A Critical Community: Reflections on ISCHP 2019

Perhaps particularly as a critical academic, finding community feels like one of the (pardon me) critical pieces of engaging in academia. It can feel lonely, sometimes, being the one to suggest that we look at the structural underpinnings of distress, explore the why behind methodological selections, and challenge even our own ways of looking at things. When we are around other critical academics, asking these kinds of questions feels more welcome—and, importantly, it is not about “calling people out” for being “bad people” or “bad researchers” but rather about calling us into accounting for why we do what we do, and how we do it.

A view of the Danube river with boats

A view of the Danube river with boats

I will admit that I did not feel much like climbing into a little tin box of an airplane and crossing the Atlantic to participate in 3 sessions and attend many more at this moment in my life. I’m in the midst of major upheaval of my life, moving across the world in two months, right after I get married at the end August. I had one of the worst migraines of my life the day before I left, and I was scared—I’ve been scared to do most things, lately, and feel a bit like I am lying in wait, my life paused as it somehow also spins out of control around me. There is a part of me that wants to hide under a rock until the storm has passed.

And yet. I knew that once I was on the plane and underway, I’d settle into my aloneness followed by my being-in-community and relish the opportunity to connect with colleagues who see the world in a similar way to me. And so off I went, packed up into a tiny suitcase and ready to spend 5 nights in Slovakia.

The first day was a surreal experience, as jet lagged experiences often are. Strolling through the streets of Bratislava, I reflected on solitude and community, on connection, and on who I am as an academic and a human. It all sounds a little melodramatic, but as I brought the icy pistachio gelato to my lips, I couldn’t help but feel at once uprooted and grounded, plunked in the middle of Eastern Europe in a country I’d never imagined visiting.

Uncharacteristically for me, I attended every session at the conference. I didn’t feel my usual need to retreat; quite the opposite, I was craving the togetherness that conferences can bring. I cannot over-state how important it was for me to arrive on the first day of the conference and be enveloped in welcoming hugs from colleagues in the Southern Hemisphere. I’ve spent the past several months talking with my Northern Hemisphere and especially North American colleagues about how I am “going.” Leaving. Uprooting. Here I was, neither here nor there, hearing, for the first time in person: you’re coming. And that slight shift made all the difference, as changing our language and perspective often does.

The first workshop I attended at the conference was on early career researchers in the neoliberal academy, with Drs. Abigail Locke and Maria Del Rio Carral. The timing for this workshop could not have been better; Abi and Maria shared reflections on the state of affairs in the neoliberal academy that resonated with my lived experience and also made me feel even more grateful than I already was about the fact that I’ve got a job come October. Some of the common features of the neoliberal academy we face as ECRs include the multiplication of ECRs, particularly in temporary fixed term contracts, the decrease in permanent positions, increasing competition and surveillance, and performance and efficiency-based criteria used in determining “who gets in.” Under these conditions—which Abi and Maria described as being like a pyramid, with few stable positions up at the top and the proliferation of PhDs at the bottom—more and more people are leaving academia. A reframe the presenters provided was that while we tend to see this as a “poor them” scenario, it’s worth considering how for many, leaving might be the best and most logical step. Academia, they shared, is a “greedy institution,” demanding of us both our work and our passion. Maria referred to the “passion trap” many of us fall into—the idea that we need to demonstrate how devoted we are to our work to open opportunities. And while we may indeed be passionate about what we do, we deserve respect and humanity and care. I was inspired by this workshop, which left me feeling justified in my ongoing pursuit of a stronger balance between who I am as an academic and who I am as a person.

Something that I love about ISCHP is that the presentations often leave me feeling simultaneously inspired and unsettled. Keynote talks in particular felt this way to me this year. Dr. Margaret Wazakili asked critical questions about what needs to shift in the narrative around disability and health to make space for and work toward true accessibility in our social structures, drawing on the African mantra of Ubuntu in South Africa and Umunthu in Malawi and Zambia (“I am me because of you”) to encourage a rethinking of inclusion. I had some thoughts throughout the presentation about the use of person-first language, which encourages a de-centring of the disability in favour of a focus on the person. I couldn’t help thinking about how in many disability activist spaces, disability-first language is preferred, as disability can be a key piece of a person’s identity (see this blog post for more). Language is always imperfect and contextual, and I wondered about the role of consultation with those who identify in various ways to drive all of our work.

Another brilliant and unsettling keynote was by Dr. Miroslav Sirota, who asked questions about what critical qualitative work can learn from the Open Science movement. Sirota shared examples of how data has been falsified and results over stated (through “questionable research practices”) in quantitative psychology as a segue into a discussion of the value of open data. I had a lot of feelings about the possible value of open data in qualitative psychology, as well as some of the possible drawbacks. While I agree that sharing data can help to increase the value of research participation (through use of data, as opposed to having it “sit on a shelf”), believe in transparency in research processes, and believe in access to information beyond the scientific community, I wonder about the assumption of replicability embedded in some of the open science movement. In qualitative work, we each bring our own lens to data analysis—it is unlikely that two people looking at the same data set will draw the same conclusions. Another aspect of my concern relates to whether researchers are (at present) trained to fully communicate with participants about what open data really means, and to provide the multiple layers and levels of consent that will allow participants to feel comfortable sharing as they wish, and not as they don’t. I think a lot about consent in the research process in general, and whether participants even read consent forms sometimes—when I participate in research, I’ll admit that I don’t always thoroughly explore what will be done with my data. Particularly for sensitive topics (and what counts as sensitive can vary, depending on who you are), I’d want to be sure that we were clear on how to respectfully navigate the ethics of open data and communicate about that with participants. This presentation also sparked a healthy discussion on Twitter, in which I learned even more about both the possible value and pitfalls of open data for qualitative work.

The final keynote by Dr. Linda McMullen explored framings of depression in popular media, and revealed the layers of critique and counter-critique around antidepressant use. I found this talk to be particularly interesting through its layering of the complexities around how people relate to their experiences of depression and to the use of anti-depressants—and, moreover, how this is presented in the media. One of the most frustrating things I find in seeing how depression is framed is this idea that one can simply overcome it by “thinking positive”—which evidently does not do justice to the seriousness of the experience of depression for many. I found McMullen’s presentation of the layered and intersecting frames of depression and anti-depressant use to be both sensitive and nuanced, as well as revealing fascinating ups and downs in how the media focuses in on a topic like depression.

Beyond the keynotes, I was inspired by the talks I attended that offered up challenging perspectives on issues such as birth and trauma, voice and methodology, and everything from the physical space of pharmacies to the culture of workaholism in the academy. In talks by Drs. Jenny Setchell and Rachelle Chadwick I found myself leaning into my proclivity to “apply theory to data.” In discussions about increasing the uptake of qualitative approaches in “high impact” spaces I felt myself getting activated about the need to advocate for better training, supervision, and awareness of quality qualitative work.

One of my favourite—and one of the most challenging—things about the conference was participating in a symposium on “illness narratives,” where participants shared 5 minute artistic provocations about health and illness. As a part of this symposium, organized by Dr. Kerry Chamberlain, I shared a digital story I made about my experiences of pain during graduate school and in my post doc. The backdrop is a dance I created about my experiences of doing a PhD on eating disorder recovery while recovered/in recovery from an eating disorder. I couldn’t not make this film; it felt important for me to process the pain and joy of grad school—right back to the “passion trap” I wrote about earlier on, this film reflects in part the draw toward doing work that feels meaningful, and the toll that this can take when you do care deeply about what you are doing and also feel the pull that neoliberal academia exerts toward constantly tying yourself up in knots. If you would like to watch the film, it is now available on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/349079233. Being a part of this symposium was also incredibly meaningful because the other contributions also welcomed vulnerability into the process of being and doing academic and activist work. They represented a blending of the personal, the political, and the academic. I will be thinking about the contributions for a long time.

Over all, this conference re-inspired me and reminded me of the academic and personal community that is out there, doing important work and challenging and encouraging each other. From the warm welcomes to the traditional Slovak dance lessons at the conference dinner, I am so glad I attended everything. As I settle in for a few months of wild preparations for the next stage of my life, I feel grateful to everyone who has generously shared their thoughts and time with me over the 6 years I’ve been a part of ISCHP.