The (Habitus) War Is over… If You Want It?

Image: Aron Van de Pol

Thursday 7th December, 2017

Laura Bentley

It was 13th September, and after navigating my way from Dudley to Birmingham I was finally on the train to Glasgow to take part in The Sociological Review’s 2017 Writing Retreat. Throughout the week leading up to that moment I had experienced conflicting emotions. I was excited that I had been offered a fully-funded opportunity to take a break from everyday demands and focus solely on developing the tools to ‘write up’ my thesis. Though I was equally imbued with dread-filled anticipation, a state that I revisit whenever I occupy space in any academic situation. As a working-class woman who lingers on the edges of academia, I experience two concurrent issues that I have spent much of my time working to solve. One, the long and arduous battle that I have with my habitus clivé, a combat saturated by hysteresis. Second, a symptom of the latter: imposter syndrome.

While I sat there, inhaling my coffee and scouring through my inbox I thought about how the prominence of these issues had multiplied as I moved into my final twelve months of PhD funding. A habitus war ensued each day as I sat down to write. A persistent war which, similar to the habitus tug, attempts to reconcile my working-class identity with the perception I’d recently been draped in: an ‘educational success’. More aggressive and visceral than a tug, the effects of the habitus war are not only a set of dislocating symptoms produced by the reconciliation process between my working-class identity and the field of academia. Compounding this are the roles that I am expected to fulfil as a woman in both my professional and personal life, followed by the subsequent onslaught of guilt for not being able to satisfy every role. Demands from home for my physical and emotional labour were becoming more intrusive and, besides, I come from a long line of women who are care-givers, dinner ladies and cleaners. I thought: “who am I to just sit and write for a year when my family needs me? Who am I to become Dr Bentley?”. Negotiating this identity conflict, as well as regular unhealthy doses of perfectionism, left me unable to focus each morning as I sat down to write. I hoped with some desperation that the Writing Retreat was an opportunity to unearth some solutions.

On arrival in Glasgow, I was met with many friendly faces, and in response, some of the boiling anxiety in my chest simmered. Soon after Rowena Murray, the Retreat Facilitator, welcomed us she ran us all through the Writing Retreat process. I felt a huge sigh of relief when we were told to turn our phones off and disconnect from the internet for the most-part of three days. Attempting to place any guilt for being unavailable to one side, I encouraged myself to indulge.

Next, we were shown how to define specific goals and sub-goals for the short, medium and long term. Although I did not achieve every goal that I set, engaging in this process showed me that when I had been sitting down to write previously, I had been expecting too much of myself, and thus, was often left feeling disappointed by my productivity levels at the end of the day. It also taught me how to cut tasks down into sizeable chunks appropriate for the time that I had, in turn this then made tasks appear less daunting.

Once our goals had been set and we had discussed these one on one with another attendee, we began writing. At first, I was unsure whether sitting in a room with others beating away on their keyboards would be any good for me. I had visions of everyone else being incredibly productive and I’d be sat there unable to deliver a sentence. However, as Rowena said: “You have to trust the process”. She was right, listening to others tapping away was quite infectious. Without constant distractions from emails or phone calls, and ignoring the inclination to use perfect grammar and construct an impeccable reference list as I went along, I was free to think in a creative way. Not only was I producing a higher quantity of work than I had previously, it was fresh and I found myself ever-more emotional after each session as I was surprised and proud of what I was creating.

The Writing Retreat also proved to be an important site for promoting (self)care and collegiality. The structure gave all fifteen of us the opportunity to sleep, eat and exercise in healthy doses, things that I often forget when juggling demands from the academy and my personal life. Surplus to this, the attendees supported me, as I did them, in both practical and emotional ways. I was one of only two PhD students there, others who already occupied a permanent space in academia were able to offer advice to those of us who were Early Career Researchers while we restored our caffeine and sugar levels.

My experience of the Writing Retreat was a productive, cathartic and, in many ways, an emancipatory one. Not only did I take home a substantial version of my first findings chapter, as well as two plans for the following chapters, I left with a varied toolbox of skills that enabled me to structure my writing time around self-care alongside my caring and administrative responsibilities. Once I was home, I adapted the process and ran my own mini Writing Retreat with my friend, a parent who often struggles to find the time to study for her degree, and my partner who is searching for a job.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, after voicing my anxieties to one of the other attendees as the Writing Retreat drew to a close, they made an observation, hoping to evoke action on my part:

“Do you know what you’re being? You’re being a working-class woman about this”.

In retaliation I surrendered my search for the solution to the habitus war and the subsequent imposter syndrome. If the answer was to make a radical identity departure, to abandon my working-class feminine ‘self’ and reinvent myself as someone who could ‘pass’ so as to feel little, or no, anxiety in the academic field, then I’d rather live with the pain of liminality and the anxiety this brings. I opted for an alternate approach - I opened my arms to this state of displacement and began to perceive them as strengths. No, I do not belong in the academy in its current state, and yes, I will continue to live a great proportion of my life feeling like a fraud if I persevere with my love for Sociology. A position that I take with much confidence post-writing retreat is that if I am to ever find myself feeling comfortable for too long in the academic field then I will not be fulfilling one of my most basic desires: to challenge and initiate change in the Higher Education system by simply being a working-class woman fighting for rights of other working-class women.

Laura Bentley is a Postgraduate Researcher at University of the West of England.

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