Kit is trans? What’s that all about?!

Hello! If you’ve found this page, it’s probably because we’ve become friends on Facebook, you’ve noticed that it says I’m “trans” in my bio, and you’d like to know more about what that means – or possibly, I’ve sent you the link to answer some questions you have. Either way, I hope you find this post helpful, and I’m grateful that you’ve decided to read it rather than remaining unsure or uncomfortable.

Here’s some info which I hope will answer your questions, and make life a bit easier for both of us.

  • The word “trans” is short for “transgender”. This is an umbrella term that covers everyone who doesn’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. It’s an adjective, not a noun (so “a transgender person”, not “a transgender”; “trans issues”, not “the issue of transgender”; etc.)
  • In my case, I was assigned female at birth, but I identify as male. Please refer to me as “he” or “him”. The noun for someone in my situation is a “trans man”: we always talk about trans people in a way that validates their current gender identity, not the one they were assigned at birth.
  • I don’t consider myself to have been “born female”. Like most trans people, I prefer the phrase “assigned female at birth”, because it shows that I haven’t “changed” gender: I’ve always been male, I just had an incorrect label slapped on me as a baby.
  • (I actually don’t feel at all comfortable with the idea of “the gender binary” – the inaccurate idea that there are only two genders, and everybody has to be one or the other – but in my case, that isn’t really something you have to worry about. It’s a very useful concept to be aware of, though.)
  • I came out as trans in late 2014. I wrote various posts on this blog, articulating my identity in different ways as I worked it out. They’re still public for archival purposes, but I wouldn’t bother reading them if I were you; this one is the most definitive.
  • I am openly trans: it’s not a secret and it never will be. (I’d find it far too stressful trying to keep it as one!) However, now that my voice has broken, I get read as male in 99.9% of situations. This makes me really happy, but it does create a slightly awkward situation, because normal conversation doesn’t present many opportunities to say, “Oh, by the way, I’m transgender!” Even when it does, I usually avoid doing it, because there’s no telling how people will react, given that many people aren’t confident in discussing trans issues. As a result, the first time that some friends will find out I’m trans is when they add me on Facebook… hence my writing this post!
  • In terms of sexuality, I identify as gay. My gay identity is really important to me, and being trans doesn’t make me any less gay! I also use the word queer to describe myself, which for me means that I’m politically critical of, and don’t fit into, societal norms of gender and sexuality.
  •  Alex (my husband) identifies as bisexual. Alex and I got married before I came out as trans, but my coming out wasn’t really a surprise to him and hasn’t caused any issues in our marriage (in his words, “I married you, not your gender!”)
  • I usually don’t mind talking about:

– My experiences being trans in society/in work

– My job as a freelance trans awareness trainer

– How I realised I was trans

– Support for people you know who are trans or questioning their gender

– My LGBT activism and my related academic work

However, please be sensitive to context if you bring these things up! Is there someone nearby who doesn’t know I’m trans, and who might feel awkward or confused at overhearing it? Are we in an environment that might be unsafe for trans people or be more likely to contain people who are transphobic (e.g. a gendered toilet or a religious setting)? If so, please save the conversation until later.

  • I’d prefer not to talk about:

– What my birth name was

– My medical transition (treatments I’ve had, or future plans)

– Media “debates” about trans people, the validity of our genders, trans children, gender-neutral school uniforms, the reform of the Gender Recognition Act, etc. etc. etc. Like many trans people, I find the current media onslaught against us exhausting and upsetting. Even if you’re on my side – even if you’re asking for tips on how to support trans people in arguments – please, unless I bring it up myself, assume that I would really prefer not to have to think about this stuff.

 If you still have unanswered questions, then please:

  1. Consider why you’re asking: do you need to know in order to support/respect me, or are you just curious? (Remember it’s not necessary to understand everything about being trans in order to accept what trans people say as valid – in fact, if you’re not trans it’s probably impossible to understand it completely!)
  2. If yes, could you Google the answer?
  3. If no, drop me a message and I’ll do my best to answer when I have the time and energy.

Thanks very much for reading this. I’m sorry if it’s seemed heavy-handed or like I’m telling you what to do: please let me say that I’m really grateful that you care enough about our friendship to have read this, and that my main aim is to ensure that friendship can continue smoothly without either of us feeling secretly uncomfortable. Don’t feel you have to acknowledge it in any way. You can if you really want, but it’s more intended as, I dunno, a sign on my forehead which you read, digest and nod in understanding before continuing our previous conversation – which I’m looking forward to.





The books that didn’t make me come out

The Guardian has a feature this weekend: ‘At last I felt I fitted in’: writers on the books that helped them come out. I think it’d be easier for me to compile a list of books that almost-but-not-quite made me come out. I started writing this as a Twitter thread, but it started feeling too self-reflexive for that (it’s more of a political/polemical medium, isn’t it, the Twitter thread?) so I’m writing it here.

My teenage years were full of queer books. Even when I was over a decade away from figuring myself out, I sought them out like your “regular” queer teenager: furtively borrowing them from libraries, devouring them in my room, throwing them across the room sometimes when I couldn’t deal with the emotion any more…and then when I’d finished them I’d always run. Not moderately “going for a run”, you understand: full-on sprinting down Kirkby Road as if something was after me. In a turn of events so clichéd I would cringe SO hard if I read it in an article, I don’t feel any kind of impetus to do that any more: it’s as if I’m no longer running from anything. I’m so sorry; cringe if you want. It’s true, though.

Brokeback Mountain, Regeneration, The History Boys, Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’, Maurice, A.E. Housman’s poetry and Tom Stoppard’s play about him, bits of Cloud Atlas, The Song of Achilles, The Stranger’s Child… All of them provoked such violent identification, such an overwhelmingly intense emotional pull, that if only a stranger had turned to me on the street and whispered, “Do you think you might actually be a gay man?”, it all would have made sense. There were TV shows, too: Doctor Who and Torchwood, of course, and does anyone remember the BBC drama Einstein and Eddington as viscerally as I do? But overwhelmingly, it was the books – and yet none of them were ‘the books that made me come out’, because I didn’t know that the thing I needed to come out as existed. Sure, I knew for certain that life would have been easier, made much more sense, if I’d been born a gay man – and not just because every guy I ever had a crush on turned out to be gay; I had a devastatingly accurate gaydar in those days, in that if I fancied anyone that was a pretty good guarantee he didn’t like girls – but that didn’t mean I knew I could do anything about it. I told my mum I thought I’d been a gay man in a past life. It felt like she’d forgotten ten minutes later, because she didn’t treat me any differently; I hadn’t realised I was trying to tell her, and myself, about my life now.

Actually it was a film that made me come out in the end: Pride, in summer 2014. That kind of bothers me. I think that’s why I’ve written all this: because I’m a book person. Books are my life, in several very literal senses; my husband and I have a running joke that if you try to talk to me about a film, I’ll usually reply, “Oh, is there a film? I’ve read the book!” When I tell people I came out because of a film it feels like a misrepresentation of me and my past: a denial of the significance of all those books, and an erasure of the fictional men I still can’t help but talk to in my head. It’s a huge injustice that most of the trans people growing up alongside the gay writers featured in the Guardian article didn’t have access to the same kind of validation and recognition within books that their gay peers did – but here I want to say that I did have the books. I did have that experience Hector talks about in The History Boys:

The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.

They just didn’t quite make me come out.

Self-care for new university tutors: a queer supplement

This post was inspired by, and is a supplement to, Emma Kennedy’s excellent article New to University Teaching? Look After Yourself. Please read it first, if you haven’t already: it’s a crucial resource for new tutors. This is my adjunct to it, which draws on some of the thoughts I presented at the Academia & Affect symposium a couple of months ago.

New to university teaching, and queer too?

Be visible if you can…

Students benefit enormously from visible diversity in academia. (This point is obviously far from restricted to gender and sexuality, even though that’s what I’m going to talk about here.) For queer students, it sends the message that teaching is collaborative, not adversarial: it’s not one separate, privileged group imparting knowledge to another group further down the hierarchy, but the sharing of ideas between two diverse groups of equals. It also provides role models, something crucial to aspiration and motivation; and it lets them know they have an ally, both in their classroom and within their department. Seminars in the arts and humanities in particular depend to a great extent on students feeling sufficiently comfortable to voice their ideas, and a visible point of identification and allyship is invaluable in helping that happen. For non-queer students, seeing a person from a marginalised group in a position of academic leadership is socially powerful and reminds them to be aware of their language and behaviour.

…but don’t beat yourself up if you can’t. 

The emphasis on the political and social benefits of being “out” – not to mention the somewhat sinister capitalist imperative to do so because it will make you “more productive” – can be overwhelming. But there are many reasons why you might not be able to be out in teaching, and that’s okay. If it’s not the right thing for you as a tutor – in terms of personal safety, wellbeing, energy, or any other factor – then it’s not the right thing for your teaching situation. A visibly queer tutor who is exhausted by hypervigilance, worry or emotional vulnerability is not the best tutor your students could have. It’s okay to choose to protect yourself. If you feel guilty, try to reframe it as a choice that benefits your students’ learning environment (or even better, try to remember that you are an important person too).

Remember, too, that this isn’t a binary situation. You can foster a safe environment for your queer students without outing yourself. You can include a round of preferred pronouns in your ice-breakers and introductions; if you have any control over reading material, you can make sure it’s inclusive; you can encourage your students to use inclusive language. Visibility may be powerful, but it’s not the be-all and end-all.

Teach your students to be better…

Students are usually young people and are always in the process of learning. Like all of us, they get things wrong. They might use oppressive language without realising why it’s a problem, or they might base their arguments on cisnormative or heteronormative assumptions. (In the past, my students have been particularly fond of assuming that the addressee of a love sonnet by a male poet must be female, and of referring to the vulva as “the female genitals” and pregnancy as “an exclusively female experience”). As a tutor, your position enables you to point out the problems with statements like this where other students may not feel able to correct their peers.

…but steel yourself for their mistakes…

Remember, though, that you will be on the receiving end of that language and assumptions, too. After a day of students obliviously talking about “the female body” that made me feel physically sick with dysphoria, I resolved to prepare for future seminars as if I were constructing trigger warnings for someone similar to myself. Ask yourself, “Which things might come up during this discussion that might cause me to panic, and how will I handle the situation if they do?” And if you can avoid these topics altogether, don’t be afraid to make that choice. Repeat it to yourself again: I am important, and an exhausted tutor is not the best tutor these students can have.

Steel yourself, too, by finding allies within your department. If you experience outright discrimination from a student, is there someone who won’t dismiss your concerns?

…and recognise that they can teach you too.

It can be tempting to feel that your position as a member of one marginalised group makes you the authority on classroom inclusivity – but keep your ears and your mind open to your students too, and try to create an environment in which they feel able to speak up. “I’m often wrong,” I always tell my students in their first seminar. They laugh, and I feel a pressure lifting too. You’re never going to be able to answer all their questions: if you ensure that they’re expecting that, you can move away from fearing it and towards seeing it as an opportunity to learn and as a deconstruction of the hierarchy between you.

I’m sure this is incomplete, and I’d love to hear more – from other queer people, or from members of other groups that are marginalised in academia. Is there a supplement to be written for tutors of colour, or for disabled tutors? I’d love to read it.

My thesis mixtape; or, queer mourning and resistance

Content: murder, LGBTQ-phobic hate crime

This post started as a response to one of the many excellent topic suggestions for #AcWriBloMo given by the lovely folks of Facebook’s PostgRAD Study Gang: “If you had to make a mix tape about your work, what songs would be on it?” “If?” I thought. “If I had to make a mix tape? But I already have a thesis playlist!” [NB: It’s not a tape, it’s an iTunes playlist, because I don’t think I have anything that will play tapes any more. This does genuinely sadden me though.] Then I thought, “How would I explain the songs that are on my thesis playlist to readers of my blog?”

I thought about this for a really long time. I wondered whether I should write a completely different post. In the end, it was the memories of the supportive atmosphere at the Academia and Affect symposium I attended a couple of weeks ago – and the conviction I came away with, that we shouldn’t stop talking about the topics raised there – that made me carry on writing. I’m very thankful to all the wonderful people who created that atmosphere and that conviction.

My PhD explores the development of the historiography of Edward II (1307-1327) and his favourites during the period c.1305-1700. I first came across Edward’s story during my first year of university, through Christopher Marlowe’s play Edward II (c.1593). This is important, because Marlowe’s play is a searingly emotional first impression. Marlowe vividly dramatizes Edward’s passionate grief when he is separated from Piers Gaveston – his friend, favourite, and romantic and sexual partner – first by exile and then by death. As an undergraduate still a few years away from making full sense of my intense emotional connection to gay men (it was later that I came to fully appreciate that it’s academically unhelpful to refer to fourteenth-century people as gay), I was blown away by the tiniest of details with which Edward’s grief was conveyed. One of the only stage directions in the original text has him fall to his knees for a vow of revenge on Gaveston’s death, a moment I still find breathtaking to read. Grief was the first thing I learned to associate with Edward II; it struck a particular emotional chord in me, and so it stuck.

However, as my PhD has progressed, it’s become increasingly clear that this was far from an inapt first impression. In fact, grief and romanticisation are central to the medieval and early modern historiography of Edward II. In the 1350s, Geoffrey le Baker wrote an extraordinarily sympathetic account of Edward II’s life, deposition, imprisonment and death which is characterised by Edward’s Christ-like endurance of hardship and strong emotion. He weeps copiously, swoons frequently, and suffers a catalogue of abuses at the hands of his jailers. The account is highly fictionalised, highly sensationalised and highly readable. Early modern chroniclers seized upon Baker’s account (which they attributed to his patron, Sir Thomas de la More) as emotionally gripping source material. Typically, they follow other, far less sympathetic sources up to the moment of Edward’s deposition, before switching to reliance on the sympathetic Baker once Edward loses his crown, slotting Edward perfectly into the rise and fall of a de casibus (wheel of fortune) structure.

Edward’s relationship with Gaveston is also increasingly romanticised over time. During my period of study, Gaveston moves into centre stage as Edward’s romantic partner in accounts of his reign, at the expense of his later favourites, the two Hugh Despensers. There are so many examples of this that it’s half a chapter of my thesis, but I’ll give one here: between the fifteenth and seventeenth century, an oft-quoted sentence in the account of Gaveston’s final capture before his execution moves through several stages. The original, in the chronicle attributed to “John de Trokelowe”, states that “[Gaveston] humbly begged that he might deserve to enjoy the conversation of the lord king”. Thomas Walsingham adapted this to “[Gaveston did] not request anything, except that they should allow him at least once to enjoy the plentiful conversation of the lord king.” Walsingham’s interpolation of “at least once” (saltem semel) is significant here. Though ostensibly signifying Gaveston’s desire for more than one conversation with Edward, this diminutive presentation of his final request suggests its importance to Gaveston: if he cannot have anything else, he would like just one conversation with Edward. Moreover, the additional detail presents a more vivid picture of a pleading Gaveston than can be gained from Trokelowe’s account. By the seventeenth century, the equivalent sentence in Richard Baker’s Chronicle reads, “Gaveston seeing no meanes to escape, was content to render himselfe; requesting onely, that he might but once be allowed to see the Kings face”. The first sentence could be referring to a business meeting; the last is the request of a lover suddenly stricken with the reality of permanent separation.

My response to Marlowe’s Edward II, and to the rest of the medieval and early modern historiography of Edward II, was certainly a product of my own personal connection to the subject. But it was also a product of texts that are crafted to provoke an emotional response. As I tell my undergraduate students, close reading at its best can function as a form of self-awareness: it enables the reader of a text to pin down the features that helped to create the emotions and impressions they experienced when reading it. However bound up my thesis is with my own identity, the emotions I experience when reading the historiography of Edward II are also academically valid and productive in their own right.

So what’s on my thesis playlist? A small selection should confirm to you that it’s exactly as the tone of this blog post might have led you to expect. [Important: I make no claims to have any form of remotely decent music taste, although it is somewhat better and more influenced by  being a habitual 6Music listener than this selection would suggest;  this topic doesn’t exactly lend itself to edginess or subtlety.]

Snow Patrol’s “Run” has a mental subtitle “1312”: it’s about Edward and Gaveston’s final parting at Scarborough Castle in June 1312, shortly before Gaveston was captured by the rest of Edward’s nobles and executed. “Right Here Waiting”, covered by John Barrowman no less, is about separation enforced by exile. The Feeling’s entire 2013 album “Boy Cried Wolf” (breakup album extraordinaire, can I just say?) fits perfectly. In particular, “The Gloves Are Off” reflects the dynamic of Manchester Royal Exchange’s excellent 2011 production of Marlowe’s Edward II, which brought home the impossibility of expressing emotions openly and without violence in a constrained situation like the fourteenth-century English Court. Biffy Clyro’s “Many of Horror” (don’t talk to me about the X Factor cover) does the same.

The massacre in Orlando, and the collective mourning of so many queer communities including my own, has returned me powerfully to these emotions over the past few days. In fact, the grief I feel over Orlando is what prompted me to turn to my thesis playlist today. The song on the playlist that I listen to most frequently is Muse’s “Resistance”. It may have its own literary meaning, but to me it has always articulated the anger I feel about the acceptance denied to so many same-sex couples in the past, and indeed the present:

“It could be wrong, could be wrong, but it should have been right.”

I’ll play it again tonight, as I try to move into a place where I can organise as well as mourn.


Conference report: Communication, Correspondence and Transmission in the Early Modern World

Academic achievement unlocked: almost a month ago (how?!) I helped to organise my first ever conference. The report (featuring Henry VIII’s feet) is now up at the Northern Renaissance Seminar website. Here’s a picture of six exhausted, proud PhD students whose first conference has just received lovely comments from lots of the speakers:

NRS organising team

(That’s me in the paisley tie, obvs.)

Thank you enormously to my fellow organisers, Claudia, Claire, Gio, Hannah and Stephen; to all the speakers who made it such an academically exhilarating two days; to Liz Oakley-Brown for enthusiastically welcoming us under the Northern Renaissance Seminar umbrella; and to WRoCAH for their financial support.

Maurice Dobson and Darfield: problems of appropriation in LGBT history movements

Darfield museum

Content: mention (not quotation) of transphobic views/TERFs and misgendering.

Yesterday my friend Liz and I visited the Maurice Dobson Museum and Heritage Centre in Darfield, a village to the east of Barnsley. I’d been wanting to go ever since the launch night of York LGBT History Month 2016, when Dr Helen Smith gave a fascinating talk based on her research on desire and relationships between northern working-class men in the twentieth century. Maurice Dobson – former miner, soldier, hotelier, boxer and prolific antique collector – owned and operated Darfield’s village shop from 1956 to the 1980s. He lived openly as a gay man with his partner, Fred Halliday, and the two were known for wearing dresses. When he died, he was persuaded to leave his shop to the village, where it became a museum.

Helen’s talk made much of the way that Maurice and Fred’s story provides a necessary challenge to assumptions about the social conservatism and intolerance of rural, working-class communities, particularly in the north of England. To me, the continued existence of a museum bearing Maurice’s name seemed demonstrably to further that challenge: this small South Yorkshire village had not only tolerated a gay couple during their lifetimes, but continued to celebrate Maurice. Having excitedly told everyone in my office at work that I was “going to visit a gay sweetshop museum”, I set off to meet Liz in Darfield for what I hoped would be an exhilirating education in local queer history.

The volunteer guide who showed us around – an ex-miner several generations older than us – was happy to tell us the story of Maurice and Fred, and happy to say the word “gay” without a trace of awkwardness. But it quickly became clear that I had been remiss to describe it as a “gay sweetshop museum”. The building was Maurice and Fred’s shop and home, and the downstairs room contains photos of them, along with some of the many antiques Maurice collected (and mended cackhandedly with plasticine and Elastoplast!) But the guide soon moved on from them to the story of Darfield. The museum is not one of a gay couple, but of Roman coins and pit-village life, of glass bottle factories and football-stitching, of vacuum cleaners through the ages and giant Meccano models. I listened politely and with genuine interest, but the moment the guide had finished I headed back downstairs to the photos of Maurice and Fred: they were what I had come for, after all.

This was where it got interesting. A local man was talking animatedly to a different guide, and their talk was all of Maurice. Noticing I was listening, they asked why I had come, and I explained (as I had to all the other guides, without getting much of a response) that I’m the lead coordinator of York LGBT History Month. The local man gasped with excited surprise, and the guide willingly told us both stories of Maurice’s life, before disappearing briefly into the gift shop to return with a postcard. “Have you watched the Memories of Maurice film?” he asked. There had also been a one-man play written about Maurice’s life, he said. “Then we were encouraged to apply for Arts Council funding, and they filmed the play, and they’re editing it at the moment. It’s been booked by the Sheffield Showroom before it’s even finished!” he said with some bafflement.

Hearing a reference to drama, I thought immediately of Pagelight Productions, the theatre company who have produced plays for the last two National Festivals of LGBT History. “Are you in touch with the national LGBT History Month team at all?” I asked excitedly. “They’re really interested in – ”

“Not at all!” the guide interrupted, shaking his head.

“I reckon they’d be really interested in this play,” I pressed. “I can give you the name of the guy to contact – ”

“You know,” the guide said, “all this Maurice stuff has taken us a bit by surprise. It wasn’t supposed to be  a museum about him. He gave us this building, so we put his name on the door, and that was it – and now everyone’s suddenly really interested in him and Fred, but…”

“When I found out about this museum,” the local man chimed in, excitedly, “I thought, ‘Why on earth does Darfield of all places have a museum dedicated to a homosexual?”

“But it’s not!” the guide said.

But that isn’t what we want this museum to be. That isn’t what we want the story of Darfield to be. I suddenly felt deeply uncomfortable about what I’d just done: assuming they wanted to celebrate Maurice and Fred’s story, I’d gone into LGBT History Month planning mode, excitedly trying to make contacts where they weren’t wanted. There is, I realised, the potential for queer history movements to be unpleasantly appropriative. Who was I, a middle-class young Oxbridge graduate, to come over to Darfield from York and tell the village what the significant aspects of its history were?

What happened next drove home how problematic and misrepresentative a focus on Darfield’s past toleration of Maurice and Fred could be. The animated local man turned to me and asked, out of the blue, what I thought of Caitlyn Jenner (no, I’m afraid he didn’t call her Caitlyn). Before I knew it, he was praising Germaine Greer and voicing opinions that it wouldn’t be productive to repeat here. I don’t think he realised I was trans myself: the guide at the entrance had read me as a teenage boy and charged me a children’s entrance fee, and although I told the local man, “I think I have a more personal relationship to this issue than you necessarily realise”, I think he was too absorbed in speculation about Caitlyn’s medical history to notice my meaning. The guide forcibly changed the subject before the discussion became too heated, and Liz and I retired in shock to the cafe.

To give him full credit, the guide did come and apologise to us for the transphobic visitor shortly afterwards. But if we, as LGBT history activisits, decide that the story of Darfield is the story of Maurice Dobson and Fred Halliday’s openly gay existence in a South Yorkshire village, this is neither good history nor good activism. If we put Darfield on the map for Maurice and Fred alone, we ride roughshod over the villagers’ perceptions of their own history, and we pinkwash the complicated views of the present inhabitants.

I went to the museum of Darfield, which is named after a gay man. I tried to link the museum up with the wider LGBT History Month movement, and was rebuffed. I was subjected to transphobic comments by a local man who admired the fact “a homosexual” had lived so openly in twentieth-century South Yorkshire. It’s not a neat, linear, easily categorisable story. But it’s the story we need to be telling.

Who do we think students are?

Content: racism; other non-specific forms of oppression

There are a lot of problems with white academics weighing in on the #RhodesMustFall campaign. I very much hope this piece doesn’t suffer from all of them; if it turns out it isn’t useful, relevant, constructive, appropriate, I would really appreciate knowing about it.

Mary Beard appears to have none of the qualms I expressed above. Her column in the Times Literary Supplement last Sunday addressed the campaign. And her comments – that “the battle isn’t won by taking the statue away and pretending those people didn’t exist. It’s won by empowering those students to look up at Rhodes and friends with a cheery and self confident sense of unbatterability” – have prompted me to write down some thoughts I’ve been gathering for a while.

The other thing that prompted me was a recent conversation with a fellow postgraduate student. They didn’t attend most of their seminars at undergraduate, they said, because they had panic attacks and dreaded being made to talk in a group situation. Did the university email them to ask what was wrong? No, they said: not a word from their student support team, not a peep from their tutors. So they went through university without most of the benefits of group discussion – benefits, moreover, that they had paid many thousands of pounds to access. I thought gratefully of the way the School I now teach in tackles situations like this (students who miss three consecutive seminars are always contacted) and worriedly of my own quieter undergraduates (what more could I have done?)

I think in the discourse about “coddling” students with trigger warnings (which I’ve written about before) and the right of students to no-platform speakers (which I haven’t written about, but may I direct you here) a worrying construction of the undergraduate student is emerging. Students, we hear, need to be challenged, empowered, exposed: they shouldn’t be sheltered from the Real World! But who are these students we’re discussing? Are they bouncy rubber people who arrive at university robust enough to face up to traumatic discussions and oppressive experiences, take stock of them and become better people for it?

These are eighteen-year-olds we’re talking about. The vast majority have never lived away from home before. They come to university with the baggage of puberty and the anxiety of a profoundly new situation, not to mention any additional traumas already behind them. They will spend the next three years figuring out who they are and having some of their most significant emotional experiences (I cling fiercely to learning as one of the most important things in my life, but don’t try and tell me it’s the only thing that goes on at university). They have the capacity and the drive to handle challenging ideas, confront their assumptions, and grow into more confident people. But they need and deserve support as they do it. It’s not “coddling” to recognise this: it’s something more akin to cultural relativism, or just simple empathy.

Yes, of course our aim should be to produce cheery, self-confident, unbatterable people – I say this without flippancy or cynicism.[1] But what if one of the things stopping you developing that “sense of unbatterability” is having speakers who would deny your right to exist invited to speak on the campus you call home? What if (as in my own experience) it’s being thoughtlessly exposed to a panic-inducing text in your second week of university by an academic you’re still learning to trust? What if it’s having to walk past a statue of a man who ordered the murder of tens of thousands of people like you, every day, no matter how resilient or vulnerable you’re feeling?

Firstly, there’s a world of difference between confronting issues that threaten to “batter” you in a supportive, facilitated, discursive environment, and being exposed to them without those mitigating factors (the presence of Rhodes’s statue being a case of the latter). And secondly, if we are to empower students to handle the oppression many of them will inevitably face – a profoundly worthwhile aim for any educator – we ought to also empower them to make choices about what support they need in order to do it. The advice we give to friends struggling with multiple challenges is to address, limit or remove the ones they can control: I know this, having received this exact advice during a very difficult month. If students consider their situation, work out what could make it better, and ask university staff to help them take those steps, we ought to acknowledge and reward the self-awareness that has gone into that process. To do otherwise is patronising, dismissive and (dare I say it) implies we think they can’t make their own decisions; that they do need “coddling”, after all.

[1] There is, however, an argument to be had about whether “empowering” students to just put up with symbols of racism, colonialism or any other form of oppression is (to put it mildly) a bit of a weird, perverse thing to want to do. That’s not what this article’s about as I’m not sure I’m the best person to talk about it, but it’s worth discussing.