Guest post by Dr Madeleine Davies, Department of English Literature (SLL)
At an International Women’s Day event I organised this week, colleagues and students listened, learned and debated as our inspiring colleagues delivered talks on a range of topics. Our large room was filled almost to capacity and there was laughter, solidarity and reflection as Professor Clare Furneaux, Dr Brian Feltham, Dr Orla Kennedy, Professor Rachel McCrindle and Dr Mary Morrissey delivered passionate, research based speeches on topics including Women in Engineering, gendered relationships with language, women and weight, the meanings embedded in Hillary Clinton’s ‘likability’ issues, and the relevance of Jeremy Bentham’s model of the Panopticon in relation to discriminatory mechanisms.
This is an annual event and every year I am staggered and impressed by our students’ level of engagement with issues of equality. Since the Noughties, there has been a persistent narrative around the political apathy of the younger generations; journalists have mourned the gap between politically engaged parents and their politically disengaged offspring. The problem with this position is that it too easily becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy: because we expect apathy, we cease to try to engage, and we then create the very ‘apathy’ of which we complain. The consequences of this were seen in the Brexit referendum and are felt also in a too easy acceptance of unequal pay, unequal status within the workplace, and unequal parliamentary representation (we should not be distracted by the fact of a female PM when 455 male MPs significantly outnumber 195 female MPs).
The student-facing UofR International Women’s Day event challenges this narrative of assumed apathy and political disengagement. It reveals that we only need to use our creativity to tap into our students’ deeply-felt commitment to issues of justice and fairness. This generation of students is more nuanced, less thoughtlessly discriminatory, and more reflective than we probably were ourselves at their age. In ‘Writing, Gender and Identity’ seminars, for example, my Part 2 students interrogate binary positions with skill and sensitivity, and in their activities in equality, diversity and inclusion campaigns, they take direct action. Some of our students in English Literature have gone on to manage new education networks in developing areas of Africa; they have worked for penal reform organisations; they have become the leader of the Women’s Equality Party (Sophie Walker is a graduate of French and English); they have held banners at Women’s Marches bearing the legend, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel – not a template!’. I am proud to say that our graduates practice what we preach: we must make sure that we do the same.
At a fascinating CQSD training event yesterday, there was much discussion about how we could develop our students’ capacity for critical thinking. As I listened to our students debating at the IWD event, I understood that they have the ability and the desire to think critically, particularly about issues of equality, diversity and inclusion. It is up to us to connect with them in workshops, lectures, student forums, and extra-curricular events as we work to develop the next generation of citizens and professionals who may finally be able to produce that most elusive goal, a more equal world.