Collaborative Writing -15 minutes of reflection

So here goes, day two of my 15 minute #AcWri and I’m ready and set to go.

I nearly met my goal of 3000 words yesterday (not in 15 minutes of course!) after five straight hours of #SUAW activity in my home office. Today I must work in my institution office and so things will go a bit more interrupted. Over eight years in HE I have learnt to work with my limits, I never plan any heavy writing to be done on site and try not to do admin when working offsite – so far this is working for me.

So that nearly meeting my goal means that I must spend a short amount of time today finishing it off. I’m collaborating with colleagues in Mexico and the US to write a book chapter on alternative models of midwifery care for in Indigenous women in Chiapas. This is my first experience of writing with others and I have to say it is a new joy I have discovered to my many writing practices. I greatly enjoyed writing my thesis and the conference papers and planned articles to come out from it – but it did often get quite lonely. Spending many days without verbalizing to a soul about the ideas I was working through on paper often led me to bouts of self doubt and worry that I had lost my way.

Last year I kept up with some really useful collaborative working insights between @ThompsonPat and @thesiswhisperer during #acwrimo where they generously shared their writing project. They used google docs set to open access that we online observers could see their work developing in action. By doing so they really broke through many mysteries of long-distance collaborative writing, and also provide great relief to myself and many others I imagine about the amount of crap you have to write before you get to the good stuff.

The conversation that happens whilst you do this in a collaborative project makes this such a less painful project. My colleagues on this chapter project are in different countries and come from different academic disciplines – I rarely get the opportunity to do some interdisciplinary writing and this has really made me think about how accessible my other writing (and teaching) is outside of anthropological circles. In the sharing of the formatting and editing stages I have also learnt something about myself – my winding down process from a project is done through the step by step actions in involved in following formatting guidelines. It seems that after the creative chaos of writing and developing ideas what I need is a tick list of things to do that is already set out for me.

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Writing More About Less – in 15 mins a day

Every day I turn on a computer, either at work home or my laptop on the move, I purposely set my chrome homepage as this blog page. Originally it was with the intention of reminding me I wanted to maintain the page and guilt myself into writing more regularly. Needless to say, it hasn’t really worked. I have spent most of the year quickly changing tabs or debating internally whether I should just shut the page down as to avoid embarrassment or disappointment.

I think it is time to re-think. In a higher education, where so much of my writing has to have a significant purpose I still believe I need another outlet for my thoughts and ideas. The added factor of a blog being in the public sphere, like my twitter account, means that to some extent I will work harder to keep those thoughts ordered and linked to the things I pay attention to as I go about my daily business.

I have a deadline to meet today for my first collaborative writing venture. I have about another 3000 words to complete by the end of day, so of course I spend my first 20 minutes in the office reading a blog post about writing, instead of writing – for purposes of “inspiration” of course!

Amongst others, my preferred #AcWri advice go-to blog is @ThompsonPat . Her posts are short, sharp and straight to the point. I regularly visited her page whilst writing my thesis and I know find myself going back through her archives for help as an early career researcher and academic.

This morning I read this post on coping with writing anxiety – a great topic as we head on into the new academic year and all writing plans turn into a whirlwind of chaos. Reminding me yet again to get back on that horse of writing more about less for a short period everyday – a warm-up exercise if we must. Reading the post I was also reminded of @JoVanEvery who helpfully begins every September timeline with a reminder of her 15 minute a day #AcWri challenge . Exactly the time it has taken me to click on ‘new post’ and write this down.

So here it is, I’m going for it again – facing my anxiety and trying the 15mins a day writing diet throughout this semester – for my blog outlet and all those imagined posts I write in my head throughout the year that never make it to the screen!

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Maternal Memory – a creative interplay between identity and meaning

Throughout the planning, execution and writing up of my PhD fieldwork sociologist Ann Oakley has been amongst my significant influences. Her work developing a sociology of maternal subjectivity and childbearing in the late 1970’s UK context has shaped both the principle argument of my thesis and the narrative approach I have taken in my ethnographic writing. Her two publications Becoming a Mother (1979) and Women Confined (1980) detailed research carried out with 55 women during pregnancy, postnatal and early nurturing stages of becoming a mother. Oakley and her team interviewed the women a total of four times each and she also carried out participant observation in the labour wards, witnessing and documenting the births of 6 out of the 55 births. Her decision to produce two books from this research, one which foregrounds ethnographic narrative accounts and the other an academic response and proposal towards a new sociology of childbirth led me to think deeply about my own writing audience. I was mostly taken with the approach Oakley took in the former, Becoming a Mother, reading this gave me confidence to use verbatim narratives from transcripts in my chapters dealing with the more traumatic and raw aspects of maternal transition. The academic more ‘conventional’ reporting of the research provided me with the foundations of my own principle argument: that maternal transition can be understood as a life event akin to others, and as such it can be distanced from an existing essentialist feminine paradigm and can be explored instead as a human response to change – individual and social (see me practising for my viva there!).

This is why I was extremely happy to see a link to her most recent article on my twitter timeline about two weeks ago. The paper entitled A Small Sociology of Maternal Memory she draws on data from a 37-year follow-up study to explore the key characteristics that maternal memory shares with other forms of memory. As I try to reflect on my own data collection and thesis, my use of narrative and analysis of emotional memory – this paper could not have arrived at a better time!

Oakley reports that as a topic, maternal memory has been studied more consistently in rats and other animals than in women. This observation rings true to my own observations of anthropological work on memory, of which there is an abundance, but very little looking at something as specific as long term recalling of life events such as childbearing and rearing – moreover in a cross-cultural context. Exploring memories of childbirth in much the same way that anthropology has looked at collective and individual narratives of trauma or violence could be fruitful for both sides. This is in part why I keep being drawn to the work of Veena Das when I write about the clinical management of birth in Mexico – where women evoke traumatic experience the violence must be described in their own words and the focus needs to be not on the violent act – but on the person who experiences it and moreover on how they recall it through the passing of time.

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Frida Khalo ‘My Birth’

The way in which many patriarchal cultures frame the connection between pain, femininity and childbirth is significant to the social context of recalling events. A surprise fact, for me at least, from the paper’s introduction is that the idea that women are said to forget the pain of childbirth as soon as it is over, was first documented in the bible (King James version John16:21). This historically and socially constituted notion of mother love and maternal instinct has persisted across the Christian world to a point where it is not only retold often within the realms of medical practice but is also a popular rhetoric in the ‘natural birth movement’. A movement which calls upon the feminine paradigm equally as much as the medical model it challenges. This idea that all pain and suffering will be forgotten (and interventions forgiven) once you are awash with oxytocin and cuddling your newborn has served to reassure many a nervous primagravida, and has undoubtedly impacted upon the recalling of memory for those who wish to forget the pains of childbirth. But, what questions does this trope of reassurance raise about denial of experience and social expectations? How does it impact upon how mothers retell their experiences months or even years later, through the contextual reframing of the original event?

For Oakley this tendency to forget the pain of childbirth is also part of a wider construction of framing childbearing women as ‘biological forgetters’ – and therefore unreliable social actors. Therefore, memory or lack of it, comes to define women and their social capabilities:

  • Baby brain 1: memory and cognition defects said to be caused by pregnancy hormones (those pesky rats again!)
  • Forgetting the pain of childbirth soon afterwards – known as the Halo Effect (thanks religious oppression!)
  • Women are judged by the amount of ‘facts’ about birth and perinatal period they can retain – time of birth, weight, length of labour, extent of medical intervention, children’s treatment and illnesses – which are then pitted against the objective factors of health service records (of which human error and social context of recording is inconceivable!).
  • Baby brain 2 – further memory and cognition defects due to the hormonal overload often associated with the aforementioned Halo Effect.

This framing of mothers – and by proxy adult females if we think of how similar ideas are evoked at other stages of the reproductive lifecycle – as ‘biological forgetters’ demonstrates how human reproduction as social practice becomes more about the portrayal of maternal subjects as hindered by their very ‘nature’. When it is better understood as human beings experiencing transition in a world that is inseparable from gendered ideologies and forms of power.

 

(Dis)embodied Knowledge and Getting Out More

I recently presented a paper titled (Dis)embodied Knowledge and the ethics of engagement at the Royal Anthropological Institute Post Graduate Conference held this year (conveniently for me) at the University of Manchester. The last time I presented at this conference it was at the University of Kent in 2012 (paper in Anthropology Matters forthcoming) I was just about to go into the field and at a very different stage of thinking about my Phd. At the time I presented a paper based on some pre-doctoral fieldwork carried out in Chiapas which focused on antenatal care and midwifery practices, I made some rather grand arguments that have since been worked through, refined and reviewed many times over (thanks to the great support from the editing team and Anthropology Matters) related to environments of conflict in connection to obstetric violence.

During my thesis write up I’ve moved away from that focus slightly, though in a chapter on clinically managed maternity I revisit a much less convoluted (and probably much improved) argument surrounding the prevalence of obstetric violence in public institutions in Mexico, and it is in part this subject that I chose to present in the panel of Embodied Knowledge at this years’ conference. The theme chosen by the conference organising theme was Anthropology and the Politics of Engagement and is part of a necessary and ongoing debate on the role of anthropology outside of academia.

My paper discussed the complexities of positionality in the field and the ethics of obtaining narrative accounts of obstetric violence from women in Chiapas, Mexico. The brief presentation touched upon two aspects of my fieldwork: 1) a methodological approach that allowed field actors’ discretionary practices and boundary work to guide ethnographic inquiry and which forced an act of maternal disembodiment (on my part) in order to separate women’s experience from that of my own and 2) the problems inherent in representing a form of violence that is not recognised as such by the people who experience it.

The latter has been an ongoing development in my struggle to work ethnographically with the political concept of obstetric violence and I’m finally beginning to gain some clarity. It is in this respect that I am beginning to see the value of ethnographic narrative and the problem that anthropologists have in convincing other parties that ‘small data’ counts in that it can reveal something very specific about a complex situation. I have struggled for a long time with what I felt where inadequate descriptions of occurrences of violence in clinical settings – in that my data was not matching the detailed observations in other literature and the discourse in reproductive health activism both globally and locally. I felt I was failing to provide evidence for the cause of improving women’s access and experience of maternal health services when all the time I was undermining what was important to the women I spoke to. In looking for the ‘big data’ breakthrough I was failing to notice the nuances provided by what Talil Asad refers to as the ‘inequality of language’. I was not understanding the practice and place of obstetric violence in women’s daily lives as they appeared in local expression.

Through taking a step out of my thesis writing bubble and talking about an aspect of my research to others who do not spend 24hrs a day thinking through the lens of reproductive anthropology and in writing something that I originally intended as separate from any chapter I’m working from, I have inadvertently forwarded my thinking on a topic which has confounded me for a long time.

I really should get out more often!

The paper should be written up in neat and referenced at some point and post or uploaded to the relevant sites. I hope to explore these ideas further over the next few weeks and be able to develop more thinking on boundary work and discretionary practices in particular.

To help inform my thinking for the conference paper I drew inspiration from the following texts:

Butt, L. (2002). “The suffering stranger: Medical anthropology and international morality.” Medical Anthropology 21(1): 1-24.

Donath, O. (2015). “Regretting Motherhood: A Sociopolitical Analysis.” Signs 40(2): 343-367.

Ingold, T. (1998). “From complementarity to obviation: on dissolving the boundaries between social and biological anthropology, archaeology and psychology.” Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 123(1): 21-52

Montgomery, A. (2014). “Voice, Boundary Work, and Visibility in Research on Sex Work in Morocco.” Medical Anthropology 34(1): 24-38.

Scheper-Hughes, N. (1995). “The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology.” Current Anthropology Vol 36 (3): 409-440.

Strathern, M. (1987). “An Awkward Relationship: The Case of Feminism and Anthropology.” Signs 12(2): 276-292.

WELCOME!

Hello, HOla and welcome to my new blog site, an improved and more up to date version of my previous blog http://letterfromchiapas.blogspot.co.uk/ where all my old writings can still be found preserved in cyberspace for all time.   I’m hoping to keep this site more up to date with posts, essays, thesis development and commentary on all things #birthrites, repro health, (M)otherhood and anthropological in general.

If you’ve come over from letterfromchiapas or if you’re knew to my work both academic and personal WELCOME! and thanks for stopping by. I hope to get this up and running in the next couple of months, in the meantime find me on twitter @jennachiapas and stay happy!

Jenna

 

PS. I’ve also just published a post on MOtherhood in the field and PhD Parenting over on AllegraLab please take a peek