Looking back: A reflection on the year

I think it’s safe to say that the past academic year has been extremely tough. The step up to MA level from my BA was bigger than anticipated, and although I have thrown myself into the learning process, juggling everything has been a struggle at times. Going from a 9-5 job to 4 hours of lectures straight after hasn’t been easy. Throw in a relationship, coursework, and sleep, I found myself having to time manage like never before.

But it’s definitely been worth it. Throughout this year I’ve learnt an incredible amount, expanded my knowledge on intensely difficult topics and taken on board criticism of my work much more wholeheartedly, no matter how much it’s hurt to hear it at times. I’ve felt more like a researcher this year than a student, and have felt much more confident in my own abilities to read, write, interpret and argue in the course.

Things have been challenging, of that I have no doubt. The #Rescheduled trip and exhibition immediately comes to mind as being the most difficult module to balance, however I was so proud of the work my group was able to produce, from field research to exhibition. Managing five modules and a job this term has also been a challenge, but I’m glad that I was able to put them both in equilibrium and keep up with both without falling behind or neglecting one. The opportunities this year to hear guest speakers, attend workshops, and present our own work has been amazing, and I’m lucky to have heard so many accomplished academics give talks.

The way in which I approach research and group tasks has become much more refined over the year, but I’ve learnt a lot about team work as well as leadership in group situations. Working with people from cultures and countries not my own has definitely given me an insight I would have never gained before, and I’m really grateful to have had the chance to work with such a diverse class. I’m much more patient with people, and devote more time to helping out others rather than waiting for them to catch up. I’ve learnt that being a leader means making decisions that sometimes not everyone will like, but that listening to those around you will really help make the difference.

My academic knowledge has grown hugely over the year, thanks to the diversity of modules on offer this year. I’ve learnt so much more about topics I had hardly scratched the surface of before, and feel I’ve got much more scope to explore in the future with my research career. I’ve enjoyed being challenged by new texts and developing theories, and applying these in my own work and writing. I particularly enjoyed doing autoethnographic digital field work in Digital Media and Culture, using World of Warcraft to explore complex ideas. Field research in Amsterdam, while a challenge, was also really worthwhile, and the chance to use practical skills like photography was an amazing chance I really enjoyed.

Understanding methodology, a weak point for me, has been central throughout the year, and I feel I have a good grasp of it now compared to my BA, particularly feminist methodologies. Coupling this with ontology and epistemology and my ‘research toolkit’ is much stronger than before – just in time to write my MA dissertation! I have read a lot and I will continue to read throughout the writing process of my dissertation to ensure new ideas are never missed.

Overall, this year has been the most challenging of my academic career to date. However, it’s been incredibly fulfilling and the knowledge I have learnt from it has been huge. It’s been enjoyable and tiring in equal parts, and I’m looking forwards to settling down to my dissertation over the summer, ready to move on to the next step of my research career in the near future.

Coursework 3 Feedback

When I received the feedback for this piece of coursework, I was unsurprised with the result. Writing this essay, I felt flat and lacking in anything I really wanted to write and get across as my message. I am still pleased with the mark, but the essay itself is sub standard to my usual writing.

A key thing that was raised in the feedback was a lack of sense and confusion around my methodology. In reflection, and having discussed this in a meeting with my lecturer, I can fully agree with this point. I have consistently been referring to my methodology as ‘Postfeminist’. My thinking behind this was that Postfeminism shapes my world view, ergo my methodology. However, this is an incorrect application. Instead, I should stop overcomplicating the matter and instead refer to it as standard feminist methodology. This was a central point where I fell down in this coursework, and I have taken this on board strongly and will be using this in my dissertation (and all my future methodology works!).

I was however praised for my work on self reflexivity and identifying myself as a researcher within my project. I’m glad this was recognised, as I have been working hard on my self reflexivity and placing my subjectivity and researcher position within my project. You may have seen posts on my attempts to position myself in my research if you have followed this blog. I believe that as a researcher your subjectivity and position should be transparent in the research, and I strive to do this with my project.

A point I should have developed more was the crisis of representation that is faced in research. I feel I added this as a supporting quote but that I should have advanced it within my essay. This is probably because overall, my essay had too many quotes and too many authors without me developing them properly.

Overall, I feel this essay was mediocre for my usual standard of work, and although the themes discussed in the essay are solid and will be used in my dissertation, I’m not happy with this essay. I didn’t feel any passion writing it, and reading it back my usual writing voice is completely absent, which more than anything tells me I didn’t do my best work with this piece. I will be aiming to rectify this in my dissertation, where hopefully all of the criticism in this coursework piece can be developed upon.

Being Feminine/Being Feminist

I recently came across a 2012 paper by Sarah Riley and Christina Scharff titled ‘Feminism versus femininity? Exploring feminist dilemmas through cooperative enquiry research’ (Feminism and Psychology Vol 23 [2] 207-223). Reading this paper, it put into words something I had been struggling with for some time, especially since I started this research project, and discussed in a much more detailed and nuanced way than I could hope to have broached such a complex issue.

The paper interviews a series of self-identified feminist women in higher education institutions, and discusses with them how they negotiate the landscape of practising femininity and being feminine, whilst also being feminist. The conflicts raised by participants are deeply similar to my own experiences of navigating this difficult terrain of feminine and feminist. There is ‘a cultural construction that positions feminism and normative femininity in opposition’ (ibid:207-208). I cannot agree with this more. There is a strong sense of dichotomy between these two fields, and yet, as a feminist researcher involved with and studying femininity, the dichotomy seems like a strange thing to encounter. After all, from a naive point of view, can we all not just be what we want? Postfeminist thought in contemporary media would have us believe this, even though it is far from the truth.

Second Wave feminism, and the ugly media stereotype created of the ‘hairy legged angry feminist woman’, has much to answer for in the emergence of this binary between femininity and being feminist. Second Wave feminism turned away from all things feminine, seeing them as shackles on women as they attempted to conform for the pleasure of men. The angry voice of the feminist was loud during this time, but consequently, it created a very negative backlash. Women who stood up and said they wanted equal rights, but continued to wear their bras and lipstick, were shunned by the ‘real’ feminists, and thus the division of today was born. Women who didn’t want to give up the things they enjoyed were seen as voices not worth listening to – only feminists who were prepared to denounce every practice of femininity were seen as being authentic.

I can concur that oftentimes I feel like I am doing something wrong, going against the feminism I believe in, when I sit applying make up, doing my nails, removing my body hair and keeping my body fit and slim. Are not all of these things just designs of a heterosexual/heteronormative society designed to keep me in check, to stop me from becoming excess and out of control? The contempt around fat femininity and fat female bodies in contemporary media certainly seems to suggest that these actions could well be nothing more than an attempt to remain within the domain of the ‘normative’ accepted female body. I often feel that femininity itself is so entrenched in heterosexual hegemony that to try and separate it from this is impossible, especially in my own research on ‘Basic Bitches’. Indeed, I find that in my own identity as a white, heterosexual female, I do not know where the line ends in performing femininity for myself, and performing femininity for the acceptance of others.

Yet then we encounter the Postfeminist argument. Although Postfeminism itself is deeply problematic, from reinforcing sexual double standards to creating sexism between women, Postfeminism argues that through use of neoliberalism, we can do all of these feminine practices for ourselves, from our own deliberate agency. So why do we still have this pervading feeling that we are doing wrong, that we aren’t ‘real feminists’ if we like to put on high heels and lipstick?

A quote from the above mentioned paper seems to sum up these conflicts well. ‘Women’s engagement in contemporary beauty practises then is located within multiple discourses that evoke notions of discipline and freedom, inclusion and exclusion, feminism and anti-feminism. Femininities are circumscribed in ways that are racialised and classed and relate to appearance and the enforcement of heterosexual conventions. While current social formations, such as Postfeminism and neoliberalism, foreclose a critical engagement with these regulatory norms’ (ibid: 210).

Riley and Scharff have hit upon a real thorn in feminism’s side here with the conflict of being feminine and feminist. I can agree that we are a long way from finding a definitive answer to this issue, and with Postfeminism only growing more complex in its argument, I feel we will find little resolution there. However, I will still continue to practice femininity as I see fit, and I will still continue to be a feminist, no matter how conflicting this issue remains when trying to explain it to people.

Instagram as research platform

I have been stepping up my researcher presence on Instagram lately, which primarily means just looking at more pictures tagged with #basicbitch and saving ones I think are appropriate to use for later in my dissertation write up. As per my ethics form, I am staying mostly ‘out of sight’ as a researcher, although my account does specifically state what I am using it for and my ethical approval is fully stated as well. This is not covert research, this is just a method of data collection and observation which is non intrusive as I am focused on representation and visual analysis over more participant active data collection methods such as interviews or focus groups.

My decision to use Instagram, over say Twitter which also uses the hashtag, is that I wanted to use a platform that focused more on visual presentation and self branding. It’s also slightly more contemporary than Twitter, and has a very female dominant presence in terms of users and how social media in general is gendered; Instagram is heavily gendered as being female, possibly due to the number of high profile accounts that are female, and that editing/beautifying/tagging/selfies are all strongly associated with the feminine. Even just searching Instagram in Google, it brings up a suggested account to follow as Cara Delevingne, the model/actress who is incredibly famous on Instagram.

Screen Shot 2016-03-20 at 19.38.58

This is my first time using Instagram properly, and I find the site itself to be easy to use and navigate. It strongly encourages you to have a ‘personality’ online, as the grid style use of displaying all your images can quickly build up a view of what style you are going for on your account. Many professionals, including make up artists, stylists, designers, photographers, take advantage of this grid-style to create images that go across multiple grids. I do find it a little annoying that you can only search using hashtags, rather than just key phrases (if you do just type in key words it will take you to the account that nearest matches that). Image quality overall seems to be good, although it varies from distinctly amateur to high quality professional shots. Something I have particularly noticed is that Instagram seems very focused on the individual – what YOU are up to, what YOU are wearing, what YOUR house/car/outfit is. There is a lack of sense of collaboration, giving it a very neoliberal context. Given that a large majority of the images (under what my field of research is at least) tend to be selfies or make up/style images of the self (i.e. nails), this only strengthens this impression I am getting from it. I do not however feel particularly inclined to use it myself – personally, I don’t think I would have much to add or show, and I am not sure of what my ‘personal brand’ would be  – a strange question to ask myself about a social media account…

As a research platform, it is incredibly rich in data that only continues to grow day by day. Short videos have recently been introduced to the platform and these are interesting to see develop as people use them, however for my research I will be sticking to still image analysis as planned. Given that the social media site is so incredibly popular: it has more active monthly users than Twitter, almost 300 million, and brands such as Nike, Victoria’s Secret, Urban Outfitters, and Tiffany and Co, turn to the site as a means for engagement over more traditional advertising given it’s huge instant reach and customer feedback. It vastly surpasses Facebook and Twitter when it comes to audience engagement through branding, and given that it pushes this idea of the ‘self brand’ repeatedly, it’s not surprising that businesses find it so popular.

My method of data collection is still the same simple method I used for my CW2 piece back in January. I search for #basicbitch, and scroll through the correspondingly tagged images, selecting and saving ones I think would best suit the research project for analysis later. I always select images that are on open, public accounts and note the name of the account it was taken from, given that I cannot anonymise my participants in this study as it focuses on the analysis of selfies for representation of the ‘Basic Bitch’. It’s a relatively straightforwards process, and by picking lots of images now I will have a good bank to select from later. While I am focused on using selfies for my research project, the hashtag often includes other materials such as inspirational quotes, make up and nail looks and tutorials, Starbucks coffee and food, and self-referential jokes about being a ‘Basic Bitch’.

Screen Shot 2016-03-14 at 13.28.42

I’m looking forwards to finding the time to dedicate solely to working on the research project in the upcoming months. For now, I’m happy to build a solid foundation of research data ready for me to build on with my dissertation throughout the summer.

Thoughts on being a Young Researcher

As we’re starting to head towards the end of teaching for the year and it will be a run up to final assignments before we are set free to the land of dissertation writing for the summer, I’ve been thinking a lot about what will happen once I finish my degree. The year has gone faster than I could have thought, and I have enjoyed it immensely for the theoretical challenges, new practical elements, and for the friends I have made in my class. However, I am acutely aware that summer will be here before I can believe it, and that signals the last stage of my masters.

Truthfully, I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s going to happen next. I’ve been applying to study a PhD in Sociology at both University of Birmingham and Warwick University. Long term, I’d probably be looking to get into lecturing or researching full time. Doing the PhD is something I would love to do, despite it being a three year commitment and a rather daunting prospect in itself. Doing the applications and pursing it has felt right in myself. No normal person would get so excited over filling in a form if it didn’t feel like the right thing to do. But lately I’ve found myself thinking about what it means to be a young researcher, and how following a research path takes me on a different life track to my peers.

I will turn 23 this October, meaning that when I graduate from my Masters in November, I will have been in higher education for 5 years. That’s 5 years since I opened my A Level results and cried because I had good enough grades to come to university, 7 since I received my GCSE results and had my first opportunity to officially leave education. Many of those around me are just starting off in their professional careers. They’re looking ahead to adult life goals, like moving out of home permanently, buying cars, buying furniture and setting up a home. Some already have these things well under way. As a student, I can’t do any of these things, even with my part time job. With my masters degree, I could go into a job with a good salary – I have an edge on the market with my extra qualification and my experience working in social media and marketing. However, sticking in education with the PhD means I won’t be able to do any of these ‘adult’ things properly until I graduate and get a job – I could be 27 by the time I finally graduate. That’s almost 10 years since I left school and started HE. Even with the generous grants that research councils offer to PhD students, with rent and living costs, I won’t be able to afford a car or insurance, let alone have enough to put down a decent house deposit. At best, a nice sized flat that I can furnish is the aim. Maintaining a part time job during a PhD is possible for some, but a PhD is like holding a full time research job. You have to be dedicated to it.

I’ve spoken to multiple PhD students and PhD graduates about what the process of doing one is like. Overall: hard, lonely, and hard. The field for young academics is getting more and more competitive, meaning entry level university positions are being fought over more than ever before. And yet, I’m still sure that following the PhD is the right path. Why? Because I don’t want to work in social media forever. I certainly couldn’t do marketing for more than ten. I want to be somewhere I can keep learning and keep adding to my knowledge and seeing how the world develops and changes. Universities have a great feeling on campus about them, and I don’t want to walk away from that and into an office building forever. Sure, going into a nice £25k salary would be wonderful right now. I could move house, buy a car, get a cat. But would that bigger pay check novelty be enough for the rest of my life? I doubt it.

Being a young researcher is hard. I always knew this. You need to be extremely competitive, cutting edge, prepared to sacrifice sleep and sanity. No one wants to back you because you have no research published. Universities won’t risk the chance of taking on an unpublished, un-cited young academic because universities themselves are under pressure to perform these days, with the REF and the TEF looming over them. In my area of research (media/cultural studies/feminism/sociology) you need to be twice as tough because almost every day you will be questioned on how ‘useful’, ‘real’ or ‘worthwhile’ your research and your degree is. All of this scares me, no matter how much I try to nudge it aside and hope that by the time comes in three or four years that it’s a bit different, that my research is good enough to get me somewhere. I feel that perhaps as the end of my Masters comes in sight, and I’m lacking any concrete plans for 2017, I’m starting to feel adrift, and wanting these ‘goals’ like a house or a car are things I’m looking to hold onto because to an extent they feel slightly more achievable, more realistic, than a PhD which I won’t hear about for another two months, or next year from one of the places I’ve applied.

I am looking forwards to having the summer to dedicate to my Masters dissertation, but I’m also afraid for that might be waiting for me when I’ve handed in in September. Being a researcher is a huge part of my identity, and having to step away from that would be heartbreaking.