By Audrey Jean (FEEL Researcher)

PhEMaterialisms (PhEM) is a network of researchers, practitioners, educators, artists and activists engaging with feminist posthumanism and new materialism research methodologies in education. As an international working group, it was formalised at their inaugural conference in June 2015. 4 years after, PhEM researchers Katie Strom, Jessica Ringrose, Jayne Osgood, and EJ Renold have managed to create, assemble, and edit a special issue dedicated to PhEm in the volume 10 of Reconceptualizing Educational Research Methodology (No 2-3, 2019). Titled PhEMaterialism: Response-able Research and Pedagogy, this labour of love welcomed 14 contributions from 29 researchers from all around the globe.

Feeling Medusa: Tentacular Troubling of Academic Positionality, Recognition and Respectability

Taking up on Donna Haraway’s concept of String Figuring, or SF (2016), this article explores what it means—and, most importantly, what it does—to be a feminist academic in higher education. This eight-handed piece of research cuts deep into the tentacular recesses of gender, respectability, recognition, and more generally the entanglements bringing trouble into higher-ed spaces. Facing such a space is definitely unique to each and every feminist academic; yet, collaborative writing and other string connections can be put into place. As neo-liberal academia ossifies feminist flows, we can reply by feeling alongside the figure of Medusa: turning men to stone, shaking up traditional modes of knowledge making from her proto-feminism to their current feminist praxis. Shiva, Carol, Nikki, and Anna offer two contributions: deploying string figuring as “a proposition for feminist thinking” challenging higher education’s fixity, and enacting string figuring as “a mode of écriture feminine” developed by Hélène Cixous (1976). They kindly wrote about the process behind the article:

“The entry point was to re-think positionality in the university, but stringing figuring folded/is still folding with us into other positionalities, new feminist kin, hope, care, respect-ability and more. Stories, movements, feelings, bodies, materials were/are our feminist tools. We told stories. We became-with each other. We made kin between us and more-than-us: we were/are becoming-kin with Medusa, Cixous and Haraway; we were/are becoming kin with writing and string figuring. We are in the in-between and the AND of thinking and making and feeling and writing. All these and many more positioned us and were re-positioned with and by us. With Cixous we read ‘body without end, without appendage, without principal parts’ (1976; 889), with Haraway’s string figuring we made ‘the patterning of the possible worlds’ (2016; 31) and with each other we become end-less possible bodies. Writing-with Cixous means we are also writing-with her sea (889), which she figures as on the move, unsettled, troubling, wild. Medusa rides these rough seas with us. We become colour, string figures, stories, writing. We; our sea.”

Shiva, Carol, Nikki, and Anna came together after a workshop involving string and quickly started to analyse what “to perturb” meant, especially in relation to “normalized positions” and “normalizing positionalities” within neo-liberal higher education—a space where they experiment with disorder and the uprooting of policing and ossification. They thus explore what it means, as a PhEmaterialist academic, to be taking part in neo-liberal university work and what their contributions and feelings could achieve there, as materialised by String Figuring. This is an article about multiplicities, about the actualisation of being-together as feminist practice, entangled and post-personal—an us, a we, where Medusa is our kin and where happens a movement to reclaim embodied feminist identities. They add that:

“We wanted to trouble the normative modes of recognition and respectability that academic positionality hails into being. As feminist academics our ‘call to action’ aims to explore how educational research, pedagogy and political practice can be reconfigured. As PhEmaterialists, we turn to new material feminist and posthuman thinkers to reveal not just that but how ‘we four’ as writers, thinkers, academics are tentacularly connected to the wider feminist community. String is passed back and forth creating relations between ‘us’ who are not four and not one but many. Stringing encounters urge us to stay with the feminist trouble; stringing enact and realise our thinkings-feelings-doings-becomings in higher education.

String figure fruitful

Skyping sparkling

Writing joyful

Stringing collaboration, work, support, respect, listening, laughing, hearing, talking. Together, we feel free to speak and write English as we like, unfettered by worry of writing ‘less well’ or ‘not well’. It is not a complicated challenge for in this group where each of us is as we are and accepts each of us as we are. In this group, we try to hold a space open for each to be open and free 🙂 . We shared personal experiences as personal-academic are entwined. Collectively, we were affected by and inspired by Medusa: her snaky breath kindled our writing in which all of us took responsibility as we shared knowledge, ideas, and frustrations and moved and pushed and pulled each other into new and different ideas about positionalities. Medusa worked with us and we with her.

We continue stringing

One of us reads colleagues’ work which finds that when male journalists interview professors they prefer to interview male professors.

HA! Medusa sneers.

As a means of staying with the trouble.

One of us thinks of Greta Thunberg and her contempt for Donald Trump at Davos.

YA! Medusa sings.

Making kin across borders and species.

One of us weeps for the death of species and kinds and kin in Australia.

NO! Medusa roars.

The work of hope continues even in the hardest of times

One of us despairs of the racism and stupidity and callousness that is the UK in this present moment

Medusa shrieks:

Grab my hair

Touch my snakes

Hear my laugh

Haraway (2016; 114) describes hope as a ‘rapidly mutating virus’ (p. 114). Medusa’s invitation is to let hope’s mutant mutations touch and trouble us so that our feminist praxis as hopeful anger can continue to find ways of stringing connections, commitments and care. What string figuring patterns is your PhEmaterialist practice making?”

Through this collaborative writing and thinking, helped by Medusa’s laugh and string’s entangling-ability, Shiva, Carol, Nikki, and Anna are challenging masculine modes of authorship and respectability. Through tentacular happenings, criss-crosses and knotting of thought-string-feeling, they imagine new ways of “becoming-(un)respectable as a response-able practice, thereby to unfix the recognisable “she” of academia.” By taking a string for a walk, what happens then? It is up to us, feminist academics, to offer new happenings and becomings, true to who we are and what we stand for in the space of higher education.


Shiva Zarabadi, PhD Research Student and Teaching-Fellow, UCL Institute of Education,

Carol A. Taylor, Professor of Higher Education and Gender, University of Bath,

Nikki Fairchild, Senior Lecturer, PhD, University of Portsmouth,

Anna Rigmor Moxnes, Associated professor in Pedagogy, University of South-Eastern Norway,

You can access the journal for free here: Article cited: Enjoy!


Katie Strom, Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership, California State University, USA,

Jessica Ringrose, Professor of Sociology of Gender and Education, UCL Institute of Education, UK,

Jayne Osgood, Professor of Childhood & Gender, Middlesex University, UK,

EJ Renold, Professor of Childhood Studies, Cardiff University, Wales, UK,

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