Research Excellence Framework (REF). Our own experience of organising this event tried to resist the notion of the ‘star’ academic student, as we worked collaboratively throughout, sharing ideas and credit for the work. It’s also a lot more fun that way! And you get to work with some fab people in the process who are more than just colleagues, they become your friends. (The Res-Sisters will also be speaking at the BSA Postgraduate Pre-Conference Day, details available here)


  • Supportive friendships are vital sites of resistance. Working together rather than alone, sharing experiences and helping each other. Support comes in many guises – one of our speakers shared her experiences of doing her PhD, and described how her disability shatters the illusion of corporeal control expected in the neoliberal university. Her experiences, she said, showed how the warmth and support of fellow students, academics and others in the department provide scope for imagining alternative modes of performance in the university; a performance which centred around care for others above the needs of our self, a reminder that the ethereal ‘academy’ we talk about so much is made up of humans, with humanity.


  • We were also reminded that what we are feeling breaches national borders and is a global issue. Our international speakers and participants talked of feeling the effects of neoliberalism in education in their home countries, some for the first time. Building solidarity across borders is significant in resisting changes to education reforms in the UK, more so now than ever.


  • What else makes feminism unique? Getting creative of course! Writing and creativity takes time. Both are key to our academic endeavours, so what can we do to demarcate and privilege time dedicated to each? As one participant showed, writing retreats help you to carve out the space and time needed for writing up, and we can use the tools of these retreats to help us here at home. See what is offered by your institutions, or follow a regular online meet-up such as Shut Up and Write. Even better, get together with friends and make it happen collectively! We also all need time for ourselves, to think and create with no deadlines or other pressures. We made space for this at the workshop with Lena, Órla and Muireann’s excellent feminist zine-making activity, but some of us drum, crochet, sing, run or simply meet up for and play Scrabbble over a gin or two. Try something new for yourself, you never know how it might inspire your work, and even better if you can do it with friends.


While it is so important to highlight the negative impact that the expectations of the neoliberal academy have on PhD students, this event demonstrated that we must continue to create spaces where we can develop strategies to fight back and support one another.

For more information on the workshop, including a full programme of speakers and some of the outcomes from the day, you can visit the event page here.

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