On Mentoring – Reflections on Academic Caring as a Feminist Practice. By Harriet Hawkins.

Articulated in and to the demands of the university, virtuousness can mean over-extending such that it is impossible to stay apace, to be sufficiently responsive, available, intimate, politicized…a good feminist fails if she[he] cannot attend constantly to the nurturing/facilitating project in every domain of her[his] commitment

(Berlant 1997: 147)

We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something

(Butler 2006)

As part of the team preparing our Geography Department’s Athena Swan Silver application,[1] I have recently drafted answers to questions about the induction and support we provide for staff and students, addressed issues around promotion, grant applications, and career planning and progression. We proudly quote praise from female students who we have helped move ‘through the pipeline,’ from undergraduate to PhD and beyond, from early career scholars who felt supported into post docs and permanent roles, as well as staff lauding the effectiveness of departmental mentoring. Yet when it came to discussing the work load principals (we don’t have a workload model), mentoring, of which we are so proud, did not warrant mention, yet quite clearly was a key formal and informal activity for many staff (male and female alike) and central to creating a departmental atmosphere we were very happy to boast about. Examining our promotional matrix reveals scant reward for practices of care, merely noting mentoring as a possible supplemental criteria and barely managing to take account of collegiality at all. How to make space and time for care –  for our students, for our colleagues, for ourselves –  is an important question in the ever-stretched lives and constant balancing-act that is, for many us, the experience of being an academic, an experience to which the relationships we build are often a central and much valued part.

As mentoring, quite rightly, becomes central to the business of research groups such as Gender and Feminist Geographies Research Group and Social Cultural Geography Research groups of the Royal Geographical Society (with Institute of British Geographers), on both of whose committees I sit, it seems important to spend time reflecting on the dynamics that sit at the heart of mentoring and similar caring practices. This might enable us to appreciate the tensions that often surround these practices – the labours as well as the pleasures they bring for all involved. It might also help us reflect on how to enable sustainable cultures of caring, including care for the self? Valuable resources here are offered by the writings of those feminist geographers who call us towards a feminist ethics of care (Mountz et al. 2015; Parizeau et al. 2016; Mountz 2016). Core to such an ethics is the need to create the conditions to properly value caring in the academy, to prevent the exploitation of individuals who practice care-giving for others, and to refine our own practices of self-care, not least because own self-exploitation often compounds the problem (Mountz et al, 2015; Mountz 2016).

On Caring- tensions

…isolated, individualized working practices; intense workloads and time pressures; long hours and the elision of barriers between work and home; anxieties around job security and contracts (particularly for early career staff); and processes of promotion and performance review that effectively valorize individual productivity, and reward and institutionalize each of the above-listed characteristics

(Horton and Tucker 2014: 85).

The pages of the Times Higher, The Chronicle, the Financial Times and the New York Times and even the Atlantic and the New Yorker are awash with explorations of how, in the words of feminist scholar Lauren Berlant, ‘the nervous system of Higher Education is out of wack’ (1997: 159).  As a litany of recent articles make clear, there are a whole suite of means by which the neoliberal academy works in the ‘production of anxiety’ (Berg et al. 2016: 170; Hall, 2014). Indeed, Richard Hall (2014) goes so far as to describe it as an ‘anxiety machine’.

We live through intimate intersections of our workplaces and our health. That the neoliberalisation of the academy has had negative consequences for the health and welfare of ourselves and our students is increasingly well recognised. Indeed, The Guardian has compiled over forty articles to evidence the ‘crisis’ in mental health in universities and to out the culture which conspires to ensure we either overlook or, perhaps worse, normalise  this crisis. Audits, metrics and hierarchies are cited as perpetuating the ‘maddening’ systems that characterise the everyday experiences of many of us, where feelings of elation, satisfaction and pleasure are often overwritten by experiences of  ‘exhaustion, stress, overload, insomnia, anxiety, shame, aggression, hurt, guilt and feelings of out-of-placeness, fraudulence and fear of exposure’ (Gill, 2009: 229).

To care in the midst of this ‘anxiety machine’ is to occupy a site of tension. On the one hand, more care is required to combat the intensification of the debilitating effects of bureaucratic practices that reduce students and colleagues complete with messy lives (life-course changes, chronic illnesses and personal relationships) to metrics of completion rates, job conversion, and publication numbers. On the other hand, those metrics and performance measures (usually eons behind those in the business world) often fail to make space for, let alone, recognize and reward emotional labours, such as care and collegiality, that are fundamental to the successful functioning of the academy. For the logics of the neoliberal academy aim to allocate resources – whether physical, natural, human or financial – with the greatest possible efficiency. In doing so it devalues those resources – such as care – that sit outside ‘the market’, and would ideally ask us to turn away from those elements of our working practices, private lives, personalities and physicalities that might challenge the demands, and stymie the efficient working, of the system.

Moreover, as many writing of care-work in the academy note, little of it can be planned in advance, and even less registers in our diaries and electronic calendars; the temporalities of such ‘attentive actions’ are rarely ‘registered in a temporal field measured by clock or calendar’ (Berlant 1997: 156). What is more, as Ahmed (2015) notes, ‘the economies of energy in the academy are not evenly distributed and some bodies bear the effects of [this] depletion more than others’.  Yet, for many of us, it seems the relationships we build and the collegiality that we find in our departments, despite the pressures, are part of the pleasures of the job, and inseparable from our wider academic practice and ways of being in the world.

On Caring differently

Caring within the academy is a creative diversion- of time, of attention, of affection, of academic positions designed to foster individual achievements and competition. It is a wink of recognition…within a totalizing space. It is an act of resistance… Although it may seem unsatisfactory and insufficient, maintaining possibilities in the face of exhaustion is critical-  it is the basis of everything, including change

 (Simard-Gagnon 2016: 224)

What then can be done? Simard-Gagnon, alongside a host of feminist geographers offer inspirational ideas for how caring could be done differently. They ask, what might it mean to develop spaces and practices of care that offer resistance and push-back against the troubling neoliberal logics of the academy? What might it mean to embrace difficult discussions, where we counter the idea that ‘in environments that privilege endurance and hard work, there is little space for discussion of ailments, burnout and breaking points’ (Mountz 2016: 208). But also how is it that we can take care to ensure that burnouts are avoided and breaking points steered away from to begin with?

As I start getting more familiar with university promotion matrices, job descriptions and so on, for my own and other institutions, I find myself having to reflect time and again on the need to keep in check the terms and conditions of judgement that often seem to rule over these documents and their associated panels. For these seem to consistently devalue the kinds of care that constitute the academic community many of us so value. Easier said than done, and easier done by those positions of power and relative privilege compared to those in precarious roles and caught in the midst of the daily battles of just keeping afloat.

A set of practices I have found inspiring when reflecting on caring within the academy are those of self-care. In some sectors self-care has got a bad press for encouraging selfish behaviours of individuals already disinclined from collegial practices, we all know someone who ‘excels’ at practices of self-care in ways that appear blind to the needs of others.  Treading the line between self-care and selfishness feels like yet another complicated balancing act, but there is useful guidance once again in feminist scholarship.  In a rousing statement, following Audre Lorde, Ahmed (2014) exalts us,

Self-care: that can be an act of political warfare. In directing our care towards ourselves we are redirecting care away from its proper objects, we are not caring for those we are supposed to care for; we are not caring for the bodies deemed worth caring about. And that is why in queer, feminist and anti-racist work self-care is about the creation of community, fragile communities, assembled out of the experiences of being shattered. We reassemble ourselves through the ordinary, everyday and often painstaking work of looking after ourselves; looking after each other. This is why when we have to insist, I matter, we matter, we are transforming what matters.

Self-care as a collective practice however does not mean neglecting the individual. Indeed, strategies for self-care proposed by geographers (especially in a special issue of Canadian Geographer on mental health, 2016, 60[2]) might involve drawing clear boundaries around work-time and relationships, taking up practices that reduce work-related stress, practicing mental hygiene (whatever that might mean to each of us as individuals) and developing and promoting good practice around email and social media use.

For Ahmed, writing in 2014, such practices of self-care and care for others offer ways to create communities of care, to find ‘ways to exist in a world that is diminishing’. Since 2014 the need for such practices have only intensified, but just as they offer a means to ‘devalue and militate against’ the academy, such self-care practices are not always easy to enact. My own experiences have found me struggling to find strength and discipline to changing my own deep-seated behaviours, to stand against entrenched ideologies and cultures of overwork, and place my faith in a mode of practicing academia as a teacher, colleague and friend, that I value hugely, but which can often seem at odds with those individual research practices that undoubtedly yield recognition and promotion more quickly and efficiently.

As academics we tend to offer the worst role models for our graduate students and for a different sort of academy, even cognizant of the issues many of us, myself included, continue to often automatically embrace a model of ‘continuous achievement, and a capacity to take on work that is infinitely elastic’ (Mountz et al. 2015, 273). Performing as good neoliberal subjects we respond, at least on the surface, to practices of meritocracy and individual responsibility, achievement, advancement, persistence, competition and the winner-takes-all ethos. This supports Giroux’s (2014) claim that many academics, and I would count myself amongst them, are ‘complicit in the very processes that have shifted the mission of the university towards market defined ends.’ If sometimes thinking about ‘large scale change’ feels exhausting, then beginning with addressing these issues within ourselves might be a good place to start.


Ahmed, S. 2014 ‘Selfcare as warfare’ http://feministkilljoys.com/2014/08/25/selfcare-as-warfare/ last accessed 27/8/2016

Ahmed, S. 2015 ‘Against students’ http://thenewinquiry.com/?essays=against-students last accessed 27/8/2016

Berg, M. and Seeber, B. 2016. The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy, Ontario, University of Toronto Press.

Berlant, L. 1997. “Feminism and the Institutions of Intimacy.” The Politics of Research, ed. E. Ann Kaplan and George Levine (New Brunswick, NJ).

Butler, J.  2006. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, London: Verso.

Gill, R. 2009. Breaking the silence: The hidden injuries of neo-liberal academia. In Secrecy and silence in the research process: Feminist reflections, ed. R. Flood and R. Gill. London: Routledge, 228––244.

Giroux, H.A. 2014. Neoliberalism’s war on higher education, Haymarket Books, London.

Hall, R. 2014. On the university anxiety machine. Richard Hall’s Space, blog post March 19 2014. http://www.richard-hall.org/2014/03/19/on-the-university-as-anxiety-machine

Horton, J., and F. Tucker. 2014. Disabilities in academic workplaces: Experiences of human and physical geographers. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 37, 1, 76-89.

Mountz, A. 2016. Women on the Edge. Canadian Geographer 60, 2, 205-218.

Mountz, A., A. Bonds, B. Mansfield, J. Lloyd, J. Hyndman, M. Walton-Roberts, R. Basu, R. Whitson, R. Hawkins, T. Hamilton, and W. Curran. 2015. For slow scholarship: A feminist politics of resistance through collective action in the neoliberal university. ACME: International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, 14, 4, 1235-1259

Parizeau, K. Shillington, L. Hawkins, R. Sultana, F. Mountz, A. Mullings, B. and Peake, L. 2016. Breaking the Silence:  A feminist call to action.  The Canadian Geographer, 60, 2, 192-204.

Simond- Gagnon, L. 2016. “Everyone is fed, bathed, asleep and I have made it through another day” problematizing accommodation, resilience and care in the neoliberal academy. Canadian Geographer, 60, 2, 219–225

[1] Athena Swan is the UK Higher Education sector’s gender equality charter mark for Science Subjects. Without accreditation (bronze, silver and gold) departments are unable to apply for certain grants.

Harriet Hawkins is Professor in Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Contact: Harriet.Hawkins@rhul.ac.uk

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