Today’s post is from Chris Greenough. Chris is Reader in Theology & Religion at Edge Hill University; he is also co-director of the Shiloh Project.
Before I started my second career as an academic, I’d enjoyed a really rewarding career in secondary education for fifteen years. I’d had various roles there – originally a French and Spanish teacher by training, I also did stints as an RE teacher, Head of Year, and Assistant Headteacher. It was challenging, nonetheless, and my latter role included responsibilities for safeguarding, child protection and pupil behaviour. The behaviour I’ve experienced in academia has been far more challenging than that in a setting of 11-16 year olds, as I go on to recount.
I completed my PhD while working full time in school, under the wonderful guidance of the most remarkable Deryn Guest. Eighteen months later, I secured my first full-time post in higher education, and was ecstatic. I didn’t land in a traditional Theology and Religious Studies department, but worked on subject knowledge development in initial teacher education.
Nine months later, I wanted to leave higher education and go back to the secondary classroom. I felt an imposter or, more precisely, was made to feel as if I didn’t belong. I was on the receiving end of numerous forms of uninvited ‘advice’: career advice, research advice and unwelcome advice in response to my work:
- Unwanted career advice:
“Why don’t you move away from queer theology? That’s already x’s area”.
“Wouldn’t you be better doing something more traditional and, well, less controversial?”
“I think it would work better for you if your work was less queer and more theological.”
- Uninvited research ratings:
“I’d probably give your work a 2* if I were rating it for REF”.
- Unwelcome responses:
“I don’t really recommend your work to my postgraduates.”
And endless number of in-person, non-verbal responses such as eye-rolls, furrowed frowns, walking out mid-talk, sighing and huffing.
Perhaps I was too open. I had openly shared some of the inadequacies I was feeling. I tend to be quite an open person, and perhaps some academics were responding to that. Of course, isn’t behaviour like this expected in the competitive and hierarchical structures endemic in higher education?
More frustratingly, I didn’t react at the time. I stayed silent. I think I even thanked some people. Yet the experiences from some external colleagues had begun to cause real paralysis in my confidence. I really felt the sting of the critique, and in the moment, I was unable to distinguish between constructive criticism that would move my work on, and this faux criticism which was just the projection of someone’s ideologies or insecurities.
Of course, I didn’t fit in.
My work seemingly didn’t fit in when I spoke to people about it. My PhD research was life-story research with non-normative Christians. Given the importance of queer theory to my work, I argued how queer approaches should not have a methodology – as methodology is a word that smacks of rigour, order, process – words that are unfitting with the spirit of queer. I’d queered my thesis (a play script in place of a literature review, an ‘undoing’ of methodology, and included resources all brought to me by the participants I dialogued with). So, to begin with, I broke the rules by refusing to repeat tired (not a typo) and tested methods.
Perhaps the perception from some was that my work was ‘unscholarly’. On the one hand, queer criticism is regarded as highly intellectual and is making inroads in many disciplines. Yet, on the other, when my call was to dismantle the production of theology and to queer conventions, it was perhaps a step too far for some. My experiences belie that fact there’s a disjuncture between some claims of the academy and the realities.
As a post-Christian, I wasn’t using confessional approaches, language or subtleties in the theology I was producing. I was gate-crashing. But that was precisely the point. Guest notes how the queer approaches disrupt “the traditional and cherished norms of historical-critical exegesis with all the force of several gate-crashers at a party from which they had long been excluded.”
So despite the reception from a small minority of my peers in person, my research was building a momentum of its own. In publishing, queer work is appealing to the intellectual and methodological originality it is able to create. In reality, people police firmly erected walls around their disciplines.
The impact of these aggressions began to wear me down. I remember a meeting with my Dean of Faculty, where I told her of my intentions to move on and leave academia. She told me to use the responses I’d received as fuel to keep me going. My partner, also an academic, applauded me on ruffling feathers. I had enormous support internally from my University and wonderful colleagues. I had been awarded research leave just twelve months in to my first post and I was working on my second book at the time.
My personhood didn’t fit in. Growing up as a queer kid, I know by instinct and experience the lack of fit when I enter a space that isn’t welcoming to me. But I was also desperate to fit in, and kept on trying. Building up external relationships was vital to me.
Externally, I had got to know a couple of external people, whose kindness changed my perceptions and gave me new energy. The support of some wonderful academics really lifted me. And now, I work with a much wider, more inclusive community with the Shiloh Project – including all the wonderful authors and collaborators I’ve had the pleasure to work with.
The attacks from the academic community are now less frequent. They’ve largely been replaced with attacks from random people with opinions.
I have a folder in my email inbox I called ‘hate’. It currently stands at 3522 emails. Some may be from serial pen-pushers. I know this number of people have not engaged with my work sufficiently to draw any desired level of correspondence. In fact, I wish even half that number had been readers of my journal articles!
Work that is politically charged can leave the researcher exposed to vulnerabilities when it is public facing. The attacks are not concerned with the scholarly argument of the work, but with the position and identity of the researcher.
One piece I wrote provoked outraged responses. I wrote a short article for The Conversation, entitled Using the Bible against LGBTQ+ people is an abuse of scripture, and this kept the keyboard warriors busy. Yahoo News! had republished the article, and this became the platform for homophobic hatred to spew at me.
A very concerned reader took the time to purchase quite an expensive looking Bible and posted it to me at my work address. The sender had highlighted the clobber texts for me, with a handwritten note encouraging me to repent of my sin and cease my false preaching. It’s a shame the Bible contained the highlights, as I’d have got a few quid on eBay for it, I’m sure.
Why am I sharing this?
First, I do believe and argue that there is a transformative potential in sharing our experiences as a way of speaking back to our community. We should all be reflecting on how we behave and when we get it wrong.
Second, I share this to highlight how it is not always outsiders that stop us in our tracks with unexpected or uninvited critiques – academics do it to one another – far too frequently.
Third, I am sure many will relate to these experiences; it may resonate with others.
Finally, I share this as a warning. Next time, I won’t stay silent, or nod, or thank you for your unsolicited advice, or internalise my lack of fit as an imposter…
 Deryn Guest, “From Gender Reversal to Genderfuck: Reading Jael through a Lesbian Lens,” in Bible Trouble: Queer Reading at the Boundaries of Biblical Scholarship, eds., Teresa J. Hornsby and Ken Stone (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2010), 10.