On Academia and Feminism

I thought I would share my experiences as a speaker in one of the largest meetings for sociolinguists — known as the Sociolinguistics Symposium, recently held in Spain.

I must admit that every bit of this conference I found intimidating, particularly as I came to know many experienced linguists, whose work I’d often read, cite on papers, but never met. It’s an odd feeling feeling like you know someone based on what they’ve written, but you’ve never actually met them in real life.

I felt like an impostor, like I didn’t belong among this group of highly esteemed, world-renowned academics. I put a lot of pressure on myself leading up to this conference — mind you, I had just arrived to Ireland from Puerto Rico and had finished conducting my fieldwork. My data analysis was quite preliminary at that point. Luckily, my supervisor had asked to view my slides prior to this event and had provided me with feedback. I had been working on my presentation for over a month, but the nature of my Ph.D. programme (which is quite solitary), led me to a lot of self-doubt. I didn’t have the opportunity to see other linguistics Ph.D students as much as I liked, I had spent the first three years of my Ph.D. studying alone at the library. As you can imagine, this amount of isolation is not good for one’s mental health, especially as it becomes very hard to feel like you’re a part of something, or part of an academic community. To top things off, I was living away from home, without the emotional comfort of my family or home friends.

For the past three years, I have struggled with depression and have often sought counseling. Just over a month ago I was approached by a faculty member and offered a study space on campus. I would finally be working alongside other linguistic Ph.Ds. This is something I had been waiting for for a some time (for three years). It is perhaps more possible to imagine then the level of nervousness I was experiencing, suddenly coming into contact with hundreds of sociolinguists, after years of not really knowing many people studying my own discipline. I didn’t sleep well for three days leading up to my talk. After giving my presentation, although still feeling uneasy and exhausted, I felt relieved and proud of myself for sharing my ideas and results with linguists and linguists-in-training such as myself. To my surprise, I received a lot of positive feedback; many seemed genuinely interested in my subject. I didn’t have time to discuss all of my material as I had prepared too many slides, but I managed to discuss the gist of it.

I guess what really struck me from this experience was my panel’s chairperson. After the session finished, she approached me and said to me that, although I was nervous, I had done a good job. She then gave me constructive feedback concerning my presentation style, e.g. not to sit down, not to use my hands as much, etc. But, most importantly, she taught me not to apologise about my work in progress, as effectively, many researchers present works-in-progress at these events. She further encouraged me by telling me that I “knew my stuff” and that it showed throughout my presentation. Having her, an established academic, personally tell me that I was “very good”, “knew my stuff”, and “should not apologise” was very empowering. She then said to me that she was letting me know because she thought it was important for women in academia to encourage other women academics, as it is hard enough for people of our gender to prove ourselves as worthy researchers. The thought of being treated differently in academia based on my gender had never occured to me previously.

Recently I’ve felt very discouraged when thinking about the people involved in my field, sociolinguistics. Many people who advocate for social equality, but in practice – in the academic world – they are consumed by the pressures of being taken seriously and being “respected” — at times they do it at the expense of their students, the future academics. Thus, in many of these conferences academics may focus on saying something witty, or smart, even if it comes across as rude and offensive. I know this is the language (and behavior) of some of the people in this career, and the fact that my discipline deals with society, inequalities, and people’s attitudes does not exempt it from this negative side to academia. I know that in the future there will be many people who want to tear me down to make themselves seem more intelligent. Some of whom have  had access to better funding, more resources, or prestigious opportunities in their respective schools, and have had privileged PhD experiences. So it’s quite hard for some to imagine what others have had to go through to get there. I have already felt inadequate, or unworthy, many times during my PhD. This was the first time I was putting myself out there, at an international conference. Having the first reaction be “you are good and I think you should know that” meant the world to me. I am extremely grateful to this person, and the lesson she taught me. Although I have become somewhat cynical of people in my field, it’s encouraging to know that there are still some who are genuinely interested in encouraging others, and ultimately advancing the field of sociolinguistics. I know we need more people like this in my field, and I hope that someday I am able to encourage others the same way this woman encouraged me.

2 thoughts on “On Academia and Feminism

  1. The mark of a true academic, regardless of gender, is primarily a sense of curiosity and this is where women in academia can make their mark. Academia tells us to ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’, but it shouldn’t be a case of stamping your colleagues down in the race to get there. Women, (and I hate to throw my gender under the bus here, but…), can be the worst for this, as I have sadly seen many times. It is our responsibility as women to support one another, not turn everything into a competition or second-guess one another’s motivations. As an esteemed colleague says: “a rising tide lifts all ships”.

    Let’s be the tide.

    Great article (and well done on your presentation!)

  2. Hi Katie, I’m from the corporate world as opposed to the academic and even so, so much resonates from your experience. One thing I have found in my own career and speaking to others is the benefit of peer support from other women. Two suggestions that may help, I have heard a friend of mine in the academic world speaking of an academic support programme for women called Athena Swan which may be of use. Also, there is a free programme called Lean In Circles, small groups of women who get together to support each other in their careers. I’m part of one and it has become an essential part of my career support (and given me a whole new circle of friends). I am aware they also have campus Circles or if not you can set your own up (as we did). If you’re interested Google it as you can find on their website if there is already a Circle to join or if not there is all the free information and content to help you set up your own. Really well done on the presentation and on being brave and sharing on here. You will have helped others by sharing your experience without even knowing it! Laura

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