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Earlier this year, Stonewall, the UK LGBT rights charity, published its latest list of the UK’s 100 most inclusive employers. The list included a record 12 universities. And a recent study revealed that academics are more likely to be LGBT than people in almost all other jobs. But are things really as rosy as all that? The Times Higher Education Magazine this week had a feature on the subject, and I was one of six academics who contributed. I have many great (as well as not so great) stories to tell about my experience of being a lesbian on campus. In my piece (below) I wanted to step away from a progress narrative, and to think about what universities can do to celebrate sexual alongside other forms of diversity as part of their role in helping to create a vibrant society and robust democracy.  You can read the full THE article here.

Much more can be done by universities for LGBT staff and students

During my undergraduate days at the University of Adelaide in the 1990s, I was vaguely aware of a Lesbian and Gay student society on campus. However, I was much more conscious of the fact that, according to whispered hearsay, the “university footbridge”, across which I walked every day, was the site of the 1972 murder of a university lecturer for homosexual activity by a group believed to be police officers.

The sense of the danger and illicitness that characterised my early experience is a far cry from the friendly environments, complete with supportive networks and formally implemented anti-discrimination practices, that greet many LGBT students on campus today. Yet Sheffield Hallam University’s #FreshersToFinals study, published last year, suggests that, although LGBT issues are increasingly visible in institutions’ policies, these often focus on bullying and discrimination – which is only one aspect of the needs of students and staff. And in preparing Australia’s first LGBTI University Guide in 2015, the country’s Human Rights Commission found that many universities were not meeting their anti-discrimination commitments or providing adequate health and welfare support or training.

Student and staff communities continue to be places where LGBT people experience harassment. While anti-discrimination policies are important in providing a procedural framework for protection and redress, they are still in no way sufficient. Policies on transitioning staff and students are underdeveloped in many institutions, with action needed on the provision of both single-sex and gender-neutral bathrooms and sports facilities, as well as administrative processes around name and status designation and documentation, such as the reissuing of degree certificates. The Equality Challenge Unit provides a good guide for the higher education sector, and universities need to recognise that practices designed to support those who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual are not necessarily going to meet the needs of trans and intersex people.

Policies around parental leave also frequently need revising, particularly as they apply to gay men who can all too easily fall through the net of state and employer provision. The unseen work that openly LGBT lecturers and staff do as role models for students needs to be much better rewarded, with institutions recognising its importance to the university community and the time and cost – both personal and financial – that it entails.

Diversity training, health and welfare services and curriculum change are crucial in shifting campus cultures. According to the Australian LGBTI University Guide, many institutions continue to do poorly in the provision of welfare and health amenities and careers advice. Alerting students to Stonewall’s Top 100 Employers list, or to organisations they can join to meet LGBT people in their chosen employment sector, would be one place to start. Students come to university from a variety of backgrounds, and some families are more accepting than others. Policies need to allow flexibility around finance for those in difficulty, with universities actively supporting student groups in creating social spaces and resources for LGBT people.

Much also needs to be done in the area of content and curriculum. Textbooks need to be systematically re-evaluated to make sure that they do not omit or disparage LGBT perspectives. More broadly, teaching and research from across faculties might be integrated and showcased. University College London’s qUCL site is a great example of how LGBT events, people, courses and research projects can be profiled in a way that provides a focal point for future initiatives and an access point for staff, students and the public.

This latter point is crucial. As public institutions and major employers, universities have a role that extends beyond their walls. They need to engage with wider LGBT organisations in a range of areas that include sexual and mental health, civic space, law reform, diversity, community events and history. As educational institutions, they should work to ensure that campuses are not only places of safety and acceptance for LGBT people, but also communities that celebrate sexual alongside other forms of diversity. They should see this as central to their role in helping to create a vibrant society and robust democracy.

The biggest positive influence for me has been the support offered and the positive example set by the openly LGBT lecturers, administrators and fellow students I met during my graduate studies at the University of Oxford (you know who you are!) In my own career, I have sought to be similarly visible to both my students and my colleagues. My discovery a few years ago that my first-year lectures at Brunel University London were being attended by several students who were not actually enrolled in my course brought home to me that for many students such examples are still in short supply.

Tamson Pietsch is a research fellow in history at the University of Sydney and the author of Empire of Scholars: Universities, Networks and the British Academic World, 1850‑1939(2013).

This article was published in ‘How welcoming is academia to LGBT staff?’ 5 May 2016 in The Times Higher Education Magazine.

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I spoke recently with the Times Higher Education Magazine about reading. It is commonplace now to observe that our digital age entails attentional effects that play out in all aspects of lives, including the university classroom. The philosopher and bike mechanic, Matthew Crawford, is particularly astute on the subject of attention deficit, though in The World Beyond Your Head he locates its source not in the iphone, but rather in the idea articulated by Immanuel Kant that experience must not guide reason. Crawford recommends a re-engagement with material reality and with skills (this is where the bike-repair comes in) that bring us into contact with the physical world, requiring persistence, entailing difficulty and resulting in the production of an object that contains the results of our labour. He sees these as a way to reclaim the “attentional commons”.

I suppose long form reading is a bit like that. It requires time to be poured into it. There is a kind of physicality to it, as the bookmark moves slowly through the thumbed pages, and the experience is just as important as the content.  In the world of 500-800 word blog posts, an idea or set of arguments elaborated in a book of 500 pages can feel heavy, complicated and difficult. Yet as anyone who has worked at the coal face of knowledge knows, scholarship is difficult and frustrating and laboured and slow. But it is in this difficulty that the rewards not just of scholarship, but also of life, so often lie. One of the things universities do is facilitate (in the face of student reluctance) forms of engagement with ideas and arguments that are deeper and slower than those usually available online.

The THE wanted to know what books university lecturers thought secondary school students should read before coming to university. The recommendations were diverse, but my suggestion was Susan Sontag’s Reborn: Early Diaries 1947-1963 (edited by David Rieff, 2008). They show Sontag uncertain, sometimes scared and yet intoxicated by ideas and the possibilities of life and sexuality. I love them for the permission they give to take risks, chase passion and, most of all, not to know. All students starting out at university should remember that not having answers is at the heart of scholarship and learning – as long as you keep asking questions.

This has reminded me it is high time for another:

Occasional dispatch from my big green reading chair #2

  • Richard Dennis, Econobabble: How to decode political spin and economic nonsense (Redback Quarterly 8, 2015). This is fantastic no-nonsense piece on the work of economics talk, how it is used to forestall and obfuscate, and how you can blow it apart. It should be required reading for everyone remotely interested in political debate. This is such a brilliant series from Black Inc – longer than a Quarterly Essay but not too long that you can’t finish it in a couple of days. I’m now onto Jessica Rayner’s Generation Less: How Australia is Cheating the Young.
  • Andrew Pettegree, Brand Luther (Penguin, 2016). This book has a subtitle worthy of the 16th century and indicative of its slightly breathless (!) style: ‘How an Unheralded Monk Turned His Small Town into a Center of Publishing, Made Himself the Most Famous Man in Europe – and Star the Protestant Reformation’. There will be books aplenty coming out in 2017 for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, but Pettegree’s focus is Luther’s adept use of the new-tech of the day: printing as a mass medium. This attention to the intersections between technology and ideas has, of course, many resonances with the present, but thankfully these are not drawn too explicitly by Pettegree, who instead allows the reader to think about disruption and change, politics and power through the lens of a period at once familiar and very different to our own.
  • Rahul Rao, On StatuesThe Disorder of Things blog (April 2 2016). Beginning at the University of Cape Town with a (successful) campaign to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes that dominated the entrance to the university, Rhodes Must Fall has grown into much broader movement which seeks, as its Oxford website outlines, ‘to decolonise the institutional structures  and physical space in Oxford and beyond’ including the ‘structures of knowledge production that continue to mould a colonial mindset that dominates our present’. In this thoughtful piece Rahul Rao (Senior Lecturer in Politics at SOAS) writes about statues, who needs them, and the politics of their removal, not just in Oxford and Cape Town, but also in Iraq and India.
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I finished the last chapters of Elleke Boehmer’s new novel, The Shouting in the Dark (Sandstone Press, 2015) all in a rush, sitting on a warm stone wall overlooking the playing fields in the early morning sunshine at the University of Sydney. Turning the last page, I looked up blinking, a little unsure of where I was.

The book traces the childhood of Ella, only daughter of Har and his third wife Irene who were Dutch migrants to South Africa after the Second World War. Previously married to Irene’s sister, for whom Ella is named, and with a string of past romances behind him, Har lives in the wake of his wartime experiences fighting on the Tjerk Hiddes in South East Asia and the Pacific. Although returning often in memory to these places, he seeks to cast off Europe by rooting himself and his daughter in the African south. Irene, meanwhile, is a debilitated and dislocated figure who is consumed by her estrangement from life in the Netherlands. Ella grows up, buffeted by the presence and absence of her parents’ pasts and by their inability to recognize her own needs and desires.

Memory and its legacies is a major theme of the novel and Boehmer’s working through of the generational effects of war is moving. The Shouting in the Dark conveys vividly the long term effects of conflict, both on those directly caught up in war, and their families. If Ella’s father batters her with his furies, he is also himself trapped in the grip of anger and lament. Continually asserting his authority as head of a patriarchal family, it is an authority that is anything but assured. His rule is one of fear, rather than love, and the contradictions and corruptions of his and Ella’s domestic world are mirrored in the broader political context of apartheid-era South Africa.

But the book is also about the power of words and language. This is appropriate for an author who has made her academic career reading and writing about words and those who produce them. Throughout I was struck by how omnipresent the Father’s voice is, and how little direct speech of the daughter we get. Boehmer evokes so well the sense of burrowing down and being battered by all the angry words. And yet for Ella words are both a curse and a salvation.

Is Shouting in the Dark a confession, of sorts? This happened to me, says the bullied daughter of the aggressive war veteran, wishing for his death and the escape she thinks it will bring.

I suppose every telling is a kind of confession; a backward gaze that at the same time looks forward, seeking to open the future as it pays its tribute to the past. If so, it is always a hazy one: coded in ways we half understand. Which is why the image Boehmer gives us of Ella’s father, there on the ship deck, looking through cracked glasses darkly, with the world hurling missiles at him, and him firing angry, fearful, determined shots back  (p.264) is what stays with me. To some extent it is a predicament that we all share: this cloudiness of knowing; this incapacity of our equipment. And that is why it seems such an achievement of Boehmer’s to offer fellowship instead of fire, to open up instead of close down, to speak words in the light instead of shouting in the dark.

This is a longer version of a review recently published in Journal of Postcolonial Writing, 52:1 (2016), 125-126

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