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he neoliberal academy is a fundamentally un-caring space.
Feminist scholars (among others) consistently call for attention to care and care ethics within the academy, as well as academic research and writing. Yet, as Lawson (2009: 210) noted, even though care is a critical component of human life, it has remained on the margins of theory, heightening unequal relations along gender, race, and class lines. Lawson’s argument remains relevant, as Oswin (2020) notes that a significant number of geographers are still othered and remain marginalized in geography, and calls on the discipline to create sites of solidarity in order to create “an other” geography. Care is brought to our attention by highlighting reproductive labor, such as social reproduction, relations of exchange, and affect, for example. It is an everyday practice that takes place in public, private, and liminal spaces. As the university took its neoliberal turn (Meyerhoff, 2019), feminist geographers drew attention to an ethic of care as a basis for creating change in all aspects of the academy. This work represents a clarion call to examine care relations but also respond to spaces which, as part of neoliberal shifts and hierarchies within the academy, have become increasingly ‘care-less’ (Lawson, 2009).
Academia in the U.S. and elsewhere continues to be a place rife with uneven power dynamics, hierarchies, and care-less spaces. Narcissism and big egos, extraordinary labor demands and ‘shadow’ service burdens, precarity, harassment, assault, micro-aggressions, mental health issues, imposter syndrome, citation politics, and the myth of the autonomous academic exist in large measures today. Simultaneously, networks of support, effective mentoring, peer-to-peer exchanges, and other resources are being developed to address some of the toxicity that casts a shadow over academic life. Yet, the latter are not part of the metrics for performance, and care-full leadership and labor are often overlooked and/or undervalued. When we are told that to take on service roles is a ‘sacrifice’ we are telling academics that this labor is not valued and that they must go at it alone, instead of recognizing the group effort that makes this work possible; and that without this labor the academy could not function. The same measures of ‘excellence’ that undergird academic performance evaluation in large part were built on a foundation that excluded women and people of color, often relegating these groups to supporting roles. The impact thus was the privileging of a certain group: mostly white, able-bodied, hetero, cis, men (especially at what are now called predominantly white institutions, or PWIs). This devaluing of other forms of labor is tenuous and unacceptable; it ignores the everyday realities of academics, students, and the academy more generally. It undergirds the possibilities for creating, maintaining, and defending care-less spaces by asking those who are not in the dominant group to assimilate.
How, then, do we proceed? There is no space in the academy untouched by one or more of these issues, including geography. How do we move towards and strive for Lawson’s “caring geography” (2009) and Oswin’s “an other” geography (2020), where a feminist ethics of care guides our examination of, and interaction with, the contemporary (academic) world? A feminist ethic of care is an attempt to democratize decision-making, labor in all its forms, and to distribute responsibility and benefits equitably, while simultaneously creating spaces of belonging. A deeper ethic of care is also reflexive, asking who benefits from the established relations of care and what forms of listening, advocating, and allying can happen through the sharing of care practices. Care (in this guise) requires us to do the necessary labor to ”survive well” (Gibson-Graham, Cameron and Healy, 2013). As Lawson (2009: 212) notes, “care ethics also move beyond critique to think through how we are implicated in uncaring relations and to engage in radically open, democratic and transformative practices for change.” Thus, we must re-examine our practices.
When it comes to the important and caring labor of the work required, there forms an odd assortment willing/unwilling in the academy, where those who are overburdened with service and care work are either always forced into the work as a member of a historically excluded and/or underrepresented group, immediately saying yes because they feel responsible for the work, or left saying yes because no one else will. These assorted folks become isolated, or they create collectives, and support groups, or feminist facing lab groups—which while incredibly important, tend to be islands in a neoliberal and uncaring sea at the site of the university (cf. Dombroski et al., 2018; Fulweiler et al., 2021; Smyth, Linz and Hudson2020).
Negative examinations and calls for change are not new; I fully recognize that I am drawing on the multitudes of feminist, queer, anti-racist, and abolitionist scholarship to participate in this conversation (cf. Arday, 2018; Bruno and Faiver-Serna, 2022; Falconer Al-Hindi, 2000; Hamilton, 2020; hooks, 2000; Kincaid, 2019; Kincaid, Parikh, and Ranjbar, 2021; Love, 2020). I write from upheaval that is being experienced differently among people globally—as we struggle to maintain ourselves and our lives in a global pandemic, which began in 2019 and is ongoing at the time of writing. However, I suggest now, rather than the continuous processes of carving out so-called safe spaces from an academic mold that has white supremacy and the patriarchy at its foundation, there are greater demands for institutional change in the COVID moment. Universities across the United States spent the summer and fall of 2020 using the economic pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic to deflect from addressing systemic racism and structural oppression in the academy, even as the Black Lives Matter and #metoo movements swelled in and around universities nationwide. Efforts to draw attention to the fact that already extant social justice issues in higher education have only been amplified by the pandemic went largely ignored, even as many university administrators initiated ‘listening and learning campaigns’.
At my university, after several such listening and learning town halls where students, faculty and staff heard from one another about incidences of racism, sexism, and ableism on campus and demanded change, the upper administration declared that Juneteenth would now be recognized on an annual basis, with summer classes suspended and University offices closed in observance on June 19. Simultaneously, the upper administration remains silent on the multiple and repeated requests of the University of Delaware Black Student Union and other students and alumni to remove celebratory references to “blue lives matter” from the university police department’s public-facing Instagram page. A post from September 2020, that was repeatedly denounced by students in town halls with upper administrators and in comments on social media, remains active on their handle (@udelpolice) at the time of writing. These examples are not unusual, as across the U.S. institutional statements of solidarity were similar in tone to hollow corporate statements, suggesting that university administrators are unwilling to understand or confront the root of the problems on their campuses or felt that existing resources were doing the work.
Between the 1970s and today, universities throughout the U.S. added various centers and programs of study to cater to the integration, acceptance, and support of LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC communities, first-generation, and veteran students, students with disabilities, and women in STEM (Smith 2020). Despite these endeavors, rates of student and faculty retention and satisfaction in these groups have not substantially improved. Smith (2020) suggests the lack of positive results is due to “programmitis,” wherein institutions fulfill diversity requirements on paper through the addition of curriculum courses and programs, but do not impart changes to actually impact campus culture. Instead, many who are marginalized in the academy make for themselves, resisting and surviving through anti-racist (or abolitionist/educational survival complex) (Love, 2019: 27) and/or feminist killjoy/survival strategies (Ahmed, 2017: 249). Remaking campus culture requires a fundamentally different foundation for academic training that is rooted in discussions of the historical, geographic, and contemporary character of exclusion and oppression, not one that is relegated to the margins. I suggest the way forward is through a feminist approach that is imbued throughout the academy. By making a feminist ethic of care the foundation of our research, teaching, and service, we open up the possibilities for a collaborative struggle against the un-caring spaces of the academy. A feminist ethic of care here means more than resistance and more than surviving, it means “surviving well,” if not actually thriving.
As academics there is an expectation of self-motivation/self-making (see: Lawson, 2009 on the “self-made man”) in the three areas of labor that are most commonly recognized in the academy (research, teaching, service). Bringing an ethic of care to the conversation assists with recognizing the neoliberal character of this individualizing or self-centric work. In this way, both academic work and care work are put on the individual. When in practice, much of this work is done collectively or with substantial community support (see: Dombroski et al., 2018), whether visible or not, at department and institutional levels. A key moment in enacting a feminist ethic of care in academic geography is recognition of this collective and communal work within geography, within departments, and seeing its value. To transform neoliberal academic spaces into spaces that are caring means recognizing that collective support within a department does not have to be an archipelago, but can be contiguous and form a web of reinforcement that does not have strict borders which isolate research from teaching and service. There is a deep need for us to do both – the individual (including self-care; see Wood, Swanson and Colley, 2020) and the institutional – to embed an ethic of care in the everyday rhythms of academic life, thus transforming from within.
An ethic of care is multiple, and operationalizing it in our research through reflexivity, community engagement, and participatory methods, for example, can inform the energy and care we bring to the classroom as we share our work and involve students at all levels. It also opens up the way we might think about what service to our departments and the discipline means. If we re-vision this form of labor as an act of care, it could radically change how we approach our commitments to advise, provide comments in committees, and undertake equity work. Drawing from an ethic of care must simultaneously reckon with exclusions and erasures and the reasons for why geographers have had to carve out their own islands to find ways to participate. It also means seeing, naming, critically examining and sitting with the discomfort of the violence and resistance experienced and enacted by research participants and students/faculty/staff who inhabit these spaces.
However, feminism is messy. It is a theory, a practice, it is made up of movements. It is simultaneously a tool used in the pursuit of creating a more equitable world, and which can be wielded in a divisive way. At the same time, feminism can be maligned and derided in the classroom, social circles, and the academy more broadly. People can feel threatened by it, it is often misunderstood, and the movement’s long ties to white supremacy and capitalist ideals makes it a hostile space for people of color and white feminism’s “others.” Zakaria suggests that the homogenizing tendencies of white feminism have created conditions where it speaks for everyone and has expectations of conforming to western capitalism (Zakaria 2021: 61) Thus, I argue that we must consider feminisms plural, so as to disrupt exclusionary feminist practices, and instead operationalize an inclusive ethic of care based in feminist praxis. I call for a feminist care ethic that is theorized outside of a grounding in white feminism and is instead based in an intersectional approach not limited to gender difference, and considers equity for all. Intersectional feminism recognizes the layers of oppression that are experienced by people and is thus attentive to race, gender, class, disability, geographical location, and LBTQIA+ experiences. Intersectional feminist scholars draw on feminist, queer, decolonial, crip, and race theories among others to inform our approaches. An intersectional feminism is attentive not just to sexism and gender equality, but to equity across difference. As Nash argues, an intersectional approach provides an opportunity to address the legacy of exclusions and center those voices long ignored (2008: 3; see also: Collins, 2015). Intersectionality is about identity and the layered experiences of exclusion (see: Ahmed, 2017; Crenshaw, 1989; Collins and Bilge, 2016; Kendall, 2021; Lorde, 1984; Zaragocin, 2021). Thus, in drawing on this approach we begin the task of illuminating the work that makes all work possible through bringing these ideas to care-giving, and also care-receiving (see: Puig de la Bellacasa, 2017).
Geographers, in our study of the why of where, seek to understand and explain difference, which is an essential element of recognizing feminisms and building academic geography as a site of care. The academy is built around research, teaching, and service—however, these are assemblage and not exclusive of one another. All of this work is mutually reinforcing and braided together with each being required at once to make the others possible. To say that all forms of academic labor are assemblage is to recognize that there is a socio-spatial order that is interlocking (see also: Kincaid, 2020). They are interdependent, continually relating, and reengaging on a continuum. Seeing this assemblage from a feminist perspective also allows for seeing and breaking down power dynamics that are harmful in academic life. A feminist ethic of care read on to all of our work creates opportunities to make it better.
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Lindsay Naylor (she/her) is Associate Professor in the Department of Geography & Spatial Sciences at the University of Delaware in the United States and is the co-facilitator of the Embodiment Lab. She is the author of the award-winning book Fair Trade Rebels: Coffee Production and Struggles for Autonomy in Chiapas; her new book All Geographers Should be Feminist Geographers is forthcoming from University of Georgia Press.