What the ‘grievance studies’ hoax is really about

This is the Open Access (and slightly longer) version of a piece published in Times Higher Education on October 4th 2018.

An article entitled ‘Academic Grievance Studies and the Corruption of Scholarship’ has recently been published in Areo Magazine. It describes what Helen Pluckrose (editor of Areo), James A. Lindsay (who has a PhD in mathematics) and Peter Boghossian (an assistant professor of philosophy) term a ‘reflexive ethnography’ of particular academic fields, in which they wrote twenty Sokal-style hoax papers and submitted them under pseudonyms to peer-reviewed journals. The papers cover a variety of topics including sexual violence in urban dog parks, fat bodybuilding, and men anally penetrating themselves with sex toys. The authors report that seven were accepted and four of these published online, while seven were ‘still in play’ when the hoax was revealed, and six ‘retired as fatally flawed or beyond repair.’

Pluckrose et al claim to be ‘left-leaning’ scholars who position themselves against what they pejoratively call ‘grievance studies’ (a term which, whether they intend it to or not, evokes a canon of right-wing ‘anti-victimism’). ‘Grievance studies’ encompasses a variety of disciplines including sociology, anthropology, gender studies and critical race studies. Their key target is described as ‘social constructivism’, which seems to consist of any attempt to demystify categories usually defined as ‘natural’ (so they actually mean social constructionism). Some of the tenets they take issue with are: the idea that gender inequalities are not to do with biology; the idea that obesity is a ‘healthy and beautiful body choice’; specific theories such as standpoint epistemology; and specific methodologies such as autoethnography.

There’s nothing wrong with academics holding each other up to scrutiny – it’s healthy and necessary. But despite their claim to be engaging in ‘good-faith’ critique, it’s clear that Pluckrose, Lindsay and Boghossian actually aim to undermine fields they have political – not scholarly – objections to. First, there is plenty of scholarship within ‘grievance studies’ which does not take a social constructionist perspective, and plenty outside it which does. Secondly, as they have targeted only journals in ‘grievance studies’ fields and not others, there is no way to know whether the problems they identify are specific or more general across the sector (a glance at Retraction Watch suggests the latter). Indeed, despite their professed mission to restore methodological rigour where they feel it’s lacking, their own study incorporates no control group (not to mention the complete lack of research ethics). Most of the hoaxed journals are gender studies ones, and Boghossian and Lindsay have targeted gender studies before. This was with a hoax piece entitled ‘The Conceptual Penis as Social Construct’, submitted to a journal which turned out to be pay-to-publish. It seems, then, that these three may be harbouring some grievances themselves.

The current hoax features papers which are certainly outlandish. But Pluckrose et al admit they were not able to achieve a ‘conceptual penis’ style hoax with the journals they targeted this time, and had to produce much ‘less obvious’ papers which, in many cases, involved inventing datasets and citing relevant literature. Furthermore, some of the papers are simply based in premises (e.g. social constructionism) or political principles (e.g trans inclusion) that the hoax authors find hard to accept. For instance, a paper entitled ‘An Ethnography of Breastaurant Masculinity’ argues that establishments such as Hooters help to construct problematic forms of masculinity (whereas Pluckrose et al seem to think that men are just biologically programmed to like looking at breasts). In their description of the aims of this particular hoax, they say, ‘to see if journals will publish papers that seek to problematize heterosexual men’s attraction to women’. Well, yes – problematising heterosexual attraction is a key premise on which gender studies scholarship is based.

Like the hoax itself, their reporting of it is also riddled with misrepresentation. Editors of one of the targeted journals tell me that the paper submitted to them was recorded as a desk reject and did not go out to reviewers and was not, as the authors claim, given a revise and resubmit. Michael Keenan notes that another paper was rejected by the journal Hypatia three times, with very critical reviewer commentary, but Pluckrose et al describe the journal’s response as ‘warm’ and place this alongside details of a paper which was accepted, which is very misleading. They also report they received four invitations to peer review other papers ‘as a result of their exemplary scholarship’, but neglect to mention whether these were merely auto-generated from a list of previous submitters to the journals in question.

The exposure of the hoax ends with a demand that all major universities review various areas of study (gender studies, critical race theory, postcolonial theory and other disciplines such as sociology and anthropology) ‘in order to separate knowledge-producing disciplines and scholars from those generating constructivist sophistry.’ This is a chilling statement which will certainly feed right-wing attacks on gender studies such as those which have recently happened in Hungary, as well as the targeting of feminist and critical race scholars by the ‘alt’-right. Pluckrose et al claim this is not their intention, but given their various misrepresentations, you’ll forgive me if I don’t believe them.

As a scholar in ‘grievance studies’ myself, I think the hoax says more about conditions in the sector than anything else. Pressure to publish has created an increasing volume of submissions (and arguably also a drop in standards). Unpaid peer review often has to be squeezed in between swelling workload demands. If we’re truly worried about academic rigour, we might want to start there. Alternatively, we could think less about the flaws of ‘grievance studies’ and more about how academic work has contributed to legitimate grievances by bolstering neoliberal economic reforms or neo-imperialist foreign policy. To me, that’s corruption of scholarship.

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Juggling the balls, having it all? Tips from a mother and part-time Professor

When I was promoted to Professor in Spring 2017, a number of my female colleagues asked me, ‘how did you do it?’ I have two children, born in 2010 and 2013. I worked three days a week after my first maternity leave, and increased to four days in September 2015 (and remain on a 0.8 contract). I was promoted to Senior Lecturer just before having my first child, to Reader in Spring 2015 and Professor two years after that.

As I have tried to get used to my new title (and some of the additional demands that come with it), the ‘how did you do it?’ question has stayed with me. Partly because it taps into my own imposter syndrome – I imagine an implication that I must have ‘gamed the system’ rather than met the criteria – but mainly because I think there is still a dearth of support for parents, and mothers in particular, trying to navigate having children and an academic career.

What follows is a series of tips based on my own experience. In presenting these, I don’t intend to pretend it’s been easy or to construct myself as ‘superwoman’. Like Melissa Terras, I think the ‘Superwoman Fallacy‘ is incredibly unhelpful and creates expectations that we should all just be able to cope (and maintain a perfect body and/or blow-dry whilst doing it). Also, behind every ‘superwoman’ is an army of others, usually less privileged women, who do childcare and/or domestic tasks for relatively low rates of pay. I am not insensible of the privilege I have in being able to afford some paid help (or how deeply unjust it is that women like me are only able to achieve success because of the labour of others). It’s largely because of the labour of these other women, as well as other forms of help, that I have managed to combine academia with motherhood. But there are a few other things I do which have helped me as well: I hope they help you, too.

1) First and foremost: writing. This is often the first thing to go when commitments start stacking up, and it’s also one of the most important in terms of both career progression and job satisfaction. My advice is: start small, and make things do double (or even triple) duty if you can. Several of my papers have started as blogs, then become talks, then developed into the full-length article. Don’t be afraid to re-use content in these different formats: each time it will probably get better, more complex, more nuanced, so think of it as a form of drafting. For UK academics, the new REF guidance is not unsupportive here: it’s likely that we will be submitting fewer outputs of higher quality. From a job satisfaction perspective, I also think it’s far better to write one great journal article a year than four which are just OK. Starting with blogs is a good way to make sure you are writing every day: sorry about the cliché, but writing is a muscular activity and if you don’t use muscles, you lose them.

2) Get organised: learn how to manage your time. I ‘diary’ everything: research time, marking, childcare. I also try to clump things together, so I’m not constantly making ten-minute appointments which can pepper my days and leave little time for other focused work. For instance, I hold four drop-in ‘office hours’ per week for students to keep the ad hoc meetings to a minimum. I try to avoid long Email discussions, but also resist the urge to set up meetings when a quick phone call or Skype would do the trick. During term time especially, I use a double-sided sign on my door (originally intended for a toilet) which can be flipped to ‘free’ or ‘busy’, depending on whether I feel I can be interrupted or not. I use Trello to keep track of all my different roles and tasks, from research and writing projects, to my MA programme, to my big admin jobs. Trello allows you to create ‘to do’ lists and to write notes on each item, attach files, and add comments. You can also share your lists with your team.

3) Say ‘no’. A lot. I mentor a number of junior women, and this is the main thing I try to teach them. It doesn’t mean be a bad colleague: we all know that male academic who doesn’t do anything unless it gives him a line on his CV. Instead, it means getting better at filtering out what’s necessary from what’s not, and learning to work on your own terms instead of constantly reacting to other people. I have (and have had) a huge number of different roles at Sussex, so sometimes it feels as though everyone wants a piece of me, and they all want it now. When someone asks for a meeting, my first response is always, ‘what’s it about?’ This enables me to triage. Unless it’s an emergency, I then resist the urge to stop what I’m doing immediately, and instead offer half an hour at a different time when it’s less interruptive. Knowing what people want upfront also means I can signpost them elsewhere if it’s apparent that’s what they really need.

In external terms, I say no to about 85% of the requests I get. If they’re interesting, I try to recommend junior women who I think might benefit from the exposure. If not, I let them go. It’s difficult to say no – many people, especially women, are uncomfortable with it – and as academics we are often pressured to be everywhere and do everything. But you can’t, especially with young kids in tow. I also don’t think it’s necessary – let’s go back to quality rather than quantity – people will remember you far more for that one kick-ass talk you gave last year than for four which were just OK (and you will enjoy yourself more too). Finally, some opportunities, to my mind, offer notoriety and nothing else. Do I need to go to the Oxford Union to debate someone from Spiked on ‘safe spaces’? Absolutely not.

4) Use resources wisely. Instead of spending your research allowance on yet another conference, use it (or apply for a small pot of money, if that’s how it works at your institution) to enable you to delegate certain jobs. I have done this in order to get literature reviews produced, to get support with impact activity, and to get help organising conferences. A bonus is that you will generate work for some poor hungry postgraduate student, usually paid at a decent rate and which develops them and is good for their CV. I have also used small funds to pay for coaching (thanks Natalie!) and other career/personal development opportunities which have given me many of my organisational strategies, helped me to manage stress (and know when to push back) and deal with the constant feeling of not being ‘good enough’ (more on that later).

5) Use social media and other technologies as much as you can. Lots of conferences now allow you to ‘be there’ without actually being there, via Skype or other platforms (which will free up your budget to be spent on something else). Blogs are a terrific way to publicise your research, as is writing for publications such as the Guardian Higher or Times Higher Education. Share your articles and projects in Facebook groups and on sites such as ResearchGate: they’re great for networking (but remember, you need to show interest in other people’s stuff too: we all roll our eyes at those academics who are only about themselves). Twitter is also fantastic, if you can filter out all the noise. When my kids were tiny and I was hardly travelling at all, Twitter was my lifeline: I used it to build new audiences for my work and (more importantly) to stay plugged in to debates I was interested in. I got a lot more from this than I was expecting, due to the variety of voices you hear on Twitter that just aren’t represented in mainstream academic discussions. As a relatively immobile academic, this was key to my intellectual development (and still is).

6) Know your rights. As a part-timer if you are one, your rights to flexible working, rights to unpaid time off to look after your children, and other things. Citizens Advice have good resources, as do ACAS. Make sure you are a member of a union – I can’t emphasise this enough – and familiarise yourself with your institution’s policies on things like equality and diversity, bullying and harassment, wellbeing and stress. Do this before you encounter that manager who insists on making you work days you’re not contracted for, or expects you to answer emails at the weekends, or that male (or sometimes, unfortunately, female) senior Professor who dumps all their unwanted admin on you.

7) Know who your supporters are. I have been lucky to have very supportive managers on the whole, who have agreed my requests for part-time and flexible working and have been open to discussions about ensuring my workload is apportioned appropriately. Not that there haven’t been problems: especially in academia, part-time is very rarely part-time and workloads for all of us have increased in recent years. I am also in a relatively small department in which capacity is often limited. However, I have always felt I had some room for manoeuvre and/or some possibility of discussion. If your manager isn’t supportive, you may need to find someone in HR or another mentor in your department or unit, who is able to advocate for and advise you. In my experience HR staff are usually very helpful with queries about part-time and flexible working, because so many of them do it themselves. I am also lucky to have, as well as some paid help, an incredibly supportive partner who shares the childcare 50/50 when we are at home, or even does a little more than his share to balance out the fact that I work part-time. If you don’t have this, it can be incredibly difficult (and you have all my admiration), and you may need to think about developing a supportive network of friends to relieve at least some of the pressure. Especially once kids are at school, I’ve found other parents are very willing to help out, as I am myself. It’s also often easier to get on with a bit of work (of any type, household or academic) when your kids have their friends round. In the absence of full communism (now!) I think we should try, in our own ways, to collectivise childcare as much as we can.

8) Don’t beat yourself up. I am useless at this: I feel like a bad parent about twenty times a day (including right now: I’m writing this while my kids are amusing themselves in the park, and other parents are building sandcastles or coaching their little tykes on the climbing frame). Like everyone, I feel like an imposter at work too, and also give myself grief when I’m not able to write to the quality I want or be as available to students or colleagues as I’d like. I’m working on it. Have you heard of the theory of the ‘good enough’ mother/parent? ‘Good enough’ parenting means you don’t strive to be perfect, nor expect perfection from your kids. It lets everybody off the hook. I try to remember that I will teach my kids they have to be perfect if I’m always striving to be. I also reassure myself that if they never have to use their own resources, they will be ill-equipped for life.

I think we can apply the same principles to our careers, despite the messages we get from our institutions, our colleagues, our students and ourselves. All we have to be is ‘good enough’. We don’t have to be everywhere and do everything: the world will carry on without us, and we can let others have a turn. Our students need to develop their own skills and resources as well as having the benefit of ours, and sometimes students aren’t the best judges of what’s right for them: they might want more and more of you, but your job might really be to help them build the confidence to reach out on their own. I still try to prioritise quality over quantity, but I also try (and usually fail) to ‘let things go’ if they’re not quite as good as I’d like. In the area of admin, I apply the ‘quality’ principle selectively, as there is a lot of paperwork to do in the neoliberal university, and some jobs are more important than others. I am leading the REF2021 submission for my department, which has serious implications, so I will do it to the very best of my ability. However, I don’t think that’s necessary for the endless internal monitoring forms and reports which probably end up at the back of someone’s filing cabinet.

9) Take time out when you need it. Take time out when you don’t need it. Just take time out, regularly. I don’t habitually work evenings and weekends, unless I’m making up childcare time from the week. If find myself slipping into working a lot outside my designated hours, I see this as a warning that I’ve said ‘yes’ to too much, or that my allocated roles and tasks have got out of control. So I try to pare down, or have a conversation with my manager about my load. There’s a culture in academia that ‘more is better’, and I know some departments where staff compete about who can work the longest. I know these cultures can be powerful and I don’t mean to be flippant, but life’s too short for that shit. I’ve also found that if I focus on quality rather than quantity, I can usually do my job in the allocated time. Regular time out helps me to look after my physical and mental health and makes me more efficient when I am at work. I take time out from my kids, too: sometimes my partner takes them out at the weekend to give me space (if you don’t have a supportive partner, you could do a quid pro quo with another parent), or I might occasionally go out for an early evening drink or dinner with a friend. I do things for myself: once the kids are in bed I do an evening ballet class twice a week, and I sing whenever I can (these days mostly to myself). Not to go all Loréal, but I’m worth it. I don’t say this to guilt or shame anyone who is working all hours and feels they have no alternative: but I would encourage you to explore any possible alternatives you have. You’re worth it, too.

10) Finally and perhaps most importantly, know that it’s OK to not be OK. The ‘superwoman fallacy’ really is a fallacy: nobody can juggle all the balls, or ‘have it all’, all the time. Find out what your institution offers in terms of staff welfare support, and avail yourself of it. If they don’t offer any, ask them why (and tell your union). Pay for support if you can afford it: your mental health is the best investment you can possibly make. When you’re feeling OK, look after yourself and try to have a good time. Without getting too ‘lean in’ about it, I try to enjoy my work whenever I possibly can. Life is short; academia is a rewarding profession, despite the stresses and irritations. I try to eat well. I look after my teeth. This has gotten easier with time: when my kids were really tiny, I was constantly ill and life regularly felt out of control. If this is where you are, please don’t beat yourself up about it (and let me give you a virtual hug). I hope this helps, because I have to go: the little one wants to show me his sandcastle, and the big one’s waving from the top of the climbing frame.

* In this post I have used both ‘motherhood’ and ‘parenthood’. I think the tips here apply to all parents (and I realise that not all those who give birth to children identify as women or mothers). However, the fact remains that it is disproportionately mothers (whether they have given birth to their children or not) who do the bulk of parenting and household chores, and who are more likely to work part-time, so it’s important to acknowledge that.  

**The title of this piece borrows from a paper by the late Steve Dempster, ‘Having the balls, having it all?’ about constructions of ‘laddishness amongst undergraduate students. Although I never had the privilege of meeting him, Steve’s work has informed mine a lot, so it felt appropriate to borrow from him here. RIP Steve 💜

Writing a PhD proposal (social sciences)

For many academics, each new year brings a flurry of Email enquiries about PhD supervision. In my experience these tend to range between a vague notion about a topic (or a few possible topics) and a detailed account of a research idea, usually drawn from a successful MA thesis or an area of professional interest. What I hardly ever get, however, is a proper draft proposal.

For me, having at least a rough draft of your proposal before you contact potential supervisors is good practice, for a number of reasons: (1) it shows you have given the matter some thought; (2) it identifies you as someone who is able to work independently; and (3) it allows you to take ownership of your work from the start (and some supervisors WILL take over if you let them). If you are planning to apply for Research Council funding, a draft gives you a valuable head start – I also see the process of feedback and amendment for these high-profile applications as an excellent insight into what a student will be like to supervise (I generally ask for several redrafts before I will sign off).

A PhD proposal does not need to be long. In fact, I encourage applicants to be as concise as they can – Research Council application forms generally allow a couple of sides, 10 pt font minimum, so I would stick to that. For a social science PhD, proposals will contain a number of common elements:

Rationale
A short paragraph describing your topic, stating why it is important. First and foremost, you should be proposing a project which is fresh and original rather than repeating previous studies. This doesn’t necessarily mean a completely new topic, but it should at least mean looking at an existing topic in a new way. The best research in my field tends to be both policy/society-relevant and able to make a contribution to cutting-edge academic debates, so look for a social need and gaps in the relevant literature. Your project should pass the ‘so what?’ test on both intellectual and practical grounds. This is especially the case if you want to work with a marginalised group as an outsider – your study needs to have clear benefits for your participants, and it should be obvious that you are the right person to do it and are doing it for the right reasons (if you’re not sure this is the case, perhaps read this post and reflect). If you’re applying for research funding, your project rationale should also link to the strategic priorities of the funding body.

Research questions
Two or three specific questions you will answer. They must be ones which have not been asked before in the particular way you will ask them. They should usually be open but narrow, focusing on aspects of issues or relationships between phenomena (e.g. ‘what are the causes of violence against sex workers?’ is too broad, but ‘what are sex workers’ experiences of violence under different legal/regulatory models?’ is more promising). You should also be realistic – what exactly are you going to be able to find out? Be wary of questions which are too ambitious – in social research this often means causal, categorical, or conclusive. Avoid making assumptions that will threaten the validity of your analysis (e.g. ‘how can parents who formula-feed be made aware of the benefits of breastfeeding?) Never ask something you feel you already know.

The trick is to develop research questions which both create a do-able project and account for the complexity of the social world, and to represent these as simply as you possibly can. This is difficult! Your research questions will probably go through several iterations with your prospective supervisor, so they don’t have to be perfect first time.

Literature review
This is directly linked to your rationale and research questions – a summary of existing relevant work, identifying the gaps (both empirical and theoretical) your project will fill. You may be looking at several areas of literature – some providing general context while others relate to particular issues. In a project on violence against sex workers under different legal/regulatory models, you would probably be making use of general work on violence against women/sexual violence, more specific literature on violence against sex workers (of all genders) and violence against particular groups who may be more at risk within the industry (women of colour and trans women, for example), and literature covering different models of sex industry regulation and their implications. Studies would probably be both empirical and more conceptual in focus.

Don’t just write a list in this section – introduce different bodies of literature, summarise key themes and points, identify gaps, and make explicit how all this frames your particular project. Be clear in your mind about how you are using the literature at hand, and how you might feed back into the literature and make new contributions when you have completed your research.

Theoretical framework
The conceptual material in your literature review might inform your theoretical framework – the concepts most central to your research project. You might be focusing on gender as a key category of analysis; you might (should) also be taking an intersectional approach. You might be making use of other concepts such as agency or stigma, or developing the work of particular theorists. You need to have an idea of how all this relates together and whether there are any useful connections or knotty contradictions at work.

Your theoretical framework will and should change as you develop your PhD project, coming to fruition when you have finished your data analysis and are (hopefully) ready to say something new. It need not be fully developed in your proposal. In fact, if I see a PhD proposal which has an elaborate theoretical framework already, it often raises questions about whether the student is setting out to confirm things they feel they already know. Nevertheless, your proposal should contain some indication of the theories and concepts you find relevant to your research questions, and (most importantly) some thoughts about how you might operationalise these. How can you identify agency, for example? How might you measure stigma? How can you put intersectionality into practice?

N.B. Not all proposals will have a separate literature review and theoretical framework: if your project is heavily conceptual these might be merged into one longer section, or if you are conducting a large empirical study which will generate an entirely new dataset you may not need to be so focused on the theory.

Methodology
This is probably the most important part of your proposal – a description of what you are going to do in very precise terms. This should include your your broad methodological approach – is it quantitative or qualitative? Are you using a particular research design, for instance ethnography or case study? Are you situated within a specific epistemological framework, and why? It should also include any specific methodological techniques or elements of research design – for instance, if you are trying to explore the interactions between phenomena, how will you measure and establish these? (e.g. in a qualitative study exploring how breastfeeding impacts on mothers’ experiences of bonding with their babies, you would need to consider how you would tease out the role of breastfeeding from other factors).

Your methodology should give details of your planned sources of data and how you will sample them. Be specific: if you are doing interviews, how many? What types of people will you hope to recruit as participants, and why? If you are working with documents, how many and how will they be selected? You need to give assurances that you are not just cherry-picking your sample to confirm what you feel you already know – for instance, a proposed study on whether the media contains racist bias will be stronger if you are not just working with content from the Daily Mail. You should also give details of how you will negotiate access to your sources, and the more groundwork you can do in advance the better, especially if you are working on sensitive issues or with marginalised communities. Your methods should then be described as accurately as you possibly can, as well as your planned techniques of data analysis, with full attention paid to how you might operationalise your theories.

Your methodology section should be primarily descriptive – your prospective supervisor needs to be confident that you have thought your project through and are in a good position to carry it out. It should also be mostly practical: although reflexivity is essential to qualitative social research, your PhD proposal is probably not the best place to present your autobiography. You need to show that you are conversant with the methodological literature and with other, similar studies, and have thought about your planned project with reference to these. Of course, your methodology will evolve during the course of your project and it is always possible to change it – but it is essential to be thinking like a researcher from the start.

Ethics
Sometimes this section will be part of your methodology; sometimes it will be separate. If you are doing any research with human subjects you will probably undergo a rigorous ethical review process within your institution, before you are cleared for fieldwork. If your topic is sensitive or you are working with marginalised communities, this can take a while and can involve various requests for amendments. This section is your chance to show that you have engaged with the literature on research ethics and thought about any potential issues for your study: use it to identify these and talk about how you might address them. Power relations, informed consent, anonymity/confidentiality, risk/harm, participant and self-care all need to be covered.

University ethics committees are notoriously conservative; you can take a critical perspective, especially where notions of ‘risk’ and ‘harm’ are concerned, and particularly in relation to the differences between working with more marginalised and more elite groups. However, you should also be aware that this is a bureaucratic process that could potentially stand between you and the successful completion of your research: some hoop-jumping may be necessary.

Timeline
As the last section, your proposal should present a description of how you will break your research into manageable tasks and deadlines in order to get your PhD finished within the time you have (3-4 years full-time, 6-8 years part-time). It is best to present this in the form of a table, specifying dates by which you will have completed particular tasks. This timeline may change – but it is useful to have done some advance planning to show potential supervisors and funders that you are organised and likely to be able to deliver.

Finally, remember that you should probably try to fit all this on to two sides of A4. This usually includes references, so be strategic/sparing with these, and remember that you can allude to wider reading by using phrases such as ‘such as’, or ‘amongst others’ as part of your citations (this last tip is for PhD proposals only – you must not do this in your final thesis!)

Good luck 👍📚🎓