COVID-19 and my Ph.D.: Missing out on a Conference and Trying to Stay Motivated

Jennifer Mooney, a PhD candidate at the School of English in Dublin City University, writes about her research, and how she’s staying motivated after missing out on her first academic conference presentation due to COVID-19.

Today, I should be giving a paper – the first in my academic career – at a conference in Wroclaw University, Poland. Right about now, I should be presenting my paper entitled Authorial Agenda and Political Responsibility: ‘Rape Culture’ in the Young Adult Literature of Irish Author Louise O’Neill to a group of international academics at the Controversial Dimensions of Children’s Literature conference. I should be learning about the research being carried out by other academics in the field of children’s literature and literature for young adults. I should be making connections, building relationships, and promoting my work in the hopes of publication and professional opportunity. I should be telling other academics about the importance of my scholarship funded Ph.D. research that addresses how ‘rape culture’, gender conflict, and conflicting views of power, sexism, and consent have become particularly relevant to Irish society in the years since O’Neill’s novels for young adults Only Ever Yours and Asking for It were published – in 2014 and 2015 respectively. I should be telling other academics that my dissertation examines theories of power and empowerment in the contemporary young adult fiction of Irish author Louise O’Neill in relation to a growing body of Irish and international 21st century YA fiction written about girls, and with girls as the implied readership, that demonstrate a shift away from the personal (the typical realm of the problem novel) towards the political. I should be explaining to those who haven’t read the novels what they are about, why they are significant and why they are problematic.

Only Ever Yours emulates Margaret Atwood’s adult dystopian novel The Handmaids Tale and imagines a future dystopia in which women or ‘eves’ are created by genetic engineers and trained within an authoritarian patriarchy to be beautiful and subservient. Each eve will be selected to be a companion (a wife and mother), a concubine (a sexual slave) or a chastity (a teacher). The text draws on global forms of gender discrimination to provide a dystopian warning about the objectification, commodification, and maltreatment of the female body with the purpose of highlighting a need to confront gender-based inequalities in (chiefly Western) contemporary society. Asking For It, Louise O’Neill’s second novel, takes a dogmatic approach to drawing similarities between emerging teenage sexuality and ‘rape culture’: cultural ideologies, as well as social practises and institutions, that eroticise and normalise male violence against women and contribute to a dominant culture which attributes blame to the victims of rape rather than to the perpetrators of abuse. It tells the story of eighteen- year-old Emma who is gang raped by four boys, whom she considered to be friends at a party after a GAA game in her local town of Balinatoom. Her assault is then uploaded on social media and Emma is blamed for her rape because she was drunk and wearing revealing clothing. She is not seen as a victim within her community or family, but as to blame and worthy of shame.

I should be arguing that O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours and Asking for It make a case for the capacity of all literature, but YA literature specifically, to challenge perceived social issues and effect change, making them significant within the tradition of Irish YA. I should be persuading other academics that while the influence and achievement of O’Neill’s work in emphasising the need for social and political change in Ireland in relation to rape and sexual assault is generally accepted, and rightfully celebrated, problematic elements of the work have been largely unexamined. Despite a number of critical essays/works published on O’Neill’s texts for young adults, no scholarly monographs have critically examined representations of female agency and sexuality in the works in terms of their potential to limit, rather than liberate. Nor have the dangers of presenting extremism, in terms of male sexual violence, as normalcy in the texts been given critical attention.

I should be explaining to all those weighty academics whom I admire, such as Kimberley Reynolds, that this is what makes my research so important: it examines whether YA texts, like O’Neill’s, that implore that they be read as social criticism, contain overt politicising feminist ideology, and act more like political manifestos than fiction really rethink freedom and empowerment for women and girls and propose new ways of thinking about power and gender or do they get lost in, or weighed down by, authorial agenda and controversy?

Right now, I could be convincing all those academics that my research illuminates the potential that works like O’Neill’s have to function as a form of literary/social fundamentalism which often undermines, rather than promotes, equality. The position the works hold as texts for young adults, and O’Neill’s very public presence in Irish society (she is both an author and a political campaigner) combined with how the texts are increasingly being used in educational settings, make them instrumental in shaping the values, attitudes and behaviours of the young people that they reach. This adds to the pertinence of my research and my contention that the works position as YA texts that are both representative of, and a functioning part of, the diffusion of radical feminist thought across popular culture means that they ought to be properly critically engaged with, not unconsciously celebrated.

Instead of doing any of this, I am in the bedroom of an Airbnb (my working-from-home partner having taking over the kitchen on a conference call) trying to motivate myself enough to continue to work on my Ph.D. Everyone, absolutely everyone – well, maybe not the Spring breakers continuing to party in Miami – has been affected one way or another by the COVID-19 pandemic. I have had to move into temporary accommodation with my partner to protect my future Mother in law’s health (she has an underlying heart condition) and re-schedule our upcoming wedding – a pretty minor impact, I know, compared to others who are without work, unwell or who have lost a loved one. Knowing this doesn’t stop me feeling sorry for myself about missing out on the conference though. While waiting for our friends who have been tested for COVID-19 results to come back, I should utilise this sudden period of isolation to make progress with my research. I should stop thinking about the lost networking possibilities at the conference and worrying about whether it, and another conference in Cambridge I’ve been accepted to, will go ahead in September. I should appreciate this sudden abundance of time – time I was always wishing I had more of when life was normal and I was juggling my full-time job with teaching university students and my Ph.D. research. I’m a primary teacher working and living in Dublin, Ireland and I am three years into my Ph.D. at Dublin City University (DCU). In September, I started teaching at university level, giving lectures to Masters students in Children’s Literature and tutorials to first year English students in DCU. This experience, along with presenting my research to peers in  DCU and being accepted to present my research at the Controversial Dimension of Children’s Literature conference in Wroclaw University and at the Let’s Talk About Sex in YA conference at Cambridge University made me feel closer to achieving the career in academia I have been working so hard to achieve.

Now, with so much free time, when I should be editing and re- drafting, I can barely concentrate: I have marked four one-thousand-word essays in two days. On the up-side, I have read two YA novels that have been lingering on my Kindle for months and I am writing this article. So, how do I utilise this time and keep striving for that career in academia? All academics love a list, right? Well, writing a blog post for Women Are Boring has been on my ‘long list’ for quite some time now – perhaps I am being more productive than I thought and maybe imagining myself persuading other academics about the importance of my research is enough to stay motivated for now.

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