Out of Office: Working Feminist Spaces in Troubled Times

We need space that is not designated as institutional space to be able to talk about the problems with and in institutions.

Sara Ahmed: On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, 2012 (10).

What do you do when your world starts to fall apart?

I go for a walk, and if I’m really lucky, I find mushrooms. Mushrooms pull me back into my senses, not just—like flowers—through their riotous colors and smells but because they pop up unexpectedly, reminding me of the good fortune of just happening to be there. Then I know that there are still pleasures amidst the terrors of indeterminacy.

Anna Tsing: The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, 2016 (1).

From reading feminist ethnographies on the current state of universities, it seems to us that, for those who pursue what M. Jacqui Alexander (2005) calls ‘teaching for social justice’, these institutions are becoming unliveable.

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The reason is the combination of austerity measures and ‘culture’ which dominates higher education, a culture of ‘performativity’. Putting emphasis on enhancing productivity and profitability, and on generating the ‘right’ kind of appearance – the appearance that ‘goals are being achieved and targets met’- this culture does not only structure university book-keeping but proliferates and takes over every university activity including teaching and scholarship.

According Maria do Mar Pereira (2017), who conducted research on how feminist scholars negotiate epistemic status of their field in the universities in Portugal, the current task is therefore the following:

how to guarantee that we have the working (and living) conditions to be able, individually and collectively, to do the [feminist]’significant, creative or critical work’ in the first place, both within and beyond the performative academy. (192)

Echoing other feminist ethnographers of the university- such as Amina Mama or Sara Ahmed – Maria do Mar Pereira thus concludes that what is desperately needed, is to:

[…] create the space for encounter and exchange, and the time to step back from the manic rhythm of the everyday and question our working and living conditions. It is precisely that space and time which can help us realise and remember that different academic cultures, and different moods, are possible. (196)

To be clear, a call to step back from the manic rhythm of the university is not to suggest that we all leave our jobs or abandon our studies, although this option must nevertheless be retained. As Pereira also rightly points out, the strategies available to us are constrained by our particular positioning in relation to the current configurations of ‘disciplinary powers’ which define the university and society in general, and by our positioning in relation to the structures of employment in academia.

Let us now rewind to 2017. In 2017 we are two women from Europe, one from a village in the Czech Republic and another from a city in The United Kingdom—doctoral students partially dependent on employment as teaching assistants at the University of Leeds and active in local struggles seeking to change this and similarly exploitative and precarious forms of employment. Doctoral students in the UK do not have the luxury of a strong basis from which to critique what Pereira calls the ‘sick academic climate’. Junior and transient, they also lack the basic rights of workers such as sick pay and pensions. In 2017, then, we thus decided to situate our collective practice of critique within an officially recognised and legally protected framework of industrial actions led by the local branch of our trade union, itself providing fertile ground for thinking critically and reflexively about many of the issues at stake.

Out of Office Zine-page-006In May 2017 the University of Leeds branch of the University and College Union (UCU) entered a dispute with university management over proposed changes to University Statutes. The proposed changes to the statutes, the laws that govern the institution, included the introduction of ‘dismissal for some other substantial reason’ which UCU described as amounting to a ‘sacker’s charter’, the undefined grounds of ‘some other substantial reason’ giving too much freedom to managers to dismiss staff, arguably making jobs less secure and putting ‘academic freedom’ at risk. In other institutions where ‘Some Other Substantial Reason’ has slipped through, unforeseen uses of a catch-all dismissal procedure have allowed institutions to use ‘some other substantial reason’ as a way to wriggle out of paying redundancy packages to staff at the end of fixed term contracts who would usually be eligible for this. Other examples included dismissal by some other substantial reason after raising concerns of racism or for criticising the University. Another concern was that the move to change statutes would mean it would be much easier for management, however configured in future years, to drive through changes. The changes to the statutes, in the context of the neoliberalisation, increasing privatisation and marketisation, posed serious concerns at the University of Leeds prompting a day of industrial action taken in June 2017 and three further days of industrial action in October 2017.

Like the discussions of the state of Higher Education that emerged around the UK’s USS pensions dispute and large-scale industrial action that would follow only a few months later, this dispute gave a context for discussions about the costs of increased casualisation, institutional racism, ableism, ageism and sexism. Alongside the industrial action, Leeds UCU invited contributions to an off-campus ‘Teach-Out’, a programme of events developed by striking University workers for which Lenka and I devised an event we had been thinking about for a while, entitled ‘Out of Office: Feminist Readings & Mushroom Hunting in Meanwood Park’.

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Out of office names, as you may have gathered, both the notifications set on our email during the withdrawal of our labour during the industrial action and the literal act of going out of the office. The aim, however, was not just to take our colleagues out of their offices to appreciate the English woodland, but also to provide a space and time for an interrogation of the academic culture of performativity and a reflection on how it shapes our intellectual and institutional (working) habits. Similarly, for us, mushroom hunting is not only a leisure activity or a way of obtaining edible commodities, considered to be gourmet treats difficult to buy in the UK, but also a critical practice which makes us re-consider our individual and collective relationship to work, and feminist work in particular. These walks also seek to put the performative academic culture—which, as it seems, got out of proportion—in its place, that is, situate it within different and broader narratives – narratives for social and environmental justice.

We took the title of the programme ‘teach-out’ quite literally. To teach – as in to show and demonstrate – outside. Our teach-out, took us elsewhere, outside and beyond the academic institution and its patterns of ‘knowledge production’. Searching for, picking, cutting and, importantly, smelling mushrooms would not traditionally be considered ‘intellectual’ and ‘academic’ activity, yet, simultaneously, it is a highly specialised ‘skill’ which allows you to get to know and relate to the world around you. Our knowledge, passion and care for mushrooms had either been shared generationally in our families, from grandmother to granddaughter, or shared by friends and self-taught with the aid of mushroom ID books. Learning about and with mushrooms is always partial, situated and in motion. If education is thought of as walking or being led on a path – as we can hear from the word ‘pedagogy’ – as a journey in time, space and with others, and we were interested in learning from and with mushrooms – about their shapes, colours, smells, their lives, habitats and interactions with their living and non-living surroundings – this also requires a particular form of attention manifested in the pacing of your movements, a focus on sensation, as well as intense mental concentration and attentiveness to long and short-term changes in weather conditions and the geology and vegetation of the particular area. It also requires the cultivation of something Lenka and I now call ‘the mushroom gaze’.

Along with our mushroom ID books, rain coats, mushroom knives and baskets, we provided copies of excerpts from two narratives to be read aloud by the group which gathered in the entrance of Meanwood Park. These were, ‘Sorties: Out and Out: Attacks/Ways Out/Forays’ by Hélène Cixous (1975) and The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics and Postwork Imaginaries by Kathi Weeks (2011). The group assembled, comprised of students, staff, their family and friends, and Lenka began to read from Cixous’s famous essay:

If there is a somewhere else that can escape the infernal repetition, it lies in that direction, where it writes itself, where it dreams, where it invent new worlds.
And that is where I go. I take books; I leave the real, colonial space; I go away. Often I go read in a tree. Far from the ground and the shit. I don’t go and read just to read, to forget – No! Not to shut myself up in some imaginary paradise. I am searching: somewhere there must be people who are like me in their rebellion and in their hope. Because I don’t despair: if I myself shout in disgust, if I can’t be alive without being angry, there must be others like me. I don’t know who, but when I am big, I’ll find them and I’ll join them, I don’t yet know where.

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In this passage, Cixous proposes a ‘way out’ from what she describes as ‘the Empire of the Selfsame’, that is, a phallogocentric economy which is deadly for everyone, women as well as men. She recalls the situation into which she was born and which she describes as ‘unlivable’ – a situation of a Jewish girl in Algeria under French colonial rule, in the wake of the Second World War. Reflecting on the experience of her childhood, Cixous describes how she nonetheless believed that there is ‘somewhere else’, a community of ‘readers’ which, that time, she accessed by ‘going to read in a tree’.

We suggested interpreting this ‘somewhere else’, which is both a journey and a place, not only in relation to desire, politics and literature but also in relation to education (the book The Newly Born Woman, where the essay appears alongside an essay by Catherine Clement’s, was published a year after Cixous founded Études féminines, the first feminist program in a European university). Simultaneously, we suggested to read the description of Cixous’ getting to this ‘somewhere else’ as going to read in a tree, not as a metaphor for a romantic escape to seemingly ‘apolitical’ nature from real politics, but as a move, which allows for novel conceptualizations of feminist work, spaces and collectives.

Our own search for this so called ‘somewhere else’ continued by following mushrooms. The walk began, tracing a path up the ridge high above Meanwood Beck, following the path down, over a bridge and into the Hollies. Mushrooms appear unexpectedly or contingently – thus enacting a literal disruption – there were moments when we were reading or discussing a part of the text, and someone would spot a mushroom under some leaf litter nearby. Despite October being a little late in season we soon found jelly ears, also known as black fungus, other bracket mushrooms such as birch polypore, lots of common earthballs and puffballs – the latter proving especially exciting when touched to release a cloud of spores – a solid black stalkless mushroom named King Alfred’s Cakes and the striking purple amethyst deceiver.

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As for Anna Tsing – whom we quoted in the opening – for us, ‘mushroom hunting’ provides a space to reconsider work and its value (what is and what is not considered productive labour) in relation to a particular geo-political context:

Who picks certain kinds of mushrooms, and when, how and why, tells you a lot about a place and its politics.

Thus, for instance, during our walk, one of the participants recalled reading stories about fungus-foraging gangs of Eastern Europeans raiding British forests. These stories, which were appearing in the media four years ago, that is in 2015, were employing language reminiscent of racist and classist condemnations of travellers’ communities. Relating these newspaper stories to the current political climate in Britain, the group discussed how 2015 was also the year when the debates around Brexit, where fear of immigrants and foreigners ‘stealing resources and jobs’ played the decisive role, had, thanks to an increasing rift in the Conservative party, begun to enter the public debate in the country.

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While collecting and cleaning a few specimens of Clitocybe geotropa – called trooping funnel in English and stremělka veliká in Czech – and recalling the xenophobia that defined the public debates around Brexit, we begun to read small sections aloud from Kathi Weeks’ book The Problem With Work. In this text, although Weeks boldly challenges the presupposition that work or waged labour is inherently a social and political good, and argues for ‘postwork’ society, she does not fall into the trap of condemning significant battles fought by the women’s movements and feminists for equal pay, better work conditions, and for the recognition of unpaid work as a value form of labour. In the passages which we read during the walk, Weeks stresses that the two demands – the demand for better working conditions and the demand for the end of work are not exclusionary but interconnected preconditions necessary for resistance to the current unjust status quo.

The beauty of a reading group reading Kathi Week’s book, is that you cannot help but reflect in the event on the work needed to put together the walk itself. In the context of the strike, of withdrawing our labour as the only means of collective bargaining, the anti-work position became all the more poignant and intersected with our different vulnerabilities in relation to casualisation and the marketisation of education. An inherent and irresolvable problem with the ‘teach out’ – and with our enthusiasm to participate in it so as to bring forward a feminist agenda into the union issues– became explicit: Lenka and I needed to engage in productive labour, in organisational, intellectual – and an unpaid – work. We also asked the participants to join in this process of ‘work’, needed to produce it (as happens with feminist events and efforts in a normal setting too). Thinking with Weeks, we were reflecting on the paradox we – as feminists – found ourselves in – especially on our desire and willingness to put a bit extra effort (work) in order to bring a ‘feminist agenda’ forward – and the expectation (moral imperative, judgemental) that others would do it too (‘for the good cause’).

Yet, this small example of our feminist practice was not simply limited to the reflection on the paradoxical nature of our relation to (feminist) work, since it aimed to provide an opening towards rethinking the issues with which Weeks is concerned so as to intervene in the current economies of ‘knowledge production’. With the suspension of work, what do we get? What are the alternatives? – friendship, playing, having fun, resting, idleness, doing nothing? The strike, being a particular form of cessation of work, allowed us – temporarily – to take up a different position, and gave space for a critical event that would have otherwise taken place in precious leisure time. The reading and walking led to discussions of neoliberal obsessions with productivity and performance, and the problem with conceptualising education as individual and individualistic journey of improvement and progress necessary for the competition against others on the labour market. It sought to imagine and try out forms of collectivity, knowledge sharing and creative and political work that might follow patterns different from those currently prescribed in academic culture.

In conclusion, we would like to recall what Weeks says in the prologue to her book entitled ‘A life beyond Work’.  Here she interrogates and complicates the popular exclamation

‘get a life!’

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She proposes that we do not define life merely as ‘biopower’, i.e. as one’s positioning in relation to the configurations of disciplinary powers that are also fundamentally linked to the fantasy of a pure life ‘outside of work’. Instead, life should be conceived of as something that must be collectively and continually invented in the struggle to mark distinctions between fields of experience that nonetheless remain intertwined.

With this proposition, Weeks wants to remind us that ‘there are different lives to get’. The continuing project ‘Out of Office: Feminist Reading and Mushroom Hunting’ seeks to take one path in exploring HOW.

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With thanks to our fungi, foraging and feminist companions.

(Images: Out of Office Zine by Elspeth Mitchell and Lenka Vráblíková — email us for a paper or digital copy!)












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